Saturday, 28 June 2014
The list of Buffalo Bill’s ‘Show Indians’ read like a Who’s Who of Native history: American Horse, Geronimo, Flying Hawk, Red Shirt, Kicking Bear, Chief Blue Horse, Hollow Horn Bear, Lone Bear, Young Man Afraid of His Horses, Whirling Horse, Sitting Bull. I will remain what I am until I die, a hunter, and when there are no buffalo or other game I will send my children to hunt and live on prairie mice, for where an Indian is shut up in one place his body becomes weak.
Chief Iron Tail managed the Indian Police, and became one of Bill’s best friends, feted by European aristocracy, and shooting elk and bighorn together on annual hunting trips. His poker hand was legendary among U.S. Army officials, and his head still graces one entire side of my Buffalo nickel collection.
All of this savagery his did not go down well with the paternalistic policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, primed for aggressive assimilation. Thomas Jefferson Morgan, its new commissioner in 1889, publicly attacked and threatened Bill with the loss of his bonds, and aspiring Indian performers with the withholding of land allotments, annuities, and tribal status. The following year the Bureau held an inquiry, to challenge the morality of Indian employment in show business. The Indians gave a masterful presentation, turning the hearing into a pointed denunciation of Bureau policy, by comparing conditions in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West with those on the Pine Ridge agency.
Rocky Bear remarked that he worked in a show that fed him well, “That is why I am getting so fat.” He said, rubbing his cheeks. “I am getting poor.” only by returning to the reservation. If the Great Father wanted him to stop appearing in the show, he would stop.
“But until then, that is the way I get money.” He showed his inquisitors a purse filled with $300 in gold coins.
“I saved this money to buy some clothes for my children.” He said. There was silence. You can trust the government, ask any Indian.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured Europe eight times between 1887 and 1906, giving hundreds of shows to millions of fans. Cody gave command performances for royalty, including two for Queen Victoria, and one in an ancient Roman amphitheater for Pope Leo XIII. He brought the Old West to Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, the Balkans, Romania, and the Ukraine. Or at least his version.
Wild West show performances had little in common with frontier life, but the entertainment spectacle was taken for the real thing. Buffalo Bill's Wild West became America's Wild West, the ‘authentic’ national narrative of American exceptionalism. It may not have been accurate, but as an American cultural export, it was unquestionably genuine.
The finale typically portrayed an Indian attack on a settler's cabin. Cody rode in with cowboys to defend a settler and his family. The legendary frontiersman can take on anything in the world, without the need for any of the other people in it. The ‘can do’ superiority of American history and society, became the ‘can do no wrong’ unerring, unfailing, faultless, flawless Manifest Destiny, the many subsequent arrogant misadventures, and the mythical core of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Life is a rodeo, and Buffalo Bill’s show was the original, and the template for all that followed.
It made Buffalo Bill Cody the most recognizable celebrity on earth, and a very wealthy man. In 1879 he penned his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill. Six years later, he founded his own town, the one named after him, and it eventually built the museum, that Robyn and I were running to get through.
It was an impressive effort. The Native American exhibit hall was an authentic portrayal of the Indian experience, more than anything that Bill had created in his performances. There were sun dances around sacred cottonwoods, and Pretty Shield’s sad reminiscence of her nomadic Crow childhood, before the Bureau corralled her life. Moving made me happy. There were elaborately beaded papooses, now empty, and elaborate beaded baseball caps, now empty. And there was a depiction of the trade and disease and missionaries and war and loss of buffalo that had ultimately sentenced their way of life to oblivion. When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world. The sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?
Outside, and we needed some air, was a magnificent statue of Sacajawea, and a live captive golden eagle, both with the same grim countenance. Quaking aspens quivered.
In 1886 Buffalo Bill purchased a 4,000-acre ranch and an eighteen-room mansion.
He died of kidney failure in 1917, at his sister's house in Denver. Still covering his options, he had been baptized into the Catholic Church the previous day. He received a full Masonic funeral, and was buried on Lookout Mountain, in Golden. Tributes came in from King George V of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Imperial Germany, and President Woodrow Wilson. The country that had formed him, the country he had formed back, would name a dam and reservoir after him, and put his face on two of its postage stamps.
But the Lone Ranger Code of Conduct would be eating at Buffalo Bill, long before its fictitious existence became real for me and the other impressionable young buckeroos, in the Paramount theatre Saturday matinees. You can wash your hands but not your conscience. Sooner or later, somewhere, somehow, we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.
Cody would live long enough to see dramatic change in the real Wild West. The buffalo herds he hunted, the ones that give him his superhero name, were threatened with extinction. Barbed wire wound its tendrils through the open plains. He began to speak out against hide-hunting, and campaigned for a hunting season.
The Indians he had scouted against, the ones he had depicted in his shows attacking stagecoaches and wagon trains and being driven off by rescuing cowboys and soldiers, became increasingly impoverished, interned on their reservations. He called them ‘the former foe, present friend, the American.’ Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government. In the frenzied face of coal and oil and natural gas exploitation, and the irrepressible greed of big ranching and farming cabals, he began to support conservation efforts.
“I don’t believe that Buffalo Bill Cody could settle with the world and make payment for what he had taken.” I said to Robyn. “I don’t believe he could have received the redemption he was seeking.”
“Why not?” She asked.
“Its a path of pilgrimage. “ I said.
“To where?” He asked.
“Not so much to where.” I said. “As to what.”
“To what?” He asked.
“Authenticity.” I said. “The American West was The Sacred Land- the
gold rush towards truth.”
“What’s the truth?” He asked.
“The achievement of redemption.” I said.
“How do you get that?” He asked.
“By living the authentic life, by living in Nature, and by facing death
with dignity and courage.”
“Sounds very existential.” Said Carolyn.
“That’s where the truth lives.” I said.
“Because.” I said “Although in one sense he lived the authentic life by living in Nature, and by facing death with dignity and courage, there was this other thing.”
“Which was?” She asked.
“Water and truth are freshest at their source.” I said. “Bill made his fortune by bottling it, and slapping on his own label.”
“So?” She asked.
“No way to redeem the bottle.” I said.
Even in death, Buffalo Bill didn’t find total peace. His final disposition remained conflicted, his once great fortune diminished. In 1948 the Cody chapter of the American Legion offered a reward for the ‘return’ of the body. In response, the Denver chapter mounted a guard over his Lookout Mountain grave, until a deeper shaft could be blasted further into the rock. The wolves.
For me the most impressive object, in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum, was his Wheel of Fortune. It had a design with a diamond, a heart and a club, and a spade. Shadow lines radiated out from and beyond the perimeter posts. When you spun the wheel, you would get a date from an event in Buffalo Bill’s life. It was, like roulette, a game of chance. I have killed, robbed, and injured too many white men to believe in a good peace. They are medicine…
“It's a calendar.” Said Robyn.
“It's a calendar.” I said.
We had a wheel that would take us from here to there; he had a wheel that would take him from there to the stars.
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Friday, 27 June 2014
‘Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.’
