He is still remembered in New Mexico, where he cowboyed and ranched for many years as a young man. He arrived there in 1881, he liked to say, the year Billy the Kid was shot. The town of Alto, New Mexico, has a web page devoted to him. Another western writer, William MacLeod Raine, wrote a book about him.
He worked for pay from the age of thirteen, and seems to have been fearless, resourceful, and a real scrapper. Self educated from the library of books in his family’s home, he loved ideas and had a way with words. He seems to have been at ease with all kinds of people – a real old-fashioned American democrat – even if some of them were wanted by the law.
He was apparently also one of those generous souls who’d give you the shirt off his back, even when he had only one – which may have been often the case. Sadly, in his last days he was penniless, politely requesting an advance on a novel just to put food on the table. I wouldn’t call it a writer’s life, but many writers have that same expansive spirit and resist the constraints of self-interest.
Early years. Born of homesteaders in Tecumseh, Nebraska, and spending his boyhood on dirt farms there and on the plains of Kansas, he’s someone I can truly identify with. Before he reached adolescence, his family had moved once more, to south-central New Mexico.
If there’s a place on earth where each of us is supposed to be, as a friend once said to me, Rhodes found that place in the “land of enchantment.” In those years, when greed and corruption were pervasive among men who never quite broke the law, it was a rough time to be coming of age. But Rhodes forever loved this arid region of deserts and mountains. (For the early history of this area and how it came to be known as Jornada del Muerto, read more here.)
|San Andres Mountains, New Mexico|
Settled first by miners and then cattle ranchers, it was bordered on the west by the Rio Grande river and on the east by the San Andres Mountains, extending south to Las Cruces. Located in Apache territory, it saw some of the last armed conflict with Indians.
Growing up. As a teenager, Rhodes worked wherever he could find a job – with overland freight runners and prospectors, as a well digger, and in road construction, branding cattle, horse herding, haying. His most frequent employer was the Bar Cross ranch, which ran cattle on the open range. He did not have a boyhood, he said later, until he attended the University of the Pacific for two years in San Jose, California.
Back in New Mexico, he briefly taught school, then homesteaded, running cattle and horses in a canyon, still named after him, in the San Andres Mountains. These mountains are now in the White Sands Missile Range (and closed to the public). They lie between the Jornada and the Tularosa Basin to the east. His stories are set in places throughout this region. At his request, he was buried in the San Andres.
Though remembered as a hard worker, he lacked the interest in actually running a ranch. Located in a remote, mountainous area, his place became instead a hang-out for acquaintances, some of whom just happened to be robbers and thieves. One of them, to avoid arrest, shot and killed a deputy sheriff in Rhodes’ horse corral.
In his defense, one has to recall the code of the West, which asked no questions of another man's past and cooperated as little as possible with duly constituted authority - given that it was often in the hands of men without a strong record of lawfulness themselves. You closed your eyes when someone left, as someone has said, so you could say afterward that you didn't know which way they went.
Rhodes and Pat Garrett. Just 30 years old in 1899, he found himself on the wrong side of a dispute involving lawman Pat Garrett. Rhodes had befriended two men wanted by Garrett for the alleged killing of a special prosecutor who’d been hired by the state Stockgrower’s Association. As Rhodes accompanied them by train to turn themselves in for trial, the three men found themselves on the same railroad car with Garrett. If Garrett recognized them, he chose not to say so.
|The Desire of the Moth, 1916|
Years later, Walter Noble Burns disparaged Garrett in his bestseller The Saga of Billy the Kid. Rhodes took issue and wrote his own “Defense of Pat Garrett,” which was published in Sunset magazine in 1927. Garrett as a lawman had also acted as a gun-for-hire, Rhodes reasoned, and he shouldn't be blamed if over the years this eroded his character.
The close call on the train was a tense moment in the life of a free-spirited young man who’d already had his share of close calls. Despite his penchant for writing poetry, he was also a compulsive poker player, who usually lost his money, and a fierce opponent in a fist fight. As J. Frank Dobie described him, “he was as gay, gallant, and witty as he was earnest.”
Meanwhile, in 1899, he was also carrying on a long-distance romance with a woman in upstate New York, who would soon become his wife. Eventually leaving New Mexico to live with her and his in-laws, Rhodes began writing and publishing short stories in the magazines. His first novel was Good Men and True (1910), which I’ll be talking about next time.
W. H. Hutchinson, A Bar Cross Man: The Life and Personal Writings of Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
J. Frank Dobie, Life and Literature of the Southwest, Dallas: SMU Press, 1952.
1) Photo of Rhodes, nobodyshorses.com
2) San Andres Mountains, wikimedia.org
3) Book cover, The Desire of the Moth, altonewmexico.us
Coming up: Early western films