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Buffalo Bill on Stage

Buffalo Bill Cody, who was born 173 years ago on February 26, 1846, was a brave man. By the time he turned 26 he had fought in the Civil War, ridden messages across hostile territory, hunted more than his share of big game, and faced hunger, thirst, and enemy gunfire as an Army scout on the prairie. But just before his 25th birthday, in February of 1872, William F. Cody faced what might have been the most frightening moment of his life.

Buffalo Bill Cody, 1872

Nearly two years earlier, he and his friend John "Texas Jack" Omohundro had met a writer who called himself Ned Buntline. Buntline had come west seeking Wild Bill Hickok, already a legend on the plains, but had hit a snag in his plan when he rushed into Hickok's favorite North Platte, Nebraska watering hole pointing at the gunslinger and yelling, "I want you! You're the man I'm after." Buntline immediately found himself staring down Hickok's twin Colt Navy revolvers as Wild Bill explained to the author that he wasn't in the mood for that kind of surprise and wasn't much inclined to answer the writer's questions.

Buntline moved on to Lew Baker's bar, where Texas Jack was serving as a bartender and Buffalo Bill was enjoying a beverage or two. The pair gave the writer plenty of material, and soon enough voracious dime novel readers would be treated to Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen and Texas Jack, White King of the Pawnee. The scout and the cowboy made a huge impression on eastern crowds, and in early 1871 a playwright named Fred Maeder adapted Buntline's Buffalo Bill story into a stage play, and Buntline convinced the genuine article to travel to New York City and witness the spectacle of seeing himself played by a professional actor.

Cody attended a performance, and when the crowd found out that the subject of the drama they had just watched was in the balcony, they cheered until he agreed to say a few words.

An ad in the New York Herald for Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen

"I found myself standing behind the footlights and in front of an audience for the first time in my life," Cody would write in his autobiography. "I looked up, then down, then on each side, and everywhere I saw a sea of human faces, and thousands of eyes all staring at me. I confess that I felt very much embarrassed—never more so in my life—and I knew not what to say."

Bill stammered a few words and left the stage. When the show's manager offered him the princely sum of $500 a week to stay and act the part of Buffalo Bill himself, Cody said, "I told him that it would be useless for me to attempt anything of the kind, for I never could talk to a crowd of people like that, even if it was to save my neck, and that he might as well try to make an actor out of a government mule. I thanked him for the generous offer, which I had to decline owing to a lack of confidence in myself; or as some people might express it, I didn't have the requisite cheek to undertake a thing of that sort."

So how did this man, unable to speak in front of an audience and enormously embarrassed by the whole experience, come to star in his own show by the end of the year? The short answer is that Texas Jack happened. Whether on a hunt, scouting for the Army, rounding up cattle, or battling Minneconjou Sioux, Texas Jack had his friend's back every step of the way. Jack had saved his life only months prior, so when Texas Jack said that if Cody couldn't face a crowd of theatre patrons alone, he would be right there beside him, the matter was settled. While Cody was wary of the enterprise, his wife wrote:

"As for Texas Jack, never was a person happier, for Texas Jack had absorbed the stage fever; he wanted to be an actor, and, what was more, he was going to be an actor whether the audiences said he could act or not."

It wasn't until they were together on stage that Buffalo Bill knew that his cowboy friend had been right.

"He was back home now," Louisa would write of her husband's first experience on stage, "with Texas Jack at his side, pulling the trigger of his six-shooter until the stage was filled with smoke, and until the hammers only clicked on exploded cartridges. They yelled. They shouted. They roared and banged away..."

An illustration of Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack's first time on stage, from Cody's 1879 autobiography.

From that moment, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro weren't scouts. They weren't the great hunter and the famous cowboy. They were stars.

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