GUNFIGHTERS OF THE OLD WEST
by Norman B. Wiltsey
From the 1967 Gun Digest
Gunfighter! The word alone has magic. It seems to leap from the printed page to produce a complete image in the reader’s mind. A deserted sun-baked street in a Western town. Horses dozing at hitching rails in front of suddenly quietened saloons. Faces pressed against windows in horrified anticipation, an air of unbearable tension over all. Slowly, from opposite ends of the street, two hard-faced men in big hats and spurs approach each other, hands hovering over low-slung sixguns, eyes locked. One wears a badge, the other is an outlaw. The lawman, being the “good guy,” waits for the other to make his move, then beats him to the draw and guns him down. The timid townsmen rush from their hiding places, shouting, “Are you all right, Marshal?” The noble lawman, gazing down at his defunct adversary, answers quietly, sadly, from the depths of his priceless sense of noblesse oblige. “I’m all right. Take him to Boot Hill and give him a decent burial. He was game. I liked him. I hated to have to kill him.”
Only one thing is wrong with this picture; it rarely, if ever, happened.
Marshal and outlaw, both equally imbued with nature’s first law – self-preservation – would have opened fire the instant he was within effective range. The so-called “Code of the West,” as described above, was probably an invention of dime-novel writers like Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham, subsequently elaborated upon and polished to a glowing luster by Owen Wister in The Virginian, Zane Grey and Max Brand in scores of books, and a host of other scribblers up to and including the literary hacks who grind out reams of pap for today’s television audiences.
The blunt truth is that it was damned hard to distinguish the good gunfighters fro the bad gunfighters, and decent hard-working citizens avoided both as they would a rattlesnake. One trait in particular marked the average lawman and the average outlaw: both were oft for the fast easy buck, and neither had any repugnance at taking human life.
Consider Wild Bill Hickok, the so-called “Prince of Pistoleers.” Students of Western lore generally agree that Wild Bill got a cut from the sporting houses of Abilene, Kan., while town marshal there. How else could he have gambled heavily, drunk the best whiskey the town afforded and dressed in such fancy style? Certainly not on the $50 or so a month the town council paid him.
Hickok was a good man with a gun, but not consistent. In his celebrated duel with Dave Tutt in Springfield, Mo., in 1865, Wild Bill displayed the cool nerve and accurate marksmanship his legion of admirers claim was always his. The shootout even went off according to fictionalized protocol, to a degree. After an argument each warned the other that the next time they met there’d be powder burned.
Hickok killed Tutt at an estimated range of 75 yards the next day; Bill on one side of the town square, Dave on the other. Tutt, tensed and nervous, drew first and got off 4 shots – all misses—before Bill, steadying his 1860 Army Colt with both hands, fired one shot that drilled Tutt dead center.
Contrast this classic shootout with a later bloody event in Abilene in ’71, when Hickok was marshal there. He got into a fist fight with gambler Phil Coe over Jessie Hazel, a local dancehall girl. Drunk and ugly, Bill was slapping the girl around for making up to Coe, when the powerfully built Texas gambler stepped in and beat up Hickok, If Jessie hadn’t intervened, Phil might have killed the marshal. In any case, Phil sealed his own doom by making a punching bag out of Hickok. Bill sobered up the next day and came around to Coe’s Bull’s Head Saloon to apologize to Phil. The two men shook hands, and Phil figured that was an end to the quarrel. He couldn’t have made a worse guess.
Hickok Kills Enemy and Friend
Several days later Coe used his six-shooter to kill a vicious dog in the street. Hickok heard the shot and came running, his long hair flying, and demanded to know why Phil had fired. Coe started to explain when Bill drew two derringers and shot Phil in the chest at a range of 6 feet. Coe went down, gasping “Hickok, you bastard!” before a gush of blood from his mouth drowned his voice forever.
Out of the corner of his eye Hickok saw an armed man running toward him from across the street. He dropped the empty derringers, whipped out a sixgun and killed him. Only then did Bill recognize the second victim as Mike Williams, his own deputy who had been stationed at a theater down the street. Mike had heard the shots and was rushing to help Bill. Hickok dropped to his knees, took Williams’ head in his hands and sobbed wildly. “Mike was my friend!” he cried “I never meant to kill him!”
More despicable than this shocking incident was Hickok’s callous murder of a harmless old Sioux chief named Whistler in the fall of 1872, after Hickok had stopped at Hickok’s buffalo hunters’ camp on the prairie to ask for food. The old chief made the mistake of also asking for coffee after accepting the piece of fried buffalo steak the white men gave him. Bill and partner, Newt Moreland, ignored the chief’s sign. Whistler walked to the pot hanging over the cookfire and made the sign for pouring. Hickok’s insane temper flared; he pulled a sixgun and shot the chief dead. The subchief tried to knock down Bill’s gun hand and was killed by Moreland. Hickok completed the slaughter by shooting down the nephew. The bodies were hidden in a gully west of camp and the killers lit out fast before Whistler’s band discovered the body of their missing chief and came after them.
