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Thunder Over the Prairie:
The Story of a Murder and a Manhunt by the
Greatest Posse of All Time.
Four horsemen thundered out of Dodge City and quickly rode onto the open range. The land before them rolled for miles under a limitless sky. Wyatt Earp and Bill Tilghman held tight to their swift mounts, lagging a few feet behind Bat Masterson and Charlie Bassett. Charlie’s roan led the way. He sat forward in his saddle like a mad dog straining against a leash, his eyes fixed on the terrain ahead.
At 31 years of age, Charlie Bassett was the oldest among the riders. He had also traveled with more posses than the other men in his five-year law enforcement career in Ford County. He became the county’s first Sheriff when he was 26 years old and on June 5, 1873 he began the first of three terms in office. He had tracked vigilantes, jewel thieves, and cattle rustlers across Kansas’s mostly flat surface, and brought many felons to justice. Bill Tilghman claimed Bassett’s “boyish face belied the steel beneath” and described him as a “steady, level-headed officer who seldom displayed any kind of alarm no matter the crisis.”
Whatever Charlie felt about Dora Hand’s murder was evident in the way he sat his horse. His legs gripped the back of the animal firmly and he had the reigns threaded resolutely through his gloved hands with sufficient lead left over to spank the sides of the ride to make the horse go faster. His attentive gaze shifted from the horizon to the trail directly in front of him. He was driven. Charlie liked Dora. He thought she was, as Stuart Lake, the author of the Wyatt Earp biography Frontier Marshal wrote, “the most gracious, beautiful woman to reach Dodge in the heyday of its iniquity.”
Charlie had a fine appreciation for Dora’s talent as well. She had worked for him on occasion singing at the Long Branch Saloon, an establishment he opened shortly after he arrived in Dodge. The Long Branch, named after a celebrated sporting resort on the Atlantic seaboard, was the largest and most profitable in the region. As an east coast native himself, Charlie was familiar with the popular tavern. One critic called the Dodge City saloon “artistically functional. It offered a little of everything: a lengthy bar, gaming tables, music, entertainment, and dancing. On busy nights the swinging doors were kept open to expedite the traffic.” The doors were kept open every time Dora played the Long Branch.
Charlie’s second job as saloon owner wasn’t uncommon at the time. The risks associated with upholding the law were great and the rewards, especially the pay, were minimal. Charlie’s salary was $100 a month. Men like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson took on work defending the law in between gambling and mining projects. It was a solitary occupation for very few.
To learn more about the death of Dora Hand and the posse that tracked her killer read Thunder Over the Prairie.