The Desperado

By Emerson Hough in 1905

 

Gunfighter

Gunfighter

Energy and action may be of two sorts, good or bad; this being as well as we can phrase it in human affairs. The live wires that net our streets are more dangerous than all the bad men the country ever knew, but we call electricity on the whole good in its action. We lay it under law, but sometimes it breaks out and has its own way. These outbreaks will occur until the end of time, in live wires and vital men. Each land in the world produces its own men individually bad—and, in time, other bad men who kill them for the general good.

There are bad Chinamen, bad Filipinos, bad Mexicans, and Indians, bad black men, and bad white men. The white bad man is the worst bad man of the world, and the prize-taking bad man of the lot is the Western white bad man. Turn the white man loose in a land free of restraint—such as was always that Golden Fleece land, vague, shifting and transitory, known as the American West—and he simply reverts to the ways of Teutonic and Gothic forests.

The civilized empire of the West has grown in spite of this, because of that other strange germ, the love of law, anciently implanted in the soul of the Anglo-Saxon. That there was little difference between the bad man and the good man who went out after him was frequently demonstrated in the early roaring days of the West. The religion of progress and civilization meant very little to the Western town marshal, who sometimes, or often, was a peace officer chiefly because he was a good fighting man.

We band together and “elect” political representatives who do not represent us at all. We “elect” executive officers who execute nothing but their own wishes. We pay innumerable policemen to take from our shoulders the burden of self-protection; and the policemen do not do this thing. Back of all the law is the undelegated personal right, that vague thing which, none the less, is recognized in all the laws and charters of the world; as England and France of old, and Russia today, may show. This undelegated personal right is in each of us, or ought to be. If there is in you no hot blood to break into flame and set you arbiter for yourself in some sharp, crucial moment, then God pity you, for no woman ever loved you if she could find anything else to love, and you are fit neither as man nor citizen.

As the individual retains an undelegated right, so does the body social. We employ politicians, but at heart most of us despise politicians and love fighting men. Society and law are not absolutely wise nor absolutely right, but only as a compromise relatively wise and right. The bad man, so called, may have been in large part relatively bad. This much we may say scientifically, and without the slightest cheapness. It does not mean that we shall waste any maudlin sentiment over a desperado; and certainly it does not mean that we shall have anything but contempt for the pretender at desperadoism.

Who and what was the bad man? Scientifically and historically he was even as you and I. From where did he come? From any and all places. What did he look like? He came in all sorts and shapes, all colors and sizes—just as cowards do. As to knowing him, the only way was by trying him. His reputation, true or false, just or unjust, became, of course, the herald of the bad man in due time. The “killer” of a Western town might be known throughout the state or in several states. His reputation might long outlast that of able statesmen and public benefactors.

What distinguished the bad man in peculiarity from his fellowman? Why was he better with weapons? What is courage, in the last analysis? We ought to be able to answer these questions in a purely scientific way. We have machines for photographing relative quickness of thought and muscular action. We are able to record the varying speeds of impulse transmission in the nerves of different individuals. If you were picking out a bad man, would you select one who, on the machine, showed a dilatory nerve response? Hardly. The relative fitness for a man to be “bad,” to become extraordinarily quick and skillful with weapons, could, without doubt, be predetermined largely by these scientific measurements. Of course, having no thought-machines in the early West, they got at the matter by experimenting, and so, very often, by a graveyard route. You could not always stop to feel the pulse of a suspected killer.

Joseph Slade

Joseph Slade

The use of firearms with swiftness and accuracy was necessary in the calling of the desperado, after fate had marked him and set him apart for the inevitable, though possibly long-deferred, end. This skill with weapons was a natural gift in the case of nearly every man who attained great reputation whether as killer of victims or as killer of killers. Practice assisted in proficiency, but a Wild Bill Hickok,a Joseph A. Slade or a Billy the Kid was born and not made.

Quickness in nerve action is usually backed with good digestion, and hard life in the open is good medicine for the latter. This, however, does not wholly cover the case. A slow man also might be a brave man. Sooner or later, if he went into the desperado business on either side of the game, he would fall before the man who was brave as himself and a fraction faster with the gun.

There were unknown numbers of potential bad men who died mute and inglorious after a life spent at a desk or a plow. They might have been bad if matters had shaped right for that. Each war brings out its own heroes from unsuspected places; each sudden emergency summons its own fit man. Say that a man took to the use of weapons, and found himself arbiter of life and death with lesser animals, and able to grant them either at a distance. He went on, pleased with his growing skill with firearms. He discovered that as the sword had in one age of the world lengthened the human arm, so did the six-shooter—that epochal instrument, invented at precisely that time of the American life when the human arm needed lengthening—extend and strengthen his arm, and make him and all men equal. The user of weapons felt his powers increased. So now, in time, there came to him a moment of danger. There was his enemy. There was the affront, the challenge. Perhaps it was male against male, a matter of sex, prolific always in bloodshed. It might be a matter of property, or perhaps it was some taunt as to his own personal courage. Perhaps alcohol came into the question, as was often the case. For one reason or the other, it came to the ordeal of combat. It was the un-delegated right of one individual against that of another. The law was not invoked—the law would not serve. Even as the quicker set of nerves flashed into action, the arm shot forward, and there smote the point of flame as did once the point of steel. The victim fell, his own weapon clutched in his hand, a fraction too late. The law cleared the killer. It was “self-defense.” “It was an even break,” his fellowmen said; although thereafter they were more reticent with him and sought him out less frequently.

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