By GAIL PARSONS
A gunfighter sits on a wooden bench as Old Abilene Town’s undertaker and marshal chat at the end of the street. All is peaceful, but they know that any moment gunfire can shatter the quiet afternoon.
Suddenly the silence is broken – a phone rings.
In the days that Wild Bill Hickok roamed the dusty streets of Abilene, and the occasional gunfight would let loose at high noon, communication with loved ones back east was limited to The Pony Express.
But on this day, Jeffrey Crippen, who plays the role of Jim Smith, was waiting on an important call from his wife who is serving in the United States Army half a world away in Saudi Arabia. This is her second deployment since the couple came to Fort Riley in 2008 with their three children, the first was to Afghanistan.
Every call, even if it is just to say goodnight as she prepares to end her day, is cherished because they take the place of a hug or loving glance. A disabled veteran, Crippen is a stay-at-home dad and a volunteer gunfighter, he also volunteers at the USO and the Male Spouses’ Club on Fort Riley.
He said his wife supports his hobby because it gives him an outlet. It is something that he can do and feel good about, and something he can do with the kids.
Crippen has been an Old Abilene Town gunfighter for the past year, ever since another stay-at-home dad, Steven Ten Eyck, whose wife is also in the Army, introduced him to it. Since that time, he has dived headfirst into the action.
The gunfighters perform on weekends at Old Abilene Town.
“A lot of us out here have military backgrounds,” he said “For me at first it was the intrigue of playing with guns. Every boy grows up playing cowboys and Indians.” But it quickly became more than that. “It’s part of history. For me it is part of my heritage.”
As he started researching his character and his own ancestry, he discovered he had one ancestor who rode with the Dalton gang. Another was associated with Jesse James. He also discovered that he actually had an ancestor by the name of Jim Smith, the same as his character, but he doesn’t think the real Jim Smith had quite the same personality.
Ten Eyck, who retired after 23 years in the Marines, plays the role of Oak Tree, a large burly gunfighter and “not a nice person at all,” he said. “He is a drunk and he’ll back shoot you, He’s a mean nasty individual.”
He says his alter ego is not at all like he is in real life. Family is very important to him and he would never actually shoot his daughter in the back if he caught her with a bottle of whiskey, like he did when she joined him playing her role of Devilyn Jones.
The reenacting is a family affair for the Ten Eyck, who, between Steven and his wife Rachel, have 12 children ranging in age from 2 to 14.
“If we couldn’t have the whole family involved, we wouldn’t do it,” he said.
They live on Fort Riley but enjoy the time they bring out a large tent and all the amenities of an 1870s camp and set up for several days at a time at Old Abilene Town.
“They learn a lot out here,” he said of the children, who are home schooled.
Tami Dempsey, 14, said she loves the reenacting as much as her parents do. She would like to spend a lot more time being involved in it and learning about the time period that her character lived, she said.
“I personally hate electricity. I hate phones. I don’t need it. I don’t like it. If I could, I would live without it,” she said recently as she watched the younger children playing around the campsite. “I would rather live out here than anywhere.”
She described her character, Devilyn Jones, as a “selective mute. She’s a gambler. Quite a character.”
When she joins the gunfighters around the poker table, she is not shy about keeping up with Texas Shotgun Red, the town drunk, who is played by Terry McGrath, president of the Gunfighters.
“They say I do a pretty good drunk,” he said. “Most gunfighters would come in town with three things in mind – get drunk, get a bath and find a girl – not necessarily in that order though.”
McGrath, who spent time in the National Guard, has been with the group since 1977, and is always welcoming of new participants.
He said different people get different benefits, for some it’s just about getting out there and having fun. “It makes me feel like a kid again.”
Often it encourages people to dig into their own history, like he did when he learned that one of his ancestors was a judge in the 1800s in Wakefield.
The only requirements to be a gunfighter are a pair of cowboy boots, a hat, black jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and a single action pistol. There are no membership fees and they ask members to show up at least once a year.
When they perform, they do so completely unscripted.
“Our shows are improv. We have a base idea but we never know what is going to happen, just that the marshal will not die,” Steven said.
One thing that he might be able to guess though, is that his real-life wife is likely to shoot him in the streets, even though her role is that of a caring doctor.
“What better marital therapy is there than to shoot your husband every week,” Rachel said.
Her role as Miss Jezzabelle Cordalaine gives her the opportunity to be a caring nurturing character that prefers not to shoot anyone.
“But I do because it’s fun,” she said.
She plays a doctor, but in real life is a mid-wife and has first aid training that was recently put to use when a visitor to Old Abilene Town had a heart attack and had stopped breathing.
Her children are growing up learning history by reenacting it, and learning responsibility by taking on the chores that they would have done had they been in Abilene in 1874, rather than in Old Abilene Town in 2013. With more than a half dozen children running around, it seems like life can get a bit hectic at the campsite.
“Most of the sounds are happy sounds. I like the busyness of it, the chaos of it, I wouldn’t’ trade it for the world,” she said. “Everyone has a job to do, even the little ones help. We work to maintain a living camp.”
The children also learn a healthy respect for firearms, which are an important part of the reenactments, and that they are not playthings. At age-appropriate levels they each learn about the guns.
“Tami at age 7 was winning black powder weapon competitions,” Rachel said.
Rachel’s appreciation for guns rolls over into her day job as a corporal stationed at Fort Riley with the 1st Support Maintenance Company, 541st Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.
“I’m not gun shy one bit,” she said. “Getting out there (in the heat) doesn’t’ bother me, 110 degree weather, heat cat. two or three – full uniform … .” She compared it to being in period clothes from the 1870s that tend to be about as hot as a full Army uniform.
She anticipates her and the family will continue fine tuning their characters in the coming years as they plan to apply for stability at Fort Riley and are hopeful that they will soon be joining the Abilene community as residents.
Crippen said he’ll have to leave the group soon. His wife returns from deployment in October and they already have orders for her next duty station. They’ll be leaving for Texas in November.
Meanwhile the invitation remains open to the public and the soldiers at Fort Riley to come out and be part of the group.
“We get quite a few military guys, but we can always use more gunfighters – the more the merrier,” McGrath said.