Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Duel

                                                   Luke Short                   Tim Courtright




During the later days of the Wild West, the most talked-about, one-on-one gunfight happened on a Fort Worth boardwalk.  Contrary to Hollywood depictions, such gunfights were a rarity.  Gunfighters did not meet at a designated hour in the middle of a deserted street.  More often, they dueled abruptly after their whiskey infused passions fell to their trigger fingers.  On February 8, 1887, Tim “Long-Hair” Courtright and Luke Short brought their pistols to bear in a gunfight for the ages. 

Luke Short’s life was a history book of the Wild West.  He held interest in the West’s most famous saloons: the Oriental, in Tombstone, Arizona, the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City,  Kansas, and the White Elephant in Fort Worth, Texas.  He also loved to gamble in those saloons while donning the finest in men’s wear - top hats included.  Born in 1854, the Arkansas native worked on cattle drives to Kansas and served as a U.S. Army scout during the war with the Sioux Indians.  He also sold liquor to those same Indians he was fighting.  Making sales from the back of a wagon, Short became widely known for his fine tasting whiskey, which was usually tainted.  Tiring of the cowboy life and sleeping on the open ground, he turned to professional gambling to make a living.  Starting with the Colorado mining town of Leadville, Short traveled the circuit of Wild West professional gamblers seeking saloons with loose spending customers.  A life of gambling led to a life of gunplay, something Short had a deadly talent for.  While in Tombstone, he killed a drunken Charlie Storm with two shots from his pocket revolver.  In 1883, Short and his wife settled down in Fort Worth.  He became business partners with Bill Ward and Jake Johnson, the owners of the White Elephant Saloon.  Short would manage the gambling operations.   Because of his reputation, he attracted big name gamblers that drew public attention.

While Short skirted the law, Tim Courtright enforced it as a city marshal and self-proclaimed private detective.  Like Short, he served as an army scout during his youth.  In 1875, he and his wife Sarah moved to Fort Worth where he tried his hand at farming.  After three years, the farm failed; Courtright was forced to find a new occupation.  He became a city jailer then was elected city marshal by a mere three votes.  Courtright served as Marshal for three terms before traveling to New Mexico.  He was accused of murdering two squatters while serving as a deputy.  Courtright managed to escape arrest.  He came back to Fort Worth and opened a detective agency; it was actually a front for his protection racket.

Being a popular cowtown, Fort Worth naturally attracted all the seedy elements trail drivers and local businessmen sought.  Those elements gave birth to “Hell’s Half Acre;”a huge red light district that encompassed two and a half acres south of the Tarrant County courthouse. Further north of the courthouse, the establishments were more polished, but still offered the popular vices, namely gambling, prostitution, liquor, and cock fights.  Societal norms aside, the vices generated a hefty bottom line.  What was needed was law enforcement that kept the peace without shutting down any red light enterprises.  With his two-holstered pistols (butts facing forward),  Courtright kept the peace while leaving the gamblers alone.  In one evening alone, he jailed up to thirty unruly cowpokes.  Not content to be just a low paid, standup marshal, Courtright sought a piece of Fort Worth’s gambling operations.   In return for payment, he offered gambling halls, like the White Elephant, his brand of protection.  Certainly no stranger to tough guy assertions, Luke Short told him to get lost.

The White Elephant had progressed from a mere saloon and billiard hall to an elegant gentlemen’s club.  During its heyday, it offered the finest dining in Fort Worth, complete with a cigar factory out back.  Upstairs, Short’s gambling rooms were constructed of the finest mahogany and graced with crystal lighting fixtures.  The rosewood and ivory faro tables were described as “works of art.”  In addition to the many felt gaming tables, cockfighting pits lured combative fowls from miles around.  The most popular attraction was a Luke Short inspired form of lottery called Keno. Unlike the other games, Keno required no skills, just luck, and it paid big.   Unfortunately, Keno was easy to rig compared to other games and was often the target of public outrage, usually from those that lost their money.  Included among the outraged was “The Law and Order Society.”  Its members demanded the removal of the game or else they would burn down the White Elephant.  Fort Worth’s “Keno Craze” made huge profits for the White Elephant owners.  Tim Courtwright wanted a piece of the profits and a piece of Luke Short as well.


Courtright pushed his way into the White Elephant and loudly demanded to see Short, who was having his shoes shined.  Short went outside to find his business partner, Jake Johnson, and Courtright waiting for him.  Johnson was trying to smooth things over, but to no avail.  Short and Courtright walked several yards down the street from the White Elephant to the appropriate frontage of a shooting gallery.   Courtright pulled out his six- shooter.  Short, however, beat him on the draw.  He killed Courtright with four shots.  Short was arrested and spent the night in jail.   Among those who witnessed the gunfight was Short’s friend from Dodge City, the legendary Sheriff William “Bat” Masterson.  Known for his abusive, short tempered demeanor, Courtright was not a popular man.  Nevertheless, he had a considerable number of uptown Fort Worth supporters; they wanted to lynch Short that evening.  Wearing his famed six guns, Masterson guarded Short’s jail cell himself.  No sane person would dare challenge the guns of Bat Masterson.  Short was later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.  Courtright was buried after one the largest funeral processions in Fort Worth history.

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