“Wild Bill had the bearing of a hunted animal. His eyes seemed restless, ever watchful as he nervously searched about him in the saloons and on the streets which he controlled as a lawman, sizing up every stranger for signs of danger..."
The Western Territories of the United States during the last half of the 1800’s were the new frontier of the day. The land was still open, wild and lawless. The men and women who ventured into this territory found that their survival depended as much on their skills with weapons as with tools for creating a successful life. Even in the towns of some size, where a more civilized structure had been established, lawlessness had to be dealt with. It took brave men to put on the lawman’s badge and enforce the law. Many gunfighters and lawmen passed through the Old West, but few are remembered, fewer still became legends.
James Butler Hickok was a man of impressive character, destined for fame. He favored adventure, but was happiest with an easy way of life. He was a good man who was courteous and gentlemanly by nature. A man who followed his own course, who was honest and loyal to his friends, but also a man who had large flaws. He was not good at keeping a job or staying put for any long period of time. After he entered his only marriage late in life, he left soon after for more adventure. He was one of the most fearless killers ever to draw a pistol. He was a gambler of no real prowess.
He wanted what any other young man of the time wanted, to be free to seek adventures, and to find his fortune in the wide open spaces of the Old West. Better known as “Wild Bill,” he remains one of the first and most famous Western gunfighters. Although his reputation as a gunfighter grew to astounding proportions, Wild Bill actually killed fewer men than were accounted for in the newspapers and dime novels of his day. He drew his revolvers in face-to-face confrontations only six times that are recorded. This number of men is far less than the fabricated estimations of the hundreds of men he is said to have killed.
A man of great courage, ruthless in his encounters with his enemies, James Hickok was exceptionally cool under fire and in any dire situation. During his short lifetime, his amazing adventures and feats of daring were written about in highly exaggerated articles in newspapers. More fantastic stories of him appeared in cheap novels, and word-of-mouth spread the stories to the general public, which was hungry for stories of the heroes and villains of the new, wild lands in the Western Territories of the 1800’s. Even Wild Bill himself could not resist embellishing on his own stories about himself to anyone who would lend an ear.
Although he was generally a friendly man and a loyal friend, Hickok had his dark side. More often than not it was brought on by his heavy drinking, when he could be brash, outspoken and arrogant. His friendly, easy-going manner hid a ruthlessness unmatched by any adversary he met. Behind the calm, collected face lay an acute wariness, a sense of foreboding and paranoia. Even as he had become the best man with a gun, Wild Bill had inadvertently made himself a target for every aspiring gunfighter who had the nerve to try to earn the mantle of the man who killed Hickok.
By one account from a friend:
“Wild Bill had the bearing of a hunted animal. His eyes seemed restless, ever watchful as he nervously searched about him in the saloons and on the streets which he controlled as a lawman, sizing up every stranger for signs of danger. When he played cards, which he did at every opportunity, he maintained a vigil to prevent a potential enemy from stealing up behind him, going so far as to insist on having a chair at the table that put his back to the wall. He never backed down from a fight, taking any opposition head on.”
And yet, in spite of his vigilance, the assault he had guarded against all his life finally caught up to him in a ramshackle saloon, where he was shot and killed. Gunned down from behind by a coward while his guard was loosened in a friendly game of cards.
Donala Aday is a writer, artist, and the author of Wild Bill - The Story of James Butler Hickok. Buy it today at Lulu.com