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Wild Bill Hickok, First Gunfighter of the Old West
The life of a gunfighter in the Old West was a life in survival mode. Any man who used a gun to earn a living as a lawman, or just to gain a reputation and to be feared, took upon himself a great burden. He would constantly have to be on the watch for the next young man who was hunting him to take his title away from him – to kill him and claim himself the victor in a gunfight, or in an unguarded moment.
Gunfighters lived amidst violence. Hardship and fear lay between times of relative peace, and the gunfighter could find no peace of mind, nor take anything or anyone for granted. Around the next bend in the road might be an ambush by an ambitious young man seeking to make his own reputation. In any saloon, relaxing with friends over a whiskey and a friendly game of cards, death could step through the door or steal up from behind at any moment.
They were drifters, riding from town to town, looking for adventure, or a good game of cards so they could earn enough money for the next meal, or glass of whiskey, or time with a woman. Occasionally, a card game would go their way, Lady Luck would be on their side, and their winnings would give them a sizable stake that could mean that they’d live in relative comfort for a while. Some of them hired on as lawmen, which also could provide a comfortable life. But most of the time they lived in poverty, scraping together what funds they could to get through the day, then moving on to the next town, to the next gold rush boom town, or just another adventure. They had restlessness ingrained in their souls, and few of them ever made it out of that hardscrabble lifestyle. The only peace they could find was in death.
The man who is considered the first gunfighter of the Old West is the famous Wild Bill Hickok. Here was a man who was drawn reluctantly into the life of enforcing the law, as he did first in Abilene, Kansas and later, in other towns. But, the job suited him, as it drew upon his expert skills with a gun as well as his unflinching and fearless nature when encountering any foe. His reputation for killing men was due mostly to the novels and newspaper accounts that were written about him that exaggerated greatly his use of a gun and his many daring adventures. Hickok had, in fact, killed only a few men during his life, and was a peaceable, gentlemanly sort of man, known to his friends as a man with a calm demeanor, who never hesitated to take the side of the weaker in a fight. But it was known as well, that he was not to be dealt with lightly, for he would not hesitate to kill any man who challenged him.
It was because of his reputation as a gunfighter that Hickok became a hunted man. Behind his calm, confident presence lay an acute wariness, a sense of foreboding and paranoia. He had become the best man with a gun, a fearsome and feared killer, but Wild Bill had also made himself a target for every aspiring gunslinger with nerve enough to try to become known as the man who killed Wild Bill Hickok.
The era of the gunfighter in the Wild West began during Hickok’s life. While there were many men during the years thereafter who took up the gun for profit or for adventure, to become known by that title, Hickok moved into history and legend as the first, the best and the most famous.
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