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Mr. Masterson had sent for him, and within two days after his arrival, Mr. Hickok was established in the best society of Cheyenne. This, when one reflects upon the particular exclusiveness of Cheyenne’s first circles, should talk loudly in Mr. Hickok’s favor. It was something of which any gentleman might be proud. Not a saloon denied him credit; that hotel which he honored with his custom was as his home; his word was good for a dozen stacks of blues at any faro table in the camp. And this, mind you, in days when Cheyenne’s confidence came forward slowly, and the Cheyenne hand was not outstretched to every paltry individual who got off the stage.

Two weeks prior to these exaltations, Mr. Hickok, then of Kansas City, might have been seen walking in that part of Main Street known as Battle Row. For one of his optimism, Mr. Hickok’s mood showed blue and dull. One could tell this by the brooding eye, and the droop which invested his moustache with a mournfulness not properly its own. Moreover, there was further evidence to prove the low spirits of Mr. Hickok. His hair, long as the hair of a woman, which in lighter moments fell in a blond cataract about his broad shoulders, was knotted away beneath his hat.

The world does not praise long hair in the case of any man. But Mr. Hickok had much in his defence. He had let his hair grow long in years when the transaction of his business hopes and fears gave him much to do with Indians. The American savage possesses theories that yield neither to evidence nor argument. He believes that every paleface who cuts short his hair does so in craven denial of a scalp to what enemy may rise victorious over him. Such cowards he contemns. On the guileless other hand, he holds that the long-haired man is a warrior bold, flaunting defiance with every toss of his mane. That long-haired one may rob and cheat and swindle and cuff and kick your savage; the latter will neither murmur nor lift hand against him. For is not he who robs and cheats and swindles and cuffs and kicks a chief? And is not his flowing hair a franchise so to do? There lurks a dividend in hair for any who traffics with your savage. Wherefore, in an hour of aboriginal commerce Mr. Hickok encouraged a hirsute luxuriance in the name of trade. Later, he continued it for the sake of habit and old days.

What should it be to prey upon the sensibilities of Mr. Hickok? Kansas City was in that hour a town of mud and dust and hill and hollow that quenched all happiness and drove the male inhabitants to drink. Was it that to bear him down? No; if it were environment, Mr. Hickok would have made his escape to regions where the sun was shining.

Wild Bill Hickok (1873)
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not to run the trail too far, Mr. Hickok was ruminating the loss of his final dollar, which had fled across a faro layout in the Marble Hall. As he strolled dejectedly in Battle Row, he couldn’t have told where his next week’s board was coming from, not counting his next week’s drinks. It was the dismal present, promising a dismal future, which exhaled those mists to take the curl from Mr. Hickok’s mustache and teach his hair to hide beneath his hat. Short-haired men may be penniless and still command respect; a long-haired man without a dollar is a creature laughed at.

Having nothing to engage him but his gloom, Mr. Hickok glanced upward and across the street where, over the fourth-story windows, an Odd-Fellows sign was bolted. The sign was painted black upon white. That “O” which stood as the initial of “Odd,” showed wood color inside the black.

It was years before when, to please a bevy of tender tourists, and by permission of Mr. Speers, then Chief of Police, Mr. Hickok emptied his six-shooters into the center of that “O.” It was a finished piece of shooting; the tourists told of it about their clubs when safe in the East again. The “O,” where the original white had been splintered into wood color by those dozen bullets it had stopped, showed plain as print. Mr. Hickok sighed as he considered his handiwork.

Mr. Hickok did not sigh because of any former accuracy with pistols; but he recalled how on that fine occasion, in contrast to present bankruptcy, he harbored fourteen hundred dollars in his clothes. He had beaten the bank at Old Number Three, and was rich and gay in consequence.

“I think I shoot better when I’ve got a roll.”

Thus murmured Mr. Hickok, as he meditated upon the strangeness of things. Mr. Hickok might have extended his surmise. A man does all things better when he has a roll.

