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Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier
Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Luke Short, and Others
By W.B. (Bat) Masterson
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The subject of this narrative might have "died with his boots on," for he had many chances—but he didn't. The fact that he lived to die in bed, with his boots removed, as all good folks like to do when the end has come, may have been due to good luck, but I hardly think so. That he was the quickest at the critical moment is, perhaps, the best answer.
When the time came for Luke Short to pass out of this life—to render up the ghost as it were—he was able to lie down in bed in a home that was his own, surrounded by wife and friends, and peacefully await the coming of the end.
There was nothing in his wan drawn features, as he lay on the last bed of sickness at Fort Worth, Texas, to indicate that luck had ever been his friend. He was aware that his time had come, and was reconciled to his fate. Every lineament in the cold, stern face, upon which death had already left its impress, showed defiance. He could almost be heard to say: "Death ! You skulking coward! I know you are near; I also realize I cannot defeat you; but, if you will only make yourself visible for one brief moment, I will try!"
Was Known as a "White Indian"
Luke was a little fellow, so to speak, about five feet, six inches in height, and weighing in the neighborhood of one hundred and forty pounds. It was a small package, but one of great dynamic force. In this connection it will not be out of order for me to state that, though of small build, it required a 7 1/8 hat to fit his well-shaped, round head. At the time he left his father's ranch in Western Texas, where he had been occupied as a cowboy in the middle seventies, for the Red Cloud Agency in North Dakota, he was nothing more than a white Indian. That is, he was an Indian in every respect except color. And as nearly all of our American Indians living west of the Missouri River in those days were both wild and hostile and on the war path most of the time, a fair idea of Luke Short may be gleaned from this statement. Luke had received none of the advantages of a school in his younger days; he could hardly write his name legibly. It was, indeed, doubtful if he had ever seen a school house until he reached man's estate. But he could ride a bronc and throw a lariat; he could shoot both fast and straight, and was not afraid.
He had no sooner reached the northern boundary line of Nebraska, hard by the Sioux Indian Reservation, than he established what he was pleased to call a "trading ranch."
His purpose was to trade with the Sioux Indians, whose reservation was just across the line in North Dakota. Instinctively he knew that the Indians loved whiskey, and as even in those days he carried on his shoulder something of a commercial head, he conceived the idea that a gallon of whiskey worth ninety cents was not a bad thing to trade an Indian for a buffalo robe worth ten dollars. Accordingly Luke proceeded to lay in a goodly supply of "Pine Top," the name by which the whiskey traded to the Indians in exchange for their robes was known.
Uncle Sam Objects to His Business
He was not long in building up a lucrative business; nor was it long before the Indian chiefs of the Sioux tribe got on to him. Drunken bands of young bucks were regularly returning to their villages from the direction of the Short rendezvous loaded to the muzzle with "Pine Top," and, as every drink contained at least two fights and as it usually took about ten drinks to cause an Indian to forget that the Great White Father abode in Washington, the condition of those who had found entertainment at the Short ranch, when they reached their camp, can better be imagined than told.
The Indian agent in charge of this particular branch of the Sioux tribe with whom Short had been dealing soon got busy with Washington. He represented to the Department of the Interior that a band of cutthroat white men, under the leadership of Luke Short, were trading whiskey to his Indians, and that he was powerless to stop it, as the camp of the white men was located just across the reservation line, in the State of Nebraska, which was outside of his jurisdiction. He requested the government to instantly remove the whiskey traders and drive them from the country. Otherwise, said he, an Indian uprising will surely follow. The government, as was to be expected, forthwith instructed the post commander at Omaha to get after the purveyors of the poisonous "Pine Top," who were charged with causing such havoc among the noble red men of the Sioux reservation.
The military commander at Omaha soon had a company of United States cavalry after Short, and as he had no notice of such a move being made against him, he was soon a prisoner in the hands of the government authorities. He was alone in his little dugout, cooking his dinner, when the soldiers arrived. He was told that he was a prisoner, by order of the government, for having unlawfully traded whiskey to the Indians.
"Is that all, gentlemen?" said Luke, as he invited the officer in command of the soldiers to sit down and have a bite to eat with him.
"There will be no time for eating," said the officer, "as we must reach Sidney by tomorrow morning, in time to catch the Overland train for Omaha. So get together what things you care to take along, as we will be on our way."
"I have nothing that I care to take along," Luke replied, "Except what I have on ;" and as that mostly consisted of a pair of Colt's pistols and a belt of cartridges, the officer soon had them in his custody.
