The Passing of Cock-Eye Blacklock by Frank Norris
“Well, m'son,” observed Bunt about half an hour after supper, “if
your provender has shook down comfortable by now, we might as well jar
loose and be moving along out yonder.”
We left the fire and moved toward the hobbled ponies, Bunt
complaining of the quality of the outfit's meals. “Down in the Panamint
country,” he growled, “we had a Chink that was a sure frying-pan
expert; but this Dago—my word! That ain't victuals, that
supper. That's just a' ingenious device for removing superfluous
appetite. Next time I assimilate nutriment in this camp I'm sure going
to take chloroform beforehand. Careful to draw your cinch tight on that
pinto bronc' of yours. She always swells up same as a horned toad soon
as you begin to saddle up.”
We rode from the circle of the camp-fire's light and out upon the
desert. It was Bunt's turn to ride the herd that night, and I had
volunteered to bear him company.
Bunt was one of a fast-disappearing type. He knew his West as the
cockney knows his Piccadilly. He had mined with and for Ralston, had
soldiered with Crook, had turned cards in a faro game at Laredo, and
had known the Apache Kid. He had fifteen separate and different times
driven the herds from Texas to Dodge City, in the good old, rare old,
wild old days when Dodge was the headquarters for the cattle trade, and
as near to heaven as the cowboy cared to get. He had seen the end of
gold and the end of the buffalo, the beginning of cattle, the beginning
of wheat, and the spreading of the barbed-wire fence, that, in the end,
will take from him his occupation and his revolver, his chaparejos and
his usefulness, his lariat and his reason for being. He had seen the
rise of a new period, the successive stages of which, singularly
enough, tally exactly with the progress of our own world-civilization:
first the nomad and hunter, then the herder, next and last the
husband-man. He had passed the mid-mark of his life. His mustache was
gray. He had four friends—his horse, his pistol, a teamster in the
Indian Territory Panhandle named Skinny, and me.
The herd—I suppose all told there were some two thousand head—we
found not far from the water-hole. We relieved the other watch and took
up our night's vigil. It was about nine o'clock. The night was fine,
There was no cloud. Toward the middle watches one could expect a
moon. But the stars, the stars! In Idaho, on those lonely reaches of
desert and range, where the shadow of the sun by day and the courses of
the constellations by night are the only things that move, these stars
are a different matter from those bleared pin-points of the city after
dark, seen through dust and smoke and the glare of electrics and the
hot haze of fire-signs. On such a night as that when I rode the herd
with Bunt anything might have happened; one could have believed
in fairies then, and in the buffalo-ghost, and in all the weirds of the
craziest Apache “Messiah” that ever made medicine.
One remembered astronomy and the “measureless distances” and the
showy problems, including the rapid moving of a ray of light and the
long years of its travel between star and star, and smiled
incredulously. Why, the stars were just above our heads, were not much
higher than the flat-topped hills that barred the horizons. Venus was a
yellow lamp hung in a tree; Mars a red lantern in a clock-tower.
One listened instinctively for the tramp of the constellations.
Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major marched to and fro on the vault like
cohorts of legionaries, seemingly within call of our voices, and all
without a sound.
But beneath these quiet heavens the earth disengaged multitudinous
sounds—small sounds, minimized as it were by the muffling of the
night. Now it was the yap of a coyote leagues away; now the snapping of
a twig in the sage-brush; now the mysterious, indefinable stir of the
heat-ridden land cooling under the night. But more often it was the
confused murmur of the herd itself—the click of a horn, the friction
of heavy bodies, the stamp of a hoof, with now and then the low,
complaining note of a cow with a calf, or the subdued noise of a steer
as it lay down, first lurching to the knees, then rolling clumsily upon
the haunch, with a long, stertorous breath of satisfaction.
Slowly at Indian trot we encircle the herd. Earlier in the evening a
prairie-wolf had pulled down a calf, and the beasts were still
Little eddies of nervousness at long intervals developed here and
there in the mass—eddies that not impossibly might widen at any time
with perilous quickness to the maelstrom of a stampede. So as he rode
Bunt sang to these great brutes, literally to put them to sleep—sang
an old grandmother's song, with all the quaint modulations of sixty,
seventy, a hundred years ago:
“With her ogling winks
And bobbling blinks,
Her quizzing glass,
Her one eye idle,
Oh, she loved a bold dragoon,
With his broadsword, saddle, bridle.
