Bat Masterson and The Ogallala Bust-Out
In the summer of 1880, Billy Thompson was in a classroom shooting in Ogallala, Nebraska. After the shooting, the law kept him under surveillance at the city’s only hotel, The Ogallala House, until he could be tried and hanged, a conclusion forgotten by all residents. His brother Ben Thompson, a prominent player and pistol fighter, was convinced that Ogallala’s mob was waiting for him to hunt down Billy. He had reason to believe that if he did show up, they intended to throw a tie party for two. Hedging his bets, Ben called in an old friend, Bat Masterson, to free his brother from the clutches of what was said to be Ogallala’s crooked law.
It all started when Billy vied for the affections of a local whore with the ignominious nickname Big Alice. A salon owner named Bill Tucker claimed his off-duty dates and warned Billy to stay away from the damsel. Billy, not known for heeding warnings, continued to mingle with Big Alice until he decided to confront Tucker in his living room, Cowboy’s Rest. After taking a full swig of liquor, Billy walked into the living room and fired a quick shot at Tucker. The bullet hit the salon owner in his hand as he served a customer a shot of whiskey. Tucker quickly counted the fingers on his left hand and discovered that his thumb was missing and three other fingers had been mutilated. He grabbed a bar towel, wrapped his bloody hand around himself, and hid behind the bar. Billy, thinking he had killed the man, holstered his pistol and staggered out of the room.
Tucker was far from dead. He stopped behind the bar with a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun. He ran to the door and with his good hand pointed the ten caliber at Thompson, firing from both cannons. Billy, who was a short distance from the living room, lunged into the street with five buckshot wounds to his back and buttocks. Tucker’s friends rushed him home for medical attention as the law dragged Billy to Ogallala House, where he was treated and held prisoner.
Because Ben Thompson had saved his life or for whatever reason, Masterson felt compelled to help Ben win back his wayward brother from the Ogallala ruffians and boarded a train for Nebraska. Arriving in the city, which was little more than a few rustic buildings huddled around the Union Pacific Line on the north bank of the South Platte River, Bat surveyed the situation and found he faced bad odds. Billy’s injuries rendered him unable to ride a horse, so Bat had to imitate another method to get him out of town. He told Billy to pretend he was so weak that he couldn’t escape while he came up with a plan.
Biding the right moment, Bat befriended the young aide in charge of keeping an eye on Billy at the hotel. They played cards to pass the time, and Bat often bought a round of drinks. Then after a few days, Bat saw his opportunity one Sunday night when the entire community attended a dance held at a school on the outskirts of town. The sheriff, who was the best violinist in the area, loved to play and would keep the crowd dancing until the wee hours of the morning.
The night of the dance, the Ogallala House had been emptied leaving only Bat, Billy, the aide, and a bartender named Jim Dunn. Masterson managed to convince Dunn to put a “Mickey Finn” in one of the whiskey sour that he ordered for himself and the guard. The guard downed the adulterated drink and Bat ordered another round. A few minutes after the second drink, the guard fell to the ground in a stupor. Bat paid the waiter and ran to Billy’s room where he dressed the wounded man. Then he rolled Billy up in a rug, carried him over his shoulder, and carried him to the morgue. They arrived just as the train entered the station around midnight. Bat boarded the train, sat Billy in a seat, and they set off in silence for North Platte, about eighty miles east of Ogallala.
At about two in the morning, they stopped at North Platte, where Bat hoisted Thompson on his shoulder and walked down the steps of the station. It was pitch dark, but out on the street, Masterson could see the gas lights in Dave Perry’s living room. He managed to drag Billy through the living room doors and onto a pool table. As luck would have it, Bill Cody was in the living room drinking and telling stories to his friends. Bat explained their plight and Cody, always the showman, dramatically swore that he would personally see to it that they did not fall into the hands of the Ogallala authorities and provide them with a means to get them back to Dodge City.
This is where the story takes a comic turn. Without telling his wife, Cody gave Masterson his new phaeton buggy and a well-behaved horse to transport Billy out of Nebraska. In addition, he offered to let them go along with the group of dignitaries he led on a trip to a large cattle ranch about twenty-five miles south of North Platte. The Europeans, who had been sent by General Sheridan, were touring the west to see firsthand the wild nature of the frontier and Cody was in charge of escorting them to Keith Ranch. The twenty foreigners arrived eager for the famous Buffalo Bill to guide them through the wild plains and he was in his element, full of grandiose gestures and dramatic flair.
As the caravan assembled, Cody asked Masterson to drive his double dining car and let another ranch hand drive the buggy carrying Thompson. Bat quickly discovered that the dining car was loaded with a small amount of food and a large amount of liquor. All the riders were given a strong drink and then Cody motioned for the group to set out on their journey. After traveling for a short time, Cody stopped the passengers for a rest stop that included a generous amount of “liquid refreshments.” He repeated this routine for several more stops until the caravan was having a great time, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to stay in the saddle.
Finally, Cody, wobbling in his chair, approached the dining car and climbed aboard. He fell asleep immediately and Bat was left in charge of leading the group south. Bat, who had also had his share of liquid soda, was barely able to drive the car and, after a short distance, hit a groove and flipped the car onto its back. Masterson was thrown from the wagon but Cody was trapped under the bed, covered with the load of “soda”. Bat had landed on his face and had a bloody cut on his lower lip. He and the others managed to right the dining car only to find that Cody was unharmed and he wondered what the hell had happened.
They finally made it to Keith’s ranch where they had dinner and Cody sobered up enough to entertain his entourage with his legendary shooting and riding skills. The next morning, Masterson, taking care of a swollen lip and massive hangover, hooked up with Mrs. Cody’s Phaeton and headed to Dodge City with Billy. Shortly after leaving the ranch, a huge black cloud caught up with them from the west and drenched them with torrents of freezing rain. It continued to rain on the couple for the remainder of their three-hundred-kilometer journey.
Several days later, Mrs. Cody’s carriage drove into Dodge City with Masterson at the helm and Thompson wrapped in a soggy buffalo robe. They were both covered in mud and completely soaked. Shivering, Bat pushed the tired horse toward his favorite hotel, where a hot bath and a decent meal were always available. Billy moved out from under his buffalo hide and demanded that they first stop at the telegraph office where he telegraphed the Ogallala sheriff. The message said that he had reached Dodge safely and that the sheriff could find him there if he wanted to go find him.
Over the years, Billy Thompson had been accused of many things but never, ever of being very bright. Fortunately, for Billy, the sheriff decided it was not worth the effort and dropped the matter.