Western writer Mari Sandoz mentions this triple murder in The Buffalo Hunter’s.
Then there was Wyatt Earp, practically deified by author Stuart Lake in his book Frontier Marshal and later “immortalized” by actor Hugh O’Brian in a lengthy television series. The truth is that Earp was a pretty shady character who often operated on both sides of the law. Ed Bartholomew, a Texas writer who has made a career of ferreting out the truth about these heroes of the Old West, makes this fact abundantly clear in his thoroughly documented books, Wyatt Earp, The Untold Story and Wyatt Earp, The Man and The Myth. Among other indictments, Bartholomew accuses Earp and his cohorts of murder in the notorious OK Corral gunfight with the McLowerys and Clantons at Tombstone, Ariz., in September, 1881. Ed also cites the interesting information that Wyatt was once arrested for horse stealing in Indian Territory.
Earp’s favorite sidearm was the 12” barreled Buntline Special presented to him by dime-novel writer Ned Buntline. However, despite all the wild claims made about his gun-slinging ability, Earp preferred a double-barreled shotgun stuffed with buckshot when he had to face some hard-case gunman aiming to perforate his hid. The success of this tactic may be judged by the fact that cagey Wyatt died in bed at 83.
Incidentally, Buntline also presented one of his Specials, reputedly made to order for him at the Colt factory, to lawmen Bat Masterson and Bill Tilghman in Dodge City in the fall of 1875, on the occasion of his gift to Earp. Each Colt had “NED” carved into its walnut butt and fitted smoothly into a fine handtooled holster. Each was also provided with a demountable stock and buckskin sling. The value of this fancy extra equipment was obscure to the flattered recipients until Buntline explained that if “a man was caught out on the prairie, surrounded by hostile redskins, he could quickly convert his six-shooter into a rifle and make the rascals bite the dust.”
Earp, Tilghman and Masterson were unconvinced, but of course they promptly accepted the expensive Colts.
Masterson and Tilghman waited until Buntline left town, and then cut the barrels of their Specials down to 8 inches. Earp kept his intact, using it mostly to belt obstreperous drunks over the head with the footlong barrel. The gun was lost in the Yukon in 1901, when Wyatt lent it to a friend whose boat capsized in a storm. Private collectors are believed to have acquired Masterson’s and Tilghman’s Specials at their deaths in 1921 and 1924 respectively.
The tubercular ex-dentist, Doc Holliday, was another Old West gunfighter who preferred a shotgun to a sixgun when the chips were down. In the over-rated and much-publicized OK Corral fight, Doc packed his shotgun while Wyatt Earp unaccountably stuck to his Colt 45. Doc, who was especially dangerous because he knew he was doomed by “the bug,” gave Tom McLowery a double dose of buckshot “right in the bread basket” as he later described it with his macabre brand of humor. Of the 6 men killed or wounded on that bloody day in Tombstone, all except Tom McLowery were hit by revolver bullets. Significantly, all except Tom managed to get off a shot or two after being hit. Another famous shotgun yarn, probably apocryphal but possibly true, is Wyatt Earp’s melodramatic account of killing the outlaw Curly Bill Brocius at Iron Springs, Ariz. Lord knows who Wyatt’s ghost-writer was, but he sounded like Ned Buntline. Earp’s story (condensed) follows: “I climbed down off my horse… As I stood there cocking my gun, I looked the 9 men (outlaws) over. Every rifle seemed aimed at me. I rather resented that. I wanted to kill Curly Bill. I believed he had been in both plots that had resulted in the wounding of my brother Virgil and the death of my brother Morgan. I felt that if any one of these 9 men killed me before I killed Curly Bill, he would rob me of my one chance of vengeance, and I’d never have another. I suddenly seemed to be praying, and my prayer was that I wouldn’t be killed before I killed Curly Bill. So I raised my shotgun to my shoulder and drew a careful bead on Curly Bill. As I sighted at Curly Bill, he was sighting at me. I could see the deep wrinkles about one of his eyes that was squinted shut. His other eye, held down close to his gun, was wide open. I noticed with curious interest that this one eye, blazing murderously at me over his rifle barrel, was blacker than I remembered his eyes to have been when I saw him last. Then I pulled both triggers.
“Curly Bill threw up his hands. His rifle flew high in the air. He gave a yell that could have been heard a mile as he went down. I saw him no more. Each one of my shotgun shells was loaded with 9 buckshot. Both charges struck him full in the breast…
“My hat,” added fearless Wyatt in conclusion, “had 5 bullet holes in it, 2 in the crown and 3 in the brim. Bullets had ripped ragged rents up and down the legs of my pants. The bottom of my coat on both sides, where it had been held out by the holsters and the handles of my six-shooters, had been torn into strings and shreds. But, as by a miracle, I had not received a scratch.”
