Desert City. Do you remember that place? It wasn’t a city at all. Just a little restaurant and service station, with a few cabins for tourists.
It squatted on the south side of old U.S. 91 on the low east slope of Mountain Pass. Ivanpah Valley. You must have passed it a hundred times on your way to Los Angeles.
Desert City has been dead and buried a good many years. Bulldozed into eternity. It stood squarely in the path of Interstate 15.
We tried to shoot the place down; that seemed a more fitting way for it to go. But all we succeeded in doing was scare the hell out of a flock of customers and cause the owner, George Hopkins, to get hauled into court in San Bernardino.
This was back in 1962, about five months after I went to work for The Nevadan. My job was to roam through the boonies and dig up "colorful characters." And illustrate the stories with little pen and ink sketches. Some of those sketches were knocked out in about fifteen minutes flat. And they sure looked it. Maybe a thumb six inches from the first knuckle of a forefinger.
Finally I switched to a camera to lend credibility to the stories. Readers thought I was writing fiction. They couldn’t believe the characters I stumbled across really existed. Even with the camera I am still called a liar from time to time.
So if you don’t mind, let’s go back through the years and revisit some of the delightful people I have, in the course of this job, uncovered in various mesquite thickets, saloons and other homey places. Let’s examine them anew, stressing their lovable qualities, the things that should make them believable beyond question.
As a "character" George Hopkins was somewhat on the mild side. He was a pleasant man who had lost a foot in a bulldozer accident. Or at least part of a foot. He still wore both boots and walked around, though limping a bit. His bad foot didn’t interfere with his beer drinking.
He was a kindly man with a deep love for Desert City. Sitting there behind his counter while the hired help did the work, he could hear the construction equipment chewing up the side of the Clark Mountains, bringing Interstate 15 ever closer to his door. That’s when he took to shooting up the place.
You even shoot a horse when its leg is broken, don’t you? So why not shoot Desert City, suffering as it was from a terminal illness known as progress.
I was there the night George really tried to kill the place, to end its suffering. I helped him.
Summertime and hot. Several cars had pulled in and the joint was loaded. Well dressed residents of California, the customers were — either on their way to Las Vegas or returning home. But a skittish crowd, to be sure.
George and I were sluffing up beer, fighting off dehydration as sensible men do during summer in the Mojave Desert, and I happened to get curious about all the bullet holes in the wall behind the counter.
George said, "Oh, I tried to kill the place, it was the humane thing to do."
"Pretty small holes," I said.
"Takes a lot of lead like that to knock a building like this off its feet," I told him. "You didn’t hit it in a vital spot."
We sluffed a while longer and George said, "You know, I think I’ll try one more time, I’ll shoot it again."
"I’ll help you," I said.
George fired from the hip with his .22 and I let one off with my .38 . Two more holes in the end wall, and a fearful amount of noise.
Not all of the noise came from the guns, most of it was made by customers dropping their drinks, knocking their plates off the counter and falling over each other on their way to the door. George and I were suddenly alone.
"I lose a lot of business doing that," he said.
Fortunately for me I was back in Nevada when the cops arrived for George. I don’t know what it cost him. I don’t know where he went, whatever happened to him. But I’ll always remember him as a mighty fine fellow, a man only trying to do his duty as he saw it.
Another of my friends who tried to do his duty as he saw it was Whisker Red. I’d better not give Red’s last name. The Vegas police may still be looking for him. I expect durn near every police force in the West has looked for him at one time or another. And at least one of them caught him.
That was down around San Diego. Whisker Red had been working on a construction job at Needles, Calif., and he happened to go back home unexpectedly.
It’s not always a good idea for a married man to to go home unexpectedly. He’s liable to run into a surprising situation. Red flushed his surprising situation out of bed, ran the gentleman down in a vacant lot and killed him.
He was only defending the sanctity of his castle, but damned if the courts didn’t send Whisker Red up the river. His relatives pooled their money and reopened the case. It cost plenty. They put Red back out in the air, though. And never spoke to him again. Neither did his wife.
There were a few more little odds and ends of interest in Red’s life. Like the time he almost killed a man when he threw him off a bridge in Arizona. And the time when a poor woman in Las Vegas needed money to make up for blowing her husband’s paycheck on the slots.
She thought it would be a good idea to burn up her home. The house was insured.
Whisker Red, tender-hearted and always filled with kindness, helped the woman pour kerosene on the place. Maybe he even lit the match, he was a man who would do that much for a friend. But something went wrong. I never knew exactly what happened. Whatever it was, it didn’t happen to Red. He left town.
The next time I saw him, he was running from some sheriff in California. I was living in a trailer court in Vegas and Red sneaked in to tell me the sanctity of his castle once more had been invaded.
He had fallen in love with a female horse doctor and they had set up housekeeping in a little town where the deputy sheriff also owned the taxi concession.
