After the American frontier closed, wild west shows travelled the world bringing the myth of the West to the rest of the world. Many ringmasters found themselves performing for unconventional audiences. This story first appeared in Science Fiction Trails (#1), edited by David B. Riley and published by Pirate Dog Press. — ed, N.E. Lilly
by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt ©2007
Buck Reynolds surveyed the work going on around him. In the corral, riders were taking horses through their morning paces. The buffalo and cattle grazed lazily. The sideshow tents were already up, and half of the game booths. Chinese and Negro hands labored under the ropes of the big tent. Everything was as it should be.
Only they should have been doing this back East, not in the middle of nowhere. He wasn’t entirely sure where they were even. West of Colorado, that was sure. The sky was nowhere this blue east of the Rockies. The rock formations on the horizon were a little like the Painted Desert, but a little like the Dakota Badlands too. The air was hot but dry, the world so beautiful it made Buck’s heart ache.
He wished he were back East.
“It will be a most interesting performance.”
Buck forced himself not to look at the smaller man who was suddenly there beside him. “Your bosses promised a crowd. I don’t see no crowd.”
“You were compensated handsomely for your time and travel, Mr. Reynolds. The first half of the gold was delivered as was promised. The private train arrived on time and delivered you here ahead of schedule, did it not? Have a little faith, Mr. Reynolds.”
Buck turned to look at last. The man was almost short enough to be a sideshow man, if Buck were running a circus and not a Wild West show. He was dressed to the nines as always, and didn’t seem bothered by the heat. Buck had never liked how he couldn’t see the lawyer’s eyes through his spectacles. “We’re here, aren’t we, Mr. Smith? And the Buck Reynolds Western Extravaganza has never backed out of a contract.” He spat onto the short, dry grass. “Maybe I just a little nervous because we usually have a crowd chasing us to the fairgrounds. Maybe I’m nervous because my men are nervous. Maybe I just don’t like middlemen. Maybe I want to look the men who hire me in the eyes.”
Smith laughed, the sound strangely loud in the wide space. “All in good times, Mr. Reynolds. If the show goes well tonight, I have no doubt that our mutual employers will want to meet you also. If the show goes well. I will leave you to your preparations.”
The little lawyer disappeared. He had an annoying habit of doing that, disappearing and reappearing at will. Ever since he had shown up after their last engagement in upstate New York. Sometimes Buck wondered why he had ever spoken with the man in the first place, much less agreed to do a show for his mysterious employers. An idiot would have realized right away that “Smith” wasn’t the lawyer’s real name, and Buck was no idiot.
It had been the gold, that was all. The gold had been real enough, and even the down payment was almost ten times their usual fee for a three-week engagement. All for a single show, travel included. Enough money to stop the big city banks from breathing down his neck. Enough money so he could pay months of back wages. Enough money that they didn’t have to spend months touring podunk towns just to end up further in the red than they were the year before. Enough to get his pearl-handled revolvers out of hock.
He sometimes didn’t know why he kept this flea-bitten dog and pony show going. Then he only had to look up at the men and women he had working under him. It was all they had. It was all any of them had. This contract had been a real godsend. He just didn’t like dealing in the dark.
He spat again. “Hell, it’s not like Buck Reynolds is my real name neither.”
The men had finally gotten the tent up and Buck slipped inside. He always liked to take a look around before any customers arrived. It was his name on the sign, and the big tent was his own private universe. In here you could almost forget about everything else, forget about banks and investors and bills clamoring to be paid. You could forget about a world rushing to a new century and leaving you behind. You could forget about it all, if only for an evening, and relive the way the West used to be.
He knew that was why the crowds came back East. To escape from a world spinning faster and faster. To look back to a simpler time, when you could tell who was good and who was bad simply by the color of their hats. He didn’t know if the yokels back East actually thought that things had been like that, or if they simply engaged in a little bit of self-deception.
