In our last episode, I told you that John Wesley Hardin and James Taylor left the Carnes-Wilson Saloon in Comanche and walked the few feet up the street to the Wright Saloon.
Inside Jack Wright’s saloon, Comanche Deputy Frank Wilson approached Hardin, locked arms with him, and told him that he needed to speak to him privately outside. The two exited the saloon through the east door. (Remember that this was the last building on the north side of the square (east end), and through the door one could look directly across the street to what is the Citi-Bank today (200 North Austin).
Hardin and Wilson walked around to the back alley, which is still today on the north side of the building.
Wilson pretended to be giving Wes some advice and told him that he had had enough to drink and needed to go home. Hardin agreed, telling the deputy that his brother, Jeff, had already gone for the buggy and that they were all leaving soon.
While Wilson continued to talk, Hardin saw Brown County Deputy Charles Webb, who was walking up the back alley from the west, and realized that there was going to be trouble for two reasons.
1. Webb and JWH had had a confrontation the past month when Webb was caught verbally abusing a woman, and Hardin threatened Webb.
2. Of course, there was a bigger picture, as well. About the time his brother came to town, Jo Hardin purchased a herd of cattle in Brown County. After the purchase, the ownership of the cattle suddenly came into question, meaning that the man who sold them to Jo might not have owned them.
At this point, you have to make your own decision about this transaction. Either
1. Jo bought the herd, believing he had purchased them “fair and square.”
2. He knew all along that they were stolen, but he convinced the Comanche authorities that he had made a fair deal.
3. Comanche County was in the Hardin pocket.
There are no other possibilities, and you’ll have to decide what you believe because I don’t know. All I know for sure is that Jo and Johnny Hardin along with cousins, Ham and Jim Anderson, Bud and Tom Dixson, and Alec Barekman, at least one Comanche County lawman, and James Taylor traveled to Brown County and took possession of the cattle. It is from this incident that JWH has been called a cattle thief, claims that I have never been able to substantiate.
Needless to say, this created a huge stir in Brown, and Webb wasn’t happy about any of it.
In fact, Charlie Webb had done quite a bit of trash talking against the Hardins and Comanche’s Sheriff John Carnes, claiming that John Carnes was too chicken to arrest JWH. Webb made it known that someone needed to take out JWH as well as James Taylor (of the Sutton-Taylor feud). Hardin had come down on the side of the Taylors as have quite a few historians today, but in 1874, Webb wasn’t at all happy about it.
Anyway, after spotting Webb in the alley, Hardin began trying to make his way back toward the east door of the saloon. I would be willing to bet that Wes Hardin had finally found a place where he felt fairly safe and welcome and that he was trying very hard not to blow it in his family’s town.
At the time all of this was playing out, Webb had those fifteen members of the Brown County Mob standing across the street from the front of Jack Wright’s saloon. The plan was that when Webb killed Hardin, the mob would rush the saloon and kill James Taylor. Mob members would then split the Taylor reward, as we said in an earlier segment of our story.
About the time Hardin had almost made it back to the east door, James Taylor and Hardin’s cousin, Bud Dixson, realized that trouble was brewing. They exited that same east door, and Taylor called to Hardin that it was time to go home. At the same time Jeff Hardin (a young brother) pulled up in the family buggy to get them.
As you can see, you now have JWH, Jeff Hardin, Deputy Frank Wilson, James Taylor, and Bud Dixson all in the vicinity of that east door of the saloon, with probably everyone except maybe Jeff realizing that trouble was brewing. While everyone was positioning himself, so to speak, Deputy Webb finally caught up with Wes there at the east door, and Hardin turned to him and asked if Webb had any papers (warrants) for him.
Webb pretended not to recognize Hardin and then, either like a fool, a smart-aleck, or a fox, JWH invited the man to step inside the saloon and join him in a smoke.
Webb refused, pretending to turn and walk away. It was at this point that Hardin made a mistake that was very out of character for him. Whether he had just had too much to drink, whether he was still on a high from his wins, or whether he just wasn’t concerned with Webb, it was unlike Hardin to turn his back on anyone, much less someone who had boasted of his plans to kill him. However, that is exactly what JWH did; he turned his back, planning to enter the saloon.
As soon as Hardin’s back was turned, Webb grabbed for his gun, intending to shoot the young man in the back; however, Bud Dixson screamed out a warning, and Hardin whirled and shot after he, himself, was shot in the side. Actually Dixson, Taylor, and Hardin all shot, and any of them could have fired the fatal bullet as we will eventually hear from the court records.
Everyone at the scene scattered, including young Jeff Hardin who took off in the family buggy.
According to Sheriff John Carnes’ testimony, at the time of the shooting he was walking up the same alley (heading east) to the gunsmith’s, which was located where the fire station is today at 219 North Austin Street. He saw Webb turn the corner of the building toward the saloon’s east door and heard the shots. According to Carnes, Hardin, Taylor, and Dixson surrendered their guns to him immediately.
You have to keep in mind that this was one of the few shootings (after the killing of Mage) of which John Wesley Hardin was actually completely innocent. There were even witnesses present to claim that Hardin shot in self-defense so surrendering their guns instead of fighting their way out was simply more proof that not one of them considered himself in a bit of trouble.
It was at about this time that the unexpected happened, probably changing the course of the history of this day (and the events that followed) forever. Brown County Mob members ran around the southeast corner of the building; I suppose they assumed that Webb had killed Hardin when they heard the shots.
Upon seeing men running toward them, Hardin, Dixson, and Taylor ran into Jack Wright’s Saloon*…just looking for the first cover they could find. The town of Comanche was still very crowded with race day partiers, and the crowd gathered outside the saloon was growing larger by the second.
It was at this point that Wes Hardin and James Taylor decided to make a run for it, exiting out of the east door of the saloon at a dead run, heading straight across the street toward a Chinaberry bush with two horses tied to it. These horses did not belong to Taylor and Hardin. Remember, the plan was for Jeff Hardin to pick everyone up in the wagon so I have no knowledge of where the men had stabled their horses after the races.
The get-away horses were standing on the spot where the Citi-Bank stands today at 200 North Austin Street. As JWH and Taylor made a run for them, the Dixson brothers, the Anderson brothers, Barekman, and probably others fired on the crowd to cover the two. For whatever else they were, these young men were apparently very personable and seemed to make friends wherever they went. It is not at all inconceivable to believe that some of these friends helped the men escape.
You also have to remember that there has been way, way too much research done on Comanche and the surrounding counties for any of us to believe that there wasn’t a huge element of what we today would consider disreputable people in the area in 1874. Couple that with the fact that the town was packed full of drunk men on this particular day, and you will find that it is difficult (to say the least) to downright impossible (to tell the truth) to weed out a 100% accurate assessment of who did what when.
What we do know is that Sheriff Carnes grabbed the pistols he had taken from the young men and ran after Hardin and Taylor because he was afraid that the mob would try to kill them. He tried to pitch JWH’s gun to him so they would not be totally unarmed as they faced down those who pursued them. That pistol landed in the street and was taken by a bystander.
Of course, you and I today realize that it would be awfully naïve to believe that either of these two men were ever totally unarmed whether they surrendered a gun to a sheriff or not.
Wes Hardin and Jim Taylor left the town of Comanche at a dead run, heading toward his father’s home on today’s Barnes Street (today owned by T.J. and Kerry Dudley).
As I told you earlier, Mr. Hardin was visiting at his son Jo’s home when he heard the shots. This home stood where the Comanche National Bank stands today at 100 East Central Street.
I hate this part of the story because somehow I can just feel Mr. Hardin’s heart as it fell into his boots while he prayed desperately, “Please don’t let it be Johnny; please don’t let it be Johnny.” Of course, when your son is JWH and a gunfight erupts, I’m sure you know who is involved.
By the time Jo and his father arrived at the saloon, JWH and Taylor had already left. They slowed down only long enough to let Sheriff John Carnes (who had been disarmed by the mob) jump in with them and away they flew. (There has been some debate over whether or not the mob disarmed the Hardins before letting them continue on their way to the Hardin home, which was located just off of what is today’s Barnes Street.)
In the meantime, poor Elizabeth Dixson Hardin….there’s just no other way to think of her…hurriedly tended the wound of the son she called Johnny. This wound became horribly infected in the days to come and plagued Hardin for years.
It was not long before her husband, Jo, the Dixson, Anderson, and Barekman cousins, and the sheriff arrived. Wes and Taylor again offered to surrender to Carnes, neither able to believe that he was in any trouble because everyone knew that Webb had fired the first shot.
However, Sheriff Carnes told the family that there was no way that he could protect JWH from the mob that would be arriving any minute. He then suggested that the young men hide out on Round Mountain until things cooled down.
*And to insert a tiny bit of warped humor here, I once came across a letter that claimed that Jack Wright became so upset over the shooting that when he grabbed his own gun, he accidentally shot himself in the foot!