The stagecoach bounced to a halt and the driver leapt down.
“Wheel’s broken!” he exclaimed.
“Broken?” questioned a lady passenger with a strong Georgian accent. “My word. But those Indians...”
“Are right behind us ma’am,” announced the expressman, loading his shotgun. “We ain’t got much time.”
“Then quit yer yakkin’ and gimmie a hand!” said the driver.
“Oh...oh,” the lady swooned, disappearing into the coach. A man popped open the door from inside. “Now look at what you’ve done. I will contact your employers once we arrive at Dodge City and demand a full refund.”
“You ain’t gonna get a chance mister,” drawled the expressman. “Look!”
In a cloud of dust rode the Indians, surrounding the coach. The expressman aimed, but a savage had crawled atop the seat from behind and scalped him before he could fire--leaving a smear of orange dust on his forehead that came off the Indian’s hand. The driver too was killed before he could draw his pistol. The coach’s passengers disembarked, holding their hands high and begging for their lives, as the Indians bore down on them.
The Indians parted to let the speaker through. Atop a white horse, a young Indian brave approached, holding his hand in the air. “Me am Wild Horse. You captives of mighty war chief Sitting Bull.”
The woman who fainted before swooned again, and the man with her fanned her with his hat. A couple embraced. A priest crossed himself and started to pray.
Wild Horse cleared his throat. The Indians stared at one another. The hugging couple looked around them. The fainting woman sat up. The priest stopped in mid?prayer.
“You captives,” Wild Horse proclaimed louder, “of mighty war chief Sitting Bull.” Again the Indians glanced around. The priest sat down on the doorstep of the coach. The fainting woman stood and brushed herself off. A low murmuring could be heard around them.
“So where is he?” a voice called out. “Where’s Sitting Bull?”
“Probably squattin’ in the woods!” replied another voice and the audience erupted into laughter.
“Goddammit!” cried out Buffalo Bill Cody. “Where the hell is that sot?” he asked Milton, one of the managers of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, go find him.”
Milton scurried off just as the crowd let out a series of catcalls and booing from the stands.
“God almighty,” swore Cody, tapping his heels against the flanks of his horse and driving it out into the arena.
“Look!” pointed one of the theatrical Indians. “It’s Buffalo Bill Cody.”
“Buffalo Bill!“ exclaimed Wild Horse. “Him got strong medicine.”
Cody broke his horse into a trot. The breeze kicked up the fringe on his buckskin coat, stroking his beard and long hair away from his face. “That’s right Wild Horse. And I used my strong medicine to frighten off Sitting Bull. That cowardly savage left you and your warriors to die.”
He drew his pistol and fired in the air. A bugle call sounded and the cavalry arrived, bearing the red, white and blue standard. As the Indians retreated, Sitting Bull rode up, swaying in the saddle, his large headdress covering his eyes. His horse stopped before the stagecoach, and he fell off onto his face.
“Me am Shitting Bull...” he slurred.
The boos and hisses from the audience stabbed Cody sharper than any set of buffalo horns he had ever encountered.
Cody felled “Sitting Bull,” with one punch.
“You’re fired,” Cody said with a grimace, shaking his right hand at the wrist and flexing his fingers. This was the show’s third appearance in as many days, since they set up their arena in the fields just outside of Los Angeles. The first day it rained, making the field muddy and difficult to perform on. The second day the stands caught fire, and now today’s debacle. Each day, fewer people bought tickets while more and more demanded their money back.
“Sitting Bull” lay in the dirt, mumbling something about how Cody couldn’t fire him and how he was owed back wages.
Cody kicked him mercilessly until Milton could drag the old scout away.
“Back wages,” Cody snarled after Milton led him into a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. “Goddamn sonofabitch.”
“Maybe so,” said Milton, helping Cody into a seat, “but you didn’t have to kick the tar out of him.”
“I wasn’t cursin’ him. I was cursin’ Sitting Bull. If that old bastard hadn’t up and got himself killed, I wouldn’t have to hire actors!” He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a flask and took a long drink.
“Will you put that away...”
“Get your hands off me. I’ll do as I please.”
The waiter appeared. Cody ordered a rare steak and a bottle of bootleg bourbon. Milton asked for coffee.
“Bill,” Milton began. “Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Palmer had a meeting after the show.”
“You were in no shape to go to a meeting,” Milton said, eying the flask. “Besides it didn’t really concern you.”
“It’s my show.”
“Was. It was your show.” Milton sighed. “It’s over Bill. It’s been over since Tucson, but...”