Buck had seen the real West. He’d lived it. Too young for the War between the States, he had seen how that conflict had scarred everyone it had touched. And those wounds came West with the veterans and festered until they were rancid. He had seen what the Whites did to the Mexicans and the Indians for their land, worse than anything the Indians were doing to each other. He’d seen how Negroes had come out West only to find the same bigotry and worse that they were trying to leave. Or they got caught up in the crusade against the red man. He had seen how the Chinese had gotten hated wherever they went, because they worked harder for less pay and didn’t pray to the white man’s God.
He had been a part of the madness. He bore the scars from Indian bullets, and it had taken him years to learn how to walk in a way that disguised his limp. In the Army he had done things that still gave him nightmares. Things with his bare hands, and things that seemed more distant because they had been done with a gun. His people knew what he had done, though not the worst of it, and he still had red men in his show. Red, white, black, yellow — they all helped him to recreate a West that never was.
And how the crowds ate it up! This sanitized, prettified version of the West, where you never saw a black cowboy or an industrious Mexican. Where the Army always rode in to save the white settlers from the bad Indians, rather then burning men, women, and children in their sleep on their own land so someone else could take it. Where Custer had been a tragic hero instead of a pompous fool in way over his head.
A place where you could become rich beyond the dreams of Midas, with just a little hard work. Where a man really could escape his past and get a second chance, instead of carrying his problems with him and reliving his mistakes over and over again. Where the world was a big enough place for all your dreams, and there was still more to discover at the end of the day. The crowds wanted to believe that a place like that existed, if only once upon a time. They needed the myth of the West.
Hell, maybe Buck and his troupe needed it more than they did.
His mind flashed to the laudanum kit in his tent, but he shook his head. Not today. He needed his wits about him tonight. He looked over to where the men were putting up the “luxury box”, all blue painted wood and red, white, and blue ribbons. He needed to stay sober if only to get to the bottom of this mystery. Who would hire a half-rate Wild West show and pay them — hire a train for them, for God’s sake! — to put on a show in the middle of nowhere? Answering that question was worth staying sober for, if only for a few hours.
The day flew by, and his men got more and more nervous as evening approached. The big show wasn’t supposed to start until sunset local time, but there should have been people here by now. He had run into Mr. Smith a little after noon. The run was putting up some odd green boxes in various corners of the big tent. A little bigger than a lunch pail, they had a strange... roundness to them. Like they had grown like mushrooms and Smith had simply harvested them off a giant tree. “Cameras,” he explained when pressed. “Our employers want the evening to be captured forever.”
“I ain’t ever seen cameras like that before.”
“Oh, they’re very new. From... Europe.”
Buck frowned, but finally relented, with the proviso that he receive a copy of the prints for possible publicity purposes. “Oh, our mutual employers will be happy to oblige in any way that they are able.” The strange cameras set, the little man pulled another one of his vanishing acts.
Buck continued his pacing, wondering for the hundredth time why he had gotten them all into this. The sun was painting the rocks on the horizon colors even Buck had never seen before when their crowd finally began to arrive. His men stopped what they were doing and stared openly. Indians. An entire crowd of Indians. Men and women marching in long rows, not one under thirty. Buck didn’t recognize the cut of the cloth garments they wore or the abstract patterns of the beadwork. He heard somebody behind him mutter something in Sioux about the “reptile people” or the “snake worshippers”. One of the Indians from the show. Buck wished his Sioux wasn’t so rusty, and he knew that if he pressed the man he’d only get tight-lipped silence in return.
The Indians did not go to any of the sideshows, did not visit the food booths or engage in any games of skill or chance. They simply paid their V-nickels and filed into the big tent. It was as if they weren’t here to see the show at all, but the show was simply a means to some greater end. Something to be endured, like the difficulties of a pilgrimage. Buck knew that his show was no shrine. How had Smith gotten them to come? What had he told them?
And would the show be able to deliver?
Buck let the tent fill up, ignoring the worried looks from the sideshow men. The company was still being paid enough to keep the whole mess afloat for another three years. The booth men would get over their wounded pride. Buck was more concerned because the success of the sideshows always gave him a gauge to how the main show was going to go that night. He was in the dark here about a lot of things.
