Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Fall 2000, Volume 18.1



John HendricksonPhoto of John Hendrickson.

The Man Behind Wyatt Earp


John Hendrickson received his Ph.D. from Florida State University. His work has appeared in
Weber Studies, Re Arts & Letters, Improving College and University Teaching, Hellas, Automobile, and Amerikan Uutiset, a Finnish language publication. His collection of poems and prose pieces entitled A Fool Walks was published by Snow College. John enjoys writing whenever weather permits and farm work doesn't interfere.


My paternal grandfather was born in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1843, the same year as Frank James, a man he definitely did not like. When Grandpa died in 1937, he was ninety-four years old, possessed of all his faculties, and still talking. I was a month shy of my twenty second birthday then and had grown up listening to his tales of the Civil War and especially of the old West. They were, you might say, my bedtime stories, because I was raised by Grandpa after my parents died in the influenza epidemic in 1918.

Grandpa had been everywhere from Gettysburg to the Klondike in one capacity or another as a soldier, cowboy, deputy sheriff, hider, mule skinner, prison guard, and finally as a rancher. And it seemed to me he knew or had talked to all the old-time lawmen and outlaws including the Earps, Charley Siringo, Doc Holliday, the Youngers, the James boys, and the Daltons.

If you're a Western buff, you've probably seen his picture. He's one of the anonymous men in the background of those old photos of the famous and the infamous you see in places like Tombstone and Dodge City and in books about the old West. If named at all, he's almost always a "thought-to-be," as in the caption of a well-known photo taken in Tombstone that reads, "The man behind Wyatt Earp is thought-to-be Jack Stemple." And there are several other names in other photos but never his own, which was Henry Bonham.

When I asked him why he was never correctly identified, he laughed and said, "What they don't know can't hurt you. You keep that in mind, Zack."

At the time I thought he'd somehow gotten the old saying mixed up. It wasn't until after his death that I understood what he meant or why his oft-repeated warning when telling me stories was, "You keep that under your Stetson, you hear?" And I did, but there were times at school when it was all I could do to stop from blurting out that he'd known Jesse James or Luke Short, or Wes Hardin.

But it never bothered Grandpa that no one knew who he was. Well, hardly anyone. There were at least two people who knew. Three counting me. One of them was an old stage driver named Malachi Fox, who showed up at the ranch one day in the summer of 1923. I remember because that was the year that Pancho Villa was assassinated and Grandpa told me about the raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Grandpa happened to be in Deming at the time and went down the next day to inquire about a lady friend of his, who, as it turned out had been wounded by a ricochet.

Old Malachi, like Grandpa had been about anywhere west of the Mississippi you'd care to name: Deadwood, Ft. Smith, Leadville, Virginia City, Angels Camp. He claimed that while driving stage in California he'd been held up by Black Bart.

Grandpa chuckled and said, "Hell, who wasn't?"

"True enough," Malachi agreed. "But damn it, Henry, he throwed down on me twice and on the exact same grade outside of Placerville."

"Well, ain't no shame in that," Grandpa said. "He had all the advantages. A road agent always did. Funny thing is he said his shotgun was never loaded. And he never fired a shot in all them holdups."

"He tell you that?"

"Yep, he did. At San Quentin when I was a guard there in `84."

"I heard that too. But there was no way you could tell his gun was unloaded looking down them ten gauge barrels."

"But what stumps me, Henry, is how he always got away on foot. I thought sure he had a horse hid somewheres nearby out of sight. But it come out he didn't."

"Shows how smart he was," Grandpa said. "While the posse was tearing up the roads, Bart was laying up in the brush. Sometimes he'd go right back the next day to the very spot he pulled the job and flag down a stage and claim he was a poor pilgrim who got his horse stole by outlaws."

"If that don't beat all," Malachi exclaimed. "He done that very thing to me."

With that kind of evidence of course I believed every word Grandpa uttered. If he said he knew Billy the Kid or Butch Cassidy, or just anyone, it was true. It had to be. He could tell you everything about them right down to what kinds of guns they wore, what they looked like, and even the kind of clothes they favored.

