Aces and Eights: The Legend of Wild Bill Hickok


Dead Man's Hand

No one paid any mind to Jack McCall as he unloaded a .44 caliber slug into Wild Bill Hickok's brain at point-blank range. Deadwood's legendary gunslinging marshal was dead, holding a poker hand of aces and eights, a dead man's hand.

The question the law wanted to know: was McCall a hired killer or did he kill Hickok to avenge his brother's death?

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Aces and Eights: The Legend of Wild Bill Hickok

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Dead Man's Hand

No one paid any mind to Jack McCall as he unloaded a .44 caliber slug into Wild Bill Hickok's brain at point-blank range. Deadwood's legendary gunslinging marshal was dead, holding a poker hand of aces and eights, a dead man's hand.

The question the law wanted to know: was McCall a hired killer or did he kill Hickok to avenge his brother's death?

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Quicksilver dialogue, incisive characterizations, and canny interweaving of observations and events. Estleman's eye, ear and hand are in perfect sync."—Washington Post Book World on The Detroit Series
Herald Post El Paso
A brilliant creation. The dialogue is magical, the prose poetic, the characters earthly and real.
Post Book World Washington
Quicksilver dialogue, incisive characterizations, and canny interweaving of observations and events. Estleman's eye, ear, and hand are in perfect sync.
The Tulsa World
"A wonderful creation. The dialogue is magical, the prose poetic, the characters earthy and real; all in all, a rousing and entertaing ride through the Old West."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812549140
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 7/15/1998
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,332,390
  • Product dimensions: 4.25 (w) x 6.71 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Loren D. Estleman was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a BA degree in English Literature and Journalism in 1974. In 2002, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters for his contribution to American literature.

He is the author of more than fifty novels in the categories of mystery, historical western, and mainstream, and has received four Western Writers of American Golden Spur Awards, three Western Heritage Awards, and three Shamus Awards. He has been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, Britain's Silver Dagger, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, the mammoth Encyclopedia of Detective Fiction named him the most critically acclaimed writer of U.S. detective

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

General John Quincy Adams Crandall," read the lean man slouched in the stuffed leather armchair, that day's edition of the Yankton Daily press and Dakotaian spread in sixteen gray columns in front of his face. "What's he general of?"

"No one seems to know! But they tell me he turns all sorts of colors if you fail to address him by that title." The speaker, a tweed-suited Southerner with a pouched face and an unruly shock of red hair shot with gray, blew a cloud from his snuff box and inhaled it, all of it. Not a grain floated to the polished wood floor of the austere office the two shared.

"Didn't we have any privates in that war?"

"Speak for yourself, Bluebelly," grinned the man in tweeds.

The narrow, high-ceiling room smelled of tobacco and old dry leather, the former from a charred ebony-and-amber pipe clenched between the lean man's teeth as far as the joint, the latter from the cracked and thumb-blurred bindings of fat law books squeezed pitilessly onto shelves covering the wall adjacent to the window. Paperwork had overflowed onto the seats of two roll top desks, leaving only the armchair, in which the pair took turns sitting. Beyond the arched window, ferries could be seen plying the broad brown flatness of the James River beneath motionless black mushrooms of smoke.

"Listen to this." An inveterate train rider, the man with the newspaper folded it expertly into a compact, easily read rectangle two inches wide. He was in his early forties, but already his wavy, dark brown hair was anchored in white side-whiskers to the angles of his jaw. His gold-rimmed reading glasses did nothing to soften the Lincolnesque planes of his features. " 'Asked what form McCall's defense would take, General Crandall replied: "It is not my client who is going on trial, but the U.S. Constitution itself, which guarantees the citizen's right not to be tried more than once for the same offense. I shall leave the text of my oration up to the members of the First Continental Congress".' Is he really planning to take that line?"

"I doubt it," said the Southerner. "But you can bet he'll give it a whirl. The General's not one to conserve ammunition. What does it say about us?"

