by BARTEE HAILE
Ben Thompson, gunfighter and lawman, received a gold-plated target pistol in the Jun. 13, 1881 mail from his new friend, famed showman “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
The two men met a year and a half earlier, when Cody brought his current stage production, a melodrama loosely based on his own exploits called “Scouts of the Plains,” to Austin in December 1879. Ever the hospitable southerner, Thompson welcomed the visitor to the Texas capital within minutes of his arrival.
Just for the fun of it and to see how good the other really was with a firearm, Cody and Thompson adjourned to the country for some friendly target practice on Dec. 9, 1879.
Fawning over the well-known guest, the Austin American reported, “Buffalo Bill went out of town yesterday with Mr. Ben Thompson and some other gentlemen, and he showed them a little crack shooting. With Mr. Thompson’s rifle he struck six half dollars out of seven that were thrown up.”
The duo did it again the next day much to the delight of a larger crowd.
This time the newspaper went completely overboard declaring Cody “one of the best marksmen now on the American continent. His shooting was perfectly marvelous.”
Ben Thompson was probably more amused than angered. While Buffalo Bill was making his reputation slaughtering defenseless bison, he was earning his against opponents that could shoot back. With Bill Longley six feet under and John Wesley Hardin behind bars until 1894, he was the deadliest gunfighter alive and everybody knew it.
After “Scouts of the Plains” finished its three-show engagement in Austin, Cody invited Thompson along for the San Antonio leg of the tour. Once again they entertained the admiring masses with their marksmanship before parting the best of friends.
It was not long before their friendship was put to the test.
The following June, Thompson was in Dodge City on a working vacation playing cards and taking other men’s money, when he heard his baby brother had gotten himself into another scrap. “What now?” Ben must have wondered since he had spent much of his adult life saving his sibling’s hide.
This time Billy Thompson had started a fight with a saloonkeeper in Ogallala, Nebraska that ended in gunfire. No serious wounds were sustained by either party, but Billy was under house arrest in his hotel and there was talk of a lynching.
The same source that informed Ben of his brother’s predicament warned him against riding to the rescue. The tavern owner was well-liked in Ogalla, which meant a welcoming committee was sure to be armed and ready.
So Ben turned to an old ally, and Bat Masterson caught the first westbound train. Failing to buy Billy Thompson’s freedom, he drugged the guard standing watch outside his hotel room and with the escapee in tow sneaked aboard the midnight flyer to North Platte.
While Masterson was wondering how he was going to get from North Platte to Buffalo Bill’s ranch outside of town at two o’clock in the morning, he spotted a saloon still open for business. He stepped through the swinging doors and saw the bearded storyteller holding a roomful of drunks spellbound.
After listening to Masterson’s account of the evening’s adventures, Cody announced, “The Ogallala authorities will not take you from here.” With one of their generous host’s best horses and his wife’s carriage, Masterson and Billy Thompson reached the safety of Dodge City without further incident.
Back in Austin, Ben Thompson had cleaned up his act enough to win the city marshal election in December 1880. As soon as Cody learned of this almost laughable career change, he sent a congratulatory gift.
“Yesterday morning Marshal Thompson received a very handsome present from Buffalo Bill,” read an article in the Jun. 14, 1881 Austin Statesman. “It is a … costly target pistol (with) mountings of gold, handle beautifully tinted pearl, while the glittering steel barrel is most artistically and beautifully carved. It is engraved on the handle: ‘From Buffalo Bill to Ben Thompson.’”
From all indications the aging gunfighter had turned over a new leaf. He did such a fine job of policing Austin that voters elected him to a second term.
Then it all came apart for Thompson. He settled an old score with Jack Harris, owner of a San Antonio theater, by shooting him dead in July 1882. After six months in the infamous Bexar County jail, during which he resigned as city marshal, Thompson was acquitted by a surprising sympathetic Alamo City jury.
Anyone in his right or sober mind would have stayed out of San Antonio after that but not Ben Thompson. He returned with King Fisher to the scene of Harris killing in March 1884, and both were dispatched execution-style by waiting gunmen.
As for the gold-plated pistol, it remains in near-mint condition in a private collect 130 years later. And, from time to time, it goes on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at email@example.com or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549. Come on by www.twith.com for a visit and follow Bartee on Facebook!Email | Print