Aces and Eights
As someone who grew up watching Hollywood westerns on TV or the movies, I became enamored with the image of the Sheriff standing tall and enforcing the law, with actors such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood riding Tombstone, Dodge City, El Dorado or some other cow town of its bank robbers, cattle rustlers and assorted other nefarious ne'er-do-wells and scalawags.
Westerns such as High Noon would have our good guy facing down a murderous ruffian in the middle of Main St. But history teaches us that armed altercations between lawman and outlaw or outlaw and law abiding citizen didn't happen this way.
Throughout the taming of the west one lawman stood out among the rest James Butler Hickok, better known as "Wild Bill" Hickok. Former Union wagonmaster, courier, provost marshal's detective, scout and spy during the Civil War, Wild Bill worked as a lawman throughout the west and we can learn much from this "shootist."
Among other things we can learn from Hickok were the following:
The number of men killed by Hickok in his role as lawman or in defense of his life is, according to biographers, somewhere around ten. We know that his shootings were ultra-violent affairs, not some "shoot-out at high noon" sterilized version. For instance, in one altercation in Hays City during July of 1870, while a U.S. Deputy Marshal, Wild Bill was attacked by two 7th Cavalry soldiers. The two men attacked Hickok, took him to the ground and attempted to shoot him. When the attacker's revolver failed to fire, Wild Bill pulled his own and shot and mortally wounded one, then shot the other through the kneecap.
Possibly explaining Hickok's accuracy in his shootings was this quote he reportedly made to writer George Nichols for a story in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1867, "Whenever you get into a row be sure and not shoot too quick. Take time, I've known many a feller to slip up for shootin' in a hurry." This is similar to the quote of Wyatt Earp, "You need to take your time in a hurry," in reference to armed confrontations.
Bill's last shoot-out occurred in 1871. As Marshal of Abilene, Kansas, a booming cow town, Hickok was tasked with controlling the large numbers of drunken cowboys that filled the bars, then the streets of the town. When Phil Coe and about 50 other armed cowhands started raising hell on the streets, Hickok ordered them to disarm. After a shot was fired (Coe said he shot at a stray dog), Wild Bill confronted the men. Coe shot at Hickok twice and missed. Bill drew both his Navy six shooters and fired a shot from both into Coe's stomach at a distance of eight feet. Sadly, fellow lawman Mike Williams ran between Coe and Hickok and was hit by Wild Bill with his second volley of fire. Coe died three days later; Williams died that night.
The life of James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok would end on August 2, 1876 in Deadwood. After leaving service as a lawman, Hickok, like many people of the time, sought his fortune in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, which was not yet a state and not under the control of the U.S. government. Gold had been found in the Black Hills and Deadwood sprang forth from a mining camp in April of '76. When Hickok, now 48 and a professional gambler, arrived at Deadwood, the town was thriving. On the afternoon he was killed he was playing poker with others at the No. 10 Saloon. Unfortunately Hickok did not insist on sitting with his back to the wall his normal position but rather sat with his back to the bar. This fateful decision put him in an easy position to attack from behind when Jack McCall entered the saloon with murder on his mind. McCall walked up behind Hickok, who was reviewing his hand (allegedly aces and eights, which became known as the "dead man's hand"), and killed Wild Bill with one shot to the back of the head fired from a .45 Colt single action Army revolver (McCall would later be tried and hung for his crime).
Thus ended the life of Wild Bill Hickok, never a saint. J. B. Hickok didn't go looking for trouble, but helped make very violent towns safer during his time as a lawman. Violent confrontations between the good guys and the bad guys haven't changed much since the 1800s, and neither has the preparation for them.
Modern lawmen should remember the armed confrontations of cow towns and western lawmen such as Hickok. Shootings didn't happen at extended range for the most part during Wild Bill's days as a lawman, and continue to take place in the "activity zone" inside six feet to this day. With many of our streets today being as dangerous as some of those during the 19th century, we must prepare mentally and physically like Hickok, then stand tall and enforce the law. It is our legacy as today's lawmen to stand up to the worst of society and render peace in our time as our predecessors such as Wild Bill Hickok did in theirs.