The Panhandle Trip — Part Four

The Howards paused in their southward journey close to the point where the Texas Panhandle merges with the main body of the state in the town of Sweetwater, as Howard continues his travelogue in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft dated December 5, 1935:

So we came south, following the road we had taken in our northward travels, and reached the town of Sweetwater, in Nolan County, before sunset. It was formerly a clean, likable cattle-town, but now, since it is becoming an industrial center, has attracted some pretty unsavory characters, as well as many decent and honest citizens. While having my car greased (and being just full enough of beer to be talkative) I listened to a tale by one of the mechanics concerning the activities of a mysterious character who had tried to rob his house on more than one occasion, and once had even got into his bedroom, while he slept, and tried to ransack the place. He said he suspected a certain dope-fiend and announced his intention of filling the offender’s legs with lead on the next offense. I heartily sympathized with him, but doubted the wisdom of aiming at the fellow’s legs.

Howard loved to talk to people, hearing their life stories, tales of woe and misadventure. He would often incorporate these firsthand accounts of life in 1930s Texas one way or another and in his yarns.

Howard continues his narration of the trip to Lovecraft:

Returning to the tourist camp where we were staying I got a glimpse at another phase of life when a small girl and her young brother came out of a cabin and wistfully eyed a melon that had just been cut. We shared with them, of course, and this inspired the girl to volunteer unasked information concerning herself and parents. They were nice looking kids, but poorly dressed, and were, the child volunteered, being taken to California by their mother. She naively prattled away of watching her mother being beaten by their father, and it was rather revolting to hear her matter-of-fact tones relating how their father had, on one occasion, pinned their mother against the wall and beaten her eye nearly out of her head. This tale confirmed the fact that they were not natives of Texas, which of course was evident from their accents any way. They told where they were from, but that doesn’t matter.

While I don’t doubt this encounter took place, as he was wont to do, Howard embellished it a bit. In his mind Texans were good, honest hard working people, incapable of domestic violence. But reality tells us people are both good and bad. And the good ones are not all confined within the borders of Texas.

There was one man Howard didn’t mention who also spent time in Sweetwater, Bat Masterson, whose name appears in several places in his correspondence.

In 1874 Masterson was a young man, an excellent rifle shot, and was also the youngest of 29 defenders at the Battle of Adobe Walls on July 27, 1874 in the Texas Panhandle. Adobe Walls was little more than a wide spot in the road, having only a picket blacksmith shop, 2 sod stores and a sod saloon, all of which had been built to serve regular parties of buffalo hunters who passed through. In that time and place, Masterson and his fellow buffalo hunters found their way of life threatened by a force of a superior force of 700 Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Cheyenne warriors who had a plan to sweep through the Panhandle, massacring all the whites.

The Indians made their first attack at dawn. However, the marauding force soon discovered they had me a formidable force, albeit very small (28 men and 1 woman) but deadly force — all 29 were superb shots with the famous “Big Fifty” Sharps buffalo gun. Hunkered down behind the thick adobe walls, they repulsed charge after charge of the Indians. The seasoned buffalo hunters were such good shots that one warrior was knocked off his horse almost a mile away. Suffering huge losses under the barrage of those massive caliber rifles, the Indians lost a large number of warriors and quickly retreated. The defenders lost 4 men, including 2 who had been sleeping in a wagon outside the buildings. This fight triggered the Red River War of 1874-1875. Masterson worked through this war first as a scout for Colonel Nelson A. Miles, and then as a teamster running mule teams and wagons out of Camp Supply. The Texas Indian wars ended in 1875, with the Indians forced onto reservations. It was once again safe for soldiers and buffalo hunters to return to the area and the tiny town of Sweetwater became a stopping point for them to resupply and rest.

It was in Sweetwater that Masterson took the life the of the only man he ever killed in a gunfight. The disagreement that led to the shooting was over a saloon girl named Molly Brennan. A soldier, Corporal Melvin A. King, stormed into the Lady Gay Saloon on January 24, 1876, and discovered Masterson and Brennan together. In a jealous rage, he opened fire. Witnesses to the shooting stated that Brennan jumped in front of Masterson to protect him from the gunfire. A bullet from King’s gun passed through Brennan and into Masterson, leaving both wounded. As Masterson fell to the floor, he fired his pistol at King, who had paused to cock his gun. King and Brennan both died of their wounds and Masterson was left severely wounded. It was during his long recovery that Masterson began using his famous cane. Masterson would go on to become a lawman in Kansas and Colorado. Despite his reputation, Masterson never killed another man, preferring instead to use his wits and negotiation skills to deal with lawbreakers.

After their brief stop in Sweetwater, the Howards turned southward, heading toward San Angelo.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Five