of the most famous gunfights from the fabled era of the gunfighter
might or might not have taken place and involved (or didn't involve)
some of the most iconic names of the Old West: Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill
Hickok and notorious Texas gunfighters John Wesley Hardin and Clay
Actually, they weren't gunfights at all. Not a shot was fired in either
case. They were more like edgy confrontations.
first incident centers on an alleged confrontation between Hickok
and Hardin in Abilene, Kansas in 1871. Hardin was 18 years old
but with more than a few (figurative) notches on his pistol, including
the half a dozen killings he committed during the cattle drive that
took him to Abilene.
Wild Bill was 34 years old and just hitting his prime as the Abilene
marshal where his reputation as a straight and fast shooter was already
well established. Hickok was an early proponent of gun control, at
least in towns where he had jurisdiction, and Hardin came to town
wearing his "gun outside his pants for all the honest world to fear"
as Townes Van Zandt would have it.
Hickok approached Hardin on the streets of Abilene, his own six-shooters
drawn in deference to Hardin's reputation, and ordered the young psychopath
to surrender his guns. According to Hardin's autobiography, he offered
his guns to Hickok, butts first, but when Hickok went to take them,
Hardin twirled them so that the business end of the pistols were pointed
directly at the lawman. This is what's known in the gunfighting business
as "the border roll."
Hickok reportedly responded by telling Hardin, "You are the games
and quickest boy I ever saw!"
The two shootists retired to a saloon and had a few drinks and some
good laughs over the incident. No harm, no foul. Or that's the way
Hardin told it in his autobiography.
Historians have debated that story from the time it happened, or didn't
happen. For one thing, Hardin wrote it after Hickok was dead. Skeptics
found it hard to believe that anybody, even John Wesley Hardin, could
get the drop on Wild Bill. But others think it happened just the way
Hardin said it did.
Hickok biographer Joseph Rosa told Wild West magazine in 2008 that
the border roll incident is hearsay with no contemporary verification,
a view shared by others.
But Hardin biographer Leon Metz begs to differ. "Backing down Wild
Bill Hickok was the consummate juncture thus far in (Hardin's) spiraling
man-killing career," he told the magazine. "A dead Hickok would have
proven nothing, except perhaps that Hardin was lucky. A live Hickok
would know for the rest of his life who was the better man."
other alleged incident involved Earp and rowdy man-killer Clay
Allison in Dodge City. According to Earp, who told the story after
Allison was dead and gone to hell, he and Bat Masterson confronted
Allison and, basically through the sheer force of their personalities,
disarmed him No fuss, no bother.
That's not how Texas cowboy Charlie Siringo told it. Siringo was a
cowboy at the time but would go on to become a Pinkerton detective
for many years and write several books about his very interesting
life and times. Siringo reported that Dick McNulty, who owned the
Turkey Track ranch in the Panhandle, and Chuck Beeson, owner of the
Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, brokered a peace deal with Allison
and his men, and that no confrontation with Earp or Masterson ever
Of course, some writers doubt that the incident ever happened at all,
in any form, even alleging that Siringo created the story to spice
up sales of one of his early books. McNulty confirmed the story and
its details later. It's possible that Siringo made the story up and
McNulty liked it so much he repeated it as the truth, but that's a
Neither man was known as a liar or teller of tall tales, and Siringo's
writing comes across as honest and without obvious embellishment.
If I had to vote, I'd say it happened the way Siringo said it did.
At the very least, I'd venture to say it didn't happen the way Earp
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
6, 2015 column
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