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By Brian Garfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
Denver Shooting Match
THEY HAVE ASKED ME to set it all down for a book and I am pleased they still want to know about the old things. I mean to set down an account of it as straight as I can but you have to keep in mind that I used to have something of a reputation as a liar.
When they asked me to write this book they wanted mainly to know about the Wild West Shows before we are all dead who dreamed them and created them. My life has been more than Wild West Shows—I am sure most people who still recognize my name in 1922 already know that—and as long as I have the opportunity to set the record straight in these pages I would like to refute some of the nonsense about me that has appeared in lurid fictions.
I am not so different from anyone else, but when the truth is mixed with lies to become legend it becomes difficult for anyone later to go back and sort out the realities. I am glad to have this chance to put to rest both the dime-novel fictions and the catcalls of detractors. I have an opportunity and an obligation to try and restore balance to a story that has been tipped way out over the precipice of plausibility, and that is what I shall do.
Not too long ago when I made my last public appearance in Denver I overheard a young sporting man say to his lady friend, "The trouble with Colonel Cardiff there, he actually believes he's Colonel Cardiff."
Yes and no. I know who I am. I am Hugh Michael Cardiff. But I am not necessarily the fellow from those dime novels.
My life in public began when I was grown to nineteen years old and went up against Doc Bogardus in Denver. Everything that has happened to me since then started from there, so I believe that is the place for me to start this story.
* * *
I was over in Ouray that spring. There was still a bit of snow and we spent most of our time indoors taking our meals and drink in Dick Maurice's place which has become a landmark nowadays in all the memoirs. Actually it was a primitive place with a pinewood bar and a few mirrors and handmade furniture. The ornate construction came later after the place burned down in '71 and Maurice rebuilt it like an Italian palace.
An artist drunk to his hair roots was on his knees painting a woman's face on the floor in imitation of the one we'd all seen up in Central City. The roped-off floor was surrounded by a crowd of us watching the painting take shape and egging the poor fellow on.
"You got the eye too close to the nose there, bucko."
"What's the matter with her mouth?"
"Let's see a little more of them teats there. You ain't got no call to be bashful about it."
"That's the strangest-looking nose I ever seen."
"How come she got red eyes there?"
"Because she's advertising, you fool, this place sells red-eye, don't it?"
Then a boy about twelve came in with a roll of posters under his arm and I saw him bend Maurice's ear at the bar. Dick Maurice shrugged and nodded, after which I saw the boy go over and nail one of the posters up on the wall. The boy left and we all walked over to read it. The poster drew my interest because it was topped by an illustration of a Springfield rifle. Over behind me some of the miners didn't have any interest in it at all; I remember hearing a loud disputation about the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson.
I still have a copy of that poster. Somebody gave it to me years later and I kept it.
A CHALLENGE TO MARKSMEN
From the World-Famous Rifle Champion
DR. Geo. P. BOGARDUS
Through courtesy of the Denver Gazette, and at Great Expense, Dr. Bogardus will appear for one day only at W. F. Skinner's farm, Denver, Colo., ready to accept challenge from ANY SHOOTER IN THE TERR. Targets to be glass balls, to be thrown into the air at 25 yards rise. Challengers' choice of muzzle-load rifle, metal cartridge rifle, pistol, revolver or musket; shotguns not permitted. Sporting bettors invited. Purse, provided by the Gazette, to be
$1000 ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS $1000!
Winner to be decided as best-of-100 shots. All Challengers Eligible. Competition to take place 2:00 P.M., Saturday 25th April 1868, W. F. Skinner's farm, Denver, Colo. Terr.
I'd been working a timber shift with a Ute Indian boy called Bear and he had his nose pushed to the window trying to see the poster; they didn't allow Indians in saloons. Still don't today.
He asked me what the poster said.
"They've brought this Dr. Bogardus down to Denver. Shooting contest. A thousand dollars to the winner."
"And you got a gleam in your eye." Bear went around to the door and I met him there. He said, "Who's this Dr. Bogardus?"
"Claims to be a world-famous rifle champion."
"You ever heard of him?"
"No. Some kind of Easterner, I guess."
He looked at me. Bear was all right, a big lump, always happy about something or other. He said, "Well I guess I'll have to find me another wood-chopping partner," and he went away down the street. He let his call sing out back toward me over his shoulder: "Good luck in that shootin' contest, Hugh."
I was going by the name of Hugh Smith in those days because I wasn't sure if they still had a warrant out on me in Kentucky.
In the morning I caught a lift over the mountains on a bullion wagon, twenty-six-mule team; they were happy enough to have me because they knew my reputation with a long gun and the hills had some road agents in them. We didn't encounter any trouble though.
