By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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In mid-June, Farrell "Mack" McMahon of Garden City, Missouri, woke up, smoked the first of many cigarettes, and came to a decision. Then he went into town and had his hair cut for the first time in ten years. Long white locks fell to the floor, along with the remains of his billy-goat-style beard and pointed white mustache.
Next, Mack went shopping.
"I bought normal clothes," he recalls. "Modern. Every day for ten years, I'd been wearing the boots and the vest and the buckskin and all that there."
At Mack's Country, all that there now lies in a heap in the corner: three pairs of thigh-high riding boots; a reproduction saddle circa 1893, embellished with angora goat hair; a buffalo-nickel-encrusted show harness; a bevy of bullwhips; a "naughty Nelly," used by authentic cowboys for boot removal; and much, much more, including several versions of a white cowboy hat, its rim bent back on the right side.
"There's a lot of theories why," Mack explains. "Maybe his hat got that way from running into the wind on his horse, or maybe it was some style left over from the Union Army -- but the true story is that Buffalo Bill Cody had to be able to see if he was going to shoot straight."
Discussing such arcane details of Buffalo Bill Cody's life comes as naturally as breathing to Mack, who's spent the past decade as a high-profile Buffalo Bill reenactor. Less in character is his sudden decision to cut his hair, quit show business and look to the future instead of the past. Although Mack has yet to issue a definitive reason for this move -- he has at least twenty to choose from, he says -- he's determined to cut all ties to Cody. And so on August 18, all of the Buffalo Bill bric-a-brac he's acquired over the past ten years will be auctioned off in Garden City.
"Mack McMahon professionally portrayed 'Buffalo Bill' Cody as he traveled throughout the US for many years reads at hundreds of shows until his retirement today," pronounces the flier for the auction, which bears a marked resemblance to the posters Buffalo Bill himself used to promote his Wild West shows. "He has accumulated an unbelievable collection of Buffalo Bill props, Artifacts, Costumes, Promotional Items & Memorabilia. This will be a lifetime opportunity to purchase in one day what Mack 'Buffalo Bill' McMahon has spent many years and thousands of miles accumulating. You won't want to miss the very special event."
The repercussions of this special event will be huge -- not just in Missouri, not just in Colorado, where Buffalo Bill was buried, but in the rest of the Western-obsessed world, everywhere from EuroDisney just outside Paris to the London headquarters of British Airways to Germany, where cowboys and Indians, real or imaginary, are treated as royalty.
News of Mack's auction has set into motion a migration of Bills, dozens of whom will converge on Garden City this week, hoping to find more of what a working Cody needs to have. "We have a busload coming from Denver," says Gwen, Mack's wife.
The auction has also raised the bittersweet notion that even the Greatest Showman on Earth (or his reasonable facsimile) can't hang around forever.
"A lot of the Bills working right now are just plain long in the tooth," says Ralph Melfi, a middle-aged Bill from Denver. At the auction, those reigning Bills may catch sight of their rightful heirs for the first time.
"This thing is going to be a crowd," Mack says. "People are coming from ten states. We're going to need hot dogs, sodas, chips and all that there just to feed them all. I'm expecting a whole lot of people and a whole lot of Bills."
The most authentic Cody accessory Mack is selling could well be his horse, Jake, a seasoned show-business veteran who can do forty tricks in the show ring and will shake his head yes or no to polite questions. Mack claims to have saved Jake from the rendering plant and then spent thousands on his training. He says he will miss his equine partner more than any of the hundreds of faux cowboys and saloon ladies he worked with during his decade as Bill.
"Yeah, but when I make up my mind, that's it. There's no turning back," Mack concludes. "Once I started with Bill, I sold and sold and sold to keep my show going. Every T-shirt I put on, I could look at it and think, yeah, I had a good time there, and it only cost me about a thousand dollars. My wife finally tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Honey -- hey dummy -- you are broke.'"
Garden City's claims to fame are few. Tony and Minnie Washington, direct descendants of George Washington, lived here briefly in the nineteenth century. As the marker at the end of the town's quiet, two-block business stretch explains it: "This family might have been the royal family had the U.S. become a kingdom." But it didn't, and they weren't, and finally the Washingtons left town. So did the two decent Mexican restaurants that once served up tacos on Main Street. A hand-lettered sign in the window of Jim and Jean's Body Shop promises "Farm Fresh Eggs From Runaround Chickens," but no one's around to sell them.