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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

A Couple of
Alleged Incidents

by Clay Coppedge

Two 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 Allison.

Actually, they weren't gunfights at all. Not a shot was fired in either case. They were more like edgy confrontations.


The 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."


The 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 took place.

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 stretch, too.

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 told it.



Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 6, 2015 column



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