Every time I backtrack to some last-century comic book or movie or teevee show that purports to portray Bat Masterson, I come away with a greater appreciation of the historical model as a bigger-than-real figure. Granted that some of Masterson’s real-life exploits and con-games aren’t quite the stuff of sensationalized melodrama, I’ll take the genuine article every time for Puckish wit and adaptability to wildly differing environments.
Back in the not-so-long-ago 1960s, the Standard Oil Company unearthed a long-hidden mess when it undertook to lease a great deal of property around the townsite of Old Mobeetie, in Texas’ Northward Panhandle region. The transactions proved abnormally complicated because, as an executive from Standard’s Oklahoma City office complained: “It cost us a fortune to get those land titles straightened out because of all those crooked survey lines.”
One of the old-time landowners allowed as how the Standard Oil bigwigs might be surprised to learn who had been responsible for all that erratic surveying. The surveyor in question was Bat Masterson, one of the many colorful and controversial denizens of Mobeetie’s earliest days.
William Barclay Masterson was born in Illinois in 1856 and moved to Kansas as a youngster. The Plains-area tribes were resisting the decimation of the bison herds by the settlers when the teen-aged Masterson joined a band of buffalo-hide predators. A fun-loving kid who never quite grew up despite constant pressures to do so, Masterson became known as a hero at age eighteen when he helped to stand off a Kiowa-Comanche raiding party at the Battle of Adobe Walls in Hutchinson County.
Buffalo hunters were the most profane, belligerent, and evil-smelling men in the West. Masterson, who preferred the citified life, decided to look for a new career. When he rode into Sweetwater City, which had been established on the site of an abandoned hide-hunting camp in Wheeler County, he found the town in search of a surveyor.
So Masterson declared himself a civil engineer and was assigned a surveying job for which he was eminently unqualified. The town became known as Mobeetie in 1879; the term is a tribal equivalent of Sweetwater, which had already been claimed as the name of another Northwest Texas town.
Masterson began keeping company with an eighteen-year-old saloon dancer named Molly Brennan. Thus did Masterson arouse the ire of the entertainer’s former consort, “Sergeant” King, a disgraced soldier who had been stationed at nearby Ft. Elliott. A known deserter who had proved too elusive and tough for the military to recapture or drive away, King served the town as its resident bully – a Bluto to Masterson’s Popeye, with Molly Brennan as an ultimately tragic Olive Oyl.
Masterson and King tangled in Mobeetie’s Lady Gay Saloon, and after some preliminary fisticuffs King pulled a hunting knife. Masterson drew his six-shooter and persuaded King to crawl from the saloon into the street.
King returned after the saloon had closed. Finding Masterson and Molly Brennan enjoying an after-hours drink, King burst in on them, brandishing a pistol and cursing. He fired at Masterson, but Molly leapt between the men, taking the shot’s lethal impact. The bullet traveled on to inflict upon Masterson a flesh wound – and a permanent limp. Masterson returned fire just before he lost consciousness, putting a decisive end to King’s thuggish career.
The wound caused Masterson to begin carrying the walking-stick that would become his trademark. Masterson could not be certain whether King’s demise was the result of marksmanship or accident. In either case, the killing in wild-and-woolly Mobeetie of a dangerous renegade, by a youthful hero of Adobe Walls, became a cause celébre throughout the frontier and formed the basis of a classic Western legend.
The legend and the man, as usual, bear only slight similarities to one another.
Because in a brawl he wielded his cane with devastating efficiency, Masterson became known as “Bat.” Because, after leaving Mobeetie, he became a peace officer in the notorious trail town of Dodge City, it became natural to think of him as a gunslinger in the tradition of his predecessor, Wild Bill Hickok. The legend held that Masterson had killed thirty desperadoes – if not more.
Actually, Masterson preferred the peaceable pursuits of gambling, women, liquor, and practical jokes. There was little gunplay in Dodge City during Masterson’s regime because Masterson enforced Hickok’s established ban against firearms. Masterson was part-owner of the fabled Long Branch Saloon, and he numbered among his friends such widely feared tough eggs as the Earp Bros., Doc Holliday, Luke Short and Charlie Bassett.
Masterson’s political fortunes, however, were dependent upon those of a mayor known as Dog Kelley. When Kelley became involved in a noisy scandal involving a slaying at his home, Masterson left Dodge and went to Tombstone, Arizona, with the Earps.
Masterson drifted from one town to another, working as a rule in gambling halls and relishing the irony of his legend as a bloodthirsty killer. He developed friendships on both sides of the law. One friend on the better side of the law was Theodore Roosevelt, who persuaded Masterson to accept appointment as a deputy marshal in New York, beginning in 1902.
In New York, Masterson became such a devotée of boxing and baseball that he resigned his lawman’s commission to become a sportswriter for the New York Morning Telegraph. He found himself as comfortably at home on Broadway as he had been in Mobeetie or Dodge or Tombstone, and he enjoyed the company of Damon Runyon and Louella Parsons as much as he had relished life among the Earp clan.
On random occasions, Masterson would file thirty notches onto the handle of an old Colt .45 and sell the weapon to a dealer in antiques. No telling how many such counterfeits remain in the hands of collectors.
On the evening of October 25, 1921, Masterson was seated at his typewriter when suddenly he collapsed in death. He had just written this line: “Everybody gets about the same amount of ice in his lifetime. The rich get theirs in summer time, and the poor in winter.” Masterson had come a long way for a fun-loving ex-hunter of buffalo, a kid who never tired of a joke.
Masterson’s New York friends spoke long and late of the frontiersman’s boasts about the bluff that had landed him a civil engineering job, ’way out on the desolate Plains. The Standard Oil Company’s discovery of the Mobeetie surveys’ eccentric nature doubtless would have appealed to Masterson’s sense of humor, had he been able to foresee the long-term outcome of his feat of fraudulent engineering.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s new book, The Cruel Plains (from Zone Press), is a set of frontier rip-snorters drawn from a lengthy collaboration with the late George E. Turner and introduced by comics artist and novelist Stan Lynde. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found atwww.fortworthbusinesspress.com.