Honor Among Horse Thieves: Wild Bill Hickman’s Christmas Day Shootout

Honor Among Horse Thieves: Wild Bill Hickman’s Christmas Day Shootout
by Ben Boulden

December 25, 1859 – Salt Lake City, Utah

Lot Huntington’s scalp bristled at the sight of Bill Hickman. The rangy cattle rustler forgot the wind’s frigid bite as he angled off West Temple and into the narrow alley running along the side of Townsend House. The treacherous bastard large-as-life outside Salt Lake City’s finest hotel, his belly filled with what Lot figured was a damn fine Christmas meal, hooting around with his fork-tongued brother-in-law Jason Luce.
      Hickman played both sides – every damn time – and his protection went as high as Brigham Young. The pale-eyed prevaricator had been a bodyguard to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. Saved Orson Hyde’s life in Iowa. He used an axe to bludgeon an old mountaineer to death in Echo Canyon. A killing Hickman claimed, to every soul who’d listen, had been ordered by Brother Brigham his-own-self, but with Hickman you never knew the truth of any damn thing. He rustled gentile cattle the same as everyone else in the territory. The impudent ass made his living thieving Army beef from Camp Floyd and Brother Brigham let him do it.
      Now Hickman had emptied Lot’s pockets for his own self-righteous greed. Gilbert & Gerrish weren’t no Mormons, and their horses were as fair for taking as were the horses of any other gentiles in the territory. But Hickman had found where Lot had stashed the herd before it could be moved on to California. The cheat had given every one of them horses back to the G&G mercantile and pocketed the whole damn reward, too. Every penny, and the way Lot figured, he was owed something for stealing the horses in the first place.
      Worse, Hickman had been shirking Lot’s advances for better than a week, but there he stood, guffawing at something that dirt-low Jason Luce had whispered in his ear. Luce was the very sumbitch who’d brung that herd back to Salt Lake for Hickman, too. But Cub Johnson had told Lot to keep his temper on Hickman because he knew the old bastard would keep that money his-self.
      Lot shifted, snow crunching under his boots, and eyed the half-dozen men behind him palming the pistols at their belts. These men were his, and they’d see anything through, especially if it meant scouring the territory of a skunk like Hickman. Lot shook his head, a grim smile crept across his lips. He turned back towards the old outlaw.
      Behind him, a wagon squeaked, its driver hacking phlegm, and rattled as it bounced across West Temple’s deep ruts. Hickman glanced down the alley at the sound. He pushed away from the Townsend’s exterior and stepped into the alley’s mud-splattered snow. A wicked bowie in his right hand.
      A tremor coiled Lot’s right elbow; clawed downward into his hands and fingers. He blamed the cold, but knew it was the devil’s fire in Hickman’s translucent eyes.
      Lot hollered, “You Gadianton poacher!”
      Hickman cocked his head at Luce. He turned back with a simpering leer.
      Lot snarled, “I’m going to hang you on Brigham’s wall you buggering liar!”
      Hickman scanned the men at Lot’s back. When Hickman’s gaze settled on Lot again, the skinny outlaw’s belly loosened, and his knees went slack at Wild Bill’s simmering violence.
      Hickman said, “I told you I’d share with Cub.”
      “Damn you, Bill!”
      Lot stepped deeper into the alley. His hand swept upwards to the big revolver slung low on his hip. The smooth hickory grip cold on his palm.  
      Hickman strode forward, the thick-bladed knife at his waist, the spine skyward. The tip rising with each step. He caught Lot’s gun in his left hand, his grip tighter than iron. Hickman pushed down until the big revolver’s barrel eyed the frozen ground. He yanked Lot forward. The knife’s blade cold at the base of Lot’s throat.
      “You ass!” The words hissed hard and flat in Lot’s ears. “I’m going to bleed you—”
      Jason Luce yanked Hickman from behind. “Don’t you kill him!”
      Hickman pushed Luce away, shook his head, rubbed his mouth with the back of a hand. His evil glare on Lot.
      “I could have killed you.” Hickman spat. The snow splattered with an ugly brown liquid at Lot’s feet. “You remember that.”
      Lot gulped. Then: “I’ll remember that Bill.” He raised a finger to his revolver lying in the snow. “Mind if I take it?”
      Hickman barked a harsh laugh. “Sure, Lot. It ain’t no good to you anyhow.”
      Luce chuckled at the insult.
      Lot bridled. That same cloying anger and fear he’d felt when he first saw Hickman in the Townsend’s alley settled into an icy knot at the back of his neck. He breathed once, in and out, gave Hickman a nod. Crouching, Lot took the Colt’s barrel in his hand.
      A sick smile spilled across Hickman’s ugly face. “Go on, then,” he said. “Get out.” Then, a smile spreading across his creased face, he said, “Tell Cub the next time he wants something to send that teenage daughter of his.”
      Lot flipped the gun from his left hand to his right. He pulled the trigger, the boom thundering in the alley. The kick as comfortable and right as it always was.
      Hickman crumpled to his knees. He dropped the big knife in the snow, barked with anger and pain. His empty left hand clasping his hip, the gold pocket watch shattered at the end of its chain.
      Lot fired again. Dirt and snow geysered a foot from where Hickman had fallen.
      Luce pulled his iron, its single black eye glaring at the men behind Lot. “I’ll kill you all!”
      A bullet whipped across the alley, followed by its sharp crack. Luce fired three balls at the men as they scattered back towards West Temple. One stumbled and crashed headfirst into the Townsend’s façade. His frightened cry lost in gunfire.
      Hickman scurried backward. Another dirt geyser popped in the snow next to him. He rolled away, pulling the revolver from his hip. Another gun boomed. Huntington turned away, running hard towards West Temple, his coat flapping at his waist.
      Hickman pointed and shot. The horse thief yelped. He skidded onto his knees, one hand clawed at the snowy ground and the other grabbed his left ass cheek where Hickman’s bullet split his flesh.
      Lot mewled, “Ah!” His gun clattered onto the cold ground. He skittered on hands and knees around the Townsend’s front corner and onto West Temple’s broad walk.
      Luce fired as Huntington disappeared. He turned to Hickman, “You okay?”
      The blue-eyed outlaw grimaced, raised his blood-soaked hand. “Get him, goddamn you!”
      Luce winked. His boots clattering over the frozen ground. Hickman watched him go, prayed the pain wouldn’t undo him and waited for his brother-in-law’s return. The crack of pistol shots in the cold afternoon a comfort to him.
      Five minutes later Luce rushed back into the alley. A grim angle to his eyes. “How bad is it, Bill?”
      Hickman tried to laugh but kicked a wheeze out instead. “He got me, sure enough.”
      “Shit,” Luce turned to John Flack, another of the men who rode with Hickman, and said, “Let’s get Bill—”
      “What about Lot?” Hickman gulped an icy breath. “You got him?”
      Luce shook his head. “The law’s coming.” He turned to back to Flack. “Get the wagon.”
      Hickman shuddered with the cold and closed his eyes.


