BLAST FROM THE PAST
It was a hot, uneasy afternoon on the plains. The women and children, left alone without menfolk, were finishing up their chores. There were goats, sheep and chickens to feed, turnips to hoe and salt beef to soak for dinner--what there would be of dinner. It being only June, few green things were ready to eat as yet, and the last of the autumn potatoes were soft and unappetizing.
"Besides," says Lori Wise, "we were paranoid."
Wise had come with her three children, ages two, three and twelve, to a settlers' cabin near Las Animas, Colorado. "There were several women and a whole lot of children," she recalls. "Mainly surviving, that's what we did. There were no male homesteaders with us, which added to our experience. We had to take two-hour watches all night."
They feared a sneak attack from roving bands of Arapaho and Cheyenne, who had become increasingly hostile ever since the Sand Creek massacre.
"People had been burned out, homesteaders killed," Wise says. "My two youngest children are Hispanic and look very Indian, and we thought the Indians might try to take them. I think they would have, given half a chance."
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But Wise and the other homesteaders did not give them that chance. The first time a band of Arapaho warriors appeared, the women used sign language to offer coffee but would not let the Indians over the threshold. "One of them thought he would ride right into the house," Wise says, "but what he rode into was my shotgun."
Wise's black-powder rifle was as authentic as the hoop skirts she wore and the straw mattress she slept on, with one slight exception--it fired only blanks. And yet, when the persistent Indian saw the rifle, he retreated. A few yards away, he reached into his quiver, drew out a handmade arrow beautifully notched with feathers, and fired it at the cabin before riding off. The arrow's point was made of foam-rubber Nerf material, but the settlers reacted as though it had been hewed of flint and dipped in poison.
They were scared, and that was good. This was June 1993, not 1866, but so far it had been a very successful historic re-enactment.
"It's not often you can keep the twentieth century at bay," says Wise, who in real life is a mild-mannered anthropology/geology professor at Otero Junior College. "That was the appeal of the Polk Springs re-enactment. For a week we lived in the 1860s."
Tom McPherson, a pharmacist from Austin, Texas, had signed on for the same reason, only his particular pleasure was to be part of the Indian camp located several miles from the settlers' cabin. "We'd done it the year before," he says, "and they asked us to come back. We liked to ride by the homesteaders, hassle them a little, ask them for something to eat or some coffee, whatever. Word got back to us through the grapevine that the settlers enjoyed it very much and we would be welcome to do it again."
When the settlers were not fighting off Indians, they were living the lonely, labor-intensive, Little House on the Prairie lifestyle of the Western frontier. Occasionally they'd interact with members of the Polk Springs Galvanized Yankee camp located about a quarter-mile away, where a group of men and even a few boys were re-creating the lives of Union soldiers at the end of the Civil War.
"Yes, ma'am, I was there," says Jonathan Knotts, who was thirteen at the time. "I enlisted as one of the soldiers along with my father and little brother. We were training for Indian warfare."
They got it, and sooner than they reckoned.
Halfway through that historic week, in a bloody scene whose exact particulars neither Indian, settler nor Yankee soldier can agree upon, pharmacist McPherson was shot through the leg by John Luzader of Loveland. His black-powder pistol created a nasty, nearly inoperable wound very typical of the late 1860s.
What it led to, though, was a highly authentic late-twentieth-century lawsuit.
Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Boy Scouts of America appear to share equal responsibility for the re-enactment craze.
"I think, for me, it started with the Little House books," says Lori Wise, "but I've always been fascinated with those days." Enough so that when she's preparing to metamorphose into a female homesteader of the 1800s, she'll spend weeks packaging food in muslin bags, restocking her period medical kit and reading up on why she would have been there in the first place.
"You basically act as if you were yourself, only more than a hundred years ago," she says. "My great-grandmother came out West around the 1860s, so I use some of her life and history and combine in some of my other grandparents. When I'm in character, I'm just a basic immigrant. If you were female and you wanted a better life and your family were poor Irish living in some urban slum, you might have homesteaded. A lot of women did. Or--especially if you were not overly attractive--you could sign on with the military as a laundress, and that's how you might get out West."
Others took a less watery route. "Now, I been interested in Indians ever since I was a kid," says Ivan Hanklo, an electrician from Guymon, Oklahoma, who lived at the Polk Springs Indian camp during the events of June 1993. "In the Boy Scouts, they fall back on Indian lore quite a bit, and since I'm part Cheyenne, I got into powwow dancing. And then I met a feller who was doing fur-trade-era re-enactments, mountain man stuff. I really liked the camping out, working on the gear, the historical atmosphere. There's a big difference between seeing something in a museum and building it yourself and taking it into camp and using it."