“I convinced them to continue with the show.” He crossed his arms on the table. “It’s not your fault, it’s the damn cinemas that are being built everywhere. People just don’t want to see live shows anymore. They’re all fascinated with these moving pictures.”
Cody grunted, “There’s no comparison.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But that’s what we’re losing our audience to. Not just us either. Circus’s, stage shows.” Milton rested his chin on his arm. “And the wild west just isn’t as wild as it used to be, you know?” He sat up. “Hey, how ‘bout we try to make one?”
“A moving picture. I know someone right in town...”
“Forget it.” Cody swallowed, trying hard to work up some saliva. “The show’s all I got.”
Milton put his hand on the old man’s shoulder, and dropped some cash on the table. “This’ll take care of your supper. This is your first time in Hollywood right? Why don’t you tour the town?” He got up just as the waiter was bringing the coffee and the bourbon.
“We won’t be needing that,” Milton told the waiter, then turned to Cody. “Have some coffee. I think you need it more than the bourbon.” He left.
Cody stared at the steaming cup of coffee, and the money Milton left behind. Damn Louisa. Damn her and every cent of mine I sent her to keep her and our children in clothes. His wife had invested all the money Cody sent her--under her own name. He was as penniless as a pauper.
With a sigh, he lifted the coffee to his lips.
“You gonna let some citified dandy tell ya what to do?”
He lowered the cup to its saucer and stared James Butler Hickok in the face. “You gonna get on my ass too?”
Hickok smiled and held up his hands in surrender. “Not me friend. Just never thought I’d see the day when Buffalo Bill got old.”
Cody scowled. “Waiter!” The waiter trotted over. “Take this sludge away and bring me back what I ordered.”
Hickok leaned back. “That’s more like it.”
“What’re you doing here Jimmy?”
“Just visitin’. How long’s it been?”
“Well, let me see now. It’s 1915, you got your head blasted off back in 1876, so I reckon around 35 years.”
“Well Sheeit,” Hickok slapped his knee. “That explains why you look like you dipped your whiskers in a bucket of white paint.”
Cody looked at the waiter as he placed the bourbon bottle in front of him. “Is everything all right sir?”
“It will be if you’d quit yammering at me and pour me some of that rotgut.”
The corners of the waiter’s mouth curled, his cheeks flushed, and he poured the bourbon. Cody took a drink, made a face, then shrugged. “I guess that’ll do.”
The waiter turned to leave, and Cody grabbed his sleeve. “Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
The waiter’s eyes fluttered to the chair where Hickok sat, then back to Cody. “But of course sir. I’ll bring another glass.”
“See that you do.”
Hickok watched the retreating waiter. “That’s much obliged Bill.”
“That’s all right.”
“No really,” Hickok leaned forward. “I was pretty full of myself when we was actin’ back in New York, remember?”
“How could I forget?”
“You were always good to me Bill. I ain’t never forgot that.”
The waiter returned with a glass, looked skeptically at Cody, then placed it in front of Hickok. He poured the bourbon.
“Will there be anything else Mr. Cody?”
The waiter nodded and left, peeking back over his shoulder as he disappeared into the kitchen.
Hickok grinned. “That boy thinks you’re crazy.”
“I couldn’t care less what he thinks.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Hickok licked his lips. “Course you care what he thinks. You care what everybody thinks. That’s what got you in this mess in the first place.”
Cody turned to the window. People stood there gaping and pointing at him. He lifted his glass to them in a salute, and a couple of them waved back before they all sauntered away.
“I envy you,” said Hickok. “You lived to see the love from these folks.”
“And I envy you. You died a hero.”
“Oh that’s bullshit, and you know it. Some two?bit piece of shit snuck up behind me and sent me to meet my maker. Ain’t nothin’ heroic in that.”
“But you died a legend.”
“And you get to make the legend. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. You tell them what happened to us and they believe it.”
“Not anymore,” Cody drained his glass and poured himself another. “They were laughing at us today. We’ve become a joke.”
Hickok nodded. “I noticed. Who came up with all that dumb ass ‘me am injun’ talk?”
“The new owners.”
“Mr. Cody?” It was the waiter, bearing his supper.
“Just set it down.”
“Yes sir.” The waiter did as he was told and made a hasty retreat.
Cody picked up his knife and fork and cut into his steak. He offered some to Hickok.
But Hickok had left. And he hadn’t touched his bourbon.
After supper, Cody went for a walk. The Hollywood section of Los Angeles depressed him as did all cities. Too many grays, not enough greens and browns. At least it wasn’t as congested as New York.
“Hey there cowboy, why so glum?”