John B. L. Soule
I didn’t really like the man. Or maybe I never really liked the idea of him. Life is simpler when you plow around the stump. But there was no way of going around him, not for this book, anyway.
Welcome to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center… Please leave these items in your vehicle: Food and beverages… Large containers and backpacks… Child-carrying backpacks… Motorcycle helmets… Weapons. New this year! The Family Rate. Ask about it at the admissions desk. When they ask you to leave your weapons in the car, on the same line they’re introducing their family discount, you know you’ve arrived in the Heartland.
We met the giant behind the admissions desk.
“How long does it take to see the exhibits?” Robyn asked.
“Most people take two to three days.” He said. And then he saw the terror in our faces. “There’s a wing of Buffalo Bill memorabilia, a wing of Native American artifacts, a museum of armaments…” It looked like he could go on for a bit.
“We have about two hours.” I said. “We’re driving through Yellowstone today.” He looked at us like we were crazy.
“You’ll be busier than a stump-tailed cow in fly time.” He said. “I’d concentrate on the Buffalo Bill and Native American part. That’ll be thirty dollars.” And then he saw the terror in our faces.
“Make it twenty.” He said. We thanked him, and ran so fast by Buffalo Bill’s hologram, he turned back into mist.
It is still almost easier to decide what William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody wasn’t, than to define what he was. Bill claimed many jobs- Civil War soldier, Indian wars U.S. Army scout chief, trapper, bullwhacker, Colorado ‘Fifty-niner,’ Pony Express rider, wagonmaster, stagecoach driver, and hotel manager, flamboyant showman, Freemason, unofficial American cultural ambassador, and elder statesman. He was also a self-serving exhibitionist, historical revisionist and, as history could well judge, at least as much a hunter of publicity as he had been of bison.
William Cody was born on a farm in Iowa in 1846, but was baptized by his Quakers parent, Isaac and Mary, in Peel, Ontario. At the age of 11, Cody took a job with a freight carrier as a ‘boy extra,’ riding up and down the wagon train, delivering messages.
Nine years later, he married Louisa Frederici. Two of their four children would die young. In 1867 he contracted to supply the Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with bison meat. Cody killed over four thousand in eighteen months. He and William Comstock had a shooting competition. Whoever killed the most number of animals, would earn the exclusive right to be called ‘Buffalo Bill.’ Cody won by a score of 68 to 48. In the same year that he received a Medal of Honor for ‘gallanty in action’ as a Third Cavalry civilian scout, Bill travelled to Chicago to debut in Ned Buntline’s original Wild West show, The Scouts of the Prairie. When his friend James ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok joined him the following season’s new performance of Scouts of the Plains, the troupe toured together for ten years.
Then, in 1883, in North Platte, Nebraska, Cody founded ‘Buffalo Bill's Wild West,’ a circus-like travelling extravaganza of main events, feats of skill, staged races, and sideshows, that eventually toured the continental United States and Europe. It came to town on a gigantic billboard.
An Object Lesson
Differing as it does from all other exhibitions, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
and Congress of Roughriders of the World. Stands as a living
monument of historic and educational magnificence.
Its distinctive feature lies in its send of realism, bold dash and
Reckless abandon which only arises from brave and noble inspiration.
It is not a ‘show’ in any sense of the word, but it is a series of original
Genuine And instructive object lessons in which the participants
repeat the heroic Parts they have played in actual life upon the Plains,
in the Wilderness, Mountain fastness and in the dread and dangerous
scenes of savage And cruel warfare. It is the only amusement
enterprise of any kind Recognized, endorsed and contributed to by
governments, armies and nations; And it lives longest in the hearts of
those who have seen it most Often Since it always contains and
conveys intensely inspiring ideas and motives, While its programme is
a succession of pleasant surprises and Thrilling incidents.
The show began with a cultural parade on horseback, with participants from all over the world in their most colourful costumes- the US military, American Indians, Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols, and Georgians.
Bill employed several historical western figures. Gabriel Dumont, Lillian Smith, and Calamity Jane toured with Cody, but one of the most fascinating company members was Annie Oakley. Like Buffalo Bill, her parents had been Quakers, and her father had died from a combination of injury and exposure. Annie spent part of her childhood in servitude with another family in Ohio, enduring physical and mental abuse, so poor she almost had to borrow water to cry with. She referred to them as ‘the wolves.’ Annie began hunting at the age of nine, sold the game, and soon became known as a crack shot.
In the spring of 1881, the Baughman and Butler shooting act came to Cincinnati. Marksman Frank Butler placed a $100 bet with hotel owner Jack Frost, that he could beat any local fancy shooter. The hotelier set up a shooting match with Annie, then 21, in Greenville, Ohio. After missing his 25th shot, after losing the match, Frank won Annie. They were happily married for the rest of their lives.
Both sharpshooters joined the Buffalo Bill's Wild West in 1885. Standing only five feet tall, using a .22 caliber rifle at 90 feet, Annie could split a playing card edge-on and put five or six more holes in it before it touched the ground. In a performance before Queen Victoria and other crowned heads of state, at his request, she knocked the ashes off a cigarette held by the Prince of Prussia, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II. Some later mused that, if Annie had shot the prince instead of his cigarette, she may have prevented the First World War. In another shooting contest in 1922, at the age of sixty-two, even after numerous spinal operations after a railway accident, and wearing a steel brace after a car crash, Annie hit a hundred consecutive clay targets straight from the 16 yard mark.
When she died of pernicious anemia four years later, her husband Frank stopped eating. He died twenty days later. When Sitting Bull had first met Annie Oakley, he was so impressed with her marksmanship that he offered a photographer sixty-five dollars for a photo of the two of them together. The admiration was mutual. Sitting Bull adopted her as a daughter, and called her Watanya Cicilla, Little Sure Shot, a name she used throughout her career. After Annie’s death, it was revealed that she had given her entire fortune to charity. Her adoptive father had taught by example. The white man knows how to make everything, but he does not know how to distribute it.
The meeting of Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley would have not occurred without chance, and the chance would not have occurred without Buffalo Bill. Cody knew that his show could not claim to represent the Wild West, without representative Indians. The Native Americans knew that performing in Bill’s shows offered their best chance of preserving their heritage, resisting the assimilation the Bureau of Indian Affairs was determined to inflict on them. In the ultimate irony of mutual exploitation, Oglala Sioux veterans of the Great Plains Wars, were hired off the degrading confines of the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota, where they were forbidden to wear traditional tribal dress, hunt, dance, or participate in their own cultural practices, where they were continually harassed by missionaries, teachers, agents, politicians, and ‘humanitarians,’ to play themselves. Cody freed them for six months every year, providing wages, food, transportation, living space and accommodation, visitors, and exotic travel. In exchange for reenacting the popular image of native tribes dwelling in tipis, skilled in horseback riding and marksmanship and ceremonial dance, attacking settlers cabins, stagecoaches, pony-express riders, and wagon trains, and killing George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, they got to do just that. If a man loses anything and goes back and looks carefully for it, he will find it.
Thursday, 26 June 2014
‘If a cowboy spits in a corner, they’ll put up a statue of him.’