"Now Billy the Kid," he said, "was an ugly little son of bitch, so bucktoothed he could bite a punkin through a knot hole. I guess that's what made him so mean. But he loved music. His favorite tune was `Silver Threads Among the Gold.' Used to whistle it all the time. He wasn't no pistolero, not fast like Wes Hardin and Sundance the way it's been told. Fact is, I was faster and a better shot too. But the thing about Billy, he was sneaky mean and had more determination than anyone I ever seen. If he made up his mind to kill someone, why he'd do it if he had to wait behind a rock for a week to get the drop on whoever he was after."

"How come he got killed then?"

"I asked Pat that very thing."

"Who's that?"

"Pat Garrett, the man who killed Billy. The reason I asked was I knew he couldn't of took Billy without the Kid was set up some way. Pat just grinned and said he wouldn't admit it to no one else and would call me a liar if I let it out. He knew Billy wasn't heeled the night he shot him at Ft. Sumner.

"How could he tell he didn't have a gun if it was night?"

"He didn't say, but I'm satisfied it had something to do with that Martinez girl who was after the Kid's hide. He throwed her over, you see, for Lupe something-or-other. I disremember her last name. A kind of plump girl but pretty for a puta."

"What's a puta?"

Grandpa gave me a curious, searching look. "Damn it, Zack, I keep forgetting. How old are you?"

"Ten, but I'll be eleven in eight months."

"Is that a fact? Well, You ask me about them putas again when you're twelve. Anyway, as I was saying, all Pat said was did I think he was dumb enough to brace Billy in the dark and him armed?"

I was indignant. "I guess Pat Garrett was a coward."

"No. Pat was no coward. Billy had it coming."

"But he never gave Billy a chance."

Grandpa snorted disdainfully. "Boy, you got a lot to learn. It's what Billy would of done. You don't win by giving the other feller an edge. A shoot-out ain't target practice. What you want is an advantage. When you got the bulge on killer, you use it. And it don't matter how you get it. Do you think Wild Bill or any of them depended on luck? No sir, they tried their level best to stack the deck. They weren't shooting choir boys."

"What about shooting someone in the back?"

"Fair enough if someone deserves killing. You think Jesse James wouldn't of? Yeah, when bulls grow tits. I heard him say himself life would of been a hell of a lot easier if banks and express cars and such were run by unarmed old women. Hell, no one wants to get shot. John Slaughter told me right there in a saloon in Tucson that he shot more than one outlaw while he was sleeping, and with a shotgun, too. And no one ever called him a coward. Nor Doc Holliday, neither, nor Wes Hardin nor Tom Horn as far as that goes. They all much preferred taking a someone by surprise, especially if it was a bad customer who needed killing. It was much safer, don't you see?"

I said there were two people beside me who knew who Grandpa was. You already know about Malachi. The other one was Wyatt Earp. Yes, I know what you're thinking. I've heard those tales too about this person or that who claimed to know the Earps, or Bat Masterson or Butch Cassidy, especially when someone put it out that he hadn't been killed in South America. There was more than one four-flusher who even claimed to be Butch and a few others who said they were Jesse James. All liars of course. And I have to admit I sometimes had to wonder about the difference between Grandpa's versions and the popular notions about one or another lawman or outlaw.

Well, take the romantic notion that Jesse and Frank James were forced into a life of crime by the railroads and banks.

"Like hell," Grandpa said. "They were out-and-out killers and scallywags. Holding up trains and banks was a lot easier than working and paid a heap more."

And as for the Robin Hood myth, according to Grandpa, Jesse thought it was a first-rate joke. Grandpa swore he heard Jesse josh about that on more than one occasion.

"Yes," Jesse would say, "folks tell it about that I rob from the rich and give to the poor. And it's true. Once I've got the money, I spend a good deal of time thinking about who deserves it most. Turns out every time I'm the poorest man I know. And so as they say, I give to the poor."

The more I thought about it, the idea of Jesse's being a Robin Hood did seem pretty lame. And as Grandpa said, "When him and Frank and their gang robbed a train or a coach, they took everyone's money and valuables, rich and poor. And Jesse never showed no signs of repenting. Why, he was planning another job when Bob Ford killed him. Anyway, that's what Bob said."

"Did you know him too?"

"Not hardly. I only talked to him that one time in his saloon in Crede not long before Ed Kelly blew him to kingdom come. That was the summer of `92."

