Authors: William MacLeod Raine
in the days when the new railroad was pushing through
the country of the plains Indians that a drunken cowboy got on the
train at a way station in Kansas. John Bender, the conductor, asked him
for his ticket. He had none, but he pulled out a handful of gold
"I wantta--g-go to--h-hell," he hiccoughed.
Bender did not hesitate an instant. "Get off at Dodge. One dollar, please."
Dodge City did not get its name because so many of its citizens were or
had been, in the Texas phrase, on the dodge. It came quite respectably
by its cognomen. The town was laid out by A. A. Robinson, chief
engineer of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, and it was called for
Colonel Richard I. Dodge, commander of the post at Fort Dodge and one
of the founders of the place. It is worth noting this, because it is
one of the few respectable facts in the early history of the cowboy
capital. Dodge was a wild and uncurried prairie wolf, and it howled
every night and all night long. It was gay and young and lawless. Its
sense of humour was exaggerated and worked overtime. The crack of the
six-shooter punctuated its hilarity ominously. Those who dwelt there
were the valiant vanguard of civilization. For good or bad they were
strong and forceful, many of them generous and big-hearted in spite of
their lurid lives. The town was a hive of energy. One might justly use
many adjectives about it, but the word respectable is not among them.
There were three reasons why Dodge won the reputation of being the
wildest town the country had ever seen. In 1872 it was the end of the
track, the last Jumping-off spot into the wilderness, and in the days
when transcontinental railroads were building across the desert the
temporary terminus was always a gathering place of roughs and
scalawags. The payroll was large, and gamblers, gunmen, and thugs
gathered for the pickings. This was true of Hays, Abilene, Ogalala, and
Kit Carson. It was true of Las Vegas and Albuquerque.
A second reason was that Dodge was the end of the long trail drive from
Texas. Every year hundreds of thousands of longhorns were driven up
from Texas by cowboys scarcely less wild than the hill steers they
herded. The great plains country was being opened, and cattle were
needed to stock a thousand ranches as well as to supply the government
at Indian reservations. Scores of these trail herds were brought to
Dodge for shipment, and after the long, dangerous, drive the punchers
were keen to spend their money on such diversions as the town could
offer. Out of sheer high spirits they liked to shoot up the town, to
buck the tiger, to swagger from saloon to gambling hall, their persons
garnished with revolvers, the spurs on their high-heeled boots
jingling. In no spirit of malice they wanted it distinctly understood
that they owned the town. As one of them once put it, he was born high
up on the Guadaloupe, raised on prickly pear, had palled with
alligators and quarrelled with grizzlies.
Also, Dodge was the heart of the buffalo country. Here the hunters were
outfitted for the chase. From here great quantities of hides were
shipped back on the new railroad R. M. Wright, one of the founders of
the town and always one of its leading citizens, says that his firm
alone shipped two hundred thousand hides in one season. He estimates
the number of buffaloes in the country at more than twenty-five
million, admitting that many as well informed as he put the figure at
four times as many. Many times he and others travelled through the vast
herds for days at a time without ever losing sight of them. The killing
of buffaloes was easy, because the animals were so stupid. When one was
shot they would mill round and round. Tom Nickson killed 120 in forty
minutes; in a little more than a month he slaughtered 2,173 of them.
With good luck a man could earn a hundred dollars a day. If he had bad
luck he lost his scalp.
The buffalo was to the plains Indian food, fuel, and shelter. As long
as there were plenty of buffaloes he was in Paradise. But he saw at
once that this slaughter would soon exterminate the supply. He hated
the hunter and battled against his encroachments. The buffalo hunter
was an intrepid plainsman. He fought Kiowas, Comanches, and the Staked
Plain Apaches, as well as the Sioux and the Arapahoe. Famous among
these hunters were Kirk Jordan Charles Rath, Emanuel Dubbs, Jack
Bridges, and Curly Walker. Others even better known were the two
Buffalo Bills (
William Cody and William Mathewson
) and Wild Bill.
