The railroads, four of them, came in ’81, and from their cars disgorged preachers and prostitutes, jurors and confidence men, along with an abrasive assortment of cowboys, gandy dancers, thugs, and just plain hell-raisers.
El Paso was jerked brusquely from its pleasant, sedentary role as way station for travelers between Chihuahua and the badlands of New Mexico and resting point for those westbound easterners who stopped to brace themselves before tackling the dangerous journey across the Apache-spiked desert route to Arizona and California.
Where it had once stocked only fresh fruit, trail grub, horses, and ammunition, the border village now offered babes, booze and blackjack, and the purveying of this new merchandise quickly swelled the El Paso census to 10,000 souls in varying states of grace.
Oldtimers recalling boomtown El Paso say that the city marshal was in the pay of the gambling element. As he and his only deputy drifted from one sporting house to another, levying for free drinks and a cut of the action, a perfectly good jailhouse gathered cobwebs while the gamblers, pimps, and pickpockets had a heyday. Irritated at the sight of a public edifice decaying from disuse, the city council canned its only two lawmen, and all hell broke loose.
To protect their investment in the deposed officers, the sports of the tenderloin comprised by Utah and El Paso Streets organized a shoot-up, reasoning that a show of bad temper would demonstrate to the city dads that the unfrocked lawmen were really needed.
The plan backfired. After a night which must have rivaled the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet offensive in volume of small arms fire, the councilmen shook the spent pistol and rifle slugs out of their coattails and set up a wail for a sixgun savior. The two-gun man who answered the call was one of the most efficient gunfighters, and one of the strangest characters, produced by that troubled era.
Then, as now, not many citizens were really expert with guns, especially handguns. Knowing that I will be challenged, I lump most famous lawmen and outlaws of the Old West into the “mediocre” category of sixgun expertise. The new marshal selected by the El Paso city council was a definite exception to this evaluation.
Dallas Stoudenmire was a man who knew his tools and kept them sharp. A native of Alabama, he was a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, having been wounded four times while serving with the 57th Cavalry and the 33rd Alabama Regiment. Moving to post-bellum Texas, he had sharpened his sixgun work in the pay of the Texas Rangers’ “B” Company.
Had he lived 50 years later, Stoudenmire’s square-jawed, handsome features, his broad-shouldered frame, and quiet, imposing presence would have made him a rival for John Wayne’s seat as a movie hero. A humorless, serious sort, he likely would have scorned such play acting and continued to live by his guns.
There is contradiction about the guns he used. Historians agree that he carried two in “leather-lined pockets”. One authority has the marshal packing a pair of “silver-plated .45 Colts”. Famous lawman Jim Gillett, a contemporary of Stoudenmire, presented two ivory-gripped 1851 Navy Colts, obviously too long-barreled to have been carried in any but the most cavernous of pockets, to Sul Ross University at Alpine, Texas. Gillett believed these revolvers to have been Stoudenmire’s and the integrity of Jim Gillett is above question.
Gordon Frost, a prominent El Paso gun collector and author, has obtained a .44 Colt for which he has convincing authentication as having belonged to Stoudenmire. One of the rare 1871-72 transition models that bridged the gap between the 1860 .44 Army percussion gun and the 1873 Peacemaker .45, the Stoudenmire revolver has been cut to 2 7/8″-inch barrel length, doing away with the front sight and ejector red.
Chambered for the .44 Centerfire cartridge, this seems a most likely gun to be carried in the pants pocket of a knowing gunman of the 1880s. Trimmer, with fewer projections to catch on clothing than 1873 Models, a pair of these big-bore belly guns would provide all the firepower needed for any but the most prolonged encounters. The Frost gun is said to have been removed from Stoudenmire’s pocket at the time of his death and is persuasive evidence that not all westerners chose the Peacemaker Colt.
Whatever sixguns he carried, Stoudenmire used them with deadly precision. Johnnie Hale, a ranch manager employed by the Manning brothers, leaders of the gaming crowd, was on trial for the murder of two Mexican youths. Not caring for the way the court interpreter was translating the Spanish testimony of the witnesses, he buttonholed the linguist on the street during a court recess. Words were exchanged, and the accused murderer vented his spleen by jerking a Colt and killing the interpreter with a bullet through the head. Stoudenmire, standing nearby, ran toward the gunman, drew from his pocket, and snapped a shot at Hale which missed and killed a curious onlooker. Steadying a bit, Stoudenmire fired again, dropping Hale dead at the side of his own victim.