But about Wyatt Earp. Grandpa said his Colt .45 was a present from Wyatt for a favor he'd done him. He always had it on the seat beside him in the Model T when we went into Valverde. Except for that, it hung in a holster from the head of Grandpa's bed. I saw him shoot it only one time.

I never got to see Wyatt Earp. I wish I had. I've always regretted that I never got to talk to him about Grandpa. But I do have a letter he wrote to Grandpa, which, I guess is the next best thing.

What happened was Grandpa and I had gone into Valverde as we did about once a month for supplies. I'll never forget that day. It was August 8, 1927, a Tuesday, and a real scorcher by ten o'clock when we pulled up in front of Brenner's Mercantile.

It was just an ordinary kind of day, not many people around, and only a couple of teams and a few cars parked along the dusty main street. Older touring cars, mostly Fords and Chevrolets. What caught my eye was the blue Reo sedan parked in front of Reed's Pharmacy next to the bank. Cars like that were as rare as tuxedos in Valverde. Actually, it was the first one I ever saw, but I knew what it was from seeing ads in The Saturday Evening Post.

Even Grandpa commented on it. "No one from around here," he said. "One of them tourists we been hearing about, I expect."

Not a second later two men burst out of the bank and ran toward the Reo. As they reached the car, Mr. Rasmusen, the bank president, stepped out of the bank with a revolver in his hand. He fired one shot that hit the car. And one of the robbers turned and fired twice. Mr. Rasmusen staggered and fell forward on his face, mortally wounded.

Grandpa grabbed his Colt, yelling at me to get into the nearest doorway, and stepped out of the car. By now both robbers were in the Reo, which was about fifty yards down the street from us. Grandpa's first shot went through the rear window but didn't hit either of the robbers. As the Reo spun away from the curb, Grandpa emptied his gun at the rear of the car and punctured the gas tank and blew out a tire.

The Reo clumped along on the flat for a few feet and then came to a stop. Grandpa ducked around behind the Model T, reloading as he went. By then people were popping out of buildings all up and down the street but disappeared as quickly as they had appeared when the robbers jumped out of the Reo and began shooting indiscriminately right and left as they made for Mrs. Jessup, who was sitting petrified in her Franklin in front of Woolworth's across the street.

Taking careful aim, Grandpa fired at the lead robber, knocking him to the ground. The other robber, his gun now empty, pulled a second .45 automatic from his waistband and fired in Grandpa's direction. All three shots hit the Model T, one breaking the windshield. As the robber turned to Mrs. Jessup, shouting at her to get out of the car, Grandpa stepped clear of the Model T, and taking deliberate aim fired twice, killing the robber instantly.

For a second or two it seemed as though time had just stopped and all sound had vanished from the face of the earth, as though we were in a frozen pantomime—Grandpa, Mrs. Jessup, the two robbers, and me. But only for a second or so. Then pure chaos. People came running from everywhere, stores, houses, saloons, some surrounding Grandpa and congratulating him; others gawking at the dead robber, and still others gathered around Marshal Quick as he bent down to examine the badly wounded first robber.

Much of what happened is still vague and shadowy in my mind. The one thing I do remember very clearly is Grandpa getting angrier and angrier at the mob surrounding him as though he were a "Red" Grange or some other sports hero, not someone who had just killed one man and wounded another. But he didn't say anything until Mr. McKay, the editor-reporter of the Valverde Weekly Exponent tried to interview him.

All self-importance, he pushed his way through the crowd, repeating, "Let me through. Let me through."

Then coming face to face with Grandpa, he said. "Now, Mr. Bonham, can you please tell me what happened step by step?"

I thought Grandpa might hit him he was so angry. But he just stared him down and said in a choked voice, "You go to hell." And then to me, "Come on, Zack, we're going home."

I got into the Model T and Grandpa went around to the front and spun the crank. As he sat down behind the steering wheel, he put the Colt on the seat beside him and we started off. When we came opposite of the bank, Marshal Quick, an old friend of Grandpa's waived us to a stop.

"Good piece of work, Henry," he said.

Grandpa nodded. "Damn it, Steve. I thought all that was behind us."

"Me too. But I guess meanness never ends."

