the AMBROSE BIERCE site
Letter from Ambrose Bierce to H.L. Mencken
Federal District of Washington
October 2, 1913
My Dear Friend Henry,
I heartily enjoyed our recent meeting in Baltimore and our reminisces of friends and enemies that have either departed this life or still remain, continuing their work of bedeviling anyone and everyone who commits the high crime of writing something that does not conform to the established rules of literature as handed down by the Great God of American Letters, Professor Howells.
And in response to your request of that night, I would like to leave with you this memorial of a chance encounter that occurred many years ago in what was then the Territory of New Mexico, which involved myself, as well as two men who seem to have attained some degree of legendary immortality.***
It was in the summer of the year 1879 that the events of which we spoke occurred. At that time I had only recently become involved in my extensive travels away from my home in San Francisco while on business related to my somewhat less than stellar, and thankfully brief, career as a mining agent. Upon learning of my travel plans, a former colleague at the Argonaut in San Francisco had given me a letters of introduction to the editors of newspapers in various towns where I might have occasion to find myself, including one to a man whose name escapes me at the moment, but since he was the editor of the Las Vegas Optic, in the town of the same name, I will refer to him as "Mr. Editor." And as Fate would have it I happened to arrive in Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory at around the middle of a sweltering late July Saturday afternoon, carrying instructions from my employer ordering that I evaluate the possibility of either establishing a mining venture or purchasing some already established operation.
The town of Las Vegas had welcomed the arrival of the railroad only a few weeks prior to that Saturday afternoon, which meant that the depot there was still fit for human habitation, despite the fact that it sat adjacent to the coal bins that discharged their contents into the coal cars of the locomotives and coal dust onto everything else within a two hundred yard radius. After being assured by the also recently arrived station master that my luggage could remain in his care for the duration of my visit, I selected a single carpetbag containing several changes of clothing and then made my way onto the streets of the town.
To my first inspection the town itself was indistinguishable from any of several hundred towns that had, in the past, served as way stations along the cattle drive and immigrant trails that seemed to funnel everyone and everything into unmarked paths that took the easiest, but not necessarily the shortest, routes to various destination both West and East. The streets were composed of that peculiar mixture of dirt and clay that converts itself into an impassable mud pit at the slightest exposure to moisture. Those streets that were still passable were filled with carriages and wagons belonging to the civilian population, with a healthy number of mounted cavalry from nearby Fort Union being present as well. I noted what seemed to be a fair amount of commercial activity about the town with several buildings under construction which, I suspected were to become hotels, built in anticipation of an increased number of people seeking accommodations as they traveled through the area on the railroad.
After registering at a hotel that seemed to be one of the newer businesses along the street I wrote out a brief message on one of the blank hotel calling cards, inquiring if the gentleman, whose name still escapes me, was available to join me for dinner that evening. After dispatching the hotel pageboy to deliver it, along with my letter of introduction, I retired to the sitting room adjacent to the lobby to peruse the local and Territorial newspapers while I awaited a response to my invitation. To my surprise, not half an hour had passed before the young man returned to inform me that Mr. Editor (for lack of a better name) was sending his compliments and would indeed be pleased to join me for dinner that evening.
About an hour later the hotel pageboy informed me that Mr. Editor had indeed arrived and was already seated in the dining area that sat at the rear of the hotel and adjacent to the saloon, a facility which seemed to be mandated of all the hotels by the Territorial Legislature. After we had exchanged greetings, and word of our one common acquaintance, talk turned to the one subject that is universally understood: politics. And even in that isolated town in an isolated Territory political intrigue seemed to be the order of the day. Since I was evaluating the area for a possible business venture I was keenly interested in which political camp to distribute the proper "donations" or "retainers" which, as you know, were the terms used by genteel society in those days rather than the more vulgar and accurate word "bribes." Mr. Editor was somewhat less than complimentary in his opinions of the Territorial authorities when I asked him which public officials should be "consulted" should the occasion arise.
"Major," he replied, using my brevet rank in the War as was then the custom, "if all the members of the legislature were struck dead tonight, their absence would go unnoticed until someone realized that the public treasury was not being depleted at the same rate as before. The members of that distinguished body are purchased, and influences sold, with such frequency that one recalls the slave auctions of the not too distant past. The authorities in Santa Fe remain oblivious to the welfare of the citizens until the situation becomes one of almost open insurrection.