Like Hanklo, Pueblo's Sam Pisciotta became fascinated with the Plains Indians when he was a child. "Indian re-enactments are not always favorable and not always glamorous," he says, "but it's what I do. I also do mountain man and cowboy."
Although Pisciotta doesn't mind doing his historical impersonations in front of a paying crowd--including at Bent's Old Fort in southeastern Colorado--given the choice, he prefers to let the present day recede as much as possible. This, he says, is what first drew him to a Lakewood-based nonprofit corporation known as Vistas of Time. The organization impressed him with its commitment to "living history, to demonstrating what the lifestyles were like in the 1800s and sometimes even the 1900s," Pisciotta says. "I've seen them do things at El Pueblo Museum, Four Mile Historic Park--even a World War II thing up in Denver where they were portraying scrap dealers collecting aluminum."
It was Vistas of Time that organized the Polk Springs re-enactment of 1992 and planned to repeat that success in 1993. Located some twenty miles south of Las Animas on the sprawling and remote Anderson Ranch, the camp was designed to come as close as possible to the historic events of the post-Civil War years.
"There had been a Galvanized Yankee camp there," says Tom McPherson. "In other words, it was made up of Confederate prisoners of war who agreed to come out and help settle the West, provided they became Union soldiers. I had had some success with Indian-only re-enactments, and Vistas asked me to be a part of Polk Springs."
To reserve his place, McPherson sent in what he--and many others--remembers as between $15 and $25, an amount that was also supposed to cover liability insurance for the event. Not that the camp would be without risk: McPherson and everyone else who registered were told that the Galvanized Yankees would be taking their target practice with live ammunition.
This was unusual, and a considerable draw for black-powder enthusiasts. State historic sites specifically ban any kind of loaded weapons during re-enactments, and most participants have learned to rely heavily on Nerf weapons and guns loaded with blanks, if they're loaded at all. Beyond that, there's always been an unwritten law that re-enactments are decidedly unauthentic when it comes to violence: No one is supposed to point a weapon at anyone else, not even the smallest Nerf war club or a gun whose barrel is plugged with a red-painted dowel--as some historic sites specify.
But Polk Springs was remote enough that soldiers--and their guns--could be kept well separated from Indians and settlers, not to mention any voyeuristic members of the 1990s public.
The 1993 Polk Springs Galvanized Yankee camp re-enactment got off to a rousing start. While the soldiers patrolled and shot at targets, the settlers kept busy hacking out their meager existence. In the meantime, the Indians were enjoying a sort of rustic, Western vacation.
"Of course, we'd done all sorts of visiting among the lodges," Hanklo remembers, "and there were all sorts of Indian games of an evening. During the day my wife and I would ride off to look the country over. Sometimes we'd work on crafts. We tried to cook some fairly traditional meals--buffalo and any wild game anyone had shot through the season. Not to say we didn't have a big pot of--what's that stuff called?--fettuccine."
Although conversations and cuisine at the Indian camp roamed freely across the centuries, its residents were prepared to go deep into character as Indian warriors whenever appropriate. They'd done it once, in black wigs and leggings, on a successful, if brief, settler-hassling excursion. And on the afternoon of June 10 they decided to put on a repeat performance. All seven of the braves who set out for the settlers' cabin that afternoon had slipped seamlessly into their historically correct personae.
"I was myself, but myself as a Cheyenne more than a hundred years ago," Hanklo remembers. "We'd already done lots of ridin' and scoutin' around. Our plan this time was to go over to the settlers and do a sort of ride-by, shoot a few arrows at them, and that's what we did. They were firing blank rounds at us, and we were shooting our Nerf arrows and riding around in circles, hollerin' and showin' off."
In short, a good time was being had by all.
"It was obviously a raid and not just a little harassment," Wise remembers. "It appeared they were a lot more serious. They were wearing their war paint, and they really came flying down the canyon."
"Just then," Hanklo continues, "we heard gunfire from across the valley at the infantry camp. A couple of our guys took off and rode over there, maybe a quarter-mile away, and I followed after. When I got there, this Union guy had walked out of the rocks and was waving his pistol around and hollerin' and firing at the horses' hooves. At the time, I thought he should know better than to fire that close to anyone, even if they were blanks--and it never crossed my mind that they weren't."
The officer, John Luzader, was rapidly surrounded by Indians on horseback.
