George Gibbs ‘the last tramp in Wales’ 1917 -2003

Tramps have been around for centuries,  but the last great economic upheaval that created the twentieth century’s reluctant nomads were the depression years of the nineteen twenties and thirties, where  British unemployment reached 3.5 million, and poverty flung thousands onto the lonely and inhospitable roads in search of work. If, as was usually the case, they didn’t have the fares to travel from blighted regions like the South Wales valleys to wherever opportunity beckoned, well, they just walked instead. And walked; and walked; often for months on end, from one short-term job to another.

But where most saw their tramping days as a temporary expedient to be endured until a lasting job was found, and roots could be put down in a new place, a significant minority, curiously, fell into this way of life permanently.

George Gibbs lived in Lampeter in west Wales for 20 years but before that had spent more than three decades tramping the highways and byways of Wales, with only an old pram and a radio for company.georgegibbs

Originally from Glasgow, the son of a sailor missing at sea during World War I, Mr Gibbs joined the Merchant Navy in 1931, but leaving the sea in 1946, having had what amounted to a nervous breakdown, ‘..always thinking of the other ships that went up, the bombings and such like.’

He arrived home from leave in 1942 to discover his wife Flora had died after a bomb had hit their home in Clydebank.

After demobilisation in 1946 Mr Gibbs moved to Flintshire but – after giving up a number of jobs- he took to the road in the early 1950s. He was to spend the next 30 years tramping up and down Wales. He walked an estimated 90,000 miles in 30 years, with all his possessions in a pram. He spent many years working on farms in exchange for a night’s sleep in a barn and some food before moving on.

In 1970, journalist Byron Rogers met George and wrote about him and his an audiencelifestyle for the Sunday Telegraph, and included his account in An Audience with an Elephant and other encounters on the eccentric side (2001). The following selection is by no means unbiased, these passages rather, demonstrate the same romance and freedom Laurie Lee captured so well in his autobiographical ‘As I walked out one midsummer morning’

“ George Gibbs is one of that shrinking body of men steadily eroded by the processes of government who can ‘disappear’, for nine months of every year, in 20th-century Britain, he is beyond the reach of postmen and telephone calls. Gibbs comes at the end of a very long tradition, he is the last of the wanderers…

“For as long as there have been hearth fires and home acres some men have been forsaking them, to wander. Outraged legislation indexed their progress, spitting against ‘vagabondes, roges, masterless men and idle persons’ and ‘myghty vagabonds and beggars’..AsIWalkedOutOneMidsummerMorning

“Society hounded and reviled its tramps because in their way they represented, like Soviet emigrants, an adverse comment upon it. Yet tramps acquired a haze of romance, particularly with growing urbanisation. They were the men outside, the bronzed wanderers, men with no axes to grind (though ironically this is how many earned their livings), with no families, no pasts, no future. The romance was, or course, in contradiction of the facts..  very few of them now did wander: those that remained were derelicts or alcoholics shuffling through city centres…

“Finally I found George. Mr Gibbs spent his winters at a Reception Centre near Bridgend, leaving each year with the spring, and by summer could be anywhere between Glamorgan and Anglesey,  the difficulties in contacting a tramp are legion. I rang some of his regular stops without luck…

“There was one thing which characterised Gibbs: his fondness for the police force. Whenever he came to a town he would call at the police station to let officers know that he was in the area. Like an unofficial Inspector of Constabulary, he dropped in on their stations, chatted to them, discussed their families, promotions, moves, smoked their cigarettes and drank their tea. The Dyfed-Powys force offered to pass the message ‘up the line’ as they put it, to say I was interested in meeting George. A week later I was rung up from Machynlleth:
Mr Gibbs.’ said a voice, ‘is just entering town.’ Which made him sound like a gunfighter…
“It is 9.30 a.m. in Machynlleth. A smell of fresh bread drifts through the town.. George Gibbs is waking up. He has spent the night in an open shed which contains agricultural machinery, where across the entrance he has placed a series of planks and oil cans to detect intruders, so it is difficult at first to make him out in the gloom. Then there is a slight movement among a heap of old coats and sacking in the corner of the shed, and two large white eyes, like a lemur’s, peer out. Somewhere in the huddle a radio is switched on and pop music flares in the darkness. Mr Gibbs is awake…
“All night he has slept on some planking, covered by his coats, his feet in an old dog-food sack. He has slept well, as he always does. ‘I can’t sleep in a bedroom any more. I roll around all night. But when I sleep on a hard surface I sleep all night.’ Gibbs has slept well in abandoned boats, in telephone boxes with his knees pulled up like a Mexican, even, he confesses shamefacedly, in public lavatories. But mostly he sleeps in far more comfortable surroundings, in empty houses, or on dried bracken in snug barns…

Gibbs is a curious, shuffling, knock-kneed little figure. He weighs very little, like most tramps, just 8 stone.. He is bespectacled and bearded, and quite spectacularly grimy, a small boy’s dream figure of personal hygiene. He talks occasionally of romantic little morning dips in the River Conway but cannot quite remember when he last had one. ‘I prefer showers meself. It’s clean water. In a bath you’re lying in dirty water,‘ says George with the cold objectivity of a man who has not been in either for a very long time..

“George is not very forthcoming as to the point when his itinerant labouring tipped over into tramping, but it seems to have been a quite gradual process. At first he worked regularly: now the last time he remembers working was over six years ago, for five weeks in a Flintshire brickworks. ‘Quite interesting work,’ he says airily. On tramping itself he says, ‘Once you get on to the road it gets into the system. It’s like smoking: you get a craving. I just can’t get off.’
At Machynlleth he has just lit his fire and is perched in front of it like a small Fisher King, dangling his billy can in the flames at the end of a stick. George puts his tea in the bottom of the can and allows the water to boil up through it so one can almost eat the resulting mixture with a knife and fork, As he sits he talks in a soft, unflurried monotone. He says ‘Oh dear‘ a lot of the time; as an exclamation it covers the gamut of his feelings, which seem to run from mild surprise to mild upset..

