Historical Note on One of the Family: When Buffalo Billy Cody brought his Wild West Show on the first of its three visits to the United Kingdom in 1887, the furore he created was unprecedented. Thousands lined the streets when the exhibition made its way to Earl’s Court and on its opening night 28,000 people were there to see the splendour that was Colonel Cody’s Wild West. Buffalo Bill would return again in 1891-2 and finally from 1902 to 1904. Places he visited included Hull, Nottingham, Sheffield, Burton upon Trent, Lancaster, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Glasgow. As an author I have always found the image of Native Americans and cowboys roaming the streets of Victorian England a fascinating clash of cultures. One of the Family was my first ever published short story, it appeared in Issue 3 of Vintage Script Magazine — Autumn 2012 and was extremely well received. I hope you enjoy this little story…
One of the Family
Janis Pegrum Smith
Arches Alf, Scam Sam and Light Fingered Freddie had all been up for it at the start. It had seemed a brilliant idea then, but now, shivering in the dark all alone, Charlie wasn’t so sure! It was colder than Charlie could ever remember it being, snow had fallen on and off for days and the skin on his exposed fingers, shins and toes tingled red raw. However, it wasn’t the cold that was making Charlie quiver, it was the Indians! He was frightened out of his wits to be honest, but his standing with the other boys was dependent upon him not “chickenin’ out” like they had. He knew the men were Indians because Alf had told him. They had all watched them ride in, that was when they had hit upon the plan to sneak into the camp after dark to take a closer look. There was next to no room beneath the privet hedge where he hid, but with little meat on his bones and fear pounding in his heart he made himself fit.
‘Geroff me!’ he yelled as an unseen hand grabbed him from behind.
He was pulled out and lifted high up into the air. Charlie’s fists and feet flailed in all directions with the hope of coming into contact with his assailant. It was a feeble attempt to escape, but he would not give up without a fight. His protests were merely met with the deep laughter of four Indians. One had him by the scruff of the neck in an iron-like grip, distant firelight outlined these braves; feathers in their long hair, wrapped in thick blankets, they were greatly amused by little Charlie’s kicking and screaming.
‘What’s occurring, gentlemen?’ came a big booming voice out of the darkness. The voice then spoke in another language that the captors clearly understood. Whatever was said prompted Charlie to be placed immediately on the ground before the longhaired, bearded, leather tasselled bear of a man.
Charlie still had his fists up ready to take on all-comers, but the sight of the man made him drop his guard instantly, ‘Blimey! You’re that Buffalo Bill geezer, ain’t yer?’ Charlie stared in awe, ‘Cor, you look just like your picture you do!’
There could be no mistake, the posters for ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’ had been plastered all over the city for weeks. Freddie had got a friendly Peeler to read one out to them. Charlie had also been in the crowd that lined the streets to watch the huge procession make its way from the station to the showground. Buffalo Bill had ridden at the head, waving his hat to all, leading the troupe of strangely dressed riders; Indians wearing full headdresses and buckskins; massive, horned, woolly-headed beasts; wagons, horses… all parading behind a great marching band that played lively tunes. Charlie, nor most of London for that matter, had ever seen the like.
‘Now then, young man, what you playin’ at, creepin’ in here and spookin’ my Indian friends like this?’ chuckled the American.
‘Just wanted to ‘ave a gander.’ Charlie looked the great man straight in the eye, puffing out his chest as best he could, ‘You’s on me patch, see.’
‘Yeah, me and me gang own this area,’ the urchin said, proudly.
‘What’s your name, boy?’
Charlie duly answered.
‘And where’s your parents?’
‘Ain’t never ‘ad none.’ Charlie cuffed his frozen, dripping nose.
The legendary Iowan weighed up the wide-eyed, ragged street ruffian for a moment. Slowly, he bent down and retrieved the boy’s battered cap from the ground, placing it back on his head, ‘You eaten, boy?’
After a huge plate of amazing hot food and something called coffee, Charlie found himself tucked up under heavy blankets in a tent. A cone shaped construction of skins held up on wooden poles, which reminded Charlie of the wraps of sweets they sometimes bullied out of rich children. He thought about the fire they had sat around while he ate, it had been so warm and comforting, and the Indian woman Bill had asked to look after him was really nice. Charlie had never experienced such kindness before. She had wrapped a huge blanket around his shoulders and put lovely, soft shoes on his naked feet. Then, the great Buffalo Bill had sat with him by the fire drinking coffee. Charlie liked him. He asked Charlie all about his life. He couldn’t tell the man how old he was, he had no idea. The orphanage was on the very edge of his memory, it was a few winters since he had run away from there. He lived on the streets with the other unwanted children and survived as best he could – admittedly, not as honestly as he perhaps should! Bill told Charlie a few stories about himself, how his father had died when he was no bigger than Charlie, and how he found work to support his mother and family – by fourteen he was famous for making the longest journey ever made by a Pony Express rider.
‘Three hundred and twenty-two miles! Hell of a ride, boy, I’ll tell ya.’ Bill was still very proud of this fact.
The Indian women in the camp all came and fussed Charlie, whilst the men just stared and occasionally laughed. A pretty, young white woman called Annie came and sat with them.
‘Why, Bill, he’s just a baby!’ she declared, ruffling his hair. She chatted for awhile and let him hold the silver gun she carried.