"And this indifference has managed to infuse itself into even the local sheriffs and city marshals, who see no need to maintain law and order within their jurisdictions unless not to do so would be against the best interests of whoever happens to be their patron. Not that long ago the overall situation throughout the Territory had sank to such a level that it approached anarchy. Things here were of such desperation that word of it had even reached the offices of President Hayes who decided to send to us a man of some notoriety, General Wallace, to restore some semblance of discipline. To date, based on what I have observed, he has not been effective."
"If you are referring to General Lew Wallace of Indiana," I replied "then it might be seen as a sign of divine providence that he has not managed to return the Territory to Mexico while simultaneously instigating a war with Spain."
"Ahh Major, then you know of General Wallace?"
I was unable to conceal my contempt for the Territorial Governor as I answered him. "Sir, I was at Shiloh and am all too acquainted with General Wallace and his incompetence. The last news I had of him placed him as an officer of military tribunals, where I am sure he continued his habit of sending the innocent to their deaths."
He gave a low chuckle in response to my opinions of the suitability of the general for any position of public trust. "Why Sir, I do believe you have met the gentleman, although you are too restrained on your praise of him."
"Sir, I would have to write my own dictionary to have sufficient words to properly denounce that man."
My guest then provided me with an introductory lesson as to the political climate of the Territory.
"Major, when dealing with the courts, politicians, and other such bands of thieves that seem to be the seats of power in the Territory, keep one thing in mind." He paused to light a cigar, which indicated to me that he was about to reveal some important bit of information. "And that is that the real political and economic power originates with the large landowners.
"This Territory is not wealthy in resources that may be mined or harvested, but grass grows free and cattle reproduce themselves. In most counties, the ranchers either own the bank outright or control enough of the bank's assets as to be the de facto owners.
"After the ranchers comes the mercantile class that, by extending or denying credit, exerts considerable control over the lives of the smaller ranchers. And then comes the political class, which prospers by doing exactly as it is told to do by the ranchers and merchants. By the time any real authority has trickled down to the Legislature it, as you might imagine, it is authority in name only.
"But sometimes, mind you, an outsider will arrive and throw down the gauntlet, so to speak, and challenge the "Ring," as we call it. Almost without exception they somehow manage to run afoul of the local sheriff, who was appointed by the Legislature, which in turn is in the pocket of the ranchers and merchants.
"Not two years ago there was a situation to the south of us, in Lincoln County, that grew so bad that then-Governor Axtell was forced to send in a cavalry unit to enforce a separation of the combatants. The cavalry, of course, promptly sided with one faction and only succeeded in driving the other faction into the open ranges, where they were free to plan their raids on their adversaries at their convenience."
The conversation turned to other, less relevant or bellicose, matters as our meal drew to an end. Then Mr. Editor made a suggestion.
"It is part of my usual routine, after Sunday services, to visit a ranchito in which I have a small investment interest. If you feel up to some fresh air and a little exercise, I would enjoy your company during the trip there. I will even provide the horse and a few drinks of whiskey at the end of the ride."
I immediately accepted his kind offer. After a few glasses of a rather strong whiskey he took his leave of me, after which I returned to my room, where I was soon fast asleep.***
True to his word, Mr. Editor returned to my hotel shortly after the noon hour of the next day. With him was the horse and saddle that he had secured for my use from one of the several liveries located within the town. He also had brought along an extra Winchester rifle, also for my use, should we encounter others who might not be of the same dispositions as ourselves. After each had fortified himself with a generous lunch of ham, eggs, and potatoes we mounted our respective horses and began our leisurely ride to the town of Hot Springs.
Friend Henry, the vistas I encountered that day defy description! To one side of us lay rolling hills that would slowly rise to become the low mountains easily visible at a distance to the west. In the sky above those mountains several white clouds were already well along in the silent process of being transformed, by some unseen force, into the anvil-shaped harbingers of summer storms. And off to the east lay a vast sea of low greenish brown grasses of such flatness and expanse that it seemed as if one could ride for three days and nights without encountering anything taller than the ears of a jackrabbit.
