Luke Short – A Dandy Gunfighter

Lining Up for a Big Fight

Long Branch Saloon, Dodge City, Kansas

Long Branch Saloon, Dodge City, Kansas

I was in Denver at the time, and he wired me to come to Kansas City at once, which I did. We talked the matter over when we met and concluded to go up to Topeka and place the matter before the Governor. The next day we did so. The Governor denounced the conduct of the Dodge City authorities but said that he could do nothing, as the local authorities at Dodge had informed him that they were amply able to preserve the peace and did not desire state interference. We stated to the Governor that we believed we were able to rehabilitate ourselves in Dodge, but did not care to run afoul state authorities, in case we concluded to do so. The Governor told us to go ahead and re-establish ourselves, if we could; that he would keep off, and wished us luck. Immediately I started for Silverton, Colorado, where Wyatt Earp was located at the time, and enlisted him in our cause. Luke went to Caldwell, Kansas, where he had a couple of staunch friends, who were willing to take the bit in their mouths and go to the front and fight his battles whenever called upon.

Inside of a week from the time Luke and I separated in Kansas City, we had our forces organized and were on the way to Dodge. It was decided that if a fight was all that would satisfy the mayor of Dodge, — a fight he would have.

Wyatt was selected to land in Dodge first. With him, but unknown to the Dodge authorities, were several desperate men. Several more dropped into town unobserved by the enemy. It finally became whispered about that Wyatt Earp had a strong force of desperate men already domiciled in town in the interest of Luke Short. The mayor called a hasty meeting of his friends, and after they had all assembled in the council chamber of the city hall, informed them solemnly of what he had heard about the Earp invasion. Anyone who was present at that meeting could easily have seen that anything but a fight was what the mayor and his friends were looking for, now that such a thing was not altogether improbable. Someone present suggested that Wyatt be invited to attend the meeting and state if he would, his position in the matter. The suggestion met with the instant approval of all present, and the mayor proceeded to forthwith appoint a committee to call upon Earp and inform him of its action. Wyatt was soon found, and told of the wishes of the assembled patriots.

A Conference with the Enemy

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

“It will afford me great pleasure to attend your meeting,” was the laconic reply of the noble Warwick, and he was soon the central figure of as fine a collection of cutthroats as ever scuttled ship.

The mayor, addressing Wyatt, made inquiry as to the truth of the report that he and numerous other desperate men were in the city for the purpose of reinstating Short in Dodge.

“Mr. Mayor, and gentlemen of the meeting,” said Wyatt; “I guess the report is true. I came here some days ago,” said he; “and, thinking that perhaps something might happen where I would need assistance, brought along some other gentlemen who signified a willingness to join in whatever festivities might arise.”

“Moreover,” continued Wyatt, “Luke and Bat will each arrive at noon tomorrow, and on their arrival we expect to open up hostilities.”

“Now, look here, Wyatt,” said the mayor, “you have no better friends anywhere than we are, and we don’t want any more fighting in this town. There has already been enough shooting and killing in Dodge to do for a while. Now, why can’t this thing be fixed up before it goes any farther?”

“It can,” said Wyatt, “if you are willing to allow Luke to return and conduct his business unmolested as heretofore.”

“I am perfectly willing to agree to that,” said Webster. “And so are we,” sung out the meeting in a chorus.

“All right, gentlemen,” replied the phlegmatic Mr. Earp, “there shall be no conflict. I will proceed to inform both Mr. Short and Mr. Masterson of your decision in the case, and I will guarantee that if you keep your part of the agreement there shall be no bloodshed.

Wyatt immediately notified Short and me by wire of the complete back down of the enemy, and when we reached the city the next day we were cordially received by our friends. The enemy, not being sure that Wyatt could control the situation, kept in the background until he had received assurances from both Short and me that the peace terms made by Earp would be faithfully lived up to by us.

As soon as things quieted down a little, Short sent for the mayor and sheriff to meet him and some of his friends at his place of business for the purpose of talking over the situation and arriving at a better understanding. The mayor and sheriff came and with them, the city attorney and the prosecuting attorney of the county. Short’s party consisted of himself, his two partners, Beeson and Harris, Wyatt Earp and myself.