“From Machynlleth, George was turning south. In the three months since he had been on the road he had moved north in a slow arc towards Anglesey, and was now going south along the coast. He travels eight miles on a good day, but intersperses these with rest days at intervals. ‘It’s not an easy life. I wouldn’t advise anyone to take to the road. It was really tough when I used to roam in the winter, maybe two to three inches of snow. I have difficulty getting my old pram through snow.’
“He is fortunate in having good health. Apart from pneumonia in the early 1950s he has been ill only once, when he went down with flu at Christmas time, 1969, having been soaked in a downpour on the way to Bridgend. The flu resulted in a spot on his lungs and he had to spend a month in hospital. He says of himself: ‘I’ve never been ill actually on the roads. Getting the air, day by day, and walking … quite healthy me.’ Yet he has little energy and tires easily. His teeth are bad. In his pram he has a jar of home-made jam which he has not opened in two years. ‘Can’t. It would play holy mackerel with my teeth, that.’
“There is an even tenor to his life, which all untoward events disturb, to send great ripples across it. Thus I came across the news of my coming on different pages of his books. Yet he accepted me the way he accepts everything and was soon introducing me to policemen. ‘This is Mr Rogers. He is writing the history of my life.’ They looked incredulously at his Boswell as we shuffled by.
George plans his trips in a very loose way. He has a vague overall target, like Anglesey, but changes his route as it pleases him. ‘A man like myself going on steadily, not bothering anyone bound for anywhere. Anywhere does me. A man who goes everywhere bound for anywhere..’ 

“This is the week up to his stay in Machynlleth.
Tuesday night: A chicken shed, between Barmouth and Dolgellau. George has slept here before. The farmer, who has been here 20 years, says that, of all the tramps who once called, George is now the last. ‘We would think now that there was something missing from the year if he didn’t call.’ George sleeps just outside the chicken wire. Piled neatly are some old paperbacks he left the year before, and which the farmer has let lie. Before he sleeps, George, who is unable to light a fire here, asks the farmer for some hot water for his tea. The chickens grieve and scuttle. ‘Nice listening to the chickens,‘ says George, ‘nicer than traffic.
…..Wednesday: Towards Dolgellau. First stop Barmouth rubbish tip, where George spends an intent half hour, disturbing the seagulls and finding only some week-old newspapers. He collects the week-old papers. As night comes on he settles down for the night in an open barn some 2 miles from Dolgellau: he has walked some 7 miles. He lights a fire, drinks yet more tea.
…..Thursday: Towards Dolgellau. First stop Dr Williams’ School, a girls’ boarding school on the outskirts of Dolgellau. He always stops here. This time he knocks on the kitchen door and is given some roast beef sandwiches and tea. It is his first meal of the day. George reaches Dolgellau about midday and claims his Social Security benefit. This is the first breath of economics in his world. A tramp can claim a day’s requirement, the amount of which is left to the local office, but which in George’s case varies from 40p to 60p. At Dolgellau it is 60p. It is, in some ways, a cruel sum: just the minimum to keep a man alive. Yet to George it is a bonanza. Though he is entitled to the rate daily, the nature of his wanderings means that he rarely claims it more than twice a week. He encounters little difficulty at the Social Security offices as he is by now well-known to the officers. They fill in his name and age and seek to establish when he last claimed. Cases have occurred where the quick and the very quick among tramps have succeeded in getting to more than one office in a day, leaving a trail of benefit claims. With his 60p he buys milk, ten cigarettes, a packet of tea, and two pork pies. He begins the slow winding climb out of Dolgellau. The night is coming on as he wheels his pram over the pass towards Abergynolwyn, a slow little figure lost in an eternity of cloud and rock. He plays his radio. That night he sleeps in a barn under Cader Idris. It is his most romantic place, a foot deep in dried bracken. He lights his paraffin lamp, makes tea with hot water from a nearby guest house, and eats his two pork pies. And so to bed.
Friday: To Abergynolwyn. He rises at 10.00 a.m., his usual time, drinks some more tea, again with hot water from the guesthouse, and starts. It is a glorious day. He wheels his pram along the perimeter of Tal-y-llyn lake to the village, where he buys a tin of rice and calls on the policeman. He and PC Edwards talk about the old, dead tramps. ‘They’re a dying race,’ says the policeman. His wife gives George some sandwiches and a pair of good old shoes. The shoes disappear into the pram. Everyone seems to be glad to see George. ‘Oh, it’s you,‘ says one old man. ‘Now I know summer is really here. You’re the first swallow.‘ George goes off the roads early, about 4.00 in the afternoon, as he is tired. Because of traffic, he is careful not to walk at night. He sleeps in an isolated little shed some miles from the village. As the dark comes in across the mountains, he lights a small fire, heats his rice and eats his sandwiches. He plays his radio into the small hours.
Saturday: To Towyn and beyond. On the way he passes one of his old sleeping places, or rather what remains of it. The place, an old cottage, has been demolished by the local council to make a lay-by. George mourns briefly for it: ‘There was an old mattress there. I used to sweep the floor with my little brush.’ At Ysguboriau Farm nearby, Mrs Gwenda Jones greets George: ‘This was one of the old tramps’ calls. We gave them bread and butter and tea. But they’ve all gone. This one must be the last of them.’ We plod thoughtfully on, through Towyn, to a railway crossing house. But the night has come and is full of cars. George decides to stop at a rubbish tip a mile from the house. Using the pram he drapes his ground-sheet into a lean-to tent, lights a fire and fries some old bacon, ‘what you would call a rough lay-down‘. The night is warm.
Sunday: A rest day. George ambles the last mile to the crossing house. It is being modernised but the doors are still open. George does not like the modernisation. ‘Oh dear, all this was wood once, wooden floors, wooden walls here. They’ve ruined it. I was quite warm. They’ve ruined it completely.’ He eats little today, some old bread and lard he has, and brews up. He plays his radio endlessly, pop, political reports and drama wafting into the bowed little head.
Monday: Towards Machynlleth. He walks 6 miles, calling at two houses for some hot water where he is given some bread and couple of raw onions. He stops the night at a cluster of modernised little cottages standing in a courtyard, all for some reason deserted. He makes a fire in the fireplace, fries his bread, and eats it with raw onions. So far in the week he has only once asked permission of a farmer to stay the night: nobody minds, says George, as long as he leaves the place tidy. Each morning he cleans up rubbish.
Tuesday: The last four miles to Machynlleth. He arrives early the afternoon, having called in the morning on the Rector, who gives him bread and butter, a cake and some tea, and tells me that he too, doesn’t know what’s become of the tramps. At Machynlleth George goes to the Social Security office, and is given 40p.’’