Cody turned his head to the bowler-hatted gentleman standing in front of a theater. “I bet I got something that would cheer you up.”
“I’m not buying.”
“Don’t be so hasty friend,” the man took Cody by the elbow and guided him toward the entrance. “There’s something in this theater that I guarantee will put a smile on your face. And if not, I’ll personally refund your money.”
Cody eyed the salesman. “And how much will this show cost me?”
“Only a nickel. That’s only five cents. Come on now, isn’t five cents worth dampening that dark mood of yours?”
“Mister,” Cody straightened his back. “You presume much.”
The salesman took two steps back, “I meant no offense sir. I am only trying to help a fellow man the best way I know how.” Cody slumped, dug into his pocket and forked over a nickel.
“My friend, you’ve made a wise investment,” the salesman handed him a ticket. “Just through these doors, and someone will help you find a seat. The show starts in ten minutes.”
“Just what the hell kind of theatrical you got going here anyway?”
“Why, moving pictures of course.”
“Of course,” Cody scowled and entered the theater. Moving pictures indeed. Although he told Milton it couldn’t compare to a live show, he had never seen a moving picture before. His show was never in an area where a cinema was located, despite the fact that more and more had been constructed over the past 15 years or so. Nonetheless, Cody just didn’t have time to visit one. He was too busy running his show, preserving American History.
A man in a red jacket and black bowtie nodded to Cody, took his ticket and guided him into the theater, which was close to being filled. He was led to an empty seat in the middle row. Above the stage hung a white square which Cody knew to be a screen. Beneath that and to the left was a player piano. Before long, people were seated to either side of him and chatting away. Cody tried his best to smile politely when the young woman on his left greeted him, but he felt his lips tremble under the effort. He reached into his pocket and felt around for his flask.
Then the salesman who had lured Cody into the theater appeared. He bowed to the applauding audience. Cody stopped fidgeting and clapped along.
The salesman sat at the piano, ran his hand along the keys, and played a bouncy rendition of “Camptown Races.”
The screen before the audience erupted in a burst of white light, and Cody shielded his eyes with a gasp. Then the screen went black and three fluttering words appeared:
THE SADDLE TRAMP
Cody leaned forward and squinted as more words appeared.
Charlie Chaplin......The Saddle Tramp
Edna Purviance......The Schoolmarm
Eric Campbell........The Outlaw
Henry Bergman......The Sheriff
The screen went black again. A small white circle appeared in the middle of it, then expanded, revealing the busy main street of a frontier town. The next scene showed a small wooden building.
Inside, a young woman wrote the alphabet on a blackboard before a group of enthusiastic students, bouncing in their seats with their hands raised.
While the woman taught, the sheriff appeared and beckoned her to meet him outside. There, he gave her some flowers. She smiled at him and returned to her class.
Cody stifled a yawn.
A stagecoach appeared pulling up before the town bank. A portly man in a top hat came out of the bank to greet the driver. Together they pulled a trunk from the rear boot of the coach and brought it inside.
They placed the trunk on the floor. The bank man produced a key, inserted it into the lock and opened it.
A small man lay within, curled up like a sleeping baby.
The audience laughed, though Cody couldn’t see what was so funny.
The bank man and coach driver started arguing. The man in the trunk opened his eyes, stretched his arms above him, and scratched his chest. He stood up and stepped out of the trunk, brushing himself off. He was dark haired, wide?eyed, and had a small paintbrush mustache beneath his nose. His frock coat, tied at his waist, was so tight it was fit to burst its button free, and his pants sagged below his waist. A small necktie dangled just slightly under his neck but above his chest. He stood heel to heel, his toes pointing to the right and left of him in oversized cowboy boots. He reached into the trunk and withdrew a cowboy hat and cane. The hat didn’t cover his head, just sat on top. Cody thought he personified a downtrodden gentleman gambler.
THE SADDLE TRAMP
The audience applauded, startling Cody out of his dumbfounded gaze at the strange little fellow.
The Saddle Tramp got into all sorts of mischief. Cheating at cards got him tossed out of the saloon into a water trough. He mistook a horse's nose nudging his neck for the schoolmarm's caresses. He put on the sheriff’s coat and badge by mistake. Outlaws shot at his heels to make him dance. The outlaw’s giant leader stuffed him into a beer barrel. He fought three bandits with wide roundabout swings and acrobatic kicks. He rescued the schoolmarm from the outlaw leader and faced him in a showdown. The Saddle Tramp drew his pistol. It flipped in the air, hit the ground, and fired, hitting the outlaw leader in the belt buckle, which caused his holster to fall around his ankles. As the Saddle Tramp attempted to retrieve the revolver, his boots kept kicking it out of his reach, and each time he kicked it, it fired again, striking the outlaw leader in the ass. The town made him sheriff, but he didn’t get the schoolmarm.