We had stopped to water our horses, and ourselves, from a stream that ran alongside our path when I happened to note the approach of another rider. I was reaching for my borrowed Winchester when Mr. Editor stayed my hand.
"Relax, major. I know this man and I assure you he is not a danger to us."
The rider made a turn to us as my host waved a greeting to him. As he drew nearer I observed that he was dressed in what appeared to be the working clothes of a man who spent a considerable amount of his time in the outdoors. He dismounted and exchanged a friendly handshake with my host, who then motioned to me that I should join them.
"Major. I present Doctor Henry Hoyt, a healer of both animals and their masters. And a poker player of no mean reputation."
Doctor Hoyt appeared to be younger than myself although the roughness of his palm, which was evident as we shook hands, seemed out of sorts for a man of such education. He was pleasant enough, however, and sat with us as our horses drank their fill of the cool water. My host had obviously known the man for some time as his first statement was a question asked of doctor about, of all things, the doctor's horse.
"Henry," he asked, "is it true that The Kid sold you that horse after a poker game?"
Young Doctor Hoyt chuckled softly before replying, "It was after a poker game, yes. But he didn't sell me Dandy Dick. He gave him to me. Well, to be correct, we traded for him, and both The Kid and I left Texas in better shape than when we came into it. We had been among several that had been playing cards one night and I had won a pocket watch, which The Kid had admired. Since I already had a watch I presented it to Billy as a gift. The next morning he gave me this horse, complete with a legal bill of sale."
Doctor Hoyt must have noticed my expression of bewilderment because explained, for my benefit, the name and history of this person they had referred to as "The Kid" or "Billy." "The man we refer to as "The Kid" has been the subject of considerable talk of late in this part of the Territory, and he has been both damned as a murdering desperado and praised as a hero depending on one's sympathies. To the "Santa Fe Ring" and their supporters he is a dangerous murderer who must be disposed of as an example to those who would dare defy them. To the average citizen he is no less than a knight errant, their champion."
He continued with his defense of this man after we had remounted and continued onward, in the direction of Hot Springs.
"He is, in my opinion, guilty of nothing more than acting in defense of his person and of his friends and has acted as any reasonable man would if faced with the same situation. He has seen his friends cut down by the hand of the law that he is expected to obey. He has seen the same law twisted to justify murder, cattle rustling, and a host of other crimes. If he seems to show no respect for the laws of society it is because that same society has done nothing, in his eyes, to merit respect."
The conversation between us then drifted to various other topics, all of them concerning more mundane subjects, which made the afternoon pass by quickly.
Our trio arrived in the hamlet of Hot Springs, New Mexico Territory at around four o'clock in the afternoon. I was immediately taken by the contrasts in both the architecture and the demeanor of the townspeople with that which I had observed upon arriving in Las Vegas the previous day. The people that were about their businesses that Sunday afternoon were notable in that they displayed none of the hurried demeanor that seemed to be prevalent in Las Vegas. And whereas practically all of the construction in that I noted back in town had been of hewn trees and lumber processed at any one of the several local lumber mills, everything here seemed to be fashioned of adobe, that dried mud and straw combination that appears to be the preferred building material in the arid southwestern Territories. When I commented upon this, my host and riding companion offered a very simple explanation as to why this was indeed true in the case at hand.
"The reason, sir, is quite simple. Adobe may seem to be nothing but mud and straw, but once it has dried in this arid atmosphere it becomes unbelievably durable in regards to the effects of both time and the elements. In fact, the bricks mentioned in the book of Exodus as being the result of the Hebrew's labors under Pharaoh's taskmaster are of the same materials. It is able to hold heat within its walls during the winter yet keep the summer heat at bay. Why, many of the residences you see here are over one hundred years old! A structure made of wood could not withstand the extremes of the climate experienced in this area and would probably not last a decade without requiring extensive repairs."
Motioning with his hand, he called my attention to a house that sat about a mile distant, nestled within a grove of cottonwoods.
"Major, look over there. The ranchito that you see before you is in fact over one hundred years old. The family that currently resides there is the fourth generation to do so, and lawful title to possession of the surrounding lands was granted to their ancestors in perpetuity by no less than the King of Spain himself as a reward for service to the crown. At least it was granted in perpetuity by intent.