The sun at last sank below the horizon, and still no sign of his mysterious patrons. Smith had told him to start at sunset regardless, and Buck didn’t want to find his troupe stranded in the middle of nowhere for some stupid breach of contract nonsense. The tent glowed a warm brown from the lamps lit inside. Buck put on his hat. It was time to start.
Seeing him enter, the band picked up the opening tune. Buck took a moment to slip into his stage persona and to survey the crowd. He almost fell on his backside. The luxury box was full, and with perhaps two dozen of the strangest critters he had ever laid eyes on. It wasn’t just that the outfits they wore were a stunning collage of finery that could have come from the court of Louis XIV or even that of Good Queen Bess. The masks, though extravagant even if this had been a Carnival, were not out of place with the outfits. No, it was the people themselves that were so strange.
Not that they were unattractive. Quite the contrary. Men and women moth displayed a slender regularity and symmetry of form and line, adding up to more beauty in quality and quantity than Buck had ever seen in one place. He wondered if there were two dozen handsomer people on the planet. They were beautiful, but if you looked at them for any length of time, you just couldn’t help but feel that something was... off. Like they were wearing these beautiful bodies just like they were simply another part of their costumes. That they could take them off just as easily as they could remove their masks.
A drum rolled loudly behind Buck’s head. He had missed his opening cue. Coughing away a curse, Buck stepped into the spotlight. “Ladies and gentlemen! They call me Buck Reynolds, and I’m honored to welcome you this evening to the Buck Reynolds Western Extravaganza! Tonight before your very eyes, you’ll see all the pageantry and drama, the heartache and romance that is the Wild West. So sit back, and enjoy the show!”
The Indians remained motionless, though the party in the box applauded at his words, the sound seeming so small in the big tent. Buck slipped away as the opening act began. A tribal dance, if things went according to script.
Buck had a feeling that tonight things weren’t going to go to script.
But in spite of his premonition, things went well. Things went really well. Through the subsequent acts unrolled the history of the West. The grandeur of the Plains covered with seas of buffalo. The hard, but noble life of all who drew their life from the wild land. Even the encounter of White and Black and Red and Yellow civilizations seemed less of a bloodbath, and more of an intricate dance. If the dance included tragedy, if it included horrible, nameless things, that was simply because the dancers were men. That did not take away from the joy of the dance, from the adventure.
The audience ate it up. While the Indians’ faces remained ever impassive, Buck could feel the energy coming from their active interest. There was something special about this show. It didn’t paper over what had happened to anyone; there was more than enough guilt to go around. But somehow everything that had happened was incorporated into a larger story. A story that was still being written. A story that the audience could help write the end to.
If the Indians calmly approved, those seated in the luxury box could not contain their enthusiasm. They whooped with the Indians, drove steel with the Negroes and Chinese, lived and fought and died and struggled on with the Whites. The animals seemed to love the attention, and Buck could have sworn he saw a pair of horses preening for the box’s approval. He had thought they would have been put off by the same oddness he had noticed earlier, but they seemed much more troubled by Mr. Smith’s strange cameras and their flashes coming at irregular intervals.
He had been superb in his own performance, if he had to say so himself. Buck found himself getting lost in the story of the character he played. The scarred veteran of the Civil War, emotionally alone though surrounded by men. Lost on a campaign, and nursed back to health by a lovely Indian maid. He proved himself to the tribe by winning a sharpshooting contest. Face to face with one of the braves, they both fired. His bullet missed, where Buck’s bullet split the feather of the man’s headband in half. It was clearly a deliberate shot, and Buck’s mercy was greeted by the tribe with loud approval.
The narrative paused for further displays of sharpshooting for the audience. Not quite sure what compelled him, Buck went over to the box and took the hand of a woman. Her fellows egged her on, and Buck brought her to a large target in the center of tent. As men fastened her hands and legs to the target, Buck leaned in and whispered, “Just don’t move. Everything will be ok.” She stared back at him with deep, penetrating eyes. And Buck wasn’t sure she had understood him.
