The exploits of Wild Bill Hickok, spread by word-of-mouth and embellished by dime novels, would shape the popular image of America's frontier. Tall, lean, muscular, with long blond hair falling to his shoulders and two pistols shoved into his belt, wearing a law man's badge on his chest, he personified the image of the Western hero for both his and later generations.
One incident in particular had a major impact on the birth of an icon of the Old West: the gunfight in which two lone gunman face off in the middle of a dusty street. There is no evidence that these shootouts occurred with any frequency in the West; after all, who in their right mind would participate in such a dangerous enterprise? However, an incident in Springfield, Missouri, soon after the close of the Civil War, did much to inspire the myth.
There was no love lost between Hickok and Dave Tutt. During the Civil War, Hickok fought for the Union and Tutt for the Confederacy. Their enmity only increased when both became interested in the same woman. The matter came to a head when Tutt stole Hickok's pocket watch during a poker game, and bragged he would parade through Springfield's town square wearing his rival's prized possession. At the announced time, Hickok stood in the square and warned Tutt not to proceed. Unfazed, Tutt boldly strode towards his enemy and pulled his pistol. Hickok simultaneously drew his pistol and fired. Tutt fell dead. Hickok quickly turned and leveled his gun towards a crowd of Tutt's supporters who had gathered nearby, warning them not to interfere. They took the hint.
Later, when Hickok became the law in such wide-open towns as Abilene and Hays City, both in Kansas, his reputation alone was often sufficient to persuade dusty cowhands to think twice about disrupting the peace.
However, his fame was a double-edged sword; to some, killing a man of such repute was a trophy worth having. During the afternoon of 2 August 1876, Hickok sat playing poker in the Number Ten saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Abandoning his usual precaution of always sitting with his back to a wall and engrossed in the game, he failed to notice Jack McCall sneaking in through a back door. McCall calmly approached Hickok from behind, raised his pistol and shot him dead, for reasons still not fully understood.
In 1869, thirty-two-year-old Hickok was marshal of Hays City, Kansas. Miguel Otero witnessed one of the exploits that would make Hickok a legend:
I was an eye-witness to Wild Bill Hickok's encounter with Bill Mulvey, and shall relate the details as they linger in my mind:Miguel Otero's account appears in Otero, Miguel, My Life on the Frontier 1864-1882 (1936).
I was standing near Hickok on Main Street, when someone began 'shooting up the town' at the eastern end of the street. It was Bill Mulvey, a notorious murderer from Missouri, known as a handy man with a gun. He had just enough red liquor in him to be mean, and he seemed to derive great amusement from shooting holes into the mirrors, as well as the bottles of liquor behind the bars, of the saloons in that section of the street. As was usually the case with such fellows, he was looking for trouble, and when someone told him that Hickok was the town marshal and therefore it behooved him to behave himself, Mulvey swore that he would find Hickok and shoot him on sight. He further averred that the marshal was the very man he was looking for, and that he had come to the 'damn'd town' for the express purpose of killing him.
The tenor of these remarks was somehow made known to Hickok. But hardly had the news reached him than Mulvey appeared on the scene, tearing toward us on his iron-grey horse, rifle in hand, full cocked. When Hickok saw Mulvey he walked out to meet him, apparently waving his hand to some fellows behind Mulvey and calling to them: 'Don't shoot him in the back; he is drunk.'
Mulvey stopped his horse and, wheeling the animal about, drew a bead on his rifle in the direction of the imaginary man he thought Hickok was addressing. But, before he realized the ruse that had been played upon him, Hickok had aimed his six-shooter and fired, just once. Mulvey dropped from his horse dead, the bullet having penetrated his temple and then passed through his head."