"Some of the Yankees were discharging firearms--it was a sort of target practice, I think," says McPherson, who was one of the first Indian riders to catch up with Luzader. "But Luzader came out toward us, pointed his pistol at us and said, `Dismount, you heathens,' which we didn't understand, because we didn't understand English at all."
McPherson saw the scene as a unique chance to display authentic Native American bravery. "It was considered much more honorable to touch an armed enemy than to kill him--it's called counting coup," he explains. "So various members of our group were riding by Luzader and touching him with their coup sticks. I didn't have one, so I tried to touch him with my hand."
This was the action young infantry soldier Jonathan Knotts encountered as he peered down from target practice.
"I was napping when it started, ma'am," he says, "and the next thing I know, Indians were coming up toward our camp, and our sergeant major went down to see what he could do. He was the only one who knew sign language or Indian affairs. That's how we were playing it, anyway." As the Indians rode in, Knotts couldn't help but notice their poor horsemanship. "Mr. McPherson fell off his horse twice," he remembers.
(Actually, that was probably Pisciotta, who admits to falling off his horse and spraining an ankle before he could even get to the scene of the shootout.)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, things were getting stranger by the minute.
"A friend of mine had a nice big lance, and he planted it in the ground near Luzader," McPherson says. His Indian cohorts took it as a symbol meaning something along the lines of `Let's talk.'"
Luzader apparently didn't get the message. "As I made my second pass by him," McPherson says, "I realized that something didn't feel right. There was something about the look of this soldier. I knew him. I always thought he was a stickler for safety who never broke character. But he wasn't acting normal. He seemed not himself. I mean, anyone who would challenge seven mounted warriors--well, by all rights, he would have been dead! The lance was about ten feet away. I went to go pick it up, and as I did, he ran over and grabbed ahold of one end of it and tried to pull it away from me, and I'm thinking, here's this guy that's done re-enactments for years, and he's not playing it right. So out of the side of my mouth I said, `Jeez, John, give it up.'"
Instead, McPherson says, Luzader tried to pull McPherson off his horse with his left hand while still clutching his pistol in his right. "The next thing I know, there's a big explosion and I'm hit," McPherson recalls. "The bullet went right into my thigh. I'd never been shot in my life before, and there's this major shock wave that hits your entire body and, of course, that gets your attention real fast."
"I heard the muffled report," says Hanklo, who had just caught up with the group. "Tom rolled off his horse and everyone backed up, and I realized, my God, that wasn't a blank. And then this Luzader guy just instantly turned into a blubbering idiot, because he knew right away what he'd done. He went to bawlin' like a baby."
McPherson remembers Luzader as being somewhat glassy-eyed--but then, McPherson himself was distracted, what with trying to cut off his own bloody legging and turn a bandanna into a tourniquet. Knotts, who'd just taken a Red Cross first aid course, came running down the hill when he saw that one of the Indians had fallen off his horse and was not about to get back on. "I yelled that I was a medic," he says, "because right then, I needed his trust."
They were together for the next four hours. First, someone had to find a horseless carriage, and then Knotts piled into a pickup with McPherson, "who was looking awful shocky," he recalls. "The last thing he needed was a tourniquet, and I took it off."
The next-to-last thing McPherson needed was to bang across the Anderson Ranch's dirt roads. The bullet had entered his thigh eight inches above the knee and traveled to just below his tailbone, making any movement uncomfortable. McPherson vaguely remembers bouncing around the back of a truck with a heroic unknown Boy Scout and his old Indian buddy Hanklo. And then, from somewhere in his cloud of pain, McPherson heard a loud cry of distress--the truck had blown a tire, and the jack was sinking into the hot asphalt of a small county road. Just before they reached La Junta--"and I'm thinking please, God, don't let me die in the back of this truck"--the posse ran out of gas.
"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."
"I know some people in their forties, just like me, who have been doing this re-enactment thing since they were kids, and this is the first accident they've ever heard of, other than a bruise here or there," says Indian impersonator Pisciotta. "The insurance should have covered it, and that should have been the end of it."
For that matter, Vistas of Time didn't cover his sprained ankle--but he recovered, Pisciotta says. "The sad part is, Tom's gonna suffer forever," he adds.
"Well, it's been a year and a half in hell so far," McPherson confirms. "Atrophy sets in awful fast, and my leg looks like a bone. You can't do much with a leg when it's not supported by muscle."
You certainly can't ride in circles on the plains, resplendent in war paint, faux pigtails on your head and a quiver full of Nerf arrows over your shoulder. "No, you can't," McPherson says. "I'm not saying I'm sour on re-enactments. But I can't stand not being out there with my friends. And from now on, I'm not going to be.