"I guess not."

"You know I'll have to report this. So I'll need the facts."

"Yeah, I know. It's not like the old days. You come on out to the ranch and I'll tell you everything. But I want you to do me a favor. I'm dead certain that son of a bitch McKay is on the telegraph right now wiring all over the country. So I'd be obliged if you'd tell the damned reporters who're bound to show up to stay the hell away from the ranch. Tell them I shoot trespassers."

"I'll tell them, Henry. But you know them sons of bitches. Hell, it ain't every day a man of your age shoots it out with a pair of hold-up men."

Of course the marshal was right. An eighty-four-year-old in a shoot-out was big news. Just as Grandpa suspected, reporters swarmed into Valverde. And one young fool was even stupid enough to ignore Marshal Quick's warning about trespassing. As he got out of his car and started toward the house, Grandpa stepped out on the verandah and fired a few shots over his head. He left in a cloud of dust and that was the last we saw of reporters. That incident as well as the earlier events in Valverde appeared in newspapers from New York to Los Angeles, which is how Wyatt Earp found out and wrote the letter to Grandpa.

It came some weeks after everything had settled down and we could go into Valverde to pick up supplies and mail pretty much as we always had. The reporters were long gone and no one had the temerity to approach Grandpa let alone question him.

Grandpa was really pleased about the letter. I don't know how many times he read it but enough to memorize it seemed to me. He took great pains answering it, and I remember his saying more than once, "By golly, Zack, I believe we ought to go out to California and visit old Wyatt."

I don't know whether Grandpa ever really intended to make the trip. I do know that I wanted to go in the worst way. But the intentions and wishes all came to an end in 1929 when Wyatt died.

It was only after Grandpa's death in 1937 that I got to read Wyatt's letter. Although it was meant for Grandpa alone, I believe I do no disrespect to either of their memories by revealing parts of the letter that clear up several things I said earlier and , more importantly, that gave me a new perspective on life.

Grandpa never did explain the favor for which Wyatt gave him the .45 Colt. When I used to ask him, all he would say was, "just a favor." Turns out he had saved Wyatt's life in Dodge City at the risk of his own. He was rather badly wounded disarming a disgruntled cowboy who was about to shoot Wyatt in the back. Wyatt thanked him again for that.

But the real shocker was Wyatt's saying how sorry he was for having to arrest Grandpa and sending him to prison for his part in the robbery of a cattle buyer Grandpa's boss thought had cheated him. Going through Grandpa's papers I found the release form from the Kansas penitentiary, and I suddenly realized what Grandpa meant when he used to say, "What they don't know can't hurt you." As far as anyone around Valverde knew, Grandpa's had been an exemplary life. And except for that one long-ago misdeed, which I'm sure he always regretted, it had been.

Most important to me, however, were Wyatt's comments on the shooting in Valverde. He said he knew how Grandpa felt because it was a terrible thing to have to kill someone. But at the same time he was grateful that there were still men around who knew what had to be done and did it, no matter the consequences.

To which I say a fervent "Amen."



Fish Survival

At a hearing on the topic [of breaching four Snake River dams] in April at the town of Cascade Lockes, [Senator Slade] Gorton renewed his vow that the dams would never tumble. "Removing dams simply in the belief that salmon might survive better lacks common sense and tangible science," he said. "As long as I'm a U.S. senator, no proposal to breach Snake River dams will pass in Congress."

I respect the opinion of many people—probably most people—who question the wisdom of tearing down sturdy dams that produce electricity in an age when demand for power is only going to go up.

But to say science does not indicate salmon survival would improve by breaching the dams is utterly ridiculous. Overwhelming scientific evidence supports the notion that the dams must go if there's any real hope of saving wild Snake River chinook, and probably sockeye and steelhead as well. There are no guarantees; there never is when you're dealing with a dynamic living resource, especially one that is affected by so many other things at virtually every phase of its life cycle.

Common sense, Gorton says? Does it take a software genius to figure out that four massive concrete walls across a river are going to present a huge barrier to fish? The regional administrator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called breaching "a no-brainer" where fish survival is concerned. — Greg Johnston, "Northwest Legacy, The Politics of Ignorance," Western Outdoors, August 2000, p. 9


Back to Top