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Richard Clarke relished his role as the 'cuss from Custer' and 'diabolical devil from Deadwood' of dime novel fame.
Richard Clarke relished his role as the "cuss from Custer" and "diabolical devil from Deadwood" of dime novel fame.

Deadwood Dick vs the Whitewood Skunk

He never sat with his back to a door, that grim old-timer who claimed to be the hero of the Deadwood Dick dime novels. He assumed the stance of an alert shotgun guard at all times, in spite of the fact that no stagecoach robber had been observed in our little town for many a decade.

His weather-beaten face was flecked with powder burns and his piercing, squinched eyes were ever on the lookout for trouble. He seemed to stand tall, due to his lean build, and the peaked crown of his black Stetson added to the deception. His name was Richard Clarke, but he preferred to be called Deadwood Dick, and most of the townspeople humored him. 

Dick lived in obscurity for a number of years and his oft-told tales of vanquished Indians and outwitted holdup men were discounted by local listeners. His prosaic job as a railroad section hand did much to diminish belief in his stories of previous adventures. Some of his neighbors regarded him as a pathetic and deluded old man. 

It was in 1927, when he was in his early seventies, that Deadwood Dick was born again. Bert Bell, an energetic and imaginative press agent for Deadwood's Days of 76, acted as midwife in the rebirth of the fictional hero, and Dick Clarke became the character that he had impersonated for many years. Dick was given a buckskin suit, the use of a cabin in Pine Crest Park for his lifetime, a place of honor in every parade, and he was lionized with proper respect by the cult buffs of the Pioneer.

Robert Casey, in his book, The Black Hills, said that some of Dick's disbelievers claimed he "didn't know which end of the gun to hold away from him when he pulled the trigger." Our family could prove this was not the case.

It was our privilege, when we moved to Whitewood in 1920, to live in the house next door to Deadwood Dick. Before his sudden rise to fame removed him from our town, we considered him a satisfactory neighbor, except for one alarming trait. He was much too quick on the trigger of his trusty rifle. The fact that the index finger on his right hand was missing did not slow his fast draw.

I was a senior in high school when I experienced the humbling result of Deadwood Dick's fast draw. Mother had mentioned on one of Dick's visits that a skunk had taken up residence under our screened porch. Dick assured her that he knew just how to take care of the problem.

Why he chose 8:30 the following morning to exterminate the animal, I shall never know, but just as I was leaving for school, a shot shattered the early morning stillness and my life was changed for many weeks thereafter. The skunk returned Dick's fire with an odor that contaminated our neighborhood for blocks.

By the time I reached the Lemaster home, I knew that I would not be welcome in class, and I decided upon what I foolishly considered a quick fix. I had tied a 25-cent piece in my handkerchief for some notebook paper, so I dashed down to Gustin's Drug Store for a quarter's worth of perfume. Earl, in his haste to get rid of me, handed me a half pint of the cheapest, smelliest kind in stock, and held the door open for my departure.

I drenched myself with the malodorous liquid, and in my rush to reach class on time, I failed to realize the full horror of combining the essence of skunk with the overpowering scent of magnolia and musk. I tried to slip into the room without being noticed, but my odor preceded me and as I came through the door, all eyes in class were upon me. I raced to my seat amidst a concert of gagging and retching sounds, and Lorene Jay, who sat in front of me, promptly fainted. Professor Munson quickly appraised the situation and suggested that I leave the room immediately.

As I slunk away, totally disgraced, I noticed that Lorene had returned to consciousness, with many solicitous classmates in attendance. Tearfully, I stumbled home with anger eventually replacing my humiliation. I deplored the fact that no early-day combatants had sent a well-placed bullet or arrow to the heart of our hero, Deadwood Dick, and I plotted ways that I might accomplish the job they had left undone.

At home, I found my exasperated mother trying to air out the house that smelled worse even than I, before I added the putrid perfume. The unfortunate skunk left his imprint on our household for several weeks, but Deadwood Dick has lingered in my memory as he appeared that ill-fated morning so many years ago. Only my futile anger has faded, dissolved by laughter and nostalgia for those "good old days."

 

Editor's Note: Ruth McPherson, a Black Hills native who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, wrote this true tale of Deadwood Dick's exploits for our July/August 1991 issue. 

 

 

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