Like the land and legends that created it, the spirit of the American West is too expansive to capture in cohesive thought, yet we know it by its landmarks: individualism, excess, self-reliance, resourcefulness, impatience and, above all, freedom.
More than the institutionalized freedoms assured by our Constitution and body of law, it was the freedom of hidden canyons, impregnable mountains and unassailable desert. You are not free because a court says so, but you have got a fast horse and a faster gun. It is the freedom of wide-open spaces; of unregulated rivers, unturned earth, unmolested cliffs and unencumbered spirit. It is the freedom of defiance, the right to spare the other cheek and answer any provocation with escalated force.
It is an ethic of contradictions, as a parched desert canyon channels the occasional flash flood. Where self-reliance and independence can flow over to extreme rebuke of all law and authority. Where resolve and courage to stand your ground became a sudden torrent of violence. It is an ethic suited to making outlaws into outlaw heroes.
The tradition of the outlaw hero is universal but it flowered most profusely in the American West. There, the distinction between and outlaw hero and an outlaw hung was not always apparent, but the trail from repugnant criminal to popular desperado was well ridden. Something about life out-of bounds fascinated the public and even in the face of atrocious crimes, law-abiding citizens seemed more than willing to view bad guys with nervous admiration. In moments of musing as they bent to the task of ordinary life, it was as Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the “cowboy chronicler” who lived in and wrote about the Old West, suggested, “Outlaws are just more interesting than in-laws.”
Part of what made the celebrated outlaws of the American West interesting was their daring crimes and reckless confrontations – in-your-face close and brazenly public. Stripped of one-hundred-plus years of fanciful pop-culture embellishment and decades of Hollywood gilding, Western gunfights were usually less knightly than legend portrays. Any were ambushes, back shootings or long-range shootouts with adversaries crouched behind cover. But others were eye-to-eye with mortal danger so imminent that a reasonable man would slip away and find someplace to puke. To engage in them required courage and public opinion turned on such displays of braver, regardless of what color hat the gunman was wearing.
The other standard of behavior consistently expected of our outlaw heroes was adherence to an outlaw code of honor. It was an unspoken, ill-defined standard of morality above the law that could overlook unwarranted violence, but required a measure of personal integrity: loyalty to friends and gang members, discrimination between adversaries and bystanders, and straightforward actions. If they were going to steal from you, they robbed you right up front, not by a Ponzi scheme. If they were going to kill you, they rode up and shot you. They were, in most respects, true to their word, transparent in their motives and intentions.
Although not cheered as revolutionaries or vanguards of a particular political cause, Western outlaw heroes were associated with a populist philosophy. They cultivated the same “true citizen and patriot” image claimed by today’s militia movement.
The desperate outlaw on the run not only had the freedom of the free-roaming cowboy disengaged from society; he pushed back at subjugating social forces – the relentless press of civilization and regulation. For however long he could stay at large, the systematic oppression of government, bureaucracy, corporations, technology – of ordinary do-the-right-thing life – was overthrown. Like standing on the rim of a mesa staring westward across miles of jagged, wild country and feeling not small, but distinct and vital, the outlaw speaks to our elemental ache for individualism. The voice may not have sufficient force to drown out our social conscience or sway our better judgment that an un-captured outlaw is a menace, but it’s a whisper loud enough to intrigue, to rationalize and romanticize, and in the right circumstance transform a villain into a hero.
Hardwired by a Western narrative of guns and frontier justice, we revel in the positive attributes of strength, courage and daring action even as they open the door for acts of violence. In cheering for the outlaw hero, we are making a psychological stand for freedom, standing up to authoritarianism and dehumanizing social forces, but we are also sanctioning brutal, inhuman antisocial behavior.
The Old West is forever vanishing, but never vanished. It is a way of life successively pronounced dead, allowing each generation in its lament to appreciate it more poignantly. The West lives. Despite the Walmarts and tourist information centers, satellite dishes and Social Security, there remains a vital intrinsic West that is as it always was. It is real and it is mythical. And one sunny morning in May 1998, near the epicenter of Old West outlaw violence, it happened all over again: the guns; the killing; the posse chase and shootout; the escape into the vast wild country of sagebrush, box canyons and the occasional cowboy on horseback; Native American trackers, a grueling manhunt; and a populist outlaw disappearing into legend. Such is the Four Corners. As it was in 1898. As it remained a hundred years later.