The Last Gunfight

During the summer of 1871, Mike Williams worked as a jailer for the Abilene, Kansas, Police department. Mike and the town’s marshal became close friends. At the end of the summer, Mike took a job as a saloon keeper but helped the police anytime he could. On October 4, 1871, Mike received a letter from his wife in Kansas City in which she said she was terribly sick and requested him to come home as soon as possible. Mike made arrangements to leave at 9:45 pm the following evening on the Denver Express train from Abilene to Kansas City.

On the following day, Thursday, October 5, a large group of Texas cowboys (some sources say as many as 50) had planned to attend the Dickinson County Fair in Abilene. The cattle season had just ended and the large group of cowboys were eager for entertainment. Bad weather, however, made the cowboys change their plans. Rather than going to the fair, the large group spent the evening barhopping along Texas Street. Among the group was Phil Coe, a gambler who people regarded as “a man of natural good impulses” when sober, but was a detestable character when plied with alcohol.

The cowboys “compelled several citizens and others to ‘stand treat,’ catching them on the street and carrying them upon their shoulders into the saloons.” The cowboys even “compelled” the town marshal in the same manner. The marshal went along, not out of fear, but to keep an eye on the rowdy group. The marshal was friendly but firm. He told the group to keep order or he would stop them. Coe glared at the marshal.

The drunken cowboys paid little attention to the marshal’s warning and got rowdier with each passing moment. They considered the marshal “green” because he had been on the job less than six months. At around 9 p.m., the drunken cowboys made their way toward the Alamo Saloon. Suddenly, someone fired a pistol. The marshal stepped from the shadows to quell the “spree.” He demanded to know who had fired the shot. Several of the cowboys had pistols in their hands. With a cold, glossy gaze, Coe said he had fired at a stray dog. Before the marshal had a chance to respond, Coe pulled another pistol and fired twice. One of the shots whizzed between the marshal’s legs and struck the sidewalk behind him. The other shot left a hole through the tail of the marshal’s coat.

“As quick as thought,” the marshal pulled his pistols and began returning fire. Three of his shots took effect. Two bullets struck Coe in the stomach. One bullet struck another man who ran in between Coe and the marshal. Several people at the scene received minor injuries from the gunfight. One Abilene newspaper reported that “the whole affair was the work of an instant.”

The marshal watched the drunken cowboys for a moment just in case someone else was trigger happy. Their attention, along with the marshal’s, quickly turned to the injured men. Coe writhed in agony on the ground. The marshal failed at first to recognize the second man he had shot during the gunfight. When he was able to take a closer look, he realized the gravity of the situation. When Mike heard the first shot, shortly before his train to Kansas City was scheduled to depart, he ran to help the marshal. He ran around the corner of a building just as Coe and the marshal began firing.

This was Phil Coe’s last gunfight. He “lived in great agony” and died three days after the shooting spree. This was Mike Williams’s last gunfight. He died within seconds of being hit in the chest by a bullet from the marshal’s gun. The marshal was terribly distraught. Although he paid all of Mike’s funeral expenses, Mike’s death haunted him for the rest of his life. This was also the marshal’s last gunfight. Less than two months after the gunfight, the marshal was relieved of his duties. He never worked in law enforcement again. He died five years later while playing poker. The marshal’s name was James Butler Hickok. You and I know him as “Wild Bill” Hickok.

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