"But since the advent of the Federal Territorial authorities after our nation's victory over Mexico, the trend by the newer arrivals has been to use the power of the judiciary to 'legally' (he used a tone of voice that indicated displeasure) appropriate any desirable lands under the guise of 'manifest destiny' or 'public domain' (again with thinly disguised contempt) and whatever legal standing the courts may yet grant to those unwritten principle of law." The older families see this as proof the Santa Fe Ring is more of a menace to their interests than all the marauding Indians and rampaging cowboys west of the Mississippi River combined."
I could only nod my head in silent agreement, and we three were soon tying our horses to the saddle rack in front of the Adobe Hotel. We had hardly set foot on the ground when we were greeted by a gentleman of about my own age who was promptly introduced to me as Mr. "Scotty" Moore, the proprietor of the establishment we were about to visit. When my companion again used the honorific of "Major" to introduce me, I detected a sudden air of suspicion and hesitancy in Mr. Moore's manner of speech as we shook hands.
"May I inquire as to which unit you served with, Major?" The question was merely another, more polite way of asking 'Which side did you fight for?'"
Sensing his distrust of this new face in a land where new faces usually meant trouble was afoot, I kept my reply as general as I honestly could. "I initially served as a Sergeant of Volunteers with the 9th Indiana, my home state, but my brevet rank was acquired only near the end of hostilities and then only after the personal intervention of General Hazen on my behalf, as a reward for my services on his staff as a forward observer and map maker."
My reply seemed acceptable to him and all were soon inside the hotel where Mr. Moore wasted little time in serving us generous portions of whiskey, that marvelous gift of Bacchus to mere mortals such as ourselves. Whatever distrusts there might have been among us regarding our loyalties during the recent conflict between Union and Confederacy were soon lost as the whiskey worked its magic. We were soon swapping tales of our previous exploits as if we were old friends, not recent acquaintances. I had just begun to tell a favorite story, first told to me by none other than General Hazen himself, when I was startled by the sound of gunfire. Noticing my surprise, Mr. Moore quickly offered an explanation.
"Don't be alarmed, major. It's only two of the people currently staying here at the hotel. This morning they were testing each others skills with rifles and are now determining who is the better marksman with the pistol."
With my composure regained by his explanation I had just resumed my tale when I was again interrupted, this time by the cook, who informed us that dinner was now ready for those wishing to partake.
My riding companion, Mr. Editor, rose first and checked his pocket watch before announcing "Gentlemen, I am afraid I must excuse myself from the dinner company. The hour is later than I had imagined and I still have an hour's ride ahead of me. Scotty, would you and Doctor Hoyt see to it that the major is well fed in my absence?"
After Mr. Editor took his leave of us, Mr. Moore ushered Doctor Hoyt and myself to the hotel's dining area. Despite the relatively early hour I noticed that several of the tables were already occupied and that, for some reason, one of the tables appeared to have been moved from its usual position. Two men, neither of whom sat with his back to the single door that opened into the room, occupied this particular table. Mr. Moore excused himself from us and walked over to the two men, one of which rose and shook hands with him.
We had just seated ourselves when Mr. Moore returned and stated to Dr. Hoyt that one of the gentlemen, a Mr. McCarty, had requested that the doctor join them for dinner. I assured the good doctor that I would take no offense at being left to dine alone and encouraged him to accept the invitation. I had just begun my cup of coffee when I heard the doctor's voice calling to me from across the room.
"Major! My friends take exception with me for not inviting you to dine with us. Please join us before I become the guest of honor at the next Coroner's inquest!"
The three men rose as I approached their table. Dr. Hoyt provided the first introduction.
"Major," he said as he gestured to the man at his right, "this is an old friend from by brief stay in Texas, Mr. William McCarty." We shook hands as Mr. McCarty introduced the doctor and me to his dining companion.
"Gentlemen, Mr. Thomas Howard of Missouri, and late of Tennessee."
After we had again seated ourselves I had the opportunity to observe them closely as they spoke. McCarty was clearly the younger of the two, and appeared to be not yet twenty years old. His gently curled brown hair framed an almost delicate face that was itself unremarkable except for a slight protrusion of the upper front teeth.
