A slender lad named “Rooster” raised his shotgun and waited for Scrub Tub Cholly’s chickens to take flight.
Rooster had just hoofed it to Fort Spokane for medicine to aid his cholera-stricken town, and was now preparing to raid Scrub Tub’s ranch to feed his sickly neighbors.
Or so the story goes.
In reality, Rooster took four steps at a rifle range and waited for range workers to fix kinks in a mechanical throwing arm that was to sling orange clay pigeons - the “chickens.”
Welcome to a scene from Sunday’s Great Northern Far Country Fracas, an Old West rendezvous that combined stylish gunplay and outlandish fiction in an attempt to recreate and preserve cowboy heritage.
It’s a world where men and women wear vests, bandannas and square-toed boots, and carry rifles on a shoulder and pistols on their hips.
And it’s a world where, according to organizer Bill Falk, president of the 45-member Panhandle Regulators old-time shooting club, chickens fly - if the story so dictates.
“At least Cholly’s do,” Falk said Sunday, as a clay bird finally took off, only to hover a few disappointing inches from the ground. “Just not too good.”
The 129 competitors here are part of a growing national cadre of “cowboy action shooters” - antique gun owners, collectors and history buffs. Most belong to the international Single Action Shooting Society, which now boasts more than 10,000 members who are part of what the Wall Street Journal last year dubbed the “fastest-growing sport in the world.”
“It’s basically a bunch of grownups playing cowboy with live ammo,” Falk said.
Three essential ingredients mark events like Sunday’s Fracas: Participants must dress in costume from the 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s; they can only use guns from that period; and everyone uses an alias.
Falk goes by “Major Cole.” Other names include “Suncrest,” “Shadow Grande” and, for a thin off-duty female chemistry teacher, “School Marm.”
The park Sunday was a mix of carnival, movie set and war zone. There was a quick-draw shooting gallery, a handful of little red wagons chock-full of ammunition, and a white canvas tent city where merchants sold clothing, antiques and old-time photographs.
Retiree Dan Colen surveyed the scene and muttered that he was born in the wrong century.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I wouldn’t give up the social advances we’ve made. But I think lots of us would like to go back 100 years, to when times were simpler, people were trusting and you could walk down the street and know you’d be treated civilly.”
At first glance, newcomers weren’t likely to suspect civility played any role in the post-Civil War West.
A nearby field full of hastily erected wooden facades formed the backdrop for staged jail breaks, barroom gunfights and shootouts sparked by five-aces poker hands.
Shooters fired at brass and steel targets representing everything from church bells and lamps to fictitious gangs, cheating gamblers and Big Bad Bob the Albino.
One towheaded toddler sucked on a used shell casing as his father defended himself from crazed metal cattlemen.
Colen shrugged amiably.
“If you know your Western history you know there really wasn’t that much shooting back then,” he said.
In fact, many weapons used this weekend were made by an Italian company Falk said makes more Civil War-era replica guns “than were ever produced by Colt.”
While marksmanship is the high point of the weekend - “bowling with bullets,” Falk called it - it’s not all that draws participants.
A costume contest prompts participants to spend as much time with their uniforms - from redcoated Canadian Mountie digs to black-capped gunslinger garb - as their weapons. Sundown brings campfires, cowboy poetry and sing-alongs.
Insurance man Ken Kelso, 38, of LaCrosse, Wash., joined the club as a shooting buff but has since turned his attention to history.
“I read five books this winter,” he said, jokingly noting that’s more than he’d read since his school days.
“It’s good family entertainment.”
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