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Columns | "A Balloon In Cactus"

Luke Short,
The Undertakers' Friend

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
December 23rd marks the 117th anniversary of Luke Short's last great gunfight. It was a shoot out with Charlie Wright at Charlie's gambling den in Ft. Worth. With all the gun fights and violence Luke was known for, this was the only time he was ever wounded. He had already killed 11 men, though some say it was 17, without getting tarnished himself. That's because, up until that December night in 1890, Luke had always been the one to fire the first shot, and it was always lethal. But that night in Ft. Worth, he got badly wounded in the thigh, and his thumb and two fingers were shot plumb off his right hand.
Luke Short portrait
Luke Short
Photo courtesy www.legendsofamerica.com
Luke Short was born in Mississippi, or maybe it was Arkansas, in 1854, and after slicing up the school bully at the age of 13, moved with his father to a ranch near Ft. Worth. For six years, he earned $30 a month as cowhand on the dangerous longhorn drives from Texas to Kansas. Luke was a small man, about 5 feet five inches, or maybe five feet six inches tall and about 140 pounds of fighting weight. He couldn't write his name so's it was legible, but he could stay on a bucking bronc, rope like the devil, and was fast on the draw. Except for that one night o' course.

By 1874 and 1875, Luke was hunting buffalo and sometime between 1876 and 1878, he was scouting and riding dispatch for Brigadier General George Crook and Major Thornburgh during the Sioux and Cheyenne uprising. Then he traded with the Sioux and Cheyenne around Camp Robinson in northwestern Nebraska and finally got arrested for trading whiskey to the Indians for buffalo hides.

According to his great nephew, Wayne Short, Luke escaped from the army escort which was taking him to Omaha by train. He made his way to Denver and became a high rolling professional gambler in cow towns and mining camps. No slouch with a six shooter, it was in one of these gambling dens that Luke killed a pair of sore losers when they demanded their money back. In 1879, at the age of 25, Luke Short shot a man in the face over a gambling debt. He quickly became known as a fellow you didn’t want to cross.
L to R: Chas. Bassett, W.H. Harris, Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, L.McLean, Bat Masterson, Neal Brown. circa 1890.
Photo courtesy U.S. Nat'l Archives Records Administration.
Short met Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson in 1881, when all four worked in Tombstone’s famous Oriental Saloon as house dealers. In 1882, Short was in Dodge City’s famous Long Branch Saloon working for Chalk Beeson and W. H. Harris as gambling concessionaire, and they say he bought half interest in the Long Branch in 1883.

Wayne relays the tale of his great uncle's gunfight with Charlie Storms at the Oriental Saloon:

"Luke Short was grabbed from behind and pulled off the boardwalk in front of the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone Arizona. He whirled and saw Charlie Storms beginning to draw. Luke pulled his short barreled Colt and fired. The .45 caliber bullet slammed into Storms' heart, blew him backwards, and set his shirt afire. Luke shot him again as he went down. He stood there a moment looking down at Storms, then turned to Masterson. "You sure as hell pick some of the damnedest people for friends, Bat!"

Luke was arrested but released since the killing was in self-defense.

An eyewitness account of this same shooting appeared in Gunfighters of the Western Frontier and differs only slightly from Walt Short's family tale:

"One morning I went into the Oriental gambling house, where Luke was working, just in time to keep him from killing a gambler named Charlie Storms. There was scarcely any difference between this case and one with a bad man in Leadville a couple of years previous. Charlie Storms was one of the best-known gamblers in the entire West and had, on several occasions, successfully defended himself in pistol fights with Western 'gunfighters'.

"Charlie Storms and I were very close friends, as much as Short and I were, and for that reason I did not care to see him get into what I knew would be a very serious difficulty. Storms did not know Short and, like the bad man in Leadville, had sized him up as an insignificant-looking fellow, whom he could slap in the face without expecting a return. Both were about to pull their pistols when I jumped between them and grabbed Storms, at the same time requesting Luke not to shoot, a request I knew he would respect if it was possible without endangering his own life too much. I had no trouble in getting Storms out of the house, as he knew me to be his friend. When Storms and I reached the street, I advised him to go to his room and take a sleep, for I then learned for the first time that he had been up all night, and had been quarreling with other persons.

"He asked me to accompany him to his room, which I did, and after seeing him safely to his apartment, where I supposed he would go to bed, I returned to where Short was. I was just explaining to Luke that Storms was a very decent sort of man when, lo and behold! There he stood before us, without saying a word, at the same time pulling his pistol, a Colt's cut-off .45 caliber single action; but like the Leadvillian, he was too slow, although he succeeded in getting his pistol out. Luke stuck the muzzle of his pistol against Storm's heart and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore the heart asunder and, as he was falling, Luke shot him again. Storms was dead when he hit the ground. Luke was given a preliminary hearing before a magistrate and exonerated."

