The Gunfight at the El Paso Corral
By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
I suppose the one question I’ve been asked as a former frontier newspaper editor more than any other is whether a worthwhile outcome was ever served by a newspaper deliberately misleading the public. Well, raking through the weed patch of what’s left of my mind, I can only think of one such possible instance, but as always, it’ll be for you, the reader, to decide.
* * * * *
The year was 19-ought-6, the place El Paso—which for those who might have slept through their high school geography class was and still is located in the extreme western tip ofthe state ofTexas. Now, despite snide rumors to the contrary, I was not then the editor of the El Paso Daily Gazette but rather a scrawny kid whose father had hightailed it soon after first laying eyes on me, leaving my Mom and me to fend for ourselves in a clapboard cottage about as lavishly appointed as the local poorhouse.
Naturally, such a fix meant my chances to reach for the higher branches ofthe Tree ofKnowledge, or even most of those of its lower variety, ran the gamut from nil to none. By my thirteenth birthday, I had seen the last of a blackboard, and was selling newspapers out in front ofthe Valhalla Hotel, hoping to someday become a full-fledged newspaperman. From the moment I had stood next to a barrel of ink, it was love at first scent.
In 19-ought-6, the Wild West was filling out like a brawny teenager, and places that once had been hospitable to many ofthe most notorious gunslingers in American history had shrunk so that there were now mean-spirited marshals, ambitious sheriffs, United States Cavalry, and prissy politicians about anywhere a bad man might want to be bad.
One ofthe last pleasant habitats for those outlaws was El Paso, mainly because of its proximity to what was then called Old Mexico. I guess those desperadoes figured that if the heat ever got frying-pan hot, they could always cool off by wading across the Rio Grande River.
Now, believe it or not, several of those men had finally come to heel in the aforementioned Valhalla Hotel, outside of which I could be seen every morning, rain, shine, sleet or snow, hawking the El Paso Daily Gazette. And being an enterprising type, I often sneaked a peek at the hotel’s register. If I could correctly connect a name with a face, the gambit was usually good for a nice tip; amazing how the sound of one’s own name is music to the ears of most men.
Not that the gunslingers ever registered under their real names, but word around town was that, in that December of ought-six, there were no fewer than five of the country’s better-known bandits bunking at this same hotel, namely: two of the remaining Dalton brothers, same number of the Youngers, and the Ringo Kid himself. Now whether they truly were these famous folks was not known at the time, but people in El Paso always seemed to prefer romance over reality.
Now one thing you have to say about bank robbers: they can be generous to a fault, reason being, I suppose, because money comes rather easily to them. So, I soon ingratiated myself with these gents, and supplemented my meager income by running errands for them. I could rustle up almost anything, including, I am today embarrassed to admit, shady señoritas who would happily cross the Rio Grande to spend a few hours in the company of men who had a penchant for all things hot and spicy—or men who had once been so inclined. Now, more times than not, these ladies did little more than tell these one-time dangerous desperadoes bedtime stories until they fell asleep.
Thereby hangs the skeleton of this story. You see, by the time the men had reached El Paso, they weren’t so bad, anymore. Oh, not that they’d seen the light of the Holy Spirit, or anything nearly so noble. They still hankered to be bad; problem was their bodies were no longer in a cooperative mood.
A medical almanac could be filled with the afflictions of these aging gunfighters—starting with cracked craniums, double vision, ringing ears, brittle bones, moving on to non-syncopated hearts, tobacco-tainted lungs, pickled kidneys, lifeless livers, creaky joints, leaky pipes, and ending with buckling knees and woefully worn-out feet. If they’d been horses, they would long-since been hauled off to the glue factory.
Strangely enough, their obvious physical condition had proved a blessing. The local sheriff was what we used to call a “prairie-dog philosopher,” and had adopted a live-and-let-live policy, figuring that if the five famous outlaws behaved themselves, he’d simply let Father Time settle the matter. I suppose he was hoping for a reversal of the old bromide that “time heals all wounds” to read in this case “time mortally wounds all heels.”