When Charlie woke the next morning the camp was swarming with life. Gone were the rags he called clothes, a buckskin suit and western style hat, similar to Bill’s, lay ready for him instead.
Bill’s head soon popped through the tent’s opening, ‘Want the full tour, boy?’
Charlie strode proudly next to his new friend as Bill introduced him to all the performers. They wandered past Indian warriors in full war paint, horses, buffalo, steers… Bill explained what everything was to the astounded youngster and told him all about their life “out West”. Charlie was speechless with wonderment.
In the big open air arena they watched Annie practice her shooting while some of the riders worked on their routines.
‘I was thinking you might like to join us, boy, if you’ve a mind?’ Bill’s eyes twinkled down at Charlie.
‘What me? A cowboy? Really? Cor!’
‘We can always find room for a spare pair of hands,’ smiled Bill. ‘You’d have food, shelter, clothes, a wage – we’re a family and you’re sure welcome to join us, young man.’
They shook on it with a funny Indian arm-wrestle shake that Charlie really liked.
‘This is a young English orphan boy we’ve adopted,’ announced Bill to the reporters who flocked around, eager to cover the Wild West Show’s arrival at the American Exhibition in Earls Court. ‘My braves were so impressed by his spirit they insisted Charlie here join us.’ The extra publicity value had not been overlooked by the consummate showman, Bill.
Charlie was instructed to stick with Bill at all times, that is how he met the Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone, when he visited and the Prince of Wales. The prince had patted his head and given him a gold sovereign.
‘You are a worthy ambassador for our nation, young man,’ the prince declared.
During the shows, Charlie was put in charge of fetching Bill’s things as he needed them for the different parts of the production. A breathless Bill would ride out of the arena and Charlie would hand him his whip, or sword, or rifle… and off he’d go back into the fray of whooping Indians and charging cavalry. The young cockney lad took his job extremely seriously; the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody had shown faith in him and he was not going to let the great man down.
‘You’ve gotta go see for yourself, Mrs, it’s bleedin’ amazin’!’ Charlie had declared to the queen.
The silence that followed hung heavy for what seemed an eternity. He had been briefed by Bill to be on his very best behaviour when they had been summoned to the palace, and up until that moment Charlie had done so well. The invitation had come after the Prince of Wales had extolled the virtues of the show to his mother. Charlie had never really thought much about the queen before, people said that she hadn’t left the palace since her husband died; she hadn’t been glimpsed by anyone for years, they said. Lately there had been a big fuss about her Golden Jubilee but Charlie hadn’t paid it much mind.
‘So we have heard, young man,’ Queen Victoria finally said, smiling at Charlie.
The whole room breathed once more. Charlie had become so accustomed to his new friends and the huge transformation of his life that there seemed nothing at all unusual in the fact he was sitting within the gilded splendour of Buckingham Palace, taking tea with a Native American chief, a gun-toting young girl, Buffalo Bill and Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Charlie munched on cake and chatted away gaily to Her Majesty, explaining all about his adoption by the troupe, whilst the mother in her instantly warmed to the child.
‘Well, Mr Cody,’ she finally said, ‘we understand that the show is far too large to come to us, so we shall be forced to come to you, it would seem. And, if you are half as entertaining as young Charlie reports, then we shall be most amused to do so.’
The queen’s visit to the Wild West Show astounded the world, for twenty-five years the widow had hidden herself away but she emerged from the palace to attend a special, private show for the occupants of the royal box and the assembled courtiers who filled the stands. Her Majesty caused a sensation when she bowed to the star and stripe filled flag that was presented to the stadium amidst a cavalcade of horses, her action meant that all her subjects present had to salute it likewise, the first time a British monarch had acknowledged the young, free nation of the Unites States of America. Charlie saw Bill’s pride in that moment had prompted a tear in his eye.
Later, everyone laughed when Black Elk called Her Majesty “Grandmother England” as she toured the camp. Charlie had already forgiven him for hauling him out of the bushes on that first night and they were now the best of friends. When the queen said she thought the Lakotas were the best looking people she had ever seen, Charlie was sure Black Elk would burst with the honour.
As the weeks rolled quickly by and the show was due to depart. Charlie became very sad; it had been a fairy-tale and he didn’t want to think about going back to his life on the streets, stealing and fighting just to get by. The night before the show was due to leave Charlie sat around the fire with his friends for one last time – they were all packed up and ready to go.
‘I’ll miss you all,’ he finally said, an unstoppable tear rolling down his cheek. ‘It’s been an ‘ell of an adventure!’
‘What you sayin’, boy?’ boomed Bill, he’d been half asleep in the fire glow, ‘I told you, we’re a family, and family don’t leave its own behind. You’re coming with us, lessen you’re fixed on staying? Long as there is a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Charlie, you’ll have a job!’
Charlie couldn’t believe his ears, he was so happy he cried.
Early next morning the little cockney boy rode out seated next to Annie Oakley on her wagon. He waved enthusiastically to the crowds who had come to see them off, he even thought he spied Arches Alf and the gang amongst the sea of faces, but he was never quite sure. It wasn’t goodbye to London forever, he’d be back there a few times with the show before too long; in the meantime the world awaited little Charlie and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.