“‘The old-timers are all dead now, either found dead on the roadside or in derelict buildings. I’m not worried about whether I’ll be found dead. Everyone has to die, wherever he is, at sea, in a car, in a field, on a quayside. My ambition is to die in Wales, and be buried here.
Like a swallow, he begins to move South. The holiday cars flooding into Machynlleth shy away from the intent little figure on the road, like horses shying from some creature which has somehow sidestepped the past for the present. He disappears into Wales…

“ Latterly he had taken to spending his winters in a hut at Lampeter Station, so the district council, seeking to raze the station, was obliged to offer him a home under the 1977 Homelessness Act. He was by then of pensionable age, and the council’s action had made homeless a man for whom homelessness was a way of life. It has to be the most wonderful of all bureaucratic ironies. Mr Gibbs exchanged his old pram for a new bungalow in Lampeter.”

‘Flipping the Meat Train’ by Dale Wasserman

The American writer and playwright Dale Wasserman was born in Wisconsin, 1914, the child of Russian immigrants Samuel Wasserman and Bertha Paykel, and was dalewassermanorphaned at the age of nine. He lived in a state orphanage and with an older brother in South Dakota before he “hit the rails”. He later said, “I’m a self-educated hobo. My entire adolescence was spent as a hobo, riding the rails and alternately living on top of buildings in downtown Los Angeles. I regret never having received a formal education. But I did get a real education about human nature.” In this abridged short story he describes his own experiences including near death at the hands of a ‘yard bull’ (Railroad security guard).

“In the rigid order of the Road., a hobo ranked high. It must be understood that he was not a tramp. A tramp might be a thug, a jackroller, a punch-drunk boxer, or a yegg on the lam. The Road, among its other attractions, was a refuge from the law.

Nor was a hobo a bum. A bum hung out on Chicago’s West Madison Avenue and panhandled the stem. In the hobo jungles he might be seen squeezing Sterno Canned Heat through an old sock to extract the grain alcohol. Hoboes disdained tramps, felt nothing warmer than pity for bums, and avoided both.

For what defines the hobo is that he worked. The great majority of hoboes (at least until the Depression struck) were skilled at a host of occupations. Lumberjacks, cigar-rollers, woodchoppers, construction stiffs, fruit and vegetable pickers, barley buckers, short-order cooks, merchant mariners . . . name it, and there were hoboes who could do it. They wouldn’t do it for long, however. The Road was home; other domiciles were temporary..

The population of the Road itself numbered many who were dangerous to others. There were prison escapees and ex-cons. Lunatics were common.ridin the rails

One learned to keep a wary distance, to wake instantly from sleep and hit the ground running, especially if one was a “gaycat,” a young apprentice like me.

But most dangerous of all were the trains themselves. There were precise techniques for flipping a freight and for the even more hazardous move, dropping off. Thousands of Road kids were killed or injured; there are no statistics numbering those who fell beneath the wheels. One may extrapolate from the figures of one railroad alone, the Missouri Pacific, which from 1930 (the year I started jumping freights) to 1932 recorded 330 trespassers killed and 682 seriously injured..

The Depression accounted for the fact that the Road belonged no longer to the young but to the dispossessed of all ages, no longer the life of those who’d chosen but of those who’d been deprived of any choice at all. They swarmed onto the freight trains, husbands, wives, children, in futile search for work, for a welcoming community, for an unlikely offer of food, friendship, compassion. Estimates of the numbers of homeless on the road at the depth of the Depression reached one million . . . two million. The truth is, no one knows.

I fear I may have given the impression that hoboing was an unending round of danger, discomfort, and anomie. Well, yes. But it offered so much more. Independence. Freedom, like none other on earth. Unexpected pleasures, astonishing sights. Ecstasy even, and the joy of wonders previously known only from rumour or from books..

Of all the gifts of hobo-dom, however, the sweetest and most dangerous is the freedom, that most abused word in the lexicon. To the wanderer alienated from society, it has precise and profound implications, fulfilling the sense of the Camus phrase ‘terrible freedom’.

As a hobo I was free of family pressures and responsibility—and free to endure the absence of support in the rites of passage enjoyed by a “normal” member of society. I was free of moral and behavioural restraints and free of the social accommodations that make living among one’s fellow folk possible. I was free of sexual education or modulation, and free to suffer the consequences in tainted relationships for decades to follow..

Unfortunately, (at times) I’ve misremembered the distinction between carefree and careless.railroad yard bull

.On a humid summer’s evening, with soft dark rain falling in a railroad town between Rawlins and Rock Springs, Wyoming, I’ve spotted a road hog waiting on a siding, its lights and numbers up, ready to roll.

Now I’m strolling along, canvassing the cars of the red ball freight it will be hauling, checking for empties. A tall man, wearing a straw Stetson with a rolled brim, steps out from between two cars and beckons with his left hand: Come closer.

It’s too dark to see what he’s holding in his other hand. A gun? On the chance that it is, I check my first instinct, which is to run.

I’m reassured by the tall man’s eyes. They’re brown, they’re friendly. No danger signals. Nor in his voice when he speaks; concern, rather, and courtesy. In a soft Texas accent the tall man asks, “Headin’ out?”  “Yup.”  “On this train?”   “I was figuring.”