Besides that, most of their dire deeds had been done outside the state of Texas, and the only person who could legally arrest them was a U.S. Marshall; word had it that the warrants were being prepared, and the arrival of such a lawman might not be too far in the future. In the meantime, the sheriff knew of no compelling reason to get himself killed over somebody else’s problem. He also knew that the five outlaws were well aware of the imminent arrival of said U.S. Marshall.
Common sense should have told the five to skedaddle, but to add insult to injury, the former bank bandits were almost broke, with few if any immediate remedial measures. Their specialty was slowly going the way of flintlock rifles and the Pony Express. In short, those gunslingers were in a world of woe.
Been said that it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good, and the desperadoes’ dire straits came as a blessing to none other than yours truly. I had become their mascot, and many an evening, as they indulged in a hand of penny-ante poker (one of the few diversions still available to them), I listened to them tell tall tales about the good old days, before the law laid low the frontier. But once you got past the laughter and the good-natured insults, you could see and hear something sorrowful in their eyes and in their voices. They were finished and they knew it. A few were even in the early stages of checking out altogether—and I don’t mean of the Valhalla Hotel.
One night, about three weeks before Christmas, the mood got downright gloomy when they all went to lamenting that despite their notoriety, little love or respect had come their way. Now, I can’t remember which of the five first suggested they do something good for the entire community, something for which they’d be remembered for at least twenty minutes after their bones had been buried. This high-minded idea was, however, short on specifics.
“How about getting up some money for the local boys’ orphanage?” I meekly piped in, remembering how close I’d come to taking up residence in that same establishment. “Be a good time of the year for it, with Christmas coming up.”
The recommendation passed by unspoken acclamation. Now the question was what could five feeble men who could hardly pay their hotel, food, liquor, tobacco, doctor and pharmacy bills do to raise any serious money; enough, anyway, for them to be remembered with the respect and gratitude they so sorely missed?
The man many townsfolk suspected of being the Ringo Kid solved the immediate predicament. He suggested, between quiet fits of coughing, that they put on a wild-west show, a gunfight at El Paso’s own version of the now-infamous OK Corral in Tombstone. To make it look authentic, they could strap little packets of blood-like stuff to their bodies, and over the course of the gunfight, puncture the packets as they bit the dust to give the crowd the feeling it was watching the real thing.
“Yeah, these days I’m real good at falling down, anyway,” muttered the alleged and legendary Grat Dalton, who among the bunch seemed to have the funniest fix on reality.
But who could set up, promote, publicize and sponsor such a monumental undertaking?
Again the alleged Ringo Kid kept the proposal rolling along. Of the five men, he was my favorite, not because he was the most likable but rather the least threatening. He had a big smile, too, mainly because he still had more of his own teeth than half of the rest of his colleagues combined.
“What about that outfit you sell newspapers for, boy?” he asked, squinting at me in a way that must have turned many men’s knees to water. Then he grinned, just to show me that it was not a life-endangering question.
Well, I was not about to pretend I could make a commitment on behalf of the biggest and best newspaper in all of West Texas.
“I could ask the editor, sir,” I muttered, so low I could barely hear myself.
“Then go do it, boy, and be about it . . . ” mumbled the man some suspected of being Cole Younger before his voice disintegrated into something like the grunting usually heard around a pigpen. One of his lungs had partially collapsed, and often it was all he could do to support a full-grown sentence.
“Now?” I asked. The night had turned freezing cold, and the newspaper office was way on the other side of town. Besides, there was no guarantee that the editor would still be there. Mister Montgomery was the only man who could make such a decision, but I dreaded the thought of approaching him. I’d never been able to do much more in his presence than stutter, that is, when I wasn’t stammering.
The matter was settled when Grat Dalton said in a way that seemed both mournful, as well as malevolent, a neat trick, when you think about it, “Yeah, now. How much time you think we got left, boy?”
Looking back on that moment, which happened more years ago than I care to get specific about, I remember a spell of sorts fell over that poker table. The ceiling lamp hung directly over it, but because the five former gunfighters were wearing hats, (here I’ll mention that of the many things I was asked to procure for them, hair restoration tonic was one of the most requested items), their eyes were hooded, yet almost glowed in the shade of their Stetsons.
