VAN BUREN — When the smoke cleared, six men lay dead, gunned down in the street over a petty argument about a drunken man who went to jail.
A crowd of 75 onlookers broke into applause as the dead men popped to their feet.
The big shootout was the climax of a 30-minute program staged Saturday in downtown Van Buren by the Old West re-enactment group Lawbreakers and Peacemakers.
The skit involved a group of cowboys on a cattle drive who went into town to pick up one of their wranglers who was in jail for wounding a deputy while drunk. But, a group of lawmen wasn’t willing to let him go, and the tension built until finally they all drew their pistols.
In a second, the small section of Seventh Street roped off for the re-enactment was filled with the popping of six-guns and clouds of blue gunpowder smoke.
The shooting was the best part of the show for 8-year-old Xaiver Holman of Roland, Okla., who traveled to Van Buren on Saturday with his parents and three siblings for the re-enactment.
His mom, Kathleen, said she saw an advertisement for the re-enactment Friday and thought the kids would love seeing it.
“I thought it was excellent,” she said.
The Lawbreakers and Peacemakers has had its current cast of 32 for eight years, group president Gil Snipes said as he stood on a street corner in his re-enactment outfit, complete with grizzled beard; rumpled hat; and smelly, well-chewed cigar.
The group performs 10-12 times a year, mostly at events like festivals in the spring and fall, he said. On Saturday, the group was invited to perform by Van Buren’s downtown merchants association to promote downtown revitalization.
Lawbreakers and Peacemakers is a nonprofit group, Snipes said. Any money it raises from sponsorships goes to local charities such as veterans groups and the Community Services Clearinghouse in Fort Smith. Most of that charity’s contributions go to feed the hungry, and Lawbreakers and Peacemakers last year raised the equivalent of 100 meals.
“One of the most immediate needs for charity is food,” Snipes said.
Some of the money the group raises goes toward buying the blank ammunition used in the shows. Re-enactor Joe Miller said the group can go through 100 rounds in a single performance.
The group bases many of its skits on real events, Miller said. Some of them are based on information taken from the court trial records of U.S. District Judge Issac C. Parker, who presided over the court in Fort Smith from 1875-96. He said the re-enactors try to be educational as well as entertaining.
David Akins of Elkhart, Texas, director of the Reenactment Guild of America, said the 750-member national re-enactors’ organization, of which Lawbreakers and Peacemakers is a member, is dedicated to the preservation and education of the history of 19th century America, primarily the American frontier West.
The guild has members in 11 states. Most of those are western states, but it also has members in Indiana and New Jersey. The majority of the members in New Jersey are re-enactors at the Wild West City theme park in Netcong.
He said interest in re-enacting has grown about 20 percent in the past decade, in part, because of the rising popularity in western movies such as Tombstone that glamorized the Old West.
And re-enactors in Lawbreakers and Peacemakers take their roles seriously.
Roger Carter, a six-year veteran of the group, said he has taken on the character of the famous Fort Smith Deputy Marshal Heck Thomas. He said he also participates in re-enactments of trials in Parker’s court at the Fort Smith National Historic Site.
A tall man, Carter said he’s about the same size as Thomas, and they were born about 100 years apart. And reading all he could find on the famous deputy gave him an appreciation for Thomas’ moralistic attitude.
“He was a fine man, so I base my character on him,” Carter said.
Lawbreakers and Peacemakers will perform again at noon Aug. 23 at the same place, Seventh and Main streets, in downtown Van Buren, Miller said.
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