The tall man nods, his manner almost mournful. “Y’all know you’re on railroad property?”  I tense up. Run? But what’s concealed in his right hand?  I wasn’t fixing to steal anything.”  “Said you was. Said you was goin’ to steal a ride on this here train.”  “Well, I never figured that flipping a ride on a freight—”

I don’t see it coming. Only know a blinding flash of light, cold and scintillating. And a clang in my head followed by a fast, nauseating vibration. I’m lying on the ground. I raise my eyes to see, at last, the implement in the tall man’s right hand. Not a gun, a billy club perhaps fashioned from a sawed-off table leg. The fog clears from my eyes, and I can see more clearly now, can even make out the dull gray plug of metal at its business end. The billy has been cored with a half-pound of lead. Yard bull’s trick.

The pain has not yet reached its apex. What I feel is shame, shame in the stupidity of not recognizing danger while there was a chance to avoid it. The soft Texas voice, solicitous: “Y’all listenin’?” I summon up a whisper. “Yes, sir.” “Want you should pay note t’ this.”

I see it coming, and there’s not one damn thing I can do about it. There’s time, even, to note the steel capping of the yard bull’s boots as I am kicked, with precise aim, in the center of my ribs. I feel them crack and give. Breath is driven out, and now the pain is no longer shy; it washes over in a blinding wave, and to my own shame I cry out, “All right ,” as though it will interdict the beating. Through a mist I hear the warm, solicitous voice, “Kin yuh git up?” and I gasp, “No . . . no. . . ,” with an irrational expectation that now hostilities will cease, friendship be declared, and my wounds tended.  “Git up or take the next one in the stomach.” The voice is no more emphatic than before, but I know it doesn’t mess around, it means it.

I struggle to my feet. The effort costs, a price paid in pain, in waves of nausea, in shame and fury. The yard bull faces me away from the tracks, south toward the empty hills. “Start walkin’,” he says. “And keep walkin’.

The night has fully settled in by now, the soft drizzle persisting. I stumble on, unseeing, sick with pain. The rain stops. A few stars appear, even a blur of moon. The night seemingly has no end. Yet after an eternity or two there’s the beginning of light. I am out of sight of anything man-made, town, railroad, anything at all. Nothing but great, undulating hills. I’m aware principally of thirst.

The nightmare begins. It will last three, possibly four days. Hunger . . . one can live with hunger for a long time. But thirst . . . thirst is not passive. Thirst demands ..

I lift my eyes to see, silhouetted, the blocky figure of a man. Surely a mirage. But soon I’m being administered small sips of water..

It’s dark, and there’s a huge black pot simmering on a small fire, and the shepherder, grinning affably with squarish teeth set in a dark-skinned face, hands me a wooden bowl of mutton stew and speaks to me, but I think my ears or brain have been affected, for the language is a jumble of sounds. Later I learn that the man and the language are Basque.

I eat, drink water, and sleep long hours in a fleece-lined bedroll in the shadow of the shepherd’s wagon. The broken ribs are painful, but they’re healing (never set, they’ll be forever crooked). A scar across my right eyebrow will be a further reminder, and I have suffered sunstroke.

One day I’m on my feet, expressing shame at having so imposed on a stranger. The Basque seems to feel no imposition; indeed he has enjoyed the break in his isolation. But I insist, and he draws on the ground a map of sorts. There is a highway to the south and west, half a day’s walk..

I never stopped traveling, never fixed on a “permanent” address, even as (a writer) the funds to make that possible came in”.

(Thanks to American Heritage Magazine, 2001)

The Passing of Black Eagle by O. Henry

William Sydney Porter (September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910), better known by his pen name O. Henry, was an American short story writer.

O henry

Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and later moved to Texas in 1882. It was there that he met his wife, Athol Estes, with whom he had two children. In 1902, after the death of his wife, Porter moved to New York, where he soon remarried. It was while he was in New York that Porter’s most intensive writing period occurred, with Porter writing 381 short stories.

O. Henry’s stories frequently have surprise endings,  and are also known for their witty narration. Most of the stories are set in his own time, the early 20th century. Many take place in New York City and deal for the most part with ordinary people. The second collection ” The Four Million” opens with a reference to Ward Mcallister’s  assertion that there were only ‘Four Hundred’ out of four million people in New York City who were really worth noticing.  To O. Henry, with his larger estimate of human interest, everyone in New York counted.

The Passing of Black Eagle by O. Henry

“For some months of a certain year a grim bandit infested the Texas border along the Rio Grande. Peculiarly striking to the optic nerve was this notorious marauder. His personality secured him the title of “Black Eagle, the Terror of the Border.” Many fearsome tales are on record concerning the doings of him and his followers. Suddenly, in the space of a single minute, Black Eagle vanished from earth. He was never heard of again. His own band never even guessed the mystery of his disappearance. The border ranches and settlements feared he would come again to ride and ravage the mesquite flats. He never will. It is to disclose the fate of Black Eagle that this narrative is written.Hobos

The initial movement of the story is furnished by the foot of a bartender in St. Louis. His discerning eye fell upon the form of Chicken Ruggles as he pecked with avidity at the free lunch. Chicken was a “hobo.” He had a long nose like the bill of a fowl, an inordinate appetite for poultry, and a habit of gratifying it without expense, which accounts for the name given him by his fellow vagrants.

Physicians agree that the partaking of liquids at meal times is not a healthy practice. The hygiene of the saloon promulgates the opposite. Chicken had neglected to purchase a drink to accompany his meal. The bartender rounded the counter, caught the injudicious diner by the ear with a lemon squeezer, led him to the door and kicked him into the street.

Thus the mind of Chicken was brought to realize the signs of coming winter. The night was cold; the stars shone with unkindly brilliancy; people were hurrying along the streets in two egotistic, jostling streams. Men had donned their overcoats, and Chicken knew to an exact percentage the increased difficulty of coaxing dimes from those buttoned-in vest pockets. The time had come for his annual exodus to the south.

A little boy, five or six years old, stood looking with covetous eyes in a confectioner’s window. In one small hand he held an empty two- ounce vial; in the other he grasped tightly something flat and round, with a shining milled edge. The scene presented a field of operations commensurate to Chicken’s talents and daring. After sweeping the horizon to make sure that no official tug was cruising near, he insidiously accosted his prey. The boy, having been early taught by his household to regard altruistic advances with extreme suspicion, received the overtures coldly.

Then Chicken knew that he must make one of those desperate, nerve- shattering plunges into speculation that fortune sometimes requires of those who would win her favour. Five cents was his capital, and this he must risk against the chance of winning what lay within the close grasp of the youngster’s chubby hand. It was a fearful lottery, Chicken knew. But he must accomplish his end by strategy, since he had a wholesome terror of plundering infants by force. Once, in a park, driven by hunger, he had committed an onslaught upon a bottle of peptonized infant’s food in the possession of an occupant of a baby carriage. The outraged infant had so promptly opened its mouth and pressed the button that communicated with the welkin that help arrived, and Chicken did his thirty days in a snug coop. Wherefore he was, as he said, “leary of kids.”

Beginning artfully to question the boy concerning his choice of sweets, he gradually drew out the information he wanted. Mamma said he was to ask the drug store man for ten cents’ worth of paregoric in the bottle; he was to keep his hand shut tight over the dollar; he must not stop to talk to anyone in the street; he must ask the drug-store man to wrap up the change and put it in the pocket of his trousers. Indeed, they had pockets–two of them! And he liked chocolate creams best.

Chicken went into the store and turned plunger. He invested his entire capital in C.A.N.D.Y. stocks, simply to pave the way to the greater risk following.

He gave the sweets to the youngster, and had the satisfaction of perceiving that confidence was established. After that it was easy to obtain leadership of the expedition; to take the investment by the hand and lead it to a nice drug store he knew of in the same block. There Chicken, with a parental air, passed over the dollar and called for the medicine, while the boy crunched his candy, glad to be relieved of the responsibility of the purchase. And then the successful investor, searching his pockets, found an overcoat button– the extent of his winter trousseau–and, wrapping it carefully, placed the ostensible change in the pocket of confiding juvenility. Setting the youngster’s face homeward, and patting him benevolently on the back–for Chicken’s heart was as soft as those of his feathered namesakes–the speculator quit the market with a profit of 1,700 per cent. on his invested capital.

Two hours later an Iron Mountain freight engine pulled out of the railroad yards, Texas bound, with a string of empties. In one of the cattle cars, half buried in excelsior, Chicken lay at ease. Beside him in his nest was a quart bottle of very poor whisky and a paper bag of bread and cheese. Mr. Ruggles, in his private car, was on his trip south for the winter season.

For a week that car was trundled southward, shifted, laid over, and manipulated after the manner of rolling stock, but Chicken stuck to it, leaving it only at necessary times to satisfy his hunger and thirst. He knew it must go down to the cattle country, and San Antonio, in the heart of it, was his goal. There the air was salubrious and mild; the people indulgent and long-suffering. The bartenders there would not kick him. If he should eat too long or too often at one place they would swear at him as if by rote and without heat. They swore so drawlingly, and they rarely paused short of their full vocabulary, which was copious, so that Chicken had often gulped a good meal during the process of the vituperative prohibition. The season there was always spring-like; the plazas were pleasant at night, with music and gaiety; except during the slight and infrequent cold snaps one could sleep comfortably out of doors in case the interiors should develop inhospitability.

At Texarkana his car was switched to the I. and G.N. Then still southward it trailed until, at length, it crawled across the Colorado bridge at Austin, and lined out, straight as an arrow, for the run to San Antonio.

When the freight halted at that town Chicken was fast asleep. In ten minutes the train was off again for Laredo, the end of the road. Those empty cattle cars were for distribution along the line at points from which the ranches shipped their stock.

When Chicken awoke his car was stationary. Looking out between the slats he saw it was a bright, moonlit night. Scrambling out, he saw his car with three others abandoned on a little siding in a wild and lonesome country. A cattle pen and chute stood on one side of the track. The railroad bisected a vast, dim ocean of prairie, in the midst of which Chicken, with his futile rolling stock, was as completely stranded as was Robinson with his land-locked boat.

A white post stood near the rails. Going up to it, Chicken read the letters at the top, S. A. 90. Laredo was nearly as far to the south. He was almost a hundred miles from any town. Coyotes began to yelp in the mysterious sea around him. Chicken felt lonesome. He had lived in Boston without an education, in Chicago without nerve, in Philadelphia without a sleeping place, in New York without a pull, and in Pittsburg sober, and yet he had never felt so lonely as now.

Suddenly through the intense silence, he heard the whicker of a horse. The sound came from the side of the track toward the east, and Chicken began to explore timorously in that direction. He stepped high along the mat of curly mesquit grass, for he was afraid of everything there might be in this wilderness–snakes, rats, brigands, centipedes, mirages, cowboys, fandangoes, tarantulas, tamales–he had read of them in the story papers. Rounding a clump of prickly pear that reared high its fantastic and menacing array of rounded heads, he was struck to shivering terror by a snort and a thunderous plunge, as the horse, himself startled, bounded away some fifty yards, and then resumed his grazing. But here was the one thing in the desert that Chicken did not fear. He had been reared on a farm; he had handled horses, understood them, and could ride.

Approaching slowly and speaking soothingly, he followed the animal, which, after its first flight, seemed gentle enough, and secured the end of the twenty-foot lariat that dragged after him in the grass. It required him but a few moments to contrive the rope into an ingenious nose-bridle, after the style of the Mexican borsal. In another he was upon the horse’s back and off at a splendid lope, giving the animal free choice of direction. “He will take me somewhere,” said Chicken to himself.

