Sunday, November 21, 2004

John Wesley Hardin And The Strange Twist Of Fate

I claim distant kinship to John Wesley Hardin, one of the most famous gunfighters in the Old West. An interesting genealogy, to say the least. Hardin was a cowboy, gunslinger, and minister’s son. He was also a licensed attorney, which is somewhat a point of pride. He practiced in Gonzales County, which will forever be my home.

By the time he was 18, Hardin had killed approximately 23 men. He would add another 25 or so before he was shot in the back of the head.

Growing up, I remember hearing ads on tv for a Time/Life series of books about the Old West. One such ad mentioned Hardin as being so mean he killed a man for snoring. That did not seem like something I wanted to be associated with. Fortunately, I found out that particular story was not true. Nor were most of the stories associated with his alleged cold-blooded killings.

Contrary to popular belief, Hardin never robbed anyone, and never stole a thing in his life. Most outlaws of the Old West were thugs, robbers, and thieves. Hardin was none of the above. He was one of the most honest people in Texas. Had his life not taken the turn it did, I would dare say Hardin might have ended up as President of the United States.

I have read three biographies of Hardin so far. They portray a very interesting character, but not one who was given to killing for sport, or just out of meanness. In fact, I am hard-pressed to find an instance where Hardin did not kill anyone who did not try to kill him first. He himself claimed he never killed a man who did not deserve it. I tend to agree with his claim, looking at the historical evidence.

Stories abound regarding Hardin's wonderful proficiency with a pistol. He may have been the most technically adept of any gunfighter. I have seen an ace of spades from a deck of cards, in which he had put five shots touching together in the black. He shot from a distance of ten yards or more. That's awfully good shooting, even today.

Though I do have to wonder at the road Hardin ended up taking in his life. The first man he killed set him on a path which eventually led him to prison. Save for that one incident, the world might not have ever heard of John Wesley Hardin. Every gunfight that followed stemmed from the first time he had to pull the trigger. I think it amazing the path one incident can throw a person down. One moment in time can change the course of a person’s life forever. That should be a lesson to all of us. I wonder where I would be today if certain things had gone differently in my life. I wonder if Hardin ever thought along the same lines.

The first man Hardin killed was an ex-slave, whom Hardin had defeated in a wrestling match. The match was in fun, but it ended with the ex-slave receiving a scratch on the face, which he swore he would kill Hardin over. Indeed, the ex-slave tried. Unfortunately, he tried to kill one of the most fantastic pistol handlers the world has ever seen.

Fearing the wrath of Reconstruction-era Buffalo Soldiers, Hardin began the life of a fugitive. He was 15 years old.

I concede that Hardin did place himself in situations that probably should have been avoided, but Hardin never killed except in defense of self or family. One lawman of the day noted that he had never seen a man who needed as much self-defending as John Wesley Hardin.

In many ways, Hardin was a person worthy of admiration. He never backed down from a challenge, even when the odds seemed impossible. He never sought out trouble, and would have preferred to lead a peaceful life. He did not give his word lightly, and when he did; he would stick to it though it might mean his death. He was a natural warrior, and had an almost supernatural skill with weapons. I would call these traits virtues.

Far from being a cold-blooded imbecilic killer, Hardin was a well-educated man. He was licensed to practice law in Texas, and wrote his own autobiography. Education did not cause him to shirk hard physical labor. He worked as a cowhand for many years, as well as a farm hand.

Like most of the truly talented gunslingers, Hardin was never defeated in a fair fight. Instead, he was shot unawares in the back of the head. His murderer would not have stood a chance in a straight-up fight.

The life of John Wesley Hardin has run its course, leaving us with one of the greatest characters of the Old West. I cannot help but wonder what his life would have been, had he not had to end a sore loser’s life in self-defense. It makes me look at my own life, and wonder how I came to be on the path I am on now. But for certain events, what would my life have been like? The choices we make can have consequences which change our lives forever. Sometimes we do not even get to make a choice. Things happen, and we are thrown off course into directions we never imagined. Whole lives are made and ruined, on the turn of one event. John Wesley Hardin is a prime example.

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