Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years
Tombstone History Archives
Wyatt Earp Tells Tales of The Shotgun-Messenger Service
August 9, 1896
Wyatt Earp Tells Tales of The Shotgun-Messenger Service
With a 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 an important part in the economy of frontier life.
Humble, did I say? Well, yes; for there was far more danger of 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 needs be a man fitted to fight his way to the top of the 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 only recall 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 messengership to the Shrievalty of Pima county, Arizona, and from that to the United States Marshalship of the Territory.
Lucky Bob Paul! In 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 form 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 so 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 off a sandfly off the near leader’s flank or plan 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 fire there was around Bud Philpott’s massive pink ears.
That is 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 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 the property, because he stands between them and their desires, because they will have to kill him before they can get their hands on 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.
The Wells-Fargo shotgun is not a scientific weapon. It is not a weapon 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 still have it. 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 winds. To him a Wells-Fargo shotgun is a most precious thing, and if by hood or by 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 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 throw down 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 liberally the odds are 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 shot distance ahead of us, and took their stations, two on one side of the road and two on the other.
“My God, Wyatt, we’re in for it!” gasped Bud, ducking forward instinctively and turning an appealing look at 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 goin’ 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 afterwards.”
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 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 a surrender a moment before.
They were harmless Mexicans who had been searching the brush for some strayed bronchos. The impulse
that led them to plant themselves by the road on the approach was sheer idiocy, and they were lucky that it did not cost them their lives. What they really intended was to ask us if we had seen any horses back along the road.
This opera bouffe 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 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 that 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 had started up the opposite side of the 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 Paul, with a swear word or two, as he emptied both barrels of his gun in the direction the shots came from. His judgement was superior to his grammar, for we learned afterwards that he wounded two of the rustlers.
Now, things happen 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 defeated their own plans. As Bob fired he moved into Philpott’s seat to get his foot on the brake, thinking it could not possibly improve matters to have the coach overturned while it was under fire. Imagine all these things happening while you count to ten. 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 hold-up 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 laying dead in the ravine, those ruffians squatted in the middle of the road and took pot shots 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 ’80’s. They did this thing deliberately. It was murder for murder’s sake -for the mere satisfaction of emptying their Winchesters.
To return to the coach. The horses ran away for two miles, but luckily the 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.
At Benson Bob mounted a swift horse and rode back to Tombstone to notify me of the murders. I was dealing faro bank in the Oriental at the time, but I did not lose a moment in getting out on the trail, although faro bank meant anything upwards of $1,000 a night, whereas manhunting meant nothing more than hard work and cold lead. You see, an affair like that affected me in a double capacity, for I was not only the Deputy United States Marshal for the district, but I continued in the service of the express company as a “private man.”
So I organized a posses which included by two brothers, Doc Holliday, Bob Paul and the renowned Bat Masterson -I may have something to say about that prince of frontiersmen at another time- and lost no time in reaching the scene of the shooting. There lay Bud Philpott’s body, mangled by the wheels of the coach he had driven so long. And there, among the bushes, were the masks the robbers had worn. In the middle of the road we found nearly forty cartridge shells, showing how many shots had been fired in cold blood after the receding coach.
It was easy enough to find the place where their horses had been tied, and from there the trail into the mountains was plain enough. But the story of the chase is too long to be told here. I mentioned last Sunday that it consumed seventeen days, and those who read that narrative will remember that this very holdup and the manhunt were the prologue to the bitter and bloody feud that is the central, sombre episode of my thirty years on the frontier.
And now for the story of how Curly Bill became the proud proprietor of a Wells-Fargo shotgun. Charlie Bartholomew was a messenger who used to run on the coach from Tombstone to Bisbee. Once a month he was the custodian of a very tidy sum of money sent to pay off the miners. Naturally enough such a prize as that did not escape the attention of such audacious artists in crime as Frank Stilwell, Pete Spence, Pony Deal and Curly Bill. In fact, the four desperadoes I have named, with one other, planned a masterly hold-up which they executed with brilliancy and dash. It happened this way:
The couch carrying the miners’ wages had got out of Tombstone about twenty miles when the industrious quintette made their appearance on horseback, three on one side of the road and two on the other. They did not come to close quarters, but kept pace with the coach at a distance of 300 or 400 yards on either side of the road, pumping into it with their Winchesters, and aiming to kill the horses and the messenger. Of course Bartholomew’s shotgun might just have well been a blowpipe at that range, and if he had a Winchester with him he did not use it to any effect.
These Indian tactics proved eminently successful in breaking down the nerve of the men of the stage, for after they had run for a mile with and occasional lump of lead knocking splinters out of the coach, Bartholomew told the driver to stop -an injunction which he obeyed very gladly. The robbers came up and made them all throw down their hands. They took everything there was to be taken, which amounted to $10,000 and sundries. Among the sundries was Charlie Bartholomew’s shotgun, with which Curly Bill afterwards tried to fill me full of buckshot, with results fatal to himself. Having marched all hands into the brush the rustlers rode off.
It was not many hours before my brother Morgan and I were on the trail. Two of the men had tied gunny sacks round their horses’ hoofs and ridden in the direction of Bisbee, which was twelve miles away. The trail was a difficult one at first, but after a few miles of hard riding the gunny sacks had worn out, and at that point the hoof marks became quite plain. They led directly into Bisbee, to the livery stable kept by Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence. Of course we arrested the pair of them, and they were identified readily enough. As the mails had been robbed I was able to lay a Federal charge against them. Stilwell and Spence were still under bonds for trial when my brother Morgan was murdered. And Stilwell was the man who fired the shot. It will be recalled that Stilwell was one of a gang that waylaid me at the depot in Tucson when I was shipping Morgan’s body to California, and that he was killed in the attempt. As for Pete Spence, it is only a short time ago that he was released from the penitentiary in Yuma after serving a term for killing a Mexican.
Pony Deal escaped from the scene of the stage robbery into New Mexico, where he was afterward killed while stealing cattle by the gallant Major Fountain, at the head of his rangers. The story of Major Fountain is so recent that I need not repeat it.
There is such an appalling amount of killing in the foregoing two paragraphs that I will turn for what stage-folk call “comic relief” to a stage robber who I had the pleasure of knowing slightly in former years. I met him first in Dodge City, Kan., and always regarded him as a meritorious and not especially interesting citizen, who was afflicted with a game knee and who spoke with a brogue. Afterward he turned up in Deadwood, when I was there. There were a great many stage robberies around Deadwood at that time, and all the reports had for their central figure a lone road agent, tightly masked, who walked with a limp.
The story one shotgun messenger told was that, when the coach had halted in response to a summons from behind a tree, he plucked up courage to ask the identity of the stranger. Whereupon there came the answer, in the richest of brogues:
“It’s Lame Bradley, Knight of the Road. Throw out that box.”
The messenger still hesitated whereupon Lame Bradley shot a hole in his ear. The box was thrown down a moment later.
Lame Bradley robbed coach after coach around Deadwood, and then, when suspicion was directed toward him, he returned to Dodge, where he spent money very freely. Afterward he moved to the Panhandle in Texas, where he was killed and robbed by a chum. The chum, by the way, was duly captured and hanged.
Heighho! More killing! And who would ever have expected such garrulity from an old frontiersman! I actually astonish myself.