It would have been a thing of joy, that untrammelled gallop over the moonlit prairie, even to Chicken, who loathed exertion, but that his mood was not for it. His head ached; a growing thirst was upon him; the “somewhere” whither his lucky mount might convey him was full of dismal peradventure.

And now he noted that the horse moved to a definite goal. Where the prairie lay smooth he kept his course straight as an arrow’s toward the east. Deflected by hill or arroyo or impractical spinous brakes, he quickly flowed again into the current, charted by his unerring instinct. At last, upon the side of a gentle rise, he suddenly subsided to a complacent walk. A stone’s cast away stood a little mott of coma trees; beneath it a /jacal/ such as the Mexicans erect–a one- room house of upright poles daubed with clay and roofed with grass or tule reeds. An experienced eye would have estimated the spot as the headquarters of a small sheep ranch. In the moonlight the ground in the nearby corral showed pulverized to a level smoothness by the hoofs of the sheep. Everywhere was carelessly distributed the paraphernalia of the place–ropes, bridles, saddles, sheep pelts, wool sacks, feed troughs, and camp litter. The barrel of drinking water stood in the end of the two-horse wagon near the door. The harness was piled, promiscuous, upon the wagon tongue, soaking up the dew.

Chicken slipped to earth, and tied the horse to a tree. He halloed again and again, but the house remained quiet. The door stood open, and he entered cautiously. The light was sufficient for him to see that no one was at home. The room was that of a bachelor ranchman who was content with the necessaries of life. Chicken rummaged intelligently until he found what he had hardly dared hope for–a small, brown jug that still contained something near a quart of his desire.

Half an hour later, Chicken–now a gamecock of hostile aspect–emerged from the house with unsteady steps. He had drawn upon the absent ranchman’s equipment to replace his own ragged attire. He wore a suit of coarse brown ducking, the coat being a sort of rakish bolero, jaunty to a degree. Boots he had donned, and spurs that whirred with every lurching step. Buckled around him was a belt full of cartridges with a big six-shooter in each of its two holsters.

Prowling about, he found blankets, a saddle and bridle with which he caparisoned his steed. Again mounting, he rode swiftly away, singing a loud and tuneless song.

Bud King’s band of desperadoes, outlaws and horse and cattle thieves were in camp at a secluded spot on the bank of the Frio. Their depredations in the Rio Grande country, while no bolder than usual, had been advertised more extensively, and Captain Kinney’s company of rangers had been ordered down to look after them. Consequently, Bud King, who was a wise general, instead of cutting out a hot trail for the upholders of the law, as his men wished to do, retired for the time to the prickly fastnesses of the Frio valley.

Though the move was a prudent one, and not incompatible with Bud’s well-known courage, it raised dissension among the members of the band. In fact, while they thus lay ingloriously /perdu/ in the brush, the question of Bud King’s fitness for the leadership was argued, with closed doors, as it were, by his followers. Never before had Bud’s skill or efficiency been brought to criticism; but his glory was wandering (and such is glory’s fate) in the light of a newer star. The sentiment of the band was crystallizing into the opinion that Black Eagle could lead them with more lustre, profit, and distinction.

This Black Eagle–sub-titled the “Terror of the Border”–had been a member of the gang about three months.

One night while they were in camp on the San Miguel water-hole a solitary horseman on the regulation fiery steed dashed in among them. The newcomer was of a portentous and devastating aspect. A beak-like nose with a predatory curve projected above a mass of bristling, blue- black whiskers. His eye was cavernous and fierce. He was spurred, sombrero-ed, booted, garnished with revolvers, abundantly drunk, and very much unafraid. Few people in the country drained by the Rio Bravo would have cared thus to invade alone the camp of Bud King. But this fell bird swooped fearlessly upon them and demanded to be fed.

Hospitality in the prairie country is not limited. Even if your enemy pass your way you must feed him before you shoot him. You must empty your larder into him before you empty your lead. So the stranger of undeclared intentions was set down to a mighty feast.

A talkative bird he was, full of most marvellous loud tales and exploits, and speaking a language at times obscure but never colourless. He was a new sensation to Bud King’s men, who rarely encountered new types. They hung, delighted, upon his vainglorious boasting, the spicy strangeness of his lingo, his contemptuous familiarity with life, the world, and remote places, and the extravagant frankness with which he conveyed his sentiments.

To their guest the band of outlaws seemed to be nothing more than a congregation of country bumpkins whom he was “stringing for grub” just as he would have told his stories at the back door of a farmhouse to wheedle a meal. And, indeed, his ignorance was not without excuse, for the “bad man” of the Southwest does not run to extremes. Those brigands might justly have been taken for a little party of peaceable rustics assembled for a fish-fry or pecan gathering. Gentle of manner, slouching of gait, soft-voiced, unpicturesquely clothed; not one of them presented to the eye any witness of the desperate records they had earned.

For two days the glittering stranger within the camp was feasted. Then, by common consent, he was invited to become a member of the band. He consented, presenting for enrolment the prodigious name of “Captain Montressor.” This name was immediately overruled by the band, and “Piggy” substituted as a compliment to the awful and insatiate appetite of its owner.

Thus did the Texas border receive the most spectacular brigand that ever rode its chaparral.

For the next three months Bud King conducted business as usual, escaping encounters with law officers and being content with reasonable profits. The band ran off some very good companies of horses from the ranges, and a few bunches of fine cattle which they got safely across the Rio Grande and disposed of to fair advantage. Often the band would ride into the little villages and Mexican settlements, terrorizing the inhabitants and plundering for the provisions and ammunition they needed. It was during these bloodless raids that Piggy’s ferocious aspect and frightful voice gained him a renown more widespread and glorious than those other gentle-voiced and sad-faced desperadoes could have acquired in a lifetime.

The Mexicans, most apt in nomenclature, first called him The Black Eagle, and used to frighten the babes by threatening them with tales of the dreadful robber who carried off little children in his great beak. Soon the name extended, and Black Eagle, the Terror of the Border, became a recognized factor in exaggerated newspaper reports and ranch gossip.