Denver in that spring of 1868 was raw and crowded and maybe a bit pretentious. It's grown up a good deal now but even then it was big. There were buildings the likes of which I hadn't seen since I was a boy and my father took me over to Vicksburg. Tall buildings, three stories; horse trolleys in the streets; weather lamps on poles at the street corners; two-pump fire engines drawn by eight white horses; a big insulated icehouse; more people than I guess I'd seen at any one time in my life up to then. I remember particularly that there was an amplitude of women, all shapes and sizes. That was Friday and the schoolbells rang, after which the streets flooded with children.
It was a long-ago time and there were things it takes an old man to remember. I recall there must have been two dozen mountain men in their strange wild getups wandering around the city gawking. They still existed then. Beaver pelts were still currency and those old mountain men hung on to their lives, stubborn but they had a right to be. Once a year after the spring thaw they'd come down out of those Wyoming mountains to Denver which was the nearest city and they'd see the elephant and tie one on. Then they'd head back to the Tetons to set their traplines again. They were gamy and most of them didn't speak much English; mostly they were French. Some of them had been in the Rockies pretty near fifty years. I'd known old Grandfather Tyree down in Arizona so I felt at home with the mountain men but some of the citizens of Denver tended to cross the street when they saw one coming. Most likely it was to avoid the smell.
I found a room in a boardinghouse and spent the evening exploring the wickedness of the fandango district but I had a degree of prudence even in those youthful days and I knew better than to get myself drunk the night before a shooting match. I didn't touch a drop that night and I would like to emphasize that fact because there have been some accounts of the shooting match written by people with faulty memories who have tried to make out either that Bogardus was hung-over or that I was. A true shooter knows better. I know I had nothing to drink and I know that Bogardus' eyes were clear.
The noise in the fandango district was considerable. They didn't have the gas lamps yet but there was a profusion of whale lamps and a lot of light came blazing from the saloons and gambling parlors and bawdy houses. Piano and fiddle music, a lot of it, mingling in the street into a calliope cacophony, and barkers in red cutaways and beaver hats outside the establishments hawking the delights to be found within. The walls sported posters advertising the talents of singers and dancers. Every window had a copy of the Bogardus shooting-contest poster.
I went inside one saloon to see what it was like and when I passed through the doorway I was struck in the face by the noise and smell. There was a small platform stage with a three-piece band stomping earnestly and a big-chested girl kicking her leg forward in the San Francisco cancan style. She had a good loud singing voice, off-key but piercing. Smoke hung under the low ceiling, a fog of it, redolent of stale whisky and strong sweat. Men didn't bathe much then.
There were some keno and faro tables and I guess maybe a poker game or two. The faro barkers were yelling out bets over the crowd. I felt hemmed in; I withdrew after a moment and went out. I went on down to the Platte Club and tried my luck against a chuck wheel but I lost four bits on the first roll and discovered I had no interest in it; I was too keyed up by the prospect of the shooting match.
I made my way into quieter streets and walked a long time until I began to get cold. I was thoroughly lost by then and had to ask directions. A tough watched me cross one intersection; he was thinking about rolling me for my poke, I suppose, but he had a look at my worn clothes and the size of me and he thought better of it. I hadn't filled out all the way at nineteen but I was big enough to make that sort think twice.
I had a mind to read a chapter or two of the new Charles Dickens that I had found in the sundry shop but the morrow's match lay heavy on me and I slid the old Hawken rifle out of my scabbard and examined it fretfully.
There has been a lot of tomfoolery and inaccuracy in some accounts of that match as to what kind of rifle I actually used. That Hawken rifle had been my companion for nearly as long as I could remember. Long use had put a silver shine on it. The wooden buttstock was disreputably scarred and pitted. I always kept it clean and thoroughly oiled and I'd replaced the cap lock several times over the years but the fine Kentucky steel barrel had a long way to go yet before it wore out. It was a workman's rifle, that's the point I want to emphasize. They have made a legend out of those days now, of course. They arm us all with silver-plated gem-studded rifles that might look fine in a jeweler's window but would get a man laughed off the plains. If my rifle was shiny it was only the shine you get on the seat of pants you've worn too long. I had to black the sights with charcoal to get rid of the glare. It was simply a St. Louis-sold .46 that my father had bought from the Hawken Brothers direct by mail in the year 1856 and it was their standard manufacture but I will say that was of a very high standard. They were made one at a time on hand forges and lathes and the brothers did not sell any second-rate work. The best rifle of its time was the Kentucky long rifle; and the best Kentucky long rifle was the Hawken. Mine was twelve years old and it had seen a lot of lead through the bore and it had been rained on and mud-crusted and scratched and polished bare by riding in saddle scabbards but I'd never bent it or used it for a pry bar. And that's probably enough about that.
