Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
The Festive Revolver
By afternoon the black powder smoke had crackled and stung the air and idle gunfighters wandered the Front Street replica, a façade of clapboards pasted to the buildings behind them like Halloween masks. There is a dry goods storefront, the Long Branch Saloon, the textile wares. An ice cream parlor. A drug store. Turn around and there is the parking lot, the contemporary traffic rolling down West Wyatt Earp Boulevard, the hum of midday mixed with the trill of cicadas. Handlebar mustaches and Honda Civics. Dodge City is infused with the scent of the feed yards that circumscribe the city limits. The tourists walked with their children and a handbook to the old west history of Boot Hill, Front Street, Dodge City. The rough town.
The fast hands of the gunfighters were relaxed as they moseyed down the warped boardwalk, past well-tended grass out front like a gated city park. There was a worn gravel path suggesting a real street, and it faded away into grass at the far end. Barrels and trunks were scattered about the grounds like accidents. A stagecoach and hay cart were parked in front. It was what I imagined an old west film location must feel like. Cowboys on cell phones, camcorders on the hips of fathers and mothers.
The Long Branch was a saloon. Really, a saloon with peanut shells on the floor, beer on tap, a bar filled with chap-wearing outlaws. The mirror behind the bar looked like a holy relic and the draught handles do not have the names of the beer on them. You stand at this bar, thankyouverymuch, and the dark wood with the dark drapes framing the windows makes one dependent on the sodium vapor light of the antique lamps. They have whiskey on the shelf, but only sarsaparilla on the tables.
Men were armed. I was surprised to see a gun in plain view, easy to grab if I were quick enough. I didn’t dare. Like seeing a policeman armed, I was nervous not at the idea of the gun, but at its proximity.
Kids watched the gunfighters from tables, their fathers with them, dressed in shorts and collar polos. Had they seen their own fathers with a gun? Had they been given a toy gun for a birthday? I’m convinced I could tell the difference between a child that has been exposed to guns before, and one that has not, but at that moment I was not sure. The next stop for them would be the Front Street Museum where Bat Masterson’s Colt .45 is on display, then the ice cream parlor.
We tore down my father’s walnut gun cabinet for the dark squares on the chess desk. The desk came from a doctor’s office—solid oak legs and supports, cast iron caps, the top destroyed when the office was vacated. The light squares were oak drawer faces from another unfinished desk. The ranks and files were bordered with two-inch planks of oak, miter cut for angled corners, and the sideboards were long, twelve-inch planks of walnut.
We started with the sides of the gun cabinet’s hutch, and found long planks that once encased rifles and shotguns, and so must be at least four feet in length. The backing of the cabinet was veneer over cardboard or pressboard, and was of no use. The base was a traditional cabinet, used for the storage of ammunition and for handguns, and the doors were 2’ x 1’. The sides of the carcass were a separate entity altogether and yielded fine planks between two and three feet in length.
These are the fine materials.
We carefully removed the finish nails and staples, parted the glue with a fine-bladed screwdriver so no unnecessary indentations were marked in the wood. The tops and bottoms were fine planks. The total take was nearly seven one-foot-wide, one-inch-thick planks of walnut varying from 3 to 6 feet in length. More than enough for a chess table.
The insult, Barry Metcalf told me in an interview some time ago, is the trigger for the gunfight. He and Allen Bailey, both museum employees, met me for an interview in the Long Branch in full costume. They did not look like movie cowboys, and the weapons they used were slung from their belts at the table.
“It used to be a train robbery with a chase and everything,” Barry told me. Over the years it has been easier to orchestrate the gunfight on foot, with people occasionally falling from a passing wagon when they were killed. The fight ranges all along the Front Street replica. Amongst the members of the gunfights, ranging from 14-16 participants every year, there are people that are employed full time by the museum like Barry and Allen, and there are men who work with the Department of Agriculture for the marketing news, refrigerator repairmen, body shop mechanics, men from the sheriff’s department, and jailers. Some of their alumni include lawyers, bankers, a Russian translator, and teachers.
To break in to this fraternal group there is no tryout. It is an inner circle, having present participants recommend the new members. They are still in touch with one another judging by how much Barry and Allen knew about the previous members. Most times, this facilitates a sense of trust and respect, as well as recommending participants that are seen to have proficiency for the art of gunplay.
There is also an inherent understanding that they will all try to stay in character during their time at Front Street. A bartender with pomaded hair and a blousy white shirt tended dishes behind the bar, and I could hear boot heels on the boardwalk. Barry kept the heel of his palm on the grip of his gun, like an officer resting his hand on a nightstick.
