The Road West of Acheson, Kansas, September, 1867…
Bill couldn’t take his eyes off the tall stranger riding toward the wagon. It was only by chance that he had the best view–the kids took turns driving the wagon when they went on these blackberry pickin’ excursions–and it happened to be his turn. For one thing, the man and the mount didn’t match. He was riding an old Army mule; the kind you’d take on a long trail through rough country. It looked like any of a dozen he’d seen before. But the MAN… No, he’d never seen anything like him, and doubted he ever would again.
On his head was a short-topped, broad-brimmed hat that was tilted just so against the sun. His blond hair came down in curls to his shoulders. A slightly darker mustache drooped down his bronze face to his chin. He wore a dark blue flannel shirt with red facings and a red bandanna around his neck. A deerskin waist coat was open in the front, and he had what looked to be store-bought riding breeches tucked in high-top boots. But it was the six-guns that fascinated him–ivory handled Navy Colts, one on each hip, tucked into a broad red sash. The butts were facing forward, and as he watched him approach, Bill turned his palm out to the side and thumb back, imagining how you’d pull a gun that way. Then he moved his hand across to the opposite hip, and it dawned on him that either of those pistols could be pulled with either hand.
"Good morning boys and young ladies!" the stranger announced, as he got within a few yards of the wagon. "Good morning, Sir!" chirped several of the kids, the older girls being heard above the rest. "Did you happen to see a man driving a span of mules to a covered wagon?" he asked. "Why yes sir…" Bill answered. "Passed them about two miles back."
"This road lead straight into Acheson? No turn-offs anywhere?"
"None to speak of."
"Thank you–Thank you kindly, Pard."
The stranger rode closer to the wagon seat, and Bill could see a badge pinned on the blue shirt. Deputy U.S. Marshal it read.
"And what would be your name, my fine young man?"
"William Matthew Tilghman, Jr.!" Bill proudly answered. His older brother Richard punched him in the shoulder from behind. "Yeah, but tell him what we all call ya…"
"They call me Li’l Bill, on account of my Paw’s name is also William, and, well… I ain’t exactly big for my age."
Some of the boys laughed and the girls all giggled, except for his sister Mary, who knew how much he hated that name.
"Well now… My name’s not William–it’s James Butler Hickok," the man said, using the same tone as the boy, "but some folks call me Wild Bill. Glad to meet ya, Li’l Bill!" The mustache ends moved apart around a broad smile, but the boy winced slightly at the sound of that detested moniker. The smile disappeared.
"You don’t much favor that name, do you, son?"
"Oh, I’m used to it, I reckon." But the slumped shoulders and the downward glance said otherwise. The man rode the mule to within a foot or so of the buckboard.
"Will you do something for me?" Bill nodded.
"Throw those shoulders back, look me straight in the eye, and don’t look away till I do. Can you do that?" The man turned up his hat slightly, and Bill saw two bright blue eyes you could get lost in. He did as he was asked. Out of the lower corner of his eye Bill saw the man wiggle his fingers, but he continued staring until the man looked away.
"Did you see my fingers move?"
"Yessir, I did!" Bill knew he had passed some kind of test.
"Good! Now listen to me. Keep those shoulders back, look men right in the eye, but always–ALWAYS–see what’s goin’ on around you. Do that, and they may still call you Li’l Bill from time to time, but they’ll never think there’s anything SMALL about you!"
Bill didn’t get too many blackberries into his bucket that afternoon. He was too busy giving other kids "the look," and seeing what he could perceive around the edges.
Farmer City, Kansas, July 4, 1888…
Bill paused on the boardwalk in front of the saloon and looked down the street to the west. The sun was about an hour away from setting, and he wondered if it would be the last time he saw it. He heard more glass breaking inside, and Ed Prather bellowing something about not "…takin’ any guff from nobody in THIS piss-ant town!" Ed had been drinking and carrying on for nigh on to twenty four hours now–shooting in the air and banging on doors – and at the behest of some townsfolk Bill had thrown him out of town earlier in the day. Did no good. He just rode up the street to Lioti and kept up the drinking. Word came from Lioti that Ed was coming back, drunker than ever, to "settle up with certain parties." Bill knew that meant him. He’d known Ed since they were teenagers, and while he was a fine sort and a good pal when he was sober, he was the meanest drunk in the newly established Wichita County, and that Colt Peacemaker on his hip was not there for ornamentation.
What will they sing at my funeral? Bill wondered…
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hid myself in Thee…

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death…
"Oh God…" he whispered, not sure if he had just prayed for something and God would know what it was without saying, or if it was just plain resignation. He tried to swallow, but it just reminded him how dry his mouth was. He looked down at the boardwalk, and wished he could become small enough to slip away between the boards.
He looked again to the west, closed his eyes and opened them. Part of the sky seemed to darken into that flannel shirt with the badge – some of the sun’s glow became the blond locks going down to the shoulders. As if the speaker was standing beside him he heard "Keep those shoulders back and look men right in the eye, but ALWAYS see what’s going on around you." Bill flicked the leather thong off the hammer of his gun with his thumb, drew it and checked once more to be sure all the chambers were loaded except for the one the hammer rested on. Then he returned it to the holster, turned and went through the door of the saloon.
"So here’s the little sonofabitch who thinks he runs this town and everybody in it!" Ed punctuated the declaration with a loud belch. As he turned from the bar towards him and their eyes met, Bill saw his right hand slide down towards the handle of his Colt. Before Ed got his fingers around it, Bill pulled his own gun and cocked it in one clean motion.
"Take your hand off that gun, Ed."
"Just who the hell do you think you are!?"
"I said take your hand off that gun… Now."
Instead of complying, Ed jerked sideways–hiding his gun hand–and Bill dropped the hammer. The shot went clean through the upper left side of Ed’s chest. The drunk wobbled some, but acted as if he felt nothing. He looked down at his wound and back at Bill, his eyes narrow and lit with anger, as it dawned on him what just happened. Still, his hand was on the butt of his gun.
"Get your hand off that gun, Ed!"
Before Ed got the gun half way out of his holster, Bill put his next bullet through his brain.
Cromwell, Oklahoma, November 1, 1924…
"I’ve been wearin’ a badge of one sort or another for forty odd years, and I’m gettin’ too old for this crap. And another thing… anyone ever notice how even the wood around here stinks of oil? " Bill complained, as Ma Murphy refilled their coffee mugs. He made it a habit to talk about his age, so if anyone noticed anything off about him, they’d chalk it up to getting old, and nothing more.
"Not like the old days when you tamed towns like Dodge with that six-shooter strapped to your hip, huh, Mr. Tilghman!" His young deputy didn’t know Bill couldn’t wear a holster anymore. It pressed painfully on the tumor.
"Now Hugh, these times are more civilized, and the .32 auto in my pocket will do just fine." He managed a smile.
He hadn’t even told Zoe about what the doctor said yet. The only one who knew was his old fellow Oklahoma "Guardsmen" Chris Madson. Chris had warned him about taking the job as Town Marshal in Cromwell. The oil boomtown was attracting all the worst sorts. "You’re getting old now and your draw is a little slow. Someone might kill you." After telling him about the tumor, he told Chris he’d rather die in a gun fight than "in bed like an old woman." Anyway, work was the best medicine.
"Oh, the Marshal here is still in his prime, boy!" W. E. Sirmons was the businessman who’d corralled Bill into the job, and by the way, was paying for the coffee.
Bill took a sip of his coffee, sputtered and coughed as a gunshot rang out in the night across the street from the cafe.
"What the hell was that?!"
Sirmons was the first to reach the door and look outside.
"Wiley Lynn’s staggering around out there with one of the sportin’ ladies… Looks like maybe Rose Lutke. He’s got a gun. I can’t see who’s in the back seat of that sedan next to him."
"A drunk prohibition agent… Swell." Bill mumbled, as Sirmons got out of the doorway to let him through. Wiley backed up a few steps onto the sidewalk when he noticed Bill headed straight for him.
"You’re gonna spend the night in the tank, Wiley."
"The hell I am!"
Bill simultaneously grabbed the wrist of Wiley’s gun hand, spun him around up against a building, drew his own .32 and put it up against Wiley’s ribs.
"Hugh! Get his gun!"
The deputy ran up, put his palm on top of the Colt 1911, pushed back on the slider the way Bill taught him, and twisted the gun out of Wiley’s hand. Bill relaxed his grip and turned Wiley around for cuffing.
No one saw Wiley’s left hand slip into his jacket and pull out the hideaway.
Two muffled shots… Rose screamed. Bill felt the bullets push him back–a sharp burning pain in his lung. His legs gave way, and he slumped to the sidewalk.
"Wiley’s shot the Marshal!" Hugh yelled, but as he turned away from Wiley to reach for Bill, Wiley grabbed his own gun back from the distracted young man, dashed into the car and drove off.
They tried to make Bill as comfortable as possible on a couch in the used furniture store next to Ma Murphy’s. The doctor had been summoned, and they managed to stop the external bleeding with some towels, but his breathing was labored, and when he coughed there was blood.
Bill stared up at the ceiling of the furniture store, and in the patterns of the cracks and the soft lighting he began to make out the face that had been in his memory all those years–the broad smile surrounded by the mustache in that bronze face–the blond curls and the bright blue eyes. Somehow he knew the pain would subside if he stared at that visage and focused upon those eyes, and so it did. He could not tell if the image was approaching him, or he was being conveyed towards it. In that deep gravelly voice from long ago he heard;
"It’s time, Li’l Bill."
Next he heard W. E. Sirmans’ voice in a fading whisper:
"He’s gone…"

"Bill Tilghman was the greatest of us all."
William Barclay "Bat" Masterson

"Bill Tilghman would charge hell with a bucket."
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt