The mythology of gunfighters, the enduring charms of Westerns and the wisdom of Festus

A tumbleweed blowing through the thoroughfare kept pace with a swirling dirt devil running along the boardwalk as the two men stepped into the street.

Heads ducked into doorways and curtains parted as the men faced each other, 10 paces apart. An instant later, one lay dead, his Colt Peacemaker lying in the dust, an agitated horse stomping in protest at the hitching post.

The other man stepped to the fallen man and kicked the revolver away from the ashen hand as nervous well-wishers flowed into the street.

“You know,” I said to Christine, “if Marshal Dillon keeps up this pace, he’ll have shot somewhere around 400 outlaws in 20 seasons of ‘Gunsmoke.’ ”

We don’t have network, cable or satellite television. I have mentioned shooting my TV in disgust sometime in 2001 and haven’t watched regular TV since. A while ago, I picked up a set of DVDs with seasons 13-15 of “Gunsmoke,” one of several westerns I grew up with.

The others — “Bonanza,” “The Virginian” and “The Rifleman” — all exhibited some sort of gunfight almost every week. When we started watching “Gunsmoke” after a 45-year hiatus, I remembered how, as a kid, I looked forward to the gunfights and didn’t pay much attention to the messages conveyed through the story line.

During that 45-year break, I had immersed myself in most all things related to firearms, including some of the history of the Old West and the gunfighters that supposedly made their way from cow town to cow town, facing hardened lawmen or other gunfighters on some dusty, windblown thoroughfare.

Those who had become skilled with firearms and were willing to use them were hired for all sorts of things that might involve gunplay. Range wars and property disputes were perhaps the most common. Rarely did this work end with a showdown on Main Street.

The “fair fight” so often depicted in westerns almost never happened. The supposed gunfighters like Billy the Kid or Jesse James were anything but the honorable criminals they were sometimes depicted as. Some representations gave them a sort of Robin Hood mystique.

The “gunfighters” were more often just viscous killers, back-shooters who preyed on easy marks whenever they could. They were not brave men willing to stand face-to-face and shoot it out to a certain death for one or both. Their reputation for winning gunfights was often seriously exaggerated.

William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, was said to have killed 23 men. Western historians have studied his “career” and suggest he killed six.

Gunfighters in TV and movie westerns are often depicted as gun-toting cowboys. Not so much.

The reputation of cowboys as gunfighters probably is traceable to cow towns like Dodge City or Abilene, Kansas. In the late 1800s, huge herds of cattle were driven through these towns, headed to market.

After months on the trail, the cowboys would come into these towns, drink, and maybe get a bit carried away in celebration. Sometime that resulted in gunplay and dead cowboys. More often, the outlaws and nefarious gamblers who hung out in cow towns to prey on cowboys with a couple of months’ worth of pay in their pockets were the root of the problem.

In truth, not all, or even most, cowboys carried guns. Some would, and those who traveled from place to place, drifting from job to job, probably did, for protection and to feed themselves. Many of those had a rifle rather than a pistol.

Cowboys were notably poor shots, particularly with the six-guns, which isn’t surprising. Their pay, being at the poverty level, didn’t allow for much shooting practice. Ammunition had to be conserved for life’s eventualities. Rifles, being the more forgiving of the inexperienced shooter, worked out much better for the needs of a working cowboy.

The sheer problem of carrying a revolver on the hip while doing cowboy stuff is problematic. A full-sized six-shooter with a cartridge belt loaded with .44-40 ammunition weighs between six and seven pounds.

That’s a lot of weight to be bouncing around your waist while trying to move a steer back to the herd or roping calves for branding. Never mind that belt loops for trousers wouldn’t make an appearance until Levi introduced them in 1922. Without a regular belt held by belt loops to anchor the gun, securing it had to be difficult.

I never got to be a real working cowboy, but I’ve ridden plenty of horses and I’ve tried carrying a single-action .44 in a gunfighter belt and holster while riding. The experience further reinforced the fact that folks from that era were a hell of a lot tougher than we are these days.

It isn’t surprising that some Texas Rangers when armed with the famous Walker Colt — an enormous cap-and-ball revolver weighing more than 4.5 pounds — mounted their holsters to the saddle. Another option sorted out by mounted shooters over the years was the cross-draw holster.

It’s interesting that many of the accomplished gunfighters of the day were lawmen, and depicted as cowboys in movies and television. No doubt a fair share of the more famous lawmen from the mid-to late 1800s made their reputation in the cow towns from Texas to Montana.

I can’t explain why I’ve been enamored with the Old West my entire life. Guns and horses are the main draw, I suppose.

I’m not alone. I know plenty of folks who don’t own guns, but who love westerns. A fair share of the world’s population has a love affair with the Old West, judging by the popularity westerns enjoy around the globe.

For me, it’s the wide-open spaces — like the high country in Alaska — and the freedom of making one’s way, in many cases in a lawless land where a person’s worth surfaces not in deed, but in restraint. Maybe it’s the thought of surviving in an environment that can be as harsh as anywhere in the world.

Perspectives often advance with experience, and watching these westerns now, I see that each episode had a fine and enjoyable message beyond the gunfights, relative to how one might better treat others.

A word of caution though. Judicious watching of “Gunsmoke” may result in adopting Festus Haggen’s speech patterns, such as telling your partner that “she’s as pretty as a speckled puppy,” which she may not find as endearing as you might imagine.

Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.