These three factors then made Dodge: it was the end of the railroad,
the terminus of the cattle trail from Texas the centre of the buffalo
trade. Together they made it "the beautiful bibulous Babylon of the
frontier," in the words of the editor of the Kingsley Graphic. There
was to come a time later when the bibulous Babylon fell on evil days
and its main source of income was old bones. They were buffalo-bones,
gathered in wagons, and piled beside the track for shipment, hundreds
and hundreds of carloads of them, to be used for fertilizer. (
I have seen great quantities of such bones as far north as the Canadian Pacific line, corded for shipment to a factory.
) It used to be said by way of derision that buffalo bones were legal tender in Dodge.
But that was in the far future. In its early years Dodge rode the wave
of prosperity. Hays and Abilene and Ogalala had their day, but Dodge
had its day and its night, too. For years it did a tremendous business.
The streets were so blocked that one could hardly get through. Hundreds
of wagons were parked in them, outfits belonging to freighters,
hunters, cattlemen, and the government. Scores of camps surrounded the
town in every direction. The yell of the cowboy and the weird oath of
the bullwhacker and the mule skinner were heard in the land. And for a
time there was no law nearer than Hays City, itself a burg not given to
undue quiet and peace.
Dodge was no sleepy village that could drowse along without peace
officers. Bob Wright has set it down that in the first year of its
history twenty-five men were killed and twice as many wounded. The
elements that made up the town were too diverse for perfect harmony.
The freighters did not like the railroad graders. The soldiers at the
fort fancied themselves as scrappers. The cowboys and the buffalo
hunters did not fraternize a little bit. The result was that Boot Hill
began to fill up. Its inhabitants were buried with their boots on and
There was another cemetery, for those who died in their beds. The
climate was so healthy that it would have been very sparsely occupied
those first years if it had not been for the skunks. During the early
months Dodge was a city of camps. Every night the fires flamed up from
the vicinity of hundreds of wagons. Skunks were numerous. They crawled
at night into the warm blankets of the sleepers and bit the rightful
owners when they protested. A dozen men died from these bites. It was
thought at first that the animals were a special variety, known as the
hydrophobia skunk. In later years I have sat around Arizona camp fires
and heard this subject discussed heatedly. The Smithsonian Institute,
appealed to as referee, decided that there was no such species and that
deaths from the bites of skunks were probably due to blood poisoning
caused by the foul teeth of the animal.
In any case, the skunks were only one half as venomous as the gunmen,
judging by comparative statistics. Dodge decided it had to have law in
the community. Jack Bridges was appointed first marshal.
Jack was a noted scout and buffalo hunter, the sort of man who would
have peace if he had to fight for it. He did his sleeping in the
afternoon, since this was the quiet time of the day. Someone shook him
out of slumber one day to tell him that cowboys were riding up and down
Front Street shooting the windows out of buildings. Jack sallied out,
old buffalo gun in hand. The cowboys went whooping down the street
across the bridge toward their camp. The old hunter took a long shot at
one of them and dropped him. The cowboys buried the young fellow next
There was a good deal of excitement in the cow camps. If the boys could
not have a little fun without some old donker, an old vinegaroon who
couldn't take a joke, filling them full of lead it was a pretty
howdy-do. But Dodge stood pat. The coroner's jury voted it justifiable
homicide. In future the young Texans were more discreet. In the early
days whatever law there was did not interfere with casualties due to
personal differences of opinion provided the affair had no unusually
The first wholesale killing was at Tom Sherman's dance hall. The affair
was between soldiers and gamblers. It was started by a trooper named
Hennessey, who had a reputation as a bad man and a bully. He was
killed, as were several others. The officers at the fort glossed over
the matter, perhaps because they felt the soldiers had been to blame.
One of the lawless characters who drifted into Dodge the first year was
Billy Brooks. He quickly established a reputation as a killer. My old
friend Emanuel Dubbs, a buffalo hunter who "took the hides off'n" many
a bison, is authority for the statement that Brooks killed or wounded
fifteen men in less than a month after his arrival. Now Emanuel is a
if he is still in the land of the living; I saw him last at Clarendon, Texas, ten years or so ago
), but I cannot quite swallow that "fifteen." Still, he had a man for breakfast now and then and on one occasion four.
