A couple of weeks ago, I paid a visit to the state capital in Austin, Texas and visited the Texas State Capitol Building. I try to do this every other year or so, prior to legislative sessions to keep my thoughts in perspective. A visit to those solemn halls and a look at all that granite reassures me that in spite of everything the solons do during the sessions, the state and its government will still be there, more or less intact after they leave.
But the perfidy of the Texas Legislature is not the subject of this article. On my visit, I took the time to drop by the Capitol Gift Shop and ran across three books I had to have. I would have found more, but decided three was enough, so I left before I was further tempted.
One of these tomes concerned the life of John Wesley Hardin, a new biography of the man who was perhaps the most feared and homicidal gun fighter the old west produced. Before he was incarcerated for second degree murder in the death of a deputy sheriff, Hardin had killed 39 men, including Mexicans, Indians and those of African decent. He may not have been the fastest gun in the west, but he was certainly the quickest and most willing to use his weapon.
If you think this article strays far afield from the cattle business, think again. Wes Hardin was a very successful cattleman who sent numerous herds up the trail and made quite a bit of money doing it. The fact that many of the steers in those herds originated in the herds of other people may account for the windfall profits that resulted.
I had read books on this man in the past, but this one is as much a history of the turbulent era of reconstruction in the South as it is a biography of the gunman. He was the product of his times, though his reactions to the indignities visited on his homeland by the carpet baggers, were, perhaps, more extreme than most others.
The son of an itinerant Methodist minister, he killed his first man at the age of 15, a freedman with whom he had fought and was soundly trounced. Still smarting from his defeat, he searched the man out the next day and shot him to death. Had he turned himself in at the time and faced trial, the entire matter would have, no doubt, resolved itself. White men were seldom convicted by the juries of the day for killing black men.
But he didn't wait around and face the music. He left for parts unknown, and continued drifting for the next nine years, until he was sent to prison. At first he hired out as a cowboy, working for this outfit or that one, mostly family members. Then he ran afoul of three black members of the infamous State Police of reconstruction times. In the incident that followed, he left all three of them dead by the side of a rural road.
He signed on to a trail herd headed for Kansas for his health, and enroute added eight more notches to his gun in the three months time it took to reach the railhead. By that time, he was 17 years old, had killed 12 men, and had gained a certain amount of notoriety for his skill with a handgun.
Abilene was a wild town, ruled by the city marshal, James B. Hickock, known in folklore as Wild Bill, no mean practitioner of the shooters art, himself. He and Hardin approached each other very carefully, and by all accounts, Hickock backed down from Hardin in at least two confrontations.
It was about that time that he found people would pay good money to someone who was willing to use a gun in their behalf. A Mexican drover killed a fellow cowboy in one of the outfits grazing cattle near Abilene, awaiting shipment. The trail boss asked Hardin to “apprehend” the fugitive. Hardin caught him at the Kansas-Oklahoma line, headed for home, and shot him dead. He was paid well for the job.
After that, he hired out his gun to anyone who would bid high enough, and there were a profusion of these in Reconstruction Texas. The absence of duly constituted law in the state led to a profusion of feuds between families and factions. This was due to the willingness and, in fact, the necessity of people taking care of their own problems without the help of the authorities. Hardin joined several of these factions over the next few years to deadly effect. But he not only was willing to kill for money. He killed men over card games, in drunken arguments, or for insults, both real and perceived, though he always claimed he never killed anyone who didn't deserve killing -- a comforting thought. As the death toll rose, so did his reputation.
At the apex of his career, Captain Richard King of the famous King Ranch summoned him to a meeting. It seems that a feud had broken out in DeWitt County, where King had friends. This was between a group of large substantial ranchers headed by a man named William Sutton and some smaller operators headed by a gentleman named Creed Taylor. Sutton and his associates resented the practice of “mavericking” carried on by the Taylors and their ilk. “Mavericking” was simply going out on the open range and into the thickets and roping unbranded cattle and placing your own brand on them.
Sutton believed that the Taylors were branding cattle that rightfully belonged to him and to the other big ranchers. He and his friends handled the situation in the only way they knew how. They caught a couple of the Taylor people “working cattle” one evening and shot them both dead. This seemed to work so well that they decided to solve all their problems by simply wiping out the entire Taylor clan and all their small rancher friends.
As you might imagine, this didn't set any too well with the Taylors, and they retaliated by gunning down a few members of the Sutton party. The entire fight took on a life of its own as folks all around the country picked sides and joined in the killing.
That's when Wes Hardin arrived on the scene. The Sutton people, cognizant of his reputation offered him big money to fight on their side, but he was coy and wanted to look the situation over. He ultimately decided there was more money to be made by siding with the Taylors. There, he not only received his pay as a gunman, but was able to pick up large numbers of cattle that he sent to his brothers' place in North Central Texas. There the cattle were gathered until a herd of sufficient size was put together to justify a trip up the trail to Abilene or Dodge City.
No one can say Hardin didn't earn his pay. He organized the entire Taylor faction into a small army and made all-out war on Sutton and his friends, even to chasing Sutton's chief lieutenant into his fortified home and besieging the place until rescue in the form of the Texas Rangers arrived. The two sides made peace, but it didn't last until the ink dried on the peace accords.
Ultimately, Hardin planned but didn't execute the murder of William Sutton as he boarded a boat at the port of Indianola enroute to New Orleans. He sent two of the younger Taylors to do the job, and they succeeded quite admirably. Sutton and his foreman were gunned down on the deck of the steamer before it sailed.
This killing brought the rangers swarming down on the region, and Hardin departed for his brothers' cattle depot in Brown County in Northwest Texas, a jump ahead of the law.
There, in a bar in Comanche, Texas, he killed a deputy sheriff who had arrested some of his brothers' good friends. This killing brought local resentment for all the killings and cattle thefts to a head. A mob of citizens took the law into its own hands and lynched Hardin's brother, a couple of cousins and some friends. They'd have lynch John Wesley, too, if they'd caught him.
But he wisely had moved on before the trouble started. He moved to Southern Alabama, near Mobile with a wife and family he collected along the way. There he gambled, owned a bar across in Florida and had a high old time for a couple of years.
But back in Texas, the law was grinding its way toward a solution to the murder of the deputy sheriff. A reward of $4,000 was posted for Hardin, and Texas Rangers began looking for him in earnest. Through some intercepted mail from his wife to her mother, they learned of his whereabouts, and Ranger Lieutenant John B. Armstrong went over to arrest him. He did. He caught Hardin on a train between Mobile and Pensacola, popped him on the head with a colt revolver and took him into custody.
He was returned to Texas and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor for the murder of the deputy. Many thought the sentence much too lenient, but ironically, that killing was probably done in self defense. He was never charged in any of the other killings.
He was finally released from prison in 1895, at the age of 42. He had served 18 years of his sentence and had read the law while an inmate. He moved to El Paso in far west Texas and settled down to practice law.
But the gambling and drinking bug was too much for him. One night, in his cups, he started a fight with El Paso City Marshal John Selman. Guns were drawn and Hardin had lost his speed and dexterity. Selman killed him on the spot.
He was an interesting man, certainly a product of his times. He was loyal to his friends and family, honorable where his word was concerned, and completely fearless. But he was also completely cold-blooded and without compassion. This combined with his unarguable skill with a handgun made him the most ferocious of the west's gunfighters.