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Robin Hood In Buckskins

The gunfighter is as much a part of American folklore as are the cowboy, the Indian and a host of other legendary characters whose exploits have enthralled a world-wide audience for generations, But unlike the majority of those folk heroes, the gunfighter evokes a sinister image; one that stirs emotions, arouses controversy and generates conflict. For many, he represents a knight errant fighting the dragon of crime and corruption; but to others he is the personification of evil; a character who, regardless of the circumstances, reacts to any situation with violence. In short, he is a professional killer both behind and in front of a badge.

Emphasis on the gunfighter's killer instinct has provoked some alarming reactions among today's pundits. Any civil unrest or violent behaviour involving firearms is seized upon by the media as a return to the 'Wild West' and its so-called lawlessness. But set against the harsh realities of the modern world with all its foibles and faults, such reasoning seems ironic and misplaced. Such cynicism is in stark contrast to the nineteenth-century view, when morality, religion and family, coupled with a sense of duty took precedence over the individual's civil rights. Most people at that time yearned for law and order, and those who transgressed soon learned that justice could be swift and terrible. Nowadays the emphasis is on the lawbreakers rather than the lawmakers, a view that is hard to discourage.

Such an extreme divergence of opinion is only fully appreciated when one remembers that America has been preoccupied with firearms since revolutionary times. The Constitution gave the individual the 'right to bear arms', which has been interpreted to mean to 'possess and to use them in defence of home, family and possessions'. Others claim that the right to bear arms really meant in defence of the Union in time of war or civil unrest. Either view is tacitly ignored by some members of the gun-owning fraternity who honestly believe that the possession of a firearm is their salvation against the criminal in a society that has overstretched police forces, and a judicial system that can sometimes take years to dispense justice.

Not surprisingly, a people's champion or a kind of Robin Hood in buckskins would have enormous appeal. And although the cowboy fits this image, it was the man who lived and died by the gun who exerted most influence. He can only be understood when one examines the circumstances that gave birth to the character we now call the gunfighter. The war with Mexico spawned him, and his adolescence witnessed the California gold rush and the Kansas-Missouri border wars of the middle and late 1850s. By the time of the Civil War, he had reached maturity and was prominent among the guerrillas on both sides. And his adult life was spent in the post-war cattle, rail and mining boom towns.

As a class, gunfighters did not conform to the stereotyped image of the motion pictures. Generations of Western fans have seen them portrayed as cowboys, gamblers and occasionally in the guise of a frontier scout complete with buckskins. But the cowboy image dominates. From the earliest appearance of the Western film in 1903, the dress and manner of the gunfighter has been reflected in the image of the cowboy. The huge sombrero, neckerchief, double or single gunbelt, knee high boots (worn with pants tucked in or pulled down over them), and jingling spurs, all served to create a false image of the man behind the gun. In reality, most gunfighters dressed normally according to the current fashions of the time, and would probably be missed in a crowd. Only when they openly carried pistols would they command much attention. In fact, the editor of the Kansas City, Mo. Journal on 15 November 1881 made a point of describing the 'man-killer' or 'civilizer' that today we call the gunfighter:

The gentleman who has 'killed his man' is by no means a rara avis ... He is met daily on Main street, and is the busiest of the busy throng. He may be seen on in the congregations of the most aristocratic churches. He resides on 'Quality hill', or perhaps on the East Side . . . This ubiquitous individual may be seen almost anywhere. He may be found behind the bar in a Main street saloon; he may be seen by an admiring audience doing the pedestal clog at a variety theatre; his special forte may be driving a cab, or he may be behind the rosewood counters of a bank . . . He is usually quiet in demeanor, sober . . . [and] . he may take a drink occasionally, but seldom gets drunk . . . He is quiet - fatally quiet . . . Your gentleman who has dropped his man is, therefore, no uncommon individual .. .

The editor's graphic portrait of the typical gunfighter refutes the loud-mouthed, troublemaking 'shoot at anything that moves' Texas cowboy of the 1860s and early 1870s. Nevertheless, there were cowboy-gunfighters but they were the exception. For most of the men who lived and died by the gun were indeed a breed apart. Some were honest law-abiding individuals who became peace officers sworn to uphold the law. Others, equally honest but by no means as dedicated, took to the badge to avoid starvation or to fill in between other occupations. The likes of Bill Tilghman and Bat Masterson came within the first category, while Wild Bill Hickok and the Earp brothers were part of the second group. Few of these men were trained peace officers. They were motivated economically or politically rather than by any great sense of justice. Aligned against them were the likes of the James brothers, Billy the Kid and others for whom the gun symbolized power and the ease with which one could acquire wealth and instill fear in honest citizens whose only ambition was to survive in a very harsh environment.