Thomas Howard, late of Tennessee, was obviously several years older than his companion. His black hair was cut shorter, to just below his ears, and his weathered face was accented by a moustache of the same color. As the conversation drew onward his dark his eyes gave clue that they had seen numerous things that were best left unsaid. It was he who reopened the conversation that had been interrupted by my arrival.
"William, you should leave this Christ-bitten Territory and come east, with me. A man of your skills would be a valuable addition to the group I am currently forming and, I personally assure you, the wages will be much above your current situation. And you will free to come and go at your leisure."
"Sounds like a very good suggestion to me, Bill," the doctor interjected. Turning his attention to Mr. Howard, he continued. "I have been telling my young friend the same thing for the last year, Mr. Howard. That he should leave the Territory and find some quiet corner of Creation, and there begin anew. Before he sinks further into the madness which grips this Territory and has already sent too many to an early grave, and will surely be the ruin of him if he stays."
The table grew silent as Mr. McCarty seemed to ponder what had just been said. Before he could reply the room was suddenly lit by a flash of bright lightning, which was followed not two seconds later by a clap of thunder the rattled the entire building. I glanced to the window at my left and saw that the once blue sky was now hidden behind the dark clouds of a summer storm.
"Henry, I have always valued your advice and, Mr. Howard, I thank you for your generous offer. But I fear that I cannot leave the Territory because it is the only home I have ever known. I know the lay of the land here. And my friends are all here. Or at least are buried here."
With his last statement I heard a chilling change in his voice and all traces of congeniality disappeared from his face as he spoke again.
"In the last year I have buried three friends, all of them murdered by lackeys of the Territorial Legislature. And I myself am accused of crimes that occurred when I was not even present in Territory, much less within rifle or pistol range of the victims."
He held the rest of his reply until after Mr. Moore, who had come to the table to inform Doctor Hoyt and me that he had taken the liberty of having our horses removed to the stables behind the hotel, had left us. As he began to speak again, the now distant thunder seemed to beat a cadence for his words.
"I will stay here, and be brought before a court somewhere. And then I will use my public trial to expose the true criminals in this Territory! After that, I might go south, into Old Mexico or maybe west into the Arizona Territory. But not until my dead friends have been avenged and the men who claim to be the guardians of the law have either joined them in the grave or sent to spend the rest of their lives rotting away in the Territorial Prison!"
"Before you gentlemen joined us," Mr. Howard nodded his head in the direction of myself and Doctor Hoyt, "I was explaining to young William here why he will never see justice done in this, or any other state or territory. And that is because the War is not yet over.
"The War of Secession was not ended by a simple piece of paper. It is still being fought to this day. But we have, instead of columns of massed troops marching across cornfields; we now have two camps of particular loyalty. And those camps have taken the animosity of the War, amplified it, and made it into part of the very fabric of society.
"The forces of the Union are now dispersed into the towns and cities, where they control the sources of money and use the powers of the law and the courts to impose their ideals on the remainder of the citizenry. They are intolerant of anyone who does not bow to their will or embrace their ways and will not hesitate to crush any voice of dissent.
'The armies of the Confederacy are now scattered across the cattle ranges, small ranches, and smaller towns. Many came westward because, when they returned home from the War, there was nothing left to return too. Burned! Leveled! Confiscated! So they and their families moved to the west, only to find the same enemies in their path.
"Gentlemen, our descendents will still be attempting to resolve this matter a century from now."
"Mr. Howard," I said, "I am afraid you are right. The War did not end with the surrender of General Lee, it merely changed battlefields. Men no longer raise the flags before armies, but wave them in their hearts."
Then the younger man, William McCarty, added a fatalistic benediction to the conversation.
"I don't understand many of the things you gentlemen have given your opinions about here tonight. I can only speak for myself and the way I feel.
"A few years ago an elderly senora looked at the palm of my hand. She told me that all she saw in my future was a bullet, a grave, and a memory. If that is to be my fate, I would rather have that than to disgrace the memory of my friends by saving my own skin. And if the old woman was able to see into the future, then my future is already decided upon and beyond any influences from my actions. Therefore, I accept it, and now merely await its arrival."
Mr. Howard looked at his pocket watch and then announced, "I have a long ride ahead of me in the morning. I beg that you excuse me now."
