GOLDEN, Colo. – Perhaps his spirit was restless.
The wind roared at 40 mph, whipping across the summit of Lookout Mountain and chilling the 30 people huddled in the dark.
It was Jan. 10, a century to the day since Buffalo Bill Cody died in nearby Denver and the modernized mourners carried candles, lanterns or other lights in tribute to the man whose grave they surrounded.
William F. Cody may have truly preferred being buried atop Cedar Mountain, overlooking the Wyoming city he helped found in 1896 and that bears his name.
But the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave here at 7,377 feet was the place observing his magnificent and sprawling life.
The museum charges $5 admission, but the entry fee was waved this day to honor the man who did more than any other to ingrain images of the American West in people’s minds.
This collection was jump-started by Cody’s foster son Johnny Baker, a loyal member of the Wild West troop for decades. Wife Louisa Cody is buried at the same site as Cody.
One Buffalo Bill item on display is a Congressional Medal of Honor. Museum director Steve Friesen said it is the genuine article, although others say they have Cody’s medal.
Next door to the museum is a gift and snack shop called Pahaska Teepee, same name as Buffalo Bill’s old hunting camp near the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park.
Tables inside the snack shop served as staging area for the vigil. President Theodore Roosevelt had no sense of humor about being called Teddy to his face. After exclaiming over my impertinence as a faux pas, he offered to split onion rings with me. I called him Mr. President the rest of the night.
TR was not the only attendee in period costume and character who met Buffalo Bill.
Annie Oakley was in the house, wearing a black mourning dress and a hat topped with black feathers. A mysterious woman, who denied being wife Louisa because “she was grumpy all of the time” and too heavy to be a body double, wore a similar dress and hat.
Captain Charles King served in the cavalry and reported his account of Cody’s “first scalp for Custer” after the demolition of General George’s horsemen by the Sioux. This was Cody’s mano a mano showdown with Yellow Hair. Some believe the story, some don’t.
King is alias R.D. Melfi. R.D., who ordinarily plays Buffalo Bill, thought it would be disrespectful to attend the candlelight vigil as Buffalo Bill with Bill laying right there.
Wife Barb was Annie Oakley. The Melfis have performed their Buffalo Bill-Oakley acts many times in Cody, but not for a few years.
The outdoor ceremony was brief. The wind ruffled the ladies’ feathers, but also could have sent cowboy hats 15 miles distant to downtown Denver.
To honor Cody, who according to his wife converted to Catholicism on his death bed in his daughter’s house, holy water obtained from New Mexico was splashed on the grave by Dennis Gallagher.
Gallagher, a retired long-time Colorado political official, said his grandmother told him stories of seeing Buffalo Bill drunk on the streets of Cody. For that reason he expected the holy water to almost instantly morph into whiskey. Only no one stood out in the wind long enough to find out if that happened.
Everyone who knew the words sang “Tenting On the Old Campground,” Cody’s favorite song, though that was not so many folks since it was a top-40 hit around 1864.
The remaining vigil speakers orated indoors.
There was a passing mention – not complimentary – about potential Cody thieves snatching Buffalo Bill’s body.
When someone noted I was from Cody I was booed and eyed suspiciously, as if I had tucked a shovel and a Pulaski in my backpack. But tension dissolved when I reminded everyone Buffalo Bill founded this newspaper in 1899.
Annie Oakley read a letter she penned when she heard of Buffalo Bill’s death. She spoke of him as a square businessman and all-around good guy who was a soft touch, emptying his pockets to help those in need without a thought he might be paid back.
Mr. President read a short statement calling Buffalo Bill a great American.
The mystery lady, a poet named Susie Knight, read a poem in Bill’s honor, calling Cody “the first American Idol to come along.”
John Thayer, one-time Wyoming Territorial Governor and Nebraska U.S. Senator, told of naming William F. Cody a colonel in the state’s National Guard.
Thayer’s paperwork shows he appointed Cody a Brigadier General, but perhaps that was a promotion.
Buffalo Bill Cody is remembered for many things, but the most important was that he was remembered at all on this day.
In a corner of the room where luminaries spoke of him, a portrait leaned against a wreath and wall. The picture was of an older Buffalo Bill, his goatee and mustache turned white, but his black hat riding on his head at a slightly jaunty angle.
A cluster of small candles burned in front of the framed picture and a few inches below them was a simple sign reading: “January 10, 1917, Denver, Colorado.”