AT IRON SPRINGS 24 MARCH 1882
By Catherine Holder Spude
As an archaeologist, I was once asked what one would find at the original Iron Springs, where Wyatt Earp shot and killed Curly Bill Brocius. There's argument about what size shotgun Earp used, what sorts of guns the Cowboys had, and, other than bullets, we don't have much more to go on. I liked the idea of Wyatt losing his boot heel. Find Earp's boot heel. That might work. I also got to thinking about that saddle horn that many writers said was shot off Earp's saddle. Could that still be sitting around either Iron Springs or Cottonwood Springs? Would that be our "smoking gun?"
The earliest mention of the saddle horn is in the San Francisco Examiner account credited to Wyatt Earp. After killing Brocius, Earp struggles with his horse and his cartridge belt. He steps into the stirrup. “When I tried to get astride I found that it [the cartridge belt] had fallen down over my thighs, keeping my legs together. While I was perched up thus, trying to pull my belt higher with one hand, the horn of the saddle was shot off” (The San Francisco Examiner, August 2, 1896).
The saddle horn next appears in the Hooker (1918) manuscript. Earp had killed Brocius, is under fire from the other cowboys, and is trying to get his horse under control. He has backed off to where Jack Vermillion was trapped under his horse. He urges Vermillion to flee while struggling with his horse and his cartridge belt, which has slipped down around his thighs. Quoting Hooker:
Earp, unable to mount, clung to the horn of the saddle, his face lying close above it and his left foot in the stirrup. A bullet clipped the horn between his hand and face, cutting the horn from the saddle, yet doing no injury to the man. The shock almost threw him to the ground, but he saved himself and at the same time gave a jerk at the cartridge-belt. Then he leapt into the saddle and got away…[When he rejoined his friends, he found his only hurt was that] his hand was numb from the shock when the horn had been shot from his saddle…he believed that no bullet could harm him until after he had kept his oath to his dead brother” (Hooker 1918:69).
Perhaps significantly, Hooker does not mention a numb leg or foot.
John Henry Flood (1926:224) also detailed the shooting of the saddle horn in his description of the gunfight at Iron Springs. As in the Hooker account, Earp had killed Brocius, was under fire, and had walked his horse back to where Jack Vermillion was trapped under his horse. He urges Vermillion to rejoin the others, and the latter does so. Earps frightened horse starts to calm, so, gathering up his loose cartridge belt, he tries for a third time to mount.
With his head far forward and his belt gathered well about his waist, he rose in the stirrup for the third time.
Ing! The sickening smell of burnt leather filled his nostrils as the slug struck the horn of his saddle less than an inch from the tip of his nose, then out through the cuff of his sleeve. And he fell back to the ground with the severed horn in his left hand (Flood 1926:224).
When Earp rejoins his friends, it is his foot that feels numb, not his hand, as in the Hooker account (Flood 1926:225).
This takes us to Burns, who, by now has picked up on the fact that the saddle horn got shot. After killing Brocius, Earp confronts the rest of the cowboys, who continue to shoot at him:
Keeping my horse between me and the enemy, I began to back away. It was slow, dangerous work; my maddened horse was almost unmanageable, and the outlaws kept popping away at me. When I had retreated a hundred yards or so, I attempted to mount. But my cartridge belt, which I had loosened two or three holes earlier in the day because of the heat, had slipped down below my hips, and I couldn’t swing my right leg across my saddle. It cost time to remedy this. As I settled myself at last in the saddle, my pommel was shot away (Burns 1927:249-250).
Only then does Earp approach Vermillion and urge him on to safety. Apparently Burns was unaware that either of Earp’s hand or foot became numb during the action. As discussed earlier, Burns was aware of the equation of a saddle horn and a pommel at the time.
By the time that Stuart Lake (1931:342) tells the story, the shooting of the saddle horn is a well-established part of the story. Lake embellished its telling as he did most of the account, adding detail not given by Hooker or Flood, and, like Burns, reversing the order with which the urging of Vermillion to leave and the shooting off of the horn occurred:
“If you get my position,” Wyatt explained, “you’ll understand that my nose was almost touching the tip of the saddle horn. I thought someone had struck a match on the end of it – my nose, I mean – and I smelled a very rotten egg.” A forty-five slug from an outlaw’s gun had creased the leather point of the pommel” (Lake 1931:342).
After this point, he urges Texas Jack to skedattle, which the latter does, but only after freeing his saddle. Earp rejoins his posse. At Holliday’s query, he admits only his leg is hurt.
