STRANGE DAY AT THE RANCH
by Ed Mohler

The day began as most did during the summer months in the Simi Valley, located in Southern California, to the west of Los Angeles. The weather was mild, clear and dry, with a very light chill in the morning air. By mid-day, it would be dry and hot, with the temperature ranging between the high 80's and the low 90's.

It was on a Saturday in the year 1959 when my stunt-fight partner, Steve Lodge, and I arrived at the main gates of the "Crash Corrigan Movie Ranch," also known as "Corriganville," where we were both employed as Western stuntmen-gunfighters - we did most of the fight scenes, as well as many other stunts that were required at the "Ranch".

Steve and I were a "fight team" - we worked together so well that it seemed as if we could read each other's minds, and it showed in the quality of our "fight scenes." In the short time we had known one another, we had become very close friends, as well. It was our usual routine to arrive between 7:30 and 8:00 in the morning. This gave us enough time to work out then eat breakfast before the public was allowed to enter the gates of the ranch.

The stunt shows would begin around 9:00 a.m. - depending on the size of the crowd. The shows would continue every half hour, on the half hour, until 6:00 p.m. This schedule was roughly the same every weekend of the year depending on the number of visitors.

The stunt shows were reenactments, based on actual historical events in the early west, and every effort was made to make them not only entertaining, but also as historically accurate as possible. They consisted of shootouts and knockdown, drag-out fistfight scenes. The 45-caliber, single-action, frontier model revolvers fired full-load, black powder blanks. Most movie gunfights used quarter loads. Full-load blanks used old-fashioned black powder, and produced an abundance of flame and a lot of smoke, plus an ear-shattering, loud BOOM!

I was also impressed with the professionalism shown by the stunt people I worked with; and not surprisingly, very few accidents ever occurred. However, if someone was hurt, there was always a registered nurse on duty. Most injuries were minor cuts, sprains or bruises. It was only on very rare occasion a serious injury might transpire. In my six months of employment at the ranch, I had never witnessed an injury that some iodine and a small band-aide couldn't handle.

Around 8:30 that morning, our casting director/stuntman, Bob Bickston, brought his own horse out onto the street. He had recently purchased the white stallion, and was in the process of training the horse for trick riding. Bob would ride from the end of the street at full gallop then slip off one side of the saddle, holding his knees up, while gripping the horn with both hands. When he let his feet hit the ground, he would spring up, landing back in the saddle. This skilled maneuver was called a "Pony Express Mount". The most important part of the trick is that the horse maintains its speed. Bob had completed the difficult tactic three successful times that morning; unfortunately, the fourth attempt did not go quite as Bickston had planned. As Bob's feet hit the ground and he was just starting to bounce back up, the horse put on the brakes, coming to a dead stop; however, Bickston kept on going - head first. Had it not been for Bob's dexterity at falling, he could very well have injured himself seriously as he rolled and slid for about 30 feet. Most of the cast was laughing because it looked very comical. But when he stopped rolling, he did not get up right away like he had always done in the past. Someone went over and tried to assist him; he finally managed to get up, but he was very angry - not only at the white stallion, but at himself, as well. Luckily he was not hurt that bad, just a little shaken up, with a few bruises and abrasions. Little did we know that there was more to come that day.

The next incident happened at an event called "The Hanging of Cattle Kate." In this show, one of the female stuntwomen was supposed to get hanged by a mob of angry posse members. The way it worked was that she would wear a leather harness under her costume, with a metal ring attached to the strap on the upper back. A rope was then thrown over the limb of a tree and the end was clipped to the ring of the harness. After that, a bandana was tied loosely around the stuntwoman's neck to hide the ring. The harness would then support her weight as she was hoisted up into the air about 10 feet and she would act like she was strangling for about a minute or so. Only this time things went somewhat differently. As she was raised up into the air by what appeared to be the hangman's rope, the harness she wore, worked as it should, but the bandana around her neck began to tighten. She was literally being slowly strangled (for real), and worst of all, nobody watching could tell she was in trouble - everyone thought she was doing a great job of acting. It wasn't until she was lowered down - almost unconscious - did anyone realize what had actually happened. Moments later, when she was finally able to speak, she sobbed and told us all that her whole life had passed before her eyes. I had seen that stunt performed many times before, and nothing like that had ever happened. A quick investigation revealed that when the slack in the rope was taken up, the bandana had not been loose enough, so it tightened considerably, causing an actual hanging (almost). She was very lucky she was not hurt more than she was.

Steve and I were involved in the next incident. We had agreed that he would win this fight. Toward the end of our phony altercation, I pretended to shove him hard against the front double-doors of the blacksmith's shop. As he slammed back against the wooden doors, I pretended I was punching him unmercifully. Suddenly he reached forward, grabbed me and whispered for me to check the back of his head, because he thought that he was bleeding. We had done this same fight routine at least a hundred times before, not counting our rehearsals, and we had also checked the wall for any nails, large splinters or screws like we always did before a stunt fight, and found nothing. But when I bent him over, I could see blood flowing from a gash on the back of his head. We had somehow found a very small nail in one of the doors, and we found it the hard way. I told him about the wound, and Steve told me to just finish him off. His legs were all rubbery, and his eyes appeared to be crossed; nevertheless, the show must go on. So I pretended to punch him two more times until he sagged across the hitch rail, then slowly lowered himself to the ground. It still looked very real, and he was able to join me as we took our bows. But Steve wound up visiting the nurse to stop the bleeding, and was checked out at the local medical clinic later on. Luckily, all he received was a few stitches and a large bandage - plus the rest of the day off.