I remember that song. My grandmother—so they tell me—used to sing
it in Carolina, in the thirties, accompanying herself on a harp, if you
“Oh, she loved a bold dragoon,
With his broadsword, saddle, bridle.”
It was in Charleston, I remembered, and the slave-ships used to
discharge there in those days. My grandmother had sung it then to her
beaux; officers they were; no wonder she chose it—“Oh, she loved a
bold dragoon”—and now I heard it sung on an Idaho cattle-range to
quiet two thousand restless steers.
Our talk at first, after the cattle had quieted down, ran upon all
manner of subjects. It is astonishing to note what strange things men
will talk about at night and in a solitude. That night we covered
religion, of course, astronomy, love affairs, horses, travel, history,
poker, photography, basket-making, and the Darwinian theory. But at
last inevitably we came back to cattle and the pleasures and dangers of
riding the herd.
“I rode herd once in Nevada,” remarked Bunt, “and I was caught into
a blizzard, and I was sure freezing to death. Got to where I couldn't
keep my eyes open, I was that sleepy. Tell you what I did. Had some
eating-tobacco along, and I'd chew it a spell, then rub the juice into
my eyes. Kept it up all night. Blame near blinded me, but I come
through. Me and another man named Blacklock—Cock-eye Blacklock we
called him, by reason of his having one eye that was some out of line.
Cock-eye sure ought to have got it that night, for he went bad
afterward, and did a heap of killing before he did get it. He
was a bad man for sure, and the way he died is a story in itself.”
There was a long pause. The ponies jogged on. Rounding on the herd,
we turned southward.
“He did 'get it' finally, you say,” I prompted.
“He certainly did,” said Bunt, “and the story of it is what a man
with a' imaginary mind like you ought to make into one of your friction
“Is it about a treasure?” I asked with apprehension. For ever since
I once made a tale (of friction) out of one of Bunt's stories of real
life, he has been ambitious for me to write another, and is forever
suggesting motifs which invariably—I say invariably—imply the
discovery of great treasures. With him, fictitious literature must
always turn upon the discovery of hidden wealth.
“No,” said he, “it ain't about no treasure, but just about the
origin, hist'ry and development—and subsequent decease—of as mean a
Greaser as ever stole stock, which his name was Cock-eye Blacklock.
“You see, this same Blacklock went bad about two summers after our
meet-up with the blizzard. He worked down Yuma way and over into New
Mexico, where he picks up with a sure-thing gambler, and the two begin
to devastate the population. They do say when he and his running mate
got good and through with that part of the Land of the Brave, men used
to go round trading guns for commissary, and clothes for ponies, and
cigars for whisky and such. There just wasn't any money left
anywhere. Those sharps had drawed the landscape clean. Some one
found a dollar in a floor-crack in a saloon, and the barkeep' gave him
a gallon of forty-rod for it, and used to keep it in a box for
exhibition, and the crowd would get around it and paw it over and say:
'My! my! Whatever in the world is this extremely cu-roos coin?'
“Then Blacklock cuts loose from his running mate, and plays a lone
hand through Arizona and Nevada, up as far as Reno again, and there he
stacks up against a kid—a little tenderfoot kid so new he ain't
cracked the green paint off him—and skins him. And the kid,
being foolish and impulsive-like, pulls out a peashooter. It was a
twenty-two,” said Bunt, solemnly. “Yes, the kid was just that pore,
pathetic kind to carry a dinky twenty-two, and with the tears runnin'
down his cheeks begins to talk tall. Now what does that Cockeye do?
Why, that pore kid that he had skinned couldn't 'a' hurt him with his
pore little bric-a-brac. Does Cock-eye take his little parlour ornament
away from him, and spank him, and tell him to go home? No, he never.
The kid's little tin pop-shooter explodes right in his hand before he
can crook his forefinger twice, and while he's a-wondering what-all has
happened Cock-eye gets his two guns on him, slow and deliberate like,
mind you, and throws forty-eights into him till he ain't worth shooting
at no more. Murders him like the mud-eating, horse-thieving snake of a
Greaser that he is; but being within the law, the kid drawing on him
first, he don't stretch hemp the way he should.
