September 12, 2010

Two Little Busted Shoes: The human side of the Soap Gang.

In my book I talk about the content of the William DeVere poem, Two Little Busted Shoes written in 1892 about the human side of the Soap Gang as they lounged in the Orleans Club in Creede, Colorado. Only portions of the poem are published due to space limitations. Below for your enjoyment is the entire poem.

A Touch of Nature.
By William DeVere.

The Orleans Club at Jimtown,* Colorado,
Was a joint where you could play all
     games from a split up to a blue.
And the gang that hung around the club
     I’ll say, ’twixt you and me,
Would hardly cut a figure at a Methodist
     Pink Tea.

There was “Big Ed Burns,” and “Crazy
     Horse,” “Jim Sanford,” “Windy
“Tom Kady,” the shell juggler, “Joe
     Palmer,” pretty slick,
“Joe Simmons, who could deal the bank
     and never lose a check,
“Pete Burns,” “Jim Bolen,” and “Soapy
     Smith,” all high cards in the deck.
It was in the gray of morning, and the
     heterogenious gang
Sat worrying the barkeeper with non-
     sense, guff, and slang;
All “kidding,” “chaffing,” “guying,” in
     a smooth, good-natured way
About the incidental bosh that happened

Sometimes (in east tilted chair) one of
     them’d try to snooze.
And then someone would “loosen up and
     order up the booze”
Some break-of-the-day-boy would come in
     and give the bar boy “guff,”
And learn without politeness that he’d
     “have to have the stuff.”

When one of them would tell the tramp
     to “go and soak his head,”
And say if he “drank water he’d be
     found some morning dead.”
They’d ask him why he didn’t send to
     papa for a check
So he could purchase barb-wire booze to
     lubricate his neck.

And after they had kidded him until
     he couldn’t talk
They’d fill him up with Red Eye and
     tell him to “take a walk.”
Not by any means bad fellows, but they
     loved a little lark,
And they’d give up to the needy quicker
     than a gospel shark.

I happened in one morning to investigate
     my trunk;
I’d left it in the barroom, for I slept
     up in a bunk,
For sleeping berths were limited, and I
     could name a few
Who have stood up in the corner
     in Jimtown in ’92.

Pete Burns remarked: “Get on to him;
     since he stopped getting drunk
He’s saved up all his money for a
     Saratoga trunk!”
And they gathered ‘round me each of
     them, with laughter, josh and kid,
To investigate my wardrobe, when I
     opened up the lid.

It happened now that “Jersey” (ye see
     “Jersey” is my wife),
And no man ever had a better partner
     in his life;
But “Jersey” when she packed the
     trunk, before she closed the lid,
Had just thrown in a souvenir, to mind
     me of the kid.

And as each fellow cranes his neck the
     first thing that he views
Is two tiny little stockings, and two
     little busted shoes;
Right there on top they rested and in
     fancy seemed to say,
“Now, pa, a, don’t forget us when you’re
wand’ring far away.”

Not a single word was uttered by the
     gang that stood around,
And I knew that In the secret to each
     great rough heart had found,
And I knew that each was thinking in
     the early morning gray
Of their wives and little darlings who
     were praying far away.

Praying for those great rough fellows
     who would give their very life
That those wives and little children
     could be spared all pain and strife,
Might never know adversity or what it
     was to lose
The father who would purchase them
     those little busted shoes.

I knew their thoughts in retrospect, flew
     o’er the western plain,
To their patient wives and little ones
     they might not see again,
And I knew the violet splendor of the
     hills whereon they roam,
Was mingling with the unshed tears for
     little ones at home.

Not a single jest was ventured, not a
     word was spoken loud,
As a flood of golden sunshine poured its
     glory o’er the crowd.
Could an old and master painter touched
     his pal it’s varied hues,
He’d have gathered inspiration from
     those little busted shoes.

I said they were not bad men, and I
     mean just what I say,
And I hope that I may meet them all
     upon some future day;
May meet them where no memories
     may conjure up the blues,
With their little ones around them
     wearing little busted shoes.

I closed the lid and locked it, hardly
     knowing what I did.
But each seemed to breathe the freer
     when those little shoes were hid;
And someone said “let’s irrigate,” each
     to the bar drew near.
And seemingly each hand went up to
     dash away a tear.

The glasses clinked, adown the bar the
     bottle passed along,
And “Big Ed Burns” proposed that we
     should have a toast or song,
But after each had filled his glass with
     “Old Mcbrayer Booze,”
We drank to wives and children and
     those little busted shoes.


Identified are some of the Denver Soap Gang members who followed Jeff to Creede and new men who joined him there: "Big Ed" Burns, Crazy Horse, Jim Sanford, Windy Dick, Pete Burns, and Jim Bolen. The poem also tells a little about the way of things in Creede. For example, in terms of accommodation, because so many gang members are in the bar so early in the morning, apparently some of Jeff’s men slept in the Orleans Club. The poem also opens a window on the humanity of these men on the frontier, far from home and family. Devere had “tramped” with such men, worked with at least one member of the Soap Gang (James Thornton, the “Duke of Halstead”), and was apparently liked by them. They “kid and guy” with him. Perhaps one reason they liked him was because he empathized with their loneliness, wildness, loyalty to one another, and even the regret they sometimes knew. Further, Devere could give authentic voice to their experiences and feelings. If renderings of the poet were sentimental, even deep purple with sentimentality, that was no reason not to like the man or his work.


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