America’s frontier may have been a vast and solitary expanse, but as it turns out, the Wild West was a small world after all.
Legendary scout Kit Carson gave “Wild Bill” Hickok a Colt pistol; Hickok intervened when a bully threatened the young Buffalo Bill Cody, possibly saving his life; and they were friends until Hickok’s untimely death. He was cozy with Gen. George Armstrong Custer (and perhaps even cozier with Mrs. Custer) and hung out with such debatable desperadoes as the James brothers and John Wesley Hardin. And despite the popular broadsides-to-Broadway stories about Calamity Jane, his real true love was a circus performer/entrepreneur 11 years his senior, and they were only married for four months before his murder. (That Jane was buried next to him seems to have been a sort of joke.)
Oh, and his name wasn’t William, or Bill, or even “Shanghai Bill,” his Jayhawker nickname: It was James Butler Hickok, son of an abolitionist host along the Underground Railroad in Illinois.
Buffalo Bill Cody was a soldier, a scout and a spy, a lawman and a gambler, a prospector and a trapper, a theatrical star and, most famously, an ambidextrous dead shot, who in 1865 won what many people consider the first quick-draw duel in the West. In addition to his Colts, he carried a pair of derringers, a Bowie knife and sometimes a rifle or shotgun.
And while Wild Bill may not have been a mountain man, he was certainly a mountain of a man: fully six feet tall, handsome, well-spoken, a graceful writer and habitually dressed, like his friends Cody and Armstrong, in a fantastical hybrid of high collars and fringed buckskin—frontier Edwardian, the 19th century equivalent of steampunk. (Happily, unlike almost all his contemporaries, Hickok bathed every day.)
Strikingly poignant is the fact that the unmatched marksman was already losing his eyesight in his early 30s, one reason he always sat with his back to the wall at the poker table—well, that and his long having been a target for wannabe gunslingers. He took to wearing blue-tinted spectacles, and though he blamed the trouble on circus fireworks, it was likely glaucoma. Because of this, the day another gambler refused to cede Hickok his usual chair, a petty criminal was able to creep up and shoot Hickok in the back. He was just short of 40.
And yes, the “dead man’s hand” of aces and eights is real; the fifth card, Clavin says, was a queen.