Pardon me, sir, your bad entertainment. ~ (William Shakespeare).
Did I ever tell you about the time me and Andy decided to become actors? It's been a while but most folks around Laramie still remember. I reckon our first appearance on the stage - which was also our last - was about the most exciting thing to hit town since the blizzard of '68.
We were taking the buckboard into town for supplies when we come up behind two wagons. There was about a dozen passengers on the first including a couple of women, not that we could tell from the dust and the way they was covered up. Behind them was a fancy-painted van with the words "Haddon's International Variety Troupe" on the side and the usual bunkum about performing before the crowned heads of Europe. I pointed that out to Andy and told him that from all the actors I'd ever heard brag about performing before the crowned heads of Europe, royalty over there must not do a whole lot besides go to the theater.
The man driving the second wagon was having considerable trouble with his team, and just as we rode up on 'em the whole thing slid into the ditch. A man in a silk hat on the second wagon let out with some high-powered words, which the ladies didn't seem to notice. Maybe they was used to it. Me and Andy stopped to offer our help of course, and the gent in the silk hat - he turned out to be Haddon - spotted us and asked if we could drive four horses.
I think I can say without breaking any Commandments that I'm a pretty fair hand with the critters, I like them and they mostly like me. I got the team and the wagon out of the ditch and then drove it on into Laramie and the upshot of it was that we got free tickets to that evening's performance and the offer of a job if I ever wanted to leave the Sherman ranch.
"Well, I'll think about it," I said and winked at Andy. "But what about my friend, here?"
Haddon looked at him glumly and sighed. "Oh all right. Does he eat much? Maybe we can make an actor out of him."
We got home awful late that night and Slim was pretty riled, and even more riled when he found out what we'd been up to. He waited until Andy was in bed to tear into me and finally admitted that he was afraid hanging around a bunch of actors would give Andy too many notions.
"He's restless enough as it is," Slim pointed out. "You know he's run away once already - "
"And whose fault was that?" Jonesy asked. Which I kind of thought was a reasonable question but it just made Slim madder.
And he really got mad next day when he found out that me and Andy planned on going back into town, because Haddon was good as his word and had a part for Andy in the play that they were going to put on over Saturday and needed him for rehearsals. I think Jonesy may have had a hand in convincing Slim that Andy deserved a treat now and then. He was a good kid and worked hard, and I promised Slim I'd see no harm came to him.
So we turned up for the rehearsal and the play was some old moth-eaten piece called Man and Maid about which there was some argument on account of the third act needed an explosion in an abandoned mill that always went bad. Haddon said that when it fizzled, which it did mostly, it ruined the piece.
"Say, Mr Haddon," said Andy. "Jess knows all about explosives. He's almost an expert. He could do you a real good explosion, I bet."
Which served me right for telling him some tall tales about something that happened to me once down Prescott way. But it was too late and Haddon agreed that if I would put on the explosion, he'd put on the play and although I wasn't keen I said I'd do it for Andy. So the two actress ladies went around town getting people to put posters up about it and the rest of us got to work.
Andy was busy learning his lines and Haddon and me started figuring out how the explosion was going to work. It was supposed to take place in an old mill where the hero has been hit over the head and tied up to a burning keg of powder by the villain and just in the nick of time, the beautiful heroine arrives and unties him. They're supposed to escape just as the mill blows up and that's what had been the trouble. Haddon just couldn't get the mill to go up with any kind of authority and it made the audience laugh, which kind of spoiled the effect.
Well, I calculated that a couple pounds of black powder in a pasteboard box inside of a keg would do the trick, but I warned Haddon that the fuse would have to be perfectly timed, and I also warned him that to be on the safe side nobody better be backstage when she blew. I got an empty nail keg from the mercantile that was flimsy enough and painted the outside to look like a powder keg, and I had to buy some big Mick from the railroad an awful lot of beer before he'd sell me the right kind of fuse.
Of course later I wished he hadn't.
