The Adventures of
Johnny Vermillion


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The Prairie Rose Repertory Company

Chapter One

Most of what follows took place in the West.

Not just any West.

It was the West of legend and suckling-memory, where drifters caked head to heel with dust swilled red-eye whiskey at long mahogany bars, punching holes in the tin ceilings with their big Colts to impress their half-naked, quartz-eyed hostesses; where buffalo rolled thunder across gaunt desert, grass ocean, and the great mountain ranges where the earth showed its tusks, stopping only to splash in the wallows and scratch their burlap hides against the cowcatchers of the Central and Western Pacific and the mighty Atchison; where red-lacquer Concords barreled down the western face of the Divide, pulled by teams of six with eyes rolling white, whips cracking like Winchesters above their heads; where glistening black locomotives charged across trestles of latticework oak, burning scrubwood in greasy black streamers and blasting their arrogant whistles; where highwaymen in slouch hats and long dusters pulled bandannas up over their faces and stepped suddenly from behind boulders, firing at the sky and bellowing at shotgun messengers to throw up their hands and throw down the box; where all the towns were named Lockjaw and Busted Straight, Diablo and Purgatory and Spunk.

A West where gamblers wore linen and pomade and dealt aces from both sides of the deck and derringers from inside their sleeves; where cowboys ate beans and drank coffee around campfires to harmonica music, and everything was heavily seasoned with tin. At sunup, drowsy and stiff, the cowboys drove undulating herds of grumbling, lowing, high-strung longhorns past ridges where feathered warriors balanced their horses square on the edge, bows and lances raised against the sky while the brass section blared and kettle drums pounded. Gun battles cleared busy streets in a twinkling and bullets rang off piles of rock in the alkali flats with a p-tweeeeee!, kicking dust into the eyes of lawman and outlaw alike. The U.S. Cavalry was invincible, and bandits and gunfighters were celebrities, trailing battalions of paparazzi in brown derbies: Custer had yet to stand on his hill, Jesse to turn his back on Bob, and Wild Bill to draw his fabled hand. All the wagon trains came with concertinas, and all the undertakers and hangmen looked like John Carradine.

It was a West where prospectors, cotton-bearded and toothless, led mules over foothills riddled with shafts, Russian grand dukes shot buffalo from Pullman cars, bandidos wore their ammo belts crossed and flashed gold teeth in duplicitous grins and called everybody Gringo; where women baked bread in gingham and looked cute in buckskins and spilled like ripe peaches out of corsets and sequins and wore feathers in their hair. Train robbers shinnied up telegraph poles, tapped into the lines, and rapped out misleading messages to citizens' vigilance committees on the barrels of their six-shooters. Posses sprang up like cottonwoods, lynch mobs stormed jails, fiddlers played "Little Brown Jug" at church raisings, and legions of tin-tack piano players knew all the notes of "Buffalo Gals" by heart.

A West, this, where cattle barons gathered in clubs and railroad magnates sat in parlor cars to smoke cigars and plot mayhem; where assassins in their employ took target practice on grangers and Chinamen and shot at the heels of tenderfeet to make them dance. Where tall saguaro cactus grew everywhere, even places where it had never existed; where saloon mirrors were in inexhaustible supply and every bluebelly sergeant was named O'Hara and wore his hat brim turned up in front. Men rolled cigarettes and spat into cuspidors. Most of the lumber went into saloons and gallows and markers on Boot Hill.

Sam Grant was in Washington, soldiering his way through his troubled second term, chain-smoking General Thompsons, drinking Hermitage by the case, and wishing he'd never heard the name Bill Belknap. Lily Langtry was on tour. So were Lotta Crabtree and Jenny Lind, and Edwin Booth was performing as Prospero in Denver. Judges Bean and Parker adjudicated in Texas and the Indian Nations. Ned Buntline guzzled Old Gideon, philandered with married women, and wrote reams of frontier claptrap that sold millions in New York and San Francisco. Wyatt Earp was in Dodge City getting a tooth pulled by Doc Holliday. Chiefs Crazy Horse and Gall rested on the Powder River, watching old Sitting Bull smoking up dreams with a blend of open skepticism and hidden contempt. These things are matters of history and bear no direct application to our tale, but they help set the stage for the rip-roaring action to come.

It was a West of ruthless ranchers, patient housewives, crooked sheriffs, courageous pioneers, eager hellcats, leather-lung bullwhackers, scheming carpetbaggers, spinster schoolteachers, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, wheelwrights, farriers, dressmakers, swampers, grave diggers, and prostitutes with hearts of gold; also of ice and iron. One out of three men answered to Frank or Jack or Billy, regardless of whether his real name was Henry or Leander, the women all seemed to be either Sadie or Jane, and any cowpuncher worth his found knew which one to kiss and which to marry. Everyone seemed to walk around wearing a sandwich board advertising his or her true nature: card cheat, music-hall lecher, bushwhacker, army deserter, wife beater, husband poisoner, snake-oil merchant, newspaper rat, whiskey trader, reader of French novels. All wore the uniform of his station: the top hat tilted at a disreputable angle, the garish waistcoat, the rhinestone buckle on the pointed shoe, the leaded walking stick, the boots with flaps over the toes. But it was also the West of elaborate obfuscation. Dry-goods stores sold muffs with pistol pockets in the linings, spring-operated wrist holsters, and knife scabbards to be worn on lanyards around the neck. Unescorted women walked the streets in safety, but the theaters and ballrooms dripped with murder. It was possible to purchase arsenic in quantity and pistols small enough to conceal in the palm of one's hand. The West's reputation for politeness and hospitality was based on the threat of imminent death for transgressors.

It was the West also of rampant optimism. The consumptive in search of a cure, the criminal in quest of redemption, the failure in pursuit of a fresh start, the bigamist in flight from his wives; each found a fresh page upon which to start his journal anew. A world bereft of records, fingerprints, and the ubiquitous camera, and a blank amorphous map labeled the Great American Desert, offered panacea to a variety of ills. Not since Alexander fled the shadow of his father into the vast reaches of the Known World had our solitary planet so plainly beckoned to the wanderer to cast aside his burdens and press on.

It was the West of Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Billy the Kid; but it was also the West of William S. Hart, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne. It was big enough to encompass the bombastery of Buffalo Bill and Cecil B. DeMille and the skullduggery of the bloody brothers Harte.

This was Johnny Vermillion's West; a West that should have been, but never quite was.


End of Chapter One

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