I never saw Whisker Red’s lady of that particular era, but some of my acquaintances saw her — trustworthy people such as Bad Water Bill, Lester the Terror, Creepy Bob and Bogdown Munce. Men whose word no one can question. They said the horse doctor had a finer crop of whiskers, even, than Red.
It should have been a lovely match. On the one side there was a tall, snake-hipped man with a fiery beard that didn’t even need curling, a man steeped in the chivalry of the Old South (he came from Tennessee), and on the other side a woman with a very respectable beard of her own, a stalwart damsel capable of picking up a butcher-knife and chopping the appendix out of a full grown boar. It seemed, Bad Water Bill said, that they were made for each other.
Bad Water gave them, as a wedding gift (although they never really were married), a cracked toilet bowl to help furnish their love nest, a bowl that had been sitting two or three years in the tumbleweeds at Renegade Ranch near Sunrise Mountain east of Las Vegas.
But back there in California a snake reared its head in Whisker Red’s Eden. And plucked the fruit.
It was the deputy sheriff with the taxi concession. He lured away the female horse doctor with the magnificent whiskers. But a word should be said in defense of the lady. She had a right to choose a home with an uncracked toilet bowl.
Whisker Red didn’t see it that way. In the small hours of a bad black night he took his truck and pushed all of the deputy’s taxis over the hump and down into a canyon.
Red got the hell out of California.
He is a good man, wherever he is, always doing what he considers fit and proper, the honorable thing to do at the moment. A man who has been chased unmercifully by law officers who can’t seem to understand the necessity of sometimes killing a man, sometimes doing a little arson, sometimes pushing a mess of taxis over a cliff. Hounding him even into the south end of Death Valley where he was forced to hide and grieve over all manner of birds that got trapped by the summer heat and died at his feet.
That’s where I first met Whisker Red. Hiding out down there with Bogdown Munce who fled his native Alaska after pirating salmon cannery nets and having his wife take a shot at him through a barroom window in Ketchikan.
Now, Munce was another good friend of mine, a sturdy character I dug out of the boonies. As far as I know Munce was never really arrested for rustling horses although Clyde Cree Sr., a Vegan recently deceased, would probably have hung it on Munce could he have caught him. At least that is what Cree once told me.
Cree didn’t understand. Bogdown Munce, as he (Munce) has so often said, is only a victim of circumstances. He borrows a horse and someone steals it before he can return it. And then he has to run off and hide. For some people there is simply no justice. Life is filled with disappointments.
Munce once thought he was getting a fair shake, that this world had offered him a bargain. He was camping out on the Tonopah Road just west of Vegas. At least it was west of Vegas at that time. A tall water tank off there in the desert, plenty of old junked automobile bodies for people to live in, and a great stand of arrow weeds where the women in camp could hide to do whatever women do in arrow weeds.
Camping there was a fellow from Mesquite. A real heller with the ladies.
This heller had gone overboard for a crippled waitress in Las Vegas and wanted to shuck his companion, a half-Gypsy girl he had picked up in Northern Nevada. He offered to sell her to Bogdown Munce.
Munce said to the heller, "Shove her in the trailer door so I can see what she looks like."
The man from Mesquite shoved the girl in the door and Munce said, "I’ll give you four one-dollar bills and a can of prunes."
Like that he bought the half-Gypsy girl and they were, for a while, a better match even than Whisker Red and the female horse doctor.
They were the happiest two rubber-tramps you ever saw on the Tonopah road.
They went up to Virginia City and walked the old board sidewalks and looked in the saloons where the dudes were drinking and horsing around and listening to the honky-tonk piano players.
Then one day their money ran short, they were tapped out, and the girl said, "I’ll go down to Searchlight and get a job and wait for you to come down."
In those days there were a lot of different kinds of work for a girl to do in Searchlight. Some we won’t talk about. But Munce said his girl was working as a waitress. And maybe that is true. Because she ran off with a fry cook from Willie Martello’s El Rey Club and Bogdown Munce never saw her again.
Well, knowing these fellows, knowing how they can suffer when mistreated, knowing how low they can feel when their ambitions blow up in their faces, I don’t really care to go on. I’d rather not tell you how Bear Claws Stutsman of Phoenix let Bogdown Munce and Bad Water Bill down. But I will.
Bear Claws was a fighter. He said so himself. He was a hell of a handsome fellow, and big as a mountain. Munce brought him into Renegade Ranch, Bad Water’s domain and they damn near starved to death while figuring how to get a match with Sonny Liston, who was heavyweight champion at the time.
I don’t know how good a fighter Bear Claws ever was. But he could sure slap the juice out of dog’s jowls when the mutt got his snoot in the stewpot. Bear Claws was an eater from way back. He could eat a hindquarter off a steer while it was still running over the ridge. And then he turned out to be a lover. And that did it.
When the women commenced to follow Bear Claws around and feed him, he didn’t care to fight anymore.
And that’s the way it has gone with all of those wonderful people I have flushed out of the boonies, looking for material for these stories. For many of them nothing has ever turned out quite right.Part III: A City In Full