July 01, 2013|By Robert Marin | KWCH 12 Eyewitness News
Two people go to the hospital after a shooting at a convenience store in Dodge City.
The shooting happened just before 1:00 a.m. Monday in the 400 block of E. Wyatt Earp Blvd. Dodge City police chief says some sort of confrontation led to the shooting. A woman was flown to a Wichita hospital, and a man was treated at a Dodge City hospital. The victims, identified as 26-year-old --- and 25-year-old ----, both suffered gunshot wounds to the lower extremities.
Take off the finish from the walnut and the oak. The walnut had a thin polyurethane coat, and was easily sanded down until the fibers of the grain rose to the hand like static electricity. The oak was more stubborn, but mineral spirits and sanding slid the wood soft again. Does the removal of the finish remove the previous purpose? When I rub my hand against the oak, does it want to open? When I thumb the walnut, does it house a trigger?
The trigger of a handgun is a sliver of metal. A waning gibbous. It looks like an outline of the state of Minnesota. The exploded view of a handgun reduced to its individual pieces could be its own neighborhood. A series of long forward-leaning streets. Imagine the handgun at rest, all its parts separated and laid flat on fine cloth. No longer carrying the tension of the trigger spring, the bolt return spring, recoil spring, ejector spring, sear spring, hammer spring. So many springs that when they are all relieved of their coil, resting on the fine cloth, the machinery takes a deep breath.
The new participants must endure a two-week orientation to the scenarios that may come up during the gunfight. The training seems to serve a dual purpose; to choreograph the complicated action scene and also to gauge the endurance of the participants. Some men, Barry told me, with the noise and the action, just don’t have the constitution.
As part of the initiation process, the new men must die in at least five performances before they are allowed to fire a gun. Most of the people that die quickly are the bartenders and the shopkeepers. Getting a feel for the free flowing action of this still dangerous act is very important. Although the guns are, of course, fake, they still put out a great deal of noise, and there are falls that are choreographed from wagons, into water troughs, and from buildings.
The fight itself, I was told, was based upon the same principal every year. The Texas Cattle Men (cowpunchers as they are sometimes referred to) come into town, acting obnoxious, and begin a fight with the Lawmen of Dodge City that results in the gun battle everyone comes to watch. The battle usually begins in the saloon, and then spills into Front Street. .44 and .36 caliber black powder weapons are used now, as well as .44 mags, .45 regular, and 12 and 20 gauge black powder shotguns. A part of me understands the numerical designation of the weapons, the ballistic significance. In another part of me it is a diabolical math with no equations. No right answers. No proofs and no formulas. A logarithm pulsing with heat and speed.
The Dodge City Times, week of September 28, 1878, regarding the shooting of Frank Trask, a retired Dodge City Lawman:
The revolver was quite festive in Dodge City last week. The Indian ‘scare’ and bad whiskey did much to throw some of the boys off the track. Sunday night, at about 10 o’clock, Frank Trask was shot while crossing the railroad track near the tank. The ball entered the left side and crossed the backbone to the right side, the direction of the ball being under both shoulder blades. The wounded man is doing well and will soon recover.
Dan Woodard was arrested, charged with the shooting. A preliminary examination was had before ‘Squire Cook and the prisoner held in $500 bail.
It is claimed by Woodard’s room mates that he was in bed at the time the shooting took place.
The table’s squares were off. One small miscalculation in cutting the blocks and gaps emerged. We shuffled the blocks like solitaire cards, shaved corners, gradually began to see the perfect parquet surface emerge, the grains all facing the same way.
Each block carried a distinct thickness, the raw board resulting in a cobblestone texture. The seams were brushed over with a filler, and the sanding started. All by hand. The motion became important to me, running the paper down the ranks and files slowly, a high-grit sandpaper to start, a decrease in the grit count as the table leveled. The walnut sanded more slowly than the oak. The light tones in the walnut came out, and the table changed and swirled as the grit grew finer.
In my hair, in my cloths, a fine dust gathered.
He’s as dumb as a bag of hammers.
He’s plumb weak north of his ears.
His face looks like a dime’s worth of dog meat.
He’s about as sharp as a sack of wet squirrels.
He’s gotta sneak up on the dipper to get a drink.
He’s so ugly, he’d make a train take a dirt road.
He ain’t fit to shoot at when you want to unload and clean your gun.
After the insults and the fist fight spills out into the street, a man dies. A lawman, he’s killed after words are exchanged, then the remaining lawmen come from around the corner to confront the cowpunchers.