Throughout this bizarre spectacle, the audience around Cody guffawed and carried on like a bunch of coyotes strung out on locoweed. Before “The End” faded from the screen, he was on his feet and out the door.
He hailed a cab and went back to his hotel, but not before picking up a bottle of whiskey on the way. In his room, he tore off his clothes, and flung them on the floor, grateful to be rid of the buckskin outfit, and the glory it once represented. He drank directly out of the bottle and collapsed in the chair beside his bed.
Cody opened his eyes. Hickok was seated on the edge of his bed, leaning on his knees with his forearms.
“Now I know you don’t mean that,” Hickok shook his head. “You’re just upset right now, and I can't say that I blame you.”
“You saw it?”
“Course I saw it. Was damn embarrassing too.”
Cody shifted in his chair. “They were laughing Jimmy. Just like this afternoon.”
“Ain’t got no respect.”
“For the people who built this great country.”
“Yes. Godammit yes.”
“So what are you gonna do bout it Bill?”
Cody blinked. “What...what do you mean?”
Hickok fell back onto the bed on his elbows. “Don’t make me spell it out for you.” He made a face. “I think you’ve been hitting that stuff a wee bit too hard.” Cody looked at the bottle in his hand, felt his face flush, and put it on the carpet.
“That’s better,” smiled Hickok. “Are you gonna let some saddle tramp insult everything we fought and died for?” Cody shrugged, buried his hands in his face and started to cry. “I can’t resurrect the show anymore. I don’t even own it.”
“Damn it Bill, quit cryin’,” Hickok stood up and started to pace. “You’re carrying on like a goddamn woman.”
He wiped his eyes, and looked up at his old friend. “I’m an old man Jimmy. I don’t have any sand left.”
“Oh bullshit. You punched out that piss poor actor earlier today...”
“I almost broke my hand.”
“Shut up,“ Hickok grabbed the armrests of the chair and peered at Cody with bloodshot eyes that trembled in their sockets, and frightened him down to the core of his soul. “This is a matter of honor.”
Cody’s own eyes widened. “Are you suggestin’ what I think...”
“You’re the only one left who believes in everythin we done.“ Hickok stood up. “Prove it.”
Cody nodded, wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve, and picked up the phone beside the bed. Milton picked up on the fourth ring. “Jesus Bill. You know what time it is?”
“Shut your trap, son and listen. That Hollywood friend of yours?”
“There’s someone I wanna meet, and I wanna know if he can arrange it.”
“Depends who it is.”
Cody smiled at Hickok.
Hickok smiled back.
The Arcade Theater. Giant spotlights flooded the sky with illumination, crisscrossing through the night like clashing swords. A top hat, black tie, and tails crowd of men, accompanied by evening gown clad women, stood on both sides of the theater entrance. Spelled out on the marquee were three names: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin.
The black limousine rolled up to the red carpeted sidewalk like a giant whale and regurgitated the three movie stars onto it. Magnesium powder ignited and lit up their faces as they made their way to the entrance, waving, and shaking hands with their many admirers.
Cody watched from the back of his horse trailer one block over. Milton’s friend didn’t know Chaplin personally, but did mention that the comedian would appear at this grand premiere of his latest film. He pushed open the trailer doors, and spurred his horse into a full gallop. Holding the reins in his teeth, Cody held out two revolvers, growling around the leather in his mouth, “Chaplin!”
The crowd saw Cody riding their way. They fled before his horse. Fairbanks grabbed Pickford and hustled her into the theater. Chaplin stood his ground, and his puzzled expression soon broke out into the huge white-toothed smile, that he displayed so often on screen.
“Look out! He’s armed!” cried out a policeman, grabbing Chaplin by the arm. Cody fired, alternating the right and left pistols. He saw Chaplin go down with the cop on top of him. Then something struck his chest. The reins fell from his mouth as he spun in the saddle. Two policemen had their pistols out, and were pulling the triggers.
Cody couldn’t hear the shots. Nor could he feel their impact. He watched his revolvers fall from his hands one at a time, and noticed the red stains that were spreading on the front of his buckskin jacket. He landed on the sidewalk face up. The two cops were thrusting their pistols in his face and the crowd had surrounded him, gawking at the dying old man.
Standing among them was Wild Bill Hickok, gazing with the rest of them. He met Cody’s eyes, shook his head, and walked away.
