The soldier playing poker at the Lady Gay Saloon in Sweetwater, Texas, pushed back his chair, stood up, and threw his cards down, scattering them across the table. He leered at one of the players for a few seconds and then stormed out. 


The player on the receiving end of the contemptuous stare was Bat Masterson. The buffalo hunter had no idea he and the soldier would meet again before the night ended—but not to play cards. 

Melvin A. King of the 4th Cavalry at a nearby Army post had struggled with the cards before he decided to leave the game.

He was not having a good night. The more he lost, the more he drank.

During his military career, King—born Anthony Cook in Quebec, Canada—developed a severe drinking problem accompanied by a history of bad behavior.

When sober, he often won praises as a reliable 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 Mollie Brennan, a popular black-haired and blue-eyed soiled dove.

At this point, the specifics of the shooting vary from storyteller-to-storyteller. Sweetwater did not have a newspaper, so no official accounts of the tragic incident existed.

One version suggests King seethed with anger over the cards Masterson had dealt him. Another account tells about Corporal King being sweet on Mollie.

Whether she knew how he felt isn’t clear.

In the meantime, the 23-year old Masterson became friendly with Brennan.

Around midnight, Masterson left the Lady Gay with Mollie Brennan and Col. Charlie Norton. The three of them walked to a dance hall owned by Norton. 

Not long after their arrival, someone pounded on the locked door of the dance hall. Perhaps thinking it was a friend looking for an after-hours drink, Masterson opened the door to confront a raging Melvin King.

The soldier bulled his way through the door, gun in-hand. The woman screamed and stepped in front of Masterson.

King fired. A bullet tore into Mollie Brennan’s stomach. Minutes later, she died.

Another bullet, or perhaps the same one, drilled into Bat’s pelvis. Somehow, he managed to draw his gun before collapsing and returned fire, striking King in the heart.

A local doctor examined Bat and gave him little chance of surviving. 

Masterson’s friends, however, sent for a physician from the army post. After examining the wound, the army doctor removed the slug and nursed Masterson back to health.

Eight weeks later, Masterson climbed back in the saddle. 

Masterson, a frequent visitor to Sweetwater, was known around town as an excellent marksman—but only because of his buffalo hunting accomplishments.

After the Sweetwater Shootout with King, he emerged with the unenviable reputation of a gunman—a reputation he 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, he hung up his badge to pursue a more peaceful profession—sports editor of the New York Morning Telegraph.


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  • I believe I read somewhere that Bat’s colleagues on the Telegraph had no idea who he was until after he died. Managing to keep quiet regarding his past.

  • There are more versions of how “Bat” got his reputation than there are seed heads in a dandelion. Your short version is as good as any. Thanks, Tom.

  • Yes, there are, Frank. I just heard from a reader who said he used to show off his marksmanship while in Trinidad in an effort to scare off outlaws and other unwanted visitors to the town.

  • I understand he did try to keep a low profile, Bob, to put his past where it belonged. Despite attempts to deny his colorful past, he admitted later in life and under cross-examination in a lawsuit, that he had indeed killed. Future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Cardozo succeeded in getting the truth out of Masterson–but perhaps not all of it.

  • Gordon Beck

    Another great story, Tom! I really enjoy reading them and learning about days gone by and the people who shaped our colorful western history.

  • Thanks, Gordon— The Old West featured such a colorful cast of characters and events to write about.

  • Dave Tate

    Truly great story thank you for such wonderful stories of our old west

  • Dave, good to hear you enjoyed the adventures of Bat Masterson. Thanks for visiting. Hope to see you back.

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