Triggerfingeritis – The Old West Gunman

And therein lay his error.

The killing was perfectly justifiable; surrendered and tried, he would surely have been acquitted. But his breed never surrender, at least, never before their last shell is emptied.

Flight having made him an outlaw, the Government offered a heavy reward for him, dead or alive. For a time he was harbored among his friends on the different ranches; indeed was a welcome guest of my Deadman Ranch for several days; but in a few weeks the hue and cry got so hot that he had to jump for the Sand Hills south of the Niobrara.

Ever pursued, he found that honest wage-earning was impossible. Presently he was confronted with want, not of much, indeed of very little, but that want was vital — he wanted cartridges. At this time the Sand Hills were full of deer and antelope; and therefore to him cartridges meant more even than defense of his freedom, they meant food. It was this want that drove him into his first actual crime, the stealing of Sioux ponies, which he ran into the settlements and sold.

The downward path of the criminal is like that of the limpid, clean-faced brook, bred of a bubbling spring nestled in some shady nook of the hills, where the air is sweet and pure, and pollution cometh not. But there it may not stay; on and yet on it rushes, as helpless as heedless, till one day it finds itself plunged into some foul current carrying the off-scourings of half a continent. So on and down plunged Doc; from stealing Indian ponies to lifting ranch horses was no long leap in his new code.

Then our stock Association got busy and Billy Lykins took his trail. Oddly, in a few months the same type of accident in turn saved the life of each. Their first encounter was single-handed. With the better horse, Lykins was pressing Doc so close that Doc raced to the crest of a low conical hill, jumped off his mount, dropped flat on the ground and covered Lykins with a Springfield rifle, meantime yelling to him:

“Duck, you little Dutch fool; I don’t want to kill you”; for they knew each other well, and in a way were friends.

But, Billy never knew when to stop. Deeper into his pony’s flank sank the rowels, and up the hill on Doc he charged, pistol in hand. At thirty yards Doc pulled the trigger, when — wonder of wonders—the faithful old Springfield missed fire. Before Doc could throw in another shell or draw his pistol, Billy was over him and had him covered.

If my memory rightly serves, the Sidney jail held Doc almost a fortnight. A few weeks later Doc had assembled a strong gang about him, rendezvoused on the Piney, a tributary of the lower Niobrara. There he was far east of Lykins’s bailiwick, but a good many degrees within Lykins’s disposition to quit his trail. Accompanied by Major W. H. H. Llewellyn and an Omaha detective (inappropriately named Hassard), Lykins located Doc’s camp, and the three lay near for several days studying their quarry.

One morning Llewellyn and Hassard started up the creek, mounted, on a scout, leaving Lykins and his horse hidden in the brush near the trail. At a sharp bend of the path the two ran plunk into Doc and five of his men. Both being unknown to Doc’s gang, and the position and odds forbidding hostilities, they represented themselves as campers hunting lost stock, and turned and rode back down the trail with the outlaws, alert for any play their leader might make.

Recognizing his man, Billy lay with his “45” and “70” Sharps comfortably resting across a log; and when the band were come within twenty yards of him, he drew a careful bead on Doc’s head and pulled the trigger. By strange coincidence his Sharps missed fire, precisely as had Doc’s Springfield a few weeks before.

Hearing the snap of the rifle hammer, with a curse Doc jerked his gun and whirled his horse toward the brush just as Billy sprang out into the open and threw a pistol shot into Doc that broke his thigh. Swaying in saddle, Doc cursed Hassard for leading him into a trap, and shot him twice before himself pitching to the ground. Hassard stood idly, stunned apparently by a sort of white-hot work he was not used to, and received his death wound without any effort even to draw. Meantime, the firm of Lykins and Llewellyn accounted for two more before Doc’s mates got out of range. Thus, like the brook, Doc had drifted down the turbid current of crime till he found himself impounded in the Lincoln penitentiary with the off-scourings of the state.

While it is true that back into such impounding most who once have been there soon return, Doc turned out to be one of the rare exceptions proving the rule; for the last I heard of him, he was the lame but light-hearted and wholly honest proprietor of a respectable Rushville saloon.

Street in El Paso, Texas, 1888

Street in El Paso, Texas, 1888

When in the early 1880’s the front camps of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe and the Texas Pacific met at El Paso, then a village called Franklin, within a few weeks the population jumped from a few hundred to nearly three thousand. Speculators, prospectors for business opportunities, mechanics, miners, and tourists poured in—a chance-taking, high-living, free-spending lot that offered such rich pickings for the predatory that it was not long before nearly every fat pigeon had a hungry, merciless vulture hovering near, watching for a chance to fasten its claws and gorge itself.

The low one-story adobes, fronted by broad, arched portals, that then lined the west side of El Paso Street for several blocks, was a long solid row of variety theatres, dance halls, saloons, and gambling-houses, never closed by day or by night. They were packed with a roistering mob that drifted from one joint to another, dancing, gambling, carousing, and fighting. Naturally, at first the predatory confined their attentions to the roisterers.

Of course every lay-out was a brace game, from which no player arose with any notable winning except occasionally when the “house” felt it a good bit of advertising to graduate a handsome winner — and then it was usually a “capper,” whose gains were in a few minutes passed back into the till.

The faro boxes were full of springs as a watch; faro decks were carefully cut “strippers.” An average good dealer would shuffle and arrange as he liked the favorite cards of known high-rollers. These had been neatly split on either edge and a minute bit of bristle pasted in, which no ordinary touch would feel, but which the sand-papered finger tips of an expert dealer would catch and slip through on the shuffle and place where they would do (the house) the most good. The “tin horns” gave out few but false notes; the roulette balls were kicked silly out of the boxes representing heavily played numbers. Not content with the “Kitty’s” rake-off, every stud poker table had one or more “cappers” sitting in, to whom the dealers could occasionally throw a stiff pot. The backs of poker decks were so cunningly marked that while the wise ones could read their size and suit across the table, no untaught eye could detect their guile. And wherever a notable roll was once flashed, greedy eyes never left it until it was safe in the till of some game, or its owner “rolled” and relieved of it by force.

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