Being Americans, we’re all pretty familiar with tales of the Old West, and characters like Billy The Kid, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Jesse James, and good ol’ Wild Bill. Today’s Rerun will deal with the last of these legendary characters: James Butler Hickok, known by his nom de guerre, Wild Bill.
Quite a dapper fellow, wasn’t he? Time was when men such as Bill went around dressed in handsome finery, complete with gold-buttoned waistcoats, French cravats, exorbitantly large hats, and extravagant, well-groomed, and utterly absurd facial hair. Oh, and let’s not forget the guns and knives, which they pulled out with reckless abandon and at the least provocation. Accidentally spit on another man’s boot? That’s a knifin’. Decline a drink offered by a complete stranger (who happened to be Johnny Ringo)? That’s a shootin’. Steal another man’s horse? You guessed it: that’s a hangin’.
On the day in question (July 12th, 1861), Mr. Hickok was working for the Russell, Waddell, and Majors Freight Company (later to be known as the Pony Express). He had been a freight driver for the company a few months back when he was attacked by a bear that was blocking the road. Bill dismounted and fired his pistol at the bear’s head, but the bullet ricocheted off the bear’s skull, which (as you may imagine) really pissed the bear off. The bear attacked, crushing Bill with its weight and badly mangling his arm with its teeth. Somehow, Bill (a.k.a. Man With Steel Balls) managed to shoot the bear in the paw and slit its throat with a Bowie knife, thereby saving his life while simultaneously providing himself with several weeks worth of meat and a nice, warm blanket. Anyway, while recovering from his injuries he was stationed as a stable hand at the company’s Rock Creek Station in Nebraska, which shows you what L & I benefits were like in those times: “Mauled by a bear while faithfully serving the Company? Congratulations! Your new job is to shovel horseshit all day.” And we wonder why the men of the day were so ticked all the time…
While working in the stables on July 12th, Bill heard some Tomfoolery in the station house, followed by a Ruckus (not to be confused with a Rumpus). Moving into the house from the stables (while staying conveniently hidden from view behind a room-dividing curtain), he witnessed a certain Mr. Dave McCanles having a rather heated argument with the manager of the establishment, Mr. Horace Wellman. Sources state the Mr. McCanles was sorely vexed about the fact that he had not been payed the second installment of money owed him by the company, and he had brought his son and a few men with him in an attempt to either intimidate or downright rob the station master. McCanles, who was known as a local bully and braggart and was no stranger to the occasional bout of fisticuffs, already had a history of antagonism with Wild Bill, whom he called “Duck Bill” due to Bill’s rather large, elongated nose and protruding upper lip. It has been said that Wild Bill exacted his revenge for the bullying and insults by surreptitiously seducing McCanles’s lover, Sarah Shull. There has been speculation that McCanles had recently learned of the affair; indeed, the thought that he was being cuckolded may very well have contributed to his overall poor humor and generally ungentlemanly behavior that day. Spying his rival behind the curtain, McCanles approached, stating that he would like nothing more than to give Mr. Hickok a good walloping. Wild Bill was in no mood to accommodate that request however, and is stated to have responded, “There will be one less son of a bitch when you try that.” Either this man truly had Huevos de Acero, or he was really pissed off about something – keeping in mind the fact that he had been severely mauled and almost killed by a bear a mere four months prior to these events, I tend to lean towards D) All of the Above. As McCanles (who was reported as being unarmed) failed to back down from his threats, Wild Bill calmly shot him in the chest, at which point his companions rushed into the building. Wild Bill shot one with his pistol and nicked the other. The other station employees, threatened by the invading gang, joined the fray, killing one man with a shotgun blast, and another who was apparently hacked to death by an average garden hoe. A trial ensued, in which Bill, Wellman, the other station employees, and the hoe were all judged to have acted in self-defense.
It was the first of many exploits to color the career of Wild Bill Hickok, who became known as a notorious gunfighter and lawman. He also served in the Union Army as a teamster, scout, and spy. He is most well-known for being the first to kill a man in a “quick-draw” gun duel, and to this day his estate is payed royalties by the makers of every bad Western movie, as he is known to have copyrighted and trademarked the encounter in a moment of astounding entrepreneurial foresight. The remainder of his exploits, however, are beyond the scope of this particular article. For now we shall leave it being that, on this day exactly 150 years ago, Wild Bill Hickok shot a man in cold blood, and became an American Hero.