Dick Cheney Hunter

Bat Masterson Speaks:

I haven't really had time to read up on the Dick Cheney story, although I expect the Commissar is correct about the right's reaction to it if another famous shotgunner had been involved. (Bonus Commissar wisdom, re: right-wing gripes on the jokes: "What, are we all Muslims now?")

While I'll leave the introspection to others, I will point out that the intersection of a shotgun and birdshot reminds me of an event from American history. It's an interesting detail you might not have heard. I don't suggest it has any import in understanding the Vice President's situation; but since people are reaching for Aaron Burr as a historical analogy, here's another that is at least as interesting.

In Wyatt Earp's younger days, he was an officer of the law in Dodge City, Kansas. This was the famous "Queen of the Cowtowns," a city founded by liquor dealers in order to cater to cattlemen. Once it managed to gain a railhead, it became the chosen spot for the cowboys bringing their longhorns north from Texas and thereabouts. It was a rough place, wild and free, and the most dangerous of characters congregated there.

One of these was Wyatt's friend and fellow lawman, Bat Masterson. Another was a gunslinger called Clay Allison. In these days, Wyatt Earp didn't have the reputation as a gunhand that he later got in Tombstone; he had, in fact, not made much use of guns at all in keeping the peace, except occasionally in knocking wrongdoers over the head with one (a practice called "buffaloing" by the lawmen of the Frontier). Allison, however, was the most famous gunfighter of his day -- a time after John Wesley Hardin's rampages in Texas, and before Wyatt, Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo came to their fame.

Allison was hired by a political faction to run Mr. Earp out of town, as the sudden effective enforcement of the law was disturbing to some in Dodge City. On learning that Allison was looking for him, Wyatt asked his friend Bat Masterson to watch his back. Bat, being a pragmatic sort, retrieved a shotgun he kept at the local District Attorney's office and loitered visibly near where Wyatt was waiting, not really hiding the shotgun.

The confrontation is ably described in Casey Tefertiller's Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, for those interested in the specific details. Mr. Tefertiller differs from other historians on various points, but I see no reason to prefer anyone else's account to his on the facts.

The short version is that Allison, though backed up by cowboys bearing Winchesters, recognized that Bat Masterson and his shotgun spelled doom in any confrontation. He departed in the fashion of a gentleman, saluting Wyatt as an equal and decrying the cowards who had tried to hire guns to contest with a good man, and respecting Earp's authority from that time forward.

Here is the intersection with Cheney: a few days later, Bat took his shotgun out for some recreational shooting. He discovered that the buckshot load it normally carried -- heavy pellets and a hefty powder charge, that could almost cut a man in half -- had been replaced with birdshot. Apparently one of the attorneys at the D.A.'s office had borrowed his peacekeeping tool and charged it for bird-hunting instead!

Had he been called upon to use it in a gunfight between Earp and Allison, with a pack of riflemen behind the gunslinger, Bat Masterson would have found it as ineffective as defenders of the Vice President assert that his weapon was. Masterson, himself a top hand with a firearm, was not pleased. "It would have been a shame," he groused later, "if a good man's life had depended on the charge in that gun."

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