The currents of life had been flowing swiftly for Mr. Hickok. Two years before he was marshal of Hays, and had shot his way into the popular confidence. In an evil hour a trio of soldiers came over from the Fort, led by one Lanigan, and took drunken umbrage at Mr. Hickok’s hair. This rudeness touched Mr. Hickok tenderly, and in checking it he snuffed out those three as gallery Frenchmen snuff candles at ten paces. Since there arose carpers to say that Mr. Hickok went too far in these homicides, he laid down his trust and journeyed to Abilene.

Mr. Hickok was welcomed with spread arms by Abilene. Its marshal had just been gathered home through the efforts of a cowboy with a genius for firearms. Abilene offered the vacant place to Mr. Hickok, and to encourage acceptance, showed him where it hanged the cowboy. Mr. Hickok accepted, drew on the public fisc for the price of five hundred rounds of ammunition, and entered upon his responsibilities.

Mr. Hickok reigned as marshal eight months, and kept Abilene like a church. Then he put a bullet through Mr. Coit, whose pleasure it had been to go upon tri-weekly sprees and leave everything all over the works. Again, as on that day in Hays, there came narrowists to fling reproach upon Mr. Hickok. They said the affair might have been sufficiently managed by wrecking a six-shooter upon Mr. Coit’s head; the dead gentleman had yielded to such treatment on former occasions. As it was, the intemperate haste of Mr. Hickok had eliminated one who spent money with both hands. The taking off of Mr. Coit might conduce to Abilene’s peace; it was none the less a blow to Abilene’s prosperity. Mr. Hickok, made heartsore by mean strictures, and weary with complaints which found sordid footing in a lust for gain, gave up his marshalship of Abilene, as he had given up the post in Hays, and wandered east in search of whiter fortune.

About the time he shook the Abilene dust from his moccasins, there came to Mr. Hickok’s hand a proposal from Mr. Cody to join him in the production of a drama. It was to be a drama descriptive of an Arcadian West—one wherein stages were robbed, maidens rescued, Indians put to death. Mr. Hickok in real life had long been familiar with every fraction of the stage business; the lines he could learn in a night. Mr. Cody was confident that Mr. Hickok would take instant part in that drama without rehearsal. If Mr. Hickok accepted, the financial side was to be colored to meet his taste. His social life, so Mr. Cody explained, should be one of splendor and Eastern luxury.

Mr. Hickok, pausing only to break himself at faro-bank, took up the proffer of Mr. Cody. He journeyed to New York, and found that thorough-going scout sojourning at the Brevoort House.

“Where’s your trunk?” asked Mr. Cody.

“Haven’t any,” returned Mr. Hickok, whose trunk had been left to keep a boarding-house in countenance. “But I’ve brought my guns.” This last, hopefully.

“That’s right,” observed Mr. Cody, whom nothing was ever known to daunt. “While a gentleman may be without a change of linen, he should never let his wardrobe sink so low as to leave him without a change of guns.”

Mr. Hickok was not a permanency in the theatres. His was a serious nature, and there were many matters behind the footlights to irk the soul of him. For one stifling outrage he was allowed nothing lethal wherewith to feed his six-shooters. Blanks by the hundreds he might have; but no bullets.

Now this, in a blind sort of way, told upon Mr. Hickok as something irreligious. A Colt’s-45 was not a joke; its mechanism had not been connived in any spirit of facetiousness. It was hardware for life and death; it owned a mission, and to make of it a bauble and a tinsel thing smote upon Mr. Hickok like sacrilege.

And then, to shoot over the heads of folk shook one’s faith. It was as though one mocked the heavens! In good truth, Mr. Hickok never did this last. It was his wont to empty his weapons, right and left, at the shrinking legs of Indian-seeming supers. The practice was not lacking in elements of certain excellence. The powder burned the supers, and brought yells which were genuine from those adjuncts of the theatre. In that way was the public gratified, and the integrity of the stage upheld.

