His score was now seventy-two men, not counting Indians. He himself never reported how many Indians he and Buffalo Bill killed as scouts in the Black Kettle campaign under Carr and Primrose, but the killing of Black Kettle himself was sometimes attributed to Wild Bill. The latter was badly wounded in the thigh with a lance, and it took a long time for this wound to heal. To give this hurt and others better opportunity for mending, Bill now took a trip back East to his home in Illinois. While East he found that he had a reputation, and he undertook to use it. He found no way of making a living, however, and he returned to the West, where he could better market his qualifications.
At that time Hays City, Kansas, was one of the hardest towns on the frontier. It had more than a hundred gambling dives and saloons to its two thousand population, and murder was an ordinary thing. Hays needed a town marshal, and one who could shoot. Wild Bill was unanimously selected, and in six weeks he was obliged to kill Jack Strawhan for trying to shoot him. This he did by reason of his superior quickness with the six-shooter, for Strawhan was drawing first. Another bad man, Mulvey, started to run Hays, in whose peace and dignity Bill now felt a personal ownership. Covered by Mulvey’s two revolvers, Bill found room for the lightning flash of time, which is all that needed by the real revolver genius, and killed Mulvey on the spot. His tally was now seventy-five men. He made it seventy-eight in a fight with a bunch of private soldiers, who called him a “long-hair”—a term very accurate, by the way, for Bill was proud of his long, blond hair, as was General Custer and many another man of the West at that time. In this fight, Bill was struck by seven pistol balls and barely escaped alive by flight to a ranch on the prairie near by. He lay there three weeks, while General Phil Sheridan had details out with orders to get him dead or alive. He later escaped in a box-car to another town, and his days as marshal of Hays were over.
He killed two more with his left hand and badly wounded the other. This was a fair fight also, and the only wonder is he was not killed; but he seemed never to consider odds, and literally he knew nothing but fight.
Bill now tried his hand at Wild West theatricals, seeing that already many Easterners were “daffy,” as he called it, about the West; but he failed at this, and went back once more to the plains where he belonged. He was chosen marshal of Abilene, then the cow camp par excellence of the middle plains, and as tough a community as Hays had been.
The wild men from the lower plains, fighting men, mad from whiskey and contact with the settlements’ possibilities of long-denied indulgence, swarmed in the streets and dives, mingling with desperadoes and toughs from all parts of the frontier. Those who have never lived in such a community will never be able by any description to understand its phenomena. It seems almost unbelievable that sober, steady-going America ever knew such days; but there they were, and not so long ago, for this was only 1870.
Two days after Bill was elected marshal of Abilene, he killed a desperado who was “whooping-up” the town in customary fashion. That same night, he was on the street, in a dim light, when all at once he saw a man whisk around a corner, and saw something shine, as he thought, with the gleam of a weapon. As showing how quick were the hand and eye of the typical gun-man of the day, it may be stated that Bill killed this man in a flash, only to find later that it was a friend, and one of his own deputies.
The man was only pulling a handkerchief from his pocket. Bill knew that he was watched every moment by men who wanted to kill him. He had his life in his hands all the time. For instance, he had next to kill the friend of the desperado whom he had shot. By this time, Abilene respected its new marshal; indeed, was rather proud of him. The reign of the bad man of the plains was at its height, and the professional man-killer, the specialist with firearms, was a figure here and there over wide regions. Among all these none compared with this unique specimen. He was generous, too, as he was deadly, for even yet he was supporting a McCanles widow, and he always furnished funerals for his corpses. He had one more to furnish soon. Enemies down the range among the cow men made up a purse of five thousand dollars, and hired eight men to kill the town marshal and bring his heart back South. Bill heard of it, and literally made all of them jump off the railroad train where he met them. One was killed in the jump. His list of homicides was now eighty-one. He had never yet been arrested for murder, and his killing was in fair open fight, his life usually against large odds. He was a strange favorite of fortune, who seemed certainly to shield him round-about.
Bill now went East for another try at theatricals, in which, happily, he was unsuccessful, and for which he felt a strong distaste. He was scared—on the stage; and when he saw what was expected of him he quit and went back once more to the West. He appeared at Cheyenne, in the Black Hills, wandering thus from one point to another after the fashion of the frontier, where a man did many things and in many places. He had a little brush with a band of Indians, and killed four of them with four shots from his six-shooter, bringing his list in red and white to eighty-five men. He got away alive from the Black Hills with difficulty; but in 1876 he was back again at Deadwood, married now, and, one would have thought, ready to settle down.
But the life of turbulence ends in turbulence. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Deadwood was as bad a place as any that could be found in the mining regions, and Bill was not an officer here, as he had been in Kansas towns. As marshal of Hays and Abilene and United States marshal later at Hays City, he had been a national character. He was at Deadwood for the time only plain Wild Bill, handsome, quiet, but ready for anything.
Ready for anything but treachery! He himself had always fought fair and in the open. His men were shot in front. Not such was to be his fate. On the day of August 2, 1876, while he was sitting at a game of cards in a saloon, a hard citizen by name of Jack McCall slipped up behind him, placed a pistol to the back of his head, and shot him dead before he knew he had an enemy near. The ball passed through Bill’s head and out at the cheek, lodging in the arm of a man across the table. Bill had won a little money from McCall earlier in the day, and won it fairly, but the latter had a grudge, and was no doubt one of those disgruntled souls who “had it in” for all the rest of the world. He got away with the killing at the time, for a miners’ court let him go. A few days later, he began to boast about his act, seeing what fame was his for ending so famous a life; but at Yankton they arrested him, tried him before a real court, convicted him, and hanged him promptly.