Saturday night, the people of Laramie began to line up in front of Mr Stoner's saloon that Haddon turned into a sort of a theater, to witness an all-star performance of that thrilling melodrama Man and Maid, as performed by Haddon's International Variety Troupe. I was in a sweat, and not just because of the explosion.
The actor who always played the villain parts had gotten himself a skinful the night before and decided in the morning he didn't just need the hair of the dog, he had to have the whole dad-gummed kennel which put a crimp in his ability to stand upright let alone say his lines. Haddon had to make a last minute switch and decided that I was perfect for the part, and between him and Andy I got myself talked into it. I was walking around backstage with Andy still trying to learn me my part when the curtain went up.
I don't know if you've ever seen Man and Maid, but it's the usual business. There's a mortgage that has to be raised and an evil villain, and some songs and patter thrown in to keep the crowd amused while they're waiting for the big scene at the end. Mr George Percival was playing the hero and the troupe's leading lady Miss Genevieve Devereaux was the heroine. Halfway through the first act Haddon was smiling from ear to ear because it was going over big. He clapped me on the shoulder as the curtain came down and asked me for only about the fifteenth time if I had everything ready for the explosion. Which of course I told him I had. I figured I'd thought of everything but I still had my fingers crossed.
Andy's only scene was in the second act with the ingénue (that don't look right but I asked Slim and he said that was how it was spelled). Her name was Carlotta Carlisle and her and me got to be real good friends backstage while she was waiting her turn at rehearsals. Lottie, I mean Miss Carlisle, is a darn fine girl and I'll knock any man down says different. The part she had in the play was the heroine's kid sister, and Haddon rigged her out in a floppy little hat and a short pinafore that showed off her legs and looked awful cute.
She had this little song about what she was going to do when she was a big girl that was funny but maybe a tad on the risky side. Anyway, when her and Andy finished their business they come off stage to a big round of applause and everybody was laughing or at least almost everybody. I peeked through the curtains at the side of the stage and saw Jonesy clapping his hands with a proud smile on his face and Slim sitting next to him with his arms folded across his chest and that muscle on his forehead jumping away like it always does when he's sore about something.
Somehow we got through the second act and I set everything up for the mill and the curtain went up again. Percival and Miss Devereaux had a love scene and then she went away for a bit and it was my turn.
The action was this; the curly-haired hero had won the heart of the lovely heroine and the villain, that being me, wanted to get rid of him so I had to slug him with my gun, drag his unconscious form into the mill, tie him to the keg of powder, and blow him to smithereens. Only because there has to be a happy ending Miss Devereaux runs back in and saves him, and the two of them make it off stage just as the mill goes up. I stepped out on that stage and said my line which was something like "Hold - here is my enemy. Now I have him in my power!"
And froze. There in the front row was the crew of the Lazy G and me and them have had a feud on since I blew into Wyoming Territory. From the looks on their faces they'd been waiting all night for me to tread the boards, as it were, and now they were going to have some fun. One of them called my name but that was as far as they got because old Mrs Thatcher was sitting in the front row being as her hearing's not what it used to be and she shushed them. She's a firm old body, and they settled back to wait for a better chance.
Which they almost got because I couldn't have remembered my next line if my life depended on it. Lucky for me Andy thought that might happen and he was standing in the wings and he whispered. "No one is nigh -"
"No one is nigh - " I hollered.
"He is doomed!"
"He is doomed!"
Which was pretty stupid, really, because a deaf man could've heard me at fifty paces. But Percival kept his back to me, looking longingly off towards where Miss Devereaux was supposed to have gone off, and I snuck up behind him and pretended to club him over the head. He muttered something about did I have to do it so hard but went down like he was supposed to. I tied him up to the keg with a piece of rope and then strung my fuse across the stage and lighted the far end of it and jumped off stage without saying my last line. I don't think anybody noticed but Andy. We stood in the wings watching as Miss Devereaux came rushing out and started tugging on the rope.
"It should be pretty exciting," Andy said. Something about the way he was grinning made me ask him why.
