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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell

Tom Clavin

St. Martin's Griffin


Chapter One


Three years before that day in the Dragoon Mountains, in 1879, Wyatt Earp had bade farewell to Dodge City. It had also been time for Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday to move on from the Kansas cattle hub that had been called the “wickedest town in the American West.” The three friends would reunite in Tombstone.

While Bat would not stay away from Dodge City long, in November of that year he had essentially been told it was time to leave. Bat had been the sheriff of Ford County for the previous two years and believed, with justification, that he had done a good job. Jim Herron was a younger resident of Dodge City then, and years later, after he himself had become a lawman in Oklahoma, he recalled, “Bat Masterson was a splendid peace officer, never took it all too seriously, and when it looked like there would be real trouble he had what it took to stop it. He was a young man and seemed to get all the fun out of living that he could.”

Bat aimed to remain in the job for at least two more years … but the voters did not endorse his plan. He was a popular man in some circles, especially in the saloons, and had proved to be an effective sheriff. He and Wyatt were the best of friends and had worked well together at lawing, their efforts complemented by Charlie Bassett, Bat’s brother Jim Masterson, and other city and county peace officers. But Bat had figured he would be reelected handily and had not campaigned, and thus on November 4 he learned he had figured wrong when the Ford County voters elected George Hinkle. Worse, it was not even close: Hinkle collected 404 votes to Bat’s meager 268 votes.

To say he was irritated would be an understatement. R. B. Fry reported in The Spearville News, “We hear that Bat Masterson said he was going to whip every s__ of a b____ that worked and voted against him in the county.” This was not true, and in fact in a letter to the editor published in The Dodge City Times the following week, Bat insisted the story was “as false and as flagrant a lie as was ever uttered.”

However, he needed to get out of Dodge and breathe some fresh, apolitical air. After finishing up his few remaining responsibilities, Bat set out for Leadville, Colorado, trading in his badge for the gaming tables. He was confident he could make good money gambling.

Not that it would have mattered, but Bat did not get Wyatt’s vote in that November 1879 election because Wyatt had already left. While he had never intended to make lawing a career, there had to be a few fond memories of the times when he, as an assistant marshal, and Bat, as a deputy marshal and then sheriff, were fast friends and still in their twenties and learning on the job, patrolling the Dodge City streets, having each other’s backs. And being a lawman in the wildest of Kansas cow towns had been a generally good and certainly formative experience for Wyatt.

As Casey Tefertiller observed, Wyatt “had matured markedly from the boy who found himself in trouble in Indian Territory. He had become a most self-assured man who stoutly believed in right and wrong—and in his ability to determine which was which. He loved to be amused, yet almost never laughed; his dour countenance covered an air of supreme confidence in his ability to deal with just about any problem.”

And there were plenty of problems to deal with during his time in Dodge City, thanks to the regular arrivals of thirsty and feisty cowboys finishing the long cattle drives up from Texas. There were times when Wyatt had to draw his six-shooter, but what made him an especially effective lawman was his ability to subdue troublemakers without gunplay. He and Bat Masterson took the “peace” in “peace officer” literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull. By the end of the cattle-drive season in 1879, the local calaboose had fewer inhabitants and Boot Hill had become mostly obsolete.

Wyatt foresaw that if he remained in Dodge City, he would become bored. It was no longer all that wicked. He and Bassett and the Masterson brothers and a handful of others had done an effective-enough job the past several years that killings and robberies had become rare. Jailing inebriated cowboys did not make for a stimulating occupation. And there were fewer drunken drovers. Dodge City was no longer the capital of the cow trade, and the cow trade itself was dwindling. Many cowboys were moving on to New Mexico Territory.

This presented Wyatt with a couple of immediate challenges. One was with less lawing to do, his income would dwindle, too. The other was leading a life too uninspiring for an active and ambitious thirty-one-year-old man. “Dodge City,” Wyatt said, “was beginning to lose much of its snap which had given it a charm to men of restless blood.”

But where was the next frontier for such men? For Wyatt, Arizona beckoned. His brother Virgil was already living there with his wife, Allie, and he had written letters about the territory, extolling its virtues. One of them reported that the area was booming. Gold and silver strikes were attracting new settlers and businesses. The southeast corner of Arizona had become a magnet for those looking to get rich quick or who saw a longer future as business and family men.

Wyatt was not looking for a town to raise a family in. He had come close to that once. Two months shy of his twenty-second birthday, and with his father, Nicholas, performing the ceremony, Wyatt had married Aurilla Sutherland in Lamar, Missouri. She soon became pregnant and he bought property with a house on it to be their home, at least until the family grew out of it. Wyatt became a town constable in Lamar, where both parents and at least four siblings also lived. But late in her pregnancy Aurilla, barely out of her teens, died, probably from cholera, and the baby did not survive.