This alleged killing kicked up a storm of controversy around Tombstone. The pro-Earp Epitaph printed an account of Curly Bill’s death, agreeing in all detail with Wyatt’s colorful report. The anti-Earp Nugget ridiculed the story. Interested citizens asked the logical question: “If Earp killed Curly Bill, what did he do with the body? Where is it?”
The Nugget offered a $1000 reward for proof that Curly Bill was dead; the Epitaph countered with an offer of $2000 for proof that Curly Bill was alive. It appears no search for the body was ever made, and no evidence ever produced that he had been killed. Rumors flew in Tombstone that Bill’s outlaw pals had taken his body to Charleston and buried it secretly at night. Wyatt Earp maintained a grim, mysterious silence.
(Parenthetically, in 1961 this writer asked several old-timers in Tombstone what they thought of Earp’s story. Their answers were hardly illuminating. Opinions were divided as to whether Wyatt had spun a windy yarn for the Epitaph or if he had really killed the outlaw. One man related the ancient, romantic tale that Curly Bill had just ridden across the border into Chihuahua, married a wealthy Mexican girl and raised cattle and children on a fine hacienda. The last gentleman I interviewed, a white-whiskered gnome named Billy Jack Carter, gave me, in exchange for a drink of bourbon, what I considered the most refreshingly honest answer of all: “Pardner, I don’t know whether Wyatt Earp killed Curly Bill, and frankly, I don’t give a damn!”)
Billy the Kid
William Bonney – the legendary Billy the Kid – an extreme example of the juvenile delinquent of his day, is popularly credited with gunning down 21 men, one for each year of his short life. Billy himself allegedly claimed that figure as his “dead list” and publicly announced his firm intention of making Sheriff Pat Garrett his 22nd victim.
This is all too pat and is, in fact, the invention of two newspapermen, Ash Upson, ghost author of the Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, and Walter Noble Burns, who followed Upson’s book whit his own highly melodramatic The Saga of Billy the Kid. To these two lurid scribes may be attributed most of the myths and legends connected with Billy Bonney’s life.
Certain it is that the Kid killed a blacksmith named Frank (Windy) Cahill at Camp Grant, Ariz., in 1877; also that he killed 2 more men before lanky Pat Garret, in a classic refutation of the phony Code of the West established by the dime-novel scribblers, shot his erstwhile friend Billy through the heart from the protective darkness of Pete Maxwell’s bedroom at Fort Sumner N.M. in July of 1881. The Kid, standing in the doorway of the room, mercilessly silhouetted against the moonlight, died with his 41 Colt double action in his hand as he anxiously inquired “Quien es?” (Who’s there?).
Actually, only these 3 killings by the Kid can be authenticated beyond question: the shooting of Cahill and the murders of Deputy Sheriffs J. W. Bell and Bob Ollinger. Billy was arrested and sentenced to be hanged for the murder of Sheriff Bill Brady of Lincoln, N.M., although several of the Kid’s pals joined in the ambush slaying of Sheriff Brady and Deputy George Hindman on April 1, 1878. Brady had been riddled by 8 or 10 bullet; Hindman was hit between the shoulder blades by a single slug as he was running away.
There was no sure way of knowing who killed either Brady of Hindman, but the Kid, captured with 3 companions by Sheriff Garret in December, 1880, took the rap for Brady’s death. Billy cheated the gallows by killing both his jailers on April 28, 1881.
On that fateful date, Deputy Bob Ollinger left his shotgun, a double-barreled 10-gauge Colt sidelock, whose Damascus barrels had been sawed off to 18 inches, leaning against a wall of the prisoner’s room on the second floor of the courthouse at Lincoln, while he crossed the street to eat supper at a Mexican café. That was Ollinger’s first mistake. His second was leaving the Kid in charge of Deputy J. W. Bell.
Bell’s mistake, which triggered his own death and subsequently that of Ollinger, was in wearing his Colt 45 in a hip holster within Billy’s reach while he played a sociable game of cards with the little bucktoothed killer. The Kid purposely dropped a card on the floor and Bell stooped to retrieve it. The instant his head ducked below the edge of the table, Billy reached swiftly with both manacled hands and snatched the deputy’s gun.
Bell broke for the stairs and Kid shot him in the back. The deputy rolled down the stairs, his body crashing into old man Geiss, sitting on the bottom step. Geiss dashed out and across the street to warn Ollinger.
Billy worked his slender hands out of the ill-fitting handcuffs, picked up Ollinger’s loaded shotgun and stepped to an open window overlooking the downstairs side door. Ollinger, racing across the street with drawn Colt, was brought up short by the Kid’s sardonic shout: “Hello, Bob!”