If the eastern road up the Bighorn had been a series of graded switchbacks, the descent down the western slopes would be a long drop. Robyn and I fell nine thousand feet, plummeting downward on a ten per cent grade, descending so fast past runaway truck ramps, we wouldn’t have caught one if we needed it. No parking. As if. The ravens were huge, possibly a result of previous consequence.
We drove by the one shop in Lovell. La De Da.
Byron billed itself as ‘A Great Place to Live.’ Robyn and I stopped to photograph its boneyard of wagon chassis. If cartwheels were worth a buffalo nickel, you would have had enough money to burn a wet mule. Garland boasted a talentless chainsaw carver, and a field of droopy sunflowers next door. Plantations of sugar beets took us beyond Heart Mountain, to the town that Buffalo Bill founded in 1895. We drove through Cody to its western edge, and turned off near the Psychic Readings sign. The single street of wooden buildings in Old Trail Town held historic treasures. Robyn and I ate the leftover Winchester steak out of its styrofoam box, and paid to reenter the past. The town had more than a hundred wagons of every description, and twenty-five original cabins with their square planked façades, some with high antlers and cow skulls on high dentate square projections, overlooking the sloped porch roofs held up by tall balustrades, overhanging the boardwalks.
Here was Butch Cassidy’s shack brought in from the Hole-in-the-Wall country, the Sundance Kid’s chantey hideout from the bank they robbed in Red Lodge, and the log cabin that belonged to Curley, General Custer’s surviving Crow scout. Cairns of elk antlers, a crowded livery, beaded Indian relics, and wagon wheel shadows on the walls of the Old West, half the spokes of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, were in a herder’s hurry to get here in half the time. The saloon had authentic hanging chandeliers, a mirrored bar, a cash register ornate as a Chinese pagoda, and the mandatory painting of a naked reclining woman beside the heads of buffalo and bighorn sheep and deer, on the red velvet wallpapered walls. Outside was powder blue on tawny powder, dust and faded wood and sage, and the graves of the three most powerfully poignant mountain men of the American West. I know who you are; you're the same dumb pilgrim I've been hearin' for twenty days and smellin' for three. Every one of them would have been someone to ride the river with.
A bronze torso of the first mountain man, all buckskin and beard and mane, stood tall in the wind, under an old tattered American flag, blue and cotton sky and yellow hills in the backdrop. John Colter was born in Virginia in 1774. Before his thirtieth birthday, Meriwether Lewis offered him the rank of private and a pay of five dollars a month, to join his Corps of Discovery. Colter was court-martialled for threatening to shoot a sergeant he had disobeyed, while Lewis and Clark were somewhere else, but was reinstated after offering an apology and a promise to reform. One of the best hunters in the expedition, he was routinely sent out to scout for game, and to find Indians who could guide them further west. Colter was given an honourable discharge on the return to the Mandan villages in what is now North Dakota, to enable him to join Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, two frontiersmen headed into the upper Missouri River country in search of furs. It only lasted two months. After they reached Three Forks, and he helped establish Fort Raymond, Colter lit out for the larger wilderness. In the dead of the winter of 1807-08, he traveled hundreds of miles alone, much of the time unguided, in a region where nighttime temperatures in January are routinely −34 °C. He was the first European-American to enter and explore Jackson Hole below the Teton Range, and what is now Yellowstone National Park. John visited at least one geyser basin, near where Robyn and I were standing in what is now Cody, and probably saw the geothermal areas near Tower Fall as well. He found the Crow, and they found him.
He was treated at his reception, back at Fort Raymond in April of 1808, like he don’t got all what belongs to him. His report of a place of ‘fire and brimstone’ was ridiculed as imaginary, dismissed as delirium, and nicknamed ‘Colter's Hell.’
Later that year John was injured in a fight with the Blackfoot, after he had teamed up with John Potts near Three Forks, but it was what happened in 1809, that became immortalized as ‘Colter’s Run.’ While paddling their canoe up the Jefferson River, Potts and Colter encountered several Blackfoot who demanded they come ashore. John did, and was disarmed and stripped naked. When Potts refused to land he was shot. His return fire killed one of the warriors, and their fusillade from the riverbank riddled him to the great beyond. His body was brought in and hacked to pieces. Colter was motioned to leave, and encouraged to run. But he was running for his life, pursued by a large pack of young braves. After several miles John was exhausted, bleeding from his nose, with only one assailant still closely tagging him.
‘Again he turned his head, and saw the savage not twenty yards from
him. Determined if possible to avoid the expected blow, he suddenly
stopped, turned round, and spread out his arms. The Indian,
surprised by the suddenness of the action, and perhaps at the bloody
appearance of Colter, also attempted to stop; but exhausted with
running, he fell whilst endeavouring to throw his spear, which stuck
in the ground, and broke in his hand. Colter instantly snatched up the
pointed part, with which he pinned him to the earth, and then
continued his flight.’
Colter grabbed the dead Indian’s blanket, and continued his run with the pack still in pursuit, until he reached the Madison River, where he hid inside a beaver lodge, to escape capture. Emerging at night he climbed and walked for eleven days to the fort of a trader on the Little Big Horn.
In 1810 John Colter helped construct another fort at Three Forks, but after returning from a trapline, found his two partners mutilated by the Blackfoot. He left the wilderness for good, married a woman named Sallie, and bought a farm in Missouri. The map he gave William Clark, later that year, was the most comprehensive of the region produced for the next seventy-five years. Colter fought with Nathan Boone’s Rangers in the War of 1812, and died of jaundice in the same year.
The next statue over, was of a seated man, aiming a flintlock, elbow on his knee, cord wrapped around his boot, to steady his aim. Jim White was the greatest buffalo hunter in the world. Born in Missouri sixteen years after John Colter died, no one knew his original name. His deliberately lost that when he inadvertently lost his wife, to a rich Spaniard in Mexico, in 1868. Jim killed him and several others in the fracas and, with a large reward on his head, walked the seven hundred miles back into Texas. There are three uncertainties in life- woman, wind, and wealth. White got into buffalo hunting, and kept several skinners gainfully employed.
One day a group of ciboleros rode over a hill and scared away the small herd that White was firing on. Mad as a mule chewing bumblebees, he shot the horses out from under four of them. Jim earned a reputation for toughness, more guts than you could hang on a fence.
By the summer of 1878, all the Southern Plains buffalo were gone. Jim White was an autochthon, like the buffalo he hunted, with a very hard head, a very uncertain temper, and a very lonely future. He left for the northern buffalo range in Wyoming, and reached the Big Horn Mountains with two big span of mules, two wagons, 700 pounds of lead, five kegs of gunpowder, three 16 pound Sharp’s rifles, and an old buffalo skinner named Watson. Here he teamed up with Oliver Hanna, one of General Crook’s old scouts. Over the next two winters, the two men hunted, with a contract to furnish five thousand pounds of game meat to the army at Fort McKinney, near Buffalo, just as Buffalo Bill was building the Occidental Hotel. The 4,600 hides they had collected were freighted to the Yellowstone River by ox teams, and then hauled down the river by steamboats. In the fall of 1880, Hanna returned from a quick trip over the Big Horns. He found Jim White dead, shot in the head with his own 50 caliber buffalo rifle, by thieves who had stolen their horses, mules, wagons, guns, hides and furs, and future. Dying ain’t much of a living, boy.