The country from the Nueces to the Rio Grande was a wild but fertile stretch, given over to the sheep and cattle ranches. Range was free; the inhabitants were few; the law was mainly a letter, and the pirates met with little opposition until the flaunting and garish Piggy gave the band undue advertisement. Then McKinney’s ranger company headed for those precincts, and Bud King knew that it meant grim and sudden war or else temporary retirement. Regarding the risk to be unnecessary, he drew off his band to an almost inaccessible spot on the bank of the Frio. Wherefore, as has been said, dissatisfaction arose among the members, and impeachment proceedings against Bud were premeditated, with Black Eagle in high favour for the succession. Bud King was not unaware of the sentiment, and he called aside Cactus Taylor, his trusted lieutenant, to discuss it.

“If the boys,” said Bud, “ain’t satisfied with me, I’m willing to step out. They’re buckin’ against my way of handlin’ ’em. And ‘specially because I concludes to hit the brush while Sam Kinney is ridin’ the line. I saves ’em from bein’ shot or sent up on a state contract, and they up and says I’m no good.”

“It ain’t so much that,” explained Cactus, “as it is they’re plum locoed about Piggy. They want them whiskers and that nose of his to split the wind at the head of the column.”

“There’s somethin’ mighty seldom about Piggy,” declared Bud, musingly. “I never yet see anything on the hoof that he exactly grades up with. He can shore holler a plenty and he straddles a hoss from where you laid the chunk. But he ain’t never been smoked yet. You know, Cactus, we ain’t had a row since he’s been with us. Piggy’s all right for skearin’ the greaser kids and layin’ waste a cross-roads store. I reckon he’s the finest canned oyster buccaneer and cheese pirate that ever was, but how’s his appetite for fightin’? I’ve knowed some citizens you’d think was starvin’ for trouble get a bad case of dyspepsy the first dose of lead they had to take.”

“He talks all spraddled out,” said Cactus, “’bout the rookuses he’s been in. He claims to have saw the elephant and hearn the owl.”

“I know,” replied Bud, using the cowpuncher’s expressive phrase of skepticism, “but it sounds to me!”

This conversation was held one night in camp while the other members of the band–eight in number–were sprawling around the fire, lingering over their supper. When Bud and Cactus ceased talking they heard Piggy’s formidable voice holding forth to the others as usual while he was engaged in checking, though never satisfying, his ravening appetite.

“Wat’s de use,” he was saying, “of chasin’ little red cowses and hosses ’round for t’ousands of miles? Dere ain’t nuttin’ in it. Gallopin’ t’rough dese bushes and briers, and gettin’ a t’irst dat a brewery couldn’t put out, and missin’ meals! Say! You know what I’d do if I was main finger of dis bunch? I’d stick up a train. I’d blow de express car and make hard dollars where you guys get wind. Youse makes me tired. Dis sook-cow kind of cheap sport gives me a pain.”

Later on, a deputation waited on Bud. They stood on one leg, chewed mesquit twigs and circumlocuted, for they hated to hurt his feelings. Bud foresaw their business, and made it easy for them. Bigger risks and larger profits was what they wanted.

The suggestion of Piggy’s about holding up a train had fired their imagination and increased their admiration for the dash and boldness of the instigator. They were such simple, artless, and custom-bound bush-rangers that they had never before thought of extending their habits beyond the running off of live-stock and the shooting of such of their acquaintances as ventured to interfere.

Bud acted “on the level,” agreeing to take a subordinate place in the gang until Black Eagle should have been given a trial as leader.

After a great deal of consultation, studying of time-tables, and discussion of the country’s topography, the time and place for carrying out their new enterprise was decided upon. At that time there was a feedstuff famine in Mexico and a cattle famine in certain parts of the United States, and there was a brisk international trade. Much money was being shipped along the railroads that connected the two republics. It was agreed that the most promising place for the contemplated robbery was at Espina, a little station on the I. and G.N., about forty miles north of Laredo. The train stopped there one minute; the country around was wild and unsettled; the station consisted of but one house in which the agent lived.

Black Eagle’s band set out, riding by night. Arriving in the vicinity of Espina they rested their horses all day in a thicket a few miles distant.

The train was due at Espina at 10.30 P.M. They could rob the train and be well over the Mexican border with their booty by daylight the next morning.

To do Black Eagle justice, he exhibited no signs of flinching from the responsible honours that had been conferred upon him.

He assigned his men to their respective posts with discretion, and coached them carefully as to their duties. On each side of the track four of the band were to lie concealed in the chaparral. Gotch-Ear Rodgers was to stick up the station agent. Bronco Charlie was to remain with the horses, holding them in readiness. At a spot where it was calculated the engine would be when the train stopped, Bud King was to lie hidden on one side, and Black Eagle himself on the other. The two would get the drop on the engineer and fireman, force them to descend and proceed to the rear. Then the express car would be looted, and the escape made. No one was to move until Black Eagle gave the signal by firing his revolver. The plan was perfect.

At ten minutes to train time every man was at his post, effectually concealed by the thick chaparral that grew almost to the rails. The night was dark and lowering, with a fine drizzle falling from the flying gulf clouds. Black Eagle crouched behind a bush within five yards of the track. Two six-shooters were belted around him. Occasionally he drew a large black bottle from his pocket and raised it to his mouth.

A star appeared far down the track which soon waxed into the headlight of the approaching train. It came on with an increasing roar; the engine bore down upon the ambushing desperadoes with a glare and a shriek like some avenging monster come to deliver them to justice. Black Eagle flattened himself upon the ground. The engine, contrary to their calculations, instead of stopping between him and Bud King’s place of concealment, passed fully forty yards farther before it came to a stand.