George Campbell, a friend of Hale, drew his gun and began retreating from the scene, muttering, “This is not my fight”. Probably Campbell was just covering his departure and didn’t intend to fire. Pointing a weapon in even the general direction of the two-gun lawdog was decidedly an unhealthy and foolhardy move. Stoudenmire dropped him in his tracks, leaving four men dead in five seconds, three of them victims of three rounds from the marshal’s right-handed Colt.
Next, the ex-deputy marshal Bill Johnson, a fuzzy-minded lover of good bourbon, became convinced that it was his duty to rid the city of the dangerous Stoudenmire. Johnson, armed with a double-barreled shotgun, posted himself behind a pile of bricks in front of which Stoudenmire passed each night on his rounds. As the tough badgetoter passed, Johnson swayed to his feet and touched off both barrels, scoring the most costly two complete misses of his colorless career. Stoudenmire’s hands flashed to his pockets, and Johnson fell for the long count, riddled with bullets.
As the pressure increased, Stoudenmire himself began hitting the booze. His Brother-in-law, Doc Cummings, was killed by the Manning brothers, or one of their retinue. The marshal became surly and more dangerous under the burdens of grief and sourmash whiskey, and an alarmed city administration maneuvered him into resigning.
Drunk and resentful, Dallas Stoudenmire went to the Manning saloon on the morning of September 18, 1882. the brothers Manning – Jim, Frank, and “Doc” – confronted him. Tempers flared, and Doc Manning, a diminutive man with the fighting instincts of a terries, drew a double action .44 (probably a Smith & Wesson) and fired, the bullet being stopped by a book and a packet of letters in Stoudenmire’s breast pocket. Manning’s second shot pierced the ex-marshal’s left arm and chest near the shoulder. Stoudenmire recovered long enough to shoot the little doctor through the right arm, knocking his gun from his grasp.
Doc Manning, knowing he was dead if Stoudenmire let off another shot, embraced the wounded giant with both arms, pinning his gun hand to his side. As the two duelists struggled in this embrace, Jim Manning fired a frightened shot into a barber pole with his Colt .45 single action. His second shot was more controlled, killing Stoudenmire with a slug in the left temple and proving that it is not necessary to be an expert to best an expert when conditions are in your favor.
Hollywood scenario writers and pulp magazine hacks have been largely responsible for the current concept of the western gunfighter. In attributing impossible gun skill to such fumblers as Doc Holliday and Mafia-type murderers as Bill Bonney, they have succeeded in glamorizing some pretty unsavory characters. At the same time, they have completely ignored a great many gunfighters who were at least as proficient as the Doc and the Kid and just as deserving of notice.
Dodge City and Tombstone were mere flashes in the pan when examined against the 20-year reign of the sixshooter in El Paso. The Mexican border country was then, and is today, the bailiwick of more genuine hardcases than any other locale west of the Mississippi. Take Bass Outlaw. Know as the Little Wolf, this pint-sized Ranger sergeant was both loved and feared by his friends. Sober, he comported himself as befitted his gentle upbringing. On the sauce, as he frequently was, the little lawman was contentious as only a confident gunman trained to violence can be.
Fired from the Rangers for drinking on duty, Outlaw stayed on in Alpine as a deputy U.S. Marshal. A drinking spree led him on April 5, 1894, to Tille Howard’s illy reputed house in El Paso, where he began to give demonstrations of his own special brand of Hell. Joe McKidrict, a Texas Ranger, approached him in the Howard backyard, suggesting that the Little Wolf refrain from his exuberant target practice while in the downtown area. Outlaw interrupted the Ranger’s remonstrance by shooting him at point-blank range, once over the left ear, a second shot into the unfortunate McKidrict’s back as he was falling.
Constable John Selman, a lawman of questionable character, had spent the best part of the day trying to dampen Outlaw’s propensity toward violence. As McKidrict fell to the ground, Selman saw that his placatory approach wasn’t working. Sidling up behind a board fence, Selman drew to fire on Outlaw, who let go a blackpowder .45 round which sizzled by Selman’s ear, the burning powder cutting into his eyes. Blinded, Selman shot Outlaw through the chest, piercing his left lung and right shoulder. The mortally wounded killer fired two more shots into Selman’s right leg, severely crippling him.
Four hours later, Outlaw died in the bed of a lady of the night, calling out for friends who didn’t bother to respond.
John Selman was a killer and cattle thief who, having struggled through brushes with the law and personal enemies for most of his years, found himself in the September of his life in the El Paso of the 1890s. As constable of the wide-open border city, he found many chances for an extracurricular dollar and the occasional need to reaffirm his position as a tough character by resorting to a well-oiled sixgun.