It was a hard land, and it bred hard men to hard ways. The third statue was of a legendary iron man on a bronze horse, all beard and feathered hat and gun, on a stone pedestal. No more trails. He was born John Garrison in New Jersey in 1824, but he deliberately lost his name after striking an officer, after losing his age in order to enlist on a fighting ship in the Mexican-American War. John Johnson was swept away by and to the gold rush in Montana, where he became a ‘wood hawk,’ supplying cordwood to steamboats. At the age of 23, he took a Flathead Indian wife, and built a cabin on the Little Snake River in Wyoming. One day, returning from a trapline, he found his wife and unborn child dead and mutilated on the cabin floor, killed by Crow Indians.
Johnson began a personal war of revenge against the Crow, a vendetta that would last a quarter of a century. From his dead enemies, he would take a bite of their liver, a supreme insult because the Crow believed an intact organ was vital to arrive in the afterlife. Liver Eating Johnson made a fierce impression on his foes, and redefined the meaning of ‘Eating Crow.’
It was a time of tall boots and tall hats and tall tales. Like John Colter a hundred years before, Johnson was ambushed by a group of Blackfoot warriors in the dead of winter on a foray to sell whiskey to his Flathead kin, a trip of over five hundred miles The Blackfoot planned to sell him to the Crow. He was stripped to the waist, tied with leather thongs and put in a teepee with a guard. Johnson broke through the straps, knocked out the guard with a kick, scalped him with his own knife, and cut off one of his legs.
He escaped into the woods, surviving by eating the Blackfoot's leg, until he reached the cabin of his trapping partner, a journey of about two hundred miles.
In his old age he developed rheumatism, and treated his ailment at the DeMaris Hot Springs, near the river below us. Johnson died in 1900, in a veteran’s home in Santa Monica, but through the efforts of a seventh grader named Tri Robinson, and his class in Lancaster, California, was reinterred in Old Trail Town in 1974, near the mountains he loved. More than two thousand attended the funeral, ‘probably the largest burial service in the history of Wyoming.’
In his time, Liver Eating Johnson was a sailor, a United States Army scout and Indian fighter, a Union Civil War soldier wounded in battle, a gold-seeker, a hunter, a trapper, a whiskey and wood peddler, a guide, a Marshall, the first sheriff of Red Lodge, Montana, a log cabin builder, a seeker of any source of income-producing labor he could find, and the western film inspiration for Jeremiah Johnson. Grab what you can and let the loose ends drag.
“You've come far, Pilgrim.” He Said.
“Feels like far.” Said Johnson.
“Were it worth the trouble?” He asked.
“Eh.” Said Johnson.“What trouble?”
‘People are always asking me why they don't make Westerns like they
Wednesday, 25 June 2014
‘Eventually one gets to the Medicine Wheel, to fulfill one’s life.’
Old Mouse, Arikara
Sulfur. We ate hurriedly before dawn. Crackers, shaped like the animals in our first destination. We had a wheel that would take us from here to there; they had a wheel that would take them from there to the stars.
Robyn and I rescued the leftover Winchester steak from the fridge three creaky hallways away, and humped our packs down Buffalo Bill’s groaning Occidental stairs, to the wagon.
Coral cotton fingers, bottom lit by streams of gold, drew the black predawn Wyoming silhouettes onto a mauve highway, through olive grassland and dark green camouflage mountain pie, smothered in grey meringue and powder blue filling. There were pronghorns, and the stink of dead skunk in the middle of the road.
“I hope it’s not the meat.” Said Robyn. We needn't have worried, for there would have been more in the next town. Steak night tonight. “Every night is steak night in Wyoming.” I said. We pulled into Ranchester for gas. Cowboy State Bank. A bearded beer belly with a baseball cap was asleep on one of the verandas of the Tongue River Apartments. The sultana on his T-shirt spoke of his devotion. Happiness is raisin kids.
Robyn began to find the route more exotic than her Antipodean upbringing could accommodate.
“Wombat?” She asked, about the next smudge of roadkill.
“Porcupine.” I said.
“I never imagined Wisconsin would be like this.” She said.
“Wyoming.” I said, as we drive by the Branding Iron Restaurant and the Crazy Woman Saloon, in Dayton.
The mountains we ride past will outlast everything we know. Robyn and I ascended the Bighorn Range switchbacks, to white limestone and conifers climbing into sagebrush, lodgepole pines like sentinels on the cliffs, turning into stepped mesas protruding from undulating hills, and then hoodoos, until the Bighorn National Forest highway turnoff, at the top of the world. We could reach up here only two months of the year, around the summer solstice, when enough snow had melted.
The air was ten thousand feet thin, thinner than the ribbon of deserted desert that wound upwards, between the desolate grey pink hills, through their quarry dust to our destination quarry. As we started our uphill hike, another two and a half kilometers, the mountains and forests of the Bighorn came up with the sun to meet us on our right, threatening to push us off the earth’s curvature and the plains far below, to our left.
“I’ve never been where you can feel such an expanse.” Robyn said. Large-eared pikas bolted into rock crevices along our path, signalling to each other. Beeep…Beeep… The chipmunks were less afraid, more inquisitive, almost courageous. They had said their prayers, and perhaps there was something in it for them, the spirits of the warriors from before. There were ink-spotted plantain lilies. That's what I would have called them anyway. We came past a copse of tall skinny pines in a field of crumbling stone chess pieces pervaded with fine red filigree, onto a convex rise of loose white rocks, broken like the continuity of what was supposed to be forever here. Our elders teach us that there is a model of the universe inside ourselves.
There was a modern spherical astronomical observatory on the far horizon, and a more proximal plaque, courtesy of the conquerors. Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain…This site possesses national significance in illustrating the history of the United States of America.
“That's one way of putting it.” I said. It looked like a wagon wheel, lying on its side.
“What is this thing with you and cartwheels?” Robyn asked.
“Pattern recognition, I guess.” I said. We looked over a mound, an eighty foot wide wheel of stones, over two hundred feet in circumference. The hub was a doughnut shape cairn, a dozen feet in diameter and two feet high, connected to the rim by a monolithic radiating footprint of cobblestone lines.
“How many spokes are there?” Robyn asked.
“Twenty-eight.” I said. “The same number as the days in their lunar cycle. The same number of rafters as the Lakota used in their Sundance lodges.”
“It's a calendar.” Said Robyn.
“It's a calendar.” I said. "And an observatory of the vanquished. You see the spokes with the stone cairns, extending out beyond the tipi ring tent-peg foundation stones, on the rim of the wheel?" She nodded.
