The Big Fight
Long before Facebook trolls and comment section gasbags, people around these parts were already perfecting the art of mouthing off and taking it a step too far.
In March 1886, simmering cowboy class warfare in and around Tascosa, Texas, had already primed a population of underpaid and love-starved bucks for violence, so it didn’t take much for a bit of liquor-fueled sass to turn deadly in what has come to be known in Western lore as “The Big Fight.”
All around this outpost of what passed for civilization, several big ranches had been established in the 1870s, worked by cowboys who found a way to earn a little extra scratch by claiming maverick, or unbranded cattle. But by the early 1880s, the increasingly powerful ranch owners put an end to this practice and started enforcing new rules against the gleaning of mavericks.
In 1884, the big cattle operators brought in Pat Garrett, the New Mexico lawman who killed Billy the Kid, and tasked him with reining in the rustling. He assembled a posse of cowboys known as the Home Rangers and the whole lot of them became wildly unpopular. Garrett, unaccustomed to that level of scorn, resigned within nine months. Upon his departure, the Home Rangers were dissolved. But they left behind a big stank in Tascosa for years to come.
Ed King was one of these former Home Rangers who apparently took to brawling and drinking with so much extra time on his hands. On the night of March 20, 1886, he and his former ranger buddies Frank Chilton, Frank Valley and John Lang rode in from the LS Ranch to attend a baile, or dance, at the home of Casimiro Romero. They probably got a little tight at the Romero function, and at 2 a.m. early on March 21, headed into Tascosa for a nightcap.
King and his buddies were likely quite unloved by the smattering of cowboys still lingering at that late hour. It’s not exactly clear how the shooting started. But considering everyone there had been greasing their hollers since before supper, courage was not lacking.
Frederick Nolan, in his book Tascosa: Its Life and Gaudy Times, sets the stage for trouble a day earlier when King paid a visit to the Dunn & Jenkins Saloon and insulted bartender Lem Woodruff by calling him “Pretty Lem.” It seems Woodruff’s former love interest, Sally Emory, was getting sweet on King, which might explain the taunting.
The next evening after the Romero baile, King and his LS buddies were walking down Main Street and spotted Woodruff and Louis “The Animal” Bousman along with “Squirrel-Eye” Charlie Emory and John “the Catfish Kid” Gough outside of the Dunn & Jenkins Saloon. King was alleged to have said “Well, I see you sons of bitches are still in town.” At that moment King took the first bullet and was possibly dead when he hit the dirt.
There are other recorded perspectives of how it started, but the SOB thing is, in my mind, quite probable. Anyone who’s attended a rodeo dance in Dalhart or the St Patrick’s bacchanalia at the old Armory in Shamrock has likely seen a fight start in this manner.
After King fell, Woodruff and his coterie quickly ducked into the Dunn & Jenkins Saloon as King’s LS cronies Chilton, Valley and Lang unloaded a fusilade of revenge into the thin walls. When it was all done, Chilton and Valley were also dead, Woodruff and Emory were wounded and Lang, the lone survivor of King’s party, hightailed it out of town. A fourth fatality was Jesse Sheets, who had simply taken a gander from the back door of a neighboring saloon.
This breach in the dam of civility was sudden and short-lived, and very soon life among the adobe saloons settled back into a more placid lawlessness. From the safe distance of time, a Wild-West shootout almost feels like make-believe, but The Big Fight in Tascosa comes back quite real when we stop to imagine how hard it was to make a life in a raw land with few comforts—and how easy it is for things to go wrong when liquor loosens our lips after bedtime.