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ARCHIVES (1877 -1887)

THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES
OF BUFFALO BILL

 

CHAPTER XX
AN ACTOR
During the summer and fall of 1872, I received numerous letters from Ned Buntline, urging me to come East and go upon the stage to represent my own character. "There's money in it," he wrote, " and you will prove a big card, as your character is a novelty on the stage."

At times I almost determined to make the venture; but the recollection of that night when I stood on the stage of the Bowery Theater and was unable to utter a word above a whisper, would cause me to stop and think and become irresolute. I feared that I would be a total failure, and wrote Buntline to that effect. But he insisted that I would soon get over all that embarrassment, and become accustomed to the stage, so that I would think no more of appearing before five thousand people than I would before half a dozen. He proposed to organize a good company, and wished me to meet him in Chicago, where the opening performance would be given.

I remained undecided as to what I ought to do. The officers at the fort, as well as my family and friends to whom I had mentioned the matter, laughed at the idea of my ever becoming an actor. That I, an old scout who had never seen more than twenty or thirty theatrical performances in my life, should think of going upon the stage, was ridiculous in the extreme &emdash;so they all said.

A few days after my election to the Legislature a happy event occurred in my family circle, in the birth of a daughter whom we named Ora; about the same time I received another letter from Buntline, in which he requested me to appear on the stage for a few months as an experiment; and he said that if I made a failure or did not like the business, I could easily return to my old life.

My two sisters who had been living with us had married &emdash;Nellie, to A. C. Jester, a cattle man, and May, to Ed. Bradford, a railroad engineer &emdash;and consequently left us; and my wife had been wishing for a long time to visit her parents in St. Louis. Taking these and other things into consideration I finally resolved to resign my seat in the Legislature and try my luck behind the foot-lights. I informed General Reynolds of my determination, telling him at the same time that at the end of the month, November, I would resign my position under him. The General regretted to hear this, and advised me not to take the step, for I was leaving a comfortable little home, where I was sure of making a good living for my family; while, on the other hand, I was embarking upon a sea of uncertainty. Having once made up my mind, however, nothing could change it.

 

ARRANGING THE PRELIMINARIES
While I was selling my horses and other effects, preparatory to leaving the fort, one of my brother scouts, Texas Jack, said he would like to accompany me. Now as Jack had also appeared as the hero in one of Ned Buntline's stories, I thought that he would make as good a "star" as myself, and it was accordingly arranged that Jack should go with me. On our way east we stopped in Omaha a day or two to visit General Augur and other officers, and also the gentlemen who were out on the Judge Dundy Hunt. Judge Dundy and his friends gave a dinner party in my honor at the leading restaurant and entertained me very handsomely during my stay in the city.

At Omaha I parted with my family, who went to St. Louis, while Jack and myself proceeded to Chicago. Ned Buntline and Mr. Milligan, having been apprised of our coming by a telegram, met us at the depot. Mr. Milligan accompanied us to the Sherman house, where he had made arrangements for us to be his guests while we remained in the city. I didn't see much of Buntline that evening, as he hurried off to deliver a temperance lecture in one of the public halls. The next day we met him by appointment, and the first thing he said, was:&emdash;

"Boys, are you ready for business?"

"I can't answer that," replied I, "for we don't know what we are going to do."

"It's all arranged," said he, "and you'll have no trouble whatever. Come with me. We'll go and see Nixon, manager of the Amphitheater. That's the place where we are to play. We'll open there next Monday night." Jack and myself accordingly accompanied him to Manager Nixon's office without saying a word, as we didn't know what to say.

"Here we are, Mr. Nixon," said Buntline; "here are the stars for you. Here are the boys; and they are a fine pair to draw to. Now, Nixon, I am prepared for business."

Nixon and Buntline had evidently had a talk about the terms of our engagement. Buntline, it seems, was to furnish the company, the drama, and the pictorial printing, and was to receive sixty per cent of the gross receipts for his share; while Nixon was to furnish the theater, the attaches, the orchestra, and the local printing, and receive forty per cent of the gross receipts.

 

NOW, HERE'S A HOW D'DO
"I am ready for you, Buntline. Have you got your company yet?" asked Nixon.

"No, sir; but there are plenty of idle theatrical people in town, and I can raise a company in two hours," was his reply.

"You haven't much time to spare, if you open on Monday night," said Nixon. "If you will allow me to look at your dramas to see what kind of people you want, I'll assist you in organising your company."

"I have not yet written the drama," said Buntline.

"What the deuce do you mean? This is Wednesday, and you propose to open on next Monday night. The idea is ridiculous. Here you are at this late hour without a company and without a drama. This will never do, Buntline. I shall have to break my contract with you, for you can't possibly write a drama, cast it, and rehearse it properly for Monday night. Furthermore, you have no pictorial printing as yet. These two gentlemen, whom you have with you, have never been on the stage, and they certainly must have time to study their parts. It is preposterous to think of opening on Monday night, and I'll cancel the engagement."

