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Wednesday, April 11, 2012
The Gunfighter - Bad Boy With A Big Gun
Welcome fellow western romance lovers! I’m a diehard western fan and—I admit it—I’ve always been fascinated with the myth of the old west gunfighter? Wait a minute…did I just say myth?
Yes, I did. Thanks to the movies and tv, we’re all familiar with the archetypal image of two gunfighters facing off in the middle of a dusty street at high noon. But how accurate was this depiction and how often did it really happen? While it’s true that such showdowns did occur, evidence that there was some kind of unspoken code of behavior between gunfighters seems conflicting, at best. But just as our modern media latch on to human interest stories, the newspapers and dime novels of the day took up the exploits of men such as Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid and sensationalized them until they became ingrained in the very fabric of our history.
In his biography, Wyatt Earp described in detail the correct way for a gunfighter to carry, cock, and draw his six-shooter. He also had little respect for any man who shot from the hip or "fanned" his pistol, which would suggest there was some kind of code among the shooters of the old west. In reality, in most deadly altercations, one guy just tried to get the drop on the other to avoid getting shot himself. The fast-draw wasn’t nearly as important as modern cinema makes it out to be. Many a gunfighter entered a shoot-out with his gun already drawn and in hand. The key to walking away without catching a bullet was accuracy and a cool nerve rather than speed. If you could hit what you were shooting at, you might live to shoot another day. Remember that famous shoot-out down in Arizona called the OK Corral? The facts suggest, between thirty and forty shots were fired that day to kill three men.
Now, don't get me wrong, many of the legends that came out of the old west were not pure fabrication. Here’s just one factual account: In 1865, in the town of Springfield, Missouri, James Butler Hickok, also known as Wild Bill, got into an argument with Davis Tutt over $40 Bill owed him. At approximately 6 PM on July 21, the two men advanced on each other in the town square. When they reached a range of 50 yards, they drew their guns and started firing. Tutt missed and Hickok put a shot through his heart. In the aftermath of the incident, Hickok was tried for manslaughter and acquitted. Then, in 1867, Harper’s New Monthly printed a sensationalized account of the shoot-out and Wild Bill became a national celebrity. At the time the story appeared, there were skeptics because 50 yards is a goodly distance for Hickok to have hit his man, but all the evidence pointed to the story being basically accurate in its facts. And this was just one of the stories that gave fuel to the lore of the western gunfighter, not to mention his prowess and expertise.
Most gunfighters proficient at their trade preferred a distance of about 15 yards from their targets in order to achieve accuracy. And speed often didn’t figure into it. One gunfighter named Turkey Creek Jack Johnson became famous for taking his good ol' easy time. In 1876, in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota, Turkey Creek Jack became embroiled in a row with two men and invited them to take it out in the road so they could shoot it out. Jack’s opponents both had two six-guns strapped around their hips. They faced off at opposite ends of the cemetery fence, a distance of about 50 yards. When they started walking toward each other, Jack’s opponents each pulled a gun and started shooting. By the time they’d covered 10 yards, they’d emptied the chambers and drawn their second gun. Meanwhile, Jack was walking toward them with his pistol drawn but he still hadn’t fired a shot. At 30 yards, he fired his first shot and killed one of the men. At that point, he stood still and waited for the second man to come closer, then fired his second fatal shot.
Gunfighting was a grisly business, what with all the violence and death involved, but the movies and books sure can make it seem romantic. In Angel In The Rain, my first published western historical romance, my hero is a gunfighter. Getting inside his head was sometimes a stretch, but I have to confess, I enjoyed the ride. Writing him was a labor of love and I ended up giving him all the larger-than-life qualities I’d soaked up during a lifetime of reading and movie watching. The following is a snippet from my heroine's point of view as my hero is facing off with two men, preparing to shoot it out:
The transformation she saw in Rane sent icy shivers racing up and down her spine. The wind played with a sable strand of hair that had fallen across his forehead. The elflock gently lifted, moved, a soft contrast against his features that now looked as though they had been sculpted from cold stone.
The absence of expression in his eyes ran her blood cold. They had gone flat and black, until no spark of warmth or emotion remained. The eyes of a deadly predator. Just as they had looked the first time she’d seen him.
Beneath his bronzed skin, a blue vein pulsed at his temple. She looked closely at his uplifted hands, trying to detect if they trembled, if the angry pounding of his blood set up a vibration.
They were as steady as a dead man’s.
And so, with our stories, the legend lives on. Of all the old western heroes, gunfighters have always been my favorite, and I choose to continue believing in the myth. How about you? Has there been a gunfighter in a particular movie or book that you especially liked? If so, I’d love to hear about him...or her.