— THE SWEETWATER SHOOTOUT —
The soldier playing poker at the Lady Gay Saloon in Sweetwater, Texas, rose from his chair in disgust, threw his cards hand down, and stormed out the door. Another player, Bat Masterson, watched him leave, not knowing the two would meet again before the night ended.
Corporal Melvin A. King of the 4th Cavalry at a nearby Army post struggled with the cards before leaving the game.
He was not having a good night. The more he lost, the more he drank.
During his military career, King developed a serious drinking problem that led to a history of bad behavior.
When sober, he often won praises as a solid performing soldier and an accomplished wrangler.
But demon rum proved his enemy.
Once the game ended on a late January night in 1876, Bat Masterson left the table and joined in conversation with black-haired and blue-eyed Mollie Brennan, a well-known soiled dove.
At this point, the specifics of what happened vary from storyteller-to-storyteller.
Sweetwater didn’t have a newspaper, so no official accounts of the tragic incident existed.
One version suggests King seethed with anger over the cards Masterson dealt him.
Another account tells about Corporal King being sweet on Mollie. But, whether she knew how he felt isn’t clear.
At the same time, the 23-year old Masterson became friendly with Brennan and got permission from the owner of the Lady Gay to entertain her after the place closed.
Just after midnight, someone pounded on the locked door of the Lady Gay. Masterson, perhaps thinking it was friend looking for an after-hours drink, opened the door only to be confronted with an armed and raging Melvin King.
King barged through the door. The woman screamed at him and stepped in front of Bat. King fired, and the bullet tore into Mollie Brennan’s stomach, who died minutes later.
Either the same slug or a different one drilled into Bat’s pelvis. Somehow, he managed to draw his gun before collapsing and returned fire, and the bullet struck King in the heart.
A local doctor examined Bat and gave him little chance of surviving.
Bat’s friends, however, sent to the army post for a physician. When he arrived, the Army doctor removed the slug and nursed Masterson back to health.
Eight weeks later, he climbed back in the saddle.
Masterson, a frequent visitor to Sweetwater, was known around town as an excellent marksman but only for his buffalo hunting accomplishments.
After the Sweetwater Shootout with King, however, he emerged with the unenviable reputation of a gunman—a reputation spent the rest of his life trying to downplay.
Masterson left Texas for Dodge City, Kansas, where he served as a deputy marshal with Wyatt Earp.
After a colorful career on the frontier, he eventually found his way to New York City in the early 1900s where he worked as U.S. Deputy Marshal, but then hung up his badge to pursue a more peaceful profession.
Masterson served as sports editor of The Morning Telegraph.