Tales of the Shotgun-Messenger Service

By Wyatt Earp in 1896

Stagecoach attacked by Indians, Daniel Cavaliere

Stagecoach attacked by Indians, Daniel Cavaliere

With his gun across his knee, his treasure-box under his feet and his eyes peering into every patch of chaparral by the roadside, the shotgun messenger played a humble but important part in the economy of frontier life.

Humble, did I say? Well, yes; for there was far more of danger than of profit or honor attached to the work. And yet such a man as a big express company would be sure to single out for the safeguarding of the treasure entrusted to it, must need be a man fitted to fight his way to the top in a community where the sheer scorn of death was the only safeguard of life. So, at least, it would seem.

But of the many daring spirits I have known to imperil their lives in the Wells-Fargo messenger service I can recall only one who clambered to any eminence out of the hurly-burly of frontier life. And even then it was no very dizzy height that he reached.

Bob Paul, as fearless a man and as fast a friend as I ever knew, graduated from a messengership to the Shrievalty [relating to a sheriff] of Pima county, Arizona, and from that to the United States Marshalship of the Territory. And now he has reft [deprived] himself from the rugged road of officialism to pursue the primrose path of bourgeois contentment.

Wells Fargo Museum

Wells Fargo Museum

Bob Paul! In fancy I see him, his always well-nourished frame endowed with “fair round belly with fat capon lined,” overseeing his smelting works in Tucson, and telling a younger generation about the killing of Bud Philpott.

Bud Philpott used to drive the stage from Tombstone to Tucson, when that was the terminus of the Southern Pacific. Later when the railroad reached as far as Benson, Bud’s daily drive was only twenty-eight instead of 110 miles — for which, you may be sure, Bud was duly thankful. The worst part of the road was where it skirted the San Pedro River. There, the track was all sandy and cut up, which made traveling about as exhilarating as riding a rail. But that didn’t perturb Bud half as much as the prospect of a hold-up. That prospect increased by an alarming arithmetical ratio when the boom struck Tombstone and the worst cut-throats on the frontier poured into the camp by hundreds.

Come to think of it, it takes some sand to drive a stage through that kind of country, with thousands of dollars in the front boot and the chance of a Winchester behind every rock. Of course, the messenger had his gun and his six-shooters, and he is paid to fight. The driver is paid to drive and it takes him all his time to handle the lines without thinking of shooting. That was why I always made allowances for Bud as I sat beside him, admiring the accuracy with which he would flick a sand fly off the near leader’s flank or plant a mouthful of tobacco juice in the heart of a cactus as we jolted past it, but never relaxing my lookout for an ambuscade. Indeed I often wondered that we were such good friends, considering that I as custodian of the treasure box, would infallibly draw what fire there was around Bud Philpott’s massive pink ears.

That is part of the cursedness of the shotgun messenger’s life — the loneliness of it. He is like a sheep dog, feared by the flock and hated by the wolves. On the stage he is a necessary evil. Passengers and driver alike regard him with aversion, without him and his pestilential [deadly] box their lives would be 90 per cent safer and they know it. The bad men, the rustlers — the stage robbers actual and potential —   hate him. They hate him because he is the guardian of property, because he stands between them and their desires, because they will have to kill him before they can get their hands into the coveted box. Most of all they hate him because of his shotgun — the homely weapon that makes him the peer of many armed men in a quick turmoil of powder and lead.

Stagecoach Robbery

Stagecoach Robbery

The Wells-Fargo shotgun is not a scientific weapon. It is not a sportsmanlike weapon. It is not a weapon wherewith to settle an affair of honor between gentlemen. But, oh! in the hands of an honest man hemmed in by skulking outlaws it is a sweet and a thrice-blessed thing. The express company made me a present of the gun with which they armed me when I entered their service, and I have it still. In the severe code of ethics maintained on the frontier such a weapon would be regarded as legitimate only in the service for which it was designed, or in defense of an innocent life encompassed by superior odds. But your true rustler throws such delicate scruples to the wind.

To him a Wells-Fargo shotgun is a most precious thing, and if by hook or crook — mostly crook — he can possess himself of one he esteems himself a king among his kind. Toward the end of my story last Sunday I described the killing of Curly Bill. By an inadvertency I said that he opened fire on me with a Winchester. I should have said a Wells-Fargo shotgun. Later I will tell you where Curly Bill got that gun.

The barrels of the important civilizing agent under consideration are not more than two-thirds the length of an ordinary gun barrel. That makes it easy to carry and easy to throw upon the enemy, with less danger of wasting good lead by reason of the muzzle catching in some vexatious obstruction. As the gun has to be used quickly or not at all, this shortness of barrel is no mean advantage. The weapon furthermore differs from the ordinary gun in being much heavier as to barrel, thus enabling it to carry a big charge of buckshot. No less than twenty-one buckshot are loaded into each barrel. That means a shower of forty-two leaden messengers, each fit to take a man’s life or break a bone if it should reach the right spot. And as the buckshot scatters literally the odds are all in its favor. At close quarters the charge will convert a man into a most unpleasant mess, whereof Curly Bill was a conspicuous example. As for range — well, at 100 yards, I have killed a coyote with one of these guns, and what will kill a coyote will kill a stage robber any day.

I  have said that I made allowances for poor Bud Philpott. What I mean is that I forgave him for his well-defined policy of peace at any price. Whereof, I will narrate an example not wholly without humor at the expense of us both. We were bowling along the road to Benson one morning when four men jumped suddenly out of the brush that skirted the road a short distance ahead of us, and took their stations, two on one side of the road and two on the other.