The lawmen gun down a man who resists giving up his gun, and the quick exchange leaves the cowpuncher on the ground. The smoke is exaggerated with the black powder loads, and the lawmen and remaining cowpunchers exchange volleys until there are only a few lawmen standing. Barry told me that sometimes the cowpunchers win, but I haven’t seen one recorded yet. The entire performance is over in minutes.
I was surprised at how close the crowd was allowed to stand to the action. There were picnic tables and standing room just on the other side of the green. Families had lunches with them. On hot days, there is a tent under which folding chairs are arranged. Just over the facades, one can see the modest Dodge City skyline. In the quiet moments, if the wind isn’t blowing, one can hear the traffic on Wyatt Earp Boulevard. A cell phone goes off. This might be a public space, except for the anachronism of cowboy hats and six-shooters.
Youtube boasts several home videos of performances, and looking through several a pattern emerges. Standoff in the streets. Humor to get the conflict started. High body count. Vigilante justice incorporated into the act through a bystander finishing off the final “bad guy.”
The idea that there were incredible murder rates in Dodge City in the 19th century has been a bit overblown. Some estimates give the average as one murder per year, and recent revisions of the history of Dodge City suggest that the area was policed quite well during this time. Liberal views credit the stringent gun law, the sign “The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited” posted just inside the borders of the city, and the numbers don’t always include the number of deaths that resulted from police action during that time.
Contemporary numbers are competitive with this time period. Dodge City, in the last ten years, has averaged 1.3 murders per year, not all with guns. There were two stabbings in 2013, for instance. And only one of those resulted in death. Neither of these statistics mean anything. Aggravated assaults in both instances are high and not inclusive of unreported exchanges.
Dodge City is the city of the festive revolver. A mythology of barely-hung-together justice cultivated by old west reenactments. The city is eager to participate because the weapons themselves fire no live rounds. The dead rise again to take a bow. They build a new truth with the pieces of history they possess.
I didn’t have the opportunity to see a performance when I conducted the interviews. Too late in the day. But the haze of the gunfight from earlier that afternoon still lingered, hovering in the eave’s corners. The cowpunchers and lawmen lingered to talk to the crowd. Some showed their guns to interested onlookers. They talked about the period correct outfits and weapons and insults. A degree of accuracy was important to them, and it seemed they passed this desire for period correctness to the crowd.
At the end of the day, however, they go back to their jobs. They must take off the bandanas and chaps, the chamois shirts and sweat-crusted hats. They put on blue jeans, t-shirts. They are citizens again. They are teachers again. They are curators. They are volunteer fire fighters. They are police. They have phones and cars. They blend back in to the 21st century. But the costumes hang somewhere, the lawman and the cowpuncher waiting to be reassembled.
excerpt from The Dodge City Times, week of October 5, 1878, regarding the shooting of Fannie Keenan, stage dancer:
The Pistol Does Its Work
At about half past four o’clock this (Friday) morning, two pistol shots were fired into the building occupied by Dora Hand, alias Fannie Keenan. The person who did the firing stood on horseback at the front door of the little frame south of the railroad track. The house has two rooms, the back room being occupied by Fannie Keenan. A plastered partition wall divides the two rooms. The first shot went through the front door and struck the facing of the partition. The remarkable penetration of a pistol ball was in the second shot. It passed through the door, several thicknesses of bed clothing on the bed in the front room occupied by a female lodger; through the plastered partition wall, and the bed clothing on the second bed, and striking Fannie Keenan on the right side under the arm, killing her instantly. The pistol was of 44 calibre, nearly a half inch ball.
Hammer pin, sear pin, bolt catch pin, trigger pin, trigger bar pin, grip pin. Firing pin. Firing a gun is the surprise followed by the tension.
The tongue’s oil went on like warm syrup, and a hand’s as good as a brush, so I rolled up my sleeves and smoothed it with finger and palm. I could feel the high spots and low spots. We were not professional woodworkers, though my father has gotten much better in the years since we built that table. From old entertainment centers he’s built my son’s crib. From scraps of redwood, blanket boxes. His father bought the remainder of a lumberyard, and much of that lumber is racked in my fathers shop like bowed lines of horizon. He’s a master of building from the relics of the past.
The oil is absorbed into the wood like tonic, and this table is thirsty. It is reclaimed, and in being so needs nourishment. From my hand to the wood. No longer any gun cabinet or face boards. Later, I will buy a set of wood chess pieces that fit the dimensions of the board perfectly. Felt on the bottom will let them brush the board like an ice kiss. Chess is a quiet game. It cultivates quiet. It must have a smooth surface and the board is where to start. The material from which it is made matters a great deal.