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Derring-do and Dirty Deeds

Another American legend followed a similar occupational path as frontiersman, army scout and marksman; however, he was also a gambler and something of a drifter. He did join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show for a while; although his fame seems to have stemmed mainly from his ability as a gun-fighter. Actually a good guy at heart - in his youth he was part of an anti-slavery mob - Wild Bill Hickok truly deserved the name, particularly during his time in Hays City and Abilene, reputed to be the most lawless towns on the frontier. Ruling with an iron hand, plus a gun or two with plenty of notches, he tamed them both and no doubt made himself a few more enemies. That and gambling saw for him in the end. Wild Bill only made it to 39. Playing poker at Deadwood's Number Ten saloon, he was shot and killed by a drunken stranger, Jack McCall, on August 2nd 1876.

I accepted that these men had been actual people and weren't products of a fiction-writer's pen; Calamity Jane, though, to me anyway, was just a bouncy, loveable character played by Doris Day as the title role in a movie musical. I learned she was much more. Born Martha Jane Cannary around 1852, the legend of Calamity Jane seems to have been a product of her own bragging about happenings that might well have been exaggerated, bolstered by other fanciful stories passed on over the years. After skipping around the West from one job to another - cook, camp-follower, loose lady and dance-hall girl to name a few - she found herself in Deadwood, where she furthered her tom-boy reputation, hauling goods and machinery to the gold-mining camps. She probably first met Wild Bill Hickok here and, following her death in 1903, Calamity Jane was buried next to him in the Deadwood bone-yard.

Annie Oakley starred in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and was often called "Little Sure Shot". At an early age while working as a game hunter, the proceeds of her expertise enabled her to pay off the family mortgage. She probably took her "stage" name from a suburb in Cincinnati where she won a shooting match at the age of 15. Here she met Frank E. Butler. They married and went on the road, playing vaudeville circuits and circuses. In 1885, with her husband as manager, she joined Cody's Wild West Show and was billed as "Miss Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot"; earning the accolade without doubt. She could split the edge of a playing card at 30 paces, hit dimes tossed in the air; and, while performing in Berlin, was requested by Crown Prince Wilhelm (later Kaiser Bill of WW I fame) to shoot a cigarette from his lips - he survived, unfortunately. Annie's amazing talent delighted audiences for years, and it is refreshing to learn of someone who was quick with a gun, yet didn't actually kill people.

The show's almost ready to wind up, and the fat lady's waiting in the wings. The venue is Tyburn in England's eighteenth century. A huge crowd is gathered to witness the final performance of a young man who has captured the hearts of the common people. Known by some as "Gentleman Jack" and by others as "Jack the Lad", this guy's incredible feats of escapology might even have been Harry Houdini's inspiration.

Jack Sheppard wasn't a born criminal, rather taking the wrong road with little more than a year to go as an apprentice carpenter. In 1723, Jack decided theft and burglary were better options, and for almost two years he was in and out of jail, the "out" part being his speciality. Within three hours of being banged up on the top floor of the St. Giles's Roundhouse, Jack broke through the ceiling and lowered himself to the ground outside the building using a rope made from bedclothes. Still wearing irons, he slipped into the crowd that had gathered after hearing the sound of his break-out, and distracted them by pointing at the roof where he said he could see the escapee. That gave him the opportunity to make himself scarce.

Jack continued committing crimes and getting caught, then escaping; again using bed sheets, files and "other tools". Needless to say, stringent measures were taken to ensure he remained in custody; but his arrogance and pride were such that he just had to prove that leg irons securely chained to the floor in the strong room of Newgate prison were no match for Jack the Lad. Producing a small nail, he proudly showed his gaolers how easy it was to open the padlock and slip out of their shackles. That bit of unwise cockney exhibitionism saw him more tightly bound and brought his entertaining show to its close.

Now, picture this scene - our Jack is on centre stage; the fat lady is finally wailing her song; and a huge audience is sobbing as it bids farewell to a beloved, colourful working class hero, Gentleman Jack Sheppard. England may never be the same again; and if it has any compassion at all, the World should truly mourn; while the halls of justice which have just displayed a total lack of it, though unrepentant, must surely be forever sullied in the eyes of anyone with a sense of fair play.

Whatever. Thinking about it from my own point of view, despite the fact that Gentleman Jack Sheppard's departure was entirely of his own making; maybe, as he dangles from Tyburn Tree, he is regarding this, his final hour, as his greatest and most daring escape of all.

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