“Well, fin'ly this Blacklock blows into a mining-camp in Placer
County, California, where I'm chuck-tending on the night-shift. This
here camp is maybe four miles across the divide from Iowa Hill, and it
sure is named a cu-roos name, which it is Why-not. They is a barn
contiguous, where the mine horses are kep', and, blame me! if there
ain't a weathercock on top of that same—a golden trotting-horse—
upside down. When the stranger an' pilgrim comes in, says he first
off: 'Why'n snakes they got that weathercock horse upside down—why?'
says he. 'Why-not,' says you, and the drinks is on the pilgrim.
“That all went very lovely till some gesabe opens up a placer drift
on the far side the divide, starts a rival camp, an' names her Because.
The Boss gets mad at that, and rights up the weathercock, and renames
the camp Ophir, and you don't work no more pilgrims.
“Well, as I was saying, Cock-eye drifts into Why-not and begins
diffusing trouble. He skins some of the boys in the hotel over in town,
and a big row comes of it, and one of the bed-rock cleaners cuts loose
with both guns. Nobody hurt but a quarter-breed, who loses a' eye. But
the marshal don't stand for no short-card men, an' closes Cock-eye up
some prompt. Him being forced to give the boys back their money is
busted an' can't get away from camp. To raise some wind he begins
“He robs a pore half-breed of a cayuse, and shoots up a Chink who's
panning tailings, and generally and variously becomes too pronounced,
till he's run outen camp. He's sure stony-broke, not being able to turn
a card because of the marshal. So he goes to live in a ole cabin up by
the mine ditch, and sits there doing a heap o' thinking, and hatching
trouble like a' ole he-hen.
“Well, now, with that deporting of Cock-eye comes his turn of bad
luck, and it sure winds his clock up with a loud report. I've narrated
special of the scope and range of this 'ere Blacklock, so as you'll
understand why it was expedient and desirable that he should up an'
die. You see, he always managed, with all his killings and robbings and
general and sundry flimflamming, to be just within the law. And if
anybody took a notion to shoot him up, why, his luck saw him through,
and the other man's shooting-iron missed fire, or exploded, or threw
wild, or such like, till it seemed as if he sure did bear a charmed
life; and so he did till a pore yeller tamale of a fool dog did for him
what the law of the land couldn't do. Yes, sir, a fool dog, a pup, a
blame yeller pup named Sloppy Weather, did for Cock-eye Blacklock,
sporting character, three-card-monte man, sure-thing sharp, killer, and
“You see, it was this way. Over in American Canon, some five miles
maybe back of the mine, they was a creek called the American River, and
it was sure chock-a-block full of trouts. The Boss used for to go over
there with a dinky fish-pole like a buggy-whip about once a week, and
scout that stream for fish and bring back a basketful. He was sure keen
on it, and had bought some kind of privilege or other, so as he could
keep other people off.
“Well, I used to go along with him to pack the truck, and one
Saturday, about a month after Cock-eye had been run outen camp, we
hiked up over the divide, and went for to round up a bunch o' trouts.
When we got to the river there was a mess for your life. Say, that
river was full of dead trouts, floating atop the water; and they was
some even on the bank. Not a scratch on 'em; just dead. The Boss had
the papsy-lals. I never did see a man so rip-r'aring, snorting
mad. I hadn't a guess about what we were up against, but he
knew, and he showed down. He said somebody had been shooting the river
for fish to sell down Sacramento way to the market. A mean trick; kill
more fish in one shoot than you can possibly pack.
“Well, we didn't do much fishing that day—couldn't get a bite, for
that matter—and took on home about noon to talk it over. You see, the
Boss, in buying the privileges or such for that creek, had made himself
responsible to the Fish Commissioners of the State, and 'twasn't a week
before they were after him, camping on his trail incessant, and wanting
to know how about it. The Boss was some worried, because the fish were
being killed right along, and the Commission was making him weary of
living. Twicet afterward we prospected along that river and found the
same lot of dead fish. We even put a guard there, but it didn't do no
manner of good.
“It's the Boss who first suspicions Cock-eye. But it don't take no
seventh daughter of no seventh daughter to trace trouble where
Black-lock's about. He sudden shows up in town with a bunch of
simoleons, buying bacon and tin cows [Footnote: Condensed milk.] and
such provender, and generally giving it away that he's come into money.