This little speech was delivered in rather an excited manner by Mr. Nixon. Buntline said that he would write the drama that day and also select his company and have them at the theater for rehearsal next morning. Nixon laughed at him, and said there was no use of trying to undertake anything of the kind in so short a time &emdash;it was utterly impossible to do it. Buntline, whose ire was rising, said to Nixon: "What rent will you ask for your theater for next week?"

"Six hundred dollars," was the reply.

"Well, sir, I'll take your theater for next week at that price, and here is half the amount in advance," said Buntline, as he threw down three hundred dollars on the stand. Nixon took the money, gave a receipt for it, and had nothing more to say.

"Now, come with me boys," said Buntline, and away we went to the hotel. Buntline immediately obtained a supply of pens, ink and paper, and then engaged all the hotel clerks as penmen. In less than an hour after he had rented the theater, he was dashing off page after page of his proposed drama &emdash;the work being done in his room at the hotel. He then set his clerks at copying for him, and at the end of four hours he jumped up from the table, and enthusiastically shouted; "Hurrah for 'The Scouts of the Plains!' That's the name of the play. The work is done. Hurrah!"

The parts were then copied off separately by the clerks, and handing us our respective portions Buntline said: "Now, boys, go to work, and do your level best to have this dead-letter perfect for the rehearsal, which takes place tomorrow morning at ten o' clock, prompt. I want to show Nixon that we'll be ready on time."

I looked at my part and then at Jack; and Jack looked at his part and then at me. Then we looked at each other, and then at Buntline. We did not know what to make of the man.

"How long will it take to commit your part to memory, Bill?" asked Jack.

"About six months, as near as I can calculate. How long will it take you? " answered I.

"It will take me about that length of time to learn the first line," said Jack. Nevertheless we went to our room and commenced studying. I thought it was the hardest work I had ever done.

"This is dry business," finally remarked Jack.

"That's just what it is," I answered; "jerk the bell, Jack." The bell-boy soon appeared. We ordered refreshments; after partaking thereof we resumed our task. We studied hard for an hour or two, but finally gave it up as a bad job, although we had succeeded in committing a small portion to memory. Buntline now came into the room and said: "Boys, how are you getting along?"

"I guess we'll have to go back on this studying business as it isn't our forte," said I.

"Don't weaken nows Bill; you'll come out on the top of the heap yet. Let me hear you recite your part," said Buntline. I began "spouting" what I had learned, but was interrupted by Buntline: "Tut! tut! you're not saying it right. You must stop at the cue."

"Cue! What the mischief do you mean by the cue ? I never saw any cue except in a billiard room," said I. Buntline thereupon explained it to me, as well as to Jack, who was ignorant as myself concerning the "cue" business.

"Jack, I think we had better back out and go to hunting again," said I.

 

THE TIDE TAKEN AT THE FLOOD.
"See here, boys; it won't do to go back on me at this stage of the game. Stick to it, and it may be the turning point in your lives and lead you on to fortune and to fame."

"A fortune is what we are after, and we'll at least give the wheel a turn or two to see what luck we have," said I. This satisfied Buntline, but we didn't study any more after he left us. The next morning we appeared at rehearsal and was introduced to the company. The first rehearsal was hardly a success; and the succeeding ones were not much better. The stage manager did his best to teach Jack and myself what to do, but when Monday night come we didn't know much more about it than when we began.

The clock struck seven, and then we put on our buckskin suits, which were the costumes we were to appear in. The theater was being rapidly filled, and it was evident that we were going to make our debut before a packed house. As the minutes passed by, Jack and I became more and more nervous. We occasionally looked through the holes in the curtain, and saw that the people were continuing to crowd into the theatre; our nervousness increased to an uncomfortable degree.

When at length the curtain arose, our courage had returned, so that we thought we could face the immense crowd; yet when the time came for us to go on, we were rather slow in making our appearance. As we stepped forth we were received with a storm of applause, which we acknowledged with a bow.

Buntline, who was taking the part of "Cale Durg," appeared, and gave me the "cue" to speak "my little piece," but for the life of me I could not remember a single word. Buntline saw I was "stuck," and a happy thought occurred to him. He said, as if it were in the play:

 

A LITTLE FUNNY BUSINESS
"Where have you been, Bill? What has kept you so long?"

Just then my eye happened to fall on Mr. Milligan, who was surrounded by his friends, the newspaper reporters, and several military officers, all of whom had heard of his hunt and "Indian fight" &emdash;he being a very popular man, and widely known in Chicago. So I said:&emdash;

"I have been out on a hunt with Milligan."

