The Wild, Wild West

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Was he a sure-enough killer? Once he was asked how many white men he had killed, to his certain knowledge (Indians didn’t count). Wild Bill reflected. “I suppose,” he said at last, “I have killed considerably over a hundred.” But this was in 1866: he would have another ten years to improve his record. To another reporter, he remarked: “As to killing men, I never think much about it. … The killing of a bad man shouldn’t trouble one any more than killing a rat or an ugly cat or a vicious dog.” Of course, it helps if one is as good a judge as Hickok of the badness of a man, or the ugliness of a cat.

But was a good man not obliged to kill a bad man, to tame the Wild West? And, after all, was Wild Bill not a pillar of righteousness in those sinful times? What about his lustrous reputation as marshal of the Kansas cowtowns?

Hickok was, perhaps, a United States deputy marshal operating out of Fort Riley in February, 1866, and charged with rounding up deserters and horse thieves ; but the record of his tenure is fuzzy.

In mid-August, 1869, he was elected sheriff of EHs County—of which Hays was the biggest town —to fill an unexpired term. He failed of re-election in November. A brief time in which to tame a tough town—nor does the record show any notable success. He may have killed a man named Jack (or Sam) Strawhorn (or Strawhan) who tried to get the drop on him ; he may have killed two soldiers who talked tough at him; he may have thrashed Tom Custer, a brother of General George Custer; he may have killed three soldiers whom Custer had vengefully sicked on him—all the evidence bearing on these matters is likewise fuzzy. What is certain is that Hickok left Hays in a hurry one winter night, lest he be further beset by the Seventh Cavalry.

In April, 1871, Hickok was appointed marshal of Abilene, and now the picture grows sharper. It was an auspicious conjunction of man and town: each was at the height of notoriety. As for the town, which was all of five years old, 1871 would be its peak year as a cowtown; 600,000 cattle would pass through its yards on the way to eastern markets ; and all summer, cowboys by the hundreds would jam its saloons and dance halls—the Alamo, the Bull’s Head, the Mint, and the Gold Room—to squander a year’s wages. As for the man, “Harper’s Monthly” had published not long before a lurid account of Hickok’s fatal skill in battle, as told to George Ward Nichols by Wild Bill himself. There was, for instance, Hickok’s version of the McCanles affair. In truth, Hickok had shot down Dave McCanles from behind a curtain, shot a second man from behind a door, and mortally wounded a third man who was running for his life. But as Wild Bill told the tale to the bug-eyed Nichols, he had been attacked by McCanles and a gang of nine “desperadoes, horsethieves, murderers, regular cut-throats,” but had slain six men with six shots and dispatched the other four “blood-thirsty devils” with his knife.

A man whose fame rested on such fabulous fibs was just the sort needed to quell the frequent riots of a wicked cowtown. At least, so thought Joseph McCoy, the founder of Abilene and, in 1871, also the town’s mayor. Moreover, McCoy knew where to find his man, for Hickok was right in town, gambling for a living at the Alamo. Wild Bill took the job. He slung two six-guns at his hips; he thrust a knife in the red sash he affected. In this fashion, he occasionally patrolled the streets.

But only occasionally. Most hours of most evenings he could be found at the Alamo, gambling with the cowboys. Most hours of most nights he had business in Abilene’s red-light district. Meantime the taxpayers of Abilene chafed. Nor were the cowboys happy; for they were persuaded that Hickok wore the star only to protect the extortions of the professional gamblers, madames, and saloonkeepers.

Matters came to a head on the night of October 5. A bunch of cowboys had been hurrahing the town in their traditional and tiresome fashion—forcing merchants of clothing to outfit poorly clad strangers, obliging passers-by to stand drinks for all hands- and Hickok reportedly warned them to quiet down. Back in the Alamo at his poker table, Wild Bill heard someone fire a shot. He plunged out into the darkness to confront a Texan named Phil Coe. Some say that Coe’s gun was already back in its holster, some that it was dangling in his hand. Whichever the case, Hickok fired, felling Coe, and then, when he heard someone running toward him, at once wheeled and plugged his own deputy, one Mike Williams, in a typical exhibition of coolness, calm, and nerve. He was relieved of his official duties six weeks later.

 
 
 
 
 
 

After that there was nothing left but to exploit his celebrity in show business. He joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s stock company, an ignoble enterprise, but quit before long. In June, 1876, a Kansas newspaper reported, from Fort Laramie, that Wild Bill “was arrested on several occasions as a vagrant, having no visible means of support.”