More surprising, mysterious smiles replaced their usual grim expressions; even more startling (though this might have been a figment of my imagination) they seemed to have grown somewhat younger right in front of my eyes.
I was surprised to find the editor, Mister Montgomery, still at the office, even though it was going on ten o’clock. He listened attentively to my stuttering, and more amazingly, seemed to cotton to the general idea. Then he composed a letter to my five friends, indicating the conditions under which the El Paso Daily Gazette would sponsor the event. He even obligated the newspaper to donate to the orphanage a sum equal to the promotional costs of the event even if the show’s receipts were not enough to repay such costs to the newspaper, saying the contribution would create goodwill and boost circulation. And it certainly did. Old Montgomery was downright smart in a dozen different ways. But I am getting ahead of my story.
It wasn’t such a big gamble on the newspaper’s part. Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show had played not so many years before to large audiences all over the United States, and except for Mr. Cody himself, Miss Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull, few others had the marquee-value of the five once-famous desperadoes petrifying at present up on the second floor of the Valhalla Hotel.
For several days prior to the event, the five participants choreographed their shootout as if it were nothing less than a fancy ballet. All this they did in private with no one other than yours truly allowed entry. I suppose natural-born actors need an audience, even at rehearsals. At no time, however, did they actually fire off their six-shooters, not even expending the blanks they had so carefully made themselves. The blanks were apparently in short supply, so instead they simply shouted in their raspy voices “bang-bang” noises at each other. Some seemed embarrassed but Grat Dalton looked to be having a grand old time, saying it reminded him of playing “Cowboys and Indians” when he was a kid.
Needless to say, the entire roster of under-fed kids from the orphanage was there. The crowd was huge, and even some of the drunk, disreputable reporters from El Paso’s other newspaper had to admit that the event had drawn more people to one place than any since the funeral of our former mayor, who had sneaked out of office under a cloud of corruption. One wag at the cemetery remarked, “Give people what they want, and they’ll turn out every time.”
The gunfight was massively publicized in the Daily Gazette and hundreds of flyers were distributed to every office, bar, casino, church and Temperance Union meeting hall in El Paso. The flyers read “Farewell Appearance,” and indicated that the former bandits would be leaving for Old Mexico immediately after the gunfight, bound for Chihuahua, where they hoped to sell what remained of their services to Pancho Villa, who was amusing himself by using the Mexican federales for target practice.
The imminent departure of the stars of the show lent the event both drama and poignancy and brought out every sensation-seeker and sob-sister for miles around. Almost two thousand folks hunkered around that ravine when the festivities started at four o’clock on that splendid Saturday afternoon in December of ought-six.
The show commenced with the local glee club singing “The Eyes of Texas,” and afterward my personal favorite, “San Antonio Rose” which, though geographically irrelevant, perfectly caught the festive mood of the crowd.
The corral was filled with horse stalls, tack rooms, feed bins, retaining adobe walls, and even a small bunkhouse. There were also a lot of brush and tree stumps around the place, which had a creek running through it. Some two dozen horses were fenced off at the far end of the arroyo.
When the drum-roll stopped, and the actual battle began, I have never seen such a transformation. The gunfighters seemed sky-high on adrenalin. They went loping this way and that, sliding under railings, crawling through open windows, kicking in doors, and firing off near-misses while rolling around in the dirt. They also did a lot of yelling, creating the impression it was a fight to the finish between two men on one side and three on the other, as if inviting the audience to take sides.
The crowd scooped it up with both hands, screaming out warnings and wildly waving to their favorites whenever they lost sight of somebody sneaking up on them; but truth is, forthe first fifteen minutes, it seemed more hazardous to be amongst the crowd than in the corral. For all their theatrics, it appeared the gunfighters could do everything except point a six-shooter with anything resembling professional proficiency, because not one of them went face-first into the dirt.