Humiliating His Honor the Mayor

Luke addressed the mayor something after this fashion after we had all settled down in our chairs:

“Mr. Webster, you have on the police force of this city two men who, without any reason known to me, showed themselves during the late trouble to be bitter enemies of mine. I want them removed from the force.”

The mayor assured Luke that he need not give himself any further concern on that score, as both men complained of had already handed in their resignations and left town.

“Very well,” said Luke. “There is, however, another thing I wish to call to your notice. You had an ordinance passed by the city council prohibiting music in saloons. I want that ordinance repealed.”

Dodge City Peace Commission

Dodge City Peace Commission

“It shall be done,” said the mayor, and turning to the city attorney, instructed him to prepare a call for a special meeting of the council and to draw up an ordinance calling for the repeal of the objectionable one.

This ended Short’s business with the mayor. He then turned to the sheriff and said in substance:

“Mr. Sheriff, you also have two men in your office that are objectionable to me and I would like to have you remove them.”  He then named the men, and the sheriff promised that they would have to go.

“Here are the names of the men you can appoint in their place,” and he handed the sheriff a piece of paper containing the names of the men he desired appointed.

“All right, Luke,” said the sheriff. “they are good enough for me.”

Luke then turned around to the prosecuting attorney of the county and said, “I furnished bail for Mr. Blank in the sum of $2,000 before I was ordered to leave town, and I want that bail bond containing my name returned to me and all record of it destroyed.”

“That will be easy,” said the prosecutor.

“Now, gentlemen.” said Luke, “there being nothing further to do, suppose we return to the bar and take a little something just for old times’ sake.”

“All right,” said everybody present, and the procession to the bar started.

Luke had won a bloodless battle, but that such was the case was no fault of his, for he had been willing to fight at any and all stages of the proceedings.

Short Owns the Town Again

Front Street and Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, Kansas

Front Street and Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, Kansas

We subsequently found that when Mayor Webster learned how he had been trapped by Earp, he hunted up the sheriff and prosecuting attorney and sent a hurry-up telegram to the Governor, which was signed by all three of them, requesting him to send. with as little delay as possible, two companies of militia, assuring him that unless that was immediately done, a great tragedy would surely be enacted in the streets of Dodge City. The Governor, anticipating just such a move, as this on the part of the authorities at Dodge as soon as they got frightened — and the telegram calling for militia strongly indicated that that time had now arrived, — refused point-blank to send the militia, and reminded the senders of the message that they had already repeatedly assured him that they were sufficiently able to handle the situation and did not need the militia; “and,” said the Governor, in concluding his reply, “I expect you to do it.”

When it became known in Dodge the sort of a reply the Governor had sent back to the appeal for militia, something of consternation took possession of the mayor’s followers. Those who had lately been the loudest in their declarations of hostility to Short were now for peace at any price.

Webster, himself no coward, saw that the yellow streak he knew was in the makeup of his followers was giving unmistakable signs of recrudescence. He knew that when the time came he would have to fight the battle alone. He remembered that those very men, upon whom he would now have to rely for support, had already hid from Short the night of the arrest of the musicians, and he could well imagine what they were likely to do now that Short had been strongly reinforced. It was at this stage of affairs that Webster concluded to send for Wyatt, and if possible, bring about a settlement of the difficulty without an appeal to arms. In making this move, the mayor acted both wisely and timely; for had the case gone over to the next day there would have, in all probability, been bloodshed on both sides.

Luke, soon after his restoration to Dodge, concluded to settle up his affairs and move to Texas. He somehow could not bring himself to like those with whom he had so recently been on the outs, and that fall, sold out all his interests in Kansas to his partners, and went to Texas.

The fall of 1884 found him the proprietor of the White Elephant gambling house in Fort Worth. The White Elephant was one of the largest and costliest establishments of its kind in the entire Southwest at the time. As a matter of course, he made plenty of money but it required a lot of money to keep him going, for he was one of the best-hearted men who ever lived. He could not say no to anyone, and, as might be expected, was continually being imposed upon by professional “cadgers,” who make it a point to borrow all they can and never pay back anything. While he made fortunes in his gambling establishments, he died a comparatively poor man. He perhaps owed less and had more money due him when he died than any gambler who ever lived.