“They're aligned to the horizon positions of sunrises and sunsets on the first days of the four seasons.” I said. “The dawn rising of a star is important because it can pinpoint an exact date. This is the day a star is first seen, just before daybreak, after it has been behind the Sun for an entire season. The wheel's star alignments are most accurate for around 1200 AD, so that's how we know when it was built. Since then, there have been slight changes in the Earth's orbit that have caused perturbations. These heliacal stars formed the animal constellation of the Lakota. They marked the summer season as precisely as they could, for their time and technology. The star Fomalhaut rose 28 days before the Summer Solstice, Aldebaran during the 2 days just before the solstice, Rigel 28 days after the solstice, and Sirius 28 days after that, at the end of August, marking the end of summer and the time to leave the mountain.”
“It's more than that, though, isn't it.” Robyn said.
“It's more than that.” I said. “It's a sacred hoop, a symbol of the never-ending cycle of life. Or at least, it was. It had no beginning and no end. Or at least it wasn't supposed to. Different tribes had unique spiritual definitions of the place, and interpreted the significance of the medicine wheel differently. The four directions also represented the four seasons, the four stages of life, the four elements of nature, the four sacred animals, the four sacred plants.” Eagle, Bear, Wolf, Buffalo… Tobacco, sweet grass, sage, cedar.
“And prayer offerings are still left here, even now.” She said. We looked around the mound, over the rocks among the grass, and the hundred of bits of coloured rag and cloth, strips and pompoms and bouquet garni, invocations inside, tied to ropes between the posts around the perimeter, flying in the thin air like a sacred hoop of Tibetan prayer flags. Their pleas and petitions, like those on the wind in Tibet, were leaving too late. Heaven, instead of calvary, could only send condolences.
Robyn and I took some time to examine the other individual offerings and oblations tied to the rope rim of the Medicine Wheel. There were buffalo jawbones, hanging webbed dreamcatchers, eagle feathers, and braided and beaded leather wristbands and belts. One of them had a design with a diamond, a heart and a club, and a spade. Poker is a science; the highest court in Texas has said so… Trust everybody in the game, but always cut the cards.
Of all the hanging agony on the ropes of ruin at the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, the one that got us with a club in the heart in spades, was the diamond of desolation, a plaster death mask with fur pelt hair, small green triangle in the middle of her forehead, tears streaming from her left eye socket, bloody lacerations cut diagonally under her right, and smashed nose and pink painted lips.
“They were here for seven thousand years.” Robyn said. "But a sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ."
Tuesday, 24 June 2014
It hadn’t been the first worm in the Wyoming cattle. In 1892 there was bloodshed, which took the U.S. Calvary to subdue. What would become known as the Johnson County War, or the War on Powder River, the Wyoming Range War, or the Western Civil War of Incorporation, a fight between smallholdings settlers against large well-established cattlemen. It culminated in a lengthy shootout between the local ranchers, a band of hired gunslingers, and a sheriff's posse. Home on deranged.
In Wyoming’s early days, land was public domain, freely available to homesteading and stock-raising. Large numbers of cattle, turned loose by large ranches, roamed the range. Before roundup, calves were branded, sometimes furtively. Trust your neighbor. But brand your cattle. The only way to tell a fake brand was to kill the calf, and examine the inside of its hide, to see if the brand went all the way through. Suspected cattle rustlers were lynched. Herd sizes, and the doctrine of Prior Appropriation, who had been the first to settle the land, determined property and usage.
The largest ranching outfits banded together to monopolize large swaths of rangeland, and discourage new settlers. No rancher has the right to sell, or own, what God meant to be free. The range must always remain open. The richest and most influential cattle barons formed the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA). They overstocked the range and hired detectives to investigate any theft from their holdings. In August of 1883, Johnson County newspapers, owned by the tycoons, claimed that Buffalo was ‘the most lawless town in the country,’ a haven for ‘range pirates’ who ‘mercilessly’ stole big cattlemen’s livestock. Well the neighbors stopped by yesterday while I was outside choppin' wood, They filled me in on a local news, ain't none of it sounded good, Said, there had been some cattle stealin' by some no count outlaw bands, We'd all been branded rustlers by the big ranchers of this land.
As the petri dish grew more crowded and noisy, tensions rose between the many small homesteaders and the few large meat magnates. The weather finished off the last of the harmony.
A bad drought hit the grasslands in the summer of 1886. It was so hot you could pull baked potatoes right out of the ground, so dry the catfish were carrying canteens, so dusty the rabbits dug their holes six feet in the air. Maybe not, but white Arctic owls made their first appearance, muskrats built taller and thicker houses, and the beavers were busier than their namesake. A blue haze arrived at the end of summer. It lifted to altitude in October, moving out of the way of the worst winter in Wyoming history.
January brought tornados of white frozen dust, and the Moon of Cold-exploding Trees. Cows were so starved it took three of them to make a shadow. Steers were so thin you could read the brand off the other side. Maybe not, but the mercury plunged to fifty below zero, and blizzards blew thousands of frozen carcasses into the rivers. Armed bands of rustlers roamed across Wyoming and Montana. The old buffalo pickers of the plains reappeared, collecting for the fertilizer factory bone yards. Banks failed, stockyards closed. Only the men with the bark on came back. Well, it was us against the cattlemen and the years just made it worse,
First the drought and then the tough winter, Johnson County had been dealt a curse.
The big owners of the big herds were in big trouble, and deeply resentful of anyone who might challenge their unfettered right to run their cattle on public land. They appropriated terrain, tightened the water supply, forced settlers off their property, and burnt their buildings. Excesses on public land were excused as self-defence against rustling. Montana and Wyoming ‘declared war’ on the rustlers.
On July 20, 1889, six cattlemen lynched two homesteaders in Carbon County. Ellen Watson, the ‘Queen of the Sweetwater,’ hadn’t worn enough clothes to dust a fiddle, and may have accepted maverick cows for her favours. Wild Bill Hickok may have got it right. When you begin a cattle drive you can’t expect to say you are finished until you have visited a fancy woman and played some games of chance. She was hung with her partner, storekeeper Jim Averell. The double lynching enraged local residents.
Emotions revved higher with every additional body found. Agents of large stockholders killed alleged rustlers from smaller ranches. Buffalo sheriff Frank Canton, once a WSGA detective, was rumoured to be behind several of the deaths, and became a virtual prisoner in his own more than a one horse town.
By 1891, a local settler named Nate Champion had become the leader of a new group of small independent Johnson County ranchers, the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers' Association (NWFSGA). When they announced plans to hold their own roundup, the WSGA told them to cease all operations, and formed an assassination squad under the old Buffalo sheriff, Frank Canton. After hanging a horse trade named Tom Waggoner, they declared Nate Champion ‘King of the Cattle Thieves.’
In the early morning of November 1, 1891, WSGA paid killers burst into Nate’s tiny cabin next to the Middle Fork of Powder River in the same Hole-in-the-Wall country that had once been the hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The two members of the five-man squad, which were able to squeeze into the cabin, held pistols on Champion and his visitor, and demanded that he ‘give it up.’