Then, as their vivacity began to evaporate, their aim got a lot better, and in a matter of minutes, several were suffering from one wound or another. At the sight of blood, the crowd, though it had been told it was of the fake variety, as were the bullets, nevertheless wentto loudly moaning and clapping in perfect unison.
One by one, the wild-west gladiators fell, and though I had seen it all before, I was stunned down to my shins by how realistically they hit the ground. Most, as if by design, fellnear a tree or some brush. After all five, leaking from what seemed several holes, were laid inert and motionless, the glee club struck up a rousing encore of “The Eyes of Texas,” and as in accordance with the preordained plan, the bank-busting bandits were laid out inside a buckboard and hauled away.
The three men who did the laying and the hauling had been hired personally by the stars of the show, and at the time, I had been struck by what disreputable, low-life types they were. It was these three who looked back at the crowd and raised their hats in salute as the wagon rolled away. Later, some people swore that the applause could be heard all the way over on the other side of town.
To simply call the show a “success” would indicate a wretched inability to fully utilize the English language. It was a sensation, raising enough money in that one afternoon to keep many of the town’s orphans clothed and fedfor years or at least until they were old enough to hold up a bank on their own.
Naturally I was anxious to revel in the triumph, and as soon as decorum would allow, I snuck off on foot toward the hotel, hoping to see my five heroes before they left for Old Mexico and employment with Pancho Villa and his revolutionary-minded band of merrymakers.
It took me only half an hour to get to the Valhalla Hotel, but apparently I had not run fast enough. Seeing there was no sign of my friends, I politely asked the desk clerk what he knew about the matter.
“Oh, go outside and blow your nose,” he snarled.
Walking away with as much dignity as I could dredge up, I spotted Ollie, the hotel’s old Negro shoeshine man, motioning to me. Ollie and I were friends, bolted by an unbreakable bond: we both detested the desk clerk.
“Them five bandits never came back from the blowout,” Ollie said quietly.
“But they left the corral in a wagon better than an hour ago.”
“Must be one woeful wagon,” Ollie observed. “Or maybe the horse died on the way.” Ollie had always been something of a fatalist.
Off toward the newspaper office I ran. If anybody knew what had detained my five friends, old Mister Montgomery would, for sure.
“Montgomery never came back from the show,” one of the typesetters told me when I had reached the office, tongue hanging out more than usual. “But somebody saw him walking up toward the morgue.”
“The morgue?”The typesetter turned away, leaving my implied question unanswered. A feeling of dread swept over me that I can recall right up to this day. I walked away with a dry mouth and with what felt like lead in my legs.
The morgue in El Paso was surprisingly large for a city of no more than 25,000 folks, but it was built when the town was second only to Tombstone when it came to sudden deaths due to lead poisoning. Walking in, I asked if Mister Montgomery was anywhere about the premises; a gray mouse of a man, assuming I was there to relay a message from the newspaper, led me deeper into the bowels of the building until we came to a large, windowless room that was awfully cold, with what seemed large filing cabinets embedded in two of its four walls.
Montgomery was with a white-frocked gent at the far end of the room, next to several oblong metal tables. Spotting me, he frowned, sending deep furrows rippling all the way up to his widow’s peak. Then, with the lead in my legs suddenly feeling a hundred pounds heavier, I slowly ambled toward the five sheet-covered bodies on the tables. The room suddenly seemed thirty degrees colder than when I first walked into it.
Hands were dangling off the edge of the tables, and knowing those hands as well as I knew the faces that went with them, I didn’t have to ask any silly questions. Mister Montgomery, who seemed deeply annoyed by my presence, suddenly drew back the sheets, as if to answer my unasked question.
They were cleaned up, but I liked my last view of them much better. Now you could clearly see that whatever game they had indulged in earlier was deadly serious. They were careful, though. Not one was hit above the shoulder, though all five suffered several wounds in the chest and stomach. Staring at them, I felt as if I were severely injured myself.