But the supers objected, and refused to go on with Mr. Hickok. They might love the drama, but not to that extent. It was the rock on which they split. Mr. Hickok would not aim high, and the burned ones would take no part in the presentation unless he did. The situation became strained. As a finale, after bitter words had been spoken, Mr. Hickok quit the mimic world and returned to a life that, while it numbered its drawbacks, might make the boast that it was real. It was then he came to Kansas City, there to experience ebbing, flowing nights at farobank, with that final ebb adverted to, which left him dollar-stranded as described.

This chronicle deserted Mr. Hickok in Battle Row, thinking on the strangeness of things. Having sufficiently surveyed his bullet work of another day, as set forth by the Odd Fellows’ emblem, Mr. Hickok was about to resume his walk when a telegraph boy rushed up. His rush over, the urchin gazed upon Mr. Hickok with the utmost satisfaction for the space of thirty seconds. Then he took a message from his book.

“Be you Mr. Hickok?”

“Yes, my child,” replied Mr. Hickok blandly.

“Mr. Wild Bill Hickok?” Mr. Hickok frowned; he distasted the ferocious prefix.

It had been granted Mr. Hickok by romanticists with a bent to be fantastic, and was a step in titles the more strange, perhaps, since Mr. Hickok was not baptised “William,” but “James.” But “Wild Bill” they made it, and “Wild Bill” it remained; albeit in submission to Mr. Hickok’s wishes—he once made them plain by shooting a glass of whiskey from the hand of one who had called him “Wild Bill,” to that gentleman’s disturbance and a loss to him of one drink—he was never so named except behind his back. When folk referred to him, they called him “Wild Bill”; when they addressed him they did so as “Mr. Hickok.” Now, when the world and Mr. Hickok understood each other on this touchy point, every sign of friction ceased. The compromise won ready adoption, and everybody was satisfied since everybody went not without his partial way.

Mr. Hickok tore open the message, while the boy admired him to the hilts. The message was a long one, by which Mr. Hickok deduced it to be important. Mr. Hickok was not over-quick with written English; he had been called in the theatres a “slow study.” To expedite affairs he went at once to the signature. This was intelligent enough. As a rule, one could give you every word of any eight-page letter he receives by merely glancing at the signature. That rule will prove particularly true when the signature is a lady’s. However, this time the rule failed.

Mr. Hickok, while he knew the name, was driven to wade through the communication before he could come by even a glint of its purport. This he did slowly and painfully, feeling his way from word to word as though fording a strange and turbid stream. At last, when he made it out, Mr. Hickok’s face came brightly forth of the shadows like the sun from behind a cloud. Evidently the news was good. Mr. Hickok glanced again at the name. It was the name of Mr. Masterson, whose life he had once saved.

Lest you gather unjustly some red and violent picture of Mr. Hickok, as one to whom the slaughter of his kind was as the air he breathed, it should be shown that he had saved many lives. The record of this truth would gratify Mr. Hickok were he here to read, for he often remembered it in his conversation.

“If I’ve took life,” Mr. Hickok would remark, “I’ve frequent saved life. Likewise, I’ve saved a heap more than I’ve took. A count of noses would show that the world’s ahead by me. Foot up the figgers, an’ you’ll see I’ve got lives comin’ to me right now.”

What Mr. Masterson said was this: He had staked out a claim in the Deadwood district; the assay showed it full of yellow promise. Mr. Hickok was to be a part-owner; likewise, he must meet Mr. Masterson in Cheyenne. Incidentally, the latter had notified the American National to cash Mr. Hickok’s draft for two hundred dollars, so that poverty, should such have him in its coils—which it did—might not deter him from proceeding to Cheyenne.

Nothing could have better dovetailed with the broken destinies of Mr. Hickok. Within thirty minutes he had drawn for those two hundred dollars. In forty he had sent three messages. The first was to Mr. Masterson, promising an appearance in Cheyenne. The others were of grimmer purpose, and went respectively to Abilene and Hays. These latter were meant to clear the honour of Mr. Hickok.