In the spring of 1887, I visited Short in Fort Worth and learned soon after my arrival that he was having some trouble which was likely to end seriously with a notorious local character by the name of Jim Courtright. It appears that this fellow Courtright, who had killed a couple of men in Fort Worth, also a couple more in New Mexico, and was therefore dreaded by almost the entire community, asked Short to install him as a special officer in the White Elephant. Luke, who had been a substantial friend of Courtright’s during his trouble at Fort Worth, told him he could not think of such a thing.

“Why, Jim,” said Luke, “I would rather pay you a good salary to stay away from my house entirely.”

“You know,” continued Luke, “that the people about here are all afraid of you, and your presence in my house as an officer would ruin my business.”

Courtright, who was a sullen, ignorant bully, with no sense of right or wrong, could not see it as Luke did. He could not understand that it was a pure matter of business and would be much better for Short to hire him to stay away from the house altogether than to have him coming around it. At any rate, Courtright got huffy at Luke and threatened to have him indicted and his place closed up. Courtright could not get it through his head how it was that Luke had dared to turn him down. He knew that he had everybody else in town “buffaloed” and could see no reason why Luke should be different from the others.

Timothy Courtright

Timothy Courtright

Luke and I were sitting together in the billiard room of the “White Elephant” one evening, discussing the trouble he was having with Courtright and the effect it was likely to have on his business.

Just then, one of Luke’s business associates, by the name of Jake Johnson, came to where we were sitting and informed Luke that Courtright was in the outer lobby and would like to have a talk with him.

“Tell him to come in,” said Short.

“I did invite him in,” replied Johnson, “but he refused and said I was to tell you to come out.”

“Very well,” said Luke, “I will see what he has to say; and immediately got up and accompanied Johnson to where Courtright was waiting.

It did not take Luke very long after meeting Courtright to discover that the latter’s mission was anything but one of peace. He brought along no olive branch, but instead a brace of pistols, conspicuously displayed. It was not a parley that he came for, but fight and his demeanor indicated a desire that hostilities open up forthwith.

No time was wasted in the exchange of words once the men faced each other. Both drew their pistols at the same time, but, as usual, Short’s spoke first and a bullet from a Colt’s 45-caliber pistol went crashing through Courtright’s body. The shock caused him to reel backward; then he got another and still another, and by the time his lifeless form had reached the floor, Luke had succeeded in shooting him five times.

Luke was arrested on the spot by a deputy sheriff, and taken to the county jail, where he remained during the night. The next day he was taken before a justice of the peace. Who held him for the grand jury in a nominal bond. This ended the case. as the grand jury refused to indict on the evidence, holding that it was a case of justifiable homicide.

This ended Luke Short’s shooting scrapes with the exception of a little gun dispute three years later at Fort Worth which had no fatal results.

I took occasion at the opening of this story to state that when Luke reached the age of young manhood he was totally lacking in education. It is now but proper for me to say that at the time of his death, twenty years later. he was an exceptionally well-read man. He could write an excellent letter; always used good English when talking and could quote Shakespeare, Byron, Goldsmith, and Longfellow better and more accurately than most scholars.

The burning of the midnight oil was due the transformation. It transformed him from a white Indian when I first found him, to a diffident, courteous gentleman, who was, at his death about twelve years ago, one of the best known and most popular sporting men in this country.

 

Bat Masterson

Bat Masterson

Written by Bat Masterson, 1907. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

About the Author and Articles Notes: Though most of us know that W.B. “Bat” Masterson was famous as a gunfighter and friend of such characters as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Luke Short, many may not know that he was also a writer. After his many escapades in the American West, he accepted a post of U.S. Marshal in New York state. However, by 1891 he was working as a sports editor for a New York City newspaper. In 1907 and 1908 he wrote a series of articles for the short-lived Boston magazine, Human Life. This tale of Luke Short, was just one of several of those articles. Masterson died in 1921 of a heart attack. The article that appears on these pages is not verbatim, as it has been very briefly edited, primarily for spelling and grammatical corrections. One, not so minor correction made; however, was Mr. Masterson’s original reference to the Red Cloud Agency where Luke sold “pine-top” to the Sioux. The original article has the agency located in ” North Dakota.” It is actually located in South Dakota, and this has been changed.

Also See:

Adventures in the American West

Doc Holliday as Told by Bat Masterson

Luke Short Historical Accounts

My Friend Wyatt Earp by Bat Masterson

 

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