When I wrote my first Black Horse Western way back in 1984, I wanted
the villain, a half-breed Comanchero named Nathan Rocco, to meet a spectacular
end. All through the book he'd worn crossed bandoliers, and at the climax
of the story, the two heroes both shoot him at the same time. The bullets
strike the shotgun shells in the bandoliers, and Nathan Rocco more or
Some years later, when reviewing the book for the second edition of The
Encyclopaedia of Frontier and Western Fiction (a review, incidentally,
which was never actually used), Geoff Sadler commented that this particular
death was a little too over-the-top, and spoiled what was an otherwise
reasonable first effort.
Perhaps he was right (See Footnote 1, below). But then, the events and characters we portray
in fiction -- especially genre fiction -- have to be larger than
life, for one very simple reason. We read this type of fiction in order
to escape from the prosaic, humdrum predictability of everyday existence.
Reading about someone taking his dog for a walk, or mowing the lawn or
doing the washing-up, may be true to life, but it's never going to provide
the escapism we are almost guaranteed to get from a good old-fashioned
In any case, life is by and large a fairly ordinary affair, and -- perhaps
fortunately -- few of us ever get the chance to go out in a blaze of glory,
as do the characters we like to read and write about. Take Clay Allison,
for example. He may have been one of the Old West's most colourful characters,
but he met his end in a most undignified manner.
Returning home to his ranch one July night in 1887, Clay's wagon hit
a bump in the road. Already as drunk as the proverbial skunk, he fell
out of the wagon and rolled right into the path of its rear wheels. The
snap of his neck ended the career of a man said to have killed between
15 and 24 men.
Then there was the ambidextrous Jim Courtwright. Jim did die in a gunfight -- killed in a shoot-out with Luke Short in 1887 -- but he didn't exactly go out with much dignity. Luke's first shot took off Jim's right thumb, and before he could bring his left-hand gun into play, Luke sealed his fate by ventilating him with another three slugs.
Then there were the Earp brothers. Virgil died in 1906, but spent the last 25 years of his life crippled after being cut down by five hidden shotguns on December 28th 1881. Morgan Earp was playing pool one evening in March 1882 when a flurry of shots blasted through a window and caught him in the back. He died aged 31.
As for Wyatt Earp himself, well, he must have had a charmed life, because he died peacefully in 1929 at the grand old age of 80.
John "King" Fisherwas killed along with gunman Ben Thompson in a San Antonio variety theatre on March 10th 1884. Ironically, there was no grudge against Fisher. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was caught in the crossfire when friends of one of Thompson's many victims gunned him down in revenge. Thompson was 42, Fisher just 30.
Pat Garrett, the man who famously dispatched Billy the Kid, was killed in what may or may not have been a gunfight. There had been a disagreement between Pat and one of the tenants on his ranch. Pat was said to be reaching for a shotgun when he caught some lead from Judge Colt. But will we ever know the truth? He was shot through the chest -- and also the back of the head. At the trial, his killer was acquitted. That was in 1908, the year Pat turned 57.
John Wesley Hardinwas one of the Old West's most famous characters. He had around 40 killings to his credit when his turn finally came in 1895. But he didn't meet his end in a gunfight. Some say Wes was armed that night, some say he wasn't. What really mattered was that lawman John Selman shot him in the back. Hardin was 42.
In 1876, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was shot in the back
of the head by black-hearted Jack McCall. No gunfight -- just straight
murder. Wild Bill was 39.
John Henry "Doc" Hollidaypacked more than his share of living into his brief 35 years. He died the victim of tuberculosis, but nobody can say that he didn't die with his boots on -- even though he was in a sanatorium bed at the time.