This proved to be a big hit. The audience cheered and applauded, which gave me greater confidence in my ability to get through the performance all right. Buntline, who was a very versatile man, saw that it would be a good plan to follow this up and said: "Well, Bill, tell us all about the hunt." I thereupon proceeded to relate in detail the particulars of the affair. I succeeded in making it rather funny, and I was frequently interrupted by rounds of applause. Whenever I began to "weaken," Buntline would give me a fresh start, by asking some question. In this way I took up fifteen minutes, without once speaking a word of my part; nor did I speak a word of it during the whole evening. The prompter, who was standing between the wings, attempted to prompt me, but it did no good; for while I was on the stage I "chipped in" anything I thought of.

The "Scouts of the Plains" was an Indian drama, of course; and there were between forty and fifty "supers" dressed as Indians. In the fight with them, Jack and I were at home. We blazed away at each other with blank cartridges; and when the scene ended in a hand-to-hand encounter &emdash;a general knockdown and drag-out &emdash;the way Jack and I killed Indians was "a caution." We would kill them all off in one act, but they would come up again ready for business in the next. Finally the curtain dropped, the play was ended, and I congratulated Jack and myself on having made such a brilliant and successful debut. There was no backing out after that.

 

CRITICISMS OF THE PRESS
The next morning there appeared in the Chicago papers some funny criticisms on our first performance. The papersgave us a better send-off than I expected, for they did not criticise us as actors. The Chicago Times said that if Buntline had actually spent four hours in writing that play, it was difficult for any one to see what he had been doing all the time. Buntline, as "Cale Durg," was killed in the second act, after a long temperance speech; and the Inter-Ocean said that it was to be regretted that he bad not been killed in the first act. The company, however, was very good, and M'dlle. Morlacchi, as "Pale Dove," particularly fine; while Miss Cafarno "spouted" a poem of some seven hundred and three verses, more or less, of which the reader will be glad to know that I only recall the words "I was born in March."

Our engagement proved a decided success financially, if not artistically. Nixon was greatly surprised at the result, and at the end of the week he induced Buntline to take him in as a partner in the company.

The next week we played at DeBar's Opera House, in St. Louis, doing an immense business. The following week we were at Cincinnati, where the theater was so crowded every night that hundreds were unable to obtain admission. We met with equal success all over the country. Theatrical managers, upon hearing of this new and novel combination, which was drawing such tremendous houses, were all anxious to secure us; and we received offers of engagements at all the leading theaters. We played one week at the Boston Theater, and the gross receipts amounted to $16,200. We also appeared at Niblo's Garden, New York, the theater being crowded to its utmost capacity every night of the engagement. At the Arch Street Theater, Philadelphia, it was the same way. There was not a single city where we did not have crowded houses.

We closed our tour on the 16th of June, 1873, at Port Jervis, New York, and when I counted up my share of the profits I found that I was only about $6,000 ahead. I was somewhat disappointed, for, judging from our large business, I certainly had expected a greater sum.

Texas Jack and myself longed for a hunt on the Western prairies once more; and on meeting in New York a party of gentlemen who were desirous of going with us, we all started westward, and after a pleasant trip arrived at Fort McPherson.

 

LIVELY EXPERIENCES OF WILD BILL
Texas Jack and I spent several weeks hunting in the western part of Nebraska, and after this pleasant recreation we went to New York and organised a theatrical company for the season of 1873-74. Among the people we engaged for our next tour was Wild Bill, whose name, we knew, would be a drawing card. Bill did not think well of our enterprise on account of our unfamiliarity with the stage, but a large salary forced him to forego his diffidence before the public, and he accordingly made his debut as an actor. He remained with us during a greater part of the season, much to our advantage, and would have continued but for a demoralising habit that compelled us to part with him. The habit to which I refer was that of firing blank cartridges at the legs of the supers, often burning them severely and at times almost bringing our performance to a ridiculous close. I remonstrated with him time and again, but all to no purpose, and at last, worn out with expostulations, I reluctantly told him he must either quit shooting the supers or leave the company. Without making any reply he retired to the dressing room and there changing his clothes he elbowed his way out through the audience, leaving word with the stage-carpenter that I could go to thunder with my show. I met him later in the evening and tried to persuade him to remain with me, but to no avail, and finding him determined Jack and I paid him his wages and gave him an extra purse of $1,000, with which he bade us good-bye.

