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! I 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 sheepdog, 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.

Tombstone, Arizona Stagecoach

Tombstone, Arizona Stagecoach

“My God, Wyatt, we’re in for it!” gasped Bud, ducking forward instinctively and turning an appealing look on me. “What shall we do?”

“There’s only one thing to be done,” I said. He saw what I meant by the way I handled the gun.

“Ye ain’t surely going to make a fight of it, are ye, Wyatt?” he said anxiously. “It looks kinder tough.”

“Certainly I am,” I said, feeling to see that my six-shooters were where I wanted ’em. “Now listen. The minute they holler `Halt!’ you fall down in the boot, but for God’s sake keep hold of the lines. I’ll take the two on the left first, and keep the second barrel for the pair on your side.”

Now all this had passed very quickly and we were bearing down on the strangers at a steady lope. Bud groaned. “I’ll do what you say,” he protested, “but if I was you I’d let ’em have the stuff, and then catch ’em afterward.”

As we got within range of the four men I threw my gun on them. Even as I did so it flashed across me that they wore no masks; that their faces were wondrously pacific, and that no sign of a gun peeped out among them. Just as I realized that we had been fooled, the four threw up their hands with every appearance of terror, their distended eyes fastened on the muzzle of my gun, their lips moving in voluble appeals for mercy. Bud jammed down the brake and jerked the team onto their haunches, showering valiant curses on the men to whom he had proposed to surrender a moment before.

They were harmless Mexicans who had been searching the brush for some strayed broncos. The impulse that led them to plant themselves by the road on the approach of the stage was sheer idiocy, and they were lucky that it did not cost them their lives. What they really had intended was to ask us if we had seen any horses back along the road.

Morgan Earp

Morgan Earp

This opera bouffe [comedy] situation was the nearest approach to a hold-up that came within my experience. My brother Morgan, who succeeded me, was equally fortunate. After he left the service the post was resumed by Bob Paul, whom I had succeeded at the time when he retired in order to run for Sheriff of Pima county. And it was then that Bud Philpott ran into the adventure which capped with tragedy our comedy encounter with the Mexicans.

It was in 1881. The stage left Tombstone at 7 o’clock in the evening with a full load of passengers inside and out, and a well-filled treasure-box in the front boot. They changed teams as usual at Drew station, fifteen miles out. About three hundred yards further on the road crosses a deep ravine. Just as the horses started up the opposite side of this ravine, the coach following them by its own momentum, there came a shout of “Halt there!” from some bushes on the further bank. Before the driver could have halted even if he had wanted to, they started in with their Winchesters, and poor Bud Philpott lurched forward with a gurgle in his throat. Before Bob Paul could catch hold of him he fell down under the wheels, dragging the lines with him.

“Halt there!” shouted the robbers again.

“I don’t halt for nobody,” proclaimed Bob Paul, with a swear word or two, as he emptied both barrels of his gun in the direction the shots came from. His judgment was superior to his grammar, for we learned afterward that he had wounded one of the rustlers.

Now things happened quickly on the frontier, where bullets count for more than words, and the greatest difficulty I have encountered in the task of writing these recollections is that of trying to convey an idea of the rapidity with which one event follows another.

The moment the first shots were fired and Philpott fell, the horses plunged ahead so viciously that nothing could have stopped them. In missing the messenger and killing the driver the robbers had defeated their own plans. As Bob fired he moved over to Philpott’s seat to get his foot on the brake, thinking that it could not possibly improve matters to have the coach overturned while it was under fire. Imagine the horses yanking the coach out of the ravine and tearing off down the road at a breakneck gallop, with the lines trailing about their hoofs. And, imagine Bob Paul with his foot on the brake hearing shots and the cries of frightened passengers behind him and wondering what was going to happen next.

What did happen was this: The rustlers had made such elaborate plans for the holdup that they never dreamt of the coach getting away from them. Hence they had tied up their horses in a place where they could not be reached with the speed necessary to render pursuit practicable. With all hope of plunder vanished, and with poor Bud Philpott lying dead in the ravine, these ruffians squatted in the middle of the road and took potshots at the rear of the coach. Several bullets hit the coach and one mortally wounded an outside passenger.

Such were the coyotes who kenneled in Tombstone during the early ’80s. They did this thing deliberately. It was murder for murder’s sake — for the mere satisfaction of emptying their Winchesters.

The horses ran away for two miles, but luckily they kept the road, and when they pulled up Bob Paul recovered the lines and drove the rest of the way into Benson, with the dying passenger held upright by his companions on the rear outside seat. The man was a corpse before the journey ended.