William McCarty soon followed suit, leaving the doctor and myself alone at the table.
After the two gentlemen had excused themselves for the night Dr. Hoyt and I stood on the veranda of the hotel, enjoying our cigars, as we watched the rain and the occasional flashes of lightning. After a few minutes we were joined by Mr. Moore, who inquired of us if the dinner had been satisfactory.
"Scotty, your excellent bill of fare was exceeded only by the pleasure of seeing an old friend again," the doctor replied. "But I fear that my next meeting with him may not be under as pleasant a circumstance. You see, the man that you and the Major know as William McCarty is much better known as William Henry Bonney or, as he is almost universally known, 'the outlaw Billy the Kid.'"
Mr. Moore and I stood there dumbfounded by the doctor's revelation, but then Mr. Moore delivered his own surprise.
"Then each of us will indeed have a wonderful story to tell our children and their children."
He slowly exhaled a stream of cigar smoke before he continued.
"I was born in, and spent my earliest years in the area around Kearney, Missouri. Mr. Howard and I have known each other since childhood, although the War caused us to lose contact for several years.
"Yes gentlemen. All of us will indeed have stories to tell of this night. Because years ago my friend was not known as Mr. Thomas Howard, late of Tennessee, but by his baptismal name.
"Jesse Woodson James."***
In the bright sunlight of the next morning, Dr. Hoyt and I stood on that same veranda for some time, talking of various subjects, after "Mr. Howard" had wished to us both a long life and good health before departing to the east. A short time later we had the opportunity to wish young William McCarty a safe journey before he began his lonely ride to the south in the mid-morning light. We watched him, and not without a sense of sadness, as he rode away to meet a destiny that, as he had said the night before, surely held nothing more than a bullet, a grave, and a memory. And though he was too young to remember that national tragedy that some have attempted to glorify with lofty, pious words, he was as surely a casualty of the War as the men who died on the bloody fields of Fredricksburg. Or Gettysburg. Or Chickamauga.
As to the eventual fate of "Mr. Howard," that event was well reported in any number of reputable newspapers of the day if, given the journalistic standards of the times, any newspaper could have been considered as such. And just like young Billy, the bullet that he feared awaited him at some unknown time and place in the future came from someone he had once thought a friend.***
And so, Friend Henry, you now have the story, as they say, straight from the horse's mouth. Or perhaps some other part of the horse should you happen to believe the opinions of many of my former colleagues.
You will be no doubt be amused to learn that I find myself to be in unreserved agreement with your observation that the Founding Fathers of this nation exhibited an uncannily acute foresight when they selected this particular location as the seat of government. The climate here is as fitting a torment to the lawmakers as their laws are oppressive to the citizens of this Republic. I will be leaving this Hell-hole of a city tomorrow to begin my travels in the direction of the setting sun, a journey that will hopefully end with contact of some members of the rebel forces under command of General Villa. I am somewhat excited by the prospect of reporting the outcome of the insurrection currently active in our neighbor beyond the Rio Grande and expect to find there a confirmation of my belief that, when a nation makes war upon itself there are no winners, merely different degrees of defeat.
But I have also accepted the fact that I am an old man now, lacking the vigor and bravado of my youth. Should I not return from this foray to the South I ask only that should you at some time think of me and seek some manner in which to honor my ghost, that you forgive some poor sinner or wink your eye at a homely girl.
Herr Mencken, make certain that your underlings keep a vigilant eye for my dispatches as I promise you that you and your newspaper will be the sole recipients of any correspondences relating to my journey. Until our next meeting, my only prayer remains,
May God overlook you,
Ambrose G. Bierce__________________________
About Wayne McDonald
I'm retired and live in Albuquerque, NM. This puts me two hours from Lincoln, NM (the site of the Kid's last jailbreak), Santa Rosa, NM (the town where the Kid was shot by Sherrif Pat Garret and site of the Kid's grave), and Las Vegas, NM (where the events in the story took place). I'm now a full-time writer, mostly contract work in the medical and technical fields. I have my first book, a cynical look at the Internet in general and "chat rooms" in particular, due out around Christmas . And I've had an almost life-long fascination with both Mencken's and Bierce's satires on the "American experience."
Top of Page