The archetypal Western movie, “Gunfight at the OK Corral” was based on a 30-second gun battle in the aptly-named town of Tombstone between the Earp brothers, led by Wyatt (aided by Doc Holliday) against a gang led by the outlaw Billy Clairborne and comprising the Clanton and Mc Laury brothers. In the movie, Wyatt said to Clanton, “You think you’re pretty tough, don’t ya, son? I never knew a gunslinger yet so tough he lived to celebrate his 35th birthday.
I learned one rule about gunslingers. There’s always a man faster on the draw than you are, and the more you use a gun, the sooner you’re gonna run into that man.” It happened to a youngster who wanted to be the greatest gun-fighter in the world. He sashayed into the saloon and buttonholed an old timer who was once the fastest gun in the West until Wyatt Earp broke both his arms—almost literally disarming him. Wyatt had a well-earned reputation for toughness from his days as a deputy in the Kansas boomtowns of Dodge City and Wichita, preferring to ‘buffalo’—or pistol whip—his adversaries rather than shooting them.
The young cowboy asked the old man for advice and was told, “You’re wearing your gun too high. Tie the holster a little lower down on your leg.” The young man took the advice, whipped out his Colt .45 and shot the bow tie off the piano player. The kid begged the old timer for more. “Yep,” said the old man. “Cut a notch out of your holster where the hammer hits it. That’ll give you a smoother draw.” The young man did it, drew his gun in a blur, then shot a cuff-link off the piano player. Elated, the young man asked, “Any more tips grandpa?” The old man replied, “See that axle grease over there? Coat your gun with it.” “Will that make me a better gunfighter?” asked the young man. “No,” said the old-timer, “but when Wyatt Earp gets done playing the piano, he’s gonna shove that gun up your butt, and it won’t hurt as much if it’s greased up first.”
Recently, when the Government offered a reward for information about who killed a prominent female attorney, an Opposition Member of Parliament said Trinidad and Tobago had become the “wild, wild West”. It led me to wonder how true this is. The fact is that despite hair-trigger tempers and even faster recourse to firearms, there were rules that were generally observed. Zane Grey, the acclaimed author of cowboy tales, called it “The Code of the West.” According to one author, “The code was a sort of frontier version of the Golden Rule.
A cattleman fed a visitor because he might himself be far from home next month. He asked no questions of strangers because in leaner days he might himself have preferred not to have his affairs pried into. He returned stray cattle because his own livestock might wander… The gunfight, according to the popular mythology of the West, was the ultimate expression of the cowboy’s code. A man was not a man unless he could coolly face death and fight for his good name…” The code of these gunslingers was what Westerners called a “rattlesnake’s” code because even a rattler gave fair warning before it struck.
Eugene Manlove Rhodes wrote, “It was not the custom to war without fresh offense, openly given. You must not smile and shoot. You must not shoot an unarmed man, and you must not shoot an unwarned man....” People who were “lily livered, yellow-bellied, back shooting varmints (vermin)” were particularly disliked, especially those who operated from ambush.
Women, because there were so few of them, were treated with respect even if they were prostitutes. A good example is the relationship between Marshall Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty in the television series Gunsmoke. She owned a saloon and her morals might have been questionable but nobody dared to insult or molest her.
The event that prompted the reward from the Government, the murder of Dana Seetahal, a female lawyer, breaks every code of Western morality. First of all, killing a woman was taboo. Secondly, she was not given fair warning. Thirdly, she was shot from ambush. More than anything else, she was killed by cowards. Had this happened in Tombstone Territory, Dodge City or any other Western town, there would have been no need for a reward. Vigilantes or groups of citizens would have found the killers and dispensed swift, frontier justice.
While I do not advocate people taking the law into their own hands, I would like to see us adopting some of the values of the old West. It was wild but there was a code that was upheld instead of being ignored or broken like the laws of Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean countries especially by those who are supposed to uphold them.
A present-day version of the Code of the West stresses, “1. Live each day with courage; 2. Take pride in your work; 3. Always finish what you start; 4. Do what has to be done; 5. Be tough, but fair; 6. When you make a promise, keep it; 7. Ride for the brand; 8. Talk less and say more; 9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale; 10. Know where to draw the line.”
Gene Autry, the famous movie and television cowboy, had his own code which included, “1. The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage; 2. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals; 3. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas; 4. He must help people in distress; 5. He must respect women and his parents.” If I had to add one more commandment to the code, it is “he must keep his mouth shut when he has no idea what he is talking about.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen reminding politicians of the John Wayne Code: “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much.”