We all know from movies, pulp fiction and other pop culture that the streets of the Old West were littered with the remnant losers of showdowns that took place practically on the hour. Two steel-jawed gunslingers coolly staring at each other, contemplating who would draw first and, more importantly, who would draw fastest. Conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that most gun battles took place between drunks who only managed to hit their adversaries because they were standing a foot away — or it they were at a distance, were most likely hiding behind a handy horse or schoolmarm and aiming at somebody’s back.
True, but there was a sort of Code of the West based on the gentlemanly European tradition of dueling in which opponents behaved with good breeding before attempting to kill one another. The Code of the West required that a person resort to a six-gun on the city streets only in matters of major import such as the defense of one’s honor or life, and only if the opponent was also armed. If the Code were followed, a gunslinger could pretty much kill another gunslinger without fear of punishment.
On July 21, 1865, Springfield, Missouri, saw just such a classic showdown. Wild Bill Hickok had a reputation as a real hotshot with a gun, so it is a bit surprising that a former Union soldier agreed to a showdown after an argument with Wild Bill over a card game or the upcoming Presidential election or something.
Armed with sodas and popcorn, a huge crowd of onlookers watched as the two men approached each other from the far ends of the long street. When the two men were still way beyond field goal territory, the challenger drew and fired wildly in Hickok’s direction. Ever cool, Hickok, drew his own revolver, took careful aim, and put a bullet through his opponent’s chest.
Having been true to the Code, Hickok remained a free man. Unfortunately, several years later, Wild Bill was done in by someone not so fastidious about playing by the rules. A young gunslinger with absolutely no sense of gallantry shot him in the back of the head while he played cards.
When my time comes, just skin me and put me up there on Trigger, just as though nothing had ever changed. — Roy Rogers