When Mr. Hickok went into the drama there broke out in Hays and Abilene a hubbub of cheap comment. There were folk of bilious fancy and unguarded lip who went saying that Mr. Hickok had fled to the footlights for safety. He had made enemies, as one who goes shooting up and down is prone to do; certain clots and coteries of these made Hays and Abilene their home camps. It was because he feared these foes, and shrunk from the consequences of their feuds, that he called himself an actor, and went shouting and charging and shooting blank cartridges at imitation Indians throughout an anæmic East! Such childish employment kept Mr. Hickok beyond the range of his enemies, that was the reason of it; and the reason was the reason of a dog. Thus spake Mr. Hickok’s detractors; and none arose to deny, because Mr. Hickok’s honour was his honour, and the West does business by the aphorism, “Let every man kill his own snakes.”

Mr. Hickok had not gone in ignorance of these slanders; he had heard them when as far away from Abilene and Hays as Boston Common. Now he would refute them; he would give all who desired it an opportunity to burn condemnatory powder in his case. He would pass through Hays and Abilene on his slow way to Cheyenne. These hamlets should be notified. Those who objected to Mr. Hickok’s past in any of its incidents might come down to the train and set forth their displeasure with their pistols. With this fair thought, Mr. Hickok addressed respectively and as follows the editors of Abilene and Hays:

“I shall go through your prairie dog village Tuesday. I wear my hair long as usual.” This last to intimate a scalp unconquered.

The press is a great and peccant engine; and who has public interest more at heart than your editor? Those of Abilene and Hays posted with all diligence the message of Mr. Hickok on their bulletin boards, adding thereunto the hour of the Hickok train, and then made preparations to give fullest details of the casualties.

Mr. Hickok cleaned and oiled his guns. He looked forward carelessly to Hays and Abilene. Experience had taught him that the odds were that not a warlike soul would interrupt his progress. Humanity talks fifty times where once it shoots, and Mr. Hickok was not ignorant of the race in its verbal ferocities. Indeed, being a philosopher, he explained them.

“A man,” observed Mr. Hickok, “nacherally does a heap more shootin’ with his mouth than with his gun. An’ for two reasons, to wit:” Here Mr. Hickok would raise an impressive trigger finger. “He’s a shorer, quicker shot with his mouth; and it costs less for ammunition. A gent can load and fire his mouth off fifty times with a ten-cent drink of licker, while cartridges, fifty in a box, are a dollar and four bits a box.”

Still, some vigorous person, whether at Abilene or Hays, might appear in the path of Mr. Hickok on battle bent. Wherefore, as aforesaid, he oiled and loaded fully his Colt’s-45s.

“Because,” said Mr. Hickok, “I wouldn’t want to be caught four-flushin’ if some gent did call my bluff.”

It will seem strange that Mr. Hickok stood willing thus to invite hostilities. The wonder of it might be explained. Mr. Hickok was, like most folk who put in their lives upon the dreary, outstretched deserts of the West, a fatalist. He would live his days; until his time he was safe from halter, knife and gun. Mr. Hickok had all unconsciously become a fashion of white Cheyenne, and based existence on a fearlessness that never wavered, plus an indifference that never cared. He was what he was; he would be what he would be. Men were merest arrows in the air, shot by some sightless archery of nature, one to have a higher and one a lower flight, and each to come clattering back to earth and bury itself in the grave. That was the religious thought of Mr. Hickok, or rather Mr. Hickok’s religious instinct, for he never shaped it to an idea nor piled it up in words.

There were scores to greet Mr. Hickok at Hays and Abilene, but none in hostile guise. While the train paused, Mr. Hickok came down from the platform and stood with his back against the car. There he received his friends and searched the throng for enemies. He was careful, but invincible, and his hair floated bravely as for a challenge.