"Where are your partners?" queried the Captain.
"I have no partners," replied Short. "I've been running this ranch by myself."
But Luke did have a partner, who was at that very time in Sidney procuring provisions and more "Pine Top."
After everything around the ranch resembling whiskey had been destroyed by order of the officer in command, the trip to Sidney, about seventy-five miles away, was taken up. Luke was put astride a government horse, his feet fastened with a rope underneath the animal's girth and told to ride in the center of the company of cavalrymen. Sidney was reached in time to catch the Overland train, and Luke was hustled aboard with as little ceremony as possible.
Luke had, by his quiet and diffident manner during the short time he had been prisoner, succeeded in having the officer regard him in the light of a harmless little adventurer, and for this reason did not have him either handcuffed or shackled, after placing him aboard the train for Omaha.
Sidney, Nebraska, was a very small place in those days. The permanent population in all probability did not exceed the one thousand mark. Sidney, following the custom of all small hamlets, however, would turn out when there was anything unusual going on. And the sight of a company of United States soldiers lined up at the railroad station was enough to arouse her curiosity and cause her townfolk to turn out in a body and investigate the cause. Luke Short's partner was among those who came to see the big show at the depot, and his surprise can well be imagined when he discovered that no less a person than his partner wes responsible for the big event. It did not take Luke and his partner long to fix up a code of signals by which they could communicate with each other. Luke could say a few things in Indian language that his partner could understand, and to which he could make comprehensible reply.
Short Escaped From the Soldiers
"Skidoo" and "Twenty-three" were terms familiar to Short, even in those days. But they were conveyed by the sign language instead of being spoken as now.
Luke made his partner understand that he would soon be back in Sidney, and to have everything in readiness, so that they could skip the country with as little delay as possible, as soon as he showed up. The charge of having unlawfully traded whiskey to the Indians did not seem to concern him in the least. "I can beat that for sure," he said to himself; "But supposing that agent should take a notion to call a count of heads. What then? I know that there are several young bucks, whom I caught trying to steal my 'Pine Top,' who will not be there to answer roll-call, in case one is ordered. I planted those bucks myself, and, outside of my partner, no one knows the location of the cache. While I have no notion of putting in a claim against the government for the work, I must be careful and avoid having it endeavor to show that I really did perform such service."
These were perhaps the thoughts he was conveying by signals to his partner when he boarded the train at Sidney that was to take him to Omaha.
To state the story briefly, Luke did not tarry long with the soldiers after the train left Sidney. That night found Luke back in town and before the following morning both he and his partner were well on their way to Colorado, driving a big span of mules hitched to a canvas-covered wagon.
This happened in the fall of 1878 and, as Leadville was just then having a big mining boom, Luke headed for Denver.
It must be remembered that in that country in those days there were no settlements of any kind, and by keeping from the line of the railroad, a white person was seldom seen.
A Little Affair In Leadville
Luke and his partner arrived in Denver in due course of time, and drove to one of the city horse corrals, where next day they disposed of their outfit at a good price. Luke's partner returned to his home in Austin, Texas, where his family connections were both wealthy and prominent. Luke went to Leadville, where everything was then on the boom. Here he began to associate with a class of people far different in manner, taste and dress from those he had been accustomed to. He was thrown in the society of rich mine buyers, as well as mining promoters. He got acquainted with gamblers and the keepers of the mining camp "honkatonks."
The whole thing was a new life to him, and he took to it like a duck to water. It was the first place where he saw the game of faro dealt, and he was fascinated. He was not long in camp before he was talked about. He ran foul of a bad man with a gun one day in one of the camp's prominent gambling houses, and the bad man, who had a record of having killed someone somewhere, attempted to take some sort of liberty with one of Luke's bets and, when the later politely requested the bad man to keep his hands off, the bad man became very angry and made some rude remarks. The dealer was frightened half out of his wits. He looked to see Short shot full of holes before anyone could raise a hand to prevent it. The dealer, of course didn't have Luke's number. He knew the other fellow, but had yet to become acquainted with the late vendor of "Pine Top" up Nebraska way.
"Gentlemen," said the dealer, in his most suave manner, "I will make the amount of the bet good, rather than have a quarrel."
"You will not make anything good to me," said Short. "That is my bet, and I will not permit anyone to take it."
"You insignificant little shrimp," growled the bad man, at the same time reaching for his cannister. "I will shoot your hand off, if you dare to put it on that bet."