The Boss, who's watching his movements sharp, says to me one day:
“'Bunt, the storm-centre of this here low area is a man with a
cock-eye, an' I'll back that play with a paint horse against a paper
“'No takers,' says I. 'Dirty work and a cock-eyed man are two heels
of the same mule.'
“'Which it's a-kicking of me in the stummick frequent and painful,'
he remarks, plenty wrathful.
“'On general principles,' I said, 'it's a royal flush to a pair of
deuces as how this Blacklock bird ought to stop a heap of lead, and I
know the man to throw it. He's the only brother of my sister, and tends
chuck in a placer mine. How about if I take a day off and drop round to
his cabin and interview him on the fleetin' and unstable nature of
“But the Boss wouldn't hear of that.
“'No,' says he; 'that's not the bluff to back in this game. You an'
me an' 'Mary-go-round'—that was what we called the marshal, him being
so much all over the country—'you an' me an' Mary-go-round will have
to stock a sure-thing deck against that maverick.'
“So the three of us gets together an' has a talky-talk, an' we lays
it out as how Cock-eye must be watched and caught red-handed.
“Well, let me tell you, keeping case on that Greaser sure did lack a
certain indefinable charm. We tried him at sun-up, an' again at
sundown, an' nights, too, laying in the chaparral an' tarweed, an'
scouting up an' down that blame river, till we were sore. We built
surreptitious a lot of shooting-boxes up in trees on the far side of
the canon, overlooking certain an' sundry pools in the river where
Cock-eye would be likely to pursue operations, an' we took turns
watching. I'll be a Chink if that bad egg didn't put it on us same as
previous, an' we'd find new-killed fish all the time. I tell you we
were fitchered; and it got on the Boss's nerves. The Commission
began to talk of withdrawing the privilege, an' it was up to him to
make good or pass the deal. We knew Blacklock was shooting the
river, y' see, but we didn't have no evidence. Y' see, being shut off
from card-sharping, he was up against it, and so took to pot-hunting to
get along. It was as plain as red paint.
“Well, things went along sort of catch-as-catch-can like this for
maybe three weeks, the Greaser shooting fish regular, an' the Boss
b'iling with rage, and laying plans to call his hand, and getting
bluffed out every deal.
“And right here I got to interrupt, to talk some about the pup dog,
Sloppy Weather. If he hadn't got caught up into this Blacklock game, no
one'd ever thought enough about him to so much as kick him. But after
it was all over, we began to remember this same Sloppy an' to recall
what he was; no big job. He was just a worthless fool pup, yeller at
that, everybody's dog, that just hung round camp, grinning and giggling
and playing the goat, as half-grown dogs will. He used to go along with
the car-boys when they went swimmin' in the resevoy, an' dash along in
an' yell an' splash round just to show off. He thought it was a keen
stunt to get some gesabe to throw a stick in the resevoy so's he could
paddle out after it. They'd trained him always to bring it back an'
fetch it to whichever party throwed it. He'd give it up when he'd
retrieved it, an' yell to have it throwed again. That was his idea of
fun—just like a fool pup.
“Well, one day this Sloppy Weather is off chasing jack-rabbits an'
don't come home. Nobody thinks anything about that, nor even notices
it. But we afterward finds out that he'd met up with Blacklock that
day, an' stopped to visit with him—sorry day for Cockeye. Now it was
the very next day after this that Mary-go-round an' the Boss plans
another scout. I'm to go, too. It was a Wednesday, an' we lay it out
that the Cockeye would prob'ly shoot that day so's to get his fish down
to the railroad Thursday, so they'd reach Sacramento Friday—fish day,
see. It wasn't much to go by, but it was the high card in our hand, an'
we allowed to draw to it.
“We left Why-not afore daybreak, an' worked over into the canon
about sun-up. They was one big pool we hadn't covered for some time,
an' we made out we'd watch that. So we worked down to it, an' clumb up
into our trees, an' set out to keep guard.
“In about an hour we heard a shoot some mile or so up the creek.
They's no mistaking dynamite, leastways not to miners, an' we knew that
shoot was dynamite an' nothing else. The Cock-eye was at work, an' we
shook hands all round. Then pretty soon a fish or so began to go
by—big fellows, some of 'em, dead an' floatin', with their eyes popped
'way out same as knobs—sure sign they'd been shot.
“The Boss took and grit his teeth when he see a three-pounder go by,
an' made remarks about Blacklock.