Wyatt swung off to inspect damages. The saddle-horn had been splintered, his coat hung in shreds, there were three holes through the legs of his trousers, five holes through the crown of his sombrero, and three through the brim. Despite the numbness in his left leg, he could find no wound. He lifted his boot for closer inspection and found a bullet embedded in the high heel. As far as his body was concerned, he had come out of the hail of lead unscratched. His horse had been nicked in three spots by slugs which barely gouged out the hair” (Lake 1931: 342).
I quote this entire paragraph only because so much of it has been borrowed from Burns (1927), who admits to not interviewing Earp. The numbness in the left leg and bullet imbedded in left boot heel appear to come from Flood manuscript. Lifting the boot comes from the Hooker manuscript. This is the first time we see mention of the gouging of the horse. Can we surmise that Lake invented the “splintering” of the saddle horn?
This takes us to Tefertiller’s interpretation, which I had originally taken to be a pretty good one, until it was pointed out to me that most saddle horns were made of metal by that time:
It became a strange, almost comical, sight as Wyatt tried to balance in one stirrup as the horse twisted. He grasped the saddle with one hand and tugged his cartridge belt with the other, his nose almost against the horn. His peculiar gyrations would have made Earp a most difficult target to hit. One of the rustlers’ bullets knocked the saddle horn loose, striking between Earp’s hand and nose, and he nearly fell off the horse. Another bullet hit the heel of his boot with such force he believed he had been shot. Finally, he pulled up the cartridge belt and mounted the horse. With bullets flying around him, he stopped long enough to pick up Vermillion, then galloped back to join his party…Earp said his left foot and leg went numb, and he rode back believing he had been shot in his heel. It was not until he pulled off his boot that he realized he had not been touched by a bullet (Tefertiller 1997:239).
Now, according to a website entitled, "The History of Western Leather: Spurs and Spur Straps, Cuffs, Chaps, Chinks and Saddles" (http://www.cochiseleather.com/leather- history.html ) the narrow, metal saddle horn began to replace the larger, all wooden one favored by Mexican vaqueros by the 1870’s. Although there is some evidence that a few more traditional cowboys in the Southwest may have favored the broader type of Mexican saddle as late as the early 20th century, it seems unlikely that the more urban lawmen like the Earps would have been using this type of saddle. Considering their needs (securing confiscated weapons, securing prisoners, roping wrestled livestock), the sturdy metal saddle horn would have been more serviceable than the cheaper, and softer one preferred by the vaqueros.
THE USE OF WYATT’S SADDLE HORN
The horn was first put on a saddle as a place to secure livestock while roping. What use Earp made of it may indicate what type of saddle he preferred, and therefore what material his saddle horn was made of. The two most common uses of the saddle horn at that time were for securing objects (usually rope, but in the case of lawmen, who traveled widely in the desert, canteens and extra weapons). In the Earp accounts, it is suggested that Earp used his saddle horn to assist him in mounting his horse.
In the accounts of the fight at Iron Springs, no mention is made of any canteens or other items being secured to saddles, although that certainly could have been the use of saddle horns. However, some speculation has arisen that Earp used his saddle horn to carry his shotgun. Burns (1927: 246) wrote as if Earp said, “I had two six-shooters at my belt, a double-barreled shotgun looped to my pommel, hung under my left leg, and a Winchester was hanging in a scabbard on the right side of my horse.” Four years later, Stuart Lake (1931: 341) wrote that “Wyatt rode, coat unbuttoned, six-guns sagging low, Winchester in the saddle-boot, Wells-Fargo shotgun and ammunition-belt looped to the saddle-horn.” And then, after shooting Brocius, Lake imagined Earp thinking, “I knew Curly Bill was cut in two and I threw the loop of my shotgun over my saddle horn and grabbed for my rifle” (Lake 1931: 341).
These accounts might be interesting if they hadn’t been written by men who were such inventive writers.
Looking at the earlier accounts, written by people who interviewed Earp much more extensively, we get very little information about how Earp carried his shotgun when riding a horse. In The San Francisco Examiner of August 2, 1896, Earp told his readership that “As we got near the place [on March 24] I had a presentiment that something was wrong, and unlimbered my shotgun.” Hooker merely states: “A Winchester hung one side of his saddle and a shotgun swung on the opposite side” (Hooker 1918:67). She doesn’t tell us what it was attached to, but she does state that he has the shotgun in hand when he dismounts after sighting Curly Bill (Hooker 1918:68). This ease of retrieving the shotgun implies that it is looped over something, (possibly the saddle horn) rather than hung under his left leg as Lake indicated in 1931. He has a great deal more difficulty obtaining the Winchester, which is in a boot on the rearing horse.
