Roundup: February 12 2020



Roundup Synopsis

The American frontier crawled with gunslingers. Each one picked up the firearm for a different reason, and each one aimed for the same result; gun violence and death was a constant threat in the Wild West, whether the victims were implicated in crime and scandal, or if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. These circumstances made the firearm the be all and end all to both keeping the peace and disrupting order. The moral code of the time seems blurred to us, making judgment calls on four gunmen difficult—Pink Higgins, Luke Short, Jim Miller, and Bill Fossett. Charles King invited us to set aside our values to marvel at the spectacle that was the ruthlessness, the cunning, and the extraordinary careers of these four men.
Not every gunslinger can be called a ruthless killer, but they were killers nonetheless. Luke Short, a shrewd businessman and gambler, and Bill Fossett, a fearless lawman who climbed the ranks in a long career, both used force to overcome challenges. The American frontier pushed people to vice and violence in a way that left no room for polite diplomacy. Short escaped arrest after selling bootleg whiskey to Native Americans, and his business dealings landed him in one tricky situation after another. He made it big scoring ranch land, owning whiskey stocks, and running saloons, and with the help of his six shooter, he never let racketeers or corrupt capitalists get one over on him in his career.
Fossett’s career involved a more traditionally noble path, killing or capturing outlaws and running with peacekeeping posses. Even his daughter took after him in shooting and maintaining order on the frontier. For every morally dubious or righteous gunman, however, there was also a morally corrupt one— or, at least, one whose career of gunslinging can be harder to swallow.
Some men killed ruthlessly, amassing astounding body counts and defying the law at every turn. Whether their intentions were noble or not, the end results reveal the capacity for death and violence in the Old West. Pink Higgins and Jim Miller had drastically different lives as gunmen, with Higgins leaning toward the far more “righteous” of the two. He took the cowboy profession seriously, and as a range detective for the Spur Ranch in Texas, Higgins lynched many cattle rustlers. Higgins also feuded with the Horrell Brother outlaws, kickstarting his reputation as a gunslinger. While he was ruthless, Higgins directed his brutality toward criminals; Miller’s violence, on the other hand, is harder to reconcile by today’s standards of morality. Miller advertised himself as an assassin, accruing great wealth taking assignments, even during his work with the Texas Rangers. Not only did the Texas Rangers apparently tolerate his lucrative side job, but he had already managed to serve as a lawman in Pecos. A man of no vices save for profitable murder, Miller set a comically conflicting example for men in the Wild West.
Morality changes over the ages, and America being so young makes the jump in standards between eras look steep. King proposed that the concoction of booze, guns, and unsavory personalities lended to the “wildness” of the west, leaving behind a memory of lawlessness in our minds. He saw both marvel and horror in the histories of America’s famed killers. While he entertained the crowd with these stories, King also emphasized the importance in paying mind to the moral gap between the American frontier past and our present—not so far removed from our contemporary lives, and not a history we should honor without judgment. — Arkaz Vardanyan


Photos from the Roundup