Ollinger looked up in dread, knowing he was doomed. Billy blasted the deputy’s face and neck with a load of buckshot, killing him instantly. Then in a paroxysm of fury, the Kid fired the second barrel into Ollinger’s dead body and wound up his maniacal performance by hurling the empty shotgun at the deputy’s shattered face.
No townsman lifted a weapon to challenge him as he ordered old Geiss to round up a horse for his getaway. Pat Garrett was away that day, over in White Oaks arranging for the construction of a gallows that Billy was destined never to decorate.
The Deadly Shotgun
It is most enlightening to the researcher in Western Americana to discover that the unglamorous but deadly efficient shotgun played a far more important role in the taming of the West than the writers of the “Draw, you varmint!” school of scribblers care to admit. Tough John Slaughter, Sheriff of Cochise County, Ariz., in the late ‘80’s put a reporter from a New York newspaper straight on the matter in short order. Somehow the dude scribe got up the nerve to ask Slaughter why he carried a shotgun along with a Winchester 44-40 and a Colt 44 revolver on his manhunts.
John’s hard black eyes narrowed in contempt. “To kill men with, you damned fool!” he snapped.
Which simple, cold fact explains why so many gunfighters on both sides of the law, packed the lethal scattergun as an essential tool of their dangerous trade. At long range, of course, there was no substitute for the rifle, so John Slaughter, Wyatt Earp and many others packed shotgun, Winchester and six-shooter.
The great advantage of the shotgun to the average man was that with it he was equal – often superior – to the professional gunslinger. Shotguns fired by ordinary citizens broke up the James-Younger gang in the Northfield, Minn., bank robbery, and in Trinity City, Texas, John Wesley Hardin, who gunned down 44 men during his bloody career, came within inches of death by a scattergun in the hands of Phil Sublet. Hardin pulled through because of a heave, gold-laden money belt that stopped most of the charge of buckshot, but he was out of action for several months.
Stagecoach guards carried sawed-off shotguns in addition to rifles and revolvers, and the phrase “riding shotgun” became an indelible part of Western vernacular and legend.”
The Deadliest Gunfighter
Now to get down to the difficult task of picking the fastest and deadliest gunfighter of them all. Ever since the roaring heyday of the Old West, a hot and endless controversy has raged best merited that dubious distinction. Some passionately believe Wild Bill Hickok rated the title. Others hail Ben Thompson, Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson as champion. Clay Allison, the so-called “Wolf of the Washita,” has his ardent devotees; so has “Bad Bill” Longley and “Longhair” Jim Courtright. Other and lesser known gunfighters have their cliques of admirers.
All current comment about the speed of today’s quick-draw artist versus the old-time gunfighter is, in my opinion, sheer nonsense. Today’s fast draw expert benefits from superior equipment and the all-important knowledge that he won’t feel the tearing shock of an opponent’s bullet in his vitals if his draw is a shade slow or his aim a bit off. Yet, in the old wild days, as exemplified in the Hickok-Tutt affair, the man who drew first and fired first was often the victim of the steel-nerved gent who took time to aim after he drew. So the controversy remains unsolved, perhaps unsolvable.
To my mind since the primary function of a man with a gun is to kill, all the heated arguments are academic if not indeed absurd. Slice it any way you wish, first choice in gunfighters must be dictated by lethal performance with firearms and nothing else. To be fair, it is my contention that two champions should be picked; the best with a revolver, and the best with a rifle. My choices:
Best gunfighter with a revolver – John Wesley Hardin.
Best gunfighter with a rifle – Harry Tracy.
John Wesley Hardin
Hardin, a minister’s son, killed his first man, a Negro who had offended him, in 1868 when Wes was 15. Texas in this period was under the stern military role of Gen. Philip Sheridan, writhing beneath an iron-fisted federal dictatorship. The hectic times were ripe for the development of outlaws and desperadoes, pledged to fight the Federals at every turn. Young Hardin, burning with an obscure sense of injustice and persecution, became the worst of a bad lot, the deadliest gunfighter the West ever produced.
Hardin studded a gory career with 44 killing. No man kills 44 fellow humans, no matter what the provocation, unless he enjoys killing. That gruesome fact does much to explain the spine-chilling enigma of Wes Hardin.
Typically, Hardin blamed the Civil War and the hatreds and pressures it engendered for the bitter waste and ruin of his life. In later years, after a long stretch in prison, he stated that “but for the war, I would have been the preacher or lawyer my father wanted me to be.” A psychologist friend, studying Hardin’s incredible case history, termed this argument “the killer’s out.” He added that some dark flaw in the personality of the multiple killer keeps him killing over and over again. That is the stark and terrible fact that distinguishes the repeat killer from the one-timer who kills only in panic or in the heat of rage, passion, or jealousy. For proof, consider Hardin’s own account of his first killing from his autobiography:
“I stopped in the road and Maje (the Negro) came at me with his big stick. He struck me, and as he did, I pulled out a Colt 44 six-shooter and told him to get back. By this time Maje had my horse by the bridle, but I shot him loose.
