Western Short Story
The warm gust whisked away just about anything that wasn't battened down as it swept through the North Platte, Nebraska arena. When the dusty flurry coated the overflow crowd, most spectators simply wiped their eyes with their slightly grimy bandanas and riveted their focus on the pair of galloping riders. They weren't sure who the racers were, but assumed they must be two of Buffalo Bill Cody's best fellows. When the riders reached the grandstand, they spurred their animals and flew past the cheering crowd. While they circled the arena, they took turns falling back to let the other rider take the lead position. That lead never lasted long, as their racing partner pressed the trailing steed into action and dashed forward in a dust cloud.
Finally, after speeding neck and neck, the riders slowed their steeds to a near stop in front of the appreciative audience and hopped off in mid stride. As they bowed to the onlookers, the pair removed their hats to reveal something quite unexpected – long flowing locks. The riders, Georgia Duffy and Della Ferrell, were members of Buffalo Bill's select group of "Western Girls." The expert horsewomen in his Wild West show were often billed as the Beautiful Rancheras. Although Annie Oakley has overshadowed the others in the chronicles of the Wild West show, they were all popular members of the lively spectacle. The spirited ladies infused the performance with added sparkle and gave the fellows in the audience a reason to buy tickets for the next day's show.
Wyoming born Georgia Duffy joined Cody's show in 1886, a year after Annie Oakley had signed on. Della Ferrell of Colorado signed up in '87. The two often teamed up in relay acts, but also gave riding and roping performances separately. Della preferred to ride sidesaddle, which added an extra challenge to her routine. Georgia became known not only for great equestrian skills but also her impeccable dress. One of the Wild West show flyers billed them as "graceful representatives of physical and equestrian beauty."
Like most of the Rancheras, Georgia and Della often adorned their outfits with beads and tassels. As might be expected though, despite their fancy wardrobes, most of them were not girly girls. This was the case throughout the decades. Take for instance, Goldie Griffith, billed as "The gol darndest gal who ever sat leather." She not only rode broncos, but made a name for herself as both a wrestler and a boxer. Despite her tomboy streak, Goldie had a romantic side. While working with Buffalo Bill's show, the fiery cowgirl fell for a handsome daredevil rider. When Buffalo Bill heard about the impending marriage of two of his performers, Goldie and Harry, he sensed a money-making promotion. Cody scheduled the ceremony for an upcoming performance at Madison Square Garden.
Unfortunately, the event didn't unfold with romantic precision. During the previous evening's performance, one of the performers had fired a blank cartridge too close to Goldie's horse and spooked it. The panicky steed lurched and galloped toward the Fourth Avenue side of the Garden, where it reared and deposited poor Goldie in a previously empty front-row box seat. Although some folks initially thought it was part of the performance, they soon realized Goldie was in big trouble. As one local newspaper reported, "many men and women in the audience stood up, and some put their hands over their eyes in horror." Their concern was justified. Goldie was knocked unconscious and only awoke later as an ambulance rushed her to Bellevue Hospital. She was wracked with pain, and could hardly move her right leg. Squinting through a blinding headache, she croaked with parched lips, "My Wedding!"
The nurse in the ambulance calmed her, and later the emergency room doctor informed Goldie that her wedding would likely need to wait a week or so. Nevertheless, on May 9, 1913, only one day after the planned nuptials, Goldie stood in Madison Square Garden's arena. Taking a deep breath, she dabbed a little rouge on her cheeks and limped toward her horse. Once there, a bridesmaid helped her to mount, taking care not to touch the bruises on Goldie's throbbing right leg. Soon, 8,000 viewers applauded as Goldie and Harry trotted to the center of the arena to tie the knot. Meanwhile, their friends rode in circles around them, firing their guns, hollering, and throwing rice and old shoes. Sadly, the agonizing pain, which still ricocheted through her head, foreshadowed the pain in the remainder of their chaotic marriage. Harry, as it turned out, was a walking headache who was much more interested in womanizing and heavy drinking than spending time with his new bride.
Three years after their Wild West show friends had circled them with guns blazing, Goldie's blazing gun ended the disastrous relationship – and very nearly ended Harry. Not only had he failed to walk the line of sobriety and faithfulness, he eventually abandoned her in Denver. Months afterwards, he returned to Denver but made no attempt to contact her. When Goldie learned about this, she was furious. She tracked him down, pulled a pistol, and fired off a shot. Fortunately the ammunition had gone bad and spewed a billowing cloud of smoke. As it did, the bullet missed its mark. Luckily for Harry, that was also the case with the next two shots Goldie fired off through the blinding fog of gun smoke. As the police carted her away, she muttered about Harry being a "slippery old snake." Turning to the gathering crowd, she howled, "I just wish I'da done the job!" Fortunately, Harry didn't press charges. Likely he realized he was indeed, a slippery old snake.
Another of Cody's Western Girls, Lula Bell Parr, was once crowned the "Champion Lady Bucking Horse Rider of the World." She was a multitalented performer who shined in bronco busting, trick riding, and sharp shooting. Lula also became known for her flamboyant homemade outfits, and received top billing for years. The foundation of that career was laid early. Sadly, both her parents died when she was about three and she and her brother lived with her aunt and uncle on their Indiana farm. Young Lula immediately fell in love with the farm animals, especially the horses. Every chance she found, she would climb up and into the saddle. By the age of eight, Lula was already a skilled rider.
Unfortunately, her love affair with the animals turned out better than that with the young man she selected for a husband. Although she didn't shoot at him like Goldie did, she eventually divorced him. Shortly after the divorce, Lula joined Pawnee Bill's show where she performed as a sharp shooter. After about 5 years, she left to tour Europe with another show and then in 1911, rejoined Pawnee Bill. By that time, he had teamed up with Cody's original Wild West show. Lula became famous for breaking any wild horse presented to her. In fact, she also jumped on the backs of the hairy critters in the Wild West's buffalo herd. Buffalo Bill was so impressed with Lula's skill and daring, he presented her with an engraved ivory-handled revolver. When a newspaper reporter once asked him to comment on Lula's bravery, he confirmed her valor. "Bronco busting isn't a game for the timid and weak," he corroborated, "death lurks close every time a rider mounts up."
Another member of the Wild West's feminine cadre came from Arkansas. Annie Shafer, like Lula Bell, practically grew up on a horse. She rode horses on her father's ranch almost before she could walk and broke her first wild horse at fourteen. She joined the show in 1907 and was billed as "the only female bucking-pony rider of the world." Ponies, she would explain, differed from broncos in being agile and able to put on a good bucking show, but were usually tame in the saddle. She said that during her career, she ran across some that, despite being trained to eat out of her hand, would act the next day, "as if they'd never seen a bridle before."
These ponies were usually termed "outlaws" and weren't used in the show. "We'd just leave 'em out in the field," Annie confided, "and catch one now and then when we want to have fun with 'em." Like the other Beautiful Rancheras, she was a favorite for newspaper reporters. Shortly after she joined the show, a female reporter decided to ask Annie a lighthearted question that might elicit a lively quote. Since Annie obviously was an expert at managing wild horses, she inquired whether she would have any advice on managing men. Picking up on the humorous intent of the question, Annie replied, "I've never seen a buckin' horse I couldn't manage and I've never seen the man I could." Then, with a twinkle in her eyes, she clarified her position, "but I like 'em just the same!"