"I didn't think there was enough gunpowder in that box so I put in some more," he told me.
"How much more?"
"I doubled it. D'you reckon that ought to make a big enough noise?"
I had put four-five pounds of black powder in the box to begin with which meant there was almost ten pounds of the stuff out there on stage and it dawned on me that maybe this was going to cause trouble. Well, about that time Miss Devereaux had done loosing Percival's bonds and he was clasping her to his bosom and swearing undying love and keeping one eye on the keg all the time. I didn't think much of Percy but he was no fool.
The two of them ran off-stage and I told them they'd better keep going and they didn't argue. I picked Andy up under one arm and high-tailed it right after them.
Obie Thurman was standing there with a load of wood in his arms. Haddon hired him to wait until the explosion and then he was supposed to drop a bunch of firewood onto the floor to make the noise seem even more real. I advised Obie he'd better slope but he never listens to me since that ruckus we got into over the new waitress at Mimi's, and I didn't dally to try and make him see reason. I went straight out into the alley and didn't stop until me and Andy was safe on the other side of Wing Lee's place.
Yes, sir - in the whole history of the theatre I'll bet you there never was such an effective explosion.
Mr Stoner had two big oil lamps hanging in the main room of the saloon and when the blast hit them, they pancaked up into the ceiling and stuck there. It caught Obie Thurman before he could drop his armload of wood and threw him out the door into the alley, and left him covered with splinters and missing some skin and half his clothes. 'Most every board on the stage was busted and a piece of one wound up clean through the piano. All the windows in the place blew out along with the building next door and it was a good thing Mr Stoner had taken the bottles from behind the bar and hid them under some sacking out of deference to the ladies because that big mirror of his went too.
It was a miracle that there weren't no casualties to speak of apart from Obie. On account of them sitting in the front row the Lazy G punchers got caught in the explosion and one of 'em lost his eyebrows, and Mrs. Thatcher's brand new bonnet that she'd sent clear to Kansas City for was set on fire and her son in law dislocated his shoulder lugging her out of the saloon but other than that nobody got hurt, much.
Me and Andy didn't hear the whole story until later, though. We stayed in the alley behind the Chinaman's until everybody cleared out, and after a long time we saw Slim leave the sheriff's office and head back up the street. When he passed us we hissed at him to get his attention and he stopped.
"Come on out here and get killed, you two," he invited. He had a come-to-Jesus look on his face but he waited until we were home before he opened the ball.
He led off by telling me that I was a menace to society and personally responsible for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, meaning Andy. Furthermore, I was darn lucky that I made it out of town before I got caught since everybody in Laramie had heard me brag about rigging up that business for the play, and there was talk of charging me with malicious destruction of property, willfully endangering the safety and welfare of the populace, attempted manslaughter, arson, and disorderly conduct, among other things. Haddon was after my hide and the folks that weren't threatening to sue me wanted to string me up, except for the faction that leaned toward tar and feathers. Arithmetic's not my strong suit but I calculated I'd be working for Slim for free for at least a year by the time he got done paying everybody off.
Me and Andy were kind of limp when Slim was through saying everything he had to say and bed time that night was real quiet.
Next morning Slim dragged us back to town to face the music and it was too bad that right off we run into one of them Lazy G boys and he said something I naturally had to hit him for, and after Slim broke that up old Mrs Thatcher cornered me outside the print shop and started busting me over the shoulders with her umbrella. That was when Sheriff Corey put me in jail and dog-gone him if he didn't try to tell me it was for my own protection but I noticed he didn't jug Andy. I guess he figured he couldn't do nothing to Andy that would be worse than what Slim had in store for him.
By the time the sheriff let me out again things had quieted down some. The usual routine at the ranch picked up and we were all of us pretty busy and back to normal but Slim was right, Andy had gotten a hankering for a dramatic career and he was a little mooney for a spell.
Not me though, I learnt my lesson. This play-acting business is no fit occupation for a sensible man.