My five heroes were being prepared for burial, an internment that I was told would be done in secret at a seldom-frequented boot hill cemetery many miles northwest
Then he turned to the sallow-faced coroner. “If any of this ever gets out, you’ll think a building fell on you—”
“But Mister Montgomery, I can’t be held responsible for—”
“You heard me, sir—and you never want to argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
More than a half hour later, Montgomery cautiously came out of the building. I suppose he needed the time to make all the clandestine arrangements. I also figure a fair amount of money must’ve made it from one hand to another. The night had turned even colder, and the frost seemed to freeze both our tongues. We walked in silence for a full minute before a thaw of sorts set in.
“You keep what you saw tonight to yourself. Hear me, boy?”
“But Mister Montgomery, this seems like a heck of a great story.”
Even then, as a 13-year-old pup, I thought I had a knack for journalism.
“It’s not the story our public wants to read. Besides, I see now that the entire thing was sheer fiction from the beginning. Those five old buzzards were looking for a dignified way to die, and the Daily Gazette gave it to them. So now do we dump donkey manure all over the public’s memory of them!?”
“I don’t follow you, sir.”
“You better, if you want to stay employed with the Gazette.”
“But newspapers are supposed to print the truth, aren’t they, sir?”
Montgomery wasn’t so quick to answer that last question. We arrived back at the office before he finally answered it. “When you get older, boy, and assuming you get a little wiser in the meantime, you’ll find that sometimes there is a higher truth behind the cold, hard facts. Those gunslingers wrote the best possible epitaph for themselves, one that would make them respected for once in their lives. They’ve left a legacy that will stand as long as a single one of those orphans is still alive. But more importantly, their story will make our readers believe in the restorative power of good deeds. A newspaper has an imperative to lift up the spirit of its readers—especially at Christmas time.”
I couldn’t rightly disagree with that, but failed to see why the story wouldn’t be even better if the public knew that the gunslingers had actually killed each other off, and I recklessly protested as much.
“Don’t go deaf and dumb on me, boy. That story would be too depressing. And people tend to forget what depresses them. Besides, if the truth came out, it’d look like those five men were just looking for an excuse to commit suicide, and helping the orphanage was nothing but a more memorable way to do it. And who’ll want to remember all the carnage at the corral? No, glory beats gory every day of the week. Those men knew what they were doing and so do I. Tomorrow morning, the Daily Gazette hits the street with the headline, ‘Our Heroes Ride off to The Mexican Dawn of a New Day.’”
Though still dubious, my course was set a moment later when Montgomery opened the door to the office, and quietly said, “We’ll be up for half the night preparing the early morning edition. Kid, how would you like to help us as an assistant to one of the apprentice typesetters?”
Like I said, that old man was smart, and for a change, so was I. From that evening on, I never again had to sell newspapers out on the street—and some twenty-five years later, when cataracts in both eyes forced Montgomery to finally resign at age 81, he appointed me the new editor.
Yet I suspect that my good turn of luck was due not to any professional ability on my part but rather to the accommodation he and I made on that night of so many winters ago.
I also occasionally ponder on whether he did right in deliberately misleading our readers though I have to admit that for years afterward, folks continued to talk about the famous gunfight at the El Paso Corral, and the five former desperadoes who in the twilight of their lives had done so much for the local orphanage.
It was a matter of immense pride to the community that more than a few of the orphanage’s former residents had gone on to lead highly productive lives. One alumnus of the institution was even elected to the State Legislature. The day he was sworn into office on the steps of the capitol in Austin, he made fond mention of those five old gunslingers who had given him and his fellow orphans the best Christmas they ever had.
So in defense of Mister Montgomery’s decision to hoodwink the public, I’ll close with this: One thing I learned in forty years as editor of the El Paso Daily Gazette is that a bald-faced fact usually leads a brief, colorless existence, then often dies a sudden and unlamented death. But a legend can last forever.
—T h e E n d—
(Ed. Note: The author has written seven novels, the latest of which, The Dark Side of the Dream, is on amazon.com Over a 27-year stint in Hollywood, he wrote and directed five feature films, the last of which, Only Once in a Lifetime, premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For the past 20 years, he has been the Editor in Chief of El Ojo del Lago, the largest English-language monthly magazine in Mexico.)