Like most of his contemporaries, Selman would have laughed hilariously at the idea of today’s Hollywood confrontation of two protagonists walking toward each other down the middle of an open street, guns left holstered until the opposition commenced festivities by essaying a draw. It just wasn’t done that way, and on the night of August 19, 1895, “Uncle John” Selman gave a classic demonstration of the style that had kept him alive long past the age when most good gunslingers had passed to their reward.
Trouble had been brewing for quite a spell between the cane-carrying constable, still crippled by Outlaw’s bullets, and the most feared gunman ever to holster a Colt, John Wesley Hardin.
Hardin, after serving 15 years at Huntsville, had come to El Paso at the age of 40. He had read law while in “the joint” and hung out his shingle in the border Sodom. But his main occupation was gambling and cooperation with the many bartenders in looking upon the likker while it was red. He became involved with the blonde mistress of a fugitive horse thief, Martin M’Rose. M’Rose , a roughcut sort, languished in Juarez, El Paso’s twin city, and sent ample funds to provide for the needs of his paramour, as well as to pay a retainer to Hardin for preparing a legal defense that would permit his return to the States.
Hardin’s infatuation with M’Rose’s woman caused him to represent his client’s interest with something less than vigor. The lovesick M’Rose was finally lured to the Texas side of the river and, in a controversial arrest attempt, shot down by officers Jeff Milton, George Scarborough, and Ranger Frank McMahon, a brother-in-law of Scarborough. The killing smacked of ambush, but a jury later exonerated the three when they produced a warrant for the arrest of M’Rose.
In the interim, the M’Rose woman had been arrested for carrying a pistol by young John Selman, son of the old constable and a popular city policeman. Hardin’s threatening reaction to this arrest and possibly a more sinister discord over the fate of M’Rose himself led the elder Selman through the batwing doors of the Acme Saloon that summer night. Hardin stood at the bar, playing poker dice with a feather merchant named Brown.
“Four sixes to beat, ” he said, as Brown reached for his turn at the dice. Selman took careful aim and shot Hardin through the head, the .45 bullet making an exit through an eye. As Hardin’s body slipped to the floor, Selman shot again and again, missing completely, then hitting the dead man in the right arm and again in the chest.
In 1896, John Selman, Jr., was arrested in Juarez on a charge of abducting a young girl, with whom he had been found sharing the comforts of a hotel room. His father, Old John, solicited the aid of George Scarborough, one of the killers of M’Rose and a deputy U.S. Marshal, in freeing the lovesick boy. It was not forthcoming. What happened next is confused.
At 4:00 a.m. on April 5, 1896, Constable Selman, who in the vernacular of the day was “taken drunk,” ran into Scarborough in front of the Wigwam Saloon. They retired to a nearby alley for a conference. Four shots were heard, and witnesses later testified that they had found Scarborough standing over Selman, who had been shot at close range through the back of the neck, the right hip, the side, and the left knee. His gun was not present at the scene. He died on April 6, 1896.
When a young thug named Cole Belmont, alias Kid Clark, testified at Scarborough’s murder trial that he had stolen Selman’s gun, loaded and cocked, from the murder scene, Scarborough was set free.
Precisely four years later, on April, 1900, Scarborough, by then a detective for a cattle raiser’s association, found himself in pursuit of a band of train robbers in eastern Arizona. They were believed to have been the fleeing survivors of Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the Wall gang. A .30-.40 bullet ripped through his leg and killed his horse. Taken to Deming, New Mexico, he died after the amputation of his leg, writing a finish to the strange, interlocking chain of killings.
The devotee of firearms may draw some valid conclusions from El Paso’s bullet-spattered history. While the gunmen of that place were as good as the best of the time – all of them had survived many battles before arriving in the tough border town – nothing in their performances, with the possible exception of Dallas Stoudenmire, indicated that they were outstanding sixgun men. Their close-range encounters, often from ambush, suggested murder and assassination rather than an open contest of skill between men at arms. Examination of their widely diverse methods of carrying their pistols – Hardin’s shoulder holsters sewed to his vest, Stoudenmire’s pocket draw, the high-ride, pistol-in-the-front-of-the-belly style of Selman and Outlaw – all point to the fact that a fast draw was of small importance to these men. When disputes found them, their sixguns would already be clear of leather and, hopefully, pointed at an unwarlike portion of their opponent’s anatomy.
Today’s handgunners could skunk any of the oldtimers. Slick, accurate, double-action guns, scientifically designed belts and holsters, a plentitude of practice and ammunition – all these factors make the handgun man of the present easily the master of the best of the 19th-century gunfighters. But turn the Selmans, Hardins, Stoudenmires, and Outlaws loose in the same wild border town against any of today’s civilized sixgun experts, and I submit that there would soon be no experts. the reason is one that many of today’s antigun fanatics fail to grasp. A shooter and a killer are two different things.