Curiously, Hooker suggests another use that Earp found for the saddle horn, one which I thought only my poor horsemanship had forced me into using. After urging Vermillion to get away, Earp “thrust his left foot into the stirrup, grasping the high horn of his saddle. Then he attempted to swing his right leg across the saddle and found that the sagging cartridge-belt gripped and made it impossible for him to mount” (Hooker 1918:69). Here it is obvious that Earp is using the saddle horn as an aide in mounting the horse, something every cowboy around me usually snickers at when I do it. Perhaps the plunging animal made it necessary? Does this use betray the situation, the imagination of the writer, or Earp’s own words?
At any rate, ignoring the fact that he had to use the horn to mount his rearing horse, Hooker says it was a “high horn,” which means it was a metal horn, not the low, wooden horn used by the Mexican vacqueros.
So the question is, where does a metal horn connect to the wooden saddle tree? And how is that connection made? And could that connection be broken with a single bullet?
According to “The Western Saddle Guide” at http://www.western-saddle-guide.com/saddle-horn.html, the saddle horn “is mounted on the saddle tree on the top of the fork and attached with screws and bolts” (see figure below). I promptly dashed off to my local saddle shop on June 27, 2008, found the saddle maker, Clint Mortenson, and showed him this diagram. He said, “Yup, that’s how they’re all made,” and he showed me one. Of course, you don’t see the fourth tang in this drawing. It’s not three, but four points of contact. I ran Wyatt Earp’s saddle horn story passed Mr. Mortenson and the old cowboy jawin’ with him and they both agreed; that saddle that Earp was riding had to have been damaged before being shot in order for it to have come off in Our Hero’s hand with one bullet striking the pommel below the horn and smashing the wood. The likelihood is that the wood UNDER the horn got smashed up, but that the horn was still held in by the rawhide covering the tree and horn, as well as the leather covering the saddle.
That would also account for Lake’s reluctance to believe the Hooker and Flood manuscripts, and therefore take a more moderate stance, saying merely that the pommel was creased. It also explains Tefertiller’s use of the word “loose” when describing the shot horn.
I concur with my saddle maker, Clint Mortenson, and his cowboy buddy: the saddle tree had probably received a crack at an earlier time. Earp, being an expert horseman, had not had much occasion to use the saddle horn in the recent past, so had not discovered that it wasn’t stationary. Not being a cattle man, he didn’t do much roping, and, being an expert rider, he didn’t use it to mount his horse the way we amateurs ordinarily do. Only when his agitated horse wouldn’t settle down, did he grab it to steady the animal. The combination of his weight on the horn, and the errant bullet hitting the pommel below the metal horn loosened the horn and made it feel as if it came away in his hand, unbalancing him and forcing him to try remounting. He succeeded on the fourth try.
(Don’t ask me how I’d mount a bucking horse without a saddle horn. See why Wyatt Earp is one of my heroes?)
Next time you’re bored in the evening, watch the sequence in Kevin Costner’s “Wyatt Earp” that shows Earp killing Brocius. He’s got the timing down wrong, but Costner remembers to shoot the horn off the saddle. It’s AFTER Wyatt dismounts and Doc yells “Ringo!” instead of “Curly Bill!” but before Wyatt fires his one (count it, one!) blast with the shotgun. You have to be quick to see it go. Anyway, you can tell the Hollywood model is balsa wood, by the way it goes flying off into the yonder, never to be seen again. No time for loose gun belts or clipped heels, though.
BURNS, WALTER NOBLE
1927 Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest. Grosset and Dunlap, New York.
FLOOD, JOHN HENRY
1926 Wyatt Earp. Unpublished manuscript. Copyrighted by Earl Chafin, Riverside, California in 1988.
1896a “How Wyatt Earp Routed a Gang of Arizona Outlaws,” August 2, 1896, The San Francisco Examiner, (Reprinted in Neil B. Carmony (editor), How I Routed a Gang of Arizona Outlaws and Other Stories by Wyatt Earp, Trail to Yesterday Books, Tucson, AZ, 1995), p. 14.
1896b “Wyatt Earp Tells Tales of the Shotgun Messenger Service,” August 9,
1896, The San Francisco Examiner, (Reprinted in Neil B. Carmony (editor), How I Routed a Gang of Arizona Outlaws and Other Stories by Wyatt Earp, Trail to Yesterday Books, Tucson, AZ, 1995), pp. 18-19.
HOOKER, FORRESTINE C.
1918 “An Arizona Vendetta (The Truth about Wyatt Earp and Some Others): Facts Stated to the Write by Wyatt S. Earp,” MS.1059, Braun Research Library, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles.
1931 Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
1997 Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, John Wiley and Sons, New York.
"The History of Western Leather: Spurs and Spur Straps, Cuffs, Chaps, Chinks and Saddles" at http://www.cochiseleather.com/leather-%20history.html
“The Western Saddle Guide” at http://www.western-saddle-guide.com/saddle-horn.html
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