Brooks, by the way, was assistant marshal. It was the policy of the
officials of these wild frontier towns to elect as marshal some
conspicuous killer, on the theory that desperadoes would respect his
prowess or if they did not would get the worst of the encounter.
Abilene, for instance, chose "Wild Bill" Hickok. Austin had its Ben
Thompson. According to Bat Masterson, Thompson was the most dangerous
man with a gun among all the bad men he knew--and Bat knew them all.
Ben was an Englishman who struck Texas while still young. He fought as
a Confederate under Kirby Smith during the Civil War and under Shelby
for Maximilian. Later he was city marshal at Austin. Thompson was a man
of the most cool effrontery. On one occasion, during a cattlemen's
convention, a banquet was held at the leading hotel. The local
congressman, a friend of Thompson, was not invited. Ben took exception
to this and attended in person. By way of pleasantry he shot the plates
in front of the diners. Later one of those present made humorous
comment. "I always thought Ben was a game man. But what did he do? Did
he hold up the whole convention of a thousand cattlemen? No, sir. He
waited till he got forty or fifty of us poor fellows alone before he
turned loose his wolf."
Of all the bad men and desperadoes produced by Texas, not one of them,
not even John Wesley Hardin himself, was more feared than Ben Thompson.
Sheriffs avoided serving warrants of arrest on him. It is recorded that
once, when the county court was in session with a charge against him on
the docket, Thompson rode into the room on a mustang. He bowed
pleasantly to the judge and court officials.
"Here I am, gents, and I'll lay all I'm worth that there's no charge
against me. Am I right? Speak up, gents. I'm a little deaf."
There was a dead silence until at last the clerk of the court murmured, "No charge."
A story is told that on one occasion Ben Thompson met his match in the
person of a young English remittance man playing cards with him. The
remittance man thought he caught Thompson cheating and indiscreetly
said so. Instantly Thompson's .44 covered him. For some unknown reason
the gambler gave the lad a chance to retract.
"Take it back--and quick," he said grimly.
Every game in the house was suspended while all eyes turned on the
dare-devil boy and the hard-faced desperado. The remittance man went
white, half rose from his seat, and shoved his head across the table
toward the revolver.
"Shoot and be damned. I say you cheat," he cried hoarsely.
Thompson hesitated, laughed, shoved the revolver back into its holster, and ordered the youngster out of the house.
Perhaps the most amazing escape on record is that when Thompson, fired
at by Mark Wilson at a distance of ten feet from a double-barrelled
shotgun loaded with buckshot, whirled instantly, killed him, and an
instant later shot through the forehead Wilson's friend Mathews, though
the latter had ducked behind the bar to get away. The second shot was
guesswork plus quick thinking and accurate aim. Ben was killed a little
later, in company with his friend King Fisher, another bad man, at the
Palace Theatre. A score of shots were poured into them by a dozen men
waiting in ambush. Both men had become so dangerous that their enemies
could not afford to let them live.
King Fisher was the humorous gentleman who put up a signboard at the fork of a public road bearing the legend:
This Is King Fisher's Road.
Take The Other
It is said that those travelling that way followed his advice. The
other road might be a mile or two farther, but they were in no hurry.
Another amusing little episode in King Fisher's career is told. He had
had some slight difficulty with a certain bald-headed man. Fisher shot
him and carelessly gave the reason that he wanted to see whether a
bullet would glance from a shiny pate.
El Paso in its wild days chose Dallas Stoudenmire for marshal, and
after he had been killed, John Selman. Both of them were noted killers.
During Selman's régime John Wesley Hardin came to town. Hardin had
twenty-seven notches on his gun and was the worst man killer Texas had
ever produced. He was at the bar of a saloon shaking dice when Selman
shot him from behind. One year later Deputy United States Marshal
George Scarborough killed Selman in a duel. Shortly after this
Scarborough was slain in a gun fight by "Kid" Curry, an Arizona bandit.