“He kept coming back and every time he would start, I would shoot him again and again until I shot him down. Then I went to where Maje was lying. Maje still showed signs of fight and called me a liar. If it had not been for my uncle, I would have shot him again…”
With that telltale remark, “I would have shot him again,” Hardin, all unconsciously, disclosed the vicious pattern he was to follow for 9 years, the span during which he forged his formidable reputation before the Texas Rangers brought him to justice and he was sentenced to 25 years at hard labor in the State Penitentiary at Huntsville.
Through every one of the numerous killings recounted by Hardin in his book, runs the whining theme: It wasn’t my fault, I was forced to kill by circumstances.”
Shortly after his brutal killing of Maje, Hardin went on the dodge to avoid arrest. A friendly rancher tipped him off that three federal cavalrymen were trailing him. Wes thanked his benefactor and rode on.
Near a ford where the trail crossed a creek coursing through a gully, young Hardin coolly prepared his ambush. The troopers rode unsuspecting to their deaths. We gunned down the corporal, then charged, shooting and giving the Rebel yell. One trooper put a bullet through Hardin’s left arm before toppling from his horse, gut-shot and dying. The remaining trooper whirled his mount and tried to escape, but Hardin put two slugs into his back and brought him down.
Neighboring ranchers, after attending to Hardin’s wounded arm, helped him bury the 3 bodies in the creek bed. The soldiers’ clothing, saddle blankets and saddles were burned, the U.S.-branded horses shot and buried. Not a vestige of evidence was left for “snooping Yankee patrols” to uncover.
Hardin’s One-Man War
Wes headed for the Brazos River country. He drifted aimlessly about the southern range for several months before he figured the heat was off and moved back north.
Hardin’s life became a one-man war against all constituted authority. Wes did not keep and exact account of his lengthening “dead list,” but the following shooting is a typical one. The scene” Christmas Day, 1869 in the wide-open Texas town of Towash-on-the-Brazos. The environment was ideal for the slim, smiling, 16-year-old. Horse racing during the day and sky-limit poker games at night made up the schedule. Afternoons resounded to the drumming of racing hooves and the yips of excited gamblers; the nights were hideous with yells, screams and pistol shots. There was no effective law within 200 miles.
Self-proclaimed “chief” of the town was a huge, red-faced bully known as “Big” Bradley. It was inevitable that Bradley and Hardin would clash. In a day of fast action, Wes won over $1000, mostly from Bradley. In a misguided moment, Bradley drew on the youthful desperado after blowing his last dollar to Wes in a poker game. Hardin recounted the fight in these words:
“He commenced to fire on me, firing once, then snapping (misfiring) and firing again. I fired a 45 at his heart and another at his head. He staggered and fell and said: ‘Oh Lordy, don’t shoot me any more.’ I could not stop. I kept shooting…”
Hardin got clean away after the Bradley killing and roamed about Texas, working his way on cattle ranches as he went. The $1000 he had won gambling was carefully secreted in a money belt he wore at all times. This was his gambling stake, not to be used for such mundane necessities as food and shelter. Eventually Wes reached Brenham, in Washington County, another hot gambling town. Here, for the first time, the boy outlaw met such experts with pistols and pasteboards as Ben Thompson, the deft-fingered Austin gambler, flamboyant King Fisher, suave, dangerous Phil Coe, and other tough gentry who lived by their wits and gunsmoke.
Here Hardin also met Bad Bill Longley, reputed to be the fasted gun in all Texas. Something about the assured youngster warned Longley not to “hooraw” the newcomer, as he was fond of doing to cocky kids who thought they were gunfighters.
“This kid’s got the eyes of a gunman,” explained Bill to a questioning friend. “Cold – and crazy! I don’t mess with that kind unless the blue chips are down and it’s me or them. Bad medicine!”
Moving on, Hardin was arrested for the first time in the little Texas border town of Longview. Wes feigned sleep until his 3 captors dozed off under the influence of the campfire’s heat and few belts of whiskey. The second barrel took care of another guard. Awakened by the booming shotgun, the third lawman found himself looking into the muzzle of a sixgun held by Hardin. The first bullet drilled him squarely between the eyes, killing him instantly, but Wes “kept shooting until I was satisfied he was dead.”
Hardin vs. Hickok
It is unnecessary to give a detailed account of all Hardin’s killings, but his oft-recounted clash with Wild Bill Hickok, in which not a shot was fired, is interesting. It took place in Abiline, then a wide-open town, in 1871. In this confrontation, either Hardin got the drop on Wild Bill and spared his life, or Hickok ran Wes out of town - depending on which “authentic” account is accepted.
