In the course of his long and storied life, there were only three times when JB Hatfield broke Hickock’s Law and sat with his back to the room, instead of to a wall, while playing cards.
The first time nearly got him killed. That was in 1877, a year after Hickock was murdered. Hatfield had taken the stage into Shakespeare, New Mexico, and after renting a room at the Globe Hotel, he repaired to the Mermaid Tavern, where he joined a three-handed game of stud poker. The only available seat put his back to the bar. He didn’t think twice about sitting in it. There was no one at the bar, and the only other patrons were sitting against the wall, where he could see them.
What Hatfield didn’t notice was the door at the end of the bar which led to the privy in the alley outside. Two minutes after he sat down, Long John Long walked through that door, looked at the table of card players, said, “Well if isn’t my old friend JB,” pulled out a Colt, and snapped a shot at the back of Hatfield’s head.
As Hatfield put it in his memoirs, “Shakespeare is a ghost town now, and if my old friend Long John had taken a second to aim his Colt instead of shooting wildly, I would have been a ghost as well. So I made sure he did not get a chance to fire a second shot.”
Hatfield’s memoirs are famous for arriving at the destination without actually describing the journey, and this episode is no exception. As Mark Twain put it, “He will start a sentence with six bullets in his gun and end it with an empty pistol, but damned if he ever tells you where those bullets went.”
In this case, there were four bullets in all, two from each man. The first, fired by Long John, hit the wall opposite the bar. When Hatfield heard the gunshot, he ducked his head, turned in his chair, went down to the floor on his right knee and fired up at the man with the gun who was standing by the bar. The man’s face came into focus just as Hatfield’s bullet bit into his hip.
“Oh John you are a lucky son of a bitch,” Long John said, and grabbed the bar with his free hand as he began to topple. Steadying himself, Long John aimed his gun at Hatfield’s head.
Hatfield considered shooting Long John in the belly, which was a target that would have been impossible to miss, but Long John was Hatfield’s friend, and you do not shoot a friend in the belly unless you are drunk enough so that you might miss it entirely. So instead, Hatfield fired at Long John’s hand, which was clutching the bar. He didn’t try to hit the fingers. He just wanted to get close enough for normal human reflexes to take over. He calculated that if he got close enough, even someone as slow on the uptake as Long John Long would yank his hand out of the way without thinking about it.
The bullet splintered wood about three inches from Long John’s thumb, and Long John confirmed his basic humanity by yelping and yanking his hand back, and then falling over just as he fired at Hatfield. The bullet went into the ceiling, and Long John hit the floor on his wounded hip. He produced a scream of pain which was embarrassing to hear, and then went silent after Hatfield hit him over the head with a chair.