A grieving Wyatt began wandering, getting into trouble along the way. Tefertiller’s reference to Indian Territory is that was where Wyatt was arrested for stealing a horse, which, until the immediate aftermath of the Tombstone gunfight, was the most serious charge brought against him. He avoided dire punishment—some accounts have Wyatt busting out of an Arkansas jail with several other prisoners—but being locked up for a long stretch seemed in the cards for this angry young man.

Wichita was a shot at redemption for him. James and Bessie Earp, his brother and sister-in-law, operated a brothel there, and in 1874 it was as good a city as any to stop and earn a few dollars before moving on. Wichita became more than that, though. Wyatt was appointed a part-time assistant marshal and his skills at fistfighting and “buffaloing” plus a cold, intimidating gaze went a long way toward keeping the peace.1 He also met his second and third “wives,” Sarah Haspel and Mattie Blaylock, during this time, so he earned a measure of domestic peace, too, though the situation would become less peaceful and more complicated.

When a new administration in Dodge City reached out to Wyatt in 1876, he was ready to put Wichita behind him. He would be given a steady salary as assistant to the corpulent marshal Lawrence Deger, who much preferred to ride a desk than a horse (a choice the local horses appreciated). Wyatt saw himself as least as much a gambler as a lawman, and thus the gaming tables in the saloons in the booming Dodge City offered the opportunity for bigger earnings.

Three years and a few deaths later—with Wyatt probably being responsible for just one of them, the cowboy George Hoy—it was time to move on from Dodge City. He had been told there was money to be made in Arizona. Wyatt was done with lawing. He was about to become a full-time businessman, and he expected to be successful at it … even though he hadn’t found success in similar pursuits so far.

Wyatt had gotten from his father the desire to be successful and make money. And like Nicholas Earp, Wyatt had not managed to do that. Once he had established himself in Dodge City, Wyatt had given a couple of side jobs a try. During winters when there were no cattle drives entering blizzard-strewn Kansas, he had headed into the Dakotas to gamble; however, while he was pretty good at it, especially faro, lightning did not strike. He had also given bounty hunting a try. Again, it was a lot of traveling for not much gain, other than during one pursuit in Texas when he found a man who was going to become a steadfast friend: Doc Holliday.

The allure of Arizona was, according to Virgil, that it was fertile ground for those looking for a fresh start and infused with an entrepreneurial spirit. An added incentive for Wyatt to move on was that the Dodge City Council, citing reduced income during the 1878–1879 off-season, lowered the salaries of the peace officers. Clearly, this was an occupation with high risk and little reward.

He wouldn’t be going it alone in the Southwest. There was Mattie. She had been born Celia Ann Blaylock in Iowa in 1850 and raised on a farm. This apparently was not a stimulating enough environment, because sometime during her teenage years she and her younger sister, Sarah, ran away. Sarah returned, but Celia Ann did not.

How she made her way in the world is not known, but it is known that by the time she was twenty-one she was living in Fort Scott, Kansas, because a photograph of her was taken there. It is believed that it was in Fort Scott that she first encountered Wyatt Earp. Celia Ann was by then known as Mattie, which implies that she may have hidden her real name because she worked as a prostitute. “Some women willingly turned to prostitution because they earned quick money and retired into a comfortable life,” writes Sherry Monahan in Mrs. Earp. “Others became prostitutes because they needed to eat.”

Conceivably, by the time Wyatt was fixing to leave Dodge City, he and Mattie had been together for eight years. Whether she wanted to pick up and move did not matter. She was dependent on Wyatt for financial security and she had to go where he went. And especially in the case of the Earps, their women went along, like it or not. Allie would experience this when the time came for her and Virgil to leave a comfortable life in Prescott, Arizona, and head south to Tombstone.

It would be there where the most Earps would be together since the Lamar days. Virgil waited, Wyatt was winding up his duties in Dodge City, James and his wife, Bessie, would go along, young Warren would probably show up as he always did so other Earps would feed and shelter him, and Morgan must have been mighty tired of cold and remote Montana by now. Accepting the inevitable, Mattie packed up her belongings, which by then may have included bottles of laudanum, to which she would soon be addicted.

For John Henry Holliday, the decision to leave Dodge City had to be a wrenching one, because it meant leaving Wyatt behind. By the time Wyatt and Mattie were loading up a wagon, Doc had already hit the trail. After its initial promise, he had found Dodge City an inhospitable environment and gotten out before he was thrown out.

Clear evidence of the “taming” of the city had come in August 1878, when lawmakers banned both gambling and prostitution. The latter did not matter much to Doc, but it may have curbed an occasional source of income for his companion, “Big Nose” Kate Elder.

