I found this book to be one of the best-written character studies of the gunfighter/lawman on the western frontier. It just doesn't retell the stock tall-tales and legends- it shows the reality of what living a life of constant danger in dangerous places does to a person. The book's protagonist, Clay Halser, is a fictional character, but readers will recognize in his exploits a combination of Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, and Wyatt Earp. But primarily, Halser is based on Hickok's life. Indeed, Hickok as a character and contemporary shows up repeatedly in the story, which gives it a bit of a surreal edge at times. One of my favorite scenes is Hickok and Halser meeting in a bar room late in their respective careers. Wild Bill tells Halser of his belief in spiritualism and of talking with the dead- an experience that Halser has also shared but tried to dismiss as the effects of drink.
Don't expect any overt heroism in this story. Halser is presented as pretty much a victim of circumstances that got caught up in a violent environment that was almost completely out of his control. Yet, since was also an adrenaline junkie, who just couldn't stay on the farm after his experiences in the Civil War, he also eagerly sought out "exciting places"- at first. You see, at first Halser was the sort of man of action who didn't even think of death or danger when threatened- he just automatically reacted. Later on, largely as a result of keeping the journal that this story is based on, he started to reflect on his actions and mortality after the fact. At the height of his legend he simply became numb- he was a walking killing machine doing what was "expected" of him. In his later years, he lived in a state of constant anticipation and frayed nerves. That's a lesson that jumps out at you- a man's nerves will only stand so much in a lifetime- and when they are finally shot you NEVER get your old composure completely back.
This is also an excellent study of 19th century law enforcement. If the right person was caught and punished for a crime it was almost an accident. All that was important was catching somebody (anybody) and hanging (often literally) the crime on them. The average western lawman was often recruited from the criminal element to protect the rich and well connected from people very much like himself. As City Marshall, Halser kept the drunken and violent of his side of the "dead line"- and the decent people didn't even want him or his family on the other side of that line. Otherwise Halser saw to it that no one got too out of hand in the business establishments (usually saloons and whorehouses) on his side of the line- and collected a share of the profits to do so. That's another thing that jumps out at you about Hauser- he never really seemed to have much of a sense of, or pride in, protecting the weak and innocent or upholding justice. It was just a job, or an opportunity to relieve boredom by buffaloing and outdrawing other violent men. It was a chance to build on his reputation and legend- which came back to haunt and hound him in his later years. You see that's all he really had in the end to justify and comfort him, his personal legend- and the vast majority of that was based on circumstances out of his control, exaggerations, and out-right lies.
Clay Halser died in a barroom gunfight a worn out old man- at the age of 31.....