Nate stretched and yawned while reaching under a pillow for his own revolver. The intruders fired at point-blank range, leaving powder burns on Champion’s face. But all the shots fired had missed. Champion’s return fire caught one in the arm and the other in the abdomen, a mortal wound. The rest of the assassins fled, but Champion got a good look at one of them, Joe Elliott. In the public investigation that followed, one of squad members admitted the names of the entire party to two witnesses, ranchers John A. Tisdale and Orley ‘Ranger’ Jones. Johnson County authorities filed attempted murder charges against Joe Elliott, and local newspapers pushed for charges against the wealthy cattlemen believed to have employed the assassination squad.
On Dec. 1, 1891, both witnesses were murdered. Then there came the story about the two dry gulch attacks, Ranger Jones and John Tisdale had been both shot in the back. The resultant uproar in Johnson County and the demand for justice became the focus of the community. Joe Elliott was bound over for trial and, with Champion’s testimony, seemed likely to be convicted.
But in Chicago, a hundred years later, I had learned from a group of Texan cardiologists, inquiring about the limited resources in my small regional hospital on Vancouver Island. You can’t run with the big dogs, if you pee like a puppy.
The cattle barons declared that Buffalo was a rogue society in which rustlers controlled politics, courts and juries. The WSGA, led by a rough North Platte rancher named Frank Wolcott, secretly planned, organized and financed an invasion of Johnson County. Wolcott had once offered a Texan visitor some carrots.
“Where I come from,” The Texan said. “We feed these to the hogs.”
“So do we.” Said Wolcott. “Have some.”
Frank Canton was selected to lead an expedition of fifty-two men, twenty-three gunmen from Paris, Texas, four cattle detectives from the WSGA, Idaho frontiersman George Dunning, Wyoming State Senator Bob Tisdale, water commissioner W. J. Clarke, two statesmen who had organized Wyoming's statehood four years earlier, surgeon Dr. Charles Penrose, and reporters from the Cheyenne Sun and the Chicago Herald.
On Tuesday April 5, 1892, a special private Union Pacific train rode secretly north from Cheyenne. It had one engine, a passenger car, a baggage car, several stock cars filled with horses, and three freight cars loaded with guns, ammunition, dynamite, tents, blankets and wagons. At 3 am, just outside Casper, the men switched to horseback, cut the telegraph lines to Buffalo, and continued north.
The first target of the invaders was Nate Champion. The invaders quietly surrounded his KC ranch, and waited for daybreak. Nate and his three guests had enjoyed a night as fine as a frog hair split four ways, killing a bottle of snake juice, and thumbing through the latest Montgomery Ward catalogue. Two of his visitors were captured as they emerged to collect water at dawn, and the third, Nick Ray, was shot inside the cabin doorway. He died a few hours later.
Champion, besieged inside, kept a tragic journal. Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once… Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.
Nate was shot as he ran from the burning cabin. They pinned a note to his bullet-riddled chest. Cattle Thieves Beware.
“On to Buffalo!” Yelled Wolcott. Then, last night at supper time riders stopped by chance, They said cattleman and their hired guns just burned the Kaycee Ranch, Two men had died this mornin', shot down in the snow, Now the vigilante army was on the march to Buffalo.
The fracas had not gone unnoticed, however, and a local rancher, Jack Flagg, rode to Buffalo, where the sheriff raised a posse of two hundred men over the next twenty-four hours. They caught up with the invaders early on the next morning, and trapped them inside a log barn at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek. One of the WSGA group escaped from the fusillade, and rode hard to reach Wyoming Governor Barber by the next day. Barber sent President Benjamin Harrison a telegram.
‘About sixty-one owners of live stock are reported to have made an
armed expedition into Johnson County protecting their live stock and
preventing unlawful roundups by rustlers. They are at TA Ranch,
thirteen miles from Fort McKinney, besieged by Sheriff and posse and
by rustlers, said to be two or three hundred in number. The wagons of
stockmen were taken away from them and a battle took place
yesterday, during which men were killed. Great excitement prevails.
Both parties are very determined and it is feared that if successful will
show no mercy to the persons captured. The civil authorities are
unable to prevent violence. The situation is serious and immediate
assistance will probably prevent great loss of life.’
President Harrison did what presidents do. He sent the U.S. Calvary to the rescue. The Sixth arrived at the TA ranch on the morning of April 13 and took custody of the WSGA expedition, just as the posse was about to set the barn on fire. Well the County was in an uproar and every man saddled up to ride, Caught the cattlemen at the TA Ranch and surrounded all four sides, We hailed the house with bullets and swore they were gonna pay, But the cavalry came across the plains and once again they saved the day.
The Army took possession of Wolcott, 45 other men with as many rifles, 41 revolvers, 5,000 rounds of ammunition, and Frank Canton’s gripsack. Inside, they found a list of seventy men to be shot or hanged, ranch houses they had burned, and a contract to pay the Texans $5 a day plus a bonus of $50 for every man killed.
The invaders were taken to Cheyenne and received preferential treatment. They were allowed to roam the base by day as long as they agreed to return at night. Charges were never filed. The perpetrators were released on bail and told to return to Wyoming for the trial. The ones that didn’t flee to Texas went free when the charges were dropped because Johnson County had insufficient resources to pay for the prosecution, said to exceed $18,000. You can’t run with the big dogs. Well, they marched 'em off to Cheyenne, no one went to jail, The cattlemen were all turned loose and the hired guns hit the trail, And I guess the only justice wasn't much to say the least, Last winter me and mine ate mighty fine on the cattle baron's beef.
Local passions remained high for years following the Johnson County War. The discredited 6th Cavalry was replaced by the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers, to quell pressure from the local population. Tall tales were spun by both sides, in an attempt to morally justify their actions. The smaller ranchers accused the Old West's most notorious gunslingers of being under the employ of the invaders, including Tom Horn. Horn had worked as a detective for the WSGA in the 1890s but there was no evidence he was involved in the war.
“Killing is my business.” He had said. “Dead men don’t steal no cattle.” Politics was involved. President Harrison, and the ranchers who had hired the gunmen, were Republicans. The Democrats would sweep Wyoming for a long time after the invasion. In 1888, Teddy Roosevelt foretold the end of the open range.
‘In its present form stock-raising on the plains is doomed, and can
hardly outlast the century. The great free ranches, with their
barbarous, picturesque, and curiously fascinating surrounding, mark a
primitive stage of existence as surely as do the great tracts of primieval
forests, and like the latter must surely pass away before the onward
march of our people; and we who have felt the charm of the life, and
have exulted in its abounding vigour and its bold, restless freedom, will
not only regret its passing for our own sakes, but must also feel real
sorrow that those who come after us are not to see, as we have seen,
what is perhaps the pleasantest, healthiest, and most exciting phase of
The most notorious event in the history of Wyoming, open class warfare, and the intervention by the President of the United States to save the lives of hired killers, produced much of, but did not necessarily reflect favorably on, the mythology of American West.
The hero of The Virginian, a seminal 1902 western novel, took the side of the wealthy ranchers. The 1949 novel Shane took the side of the settlers. In the 1968 novel True Grit, the main character was ‘hired by stock owners to terrorize thieves and people called nesters and grangers.’ Baby sister, I was born game and I intend to go out that way. Only John Wayne could have been Rooster Cogburn. Oh, Powder River, you're muddy and you're wide, How many men have died along your shore? When you brand a man a rustler, he's gotta take a side, There's no middle ground in this Johnson County war.
