by Tom Clavin
This week sees the publication of The Last Outlaws: The Desperate Final Days of the Dalton Gang. It’s the rip-snortin’ story of the Dalton brothers and how they robbed banks and trains in the late 1880s into the ‘90s. Things might have been different for the family if one of the older brothers had not met a violent end, as the following excerpt describes.
Frank Dalton was the success story of the family. In 1884, he was commissioned as a deputy U.S. marshal, serving under Judge Parker. Frank quickly developed a reputation as being a brave lawman and was involved in shootouts and high-risk arrests over a three-year period.
The incident on November 27, 1887, changed everything. This is not an exaggeration. It is reasonable to believe that if Frank Dalton had been able to continue as a lawman and perhaps had a distinguished career, there would have been a positive impact on his brothers. Instead, his violent demise had the opposite effect.
Many people learned of it from an account in The St. Louis Globe Democrat, which began, “A bloody tragedy took place this morning in the Cherokee Nation, in which United States Marshal Frank Dalton, Dave Smith and Mrs. Lee Dixon were killed.”
Frank and his two posse men had completed their latest mission for Judge Parker’s court two days earlier when they had turned a group of recently arrested prisoners over to the jailers in Fort Smith. Frank had then recrossed the Arkansas River to set up camp in the bottoms with his two companions—his brother Bob and Bud Heady, who at 20 was two years older than Bob.
Not having any particular place to go, the three men were still there the next day, a Saturday, when another deputy marshal, Jim Cole, arrived in the late afternoon. He carried with him two writs against Dave Smith, one for larceny and the other for selling whiskey in the Indian Territory. Rather than return to Fort Smith for the night and then come back again, Cole stayed at Frank’s makeshift camp.
The following morning, Sunday, was a cold one, barely brightened by weak sunlight. Frank and Cole warmed themselves as best they could with the remnants of the discrete campfire. Cole said he knew where Smith was holed up, so he would take the lead. This could mean trouble because he and Smith had had a previous dust-up and the latter had threatened to kill the deputy marshal. Cole and Frank Dalton left Bob and Heady behind asleep in their tent, as they expected that it should not take four men to arrest such a low-rent outlaw as Dave Smith.
Frank took pride in his appearance and thought it made for a more effective lawman. As David Allin writes in The Dalton Boys, “It didn’t hurt any that Frank looked the part, just like the heroes on the covers of dime novels. Tall, lean, and handsome with the steely-eyed gaze of a man who had seen it all, Frank wasn’t afraid of anything. His suit was always clean and neat, and his tall boots were always polished. On his head he wore a neat grey hat with a short rounded crown and a flat narrow brim.”
The two lawmen tried to stay warm as they rode through the late-autumn landscape of leafless bushes and trees and abandoned logging camps. They finally arrived at a clearing containing a structure that was half-logs and half-tent. A woman was tending the campfire in front of it. When Frank Dalton and Jim Cole paused to study the scene, the woman walked into the tent cabin. The two men eased closer to the campfire, then dismounted. They drew Winchesters out of the saddle holsters and strode toward the tent cabin, Cole circling so there was one lawman at the front and the other at the back.
He used the tip of his rifle to push aside the tent flap. The barrel was grabbed from inside. Cole tried to back away, and as he did so the woman emerged, the end of the barrel clutched in one fist. She began shouting at him. Hearing the commotion, Dalton stepped around to that side of the cabin. Dave Smith came out behind the woman. He too held a Winchester. Seeing Dalton, Smith shot him in the chest.
As the wounded lawman staggered off, Cole backed away, jerking his rifle free and accidentally firing. But he also tripped over a tent rope and fell to the ground in a sitting position. Smith turned and fired at him too, hitting the deputy marshal. Cole wasn’t dead but Smith thought he was, so he went after Dalton. By this time, three other men had run out of the cabin. One kept going, while the other two ducked back inside. Cole saw Smith lower his rifle as though Dalton was on the ground. Smith pulled the trigger a moment before Cole raised his Winchester and shot him. Smith fell face-down.
From inside the cabin came the sound of a gunshot. Not waiting for an explanation, Cole got up, fired again, this time at the tent-cabin, and began to run away. Behind him he heard a woman wail, “Lord a mercy, I’m killed!” Cole kept running.
He took cover behind a thick tree at the edge of the clearing. From there, he and a gunman inside the cabin exchanged shots until Cole ran out of ammunition. Apparently uninjured was the woman who had first been seen at the campfire, who was now back outside and shouting incoherently. To Cole, there was nothing else to be done and he could not tell how badly he was wounded. Scurrying from tree to tree until he thought he was out of danger, Cole went to find his horse. He would hurry to Fort Smith to get help.
Miraculously, Frank Dalton was not dead. Dave Smith was, Cole had shot true. Now emerging from the cabin was a teenaged friend of Smith’s named Will Towerly. He held a pistol but stuck it in his pants and picked up Frank’s Winchester. Towerly wandered over to a tree stump behind which Frank had taken cover. Seeing the tall boy looming above him, Frank managed to rise up on one elbow and pleaded, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot. I’m already a dead man.”
Towerly considered this for a few moments, then casually pulled the trigger. Hit, Frank collapsed. Towerly stepped closer and shot the deputy marshal in the head. Satisfied, finally, he went and got his gear out of the tent, marched to a small pen, saddled up one of the horses inside of it, and rode away.
When they felt it was safe to do so, several nearby residents approached the tent-cabin to assess the carnage. The woman who declared herself dead had told the truth. She would be identified as the wife of Leander Dixon, who was also inside the cabin and wounded in the shoulder. He was the brother of the woman who at some point had stopped shouting and was now identified as the recently widowed Mrs. Smith.
As Emmett Dalton later lamented, “Frank is dead. A martyr to his duty and the custom and environment of a wild time. Reckless day that took its toll hundreds of good and bad and by the same method—a quick shot, a quivering form, one final twitch—and then silence forever.”
When a posse of lawmen from Fort Smith arrived, they chose to leave it to the relatives of Smith and his sister-in-law to bury their own dead. They carefully wrapped Frank Dalton’s mangled body in blankets and began the grim journey to Coffeyville.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.