Johnson County Jail, Buffalo, Wyoming
It occurs to me that names are a strange thing. They are a necessity that most strongly identifies us, and yet we have virtually no say in their choosing. Our parents name us according to whim before we can say anything about it. Others give us nicknames based on what they see in us, or what they want others to see us as. They are meant, by those who choose them for us, to represent us in our entirety but fall far short.
Looking through the bars of my window at the children playing in the street, I can already guess what their nicknames will be (if they're not already). Which ones will be "Fats", "Red", or "Shorty" just by looking at them. Although the chances are those sobriquets will follow them the rest of their lives, they are all based on superficialities, and those are just the white boys. I won't go into what many of the Mexican, Indian, Negro, or Chinese boys are likely are likely to be called, or any of the girls, regardless of race. Suffice to say the names probably won't be complimentary, but they will be how people will see the bearers of those names.
And of course, names, especially nicknames, can be dangerous, even to those who bestow them.
Those early days of cowpunching are among the happiest and most carefree days of my life. The work was hot, dusty, dangerous, and I loved it. I quickly mastered the arts of roping and "brush popping" and the long days in the saddle allowed plenty of time for thinking. I especially enjoyed being assigned to the most remote parts of the rancho. I would often spend a week or more alone, high on the side of a mountain, tending the herd, no one but a book or two for company.
Not that I didn't enjoy the company of the boys, who were a wild and fun-loving bunch. I was fascinated by stories about their homes, families, and backgrounds, and they listened—often with disbelief—to my tales, especially those of my time with the Buriat, and my journey to America.
They were an accepting lot—anyone who pulled his weight was welcome. They were accepting of pretty much anyone, regardless of where they were from or the color of their skin—within reason, anyway. I was delighted to have fallen in with such a good lot.
Some of the best times were spent with Dave and Jack. The former slave-owner's son, the former slave, and I worked well together, and we spent many happy days working cattle and camping under the stars, where we talked of many things around the fire. Dave was particularly intrigued by the philosophy I had read, particularly Locke's ideas about owning one's self1. For my part, I tried to reconcile the American ideals of freedom and equality with the "Peculiar Institution"2—the thing that had been my father's only reservation about the United States. Neither Jack nor Dave could really explain it. It was like a man trying to explain why he had hair. It just was.
Our conversations also cast new light on my own homeland, vis-à-vis serfdom, which I was equally unable to explain. Dave found it fascinating that our serfs were actually white men, while Jack used that fact to propose that Russia was no better than his—a position I heartily agreed with. In fact, he truculently proclaimed Russia even worse than the U.S. because our slaves were white. "It ain't right to own another man, but at least we don't keep our own kind as slaves," was how he put it, a comment which not only ended the discussion for the night but cast a pall over the mood of the next day or two.
One night, I told them the story of Gogol's3 Dead Souls, in which a man named Chichikov runs around purchasing the titles to serfs who had died since the last census. Those serfs were considered alive, officially, and since the serf's owners had to pay taxes on them until the next census (which occurred infrequently), many were only too happy to sell these non-existent yet taxable properties that existed only on paper. Chickikov's idea is that once he has acquired enough "souls", he will mortgage them to an unsuspecting bank and pocket the money.
Jack found the story hilarious. Dave sat deep in thought for a while and then said, "You Russians sure done us one better."
"What do you mean?"
"Well here at least, a slave's free when he dies. You boys have figured out how to keep him in chains and make money off him even when he's dead."
It struck me that while men like Jack and I could appreciate Gogol's satire, only someone like Jack, who had been a slave, would be likely to realize the true tragedy of the piece.
That perspective was made even more clear to me at a later date.
* * *
The full moon lit up the night almost like daylight. We were enjoying the cool of the evening each in our own way—I was watching Juan plaiting a mecate4, and listening to his stories of the Rancho from the old days, before Borland weaseled it out from under the old Patron, Don Alvaro. Juan's brothers Balduino, and Fabricio played mumblety-peg with Dave. Charlie Murphy was torturing his harmonica and stoically ignoring Jack's and Billy Smith's jibes. Bill, Zeke Walker and Enoch Taylor were grumbling and sharing a bottle—when Borland rode up with two men in tow.
"Boys," he said, "these here are Dave Schwinghammer and Dave O'Sullivan." He told the new men to get settled in, turned on his heel and stalked to the house.
Dave took charge of Borland's horse. "You fellas 'light and set. I'll get your horses settled tonight." They handed him their reins and he led their horses away.
Schwinghammer was a skinny little fellow, with thin arms that made his name seem a lie. O'Sullivan, on the other hand, was a huge brute of a man, big enough to make you feel sorry for the horse that has to carry him. They stowed their gear in the bunkhouse, came back out, and hunkered down with us.
Schwinghammer was from Wisconsin, with the slight Nordic accent of that region, and had come to California as a freighter and muleskinner, but "got tired of pulling splinters out of my backside. I figure I'd prefer a saddle for a seat."
O'Sullivan was fresh from "t' auld coontry" and had a thick, almost indecipherable Irish brogue. Like me, he'd quickly discovered that mining was not the sort of life he wanted: "I decided I'd rather be poor and see what's on the top of this land rather than underneath it." Of course, it sounded like "Oy disoided oy'druther be puir'n say whit's on top o dis land rather dan oondernaith't," but after repeating himself a couple times, we began to be able to start chopping through his accent to understand him.
Jack, ever the joker, spoke up. "Well, welcome to Dos Ríos Rancho, fellers. I reckon there's just one problem we're gonna have to deal with first, to make sure things keep working smooth around here."
"What problem would that be?" asked Schwinghammer.
"Well, it's simple," said Jack, "we just got too many Daves in this here outfit. How we gonna keep it all straight? I mean, 'sposing I need somebody in particular to help me with something? If I want Nate or Joe, I could just ask for 'em by name and everyone'd know who I wanted. But, what happens if I need a big man for moving something? I can't just ask for Dave, can I? The boys'd be just as likely to send the little Dave as the big. That won't do boys, it just won't do." He did allow that, since none of us knew the Daves yet, we couldn't use the time-honored tradition of basing the monikers on familiarity. "I think what we need is some temporary names to get us by 'til they earn one."
We all agreed that was an excellent solution to the problem and proceeded to toss out nicknames that we felt would prevent communication problems in the future.
The new Daves took the ribbing good-naturedly, and generally kept quiet, for of course it is a law of nicknames that the bearer cannot choose his own—although Dave Schwinghammer bristled when "Little Dave" was suggested for him. Most of the suggestions were intentionally ridiculous, but all were suggested in a spirit of bonhomie. We finally settled on "Dutch" for Schwinghammer, and "Big Dave" for O'Sullivan.
The newly christened Dutch and Big Dave shook hands all around, including Dave's, who had just returned from the corral. Dutch retrieved a bottle of whiskey from his gear, and we passed it around, toasting the newcomers.
"You forgot one," Bill said, surly as ever.
"One what?" I asked.
"One Dave. Why do these two need nicknames and he don't?"
"'Cause he was already here," said Jack. "He's the original Dave."
"It just don't seem right to me," said Bill, "treatin' him different."
Several of the boys backed Bill's position, mostly as a way of keeping the fun going. Dave himself remained silent on this subject, as he did on most things unless specifically addressed. In fact, "Quiet Dave" was one of the first names suggested. Others included "Original Dave", "Middling Dave", "Checkers", and "Brushy Dave".
Jack took another pull at the bottle. "How 'bout 'Black Dave'? Just keep it simple, like we did with Dutch and Big Dave. That way even new men would know who we're talking about." Several of the boys concurred.
"I'll go you one better," sneered Bill. "How about 'N----r Dave'?"
Dave remained silent on the subject, just got up and walked into the bunkhouse.
"Doggone it Bill," said Jack, "what's the matter with you? You just can't help trying to stir up trouble, can you?"
"What's the matter Jack, afraid I hurt your little pet's feelings? Can't he stand up for hisself? I reckon if he wants to be a man, he ought to learn to act like a man."
Several of the boys joined Jack in shouting Bill down. A few took Bill's side though, and the high spirits of the group were turning ugly when Dave returned from the bunkhouse. Everyone quieted down, curious to see what he was going to do.
Dave was stripped to the waist and barefoot. He stared at us for a moment, and then held his hands above his head, as he turned in a circle. The group went dead silent when the moonlight illuminated the mass of scars covering his back and shoulders—something he had always kept hidden. Someone let a long, slow whistle, and another muttered "D--nation" under his breath.
"I just want you all to see that I ain't armed," said Dave in a clear, steady voice, "before I get started. I ain't out to kill nobody, and I don't want nobody killing me." Then he raised his fists in a pugilistic attitude and said, "Come over here Jack."
Bill pushed forward through the boys to stand facing Dave. Bill was larger and heavier, but Dave's lean, whipcord-muscled body left no doubt in my mind that Bill was in for more of a fight than he expected. "What's the matter N----r Dave?" Bill blustered, "Can't stand up on your own hind legs like a man? You need your 'massa' to protect . . . "
"I ain't gonna fight you Bill," Dave said. "It's Jack I'm fixing to whup."
"What?" said Jack.
"I'm planning to whup your --s."
"What the h--l for? You d--nfool, I'm on your side. Why ain't you taking up against him?"
"Don't 'spect any better from him. Don't care what he has to say. He's just ignorant and mean, and ain't nothing ever gonna change that. You though, you're my friend, but I don't figure to 'low nobody to ever name me again 'thout my say so. 'Specially when you and me both know there ain't a hair's difference between 'black' and 'n----r'. You of all people ought to know better, but I guess you don't, so I'm fixin' to teach you." Looking at Bill, he said, "I'll deal with you later—if I have to."
"Now d----t Dave," Jack said, "you know I didn't mean nothing of the sort . . . "
"What you meant don't matter. It's what you said. Now put 'em up."
"No, doggone it . . . " Jack said, before Dave's punch set him back on his heels. "Alright now you're getting me mad . . . " Dave struck him again. "I'm sorry alright? I don't want to fight . . . "
I'm not sure if was Dave's third blow that changed Jack's mind, or the boys chuckling at his predicament, but Jack proceeded to enter the fight with a whole heart. He and Dave went at it hammer and tongs, punching, kicking, grappling, gouging, and biting for all they were worth, fighting like they were brothers while we encircled them, laughing and cheering them on. It was the best fight any of us had seen in quite a while.
The two were pretty evenly matched—one moment Dave would seem to be winning and the next Jack would have the upper hand—but Dave's wiry strength and endurance finally triumphed. Jack lay in the dust, propped up on one elbow, his other hand lifted to signal defeat. "Alright," he mumbled through split and swollen lips, "you win. I apologize. Your name's just Dave. That's all. And I'll whup the man that calls you otherwise—unless you'd druther do it yourself, o' course."
Dave smiled, spit out a tooth, offered his hand to Jack, and said through equally mangled lips, "I reckon that'd suit me right down to the ground." He pulled his friend to his feet. "It's been a pleasure whuppin' you."
Jack spat blood, and clapped Dave on the shoulder. "Nobody I'd druther be whupped by."
Dutch handed Dave the bottle, and held out his hand, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Just Dave." We all went dead silent, wondering how Dave would take that. Dave stood silently for a moment, staring into Dutch's smiling face, then threw back his head and laughed heartily. He shook Dutch's hand. "'Just Dave'," he said. "I b'lieve I like that. What do you think, Jack? Not that it matters."
"Not that it matters, but if you like it, I like it."
Just Dave handed the bottle to Jack and turned back to the boys. "Bill, you got anything to say?" he asked.
"Bill done remembered some business he needed to take care of in the stable," said Charley.
* * *
It strikes me now that most names given us by others, including our parents, are generally a matter of affection, or at worst, convenience, and if harmful, that harm is personal and usually superficial. It is the name a man gives himself that causes genuine harm to others. A self-named man wears a mask to hide his past and his true self from others and, while his assumed name may protect him, it all too often places those around him in unexpected danger. Always beware a man who changes his own name, no matter what position he may hold. He is not to be trusted.