Maggie Van Ostrand
The Undertakers' Friend
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.
Photo courtesy www.legendsofamerica.com
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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