So young James Hickok shut his teeth against the weakness which was creeping over him and lined his sights on the last of his enemies; for the man whom he had felled with his fist and he with the broken arm had escaped some time during the latter progress of the fight. That final shot was not so true as its predecessors; the outlaw did not die until several days later in the little town of Manhattan, Kansas.
When the eastbound stage pulled up that afternoon the driver and passengers found the long-haired young station-keeper in a deep swoon, with 11 buckshot and 13 knife wounds in his body. They took him aboard and carried him to Manhattan where he recovered six months later, to find himself known throughout the West as Wild Bill Hickok.
How many men he killed is a mooted question. But it is universally acknowledged that he slew them all fairly. Owning that prestige whose possessor walks amid unseen dangers, he introduced the quick draw on his portion of frontier; and many who sought his life for the sake of the dark fame which the deed would bring them died with their weapons in their hands.
In Abilene, Kansas, where he was for several years town marshal, one of these caught him unawares as he was rounding a corner. Wild Bill complied with the order to throw up his hands and stood, rigid, expressionless, while the desperado, emulating the Plains Indians, tried to torture him by picturing the closeness of his end. He was in the midst of his description when Hickok’s eyes widened and his voice was thick with seeming horror as he cried,”My God! Don’t kill him from behind!” The outlaw allowed his eyes to waver and he fell with a bullet hole in his forehead.
As stage-driver, Indian fighter, and peace officer Wild Bill Hickok did a man’s work in cleaning up the border. He was about to go and join the Custer expedition as a scout when one who thought the murder would give him renown shot him from behind as he was sitting in at a poker game in Deadwood, South Dakota. He died drawing his two guns, and the whole West mourned his passing. It had never known a braver spirit.
The silent ranks grow thicker: young men, sunburned and booted for the saddle; the restless souls who forsook tame Eastern farm-lands, lured by the West’s promise of adventure, and received the supreme fulfillment of that promise; the finest of the South’s manhood drawn toward the setting sun to seek new homes. They come from a hundred boot-hills, from hundreds of solitary graves; from the banks of the Yellowstone, the Platte, the Arkansas, and the two forks of the Canadian Rivers.
There are so many among them who died exalted that the tongue would weary reciting the tales. This tattered group were with the 50 who drove off 1500 Cheyenne and Kiowa on Beecher Island. The Battle of the Arickaree was the name men gave the stand; and the sands of the north fork of the Republican River were red with the blood of the Indians slain by Forsythe and his half hundred when night fell.
These three who follow in boots, jean breeches, and Oregon shirts are Billy Tyler and the Shadier brothers, members of that company of 28 buffalo hunters who made the big fight at Adobe Walls. The sun was just rising when Quanah Parker, Little Robe, and White Shield led more than eight hundred Comanche and Kiowa in the first charge upon the four buildings which stood at the edge of the Llano Estacado, 150 miles from the nearest settlement. The Shadier boys were slain in their wagon at that onslaught. Tyler was shot down at midday as he ventured forth from Myers & Leonard’s store. Before the afternoon was over the Indians sickened of their losses and drew off beyond range of the big-caliber Sharp’s rifles. They massacred 190 people during their three months’ raiding but the handful behind the barricaded doors and windows was too much for them.
Private George W. Smith of the Sixth Cavalry is passing now. You would need to look a second time to notice that he was a soldier, for the rifle under his arm is a long-barreled Sharp’s single shot and he has put aside much of the old blue uniform for the ordinary Western raiment. That was the way of scouting expeditions, and he, with his five companions, was on the road from McClellan’s Creek to Fort Supply when they met 200 Indians on that September morning of 1874.
Up near the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle, where the land rises to a divide between Gageby’s Creek and the Washita River, the five survivors dug his grave with butcher-knives. They pulled down the banks of a buffalo wallow over his body in the darkness of the night; and they left him in this shallow sepulcher, unmarked by stone or headboard. There his bones lie to this day, and no man knows when he is passing over them.
The six of them had left General Miles’s command two days before. At dawn on September 13, they were riding northward up the long open slope: Billy Dixon and Amos Chapman, two buffalo hunters serving as scouts, and the four troopers, Sergeant Z. T. Woodhull, Privates Peter Rath, John Harrington, and George W. Smith. You could hardly tell the soldiers from the plainsmen, had you seen them; a sombreroed group, booted to the knees and in their shirt-sleeves; all bore the heavy, fifty-caliber Sharp’s single-shot rifles across their saddle-horns.
The bare land rolled away and away, dark velvet brown toward the flushing east. The sky was vivid crimson when they turned their horses up a little knoll. They reached its summit just as the sun was rising. Here they drew rein. Two hundred Comanche and Kiowa were riding toward them at the bottom of the hill; the landscape had tricked them into ambush.
There passed an instant during which astonishment held both parties motionless: the white men on the crest, unshaven, sunburned, their soiled sombreros drooping over their narrowed eyes; and at the slope’s foot the ranks of half-naked braves all decked out in the warpath’s gaudy panoply. Their lean torsos gleamed under the rays of the rising sun like old copper; patches of ocher and vermilion stood out in vivid contrast against the dusky skins; feathered war-bonnets and dyed scalp locks fluttered, gay bits of color in the morning breeze. The instant passed; the white men flung themselves from their saddles; the red men deployed forming a wide circle about them. A ululating yell, so fierce in its exultation that the cavalry horses pulled back upon their bridles in a frenzy of fear, broke the silence. Then the booming of the long Sharp’s fifties on the summit mingled with the rattle of Springfields and needle-guns on the hill’s flank.
Now, while the bullets threw the dust from the dry sod into their faces, five of the six dropped on their bellies in a ring. And by the sergeant’s orders Private George Smith took charge of the panic-stricken horses. Perhaps that task fell to him because he was the poorest shot, perhaps it was because he had the least experience; but it was a man’s job. He stood upright clinging to the tie-ropes, trying to soothe the plunging animals; and he became the target for a hundred of those rifles which were clattering along the hillside below him. For every warrior in the band knew that the first bullet that found its mark in his body would send the horses stampeding down the slope; and to put his foes afoot was the initial purpose of the plains Indian when he went into battle.
So Private Smith clinched his teeth and did his best, while the deep-toned buffalo-guns roared and the rifles of the savages answered in a never-ending volley all around him. The leaden slugs droned past his ears as thick as swarming bees; the plunging hoofs showed through the brown dust-clouds, and his arms ached from the strain of the tie-ropes.