The man handed him the newspaper. He unfolded it and read:


• *

Heading the prosecution will be Julian Scout, that same Captain Scout who so successfully defended those members of the 12th New Hampshire charged with desertion in the face of the enemy at Cold Harbor during the late war. Neither he nor his assistant—one T. S. E. Bartholomew, a private practitioner and highly vocal Confederate sympathizer throughout the unpleasantness—could be reached for comment at press time, but other sources indicate a struggle in the offing, as sympathy for the defendant runs high locally.


• *

"Some hatchet job," observed Scout, grinding his teeth on the pipe stem. "I'm a champion of cowards and you're Johnny Reb. Just how vocal were you 'throughout the unpleasantness,' Tessie?"

"I ran for state representative in Minnesota against an abolitionist." Bartholomew flipped the newspaper into the fireplace. Although there was a November chill in the room, no flames burned in the grate; the chimney did not draw well.

"How far do you think Crandall will get with that double-jeopardy plea?"

"That depends on Judge Blair. He's had plenty of time to digest that stuff we gave him on Deadwood's being an outlaw town. All Crandall's got is the Constitution, and you and I both know how well that stands up in a modern court of law."

For weeks, controversy had been raging in the press over the legality of a second trial for the accused murderer of James Butler Hickok. Jack McCall had been tried and acquitted by a miners' court in Dead-wood the day after the slaying. After fleeing to Laramie, Wyoming, to escape the wrath of Hickok's friends, he had made the mistake of bragging of his deed while drinking in a saloon and was promptly arrested by a deputy U.S. marshal who had been among his audience. The prosecution maintained that the first trial had taken place in a region where constituted law did not prevail and was thus illegal.

"Crandall must know he doesn't have a leg to stand on," suggested Scout

"Of course. But it's in his client's interest to delay as long as possible. Count on him dragging out every statute in the book. Then, when Blair's reached the end of his tether, he'll plead either self-defense or justifiable homicide, and hope he grabs at it"

"I hope it's self-defense. I've witnesses to prove McCall shot Hickok from behind without warning."

"To which Crandall will respond with as many to prove that it was a wise move. Never lose sight of the fact that the victim was a skilled assassin. We'll be on firmer ground if he opts for justifiable, but even then everything will swing on Hickok's character."

Scout's pipe had gone out. He struck a fresh match. "This looked like such a simple case," he growled, between puffs. "You'd think a corpse with a bullet hole in the back of its head was evidence enough to convict anyone, with or without eyewitnesses. And we're loaded with them."

Bartholomew laughed shortly. "Now you're talking like an eastern lawyer. It's not so simple out here where legends are made."

"I wish you'd reconsider and plead this one. You're twice the orator I am."

"In a Yankee court? With my drawl? I'd do more damage than good. Don't sell yourself short, Julian. This case can make you.

"I'm not so sure I want to be made. I like the view from where I'm sitting."

"You can see a lot farther from the judge's bench." Bartholomew was looking at him. He had small, bright eyes that sometimes took on a wicked glitter, as now.

Scout made no reply. He got the tobacco going and shook out the match. "What about the conspiracy angle?"

In his first trial, McCall had blamed Hickok's killing of his brother for his decision to slay the famed gunman. Although subsequent investigation failed to uphold this claim, the revenge angle (and, some asserted, two hundred ounces of gold dust smuggled into the jury room) had led to the defendant's release. But McCall's aborted attempt to escape from the Yankton jail earlier that month had seriously damaged his case the second time around, and he had elected to turn state's evidence by identifying one John Varnes as the man who had paid him to kill Hickok.

Bartholomew shook his head abruptly, frowning, The expression heightened his resemblance to a bull-dog. "You'd just be muddying the waters. Varnes has disappeared without a trace and McCall has changed his mind again. It's the prosecution's job to simplify, not complicate. Leave that to the defense. There'll be time enough to bring up the thirty pieces of silver when McCall repeats that story about Hickok killing his brother with a hoe."

"Do you think he'll testify?"

"Probably not. Under cross-examination he'd fold like a pair of deuces on a fifty-dollar bet. But in case I'm wrong you can hit him with his own statement about the blood money."