I took it apart that night as Kevin Tyree would have done, down to the last minuscule piece, and cleaned everything with exact care. I set up the scales and weighed out my powder charges in precise grains and sealed them up in paper. I sorted through the conical lead bullets—I was still using the mold Kevin had designed for me—and pouched them in my chamois pouch. Put out a tin of percussion caps, tore off enough cloth wadding for patches, gathered my oil tin and chamois and charcoal-pitch and set everything neatly on the commode by the bedroom door.
The Hawken had supported me most of the past three years. It got me a job as a contract game-meat hunter for the army post down by Mesilla and that was where I'd developed the game of shooting for pennies: a penny a shot against anybody who cared to shoot against me. Any old target. I amassed a lot of socks full of pennies before my reputation betrayed me and it got to the point where nobody was willing to shoot against me. When the army's meat contract ran out in 1866 I'd moved on north to Santa Fe and worked all summer for a cattle outfit there, a Spanish outfit, until the wanderlust infected me again. With Libby on my mind I'd ridden south again; the only way I felt I could shake her image was to keep tracking new ground. I wintered in and around Fort Griffin, Texas, living off my rifle—hunting game and selling it in the town and shooting against local marksmen for anything up to four bits a shot. I still had John Tyree's horse and saddle; that first year I'd accumulated a traveling kit and learned how to carry everything I needed without weighing down the horse.
In the summer of 1867 I'd gone to work for a long-bean cowman who was rounding up loose stock in the chaparral breaks of the Big Bend country—another summer pushing cattle; and I guess learning all the time. I kept my books about me, of course, always reading when I had the chance and getting ribbed for it.
I moved north at the end of that season, working my way slow, on the drift—at that time it wasn't a dishonorable calling, you were welcome if you worked off your keep where you stayed. There was always a little outfit at the end of the day's ride, man and wife and little kids, where they were glad to swap you a meal and a roof for your muscle and a few hours' work. I was eighteen years old and a boy that age hasn't much use for a great deal of money. I made my way. Sometimes it was a near thing but I always had my ingenuity and my rifle. Hunger isn't a threat to a man who can handle his rifle. I expect I have eaten more fresh-killed venison meat than most white men in the world.
I spent a good part of that winter honing my shooting skills. I'd set myself the task of teaching myself to shoot from the back of a running horse because I'd seen some Comanches do it down in the Panhandle and it struck me as a useful ability to develop. It took me half that winter to train the horse not to be gun-shy—you let somebody shoot off a rifle next to your ear and see how you like it—and the other half to train myself. This one was a new mount; I'd played out the Tyree sorrel in the Big Bend. I'd spent more money than I could afford on the new animal because I had to have a knee-trained mount; I bought it after a great deal of dickering with the vaquero who'd trained it. It was a two-year-old blue roan when I got it, trained as a cutting horse, sharp as a Bowie blade. That horse could swap ends like a bird.
In February I'd started north out of the Rio Chama country—following the buffalo, hunting from the back of the horse. It was a hazard because wherever the herds went the Indians went as well and even if there hadn't been any Comanche warfare the past season or two I didn't want to chance a run-in. I sold some buffalo meat to the towns on the trail but when the Comanche moved in too close I left the herd and rode on over into Colorado. Following my nose into the Rocky Mountains because I'd never seen them before. I didn't remember well enough all the things Grandfather Tyree had taught me about the mountains and I paid for that when the blue roan poked a foot into some wild man's bear trap. Snapped the leg clean and I had to do away with the horse and then I was afoot. Arrived broke in Cripple Creek a week ago with nothing on my mind but Libby.
* * *
They have drawn some pretty absurd pictures of us in the sensational fictions. I will tell you as best I can what I looked like as a young man. Later of course there were photographers and you have seen those tintypes and rotogravures but they always dressed us up for those.
In my late teens I was so big it sometimes was an embarrassment because I felt the description of the bull in the china shop had been invented with me in mind. I have never been fat but I had my father's wide Welsh shoulders and chest. I never thought much of the color of my hair; I suppose you'd call it sandy—it was too dark to be blond and too light to be brown. That was before it turned white on me.
By the time I got to Denver I'd grown a long mustache to make myself look older. It drooped down over the corners of my mouth and I used to wax the points after the fashion of the day. The wax tended to darken it and that is why the newspapers and dime novels later referred to my hair and mustache as "tawny."
Excerpted from Wild Times by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1978 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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