WILD BILL HICKOK, GUNFIGHTER & POET
Copyright © Fred R. Kline 2011, 2016, 2019 (First published in LEONARDO'S HOLY CHILD, Pegasus Books, 2016)
Few people have ever heard of Wild Bill Hickok’s only known poem. Well, I found it in Austin, Texas. There it was, in all its deathless greeting-card sincerity, written in pencil and signed, on a small scrap of paper, tear-stained and whiskey-stained, stuffed behind a tintype photograph of Wild Bill, all lovingly packaged and preserved in a small and well worn leather case and hidden away at the back of someone’s drawer. The bard of the mythic Old West had come to light.
Here’s the poem, exactly as the lines played out on the small page, an indulgence for the sake of literary historians of the Old West and all the cowboy poets out there:
Do I love thee go ask The flowers if they Love Sweet refreshing Showers
(and a little off to the side) Sadia
As I see it, this is a Valentine to Miss Sadia, one of Wild Bill’s girlfriends, doubtless one of the exotic ladies of the night he tended to favor. Below this, Wild Bill drew a line of five delightfully simple flowers—as far as I can tell, his only known drawing.
And then, boldly:
James B. Hickok Springfield MO
Wild Bill was back and forth in Springfield during the years 1865-76 in various guises: a professional gambler, man about town, and at first a Provost Marshall after honorable duty as a scout and spy for the Union army. It was also here in July 1865 that Wild Bill and one Dave Tutt (reportedly late of the Confederate army and a barfly compadre of Wild Bill) engaged in what is reputed to be the first public gunfight of the Old West. I don’t know why for sure, but it’s told that Tutt made off with Wild Bill’s old family pocket watch after a hand of poker and wouldn’t give it back. Who knows, maybe Tutt insulted his girlfriend Sadia and Wild Bill was also defending her honor. Anyway, Tutt, who was probably drunk, quickly drew his pistol and shot first and missed. Then Wild Bill shot him dead. It should also be noted that soon afterward, in September 1865, Wild Bill ran for Marshall of Springfield, among a field of five candidates, and came in second. There is no record of who won but he was not a legend of the Old West.
I actually felt I was going to discover something that day in 1986 when Wild Bill found me. On a cheery morning of good omen, I ventured out into Austin, Texas with my sidekick Jann and a few thousand dollars to spend. Many hours later, at the end of that hot and tiring Texas day and after passing up a lot of junk, I stood in the doorway of a last-chance shop on South Congress. Its unmistakable ambience and dusty aroma of the Old West didn’t offer much promise but, nevertheless, I stood there, my thumbs hooked in my belt, and imperiously used my eyes to scan the room. Used saddles and saddle blankets, historic tack, branding irons, a buffalo skull, rusty tobacco signs, Mexican spurs, ranch furniture, Indian artifacts, even a sweat-stained moth-eaten cowboy hat or two; that was about it. My attention was quickly turning to a Mexican food dinner and a drink with sweet Jann. The owner, a likable trader, asked if there was anything he could help me find. I cut to the chase and told him straight out that I’d like to see the most interesting and valuable rarity he had in the shop. That’s called Texas no-bullshit’n-around-talk. He thought a moment, asked if I liked old photographs to which I said yes, then pulled out an old leather case from a drawer. “This might qualify,” he said, “something I’ve had for twenty years, came from an old Austin estate.” He showed me a tintype photograph, which I recognized immediately as Wild Bill Hickok because I had studied photos of him when I was a kid (and I never forget a face), and he said he believed it was Wild Bill Hickok. (Fig. xx) I shook my head understandingly. It was surprising to see him dressed in a flashy checkerboard-patterned dude’s outfit. The tintype was $1,200, and by the way, came with a poem that was “stuck in the case behind it”. A poem? He carefully lifted it out, and there it was, as previously mentioned. Whoa, hoss!
I instinctively felt it was authentic, and wonderful, and rare as hen’s teeth, but $1,200 was nothing to fool around with so I asked if he had an expert opinion to support it or if he would guarantee it. He said no to both questions and ventured that was why he hadn’t sold it in lo these twenty years. Jann looked and didn’t say a word then nodded at me with a twinkle in her eye and I could tell it was Go Cowboy! After a few more minutes of deliberation, I said I would take it. “Sold,” he said, and we shook hands, he made out a bill of sale, and I promised to deliver the cash he requested in the morning. I took another long look with my loupe and he put it back in the drawer with me wishing I could study it overnight.
That evening, excitedly discussing the discovery with Jann, the phone rang and it was old Moody Anderson, the owner of Wild Bill. He said he and his partner had decided not to sell it!
“Hell, Moody,” I said, “a deal’s a damn deal, we shook hands, you made out a bill of sale, I gave you my word that I would come in with the money tomorrow and I’ve gone high and low to scrape it up and I’m holding it in my hand right now. I just don’t think it’s right since you gave me your word and a written bill of sale and I gave you my word, so come on, a man’s word is his bond and a matter of honor. (I stopped short of threatening legal action). “A deal’s a damn deal Moody,” I said again, “and this is about trust and integrity here, so we’ve got a deal as I see it—and I took it without a guarantee at that! Did you just get it authenticated after twenty years, or what?” No, Moody said, and I was right, we shook on it and the right thing is to go ahead with the sale, so come on by in the morning and, he said, he only thought I might want the chance to back out of it but now he guessed I didn’t. “A deal’s a damn deal, you know that,” I repeated in friendly Texas talk (Texan that I am). I said I would see him in the morning. “And another thing,” I said, “I won’t be wearing my twin six-guns for a shoot-out on South Congress.” We laughed. Goddamn seller’s remorse can give you high blood pressure! But I’ll tell you, the Code of the West held true and Moody stood by his word like the real gent he was.
So, I began to delve into the life and times of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, a fascinating story that ends at a Deadwood poker table with Wild Bill shot dead in the back while holding his famous two pair, aces and eights, the “Deadman’s Hand”. The rest of his story can be found in books by the leading Wild Bill specialist, Joseph Rosa. It was Rosa I got in touch with first for authentication, sending him professional photographs, and he agreed 100 percent all around. Of all things, he lived in London and worked as a risk manager for Lloyds of London. Rosa’s authentication was a relief, to be sure, but I really wasn’t worried. I knew it was right or I wouldn’t have bought it, and that’s exactly how it should happen. I was an avid autograph collector of old time baseball players when I was a kid, even a connoisseur I might say, so I had an eye for autographs going way back.
Well, I cherished my Wild Bill icon for many weeks, then offered it to Joe Rosa for a charitable $3,000 and he very regrettably didn’t have the money. Then I offered it at $5,000 to one of the scions of the King Ranch, B. Johnson, whom I knew, and he stared skeptically into the headlights of a golden opportunity. Finally, I offered my Wild Bill treasure, poem and tintype, to the autograph specialist at Swann Auction Galleries in New York, who was overjoyed at the opportunity. It soon sold for $19,000 and appeared in its own New York Times article the next day, which quoted the poem in its entirety. Wild Bill’s Valentine and his little drawings of flowers and his checkerboard suit are now a part of the mythology of the Wild West, adding as it should a little bit of tenderness. ###