Back at the Winchester, just on closing, our waitress handed Robyn a big styrofoam box to pack her own leftover steak. We put it in the Occidental Hotel fridge, around three corners of creaky floors. Our noisy attempts to retrieve it, before sunrise the next morning, would almost start a second Johnson County War. Never drive black cattle in the dark.
‘Time and space – time to be alone, space to move about – these may
well become the great scarcities of tomorrow.’
Edwin Way Teale
Monday, 23 June 2014
‘Always take a good look at what you’re about to eat. It’s not so
important to know what it is, but it’s critical to know what it was.’
“Y’all like Indian tacos?” She asked. Her T-shirt was topical. I'm so cute I must be Crow. I asked her what Indian tacos were.
“There kinda like Mexican tacos but we make them with fried bread.” She was cute. We had the tacos.
The Trading Post at the bottom of the hill from where Custer last stood, had been an old log cabin military barracks, with metal bars and red, white and blue stars and bars banners on the dormer windows, a cow skull and big wooden stars high on the facade, and a Buffalo steaks and burgers cutout buffalo hanging under the porch roof. An elevated log guard tower stood at the end of a row of tipis with long wooden poles, protruding into the sky like abandoned aerials, in supplication to the signal of a lost generation of spirits, missing on the open plains. We approached under a lone cottonwood, past a group of wooden wagons, so faded and dilapidated, I figured they must have been from the battle. An American flag flew over our entrance.
The place was packed for lunch. It was bustling. The Crow had done well, or at least the owner, who rolled through the crowded tables in his ponytail and cowboy hat, and a large flyswatter in the back pocket of his jeans. The cash register played pinball, beside the rack of Doritos and Chitos and Frito-lay snacks and the heat lamp and coffee maker, just inside the café. The Indian farmer with the Mexican straw Stetson and the large Pepsi said grace at the next table, beside the fat white Southerner with a long beard and Alamo baseball cap, and pants with both a belt and suspenders. You can’t trust a man that can’t trust his pants. The rest of the Indians at the table were holding out their cell phones, double checking the courage that was fear saying its prayers. A morbidly obese native policeman in a blue uniform, big gun and walkie-talkie on his big belt, bought two feather-shaped lollipops, out of the bonbon bonnet of the plaster Indian chief.
“We haven’t seen this many Indians in one place before.” Said Robyn.
“Custer’s words.” I said. The ipod over the cash register played honkeytonk. Well I ain’t never been the Barbie Doll type, I can't swig that sweet champagne…
“How did you like your tacos?” She asked. We nodded. They had been like beignets, with lettuce and tomatoes and shredded cheddar and olives and sour cream and salsa. "Is there anything else we can help you with today?” I had a mental image of Curley, Custer's Crow scout.
“No, thanks.” I said. “I reckon we should be gettin’ up over the hill there.” A Michigan yell and a Hokey Hey. I went to the Bacheé men’s room, and bought a cowboy hat in the Indian shop. Buffalo heads and cow skulls and empty papooses looked down on my purchase.
Robyn and I headed south, through the yellow that is Montana, to the yellow across the state line. Welcome to Wyoming… Bridges may be icy… No jake brake.
If lunch had been Indian and buffalo, Sheridan was all cowboy and cattle. The wide main street was empty, like a ghost town. But beyond the bad mural of Buffalo Bill and the brilliant bronze statue of a moustached cowpuncher with his rifle slung over his shoulder (and his exaggerated heavy metal jock strap), was the green and red bucking bronco lassoing cowboy and the green neon cattle brands on the marquis of the Mint Bar. A giant pink neon horseshoe hung on below. Inside, under the embossed tin roof and wagon wheel chandeliers, were three walls of horns and heads, and period photos. A big Jack Daniels in yellow neon illuminated a length of stools, firewater full of mid-afternoon patrons, happy as ticks on a fat dog. But we hadn't stopped in Sheridan for the liquor. We had stopped for the leather.
Queen Elizabeth had visited King’s Saddlery. At first, we had no idea why.
“Its in the back.” She said. “You have to cross the alley.” We opened the most unremarkable door, and entered the most marvellous museum mausoleum. Room after room of equestrian equipage and ropes and relics of the Old West were crammed together under dim fluorescent light. Every animal that had every lived had left its head and horns on the brick walls- elk and moose and deer and bighorn sheep and mountain goats, and gazelles and kudus and ibex and wildebeest and water buffalo, some walls looking in one direction, others in another. A stuffed giraffe looked over at us from a far corner. Regimented rows of saddles from all over the world ran along wall-mounted displays; a sea of skilled awl-worked calfskin and sinew filled in the spaces. And then it just started in my head. Movin', movin', movin', Though they're disapprovin', Keep them dogies movin’… Don't try to understand 'em, Just rope an' throw an' brand 'em. Head 'em up, move 'em on. Move 'em out, head 'em up…Ride 'em in, cut 'em out, Cut 'em out, ride 'em in… Rawhide. Indian art and artifacts hung on and off the walls. The message in the last room was subtle. Hippies use back door.
Back on Main Street, the poster on the Boot Barn window, down from the Hair We Are styling salon, advertised a Stinky Boot trade-in event… with a skunk climbing out of a cowboy boot. We drove to the city park to look for the elk and buffalo, but they may have been aware of the fate of their relatives on the walls of King’s Saddlery, and didn’t come out of their enclosures.
Robyn and I continued south towards Buffalo, and got lost, detouring through the native agency, swirling like water around a stone. We ended up in some ‘drug free’ school zone, where a recent migrant from California told us we had to go back to Sheridan, and take the highway.
“You came a long way to find something that isn't out here.” She said.
“What’s in Buffalo?” Robyn asked.
“Even less.” She said. But she was wrong.
The Occidental Hotel was in Buffalo. It appeared at the bottom of the hill, all brick and awnings. Buffalo was also in the Occidental Hotel. It was built by Buffalo Bill Cody. Founded 1880. But the town wasn’t named for Buffalo Bill, but for Buffalo, New York. Furthermore, its restaurant was called The Virginian. Fine Western Dining. I wouldn’t find out why until later. Why, oh why, did I ever leave Wyoming? Cause there's a sheriff back there, Lookin' for me high and low…
Robyn and I walked into over a hundred years ago. Between the wooden floors and high embossed tin ceilings was wainscotted lichen wallpaper decorated with Old West paintings, separated by tall draped windows with OH in gothic script in the opaque upper ones over the valences. The lobby was huge and barely filled with settees and cushions, rocking chairs, a clavichord, and books. It was lit by hanging tulip chandeliers, a titanic Tiffany suspended in flame ember and liquid green, electric candles, and several standing opalescent globe table lamps. A fireplace, with a mirror over the mantle ushered us toward the decapitated elk eyes, watching us over the reception desk. The ageless grey-haired owner already knew us.
“Which was the room that Hemingway slept in?” I asked.
“Number four.” She said. “But I’ve upgraded you to the Rose Room.” I wanted to sleep where he had, but Robyn like the sound of roses.