The next I heard of Wild Bill was as a star at the head of a would-be rival organization that soon went to pieces. Bill left the troupe under the belief that it had disbanded, but he directly after learned that the company had reorganized and were presenting the same play with an actor personating him. When Bill ascertained this fact he sent a letter to the manager demanding that the name of Wild Bill be stricken from the advertisements, but no attention was paid to his objections. Determined to stop the bogus exhibition Bill went to a town where the company was announced to appear and, purchasing a ticket, took a seat near the orchestra, ready for business. When the bogus character at length appeared Bill jumped over the foot lights and seizing his personator, threw him through one of the scenes, and then knocked down the manager, who was dressed in the disguise of an Indian, and kicked him over the lights and onto the fellow who was blowing a big horn in the orchestra. The excitement broke up the performance and Bill was arrested, but was let off with a fine of three dollars, which he cheerfully paid for so happy a privilege, after which he went West and participated in several adventures of a thrilling character, a description of which, however, does not properly belong here.

 

A HUNT WITH MR. MEDLEY
Jack and I played a very successful season, closing at Boston on the 13th of May, 1874. Business called me to New York, and while attending to several matters preparatory to returning to the West, I met an English gentleman, Thomas P. Medley, of London, who had come to America for a hunt on the plains. He had often heard of me and was anxious to engage me as his guide and companion, and he offered to pay the liberal salary of one thousand dollars a month while I was with him. He was a very wealthy man, as I learned upon inquiry, and was a relative of Mr. Lord, of the firm of Lord & Taylor, of New York. Of course I accepted his offer.

When we reached the hunting ground in Nebraska, he informed me, somewhat to my surprise, that he did not want to go out as Alexis did, with carriages, servants, and other luxuries, but that he wished to rough it just as I would do &emdash;to sleep on the ground in the open air, and kill and cook his own meat. We started out from North Platte, and spent several weeks in hunting all over the country.

Mr. Medley proved to be a very agreeable gentleman and an excellent hunter. While in camp he busied himself carrying wood and water, attending to the fire, and preparing and cooking the meals, never asking me to do a thing. He did not perform these menial services to save expenses, but because he wanted to do as the other hunters in the party were doing. After spending as much time as he wished, we returned to the railroad, and he took the train for the East. Every. thing that was required on this hunt was paid for in a most liberal manner by Mr. Medley, who also gave the members of the party several handsome presents.

About this time an expedition consisting of seven companies of cavalry and two companies of infantry, to be commanded by Colonel Mills of the Third Cavalry, was being organized to scout the Powder river and Big Horn country, and I was employed as guide for the command. Proceeding to Rawlins, Wyoming, we "outfitted," and other guides were engaged &emdash;among them Tom Sun and Bony Ernest, two noted Rocky mountain scouts. We there left the railroad, and passing through the Seminole range of the Rocky mountains we established our supply camp at the foot of Independence Rock on the Sweet Water. I was now on my old familiar stamping ground, and it seemed like home to me. Fifteen years before, I had ridden the pony express and driven the overland stages through this region, and the command was going into the same section of country where Wild Bill's expedition of stage-drivers and express-riders had recaptured from the Indians a large number of stolen stage-horses, as previously related.

Leaving the infantry to guard the supply camp, Colonel Mills struck out for the north with the seven companies of cavalry, and in a few days surprised Little Wolf's band of Arapahoes and drove them into the agencies. We then scouted the Powder river, Crazy Woman's fork, and Clear fork, and then pushed westward through the mountains to the Wind river. After having been out for a month or two we were ordered to return.

I immediately went East and organized another dramatic company for the season of 1874-75, Texas Jack being absent in the Yellowstone country hunting with the Earl of Dunravan. I played my company in all the principal cities of the country, doing a good business wherever I went. The summer of 1875 I spent at Rochester with my family.

 

DEATH OF MY ONLY LITTLE BOY
For the season of 1875-76, Texas Jack and I reorganized our old combination, and made a very successful tour. While we were playing at Springfield, Massachusetts, April 20th and 21st, 1876, a telegram was handed me just as I was going on the stage. I opened it and found it to be from Colonel C. W. Torrence, of Rochester, an intimate friend of the family, who stated that my little boy Kit was dangerously ill with the scarlet fever. This was indeed sad news, for little Kit had always been my greatest pride. I sent for John Burke, our business manager, and showing him the telegram, told him that I would play the first act, and making a proper excuse to the audience, I would then take the nine o'clock train that same evening for Rochester, leaving him to play out my part. This I did, and at ten o'clock the next morning I arrived in Rochester, and was met at the depot by my intimate friend Moses Kerngood who at once drove me to my home. I found my little boy unable to speak but he seemed to recognize me and putting his little arms around my neck he tried to kiss me. We did everything in our power to save him, but it was of no avail. The Lord claimed his own, and that evening at six o'clock my beloved little Kit died in my arms. We laid him away to rest in the beautiful cemetery of Mount Hope amid sorrow and tears.

 

The Autobiography of Buffalo Bill Continued

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