Cody tried to call his name, instead sputtered blood. Then all went black.
Special to the New York Times, December 25, 1977
THE SADDLE TRAMP RIDES INTO HIS FINAL SUNSET
Charlie Chaplin Dies at age 88
December 25 - Taos, New Mexico. Charlie Chaplin, better known to his Indian neighbors as Bright White Star, and better known to the rest of the world as the Saddle Tramp, died in his sleep. He was 88.
As the Saddle Tramp, Chaplin appeared in over 100 films, from the early days of silent film with Mack Sennett and the Keystone Kowboys to writing, producing, and directing his own films for United Artists studios.
Chaplin was born in 1889 in London, England. His father abandoned Chaplin’s mother and her three children when Chaplin was only five. At 17, he emigrated to the United States, finding a home in Dallas, Texas. He worked a series of odd jobs for various ranchers, picking up such skills as rodeo acrobatics. In 1910, Chaplin went to Hollywood where he befriended silent film cowboy star G. M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, and appeared in over a dozen of his films as his sidekick. Eventually, Chaplin would thrive as a member of the Keystone Kowboys, before establishing himself in his signature role as the Saddle Tramp.
But it was an event in 1915, which forever changed the young movie star’s outlook on his career. Buffalo Bill Cody, famous frontiersman and scout, attempted to kill Chaplin during the premiere of his film Rodeo Race, and two other films featuring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford at The Arcade Theater in Hollywood. Chaplin and his famous friends escaped unscathed. But several bystanders were wounded. Quick acting police officers opened fire on Cody and killed him.
Surprisingly, Chaplin paid for Cody’s funeral. “It was the least I could do,” he said later in his 1964 autobiography, “for the man who changed my life.”
Why Cody set out to elaborately kill Chaplin--riding a horse down the street with revolvers blazing--remains a mystery. One that Chaplin himself strove to discover.
“I spoke to members of his Wild West Show,” his autobiography tells us, “and they told me how the owners shut his show down. It must have been very difficult for him to face. A man of that caliber suddenly reduced to an aging showman.”
Chaplin went on to read Cody’s autobiography “The Life of Buffalo Bill,” and became even more fascinated with America’s Old West. “Bill employed real Indians for his show,” said Chaplin. “Something Hollywood wasn’t doing at the time.”
The Saddle Tramp changed all that. He ceased making strictly slapstick short comedies and turned his attention to the larger issues of the Old West--the plight of the American Indian. His first film under this new formula was The Papoose (1921). In it, the Saddle Tramp adopts an Indian child, whose family was murdered by the American Cavalry. Desert Nights (1931) is considered by several film historians to be Chaplin’s masterpiece, a “Romeo & Juliet” story of the Saddle Tramp’s love for an Indian woman. The Great White Father (1940) received the most attention of all his works as it was the first time Chaplin ever spoke on film, and the last appearance of the Saddle Tramp character. In addition to his famous alter ego, Chaplin also portrayed The Great White Father--a U.S. President whose policies regarding the American Indian resulted in a near genocide of America’s original natives. At the height of World War II, when it was released, the title character’s hatred towards the Indian was compared to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.
In addition to his film career, Chaplin was also politically active. His films and lobbying efforts shamed the country into passing the American Indian Land Act of 1927, which turned control of the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado over to the American Indians. The four states became known as the League of Indian Nations, and although still part of the United States, it is governed by the ruling tribes of Apache, Cherokee, and Sioux, as well as dozens of other surviving tribes once scattered throughout the country.
Chaplin became a resident of Taos in 1952 after he married Singing Hawk, a Pawnee who was an extra on the set of several of his films. It was there that he established Bright Star Studios (called so for his Indian name, but without the “White” at Chaplin’s insistence.) The studio was nicknamed Indian Hollywood by industry insiders, as it became a haven for American Indian actors and filmmakers. Chaplin himself refused offers to make his pictures there, stating that the studio was created to realize the visions of Indians. Bright Star Studios triumphed in 1972 when Chief Dan George won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Geronimo’s Laughter. Chaplin received an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award that same year.
After The Great White Father, Chaplin semi-retired from filmmaking, but was coaxed by several directors into playing small roles in such westerns as Hombre, How the West Was Won, and The Wild Bunch. He had even received a script with an offer to play Buffalo Bill Cody.
“That was something I couldn’t do,” Chaplin remarked in a 1970 interview. “The King of the Comic Cowboys playing the legendary Bill Cody? That would’ve added insult to injury.”
Chaplin is survived by his wife, five children, and 17 grandchildren.
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