As the bell rang Mr. Hickok backed smilingly but watchfully aboard. He had no notion of exposing himself, and there might be someone about with the required military talent to manage an attack in flank. But the peace of those visits passed unbroken, and Mr. Hickok’s honor was repaired. Mr. Hickok was not above a sedate joy concerning his healed honour, for, though he might not own a creed, he had a pride.

Now that Hays and Abilene had gone astern with the things that had been, Mr. Hickok sat himself down to a contemplation of Cheyenne. This would be his earliest visit. Nor had he in days gone by made the acquaintance of anyone who wrote Cheyenne as his home. Mr. Hickok decided on a modest entrance.

“Which if thar’s one thing that’s always made me tired,” observed Mr. Hickok, as he talked the subject over with himself, “it’s a party jumpin’ into camp as though he owned the yearth an’ had come to fence it.”

Mr. Hickok planned an unobtrusive descent upon Cheyenne. He would appear without announcement. He would let Cheyenne uncover his merits one by one and learn his identity only when events should point the day and way. He would claim no privileges beyond the privileges of common men.

Such was the amiable programme of Mr. Hickok, and he arrayed himself to be in harmony therewith. The yellow mane that had flaunted at Hays and Abilene was imprisoned, as in Kansas City, beneath a small-rimmed soft felt hat, to the end that it enkindle rage in no man. Because the brightness of the sun on the parched pampas hurt his eyes, worn as they were with much scanning of midnight decks, Mr. Hickok donned dark goggles. His coat was black and long—to cover his armament—and almost of pulpit cut. To put a closing touch on a whole that spoke of lamb’s-wool peace, Mr. Hickok, limping with a shade of rheumatism, the harvest of many nights on rain-soaked prairies, carried a cane. This latter was a resplendent creature, having been the butt end of a rosewood billiard cue, and was as heavy as a Sioux war club. Thus appeared Mr. Hickok when he made his Cheyenne début; and those who observed him halting up the street held him for some wandering evangelist, present with a purpose to hold services in the first hurdy-gurdy he caught off his foolish guard.

Mr. Masterson was not in Cheyenne when Mr. Hickok arrived. There was word waiting that he had gone to Deadwood, and would not return for a week. Mr. Hickok, upon receiving this news, resolved for recreation.

It was ten of the evening clock, and Mr. Hickok decided to creep about on his billiard-cue, and take a friendly view of Cheyenne. It was well to go abroad, with what decent speed he might, and acquire a high regard for Cheyenne people; it would be a best method of teaching them to entertain a high regard for him.

“But no trouble!” ruminated Mr. Hickok, with a shake of the head. He was, according to his custom, advising with himself. “No trouble! Thar’s nothin’ in it! Besides, the pitcher that goes often to the well gets busted at last,” and Mr. Hickok sighed sagaciously. Then, as one who registers a good resolve: “The next sport who gets a rise out o’ me will have to back me into a corner an’ prove conclusive that he’s out to kill. Then, of course, I’ll be obliged to take my usual measures.”

Such were the cogitations of Mr. Hickok, and all on the side of law and order, when he turned into the Gold Room.

“What’ll you have, Sport?” asked the barkeeper.

“Licker,” said Mr. Hickok.

The barkeeper tossed up glass and bottle in a manner of scorn. He had called Mr. Hickok “Sport,” not for compliment, but derision, and because Mr. Hickok looked like an agriculturist who had gone astray.

“Got a potato ranch some’ers?” remarked the barkeeper, and his tones were the tones of sarcasm. “Or mebby is it hay?”

Mr. Hickok made no reply as he paid the double price which the astute bar man charged him. He knew he was derided and he knew he was robbed; but full of peace he bore it in wordless humility. Musingly, he recalled a gallant past.

“Now if that barkeep,” he reflected, “knowed who I was, he’d simply hit three or four high places and be miles away.”