Wes tells it this way: “I was playing tenpins. I had two six-shooters on … Several Texans were there, rolling pins and drinking. I suppose we were pretty noisy. Wild Bill Came in and said we were making too much noise and told me to take off my pistols until I got ready to go out of town. I told him I was ready to go now, but did not propose to put up my pistols, go or no go. He went out and I followed him. I started up the street when someone behind me shouted: ‘Set up! All down but 9!’
“Wild Bill whirled around and faced me. ‘What are you howling about and what are you doing with those pistols on?’ he said. He pulled his pistols. ‘Take off your guns. I arrest you!’
“I said ‘All right,’ and pulled them out of the scabbards, but while he was reaching for them I reversed them and whirled them over with the muzzles in his face, springing back at the same time. I told him to put up his pistol, which he did. I cursed him for a longhaired coward who would shoot boy with his back to him (as I had been told he intended to do to me).”
The episode ended, according to Hardin, with Hickok praising Wes as “the gamest and quickest boy I ever saw” and buying him a drink.
Hardin kept his guns and it was well for him that he did. A few nights later, as he lay in bed in his hotel room, an intruder tried to knife him. Wes emptied one sixgun into the knife-wielder and fled through the window in his “long-johns,” followed by his roommate Gip Clements, as Marshal Hickok and several men pounded up the stairs to crash open the door. Wes and Gip didn’t stop running until they reached the camp of their fellow Texans out on the prairie.
Wes must have figured Kansas wasn’t healthy for him, for after getting back to Texas he never ventured north of the Red River again. Neither did he mention his humiliating exit from Abilene until he wrote his memoirs many years later.
Hardin celebrated his return to Texas by killing 3 Negro policemen who attempted to arrest him. Fresh from this heroic exploit, Wes married his sweetheart, Jane Bowen, and went into horse trading and selling as a means of making a living. His intentions were perhaps of the best, but Hardin was not the man to stay out of trouble long. In his next escapade, a silly row over a game of tenpins in Trinity City, he sustained his first serious wound - several buckshot in the belly. While recuperating from this nearly fatal shooting, a sheriff’s posse arrested Hardin and took him to Gonzalez jail to stand trial for a variety of crimes. A friend slipped Wes a hacksaw and he cut his way out on October 10, 1872.
Again Hardin tried to go straight - and again he failed. He became involved in the savage Taylor-Sutton feud, one of the famous blood feuds of the Southwest. Hardin’s cousins, the four Clements boys, Jim, Manning, Joe, and Gip, were Taylor kinsmen and that fact automatically made Wes a Taylor partisan. Deputy Sheriff J.B. Morgan tried to arrest Hardin in front of Cuero barroom. Knowing that Morgan was in sympathy with the Suttons, Wes beat Morgan to the draw and killed him. He rode out of town unmolested.
Angrily, Sheriff Jack Helms announced his intention of “getting” Hardin, but it was Wes who got Helms. “The news spread that I had killed Jack Helms,” wrote Wes, “and I received many letters of thanks from the widows of the men he had cruelly put to death . . .”
No indictment was ever returned against Hardin for killing Sheriff Helms.
Wes Hardin’s glamorous world of horse racing, gambling and unrestricted gunplay crashed about him in the spring of 1874, after he had killed a deputy sheriff named Webb in the booming frontier town of Comanche. Run out of town by a raging mob, Hardin fled Texas for Florida, where he set up business as a cattle dealer.
Rangers on the Trail
In August of ’77, Texas Ranger Captain Armstrong and Ranger Jack Duncan learned Hardin had moved to Polard, Ala., engaged in the lumber business, and was living there with his wife and two children under the name of J.H. Swain. The two Rangers started at once by train for Alabama. On August 20 they arrived at Pensacola Junction, the railroad station closest to Pollard. Luck was with them; the first man the talked to was Will Chipley, manager of the Pensacola Railroad, who recently had beaten up Brown Bowen, Hardin’s brother-in-law. Bowen had threatened to send the ex-gunfighter after him, boasting that J.H. Swain was really Wes Hardin. Chipley told the Rangers that Hardin was then in Pensacola, Fla., arranged a special train to take them there, and went along to help out in any way he could.
Chipley spotted Hardin playing poker in a Pensacola saloon on the night of August 22, and sat in the game until he heard Hardin say he was taking the early morning train back to Pollard. Chipley reported back to the Rangers, who - with the help of the local law officers - set up a trap to capture Hardin on the train.
Deputy Purdue, who knew Hardin as Swain, walked up to Wes after he had taken his seat to shake hands. Purdue gripped the outlaw’s gun hand while the local Sheriff Hutchinson and two deputies rushed from the rear platform and sprang upon Hardin’s back.
