right kind of body armor, an occasional quirk of physics or sometimes
just plain old luck all will stop a bullet, but not a man's reputation.
The brother of one of the Wild West's most legendary characters
might have come to this awareness shortly before he died at the
hands of a forgotten Texan in an Arizona cow town. He may have thought
his last name would ward off trouble, and that might have worked
to some extent, but a person's surname has nothing to do with disposition.
A bully and a boozer, his was not good.
Founded as a railroad town in 1880, Wilcox became a major cattle
shipping point and like so many other Southwestern towns it acquired
the reputation as a place with ever-busy undertakers. In truth,
Wilcox fell a bit short of Tombstone in that category. Still, the
town has a lasting claim to fame thanks to a five foot, six inch
ranch foreman named John Boyett. Folks called him Shorty.
Born in Burleson
County during the Civil War, like so many other Texans, he eventually
drifted west to Arizona. Though not tall, the 38-year-old was not
short on sand. That said, he apparently was not much of a shot.
Still, no one could fault his perseverance.
When in the early morning hours of July 6, 1900 bad blood between
Boyett and Warren Baxter Earp-Wyatt Earp's little brother-boiled
over to the shedding of real blood, Boyett fired twice at Earp inside
the Headquarters Saloon. Despite being in close proximity to his
target, the Texan missed. Then Boyett got off two more shots at
Wyatt's brother. And missed again. Finally, the fifth time Boyett
pulled the trigger, the bullet hit Warren beneath his left collar
bone and ranged down into his heart. The 45-year-old Earp, though
he earlier had intimated before witnesses that he was "fixed" (armed
with a pistol), had made the mistake of taking a knife to a gunfight.
It being summer in Arizona, no one seems to have been interested
in delaying Earp's funeral. He was buried in the Wilcox cemetery
the afternoon of the same day he died. By the time the name Earp
had become legendary, no one remembered exactly where Warren had
been laid to rest. A later-day tombstone now stands in the cemetery,
but it is only in the vicinity of Earp's final resting place. At
least he does have the distinction of being the only Earp to be
buried in the territory-turned-state in which they became famous.
Authorities duly arrested Boyett and he hired a lawyer. Barely a
week went by before coroner W. F. Nichols declared the shooting
a case of self defense. In making his ruling, he said he did not
think a grand jury would return an indictment against the defendant
and even if one did, a trial jury would not convict him.
Despite workmanlike local newspaper coverage, more sensational out-of-state
papers tried to turn the shooting into a conspiracy tracing back
to the Tombstone troubles nearly two decades earlier. Later day
writers also have taken their shot at finding the "real" reason
behind the pistol affray. Theorists posited that someone paid Boyett
to assassinate the younger if irascible Earp.
The legend also arose that Wyatt Earp-then running a saloon in Nome,
Alaska-hired someone to kill Boyett or the person who allegedly
retained his services. Another tale has older brother Virgil Earp
coming to town to avenge his brother's killing. If either were the
case, the effort failed.
Nevertheless, Boyett decided to return to the Lone Star State. He
settled in Hays County,
where he died of natural causes back in 1919. He's buried in the
small Fischer Cemetery, which is in Comal
County. All the ground-level stone reveals, other than his full
name of John Nathan Boyett, is that he was born Feb. 29, 1862 and
died Dec. 16, 1919.
A book on the Warren Earp killing published in 2003 suggests that
Boyett might not even lie beneath the stone, a long-ago rouse to
cover up a long-ago killing, but no Earp scholars took the work,
or the conspiracy theory, seriously.
The truth is both obvious and simple: Alcohol having suppressed
their better judgment, Earp and Boyett got into a barroom fight
and Boyett won. Some say jealously over a local prostitute may have
played a role in their enmity, but the shooting was just another
Wild West "difficulty," not a murder for hire.