the rest of the story…


Bill Hickman’s 1859 Christmas Day gunfight with Lot Huntington actually happened. According to one observer, the shootout lasted “5-10 minutes” with “30-40 pistol shots fired in rapid succession.” Hickman’s injury was severe: the bullet shattered his pocket watch, littering his hip with shrapnel. The shrapnel’s removal was botched by two Mormon doctors; as Hickman wrote later, “They split the flesh on the inside and outside of my thigh to the bone hunting the ball and finally concluded they could not find it, then went away and reported I would die sure.”

Hickman’s first wife, Bernetta Burckhardt, called a cousin who was an Army surgeon at Camp Floyd – south and west of Salt Lake City – and he was able to remove the shrapnel in Hickman’s leg, but the injury bothered Hickman the rest of his life. As far as anyone knows, Hickman never shared the reward Gilbert & Gerrish paid him for the return of their cattle.

Hickman’s bullet hit Lot Huntington in the backside. It lodged in his groin and was never removed. Lot took shelter in a home not far from Townsend House. He was killed two years later, in January 1862, by the notorious lawman and outlaw Porter Rockwell after stealing a horse.


Bill Hickman’s Presence on the Mormon Frontier


Bill Hickman was more than a simple outlaw. Until the mid-1860s, Hickman was an insider in Brigham Young’s Mormon Kingdom. He practiced the Mormon doctrine of plural marriage, which is a fancy way of saying polygamy, marrying ten women and fathering 35 children. In 1854, Brigham Young appointed Hickman as the sheriff, tax assessor, and territorial legislative representative of the newly organized Green River County, which is now part of southwestern Wyoming. He was largely responsible for running Jim Bridger out of the territory and securing Fort Bridger for the Mormon Church.

In 1857 – the same year President James Buchanan sent the U.S. Army to quell the Mormon Rebellion and remove Brigham Young as the territorial governor – Hickman’s name was forwarded to Congress as the alternate selection for the territory’s attorney general. Hickman and Young had a falling out in the 1860s, which isn’t completely explained in the historical record. He was excommunicated from the Mormon Church, and he died in Lander, Wyoming, in 1883, but for two decades Hickman was a participant in much of the territory’s violence. And by Hickman’s claims, much of what he did – murders and beatings – was done at the behest of Brigham Young, but there is little direct evidence to support his claims other than Brigham Young’s disinterest in prosecuting Hickman for his many crimes.


Hickman, Bill (edited by Beadle, J. H.), Brigham’s Destroying Angel, Shepard Publishing Co., 1904

Hilton, Hope A., “Wild Bill” Hickman and the Mormon Frontier, Signature Books, 1988

Moorman, Donald R. with Sessions, Gene A., Camp Floyd and the Mormons, University of Utah Press, 2005

Honor Among Horse Thieves: Wild Bill Hickman’s Christmas Day Shootout is the first of several stories planned about Hickman’s life that intermingles fact and fiction.

Copyright © 2022 by Ben Boulden / All Rights Reserved


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