After a run-in with the authorities in the Dodge City War, Luke headed south, to cross the path of another western legend -- T. I. Courtright.

Timothy Isaiah Courtright ("Longhaired Jim") was born in 1848 in Iowa, fought for the Union in the Civil War, and drifted throughout the west. He worked as a buffalo hunter, army scout, volunteer fireman, sharpshooter, and was for awhile the Marshal of Omaha, Nebraska. He married young Sarah Weeks and taught her how to shoot. They performed shooting exhibitions for money, including Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Jim Courtright wore his hair long and carried two six-guns, butts forward in showman style. The Courtrights had arrived in Ft. Worth in 1876, where he ran for city Marshall against four other men, winning by only three votes. He held the Marshal position until 1879, when he lost his third election. Seeking a paying job, he moved to New Mexico leaving his family behind, and worked as Marshal of Lake Valley, then as a hired guard for a mining operation. Later, still in New Mexico, while working as a "ranch foreman" he and his friend Jim McIntire shot to death two squatters who had refused to leave the ranch.

When New Mexico Rangers came to arrest Jim, folks from Fort Worth assisted in an amazing escape. Using a pair of pistols fastened under a café table, and with a saddled mount waiting outside, Jim escaped custody and became a local legend. But he got homesick and missed his family. He said, “I’d rather be dead in a pine box in Fort Worth than alive in any other part of the world.”

Jim surrendered in New Mexico and cleared his name of all charges. He returned to Fort Worth and started the TIC detective agency in February 1887. Some claim that Courtright was running a protection racket at the time.

By 1886, the same year Courtright returned to Ft. Worth, Luke Short had become part owner of the failing White Elephant Saloon in Ft. Worth. The owners of the White Elephant thought Luke's presence and the expansion of gambling activities would help restore prosperity. Little did they know of the event that would put their saloon on the map. Courtright had already approached Luke Short and invited him to sign up for his "protection services," but Short refused, claiming he could protect himself.

THE GUNFIGHT

About 8 PM on February 8, 1887, needing to make an example of Short for refusing his "protection," Courtright, who had been drinking, confronted Short inside the White Elephant Saloon.

Present in the White Elephant upstairs club room that night, was Bat Masterson, who later wrote of events that transpired. Courtright again demanded protection money from Short, but Short refused. Courtright insisted they move their conversation from inside the saloon into the street.

They walked down the street together, exchanging words until they were in front of Ella Blackwell’s shooting gallery. There, facing one another, Courtright said something in reference to Short's gun. Short stated he was not armed, although he was. Short then indicated that Courtright could check for himself, and he opened his vest. When he did so, Courtright said loudly "Don't you pull a gun on me," and quickly drew his pistol.

However, Courtright's pistol stuck on his watch chain for one deadly second, at which time Short pulled his pistol and fired one shot. The bullet tore off Courtright's right thumb, rendering him incapable of firing his single-action revolver. As he tried to switch the pistol to his left hand, Short fired at least four more times, killing him. Short fired five shots into Courtright’s body before the famed pistoleer could return a single shot. Courtright fell backwards, half in and half out of the shooting gallery doorway, and clung to life until a city policeman named John Fulford arrived. Fulford found Courtright lying on his back, gasping for breath, and heard his last words: "Ful, they’ve got me."

The entire episode was over in only a few minutes. Luke Short was held in the Tarrant County Jail with his friend Bat Masterson sitting outside his cell all night with a loaded shotgun.

The next day, while one of the largest funeral processions ever held in Fort Worth took Jim Courtright to his final resting place and people in Fort Worth raised money to help his wife & children survive, Luke Short was found “not guilty” on the grounds of self-defense. Longhair Jim Courtright was buried in Oakwood Cemetery. Luke Short resumed his gaming operations at the White Elephant.

The same gunfighting tactics had been used by Short before when he shot Charlie Storms in Tombstone. He lured the opposition into a darkened street, got in close and pumped the other man full of holes before he could fire a shot.

In the 1970’s, the name was resurrected when a new White Elephant Saloon opened on Ft. Worth’s North side in the historic Stockyards District at 106 East Exchange Avenue. Each February 8th, the famous gunfight of Short and Courtright is reenacted in the street in front of the new White Elephant.

Historian Stewart H. Holbrook said of Luke Short that "They called him The Undertaker's Friend because he shot 'em where it didn't show."

But no such drama surrounded Luke's own death. At the age of 39, he died in bed of a bad heart at his home in Ft. Worth. He is buried near Longhair Jim Courtright in Oakwood Cemetery.
© Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
December 20, 2007 column

Sources:
Gunfighters of the Western Frontier;
Wikipedia;
Luke Short: A Biography, by Wayne Short;
The Ruidoso News;
Legends of America.

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