The Yodeling Deputy by John Bolton
Goodland County, Oklahoma
The week of Delroy Wright’s 21rst birthday was eventful. He was sworn in as deputy in the Goodland County Sheriff’s Department and he a gig to play and sing at a house party come Saturday night.
Del was one lucky SOB and he knew it. Jobs were scarce as hen’s teeth and this was the job he wanted. Of course, it helped that his daddy was Sheriff.
Young as he was, Del had done some interesting things. He’d hoboed for just shy of a year. He would rather have found a good place and stayed, but had never found more than a week or two of work in one place.
He’d seen Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California - mostly from freight cars. And he’d been a bit of a scholar in the school of hard knocks. A scholar in that school is one who survives and learns a thing or two.
The drought and dust bowl years came early to Goodland County. When Del graduated from Clayton High, he could not find a job. There were no jobs. With the drought, there were almost no crops to harvest. He’d had a falling out with his father – mostly over Del not finding work.
Del hit the road. He left looking fit and athletic at just under six feet and one hundred and eighty pounds. He’d been a slick fielding short stop on the town team. Even in his brown suit of clothes and with his chestnut colored hair parted down the middle, he looked like a shortstop.
He came home ragged, skinny, broke, hungry and sick. His father welcomed home the prodigal son. His mother nursed him back to health with good home cooking.
A jailer was fired after a complicated incident involving real Canadian whiskey – smuggled of course – and bad luck. Sheriff Lee Wright saw that Del took his place.
Del worked two years as a jailer. That time and maybe all his life, Del was in training for the family business of law enforcement. Del’s ambition was to be the third generation of Wrights to hold office as Goodland County Sheriff.
After near onto two years as a jailer, Del personally knew most of the county’s miscreants and petty criminals. If he did not know them personally, he knew them by reputation. He cultivated relationships with the prisoners and liked to get them talking about crime and scams. He was a good listener for such a young man.
The jail house word was out on Del. Treat him right and he’d treat you right too. Cause him trouble and trouble was coming back at you. Just like his daddy.
He started the deputy job on night shift, which was nothing new after being the night jailer. This was in the days before police academies and car radios. Del was the only deputy on duty. He was on his own. He was nervous, but hid it well.
He liked driving the 1928 Ford Model T. He liked being out of the jail. He looked fine in his khaki uniform blouse with brass star, black pants, WW I style campaign hat and gun belt with a 38 revolver and a night stick.
Del’s first week was mostly uneventful. He served court papers and two eviction notices. He did not like that, but it was part of the job. He made his first arrests; a farmer and his former hired man, both drunk and intent on knocking off each others heads.
Early on Saturday morning, before his shift ended, he took a call about a stolen mule. This was east of the train tracks in Colored Town. Del was disappointed when the day deputy came along. He had to let go of his first interesting case.
He headed home to try and get some sleep. It was a big night coming up and he needed to be rested. It was his second gig playing a house party. He’d played a similar gig a few months back. It wasn’t a complete failure, but he kind of felt like it was.
Music ran in the family. Del could not remember his grandfather Wright. He’d died when Del was a baby. But the old sheriff was said to be have been a good fiddler. Del’s father had the fiddle and could play it pretty well, but he seldom played it except during elections when he played it to get a crowd fired up and oh his side before he gave a speech.
Del dabbled at the fiddle, and used to play the four string banjo. His second week at the jail he met Jimmy McNeese and fell in love with blues music and the guitar.
Jimmy was sobered up, but still in the drunk tank. He looked to be around Del’s daddy’s age, middle fifties. Too old to be getting arrested for assault. He was a small man with a bushy head of hair that reminded Del of a picture he once saw of a buffalo soldier. His skin was a reddish black and he was said to be part Choctaw.
The first song Del heard him play was Statesboro blues by Blind Willie McTell, who was no relation to Jimmy.
Wake up momma turn you lamp down low.
Wake up momma, turn your lamp down low.
Have you got the nerve to drive a poor
Papa McTell from your door?
Del loved everything about the song, the music, the story it told, the way Jimmy sang it. The only music Del knew was church music and the hillbilly stuff they played on the only two stations the family radio would pick up.
Up to then, Del liked that music just fine. Jimmy showed Del the chords to the song. Since the four small strings on the six string guitar were tuned the same as the four strings on his tenor banjo, Del picked things up quickly. Two more strings, a different tone and a whole new kind of music.
Every work night Del would quietly play guitar between his midnight and two o’clock cell checks. By the time Jimmy got released, Del could play and sing five blues songs. Jimmy told him, “You sound pretty good for a white boy.”
Del traded his banjo and cash for a used Gibson guitar. It was his pride and joy.
The first house party he played was at Tim and Betty Nelson’s house. It was a learning experience. Del was nervous and played too fast. He didn’t know enough songs. When he sat down to play his second set – which was going to be pretty much the same as his first set, Mrs. Nelson came up to him and said, “Please don’t play no more of the nigger music. Play us some good ol’ songs. Can you yodel?”
Del was just about mortified.
This time around, he was better prepared. He had sixteen songs on his line up and twelve of those were songs the radio stations played. Plus he could play some church music if anybody asked.
Yodeling was popular on the radio at that time. Not the Swiss style. More a hillbilly or country thing. Del had a brain storm to ‘white up’ some blues songs. He cleaned up some of the lyrics and added a yodel, which in his case was singing at the high end of his tenor voice and without much quaver.
A few people told Del it was good and he thought it worked. Even Jimmy Mc Tell liked it but kind of laughed at it too. He said, “You got it Mr. Del. White peoples takes the colored out of colored song all a’ time. Could be you got a hit.”
* * *
Del stopped by the jail on the way to his gig. The day deputy was there and Del asked if he’d figured out anything on the mule theft. He hadn’t and since it was a colored crime – for sure a colored victim, he did not seem as interested as Del thought he should be.
Del took matters into hand. He walked down and talked to the colored man whose mule was stole. Then, guitar in hand, he walked into a little colored juke joint. It was early yet, but there were six men and two women drinking and talking and a woman behind the makeshift bar.
Del talked briefly with three small groups, showing respect and exchanging small talk. Then with a speck of truth and a lot of bluff, he told them, “I got a purty good idea where Leroy Starling’s mule wandered off to. He needs that mule to make a livin’. If that mule comes home before daylight, won’t be nothing more said about it.”
Folks listened, but offered no information. On his way out, the bartender called, “Mr. Del? Play a song for us?”
Del grinned and said, “Well, since you asked. Sure.”
He got the Gibson out of the case and played Statesboro Blues just like he’d learned it. Then as the juke joint gave him a little cheer, and mostly as a joke, he added, a little yodel.
* * *
Del walked back across the tracks and to the house party. He felt butterflies in his tummy, but he felt ready too. Time came and he introduced himself and said, “I’m gonna play you a song I wrote. I hope you dance to it and show me it’s a good one, It goes like this:”
Yo-doh-lady… Yo-doh-lady… Yo-doh-lady… hoo.
I went down to the barn dance and met Marry Jo.
Yeah, I went to the barn dance and met Marry Jo.
We ate pot luck supper and danced the cotton eyed Joe.
* * *
Del woke up Sunday morning feeling good about the house party. He had trouble hanging onto his pick for a song or two, but after that he settled down and had a real fine time.
He smelled bacon and coffee and went down to breakfast. His daddy asked him, “Did you hear the phone ring? Leroy Starling called and said his mule came home. He asked me to thank you.”
Del just sipped his coffee and smiled. He said, “Well aint that just fine? The prodigal mule.”
Canned Heat Blues
By John Bolton
Goodland County, Oklahoma, 1932
Two or three nights a week around ten or eleven, Deputy Delroy Wright would take a drive through Colored Town, which was the nice name for the rundown section of Clayton, Oklahoma. Colored Town squatted along the east side of the Kansas City Southern railroad tracks.
Del varied his routes and the nights and time. Not good to be predictable. Sometimes he would stop and talk if he saw folks out on their porches. He would most always go to the Eastside Juke and stand outside the front or back door and listen to the music.
The Eastside music was most always blues. It was never jazz. Angie Jackson, who ran the Southside, did not like jazz. She would say, “That shit just grates on my nerves. Mmm hmm.”
Week nights the music might be a phonograph or Jimmy McTell or Robert Frees on guitar and some of the boys who thought they could blow harp. It amused Del that the juke joint didn’t have a juke box.
It was a Sunday night, but the Eastside was open. Del parked the Model T and strolled up on the sagging wood porch that faced the tracks. He nodded at Angie’s current man, Tyrell Biggs, who was sitting in a porch rocker sucking on a handmade, the red glow showing bright in the dark. Neither man spoke.
A train was coming up from the south and Del waited. The whistle blew three lonesome pulls. By and by the northbound freight rumbled past at better than forty miles an hour. Red sparks danced out of the smokestack like a swarm of lightning bugs. Tyrell tossed his cigarette into the powdery dust and said, “Smokestack lighting.”
Angie Jackson came to the door, caught Del’s eye and made the slightest motion toward the back. Del said, “Best I use the outhouse and hit the road.”
He moseyed around the side of the unpainted juke joint and toward the back. It was pitch black back there. Angie said, “I’ll smile so’s you can see me.”
“What’s up Ange?”
“You know what Squeeze is, Mr. Del?”
“You mean ah, like canned heat? Sterno? Crazy drunks pour it through rags and then drink it for the alcohol?”
“Yeh, but now the thing is to pour it through Wonder Bread. Mmm hmm. Brave Boy Atkins made some down to that Hobo Jungle by Hard Scratch. Got real sick. He laying out on the ground there.”
Brave Boy was a Choctaw known to Del from his time as a jailer. Hard Scratch was in the southeast corner of Goodland County. It consisted of Hansen’s General Store, the Church of Christ, five or six houses and an abandoned grain elevator. It sat along the crossroads of the KCS and an Oklahoma short line.
There was a timber nearby where the tracks crossed Indian Creek. There were two Indian Creeks in Goodland County and Del had heard there were about one hundred in the state. In the timber was a sometimes hobo camp called Hooverville. Del figured that since the depression was on, there might be as many Hoovervilles as Indian Creeks.
A camp fire blazed about fifty yards off the road by the trickle of a creek. He thought he could see three people around the fire. He parked on the road and put a hand on his night stick and walked to the fire.
The three figures around the fire scrambled to pick things up and scattered into the timber. Del found Brave Boy lying unconscious on his side. There was puke all over his face and long hair and his throat gurgled with it.
Del screamed, “Hey! One of you sons a bitches come up here and help me get Brave Boy in the car. I aint here to give nobody no trouble!”
Del and an unknown hobo drug the comatose Brave Boy to the creek and washed him off as best they could. They half carried, half drug him to the car and stuffed him inside.
The Choctaws were closer than a doctor, so Del drove a couple miles into the next county and delivered Brave Boy there. He said, “Maybe better get him to the doctor. He looks to me like he could die.”
Del headed back to Clayton to clean up and leave a report with the jailer who also served as a dispatcher for the sheriff’s department.
* * *
When Del came off his shift, his dad, the sheriff, was there. Del gave his report to the day deputy and the sheriff said, “Son, let’s go pay visits to Hansen’s General Store and the Choctaws. You look worn out and you smell like puke. I’ll drive.”
Prohibition was on and selling drinking alcohol was illegal throughout the land. Like a lot of the country, the Goodland County Sheriff’s department did not go out of their way to enforce the law. Bootleg liquor was available and unless things got crazy, the law tended to look the other way.
Hansen’s General Store was known to sell bootleg. A year or two back after too much trouble with a few Choctaws getting crazy drunk, the sheriff made efforts with Hansen to reduce the problems. One of the attempted solutions was that no booze was sold on Sunday.
Sheriff and Deputy Wright went into Hansen’s store. Hansen was shuffling along with a burlap bag of potatoes. He saw the law, put down the spuds and stood by the counter with a guilty look on his face.
The sheriff reached over and pulled out Del’s night stick. He raised it slowly and brought it down hard and loud on the counter and not far from the hand Hansen quickly drew back. “Damn flies,” the sheriff said.
“Hansen?” the sheriff continued. You keepin’ to our agreement?”
Hansen said, “Yes sir!”
“You sell the Sterno to Brave Boy?”
“You know what he was going to do with it?”
“Not for sure.”
“You know that shit can kill a man?”
Hansen looked at his feet and lied, “No.”
The matter was discussed and agreements were made. Brave Boy lived and seemed no worse off than before. Del never heard about anybody drinking canned heat around there for a long time thereafter.
Author’s notes: The song Canned Heat Blues was about drinking Sterno. It got people crazy and was dangerous.
I used to have a friend from Gordon Nebraska, close by a South Dakota Indian reservation. There was some drinking of Sterno there and they used bread to ‘filter’ it.
I added the Wonder Bread part. It builds strong bodies twelve different ways.
The 32’ Election by John Bolton
Goodland County, Oklahoma,
Sheriff Lee Wright heard the sound of squealing brakes followed by a crash. More but different squeals followed the crash. Lee hustled outside to see a model T truck up against the steps and porch of King Hardware. There was a homemade livestock rack on the truck which was overloaded with three fat, squealing, grunting hogs.
The sheriff inspected the damage and talked with the farmer and Jeff King, the hardware man. The truck brakes had failed at the stop sign. The only damage was a flat tire on the truck and a busted board on the store’s steps.
The sheriff helped change the tire and then he and the farmer got in the truck and drove off at a snail’s pace.
An hour later the sheriff stood before the county board of supervisors and gave his monthly report which included calls, complaints, crimes, arrests and fines.
Jim Coin, a banker and president of the board, said, “Sheriff your fines totals are way too low. The county’s about bust. You’ve got to write more tickets. You need to make more arrests, pay your own way.”
The sheriff gave a tight grin, but made no reply. This was an old point of contention between him and Coin and sometimes the other supervisors too. They tended to go along with Jim Coin. It was worse right then because the county truly was almost broke and because Jim Coin’s son in law was running against the sheriff in the November elections.
Coin said, “Nate Myer saw a farmer run the stop sign on Main and crash into King Hardware. Coulda hurt somebody. Did you give him ticket?”
The sheriff sighed before responding, “Nope. His brakes failed. I’ll see he repairs the damage to King’s step. It’s all worked out.”
“Why not set an example? Ticket him. Running the stop sign, faulty equipment. Hell, Lee. Fine him for both. Pay a deputy’s salary for a day or two. Is that farmer a friend of yours?”
“Nope. I know where he lives. I know he’s got a family. I know he can’t afford a fine. I know he raises spotted Poland China hogs.”
“What did you do with him?”
“Took him to my barn and set him up with tools to fix his brakes and King’s step.”
Coin looked disgusted and said, “That’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.”
“Well Jim, this isn’t a railroad. It’s a sheriff’s department and my job is to keep the peace. Pretty peaceful around here, aint it?”
“That’s not the point, Sheriff. The point is, come budget time in January, there’s going to be cuts to every budget. Whoever wins the sheriff’s election, you or Fred McKee… is gonna have to bring in more money or reduce staffing.”
The sheriff knew Jim Coin was right. About all he could say was, “Yes sir.”
Lee Wright had been sheriff for twelve years and he needed one more term. Then he could retire at age sixty. The closer election day came, the less confident he was that he could win.
Lee liked to be the good guy and he tried to do what was right. He followed the spirit of the law more than the letter of the law. He tried to treat everyone with fairness and respect, even the coloreds, Indians, and folks just passing through. Even the hobos. A lot of people couldn’t say that.
The incident with the farmer was typical of the sheriff. He liked to help out and make things square. He’d done good turns to a lot of people. At the same time, he’d angered folks who were sticklers for following the letter of the law. Up until 29’ or 30’, his way of doing things had worked out fine. But with the depression on and the county getting poorer… he had to change. IF he got elected.
Lee’s opponent was a home town boy. Fred McKee was likable, younger and had big city police experience. Fred had money and important people behind him. He’d been with the Oklahoma City Police until he got laid off. Another job lost to the depression.
Fred came home to Goodland County where Jim Coin, his father in law, was chairman of the county board of supervisors and owner of the only solvent bank in the county. It seemed like Fred had good luck on his side. The most recent thing was the yard sticks. Lee ordered two hundred yardsticks. Each one read ‘Sheriff Lee Wright ~ the right man for the job’.
Lee made his rounds and handed out yardsticks here and there where he thought they might do him good. He gave one to a grocer. The grocer thanked him and said, “Have you seen these?” The grocer handed the sheriff a ‘yardstick’ that was four feet long and wider, thicker and better made than the ones the sheriff was handing out. The four footer read, ‘4 feet is better than 3. Vote sheriff for Fred McKee’.
McKee was all over the county talking people up. He was saying or hinting
that Lee was too old and soft on crime. He would say that since Lee’s son Del was a deputy and Lee’s wife was a school teacher, that the Wright family sure had their share of good jobs...
There wasn’t much of a harvest with the dust bowl drought, but the county
was still having their annual celebration. Things were scaled back a little with but there would still be a parade, carnival and dance.
The sheriff heard Fred McKee would have a booth at the carnival and would ride in the parade in his father in law’s Cadillac. That didn’t worry the sheriff. He would march with the World War vets. That was one thing in his favor. McKee wasn’t a veteran.
The sheriff thought his ace in the hole was that he and Del were one of the three bands slotted to play at the dance. The sheriff had been practicing dance tunes on his fiddle. His son Del sang and played guitar and was a crowd pleaser. Lee was counting on the dance winning him some votes.
Hard times made free entertainment a big thing. Hundreds of folks lined Main Street for the parade. As the parade was lining up, Lee saw Fred in
the Cadillac convertible with the top down and a pretty girl in a red dress sitting beside him. He got close and saw the white sash across the girl’s red dress. Son of a gun, Fred had brought in Miss Oklahoma.
A color guard with the U.S. and Oklahoma flags led things off, followed by by the Clayton High marching band. Then came the Rough Rider Saddle Club, the PTA, the veterans, fire department, sewing circle, Fred and Miss Oklahoma, other county office candidates, the town baseball team and the boys scouts. The scouts had two red wheelbarrows and shovels and were cleaning up after the horses.
The crowd followed the parade into the county fairgrounds where a shabby little carnival was set up. The first thing Lee saw was a red white and blue banner reading, ‘Free Merry-go-Round Rides ~ Courtesy of Fred McKee. McKee for county sheriff.’
Of course the free rides were a hit. And of course Miss Oklahoma was in Fred McKee’s booth. Worse yet, Fred had a photographer. Anyone registered to vote in Goodland County could have their picture taken with Fred and Miss Oklahoma standing under a ‘McKee for sheriff banner.’
Lee was about to call it a day and go home when Del came up, grabbed his arm and said, “Come on dad. Let’s go make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”
Del led him to Fred McKee’s booth where the Wrights got their picture taken with Fred and Miss Oklahoma. Fred was gracious and the crowd had a good laugh.
Lee needed to go home. He felt things piling up on him and knew he could lose his temper over just about anything. He told Del he’d see him later, put on his fake smile and ambled toward home. He got stopped by well wishers, talked briefly and then saw Del at the boxing ring. He walked up and joined Del.
Mike Bailey, a big fellow and a bully, was next in the ring. That got Lee’s interest. The deal was to pay an entry fee and box with the pro. Last three rounds with the professional boxer and win ten dollars.
The pro was an over the hill middleweight, but he knew his business. He let Mike tire himself for a round and then battered him with body shots in the second round. Mike didn’t come out for the third round and he lost his entry money.
The sheriff had boxed in the army and he’d been company champion. On the battalion’s long voyage to France for the world war, Lee had done well in a tournament of boxers. He didn’t win it, but he came close and never got knocked down.
Lee decided to show people he wasn’t such a soft old man yet. The referee went into his spiel to entice another fool into the ring. Del turned to his father and completely in jest asked, “Have a go, Dad?”
Lee raised his hand and yelled’ “Right here!” He marched up to the referee and paid his fee. The referee took side bets and the sheriff climbed into the ring in street shoes, pants and long underwear faded from red to almost pink.
The first round went fine. Lee knew enough to fight defensively and not wear himself down. The crowd increased in number. By the end of the round, they were yelling for more action. The pro brought the fight in the second round. The sheriff had longer reach and a little know-how. He landed a few jabs and for the most part, protected himself.
The pro had a lot of know-how and mostly threw body shots. Some of those landed and landed hard. When he ref called, “Thirty seconds,” the pro moved in close, clinched and said, “Don’t come out for the third, old man. I’ll take your damn head off!” He slammed the sheriff in the kidney as the ref broke up the clinch.
Del handed his dad a towel and the sheriff wiped down his dripping face and head that steamed in the cold October air. Del said, “Good job, dad. Enough!”
The sheriff was a proud man. Still gasping for air, he told Del, “I’m okay. Throw in the towel if I get in trouble. I can last this guy out..”
The pro was a man of his word. He came out trying to knock Lee’s head off. Lee was game, but outclassed and wearing down. Before it got worse, Del screamed, “Enough” and threw the wadded towel at the ref.
The sheriff gave the towel a kick and a second kick out of the ring. He tucked in his chin, covered and went after the pro with a looping right. The pro side stepped and landed a vicious body shot. Lee dropped his hands and the pro delivered a one-two combination to the jaw and face. Lee reeled and staggered.
Del could see it was over and that his dad would get hurt if it went on. He clambered into the ring just as Lee fell, landing hard on his rump. Del took his dad down flat like a wrestler going for the pin. The sheriff had fight left in him and struggled to push Del off. They wrestled until Del yelled for him to stop.
The fight was over. Lee got up and wobbled out of the ring. The crowd,
including Fred McKee and Miss Oklahoma, gave a respectful applause. Maybe Lee acted like a fool. But he was their fool.
At dance time the sheriff had a black eye and a fat lip. His ribs were bruised and a his kidney ached. Worst of all for a fiddler, his hands were swollen, stiff and sore. Funny thing, Del looked worse. Both Del’s eyes were black and swollen.
Lee played the Oklahoma Waltz and hit a screeching bad note. His face winced and he hit another clunker. He and Del did their best and it wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t good.
The following Tuesday was election day. Lee went home feeling almost certain the election was lost.
* * *
Election day felt very long. Voter turnout was good and a fair number of folks turned out to vote in the highly contested sheriff’s race. Some of those were people Lee had done a good turn or who knew someone he’d helped or maybe just folks that heard stories..
With votes coming in from around the county, it was after ten when the officials made their announcements. It seemed like the people most surprised by the sheriff results were the two candidates.
Lee Wright was reelected by a wide margin. The people had spoken. Sometimes three feet is better than four.
Montana Mike by John Bolton
Montana Mike finished a thirty eight month stretch for burglary on 3 September, 1932. So far as the state of Oklahoma knew, that was Mike’s only conviction. The truth was, Mike had done a similar stretch in Montana under a different last name. He talked so much about the Montana penitentiary that the other inmates called him Montana Mike. He liked the name. It made him feel like a cowboy.
Mike bid his cell mate, Chuck Erwin, goodbye. Chuck was scheduled for release in February after completing a four year stretch for stealing a truck. The two cons planned to meet up around the first of March in Chuck’s home town, Poteau, Oklahoma. Mike and Chuck had plans.
The inmates in the Oklahoma State Pen in McAllester had a hero. His name was Clyde Barrow. Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang’s crime spree was big news all over the country. For a lot of cons, Clyde Barrow was both hero and role model. When Mike and Charles got back together on the outside, they were going into the business of robbing banks and armored cars.
A requirement for getting Mike’s prison term reduced to thirty eight months was that he had proof he had a job lined up. With the depression on, there were almost no jobs. But using prison connections, Mike signed on with the Lucky Charm Carnival and was put on a bus to Tulsa to meet up with the carny.
Mike was the youngest of seven children born to a Swede dock worker in Duluth, