Hell’s Comin’ With Me! A blow-by-blow account of what really went down.

Wyatt Earp Vendetta Morgan Eap True West Magazine
The train from Benson, carrying the Earps, coasts into the train station complex (above). It is two years to the day when the first train arrived in Tucson; the town fathers were irritated that the Southern Pacific built the depot so far out of town, about a half mile from the plaza. On this night, the newly installed gas light system is turned on, which the locals celebrate by firing their guns. The stage is set for more shooting as Doc Holliday peers out the window and Wyatt Earp scans the train platform.

March 20, 1882

With the recent killing of Morgan Earp by assassins, Wyatt Earp spends his 34th birthday attending to the details of shipping his brother’s remains home to California.

With Morgan’s body safely out of Arizona Territory, Wyatt, his younger brother Warren, John “Doc” Holliday and two other handpicked men accompany Virgil Earp (who is still weak from an assassination attempt in December) and his wife, Allie, to Tucson.

Guarded by Wyatt and his men, Virgil and Allie are transported by buckboard to Contention City, where they board the train.

Switching trains in Benson, the party has a little over an hour ride to Tucson, and it is dusk as the passenger train slows down for its approach. Tucson is lit up as the city’s modern gas lighting system has been turned on for the first time. Celebratory shots can be heard as the engine glides into the station.

Under the veranda of the brand new Porter Hotel, Ike Clanton and Frank Stilwell watch the passengers detrain.

Wyatt Earp Vendetta Morgan Eap True West Magazine
After Wyatt Earp give Frank Stilwell both barrels of his shotgun, Doc Holliday supposedly comes up and adds his two cents, as do the other members of the Earp escort.

Stepping off the train, Holliday carries two shotguns, which he deposits in the depot office, as the Earp party makes its way to the dining room in the Porter Hotel.

After finishing their meals, the Earp party walks back to the train and retrieves the shotguns from the depot office. Wyatt and his men say their goodbyes to Virgil and Allie, and are ticketed on an eastbound train for the trip back to Benson.

While waiting for the train to move out, a passenger allegedly informs Wyatt that Stilwell and Clanton are lurking near the hotel and planning to shoot Virgil through the train window as the train goes by.

Bristling with shotguns and rifles, the Earp bodyguards, led by Wyatt, run down the train tracks, straight for Stilwell who is standing near the southeast corner of the hotel.

Stilwell runs for his life. In the lead, Wyatt chases Stilwell for about 100 yards (saloonkeeper George Hand claimed it was a few hundred yards).

Wyatt Earp Vendetta Morgan Eap True West Magazine
“Frank Stilwell was shot all over, the worst shot-up man that I ever saw. He was found a few hundred yards from the hotel on the railroad tracks.”
— George Hand, Tucson saloonkeeper

“I ran straight for Stilwell,” Wyatt later recounted. “It was he who killed my brother. What a coward he was. He couldn’t shoot when I came near him. He stood there helpless and trembling for his life. As I rushed upon him he put out his hands and clutched at my shotgun. I let go both barrels, and he tumbled down dead and mangled at my feet.”

Other shots are heard, but many of the locals assume it is more of the gas light celebration.

As the train carrying Virgil chugs out of the station, Wyatt runs up to the cars, holding up one finger and mouthing the words, “One for Morgan.”

Virgil and Allie glide by in the darkness.

March 22, 1882

The Vendetta riders, eight in all, make their first stop after leaving Tombstone at Pete “Spence” Spencer’s wood camp in the South Pass of the Dragoons. A teamster at the camp, Theodore D. Judah, describes what happens next: Wyatt Earp “immediately asked where Pete Spence was…he also asked after Indian Charley [sic] a half-breed, and I told him that he wasn’t there…. He asked me when Pete Spence would be out in the camp again.”

Disappointed by Judah’s responses, Wyatt turns his attention to the camp’s Mexican laborers, asking them if they have seen any horses in the area with saddles on. He again receives no help.

Wyatt Earp Vendetta Morgan Eap True West Magazine
Sheriff Bob Paul examines the riddled corpse of Frank Stilwell on the morning after the killing. As the word spreads, quite a crowd gathers to view the body.

Wyatt and his men ride off toward the main road to Tombstone. Judah and a laborer start up a hill to see what Wyatt and his men are up to. “We had not gone 20 feet,” Judah later testifies, “before we heard shooting…. We walked up the hill further [sic] and saw [the Earp posse] on the other side of the road, on top of the hill,” and we watched them for about three minutes.

