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Celebrated Poker Man Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876)

Charlie Rich had developed an interesting poker pal in the person of 39-year-old James Butler Hickok, a living legend of a marshal of Abilene, Kansas; fashionable with shoulder-length hair; hero of the recently concluded Civil War. Earlier in life, Hickok was a freedom-fighter, an abolitionist fighting between the Free-Soil Kansans and the pro-slavery advocates of Missouri. After the War, he became a peace officer who singlehandedly kept the cowtowns under control with around sixteen executions attributed to him.

On the day August 2, 1876, Hickok expected to play Charlie in a poker match in Deadwood City, southern Dakota Territory. He had been there since August 1, dominating poker matches. Hickok loved poker, as much as he did that seat against the wall – an extremely secure position allowing him to survey every individual entering the saloon. This time it was most vulnerable to Charlie.

Along with two companions, he entered Carl Mann’s saloon to find Charlie beating him to his throne to tease him. Poker, being a game of bluff, puts Hickok into the spirit, challenging his usurper to relinquish the seat. But intimidation soon dissipates into laughs and eagerness to plunge into the game. Uncharacteristically, this mighty guardian of frontiers law reselects a seat in front of his favored one, with his back to the door.

Wild Bill is noted for taking his poker seriously. Shortly after the War, Wild Bill had gunned down David Tutt, another gambling gunfighter, in Springfield, Missouri in a classic high-noon face-off. The cause: Tutt, a professional card cheat, recklessly accused him of being a cardsharper.

Wild Bill did, in fact, venture into cardsharping, a business populated by the lawless. After the War, he missed the call of the saloon and the cards, since scouting enemy territory entails detachment from them. He resigned from the army and began honing his gambling skills once again.

This day’s merriment in Carl Mann’s saloon, however, was too high to award any major concern to this detail.

Card after card, the dealing began. After a while, as Wild Bill and company were soaked weaving their combinations, the figure of Bill Sutherland – an obnoxious co-player from yesterday – emerged at the doorstep. No one seemed to notice as he entered and walked along the bar, then stoped behind Wild Bill with a drawn .45 caliber Colt. He delivered a fatal bullet into the back of Wild Bill’s head instantly killing him.

Shock overwhelmed the place, giving Sutherland a chance to flee. A manhunt shortly ensued and found the assassin huddled in a butcher shop. Sutherland gets hauled to justice. Seven months of trial soon led him to the gallows, guilty as charged.

Three things can be said of Wild Bill’s death. First is the matter about “the dead man’s hand” – the two black aces and the two black eights. Second is that two months earlier, it was reported that he predicted his death in this town. Third, he died with a smile on his face.

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