In the summer of 1880, Billy Thompson was in a saloon shooting in Ogallala, Nebraska. After the shooting, the law kept him under surveillance at the only hotel in town, The Ogallala House, until he could be tried and hanged, which was a foregone conclusion for all residents. His brother Ben Thompson, a prominent gambler and gunfighter, was convinced that the Ogallala mob was waiting to come after Billy. He had reason to believe that if he showed up they intended to throw a tie party for two. Hedging his bets, Ben called on an old friend, Bat Masterson, to free his brother from the clutches of what was said to be twisted Ogallala law.
It all started when Billy competed for the affections of a local prostitute with the ignominious nickname of Big Alice. A salon owner named Bill Tucker claimed his appointments off duty and warned Billy to stay away from the damsel. Billy, not heeding the warnings, continued to mingle with Big Alice until he decided to confront Tucker at his tavern, Cowboy’s Rest. After downing a gut full of booze, Billy walked into the saloon and fired a quick shot at Tucker. The bullet struck the saloon owner in the hand as he was serving a customer a shot of whiskey. Tucker quickly counted the fingers on his left hand and discovered that his thumb was missing and that three other fingers had been mutilated. He grabbed a bar towel, wrapped it around his bloody hand, and hid behind the bar. Billy, thinking he had killed the man, holstered his pistol and staggered out of the room.
Tucker was far from dead. He stood behind the bar with a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun. He ran to the door and with his good hand pointed the ten-caliber at Thompson, firing both barrels. Billy, who was a short distance from the room, fell to the street with five shots in the back and buttocks. Tucker’s friends rushed him to his home for medical attention, while the law dragged Billy to the Ogallala House, where he was treated and held prisoner.
Because Ben Thompson had saved his life or for whatever reason, Masterson felt compelled to help Ben retrieve his wayward brother from the Ogallala thugs and boarded a train to Nebraska. Arriving in town, which was little more than a few rough-hewn buildings huddled around the Union Pacific line on the north bank of the South Platte River, Bat surveyed the situation and found that he was defying the odds. Billy’s injuries made him unable to ride a horse, so the Bat had to come up with another method to get him out of town. He told Billy to pretend he was so weak that he couldn’t escape while he came up with a plan.
Biding his time, Bat befriended the young officer tasked with keeping an eye on Billy at the hotel. They played cards to pass the time, and Bat would often pay for a round of drinks. Then, after a few days, Bat saw his chance one Sunday night when the entire community turned out for a dance held at a school on the outskirts of town. The sheriff, who was the best fiddler in the area, was very fond of playing and made the crowd dance until the wee hours of the next morning.
The night of the dance, the Ogallala House had emptied out, leaving only Bat, Billy, the valet, and a bartender named Jim Dunn. Masterson managed to bribe Dunn into slipping a “Mickey Finn” into one of the whiskey sours he ordered for himself and the guard. The guard drank the spiked drink and Bat ordered another round. A few minutes after the second drink, the guard collapsed on the floor in shock. Bat paid the bartender and ran to Billy’s room, where he dressed the injured man. He then rolled Billy up in a rug, slung him over his shoulder and carried him to the morgue. They arrived just as the train pulled into the station around midnight. Bat boarded the train, placed Billy in a seat, and they set off in silence for North Platte, about fifty miles east of Ogallala.
At about two in the morning, they reached North Platte, where Bat shouldered Thompson down the steps to the station. It was completely dark, but up the street Masterson could see the gaslights of Dave Perry’s saloon. He managed to drag Billy through the saloon doors and deposit him on a pool table. Luckily Bill Cody was in the living room drinking and telling stories to his friends. Bat explained the situation of him and Cody, ever the showman, dramatically swearing that he would personally see to it that they did not fall into the hands of the Ogallala authorities and provide a means of getting them back to Dodge City.
This is where the story takes a comic turn. Without telling his wife, Cody gave Masterson his new phaeton buggy and a well-bred horse to transport Billy out of Nebraska. Furthermore, he offered to let them continue along with the group of dignitaries he was leading on a trip to a large cattle ranch some twenty-five miles south of North Platte. The Europeans, who had been sent by General Sheridan, were traveling west to see the frontier wilderness firsthand, and Cody was in charge of escorting them to Keith’s ranch. The twenty foreigners arrived eager for the famous Buffalo Bill to guide them through the wild plains and he was in his element, full of grand gestures and dramatic flair.
As the caravan assembled, Cody asked Masterson to drive his double truck and let another ranch hand drive the buggy carrying Thompson. Bat quickly discovered that the dining car was loaded with a small amount of food and a large amount of liquor. All the riders were given a strong drink, and then Cody signaled for the group to begin their journey. After riding for a short time, Cody stopped the riders for a rest stop that included a generous supply of “liquid refreshments.” He repeated this routine for several more stops until the caravan was having a great time, but he was finding it harder and harder to stay in his chair.
Finally Cody, swaying in his chair, rode to the dining car and splashed aboard. He immediately fell asleep and Bat was left in charge of leading the group south. Bat, who had also had his share of liquid soda, could barely steer the car and after a short distance hit a pothole and flipped the car onto his back. Masterson was thrown from the car, but Cody was trapped under the bed, covered with the load of “sodas”. Bat had landed on his face and was stroking a bloody cut on his lower lip. He and the others managed to right the dining car only to find that Cody was uninjured and wondering what the hell had happened.
They eventually reached Keith’s ranch where they ate dinner and Cody sobered up enough to entertain his entourage with his legendary shooting and horsemanship skills. The next morning, Masterson, with a swollen lip and a massive hangover, hooked up with Cody’s Mrs. Phaethon and headed to Dodge City with Billy. Shortly after leaving the ranch, a huge black cloud swept over them from the west, dousing them with torrents of bone-chilling rain. He kept raining down on the couple for the rest of their two hundred mile journey.
Several days later, Mrs. Cody’s carriage pulled into Dodge City with Masterson at the reins and Thompson wrapped in a sodden buffalo robe. They were both covered in mud and completely drenched. Shivering, Bat wheeled the weary horse toward his favorite hotel, where a hot bath and a decent meal were always available. Billy climbed out from under his buffalo hide and demanded that they first stop at the telegraph office where he wired the sheriff of Ogallala. The message said that he had arrived safely in Dodge and that the sheriff could meet him there if he wanted to go looking for him.
Over the years, Billy Thompson had been accused of many things, but never, ever, of being very smart. Fortunately for Billy, the sheriff decided it wasn’t worth the effort and dropped the matter.