Ignoring the fresh graves that dotted boothill, the Tascosa Pioneer had the nerve to claim on June 27, 1886, “Our society is not so rough as many have been led to believe.”
The residents of the toughest town in Texas surely shook their heads in amused amazement. Either the public-spirited publisher had baked his brains in the noonday sun, or he somehow slept through the Big Shootout.
Trouble had been brewing in the Panhandle for years. The uncompromising conflict pitted the big ranchers and their legion of gunslinging range-riders against small independent cattlemen, assorted squatters and those cowboys blackballed after their unsuccessful strike in 1883.
A jilted prostitute inadvertently brought it all to a head in March 1886. After losing Lem Woodruff to another lady of the evening, Sally Emory promised the moon and several stars to Ed King, an LS ranch hand, if he would help even the score with her fickle ex-boyfriend.
Recruiting a couple of cohorts from the LS camp, King made a beeline for Woodruff’s favorite haunt, where the trio tried to taunt him into a gunfight. Although the insults were so humiliating that he broke down and cried, Woodruff stayed put safe inside the saloon.
A few days later, Sally Emory sent a note to King asking him to meet her that night. Not about to venture alone into Tascosa, King persuaded Frank Valley, Fred Chilton and John Lang to go along with him.
The four cowhands passed the early evening at a private party and a hospitable watering hole, where they did not have to worry about watching each other’s backs. Then at two o’clock in the morning, they rode the short distance into town.
Valley and Chilton headed for a permanent poker game, while King and Lang moseyed on down Main Street. Finding Sally in front of the Exchange Hotel, Lang freed his friend to keep his date by graciously offering to tie up the horses.
As the couple strolled past Jenkins and Dunn’s saloon, the known hangout of the Woodruff clique, a voice from the pitch-black porch loudly questioned the marital status of King’s parents. Ordering Sally to go on without him, he stepped toward the source of the slander.
A block away, heard the tell-tale sound of gunfire and turned to see Ed King fall on his back. He watched horror-stricken as Lem Woodruff emerged from the shadows, placed the barrel of his Winchester on King’s throat and squeezed the trigger.
Sticking his head in the poker parlor, Lang shouted, “They just killed Ed!” Valley and Chilton dropped their cards and grabbed their guns, but King was dead by the time the trio reached his side.
Assuming the murderers were waiting for them to storm the entrance of Jenkins and Dunn’s, they decided to attack from the rear. But as they turned the corner into the alley, there stood Woodruff with four accomplices.
Lang, Valley and Chilton opened fire simultaneously before their prey could clear leather. As his associates scrambled for cover, the impact of two slugs knocked Woodruff back inside the barroom.
He kicked the door shut behind him, but Frank Valley emptied his pistol into the thin wood. Pausing to reload, he listened intently for any sound of life. Hearing none, he could not resist taking a peek at Woodruff’s corpse.
Valley gently opened the perforated door only to get the biggest and last surprise of his life. A Winchester roared, and Woodruff registered his second kill.
Seconds later, curiosity caused another casualty. When cafe owner Jesse Sheets leaned out a window for a better view of the battle, Fred Chilton put a bullet between his eyes.
Chilton, however, had no opportunity to regret the fatal mistake. The muzzle flash gave away his position, and an unknown marksman nailed him with two perfect shots.
Alone and surrounded, John Lang made a mad dash for his horse. Miracle of miracles, he escaped with nothing worse than a bullet hole in his coat sleeve.
A mean and close-knit bunch, the boys at the LS Ranch blamed Tascosa for the slaughter of their saddle partners. In retaliation they plotted the execution of the entire town.
The day after Valley, Chilton and King were buried, 55 cowboys descended on Tascosa ready to shoot every living soul and burn the place to the ground. But, as an afterthought, they asked the LS foreman for his blessing.
Certain of his absolute authority, he told the mob to go home. Anyone who dared to take the law into his own hands would be exiled forever from the ranch.
A few hotheads tried to argue the point but were swiftly silenced by the obedient majority. Tascosa was spared and not a moment too soon.
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