The next incident involved another fight as well; only this squabble was between two women. I used to enjoy watching these two stuntwomen put on a catfight. The confrontation these two put on was very realistic, as they pulled each other's hair, screaming and wrestled around on the floor or ground. This fight was just prior to the event called "Judge Roy Bean's Court," as the taped background music played, and the historical narration apprised the audience of the situation about to occur. The two women, dressed as saloon girls, would engage in a catfight that would last about twenty seconds - a very enjoyable twenty seconds. They would roll around on a table, roll off onto the floor, then after about five more seconds of tussling, two or three male cast members would pull them apart and the actual event would begin. In this case, as the two women rolled off the table, they landed flat on the ground - one on top of the other. The woman on the bottom wound up getting the breath knocked out of her when the other stuntwoman came down flat on top of her. But as she came down, her legs were slightly bent, and unfortunately, the point of her knee landed on a small pebble, resulting in a nasty cut and painful bruise on her kneecap. I definitely felt sorry for the lady, and was quite relieved to find that her knee was just bruised, and not broken or cracked.

The next problem came during the knock down, drag out fistfight event called the "Johnson County Cattle War." This fight was one that Steve and I usually did; however, since Steve was out of commission, I was working with another stuntman I only knew as "Sleepy". Sleepy and I had worked together a number of times before and it had always gone well, so I was not really that concerned. The actual fight went very well, but we were coming to the end of the fight where I pretended to knock Sleepy over a hitching rail. I still don't know why, but I had misjudged the distance, and as he went over the rail, one of his boots came up and caught me right between the legs - with enough force to lift me off the ground. I felt a large flash of pain, and saw stars before my eyes. I remember wishing I had worn some better protection. I doubled over, leaning on the hitching rail, because of the pain. My legs were shaking, and if the rail hadn't been there, I probably would have been doubled over on the ground. As it was, I nearly lost my lunch; though I was able to remain on my feet. When Sleepy eventually got to his feet and saw the condition I was in, he came forward as if to grab me, I clinched with him and told him to go down and stay down. I threw two more fake punches and he went down. I gritted my teeth, and with all of the strength that I could muster, I pushed away from the rail and finished the event. That injury really ruined my day. And boy, was I grateful that he wasn't wearing spurs.

Another problem occurred after "The Killing of Sheriff Brady," one of the most popular events we performed at Corriganville. It was one of the well-liked "Billy the Kid" stories our audiences found very entertaining. The event consisted of nine or ten stuntmen, armed with 45-caliber, Colt frontier model pistols, using full-load blanks. By the time the event was over, there would be about eight supposedly dead men lying on the smoke-filled street. Along with the stuntmen were also their pistols. The most experienced of the cast members would be picking up the guns. It wasn't unusual to find some of the guns still cocked ready to fire. Picking up a cocked weapon is, in itself, dangerous. When picking up a cocked pistol, the best way is to put your thumb in front of the hammer and keep your fingers away from the trigger, moving away from anyone on the ground before you attempt to lower the hammer. In this case, a newer cast member picked up a cocked pistol while men still lay on the ground. Then he attempted to lower the hammer - to do so the trigger had to be squeezed enough to disengage the hammer. The stuntman on the ground was Jim Wadell, a man very experienced at handling guns. He just happened to look up and saw that the gun was pointed directly at his face. Very calmly, he told the new man not to point the pistol at him; then he turned his face away from the gun. The new cast member had started to move away when the pistol went off, blowing a rooster-tail of sandy grit into the air about four-feet high. Luckily for Wadell, he was not hit or burned.

It was getting close to quitting time when a stuntman by the name of Ricky Silva walked over to another stuntman, Dick Leming, and told him to go over the rail. This is something we all did now and then, to entertain our audience between shows. Leming was standing on the boardwalk, itself about two feet off of the ground. He was also taken by surprise. Silva threw a fake punch at Dick, striking him in the shoulder. Leming fell from the boardwalk, over the hitch-rail, and onto the ground. The fall looked great, but as Leming hit the ground, he struck his head on one of the rails as he went over, and knocked himself unconscious. When he finally came to, he also visited the nurse - no concussion, just a large bump on the side of his head.

It was now after six o'clock, and the visitors had all gone home for the day. Charlie Aldrich, head of the stunt shows, was holding us over for rehearsal of a few shows. That was normal if a new show was to be introduced, or a present show might be in need of more work. It started as Bob Bickston and two other bad guys came out of the saloon and walked up the street. They were acting as if they were drunk and looking for trouble. They were loud, noisily passing around a pint bottle, pretending to be drinking from it. Actually the pint was sealed with a liquid inside. The bottle was specially made of very heavy glass, making it shatterproof. As the three men approached Jim LaBow, one of the other stuntmen, Bickston threw him the bottle. It hit him on the left side of the forehead, just above his left eyebrow. The force was great enough to knock him off his feet, and was accompanied by a loud "smack" sound. This left a one and one half inch cut over his eye, requiring stitches to close.

The light was fading, it was finally decided to finish up and call it a night. Personally I was glad the day was finally over. Some of us took note that a full moon was rising in the east - large and clear - as we shuffled over to our cars. The strange day we had all just encountered was the topic of everyone's discussion. Everyone had a different opinion as to why the day had gone as it had. Some said it was the result of the full moon, others believed it was the law of averages, and even others felt that it was just coincidence. As far as I was concerned, it could have been any one of those theories, or none of them at all - I wasn't sure. The only thing I could come up with was, fortunately, no one had been fatally injured on that very ... strange ... day.