Two Mexican field hands shuffle into the Old West town, sombreros pulled low over their eyes, trail dust billowing from their ponchos. As they pass the saloon, a pair of drunken cowboys block their path.
Shots ring out. One cowboy drops to the dirt as the other leaps back through the saloon's swinging doors.
Within minutes, several more townsfolk enter the scene. They are shot, kicked, thrown from a balcony and otherwise dispatched.
As the last body settles into the dust, the onlookers applaud enthusiastically. The Mescalarows jump back to life, dust themselves off and take a bow.
Another weekend of Old West melodrama is off to a brawling start, bringing together more than a dozen mock gunslinger teams to compete for up to $1,000 and the chance to earn top ranking among their peers.
Recreating scenes from the gunfighter era, that brief period between 1870 and 1890 when guns were the law of the West, is becoming a popular weekend pastime for would-be cowboys and outlaws nationwide.
At least three groups of area residents, some of them white-collar professionals, spend their free time practicing sophisticated routines to perform in competitions against other teams throughout the state.
"I'm an 1884 cowboy in a 1984 world," said John (J.P.) Petrie, a bank communications technician who founded Glendale-based Sundance Guns for Hire. "I guess you could say I haven't grown up and I'm still out there playing cowboys and Indians."
Petrie, who has been playing gunslinger since 1979, when he joined the Mescalarows in Eagle Rock, is one of more than 500 members of the National Assn. of Old West Gunfighter Teams, which was formed two years ago with just 57 members.
National officials say the association has about 20 member teams in California. They believe there are as many non-member teams scattered throughout the state.
The organization was created, the gunslingers say, to set standards of authenticity and showmanship that might otherwise have been lost as mock gunfights became more popular. Association rules forbid use of Hollywood-style blood capsules, and competition points are deducted if team members use zippers, polyester, Velcro or other modern conveniences in their costumes.
Because of those standards, modern-day gunfighting requires more than just a quick draw and a trigger-happy finger. Team members must be part actor, part stunt man, part costume designer and part historian.
"To most people, you say 'gunfighter' and they think fast draw, and that's just not what it's all about," said Tom (Doc) Vail, a self-employed woodworker who heads the Mescalarows, the area's oldest gunfighting team. "We maintain the costuming period to keep out the people with Levi's and sneakers and BB guns . . . and we get ourselves into character and we put on a whole show for the people."
The object is to re-create events that actually happened during the gunslinger era, or that could have happened, Vail said. Team members write their own scripts for the 10-minute skits, which are given points by a panel of five judges for plot, dialogue, character portrayal, costume authenticity and overall effect.
Although prizes in the monthly competitions go as high as $1,000 for first place, competitors say teams rarely turn a profit.
"To get going, you're going to put out $300 or $400 for the gun alone, and then you've got to get together a costume that's going to pass off as authentic," said J.D. Silvester, who started up the Vulture Gulch Vigilantes last year at the Wildlife Waystation in Lake View Terrace. "Some of the outfits, they're all leather. Then you've got to pay for the trips to wherever the competitions are, and then you've got to pay your food and lodging, and then you've got to pay your entry fees ($50 per team or $10 per person, whichever is more). It's expensive."
But gunslingers say the satisfaction they get from their hobby makes up for the expense.
"There's something about that feeling of our heritage, the history, the sense of the men and women who made the history on down the line for the Old West and made their impression on America," Petrie said. "It's worth it to preserve that history . . . and it allows me to escape a lot of the pressures and stress of the working world."
"Why does an actor act? Big head," Silvester said.
Most teams, which have anywhere from four to 15 members, are created by people who have already gained experience with another group. Silvester said he was a member of a prize-winning team in Utah, where he worked part time as a stunt man, before he and Curtis Powers, a fellow gunslinger from Utah, moved to California and formed the Vigilantes.
"We started it just to have a little fun, and then we found out the competitions can get downright serious here," said Jack Sieker, who plays the sheriff in Vigilante skits. Unlike the Mescalarows and Sundance, which are ranked among the top five teams in the nation, the Vigilantes rarely score higher than fourth place in competition.