Mr. Hickok inched towards a faro game which was hungering for victims. The faro game was at the far end of the Gold Room. Over and above a handful of silver, Mr. Hickok had two 50-dollar bills, the remaining moiety of those two hundred sent him by Mr. Masterson. Mr. Hickok was a born speculator; in a moment he had been caught in the coils of the game.

While he had but the even hundred dollars, Mr. Hickok was no one to prolong an agony. He bet the half on the “high card.” The turn came, “nine-trey;” Mr. Hickok’s fifty were swept into the bank. Mr. Hickok wagered the other fifty on the “high card.” The turn came, “deuce-eight.”

The dealer counted down twenty-five dollars.

“How’s that?” asked Mr. Hickok.

“The limit’s twenty-five,” spake the dealer gruffly, and the gruff lookout hoarsely echoed: “Limit’s twenty-five!”

“But you took fifty when I lost.”

“Fifty goes if you lose!” retorted the dealer, insolently, and the hoarse lookout with echoing insolence repeated: “It goes if you lose!”

Then did Mr. Hickok rejoice because of a provident rheumatism that furnished him his billiard-cue. “Biff! bang!”

Mr. Hickok tapped the dealer and then the lookout. They fell from their perches like apples when one shakes November’s bough. Having thus cleared a path for the feet of justice, Mr. Hickok reached across to the bankroll and helped himself to a bundle of money, which, to quote the scandalized barkeeper who beheld the rapine from afar, was, “big enough to choke a cow.” These riches Mr. Hickok pocketed in the name of right.

Having repaired his money wrongs, as that portion of the Cheyenne public then and there present fell upon him, Mr. Hickok resumed his billiard-cue and went to work. Mr. Hickok did heroic deeds. He mowed a swath through the press! A dozen heads suffered! He fought his way to the wall!

“Now everybody fill his hand!” shouted Mr. Hickok, pulling his 8-inch six-shooters.

Mr. Hickok’s goggles had fallen to the floor; his loosened locks were flying like a war banner. Altogether, when thus backed against the wall, and behind a brace of Mr. Colt’s best pistols, flowing hair, and eyes gray-fire, Mr. Hickok made a striking figure—one to live long in Cheyenne memory! The public stood at gaze. Then some wise man yelled:

“It’s Wild Bill!”

There was no dispute as to Mr. Hickok’s identity. The public instantly conceded it, and began going through doors and windows in blocks of five.

Mr. Hickok, deserted, limped slowly towards the door. As he passed the bar, its once supercilious custodian, raised his head above its moist levels, and asked in meekness:

“Mr. Hickok, will you have a drink? It’s on the house.”

It was the next afternoon; the Cheyenne marshal, accompanied by Mr. Bowlby, proprietor of the Gold Room, paid a courtly visit to Mr. Hickok.

The marshal was aggrieved.

“You ought not to come ambuscadin’ into camp that a-way,” he remonstrated, speaking of Mr. Hickok’s bashful entrance into town. “It might have got a passel of Cheyenne people killed. It wan’t right, Mr. Hickok. Only it’s you, I’d say it sort o’ bordered on the treacherous.”

“It ain’t that I’m askin’ it back, Mr. Hickok,” observed Mr. Bowlby, diffidently, “but I want to check up my game. Sech bein’ my motive, would you-all mind informin’ me kindly how big a wad you got outen that drawer?”

“Which I shore couldn’t say,” returned Mr. Hickok, languidly. “I ain’t counted it none as yet.” Then, in a way of friendly generosity: “Mr. Bowlby, I don’t reckon how I oughter keep all that money; it’s too much. I’d feel easier if you’d let me split it with you.”

“No ’bjections in the least,” replied Mr. Bowlby, politely.

“Which I should say as much!” exclaimed the marshal, in enthusiastic admiration of Mr. Hickok’s liberality. “Thar’s an offer that’s good enough for a dog! An’ now, gents,” concluded the marshal, linking one arm into that of Mr. Hickok, and with Mr. Bowlby on the other; “let’s go down to the Gold Room an’ licker.”