Mid-nineteenth-century European views of the penchant for the pistol in certain parts of the United States make interesting reading. In England, for instance, the Daily Telegraph of 22 October 1869, remarked: Duellists, travellers, and the rowdy bullies of the New World, enjoy the doubtful honour of having brought the pistol to its present sanguinary perfection. It is the weapon of the self-dependent man; and those who can find a 'final cause' of good rattlesnakes and poisonous drugs might cite a great many instances to prove that the pistol has furthered civilisation, and has been especially the arm of progress . Unhappily, the drunken bully and gambler of America and Mexico has found the six- shooter convenient, and carries it more regularly than his tooth-pick. Some day, we hope, the Government of The United States, remembering what Thucydides says about the barbarity of a people who 'wear iron', will make it a punishable offence to carry a 'Derringer' or a 'Colt'. But these bloodthirsty scoundrels complain of the revolver. It kills, but not immediately; its bullet is too small to paralyse; the victim dies by internal bleeding, but not before he has time to discharge his own battery. Hence those extraordinary encounters in the Western and Southern States, where a whole volley of shots is discharged before one of the wretched combatants succumbs.

The gunfighters, or perhaps their gunfights, loom large in America's folklore and remain the subject of debate a century or more since they last squeezed a trigger. Some died with their boots on and others in bed, but so fascinating is the subject that it has inspired a modern six-shooter cult that dwells primarily upon how fast on the draw certain individuals might have been rather than their accuracy and what first provoked them to kill.

The gunfighter arose out of the turbulent conditions that existed in the frontier West, when a man's best friend and hope of salvation was a gun, for there were many remote parts of states or territories where law and order was either over extended or unheard of. The classic gunfight of fact, fiction and the silver screen, which depicts two or more individuals facing each other down in a high noon duel, is now an accepted part of Western folklore. In reality, the gunfight was loosely based upon the old-time code duello, but it lacked the rules of the original and instead relied on the cold-blooded science of getting the drop on an opponent. The importance of the 'drop' was paramount. 'One must always have the drop on an antagonist,' noted the Topeka Daily Commonwealth, on 23 September 1871, 'or nothing more than an exercise of the vocal muscles ensues. The code of chivalry seems to be to fight only a smaller man who is unprepared and unsuspecting, Shoot him in the back, bite his ear or nose off as a memento, and your reputation as a fighting man is made . . .' Among men of reputation, however, such brawling was rare. A man's 'honor' was set above everything else. And it was a trait that can be traced right back to earlier times when duelists fought hand-to- hand encounters that would have appalled some of the latter day six-shooter virtuosos who depended upon the drop and the killer instinct for survival.

Men have fought each other all through history, using rocks, clubs, and swords right down to firearms. The individual's preoccupation with personal supremacy has been motivated by debts of honor, sexual betrayal or public humiliation. In Europe, where dueling was considered the province of the aristocracy, young men were schooled in the art of fencing and knife-fighting. These weapons remained popular on the Continent until the nineteenth century; but in Great Britain, by the late eighteenth century, the dueling pistol was coming into its own. Some regarded dueling as a sport, others considered it a retrograde step in human relations and in England it was outlawed in the early years of the nineteenth century. Ireland, however, regarded the individual who would not fight a duel for his honor as a coward, and young men of breeding were expected to own a case of dueling pistols. Thus the Irish code duello formed the basis for similar rules and behavior in other English-speaking countries, notably America.

Dueling in the northern states was uncommon, whereas in the South, with its homegrown aristocracy based upon the European variety, it flourished. A man's honor or his wife's reputation meant everything to him and if it was necessary to carry weapons to protect or assert either he would do so. Many cited the famous English legal expert William Black- stone's definition of self-defense as 'the mutual and reciprocal defense of such as stand in the relations of husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant', which enabled him to 'repel force by force'. By the mid-1850s, however, with the arrival of the revolver, the old- fashioned rules of dueling disappeared.

History changes yet it remains the same. Despite revision and review old myths and fables concerning the American West and its gunfighters are perpetuated. While historians strive for the truth, they often find that people prefer legends. It is much more exciting to read that Billy the Kid killed twenty-one men - one for each year of his life - or that Wild Bill disposed of 'considerably over a hundred bad men', than to be told that the Kid killed perhaps six people, and Wild Bill's tally was closer to ten than 100. In each instance legend took care of the remainder and it is the legend that appeals to most people and not the facts.

Although the heroic image of the gunfighter is not contemporary to his time, it is true that a man who could handle a pistol better than those who used one for gain or power was much in demand. But unlike his fictional counterpart, he was held responsible for his actions, if need be in a court of law.

Joseph G. Rosa. Age of the Gunfighter: Men and Weapons on the Frontier, 1840-1900 . University of Oklahoma Press. 1999.

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