She had been born Mary Katherine Harony, the first of seven children, in Hungary in November 1850. Ten years later, the Haronys immigrated to the United States, finding a welcoming Hungarian community in Davenport, Iowa. At age sixteen, after both parents had died, Mary Katherine ran away from the family who had taken her and her siblings in. Renamed Kate Fisher, she was living with other prostitutes in a house in St. Louis by the time she was nineteen.

It was there that she first met the young dentist who had grown up in a somewhat aristocratic family in Georgia. Her dalliance with Holliday did not last long, and when he returned home she made her way west. It is believed that Wyatt first met Kate—soon to change her name again, this time to Kate Elder—when she worked with or for Bessie Earp in Wichita.

Kate drifted in and out of the life of a “soiled dove,” as such women were often called, and then reunited with Doc Holliday, whose bouts with lung ailments had forced him west. With Kate’s help, he had barely escaped being lynched in Griffin, Texas—where he had first met the moonlighting bounty hunter Wyatt Earp—and they had fled to Dodge City. The imposition of the restrictive ordinances, especially the one outlawing gambling, in 1878 resulted in Doc and Kate trying to find a more accommodating town.

By this time, being twenty-seven years old and sickly, Doc was past any hope of making a living as a dentist. He would not have been able to stand it as a full-time occupation anyway. Gambling was Doc’s life, that was his “snap,” and life was no good without it. He had pretty much worn out his welcome there as far as others were concerned. From time to time he had been accused of cheating at cards and insulting citizens and even burglary, though not to his face. Especially when drunk, which was often, Doc had a hair-trigger temper and was quick to go for his gun. The body count attributed to Doc Holliday would have been higher, except he was not a very good shot. Even at close range he could miss a target, and, amazingly, opponents had failed to dispatch him, too. And Doc was not one to mind much what people thought of him. He was a disagreeable and unlikable and dangerous man, but as long as Wyatt had his back, he could get along.

The tipping point for Doc, as if the gambling ban were not enough, was his worsening health. He had initially been spurred west by medical advice that a warm, dry climate could extend his life. But north Texas and Kansas were not warm and dry enough, especially in the winter and spring. Rain and bitterly cold winds and blizzards sweeping across the prairie were not for the faint of heart or the faint of lung.

In his thorough biography, Gary L. Roberts suggests that while in Dodge City, “Doc was moving into the ‘second phase’ of consumption in the inhospitable climate of Kansas. His voice began to develop a deep hoarseness as a result of throat ulcers that would periodically make it difficult for him to speak above a whisper or to eat. His cough became more severe, constant, and debilitating, producing a thick dark mucus of greenish hue with yellow streaks and laced with pus.”

Even if townsfolk had liked Doc, few would have wanted to be in his presence given his gruesome illness. Lingering in Dodge City was most likely a death sentence and, according to Roberts, “the hollow rattle of Doc’s cough and the frequent pallor of his face suggested that his condition was worsening as the fall snows began to blanket Dodge City.”

He and Big Nose Kate traveled west.2 The trip so wearied Doc that they had to stop in Trinidad, Colorado, until he had regained some strength. They climbed into a train and took it south to New Mexico, disembarking only when the railroad ran out of track. The couple joined a freight wagon train that shuddered and shook its way over the rough and dusty roads to Las Vegas.3

During the war with Mexico in the 1840s, an army hospital had been built in nearby Gallinas Canyon, and in 1878 it was the Old Adobe House, a treatment center for people with ailments like Doc’s. During that winter he took advantage of the hot springs and his health improved to the point that he could resume gambling and even have a few dentistry patients. However, reform movements were on his tail, and New Mexico Territory lawmakers also issued a ban on gambling. Of all things, Doc, with renewed energy, returned to Dodge City, where he was recruited by Bat Masterson to fight in the Royal Gorge War in Colorado.

It didn’t turn out to be much of a war, but Doc was paid and he and Bat were able to enjoy another adventure and to some extent each other’s company. Doc returned to New Mexico, and for the next several months he gambled, got arrested for it, shot and killed at least one man, drank and fought and fought and drank with Kate, reportedly had dinner with Frank and Jesse James at the Las Vegas Hotel, and was falsely connected to a stagecoach robbery. Doc Holliday did not have to find trouble, it found him wherever he was.

In September 1879, Wyatt Earp found him, too (again). He had officially resigned as assistant marshal and set off for Arizona with Mattie, James, and Bessie. As many such travelers did, they stopped off in Las Vegas. One day Doc was crossing the plaza there and found the tall and lean Wyatt wearing one of his rare smiles.

His explanation to Doc was probably the same as what he later told an interviewer: “I decided to move to Tombstone, which was just building up a reputation.”

Wyatt Earp, the reluctant lawman, could not have imagined how much he would contribute to the establishment of that frontier town’s most enduring reputation.

Copyright © 2020 by Tom Clavin