“What was he doing way out here, anyway?” She had asked.
“During the early 1930s Hemingway spent his summers in Wyoming.” I said. “He hunted deer, elk and grizzly bear, and called it 'the most beautiful country he had seen in the American West.' In November of 1930, after he took John Dos Passos to the train station in Billings, he broke his arm in a car accident. The surgeon who treated the compound spiral fracture sutured his writing arm bone back together with kangaroo tendon. It took a painful year to heal, during which his wife Pauline had his third son, and after which she took him and the rest of the children and left for good. Hemingway married Martha Gelhorn in Cheyenne, where she inspired him to begin For Whom the Bell Tolls, his most famous novel, in 1939. It sold half a million copies within months, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and triumphantly re-established Hemingway's literary reputation.” Robyn had tuned out my last words.
“What time would you like to book dinner in The Virginian? Asked the grey-haired proprietress. I told her we hadn’t decided. She told me to let her know when we had.
The stairs creaked, and the floor did the same. We inserted our key into its opening. A painting of a lady from two centuries before, and a hanging opaque glass lamp, looked over the crocheted rose pillows on the four-pointed post bed. Fresh roses sat in a vase on a side table. The floor sloped away to the Old West. I went creaky walkabout, first to the library of the ‘Families of Dinosaurs’ poster above the carnivorous dinosaur skull fossil, and then back down the stairs, to the saloon.
Moose and elk and buffalo and deer heads, and horns and pelts lined the three walls that the stained glass and mirrors didn’t. It was dark and quiet. Old newspaper articles had become wallpaper in the restroom, around a period porcelain sink and oval mirror. No one was eating in The Virginian. I went back upstairs to get Robyn.
“Quieter than a mouse chewing cotton.” I said.
“What about that steakhouse we saw on the other edge of town?” She asked. So we went there. Beyond the wild mustangs and cattle and cowboys on the mural near the bridge. Buffalo, Wyoming… More than a one-horse town 1884… A creek runs through it.
It was called the Winchester, and the parking lot was full. Inside was the kind of noise you only hear in American restaurants, the sound of individualism, digging in like wolves after guts, gorging on a good deal. We had to wait. The fastest way to move cattle is slowly.
“You must be getting hungry.” Said the girl that finally took us to a table.
“My belly button’s rubbed a blister on my backbone.” I said. We ordered ribeyes and mushrooms, with potatoes and an iceberg salad ‘wedge’ with blue cheese dressing, and Moose Drool beer to wash it down.
“How do you like your steak?” She asked.
“Lop off the horns and the tail and put it on the plate.” I said. And we waited with anticipation, to experience what had brought all these other Wyoming gourmets to town.
It didn’t go well. We were two Moose Drools down the road before the food caught up. Everything was as big as the country, but the potatoes tasted of powder and process and packaging; the mushrooms tasted of tin. The blue cheese dressing had drowned the lettuce wedge, but it may have been an act of mercy. I detected a strong door of Bovril. The only thing fresh was the beer glass that Robyn had asked to be replaced, because it was dirty. It came hot, fresh out of the dishwasher. My ribeye tasted like it had been salvaged from one of the taxidermy torsos on the wall of the Occidental saloon. And it came with an unexpected bonus.
“What’s that?” Asked Robyn. I looked down at a filiform foreign body in my meat.
“Dunno.” I said. We called over the waitress.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Dunno.” She said. She called over the manager. They went away to decide.
“We think it’s a noodle.” She said, on returning.
“You don’t have noodles on your menu.” Robyn said. They offered to bring me another ribeye, but I was full.
Sunday, 22 June 2014
At dawn on December 15, 1890, back at Standing Rock, Sitting Bull was shot in the heart and in the head by agency native police, in a raid to prevent him from supporting the Ghost Dance movement of magical bulletproof spirit shirts and returning buffalo. He died six hours later, and was buried at Fort Yates in a coffin made by a U.S. Army carpenter.
During the firing, the old show horse that Buffalo Bill had presented to him began to go through his tricks. At the crack of a gunshot, the mount had been trained to raise one hoof. For the faithful at Standing Rock that day, the horse sat upright, held a hoof aloft, and seemed to be performing the Dance of the Ghosts.
‘All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in
next spring Great Spirit come. He bring back all game of every kind.
The game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live
again. They all be strong just like young men, be young again. Old
blind Indians see again and get young and have fine time. When Great
Spirit comes this way, then all Indians go to mountains, high up away
from whites. Whites can’t hurt Indians then. Then while Indians way
up high, big flood comes like water and all white people die, get
drowned. After that, water go away and then nobody but Indians
everywhere and game all kinds thick. Then medicine man tell Indians
to send word to all Indians to keep up dancing and the good time will
come. Indians who don’t dance, who don’t believe in this word, will
grow little, just about a foot high, and stay that way. Some of them will
be turned into wood and be burned in fire.’
Wovoka, the Paiute Messiah
In 1909, Red Cloud died at the age of 87 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he was buried. President Kennedy considered naming a ballistic missile submarine after him, but the Pentagon objected that it might be misinterpreted as pro-Communist.
After litigation spanning 40 years, the United States Supreme Court, in the 1980 decision United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, acknowledged that the US Government had taken the Black Hills without just compensation. The Lakota refused the money offered, and continue to insist on their right to their land. The profile of Crazy Horse is returning in stone. We did not give you our land; You stole it from us.
In 2010, a research team at the University of Copenhagen, announced their intention to sequence the genome of Sitting Bull, with the approval of his descendants, using a hair sample obtained during his lifetime. So far, no one has announced a similar plan to clone anything that might resemble George Armstrong Custer. Hokey Hey.
‘In that desolate land and lone,
Where the Big Horn and Yellowstone
Roar down their mountain path,
By their fires the Sioux Chiefs
Muttered their woes and griefs
And the menace of their wrath.
‘Revenge!’ cried Rain-in-the-Face,
‘Revenue upon all the race
Of the White Chief with yellow hair!’
And the mountains dark and high
From their crags re-echoed the cry
Of his anger and despair.
In the meadow, spreading wide
By woodland and riverside
The Indian village stood;
All was silent as a dream,
Save the rushing a of the stream
And the blue-jay in the wood.
In his war paint and his beads,
Like a bison among the reeds,
In ambush the Sitting Bull
Lay with three thousand braves
Crouched in the clefts and caves,
Into the fatal snare
The White Chief with yellow hair
And his three hundred men
Dashed headlong, sword in hand;
But of that gallant band
Not one returned again.
The sudden darkness of death
Overwhelmed them like the breath
And smoke of a furnace fire:
By the river's bank, and between
The rocks of the ravine,
They lay in their bloody attire.
But the foemen fled in the night,
And Rain-in-the-Face, in his flight
Uplifted high in air
As a ghastly trophy, bore
The brave heart, that beat no more,
Of the White Chief with yellow hair.
Whose was the right and the wrong?
Sing it, O funeral song,
With a voice that is full of tears,
And say that our broken faith
Wrought all this ruin and scathe,
In the Year of a Hundred Years.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Revenge of Rain-In-The-Face