Ride the Devil’s Herd: Wyatt Earp’s Epic Battle Against the West’s Biggest Outlaw Gang, by John Boessenecker, Hanover Square Press, Toronto, Ontario, 2020, $29.99
Anyone with an iota of interest in the gunfighters and lawmen of the Old West is familiar with Wyatt Earp and brothers and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (actually at a vacant lot near the rear entrance of the corral), in which they got the best of the Cowboy faction of Clanton and McLaury brothers. While you’ll find such familiar ground in John Boessenecker’s latest well-researched, well-crafted history, the author—a San Francisco attorney by trade—goes beyond the household names, beyond Tombstone and well beyond simply rehashing facts.
Referring to the Cowboys as the largest outlaw gang in the history of the American West, as Boessenecker does, gives one pause at first. After all, they weren’t a defined little gang like the James-Youngers, Daltons or Wild Bunch, right? The author writes early on, “There seemed to be no limit to the Cowboys’ brazenness,” backing up that contention with details of misdeeds galore. So much happened before and after Oct. 26, 1881, that the infamous 30-second Tombstone gunfight seems more than ever like an inevitable climax but by no means the end of the Cowboy-Earp war.
Boessenecker also has plenty to say about Wyatt, the good and the bad (he did break the law or ignore it at various times), as well as his brothers (the “Fighting Earps” received more negative press than they could shake their sticks at) and even their father Nick, described as a burly, opinionated, hot-tempered man full of contradictions. “An understanding of Nicholas Earp is essential to understanding Wyatt Earp and his brothers,” the author suggests. Yes, the Earps were flawed, but Boessenecker disagrees with those who contend their fight with the Cowboys was simply a matter of one faction going against another faction. In his view the Earps were the good guys in Arizona Territory, the only ones with enough “bark on” to stand up to the bad guys, those legion Cowboy outlaws terrorizing the southern borderlands.