Jim Mann, Hardin’s companion, sprinted for the north platform and leaped to the ground. Captain Armstrong, thinking he was Hardin, shot Mann. Realizing his mistake, the Ranger rushed into the coach and shoved the muzzle of his smoking Colt into Hardin’s face. “Surrender, Hardin, or I’ll blow your head off!”
Hardin, struggling furiously with the lawman, glared at the long-barreled Frontier Colt. “Texas! Well, blow away! I ain’t afraid to die!”
But the odds were too great and Wes knew it. He surrendered and was returned to Texas. Tried specifically for the murder of Deputy Webb, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in the penitentiary. Hardin’s appeal was denied; his sentence was confirmed on October 3, 1878.
Wes was pardoned by Gov. James Stephen Hogg on March 16, 1894, after serving 16 years and five months. Hardin’s wife had died while he was in prison and his children were being cared for by relatives. Wes opened a law office in his home town of Gonzalez, Texas, and entered politics as a sideline. Hardin’s candidate for Sheriff, John Coleman, was soundly beaten by the incumbent, Bill Jones. Old resentments flared during the hot campaign and suddenly. Gonzalez no longer welcomed native son Hardin. He received anonymous threats against his life, and where the old Wes Hardin would have remained and dared his enemies to test his mettle in gunplay, the shaken ex-convict hurriedly pulled up stakes and headed west for El Paso. He was only 41; young enough for a fresh start in a new town.
El Paso, bawdy border town on the Rio Grande, was the last outpost of the old-time wild Texas through which Hardin had shot a bloody trail years before. It looked and felt like home to Wes.
Hardin hung out his shingle as a lawyer but quickly learned that legal business was scarce for an ex-con who had learned his profession in prison. Soon he gave up his office and turned to the poker tables to make a living. He was still a topnotch gambler and plenty of suckers were ripe for the taking. Within a month Wes had run up a hefty stake and begun to live like a gentleman of means. He bought new clothes and boots and took to wearing his guns again; two Colt 41 revolvers in holsters built into a fancy calfskin vest. This revolutionary rig was Hardin’s own invention, designed for speedy draws at a card table.
Money and new clothes inevitably led to women, and women just as inevitably led to trouble. After playing the field for a time, Wes settled down more or less steadily with a boisterous female named McRose. Mrs. McRose was adept at giving the Rebel yell and shooting out the lights in a saloon she favored with her patronage if anything displeased her. Police officer “Young John” Selman, son of the famed gun-fighting constable “Old John” Selman, arrested Mrs. McRose after one such ruckus, confiscated her small pearl-handled revolver and placed her in a cell overnight to sober up.
Hardin was across the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico, that night. Hearing the news on his return the next morning, he hurried to the police station to bail out his sweetheart. At gaming tables around town that night, Wes was loudly voicing his low opinion of a police officer ungallant enough to “jail a weak defenseless woman just for having a little harmless fun”.
Mrs. McRose was about as weak and defenseless as a mountain lion and Officer Selman had the claw marks to prove it, yet the whole absurd affair appeared to have simmered down until, several weeks after the McRose incident, John Selman, Sr., met Hardin on the street. Heated words were exchanged before the two gunfighters went their respective ways. Selman later claimed that Wes had tried to goad him into drawing by calling Young John a “cowardly sonofabitch”. Selman had refused the bait, declining to be suckered into a showdown shootout. Nearing 60, even with twenty notches on his gun, Old John new his reflexes had slowed enough to get him killed in a gun duel with Hardin. But he brooded about the gratuitous insult to his son, a decent young officer who had merely done his duty in arresting the McRose woman. Old John had a score to settle with Wes Hardin.
At quarter to eleven on the night of August 19, 1895, Hardin entered the Acme Saloon and headed for the bar. Friends asked him to join their poker game, but he replied: “Not now, boys. I’m thirsty.”
Fifteen minutes passed. Hardin, his back turned carelessly to the door, was shaking dice for the drinks with a pal, Henry Brown. Wes had just thrown the dice when Old John Selman walked into the room.
“I’m lucky tonight,” exulted Hardin. “Four sixes to beat…”
Behind him, Selman jerked to a halt as he spotted his deadly enemy. For just a moment he froze, then drew and fired.
Hardin jolted against the bar as if slammed by a giant fist, hung there a second, then slid to the floor across the brass rail, his face in the dirty sawdust. Blood, dripping from a head wound, bubbled from his last dying breath. Selman’s bullet had struck him in the back of the head, emerging from his left eye. The killer pumped 3 more bullets into Hardin, then backed into the night through the batwing doors. Nobody followed him.
At the official inquiry, Selman swore Hardin had reached for a pistol and he was forced to shoot to save his own life. Selman’s lawyer argued that his client, knowing Hardin’s reputation as a gunfighter and remembering the vicious threats he had made against both Old John and his son, was amply justified in shooting when he saw Hardin’s arm move. Nobody stressed the fact that Wes had moved his arm to throw dice instead of reaching for a gun.