Men tied balloons around the perimeter of the woman’s body, while Buck fastened a blindfold around his eyes. The crowd hushed, not realizing that he had paced out his distance to the target and could hit any given spot on it with his eyes closed. A hush fell over the crowd. The roll of a drum. Six shots from his pearl-handled Colts. Six popped balloons.
Even the Indians were standing and stamping their feet for that one as Buck took his blindfold off.
The show whirled on. An evil colonel had conspired with a train baron to defraud the Indians of their land. Buck rides through the surrounding army to get word to the general at the fort. The besieged village gives up hope but battles on. Suddenly bugles sound. It’s the cavalry, with Buck and the general at the head. The colonel stands down, and he and the railroad man are taken into custody. A telegram comes from the President. The lands are to be the tribe’s in perpetuity. Buck embraces his Indian bride, and the lights fade.
It hadn’t gone that way, not in real life. The West wasn’t like that. And yet... it could have been. For a brief moment under the big tent, it was like that. All the potential and all the beauty, all the wide-open spaces, had been large enough for anyone of good will to share. The senses of exploration and adventure that had driven men ever Westward had also driven them to explore new frontiers, of friendship and understanding and spirit.
It was all over before Buck had really realized it, and he found himself standing apart from his troupe, Mr. Smith pumping his hand. “I knew it. I knew when I saw you in New York that you would be the man for the job. They loved it! They absolutely loved it! They want to meet you. To congratulate you.”
Smith steered him over to the luxury box. The occupants were laughing and chatting loudly, and to Buck’s surprise, he realized that he didn’t know what language they could possibly be speaking in. No language he had ever heard in the States or on the Continent.
All eyes turned to him. A man arose who appeared older than the others. He was arrayed like a king, all in gold and blue and purple and scarlet. He smiled at the woman who had starred in Buck’s trick shooting performance. “Thank you.”
Two simple words, spoken in a rough, rasping voice that could not speak English. Not one that was unused to the language, but one whose entire production mechanism was unsuited for producing human sounds. And then the king of the patrons cupped his hand over Buck’s forehead.
Images flashed through his mind. It was like staring directly into a photographer’s flash powder. But with each flash thoughts and images and emotions burst into Buck’s head. Somehow he knew it was the history of the person touching him. A black sky filled with stars. A green and blue world teeming with life. A wriggling upward and upward of a creature that was neither lizard nor snake, but somehow both. Ages of progress and ages of violence. A clawed hand reaching out to grasp the stars. A world torn asunder in red flames. A hardening of life, as if being encased in a shell. Another world, this world. Hope. Life. Future.
The man... lizard... whatever it was took its hand from Buck’s head. Smith smiled. “Quite something, are they not? When they destroyed their own world, the survivors started to suppress their sense of adventure. Their sense of wonder. But who can survive without a sense of wonder? As the survivors traveled among the stars, their way of life became more and more rigid. It was in danger of ossifying entirely.
“And then they found this world. They have been studying it for quite some time, and have made contact with the power of their minds.” The lawyer glanced at the Indians in the seats. “But only recently have they decided to set foot themselves on our humble sphere. Our employers here had hoped that they could learn something tonight. Re-discover something that they’d lost.” Smith exchanged smiles with the leader of the group. “In that regard, I would call the evening a rousing success.”
Buck looked from the lawyer to the group in the luxury box. Reptile-men from the stars. They had been performing for reptile-men from beyond the stars. He was having a hard time getting his mind around the fact. But maybe he had needed this as much as they had. Maybe it wasn’t so bad that shows like this were about a myth. Not that you wanted to go around rewriting history and ignoring injustice.
But maybe the Myth of the West could be used to heal as well as entertain. Maybe there was a place that was big enough for people to get along and to write their own stories. If the West wasn’t like that now, maybe they could make it more like the myth, at least a little.
Buck offered his hand to the leader of the group. “Any time you want a repeat performance, you just let me know.”
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt was born and raised in Western Michigan and currently lives in Arkansas. Recent examples of his speculative fiction has appeared online in Alien Skin Magazine and The Sword Review, and in print in Renard’s Menagerie magazine and in the Eneit Press anthology, In Bad Dreams.