But he didn't. Nor did he get his pistol out of his hip pocket. For, quicker than a flash, Luke had jammed his own pistol into the bad man's face and pulled the trigger, and the bad man rolled over on the floor. The bullet passed through his cheek but, luckily, did not kill him.
There was no arrest or trial. Such things happening all the time in those days in Leadville. This, however, gave Luke quite a standing. He was soon in big demand. Gambling-house proprietors wanted him to stay around their places of business during the busy hours, so as to keep the bad men in camp from carrying off their bank rolls. He had a faculty of making friends, and was soon popular with the quieter and better class of the sporting fraternity. He learned to play cards, and was soon dealing faro. No one who saw him then, togged out in tailor-made clothes and a derby hat, would have recognized in him the man who took the header from the Overland train ten miles east of Sidney, when he made the get-away from the soldiers.
Snuffing Out a Gambler
The spring of 1881 found Luke Short in Tombstone, Arizona, dealing faro in a house managed by Wyatt Earp.
One morning I went into the Oriental gambling house, where Luke was working, just in time to keep him from killing a gambler named Charlie Storms. There was scarcely any difference between this case and the one with the bad man in Leadville a couple of years previous. Charlie Storms was one of the best-known gamblers in the entire West and had, on several occasions, successfully defended himself in pistol fights with Western "gunfighters."
Charlie Storms and I were very close friends—as much as Short and I were—and for that reason I did not care to see him get into what I knew would be a very serious difficulty. Storms did not know Short, and, like the bad man in Leadville, had sized him up as an insignificant-looking fellow, whom he could slap in the face without expecting a return. Both men were about to pull their pistols when I jumped between them and grabbed Storms at the same time requesting Luke not to shoot, a request I knew he would respect if it was possible without endangering his own life too much. I had no trouble in getting Storms out of the house, as he knew me to be his friend. When Storms and I reached the street I advised him to go to his room and take a sleep, for I then learned for the first time that he had been up all night, and had been quarreling with other persons.
He asked me to accompany him to his room, which I did, and after seeing him safely in his apartment, where I supposed he could go to bed, I returned to where Short was. I was just explaining to Luke that Storms was a very decent sort of man when, lo and behold! there he stood before us. Without saying a word, at the same time pulling his pistol, a Colt's cutoff, 45 calibre, single action; but like the Leadvillian, he was too slow, although he succeeded in getting his pistol out. Luke stuck the muzzle of his pistol against Storms' heart and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore the heart asunder, and as he was falling, Luke shot him again. Storms was dead when he hit the ground. Luke was given a preliminary hearing before a magistrate and exonerated.
The Story of Two Rival Shows
In the spring of 1883 Luke formed a partnership with Harris and Beeson of Dodge City, and operated the Long Branch saloon, the biggest and best-paying gambling house in Dodge at the time. The mayor of Dodge, whose name was Webster, was also running a gambling house and saloon next door to that operated by Short. At this time Dodge City was the shipping point for the Texas cattle driven every summer from the great cattle ranges of Western Texas to the northern markets.
A fortune was to be made every season by the gambling house that could control this trade and, as Short was from Texas and had once been a cowboy himself, he held the whip-hand over the mayor, so far, at any rate, as the patronage of the cattlemen was concerned. This the mayor did not relish and, as he was a stubborn-minded man himself, who would brook no opposition if he could help it, he set to work to put Luke out of business. He had an ordinance passed by the City Council, prohibiting music in all the gambling houses and saloons in the city. Short employed a band in his place of business and Webster did likewise; but the latter was the mayor and therefore in control of the situation, so he thought. The city marshal was instructed by the mayor to notify Short that the music in his place must be discontinued.
"That suits me," Luke reported to have told the marshal. "I don't need music in my house in order to do business, and besides, maintaining a band is quite an item of expense."
The following night the only house in the city in which there was music was that operated by the mayor. Luke smelt a mouse then.
"We'll see about this," remarked Luke to his partners, Beeson and Harris.
The next night he re-engaged the band and instructed it to go ahead grinding out the old familiar melodies, so dear to the heart of the cowboy. Luke remained about the place for several hours to see what move, if any, was to be made by the mayor. As he saw nothing to cause alarm, he concluded to go away for a while and pay a visit to a sick friend. He had not left the place more than ten minutes before all the members of the band, among them one woman, the pianist, were arrested and locked up in the city calaboose.
Excerpted from Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier by W.B. (Bat) Masterson. Copyright © 2009 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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