They present two plays, Scouts of the Plains and Buffalo Bill! King of the Border Men. Best described as lunatic melodramas, they feature the killing of large numbers of Indians and dances performed by the Italian entertainer, Guiseppina Morlacchi.
|Buffalo Bill Cody|
Cody is the enterprising showman, missing the freedom of his youth as a scout, but married with kids. Hickok, the older of the two men, is sliding into an alcoholic haze, darkly given to brawling, whores, and other forms of mischief. Cody keeps him in the show long after everyone else has begged him to fire the man.
Meanwhile, Hickok would welcome release from the promise he’s made to stick with the tour for a year. The clownish fakery of the playacting gets riotous applause but galls the man who survived the perils of life on the border. The displays of Indian killing are cheap farce and demeaning. Making this point during a backstage dispute, he pulls off his costume to show the scars of a gash from an actual Indian’s lance.
|Wild Bill Hickok, c1874|
Cody is already overtaxed by the constant demands of managing his fractious company while busy meeting and greeting the public. Keeping Louisa happy nearly undoes him. In a desperate move, he gets her to come onstage during a performance. Instead of being pleased by the warm reception of the audience, she is deeply embarrassed and determines to go back to Nebraska, taking the kids.
But this crisis, too, passes. While real-life Cody and his wife seem never to have been reconciled, Boggs gives their part of the story a happy ending that is surely a stretch of his own imagination.
Character. Pivotal between Cody and Hickok is the good-natured ballast provided by Omohundro. Happily married to the danseuse Guiseppina, Texas Jack is sensible and levelheaded. A onetime schoolteacher and bar tender, he helps keep the peace offstage and remembers his lines while onstage.
|Texas Jack Omohundro|
Boggs also suggests in him a lost innocence, as when he discovers he’s spent a night with a woman whose son has been forced to sleep outdoors in the cold. He buys the boy breakfast and gives him all his money in a failed attempt to win the boy’s gratitude and overcome his own guilt. Then there’s the Christmas he remembers as the best he ever had, walking the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia with a 13-year-old boy and honing their skill at gigging frogs.
There are hints that he is losing his vision and his health. His barroom brawls are outlets for his rage and proof that he cannot be beaten, even by a bunch of oilfield roustabouts. Through it all, there is the shadow cast by another fatal shooting, in Deadwood, less than three brief years in the future.
|New York, 1873|
Boggs has great fun with this material. Each of the men narrates the story in his own distinctive voice. Cody’s is brightly good-humored, apologetically self-indulgent, especially as he confesses his lapses in marital fidelity. But he won’t cuss. Meanwhile, Hickok is outrageously blunt and the most darkly funny.
In his Author’s Note at the end, Boggs claims to have taken few liberties with historical records, though sorting factual from bogus in them is no easy task. The book offers evidence of the character of contemporary newspaper accounts by introducing each chapter with a quote, such as this one from the Erie, Pennsylvania Morning Dispatch:
The drama has scarce the shadow of a plot and is like an animated dime novel with the Indian-killing multiplied by ten, but for all that it was heartily enjoyed, and the bloodier the tragedy the broader was the comedy.
Boggs also provides a long list of sources for any who wish to pursue the subject further.
First published in 2004, East of the Border is currently available in paper and kindle formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, Powell's Books, and AbeBooks.
BITS reviews of books by Johnny Boggs
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Good For Nothing (2011)