The Black Hills

When you think of “the fastest gun in the West,” do you think of Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, or the Earp brothers? Think again. The fastest gun in the old west may well have been Boone May’s rifle.

Boone May was born in Missouri in 1852, the seventh of nine children of Sam and Nancy May. Christened “Daniel Boone May,” he decided early in life to drop the first name, so history knows him simply as Boone. Sam May moved the family to Kansas some time before 1860, and Boone and his brothers farmed with their father, and learned to shoot while hunting. Perhaps because of the cost of bullets, Boone learned early to make every shot count. Boone was always described as a fearsome man; he was lean, dark-haired, and quiet, with unusual eyes of yellow, green and gray.

Around 1876, Boone May and two of his older brothers, Jim and Bill May, moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to work in freighting. Towns didn’t get much wilder than Cheyenne in the 1870s, and freight wagons and coaches were always the prey of “road agents,” the outlaws who held them up. Hostile Sioux and Cheyenne were also a problem in the Black Hills, raiding ranches and travelers for horses and weapons.

Despite the dangers, Boone did well in his business, and bought himself a ranch between the Platte River and Deadwood, then part of Dakota Territory. The Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage and Express Company, a freight company that brought supplies into the Black Hills and took gold out, heard of Boone May’s reputation as an honest and hard-working man, and also of his prowess with the rifle he always kept sheathed at his side. In 1877, they offered him a job as a “shotgun messenger,” or coach guard. In four or five years as a messenger and the manager of a stage station, he killed at least 8 robbers, and arrested even more.

Despite the fact that he worked on the right side of the law, Boone was arrested, along with U.S. Department of Justice special agent W.H. Llewellyn, for the killing of Curly Grimes, a notorious stage robber. While out on bail and awaiting trial, Boone continued to guard the stages. One memorable trip was recorded by author Ambrose Bierce in his story, “A Sole Survivor.” May and Bierce, driving a wagon with $30,000 in gold, were stopped between Deadwood and Rockerville on a dark and rainy night. When an outlaw’s shout to stop the wagon and raise their hands came out of the darkness, May, with “the quickest movement… in anything but a cat.” threw himself across the seat, drawing his gun at the same time, and shot the robber in the chest before the robber could pull the trigger on the gun he held. May and Bierce continued to Rockerville, the gold still safe in the coach.

When the trial for the killing of Grimes took place, the jury didn’t even leave the courtroom to deliberate before declaring the defendants innocent. Despite the verdict, the outlaw friends of Grimes were determined to get revenge, but their attempts came to nothing but the deaths or arrest of more of them.

As the gold rush in the Black Hills slowed to a trickle, Boone May, always restless, went to South America. He worked as a guard at a gold mine in Chile, but rumors said he left in a hurry in 1891. He had fallen for the wife, or possibly girlfriend, of a Chilean army officer, who died quite suddenly. May re-appeared at the gold mines of Brazil, and is said to have died there of yellow fever. It took an illness to do what no armed men could. Rumor says that May’s rifle was buried with him.

Never as famous as he should have been, at least outside the Black Hills, Boone May was definiely one of the fastest guns in the West.

(Sources: Fifer, Barbara. Bad Boys of the Black Hills… and Some Wild Women Too. Helena: Farcountry Press, 2008. http://mayhouse.org/family/trees/may/JS1816SM7.html, http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/deadwood3.html, http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-boonemay.html, http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-triggerfingeritis.html )

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