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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Masterson at Sanderson

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

In the winter of 1896, Texas' most famous prizefight nearly took second place to an unscheduled and potentially much more violent match in Sanderson.

Gov. Charles Culberson had sent 30 Texas Rangers to El Paso to stop a scheduled championship fight between Robert Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher, two bare-knuckle pugilists. When it became clear to promoter Dan Stuart that he would not be able to pull off what he dubbed a "Fistic Carnival" in Texas (he had tried Dallas before looking to far West Texas as a venue), he hit on another idea. He would stage the fight on an island in the Rio Grande across from the small town of Langtry — an international no-man's land where state lawmen would have no jurisdiction.

Its engineer sounding two long blasts to signal "brakes released, proceed," the special Texas and Pacific train moved slowly out of the El Paso depot at 9:45 p.m. on February 20. Filling 10 passenger coaches, Stuart and a contingent of cronies, die-hard fans, gamblers and reporters headed east for Langtry, the rail stop best known for its most colorful resident, saloon owner and justice of the peace Judge Roy Bean. Hearing that Stuart had given up on the City at the Pass, the Rangers had gotten on the train as well.

When the T&P Special rolled into Marathon for a water stop, Fitzsimmons saw someone's pet bear chained outside a house. To the delight of his fans, the fighter jumped off the train and charged the frightened bear. The bruin backed up, but Fitzsimmons kept coming, soon embracing the animal in a literal bear hug. The dapper Stuart, visions of the bear getting a knock out on Fitzsimmons with one swing of a clawed paw, pulled him off the bear and got him back on the train.

Next stop, at 1 p.m. on February 21, was Sanderson. The conductor said the train would only be in town for 10 minutes, but the passengers were hungry and the train had no dining car. Ignoring the conductor, 200 hungry men piled off the train to hunt up lunch.

One of the growling stomachs belonged to Stuart's chief of security, Bat Masterson, former buffalo hunter, one-time Dodge City policeman and current boozer-gambler.

Dissatisfied with the level of service in the crowded eatery, Masterson pulled a castor from the leg of the table where he had been seated and hit the Chinese waiter on his head as he walked by. Several people laughed, but two Ranger captains sitting nearby did not.

Captain Bill McDonald, as legendary a lawman as Masterson was legendary as a gunman, stood and grabbed Masterson's arm. Also on his feet was Captain John B. Rogers. Both rangers at various times in their careers had come out first in gunfights in which there had been no second place winner.

"Don't hit that man," McDonald said, easily heard in the suddenly dead quiet restaurant.

Standing, Masterson's light eyes met McDonald's.

"Maybe you'd like to take it up," Masterson said.

"I done took it up," McDonald replied.

Even out in the middle of nowhere, carrying a pistol was illegal in Texas unless a man had a badge or was on his own property. In his capacity as security guard, Masterson may or may not have had a pistol tucked in his waist under his coat. But McDonald and Rogers definitely were wearing six-shooters.

If Masterson had made a sudden furtive move, the prize fight would have been delayed by a coroner's inquest. But like any good card player, Masterson knew when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. He smiled at the lithe Ranger captain and sat back down to wait for his meal.

McDonald let go of Masterson's arm and took his seat as well.

Lunch went on and so did Masterson. Had he not had the good sense to shut up and quit harassing the waiter, he could have died of instant onset lead poisoning right there in Sanderson. Instead, he lived another quarter century. Eventually he vacated the West and settled in New York, where he became a well-followed sportswriter for the New York World.

After the meal in Sanderson, the train proceeded to Langtry. Near there, to the disappointment of everyone, Fitzsimmons KO-ed Maher in the first round on the international island. Having nothing official to do, the rangers took in the fight from the Texas side along with everyone else on the train.

As for Masterson, on Oct. 21, 1921, while lighting a cigarette at his desk in the World's news room, he fell over dead on his typewriter. He had just finished writing what would be his last column.

After they moved his body, someone pulled Masterson's last piece of copy from his typewriter and noted the unintended appropriateness of his last sentence:

"There are many in this old world of ours who hold that things break about even for all of us. I have observed, for example, that we all get about the same amount of ice. The rich get it in summer and the poor get it in the wintertime."

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 27, 2018

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