BLAST FROM THE PAST

THESE HISTORY BUFFS PLAYED AT RE-CREATING THE OLD WEST--BUT THIS GUNSHOT WAS ALL TOO REAL.ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST THEY WANTED TO RESURRECT THE PAST. INSTEAD, THEY GOT A THOROUGHLY MODERN LAWSUIT.

"No one had money, no one even had a wallet," McPherson remembers. "We were all in character. So finally, we made it a few blocks to someone's Uncle Zeke's house, where we were able to borrow some money and get some gas and get me to a doctor."

Who promptly called an ambulance and had McPherson, now hooked up to a morphine drip, transported to a neurosurgical ward in a Pueblo hospital, where he underwent three and a half hours of surgery.

"To tell you the truth, ma'am, I never got scared till the day after," Knotts says. It's possible, he concedes modestly, that he may have saved McPherson's life--the Boy Scouts certainly thought so, and awarded Knotts the coveted Medal of Merit several months later. McPherson himself says he doesn't know what would have happened without Knotts's intervention.

Technically, however, the two were still enemies--with widely differing stories about how, exactly, McPherson got shot.

"I know what happened, ma'am," Knotts insists stoutly. "Our sergeant major came down to talk, and the Indians kept coming after him, and one of their horses came too close and the hammer of his pistol got caught in the saddle blanket and went off. Of course his gun was loaded. We were having target practice! And that's what happened."

Officer Joe Lincoln of the Bent County Sheriff's Department soon came to the same conclusion--after interviewing Knotts, Luzader and another Union officer. No criminal charges were filed. The shooting was declared accidental: an isolated, unfortunate incident.

Meanwhile, in a Pueblo recovery room, it was getting more unfortunate all the time.

"I woke up with butterflies from just above my knee all the way back to my tailbone," McPherson says. "I was told that bullet had severed 95 percent of my sciatic nerve. The doctor had tried to suture it, but there was too much powder in the wound. He couldn't even get the bullet out. I had incredible pain and no function at all from the waist on down on the left side. And the doctor told me I had a 5 percent chance of ever walking again."

McPherson's inevitable depression got worse when he learned that Vistas of Time didn't plan to cover his hospital bills. Although he was earning upwards of $40,000 a year as a pharmacist, it was contract labor, without health benefits. And a few days into his stay at the hospital, a company representative told him that his re-enactment entry fee hadn't bought any liability insurance after all. "They let me know they weren't paying," McPherson says, "and that sure was distressful. They said, basically, `You'll have to sue us.'"

McPherson was mulling that over when Luzader came by for a visit. "He said he was sorry," McPherson recalls, "and he seemed very distraught. He said he was supposed to be loaded at the time--he was in the middle of target practice. But that doesn't explain why he engaged us."

"Well, sure, there was live ammo," says Hanklo, "but anyone oughta know how to treat a loaded weapon better than that. You can call it an accident, but this guy sure seemed out of control to me. I'd like to see Tom compensated. What's a leg worth, anyway?"

To start with, about $20,000 in medical bills. Beyond that, considerable mobility and earning power. For nearly half a year, doctors treated McPherson's intense pain with narcotics, and he didn't think it ethical to fill prescriptions under their influence.

In December 1993, the medical center where he worked declined to renew his contract. Since then, McPherson's been working replacement shifts at a Texas grocery chain, earning less than two-thirds of his former salary. In his spare times he studies acupuncture--"it's the only treatment that gave me any relief from the pain," he says--and works with his lawyer on the lawsuit he finally brought, reluctantly, against Luzader and Vistas of Time.

Back in the 1860s, men settled their disputes with guns, not lawsuits. But then, a gun is what got McPherson into this mess.

The case is set for trial in U.S. District Court in Denver in November--at which point a judge and jury will have to decide how much, if anything, McPherson's claims of negligence and negligent supervision are worth. Neither Vistas' president nor its secretary would agree to be interviewed, and Luzader did not return calls. Luzader's attorney offers only this: "It's an interesting case. Maybe I'll see you at the trial in November." McPherson's attorney, Turner Branch, is a little more forthcoming. How Vistas of Time plans to defend itself is unclear, he says--"or you could say it beats the heck outta me."

No matter how this dispute is resolved, the historic incident that inspired it has already affected the future of the re-enactment industry. The Polk Springs Galvanized Yankee camp was canceled in 1994 and 1995, and it may never rise again.

"It's gotten way out of proportion," says Lori Wise. "Because injuries happen. You can cut yourself splitting wood. Things happen just as they did in real life back then. I realize Tom needs to be taken care of, but it was an accident."

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