The bandit leader rose to his feet and peered through the bush. His men all lay quiet, awaiting the signal. Immediately opposite Black Eagle was a thing that drew his attention. Instead of being a regular passenger train it was a mixed one. Before him stood a box car, the door of which, by some means, had been left slightly open. Black Eagle went up to it and pushed the door farther open. An odour came forth–a damp, rancid, familiar, musty, intoxicating, beloved odour stirring strongly at old memories of happy days and travels. Black Eagle sniffed at the witching smell as the returned wanderer smells of the rose that twines his boyhood’s cottage home. Nostalgia seized him. He put his hand inside. Excelsior–dry, springy, curly, soft, enticing, covered the floor. Outside the drizzle had turned to a chilling rain.

The train bell clanged. The bandit chief unbuckled his belt and cast it, with its revolvers, upon the ground. His spurs followed quickly, and his broad sombrero. Black Eagle was moulting. The train started with a rattling jerk. The ex-Terror of the Border scrambled into the box car and closed the door. Stretched luxuriously upon the excelsior, with the black bottle clasped closely to his breast, his eyes closed, and a foolish, happy smile upon his terrible features Chicken Ruggles started upon his return trip.

Undisturbed, with the band of desperate bandits lying motionless, awaiting the signal to attack, the train pulled out from Espina. As its speed increased, and the black masses of chaparral went whizzing past on either side, the express messenger, lighting his pipe, looked through his window and remarked, feelingly:  “What a jim-dandy place for a hold-up!”  “

Zika- a rushed response?

Doctors Name Monsanto’s Larvicide As Cause of Brazilian Microcephaly Outbreak

Could it be that the very organizations set to make money from developing insecticides against mosquitoes blamed for spreading the Zika virus, helped create the problem in the first place?

Silvia Leandra de Jesus Pinheiro with baby
Silvia Leandra de Jesus Pinheiro with baby

A report from the Argentine doctors’ organisation, Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages regarding Dengue-Zika, challenges the theory that the Zika virus epidemic in Brazil is the cause of the increase in the birth defect microcephaly among newborns. Continue reading Zika- a rushed response?

Cutty Sark, 1922

Cutty Sark by Cornelis de Vries as she appeared in the 1870's
Cutty Sark by Cornelis de Vries as she appeared in the 1870’s

Cutty Sark is a famous three-masted clipper ship, launched on the river Clyde at Dumbarton on 22 November 1869 for the Jock Willis shipping line. After a few short years as a record breaker in the China tea trade, she shipped wool from Australia to Britain. In 1895 Jock Willis sold Cutty Sark to the Portuguese firm Joaquim Antunes Ferreira. She was renamed Ferreira after the firm. Her crews referred to her as Pequena Camisola (little shirt, a straight translation of the Scots cutty sark).

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Kids say the funniest things

Why does everybody hate you, Mr President?
Why does everybody hate you, Mr President?

Kids say the funniest things was a British TV series that ran intermittently on ITV from September 2000, hosted by Michael Barrymore. It followed a format from the popular American series Kids say the darndest things aired on CBS from January 1998 to June 2000. In both instances, the real stars were the kids. The idea of the show is that the host would ask a question to a child (around the age of 3-8) who would respond in a “cute” or funny way. Allowing for editing, the cynics amongst us always suspected a bit of prompting; rigorously denied by all involved in the shows! Before these shows however, CBS ran Art Linkletter’s House Party, which ran for 27 years, and is reputed to have interviewed 23,000 children!


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Saving the War objector’s Graffiti

Richmond objectors

Fragile walls at Richmond Castle bear rare first-hand testimonial from men who refused to be conscripted during the First World War. In 1916 a conscientious objector, condemned by a tribunal for refusing to serve in the armed services, took up a pencil and expressed his plight on the whitewashed wall of his cell in Richmond Castle in Yorkshire.

“‘I Percy F Goldsbrough of Mirfield was brought up from Pontefract on Friday August 11 1916 and put in this cell for refusing to be made into a soldier”

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Trust- Given or Earned?

How easily do you trust other people? What is it that determines your ability or inability to trust certain individuals around you? Do you feel people need to earn your trust? Or are you willing to extend trust ‘unearned’?

Indian Fusion

An Edmonton, Canada,  restaurant is gaining international attention for its efforts to help feed those in need. Indian Fusion is a small, family-run restaurant with fewer than ten tables, but it’s making a big difference for the homeless. This is no publicity stunt. They trust people understand their motives.

It’s giving back to the community, it’s part of community spirit. We need to all look after each other,” said Greg Pyra. “It’s not just about profit and making money.Continue reading Trust- Given or Earned?

The case of the unpaid prize

It can be instructive, as well as mildly entertaining, to review legal cases of yesteryear, as I have occasionally  on this site ( The Tichborne Claimant).

victorian court

In 1898, an English journal, the Rocket, had offered a prize of £1000 to anybody who could predict the exact number of male and female births, together with the number of deaths, in London for the week ending December 11th. Continue reading The case of the unpaid prize

Recovery from Colon Cancer – Diet, Herbs, Detoxification and Cellular Regeneration

This article by Teresa Tsalaky, first published in August 2003, can be accessed at Positive Health online. It is important not simply because of the implications for overcoming cancer, but the extraordinary lengths that interested parties go to with the apparent attempt to silence him. I am publishing his story here without promoting his or any particular course of treatment, that is a personal matter best made with the advice of a professional healthcare practitioner and your own research.

David Walker wanted to live long enough to see his children graduate from high school. He asked his oncologist if he’d make it that long. The doctor hung his head and said Walker had no more than three to five years before the colon cancer would take his life.David Walker

Nearly a decade later, Walker is cancer free. Thanks to his training as a biophysicist, he was able to decipher a biochemical riddle that enabled him to cure himself. He created a treatment protocol that consists of herbs, enzymes, phytonutrients, detoxification and a bio-resonance therapy that recharges depleted energy in cells. He then shared his knowledge, helping hundreds of other cancer patients successfully treat the disease.

Continue reading Recovery from Colon Cancer – Diet, Herbs, Detoxification and Cellular Regeneration