Tascosa! Where have you heard that name before? Well, if you’ve watched a few Western movies, you’ve probably heard it mentioned. If you remember the 1950 classic, Winchester ’73 with Jimmy Stewart and Shelley Winters (and a young Rock Hudson playing a Comanche war chief), there are a couple of scenes set in a recreation of the old town.
If you’re a history buff of West Texas and the Southern Plains (like a certain Floozy we know), then you’ve seen Tascosa mentioned here and there in other books.
Maverick Town is a history of the rise and decline of a Western boom town. Today, Tascosa is a ghost town up in the Texas panhandle. Originally written in 1946, with its second “enlarged” edition published in 1968. The author, John L. McCarty, was an Amarillo newspaperman and a “grass-roots historian”, the kind begrudged by formal historians, but also the kind that preserves local histories and stories.
That being said, there are times when the book is hard to read. I found myself many times reading a chronological bit, when suddenly he jumps back in time, or goes off on a tangent.
The book is a wealth of information on the tensions between huge ranches and the little guys – the nesters. While an all out range war never broke out, there were many skirmishes. Many of the veterans of the Lincoln County war were employed by the big ranches.
With the end of the wars with the Indians and the decimation of the buffalo herds, hundreds of thousands of acres of open range was available for ranching. Charles Goodnight was one of the first to move into the area staking out the Palo Duro Canyon as his domain. A catastrophic fire destroyed the Capitol in Austin and to pay for the building of a new one, the state ceded land to businessmen in Chicago who formed one of the largest ranches in history, the XIT. Other huge ranches moved in, most notably the LS, LIT and the Frying Pan.
Billy the Kid had a lucrative operation going in Tascosa. He and his friends would steal horses in New Mexicco and sell them to the ranchers in Tascosa and then they would rustle cattle from Tascosa ranches and sell them in New Mexico.
There is a myth perpetrated in this book about a shooting match in which Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson and Temple Houston took part. Temple Houston was a son of Sam Houston and a circuit judge who wore a gun and was considered a good shot. Bat Masterson first came to the area as a buffalo hunter, became an army scout during the Red River War and after the war was a freighter. Bat had been shot in nearby Moteebie and after his recovery, he moved to Dodge City where he began his law enforcement career.
Anyway, the problem with the story is that when this shooting match was supposed to have taken place between the Judge, Bat and the Kid – Bat Masterson was living in Denver as a journalist and Billy the Kid was dead.
Whether by fate or calculation, Pat Garrett showed up in Tascosa, he had been a buffalo hunter in the area years before and had recently been the sheriff of Lincoln County. The ranchers wasted no time in recruiting him to solve their problems with Billy the Kid. The ranchers provided Pat Garrett with supplies and a posse of hardened cowboys. Pat and his posse trailed the Kid to Fort Sumner, where Billy the Kid surrendered. Pat Garrett would kill Billy the Kid one year later.
Pat Garrett would return to Tascosa a few years later. The tensions between the “little men” and the big ranchers on top of a failed cowboy strike had seen a large increase in the practice of “mavericking” which the ranchers considered the same as rustling. The ranchers got permission from the governor to form a body of Home Rangers for one year led by Pat Garrett. The type of justice carried out by the Home Rangers only deepened the divide between the big ranchers and everyone else.
The Big Fight
Just as you can’t write a book about Tombstone without the Gunfight at the OK Corral taking center stage, you can’t write about Tascosa without the gunfight called the “Big Fight” staking out a prominent portion of the book.
As usual, as with most male written histories, the tragedy is begun by a woman. Forget about all of the injustices and indignations between the ranchers and nesters, it’s all a woman’s fault. In this story the role of Eve, Helen of Troy and Joan of Arc is played by Sally Emory, a local dancehall girl. She had been the sweetheart of Lem Woodruff, a friend of her relations, Tom and Charley Emory. But recently, she had been spending time with Ed King. In true Hatfield-McCoy tradition, Ed King and his friends worked for one of the big ranches while the others worked for the nester spreads.
Fred Chilton, Frank Valley, Ed King and John Lang were LS cowboys and former Home Rangers rode into Tascosa late at night for a little drinking and carousing. Fred and Frank went into the Equity Saloon and Ed was greeted in the street by Sally leaving John the task of putting the horses into a corral.
As Ed and Sally were walking up the street, someone in the shadows of the Jenkins Saloon called Ed a name. As Ed confronted the name-caller, he was shot dead. Fred, Frank and John located the assailants behind the Jenkins Saloon – Lem Woodruff, Louis Bousman, Charley and Tom Emory, and the Catfish Kid.
In the ensuing gunfight, Fred Chilton and Frank Valley were killed and an innocent bystander, Jesse Sheets a restaurant owner. Others were wounded, Lem Woodruff would die days later.
It was only the cool head of the LS ranch foreman that kept the incident from turning into a full-blown range war.
Like several cow towns, Tascosa declined when the open range was fenced in and the railroad bypassed them for a new town further South called Amarillo.
There are many events and situations described in the book which can serve as inspiration for games such as Six Gun Sound, Devil’s Elbow. I’ve barely touched the surface – not only was there friction between the big ranchers and the nesters, there were also the Mexican shepherds and ranchers, there was drought, blizzards, fence cutting – the list goes on.
This book was a good read in some parts and hard to keep events straight in other parts. It’s only 287 pages long including the index, but it’s packed with a lot of stuff.
I’ve seen it priced on the web from $20 to $60. If the eBook contains the map of the town, then the eBook would be the way to go unless you’re building a library of books on the Old West.
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