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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bowie Knife Duel in San Antonio Recalled

Even a century ago, newspapers would sometimes run an interview with an old timer who would talk about colorful episodes of the past. In almost every case I've come across, the old-timers were great storytellers and the stories are not to be believed. The following, published in the Galveston Daily News in 1907, is typical.
Mr. A. H. Neal, who came to Galveston sixty years ago, when he was only a  child, and who is at present living in the city, although a considerable portion of his life has been spent in San Antonio and in West Texas, where he was for a long time a member of the Texas Rangers, related some interesting reminiscences to a News reporter yesterday of the time when Texas was just as wild and woolly in reality as the most lurid blood-and-thunder novels ever pictured it.

“Bill Heart was one of the worst desperadoes in West Texas years ago,” he said, “and killed more men than anyone knows before he was finally killed  himself by a mob In San Antonio. The first time that I ever saw the man was when I was a little boy in the Alamo City. I was sitting on a doorstep one afternoon and saw two men coming down the sidewalk by me. Across the street two Mexicans were walking. As the men passed me one of them said: ‘I’ll bet the whisky that I can kill one of those greasers and he’ll never kick.’
“‘You're on,’ said the other and the first speaker, whom I afterward learned was Bill Heart, pulled out his sixshooter and cracked down. The Mexican fell, and it is a solemn fact that he dropped like a log and never moved. The men laughed and joked about the winning of the bet, and stepped into the saloon to settle the wager.

“That is the kind of a man Heart was, and his life is filled with episodes just as strange and unusual as this. His life was one of bloodshed, and the entire Southwest knew him well. There was a gambler in San Antonio in those days known as Bricktop, who was just as noted a character, and just as bad a man, as Heart. One day in the Bull’s Head gambling hall these two desperadoes became engaged in an argument regarding their prowess and bravery. Finally Bricktop proposed that they fight a Bowie knife duel then and there, the loser, if living, to buy the whisky for the house, and the winner to be the acknowledged best man. The challenge was accepted. The spectators climbed upon the bar and the gambling tables, the two men drew their Bowie knives and began the fight. That combat was the bloodiest exhibition of brute bravery and endurance that I have over seen in a land of reckless men. They fought for a long time in the cleared space of that gambling hall, cheered on by the gamblers upon the tables, and were finally slipping upon the blood-covered floor in their lunges at each other. Each was cut and slashed terribly, and finally Bricktop sank to the floor, but although too weak to rise and continue the struggle in body his spirit was just as game as ever. ‘I’m the best man, Bill, and you know it,’ he said as he lay on the bloodstained barroom floor, with his own wounded body the center of a rapidly spreading pool of gore. ‘I am too weak from bleeding to get up, but I am not whipped, and you can’t whip me.’

“They took Bricktop to a saddlery and harness shop across the street, sewed him up a bit, and left him with his head in a window that he might possibly be strengthened a little by what breeze there was. As he lay there one of Heart’s friends slipped up, and sticking a pistol in the window, blew the wounded man’s brains out. So great was the dread of Heart that no one had the nerve to touch the body of Bricktop and give it decent burial until Heart himself stated that it would be all right and he would not harm the man who buried him.

“Finally one night in the Bull’s Head gambling house Heart became engaged in a difficulty and killed four men. The murder was unprovoked and aroused the public indignation, which had about gone to the limit of human forbearance. A mob surrounded the Bull’s Head, and every one got out except Heart. He made a gallant stand and was game to the last, but he was finally overcome when his ammunition gave out and was pounced upon by the mob as by a pack of hungry wolves. He died as he had lived, fighting, and it must he said that he never met his equal in single combat, and death came to him from overpowering numbers.”

Mr. Neal tells a number or interesting stories of Ranger deeds in the early days when a Texas Ranger carried his life in his hands at all times, and the enforcement of the law was regulated by the quickness with which an officer could draw his gun. He finally left the Rangers and came to Galveston to live, and from fighting took to sailing as a livelihood. Until the storm [hurricane of 1900] he was master of a sloop in these waters, but since that time he has retired from the sea.
The story about the gunfighters betting on whether or not one can hit a Mexican walking on the other side of the street is usually told about John Wesley Hardin (and probably not true of him either). The Bull’s Head was a famous saloon in Abilene, but there is no record of such a saloon in San Antonio. I have come across no record of a desperado named Bill Heart other than from Mr. Neal's account.

And that is why, though a helluva story, this did not make it into the book.

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