Scout sucked on his pipe in silence as though considering his partner's advice. In reality he'd already thought about it, just as he'd anticipated almost everything else the older man had said. Eleven years before, Scout had come out of the war a green young lawyer with a raw brilliance for courtroom tactics that had manifested itself, unpopularly, in the court-martial of five soldiers of the 12th New Hampshire regiment accused of cowardice during the fighting at Cold Harbor, Virginia, in 1864. He had won their acquittal on a technicality at the expense of his reputation, as the five had already been convicted in the pages of every major northern newspaper, and after leaving the service he had found every law-firm door closed to him in four eastern states. Penniless, he was contemplating sneaking out of his Pittsburgh hotel to beat the bill when a telegram came offering him employment with the firm of Bartholomew & Hobbs, Yankton, D. T. The wire had been following him from city to city for six weeks, and included a bank draft large enough to settle his debts and make the journey west with some left over.

Immediately he had become the protégé of Bartholomew, a former Minnesota public defender with a flair for politics, who began by instructing him to forget everything he had learned about due process. His next step was to enroll Scout in a dramatics course, where he was taught the techniques of oratory and, in Bartholomew's own words, "the ancient and honorable art of lying." After that the senior attorney had educated him personally in courtroom histrionics, demonstrating the ways in which a juror's emotions could be played upon so that whatever points the opposition brought up, no matter how solid, were rendered meaningless—a practice referred to as "stirring up dust."

Scout's first client after "graduation" was an illiterate ranch hand accused of hamstringing a neighbor's prize racing stallion. His fee was guaranteed by the man's employer. In the face of daunting evidence, through innuendo and delaying tactics which dragged the trial over four exhausting weeks, the young lawyer managed to obtain a hung jury. A second trial was planned, but nagging doubts raised by the amount of insurance the horse's owner had taken out on his property shortly before the mutilation incident unnerved the plaintiff and the charges were dismissed.

There were other cases, some of which Scout lost, but these were far outweighed by his victories. Two years ago he had been offered the appointment as federal prosecutor and, on Bartholomew's advice, had accepted it. Shortly thereafter his mentor sold out his partnership and joined Scout's unofficial staff where he was paid from the prosecutor's own pocket. A confirmed bachelor of simple tastes, he was more than able to afford his former teacher's salary, a token amount since "Tessie" lived quite comfortably off his investments.

Of late, however, their instructor-pupil relationship had become little more than a ritual, really a brain-storming session during which they developed strategy under the guise of Bartholomew's tutelage. It was a comfortable, productive arrangment, and though both were aware that Scout had learned everything his friend had to teach, neither would say it aloud for fear of upsetting the fine balance. In addition, there was a conviction far back in Julian Scout's mind that Bartholomew was holding something back, and that if they remained together long enough he would play it like a winning hand, to the profit of both.

"One thing bothers me," said the younger man. ' 'If this General Crandall is so good, what's he doing in the public defender's office? Why isn't he in practice for himself, where the money is?"

Bartholomew smiled over his silver snuff box, a present from a wealthy and grateful client. "One might ask the same thing about you," he replied. "The answer would be the same. The man loves the law, and the most interesting cases seem to involve people who can't afford their own attorney."

"You make him sound dedicated."

"He's that. He's also in railroads and rich as Vanderbilt."

"When do we meet him?"

"Not before eight o'clock Wednesday morning, when we select a jury."

Mention of time moved Scout to consult his watch. He started and rose, heading for the clothes tree beside the door. Upright, he had the advantage of nearly a foot over his partner, which never failed to disconcert him. He found it embarrassing being so much taller than most of the frontier heroes that people read about back East.

"Going somewhere?'' Bartholomew asked.

"I'm having dinner with Grace Sargent. I've just time to bathe and dress." He shrugged into his greatcoat and placed his narrow-brimmed hat on his head at a jaunty angle. After ten years he had yet to bow to convention and don western garb.

"You've been seeing her for some time now." The crusty old lawyer was smirking as if about to spring an important bit of evidence. "Do I hear the distant clatter of church bells?''

Scout started through the door, ignoring him. Then he paused. "I just thought of something," he said, turning. "Hickok killed men to make a name for himself. McCall shot him for his reputation. I'm out to hang McCall. What does that make me?"

"Senatorial material."

Copyright © 1981 by Loren D. Estleman

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