“''Sh!' says Mary-go-round, sudden-like. 'Listen!'
“We turned ear down the wind, an' sure there was the sound of some
one scrabbling along the boulders by the riverside. Then we heard a pup
“'That's our man,' whispers the Boss.
“For a long time we thought Cock-eye had quit for the day an' had
coppered us again, but byne-by we heard the manzanita crack on the far
side the canon, an' there at last we see Blacklock working down toward
the pool, Sloppy Weather following an' yapping and cayoodling just as a
fool dog will.
“Blacklock comes down to the edge of the water quiet-like. He lays
his big scoop-net an' his sack—we can see it half full already—down
behind a boulder, and takes a good squinting look all round, and
listens maybe twenty minutes, he's that cute, same's a coyote stealing
sheep. We lies low an' says nothing, fear he might see the leaves move.
“Then byne-by he takes his stick of dynamite out his hip pocket—he
was just that reckless kind to carry it that way—an' ties it careful
to a couple of stones he finds handy. Then he lights the fuse an'
heaves her into the drink, an' just there's where Cock-eye makes the
mistake of his life. He ain't tied the rocks tight enough, an' the loop
slips off just as he swings back his arm, the stones drop straight down
by his feet, and the stick of dynamite whirls out right enough into the
“Then the funny business begins.
“Blacklock ain't made no note of Sloppy Weather, who's been sizing
up the whole game an' watchin' for the stick. Soon as Cock-eye heaves
the dynamite into the water, off goes the pup after it, just as he'd
been taught to do by the car-boys.
“'Hey, you fool dog!' yells Blacklock.
“A lot that pup cares. He heads out for that stick of dynamite same
as if for a veal cutlet, reaches it, grabs hold of it, an' starts back
for shore, with the fuse sputterin' like hot grease. Blacklock heaves
rocks at him like one possessed, capering an' dancing; but the pup
comes right on. The Cock-eye can't stand it no longer, but lines out.
But the pup's got to shore an' takes after him. Sure; why not? He
think's it's all part of the game. Takes after Cock-eye, running to
beat a' express, while we-all whoops and yells an' nearly falls out the
trees for laffing. Hi! Cock-eye did scratch gravel for sure. But
'tain't no manner of use. He can't run through that rough ground like
Sloppy Weather, an' that fool pup comes a-cavartin' along, jumpin' up
against him, an' him a-kickin' him away, an' r'arin', an' dancin', an'
shakin' his fists, an' the more he r'ars the more fun the pup thinks it
is. But all at once something big happens, an' the whole bank of the
canon opens out like a big wave, and slops over into the pool, an' the
air is full of trees an' rocks and cart-loads of dirt an' dogs and
Blacklocks and rivers an' smoke an' fire generally. The Boss got a clod
o' river-mud spang in the eye, an' went off his limb like's he was
trying to bust a bucking bronc' an' couldn't; and ol' Mary-go-round was
shooting off his gun on general principles, glarin' round wild-eyed an'
like as if he saw a' Injun devil.
“When the smoke had cleared away an' the trees and rocks quit
falling, we clumb down from our places an' started in to look for
Black-lock. We found a good deal of him, but they wasn't hide nor hair
left of Sloppy Weather. We didn't have to dig no grave, either. They
was a big enough hole in the ground to bury a horse an' wagon, let
alone Cock-eye. So we planted him there, an' put up a board, an' wrote
Here lies most
who died of a'
entangling alliance with
stick of dynamite.
Moral: A hook and line is good enough
fish-tackle for any honest man.
“That there board lasted for two years, till the freshet of '82,
when the American River—Hello, there's the sun!”
All in a minute the night seemed to have closed up like a great
book. The East flamed roseate. The air was cold, nimble. Some of the
sage-brush bore a thin rim of frost. The herd, aroused, the dew
glistening on flank and horn, were chewing the first cud of the day,
and in twos and threes moving toward the water-hole for the morning's
drink. Far off toward the camp the breakfast fire sent a shaft of blue
smoke straight into the moveless air. A jack-rabbit, with erect ears,
limped from the sage-brush just out of pistol-shot and regarded us a
moment, his nose wrinkling and trembling. By the time that Bunt and I,
putting our ponies to a canter, had pulled up by the camp of the
Bar-circle-Z outfit, another day had begun in Idaho.