Laborers Manuel Acosta and Epimania Vegas see Florentino Cruz, a.k.a. Indian Charlie, flee from the Earp party: “The pursuing party spread out, some on each side, and others immediately following,” Acosta later says. Vegas adds, “I saw the man that was shot running and jumping from side to side. I saw him fall.”

Cruz is found with four wounds. Wyatt’s tally is now two for Morgan.

March 24, 1882

Unbeknownst to Wyatt, Dan Tipton and Origen “Hairlip” Charlie Smith are sitting in jail. Wyatt sent them into Tombstone to convince mining magnate E.B. Gage to pay $1,000 to fund the Vendetta posse and also to see what Cochise County Sheriff John Behan and his cow-boys were doing. Behan arrested them on March 23.

Meanwhile, after Wyatt and his men eat breakfast north of Contention, along the San Pedro River, they ride south toward the Babocomari River to scout out possible criminal hideouts.

Wyatt Earp Vendetta Morgan Eap True West Magazine
Florentino Cruz is allegedly paid to watch the horses on the night of Morgan Earp’s murder.

Leaving his brother Warren on the trail to meet a courier, Wyatt rides with Holliday, Sherm McMaster, “Texas Jack” Vermillion and “Turkey Creek Jack” Johnson up a rocky canyon into the Whetstones. Seeing no sign of recent riders, Wyatt loosens the gunbelt around his waist. Horses and men are weary and hot.

The trail they are on is about 100 yards from the waterhole, and it cuts across a deep, sandy shelf. They can see only the tops of the cottonwood trees, as the 15-foot-high bank hides the springs from their view. Across this sandy stretch, Wyatt rides, coat unbuttoned, six-guns sagging low, Winchester in the saddle boot, Wells Fargo shotgun and ammunition belt looped to the saddle horn.

At the scent of water, Wyatt’s horse quickens; Wyatt lets him make his gait. Fifty feet from the spring, Wyatt instinctively stops short. He swings out of the saddle, loops the reins in his left hand with his shotgun in his right hand and walks forward. Vermillion and McMaster ride behind Wyatt, with Holliday and Johnson much farther to the rear. Another step gives Wyatt a full view of the hollow.

Wyatt Earp Vendetta Morgan Eap True West Magazine
Wood camps, such as this one near the Silver King mine in Arizona Territory, supply fuel for boilers in the mills. Pete “Spence” Spencer has a similar camp in the South Pass of the Dragoons. The Earp posse visits the camp while looking for Spencer and Florentino Cruz. But Spencer has surrendered to Sheriff John Behan, who allows Spencer to keep a pistol in his jail cell for protection. Cruz is not so lucky.
— True West Archives —

Two cow-boys jump to their feet, one yanking a sawed-off shotgun to his shoulder, while the other breaks for the cottonwoods.

“Curly Bill!” McMaster yells in astonishment, before wheeling his horse and retreating.

Wyatt later remembers shooting at nine cow-boys who each “had a rifle at his shoulder, and every rifle blazed.”

Wyatt Earp Vendetta Morgan Eap True West Magazine
The posse riding near Tucson.

Aiming at the outlaw chieftain “Curly Bill” Brocius, Wyatt fires both barrels of his shotgun, fatally striking Brocius in the chest, almost cutting him in half.

In spite of his rapid retreat, McMaster is hit in the side, and his binoculars are shot from his neck. Vermillion’s horse is killed in the volley of cow-boy fire.

Wyatt Earp Vendetta Morgan Eap True West Magazine
Running to their fallen comrade, the cowboys unlimber their hardware and send a blistering return fire at the two horsemen (Wyatt Earp and “Texas Jack” Vermillion) on the ridge. Of the rest of the Earp party, only Sherm McMaster is hit. As you can see from this perspective, the others are straggling behind on the trail, so the cowboys cannot see them.

Wyatt tries to remount, but his loosened gunbelt has slipped down around his thighs. Bullets tear into his hat, coat and boot heel, and his saddle horn is shot off. He finally succeeds in forking his horse, and he rides back to a rocky outcropping to rejoin his men. The brief, dramatic fight is over.

What do you think?

Bob Boze Bell

In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.