Wild West Show

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I was born three months before the Wright brothers launched the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, and I stood transfixed with awe when Halley’s comet stretched in eerie silence across the heavens above me. I heard Teddy Roosevelt make one of his Bull Moose speeches, and I watched Charles Lindbergh fly triumphantly over Philadelphia when he returned from his transoceanic flight. Having seen all but three years of the world’s most fantastic century, somewhere down the line I should have encountered at least one historical event at closer range than those just mentioned. And indeed I did. One warm summer evening when I was just a youngster, Annie Oakley came to our town to compete in a trapshoot with the town’s best marksmen. And because my father was president of the rod and gun club that had sponsored her visit, Miss Oakley came to our house for supper. Annie Oakley, of course, was nationally recognized as one of the world’s greatest markswomen, proficient with either rifle or shotgun. For reasons of her own she had stopped performing on the stage and in circuses, preferring to earn both her livelihood and easy money for gun clubs by traveling from town to town competing against their best.

It was late in the afternoon of the day of the match when Dad’s rented spring wagon arrived with Annie and her staff. With Dad’s help she dismounted, and I was close enough to make a hasty and critical appraisal of her. She was wearing one of the darkest, longest, and heaviest skirts I ever saw—much too heavy for such a hot day. She had on high-button shoes and a black cotton blouse with a flimsy yellow scarf tied around her neck. Over the blouse was a tanned elk jacket trimmed with Indian beads and fringes.

Annie Oakley was not pretty! Her face was drawn and, despite her outdoor life, deathly pallid. She had clearly been ill. Her hair fell over her shoulders and was caught, hip-high, by a very large and ornate barrette. Modern movie buffs and theatergoers who saw her portrayed in Annie Get Your Gun and other productions would have been shocked to discover that she was neither blonde nor sexy. On the other hand, she exuded warmth, and I was immediately attracted to her.

Mother rushed out to greet her, and they hit it off at once. Two men had been in the wagon with Miss Oakley. The older one busied himself at the rear of the wagon, removing from its freight box a brassbound, canvascovered trunk. This man was obviously a loner. He wore a dirty sombrero that partially concealed a weatherbeaten, tragic face. No conscientious merchant would ever sell this man a rope without a prescription.

The younger man seemed to be in his late teens. He was dressed in typical cowboy attire—a soiled wide-brimmed hat, a leather jacket, a double-breasted California madras shirt, and faded Levi’s tucked into soft leather walking hoots. Hc was deeply tanned and showed sparkling white teeth when he smiled at my sisters.

The sad one, called Swamp, refused to eat with us, so a plate was fixed for him and he ate on the lawn under the cherry tree. “Dougie-boy,” as Miss Oakley referred to the younger man, took my place at the table, and I ate at the Burdick sewing machine with its head dropped and the lid closed.

Although the males wanted to talk guns and shooting, the meal became a medical clinic. “I have had enough gun talk to last a lifetime,” said Annie, “and you fellows are not going to spoil my chance to talk to the first intelligent lady I’ve met on this tour.” So we reluctantly ate a meal spiced with symptoms, pains, and cures, and never got a word in edgewise. My sisters sat silent with Dougie-boy between them, stealing occasional side glances at him and blushing nervously when he caught them at it.

After this strange meal had gone on for some time, Annie consulted the tiny watch pinned to her blouse. “If we are to catch our train to Sunbury,” she said, “we’ve got to leave soon. I want to thank all of you for this wonderful meal. I have spent many, many years sleeping and eating in tents, boardinghouses, and hotels, and I have missed the joy of family life and the comfort of being surrounded by my loved ones.” Her tone was soft and wistful. “You have entertained us royally,” she said, “and while we can’t match your hospitality, we’d like to return the favor as best we can. Will you please excuse Douglas? He will help Swamp with the props.”

Dougie-boy left the room and after a few minutes we followed him into the yard. We found that Swamp had placed an easel halfway down the garden path. On it he had placed a sheet of tin which was nailed to a wooden backing about twenty-four inches square. He and Douglas had opened the steamer trunk and removed and loaded some small-caliber rifles, which they cradled in their arms ready to hand to Annie when needed.

Miss Oakley walked to the edge of the shade and, smiling, turned to face the rather large gathering of neighbors which had quietly formed as the news of her presence spread.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “If I am not too unlucky, I will succeed in drawing you a picture of the typical American Indian chief as I have seen him on our Western reservations. I scare easily, so please don’t make too much noise as I shoot.”

Turning, she placed herself about thirty yards from the easel. She reached out for the guns, and as they were pressed into her hands, speedily pumped round after round into the target. On it, as if by magic, appeared the outline of an Indian chief in a full-feathered headdress.