Typical of the times was the cynical remark of one spectator: “I figure that if Selman shot Wes Hardin in the back of the head, he was a damn good citizen! If he shot him in the eye, he was a damn good marksman! Either way is O.K. far’s I’m concerned, just so long as the bastard’s dead.”
Harry Tracy, rustler, robber and multiple killer, was probably the most deadly rifle shot of all Western outlaws. He is also perhaps the best exponent of the late Dr. Walter Prescott Webb’s interesting theory that it is absence of fear rather than the presence of courage that makes the true gunfighter.
Tracy, who regarded his rifle as the only real friend he ever had, used a 45070 Springfield while a member of Butch Cassidy’s infamous Hole-in-the Wall gang in Wyoming, but turned to the 1894 Winchester 30-30 in his last wild days in the Northwest.
Tracy broke jail in Aspen, Colo., in 1896 and headed for Portland, Ore., where he teamed up with another Hole-in-the Wall graduate, Dave Merril, to form a team of hold-up men known as the False Face bandits because of the grotesque Halloween masks they wore as disguises. Harry also married Dave’s sister, Rose, a sultry singer of salty ballads in gambling joints. Operation False Face came to an abrupt end when Dave, grabbed by police and given the rubber hose treatment, broke down and named Tracy as the other bandit. Harry, who eluded the lawmen when Dave was arrested, was captured after being wounded by the police in a spectacular running gunfight in Portland.
Both men were tried for identical crimes, convicted and sentenced. Merrill drew 12 years and Tracy 20 in the Oregon State Penitentiary at Salem. Egotistical Harry, considering himself the leader of the pair, did not question the sharp discrepancy in the respective sentences.
Merrill and Tracy remained in the penitentiary almost 3 years before a released criminal named Wright somehow smuggled tow 30-30 Winchesters and a supply of ammunition into the prison to Harry and Dave.
On June 9, 1902, Tracy and Merrill, accompanied by another inmate, shot their way out, killing 3 guards. Leaving the third escapee to shift for himself, Tracy and Merrill headed toward Portland, sleeping in the woods by day and traveling at night. Hurriedly formed posses, aided by 250 men of the Oregon state militia, joined in the manhunt, to no avail.
The fugitives made frequent stops at isolated farmhouses for food and a look at the newspapers. The frightened farm folk wisely gave the killers what they wanted. Tracy and Merrill didn’t harm them and they reciprocated by not informing the lawmen until the fearsome pair had been long gone.
The pursuit was heating up and the fleeing outlaws bypassed Portland and headed north into Washington. Somewhere along the way Tracy killed Merrill. Apparently he had seen a newspapers item revealing that Dave had betrayed him to the law.
Early in August, Ed Cudihee, sheriff of King County, heard that Tracy was hiding out in a farmhouse near Bothell, north of Seattle. The late Jack Parberry, ex-miner, police captain, and later a well-known rancher near Scio, Ore., writing to the author at the Austin, Texas, offices of True West in 1957, described what happened next:
“Cudihee followed Tracy to Mrs. Van Horn’s house . . . He could see two men in the house . . .A boy delivered groceries to the home in the evening, and Mrs. Van Horn whispered to him that Tracy was there. When the boy came out, Cudihee sent word by him to notify the chief of police. A game warden and some special officers heard the news and said: ‘Let’s go up and grab Tracy before Ed gets him.’
“When Tracy came out of the house, two of the officers, green at that kind of deadly work, ordered Tracy to throw down his gun. He killed them both and ducked into the woods. Tracy was too tough for inexperienced lawmen to tangle with; a fact he proved over and over.”
Prove it he did. Eight officers fell to Tracy’s deadly Winchester before the showdown shootout on the L.B. Eddy farm near Creston, Wash.
Tracy, who had holed up in the farmhouse on the morning of August 5, spotted a number of armed men converging on the house that afternoon. Buckling on a Colt 45 he had acquired in his two-month flight and grabbing his rifle, Harry dashed for a wheat field. The waist-high wheat would have provided some concealment, but he never reached it. Stumbling over a rock, he fell heavily . Retrieving his fallen rifle, Tracy took a bullet in the leg before he could get off a shot.
Ignoring the agonizing pain, Tracy shot at the officer who had hit him – and missed!
For a moment Harry stood on his one good leg, staring in stunned amazement at the weapon that had betrayed him. Then, in grim despair, he dropped the rifle, pulled the Colt from his belt and fired a fatal bullet through his head.
Later, examining the outlaw’s rifle, the posse discovered why deadshot Tracy had missed such an easy target. The Winchester’s front sight had been bent and rendered useless from striking a rock when Tracy fell.
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