During the late 1870’s, Dodge City, Kansas was known for its rollicking saloons, steamy brothels and seedy gambling halls. After long treacherous cattle drives, worn out, dust covered cowboys found comfort in a whiskey bottle or in the arms of a prostitute. The need for nightly pleasures, however, often ran counter to local ordinances. Deputy Marshall Wyatt Earp was alerted to a particularly rowdy bunch brandishing firearms at the Long Branch Saloon. Twenty five whiskey-soaked cowboys were enraged by the rough treatment meted out to their friends by Dodge City Marshall Bat Masterson. The famed lawman was out of town, leaving local law enforcement to young Earp. Luckily, the cowboys were persuaded by a very brave saloon owner to hand over their arms to him before tempers exploded. Earp was probably relieved, especially after he found out the name of one of the rowdies: the notorious gunfighter Clay Allison. An epic showdown between the Old West’s most famous lawman and one of its most famous gunfighters had been quietly averted.
Born in Tennessee, Clay Allison served briefly as a Confederate artilleryman before being discharged over his volatile temper. He was “incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of a blow received many years ago," the discharge stated. "Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxysmals of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal.” Not a flattering description by any means. During the waning days of the Civil War, Allison served the Confederacy a second time as a cavalryman under General Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the war, he became widely known for his extreme mood swings. It was widely rumored he shot a Union corporal who tried to seize the family farm. Like many Southerners who wanted a new life, or escape from an old one, he settled in Texas. He found work as trail herder, possibly among the first to drive cattle along the famed Goodnight- Loving Trail.
Allison’s job took him to the wild environs of New Mexico, where lagging law enforcement, flowing liquor and nightly fandangos spawned deadly gun battles and vigilante style justice. In 1872, Allison started a lucrative ranch operation in Cimarron. He and his brothers regularly rode the streets firing their revolvers at street lamps and helping vigilante mobs dispatch alleged criminals. His skills with a six shooter began to develop as well. Combined with excessive drinking, those skills brought Allison a host of challengers at every turn. One of which had an old score to settle.
On January 7, 1874, Chunk Colbert sought out Allison in Colfax County, New Mexico. After a few drinks and an impromptu horse race, they both sat down to dinner at the Clifton House. Colbert had a beef with Allison over the beating of his uncle at a Brazos River ferry. Allison claimed Colbert’s Uncle Zachary tried to overcharge him. Colbert had gunned down seven men before his arrival and wanted to add Allison to his tally. While seated at the table, Chunk suddenly drew his pistol but the barrel struck the table edge, delaying his quick draw. During that brief moment, Allison jumped from his chair, drew his pistol and shot poor Chunk in the head. When asked why he sat down to dinner with Colbert, Allison replied, “Because I didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.”
Two years later, Allison shot Sheriff Charles Faber at the Olympic Dance Hall in Las Animas, Colorado. The charges were dropped because Faber fired first without warning. Allison sold his New Mexico ranch to his brother and became a cattle broker in Hays City, Kansas. Weary of the gunfighter reputation that followed him, Allison built a ranch in Wheeler County, Texas (now Hempstead County) near the town of Mobeetie. In 1881, he married Dora McCulloch and had two daughters. Allison’s erratic behavior showed no improvement when town locals spotted him riding his horse butt naked and wearing only a pistol belt. He later moved his family to Pope’s Wells near the Pecos River and New Mexico border. On July 3, 1887, he died after falling from his wagon and breaking his neck.