“Step right up,” Mortimer shouted. “Step right up and obtain an autograph from Mr. Wild Bill Hickok for the low, low price of twenty cents! All proceeds shall be split between the Vagabond Players and Mr. Hickok himself.”
A table had been brought outside and Bill wiled away an hour schmoozing with his fans, signing his John Hancock on pieces of paper.
Jack McCall tossed back his flask and sipped some scotch as he waited in line. He looked terrible. He smelled worse. There was a voice in his head telling him that he should just go home and go to bed in order to put the miserable day he’d experienced behind him.
But he wanted his hero to sign his book first. So he waited…and waited…and waited.
Texas Jack (not to be confused with Jack McCall) and Crick stood behind Bill, their arms folded, doing their best impressions of security agents.
Merrick plunked down his twenty cents and presented Bill with an old, yellowed copy of the Deadwood Dispatch. It featured the headline, “Wild Bill Hickok Captures the Kincaid Gang.”
“A real pleasure, Mr. Hickok” Merrick said as he outstretched his head.
Bill shook it, then scrawled his name across the newspaper page with a charcoal pencil. “Uh uh.”
People young and old took their turns, meeting Hickok and getting his signature. A few ladies even propositioned him but as he’d explained to Jack and Crick earlier, he just didn’t have the time for such distractions.
Jack McCall was next. He waited as the old lady in front of him droned on and on, boring Hickok about how they were both from Illinois, peppering him with dull questions. “Have you met so-and-so? Did you know this person or that person?”
As the old gal shuffled away, Texas Jack leaned into Bill’s ear.
“You know, if you don’t cut this off, they’ll just keep coming all night…”
“I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” Bill replied.
“Up to you,” Texas Jack said. “If you want to skip poker…”
Those words got Bill. He never skipped poker. He nodded at Texas Jack.
As Jack McCall slapped his copy of “The Life and Times of J.B. ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok down on the table, Texas Jack looked over to Mortimer.
“End it,” Texas Jack said.
Mortimer nodded. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you, thank you! It has been a lovely evening, but as you all know, Mr. Hickok is a very busy man. If you did not get a chance to meet him, he shall return to the stage next month!”
Jack McCall felt a queasiness in his stomach as if he’d just been slugged.
Throughout the course of one day, Jack McCall had been belittled by his own father, beaten to the ground in a match that ended his boxing career, and been assured in no uncertain times by the girl he loved that she’d never have anything to do with him.
And now, after waiting an hour in line, his hero was about to take a walk without signing his book.
Bill stood up. As he was about to walk away, McCall tapped him on the shoulder.
“Bill!” McCall shouted, trying desperately to get Bill’s attention. “Hey, Bill!”
“Whoa, whoa!” Texas Jack said as he slapped McCall’s hand away. “Hands off.”
“Mr. Hickok’s done for the evening,” Crick added.
“Aw come on,” McCall said. “Bill!”
Bill turned around and looked at McCall. The gunslinger grinned, stretched out his hand and then…tussled McCall’s hair as if he were a boy.
“Nice to meet you, kid.”
“Kid.” The word tore its way into McCall’s soul. He was a man, damn it. A young man, but still a man.
Bill and his boys departed. The line of people behind McCall dispersed.
And McCall just stood there, struggling to hold back unmanly tears as he watched his hero, the man whose life’s story had filled him so often with much needed hope, walked away.
“Bullshit,” McCall said as he unscrewed the top of his flask and took another drink.
McCall yanked on the front and back covers of the book until it was split in two, the binding destroyed, pages soaring in the wind as he tossed his once prized possession into the dirt.
“You ‘aint shit, Bill Hickok,” McCall mumbled under his breath.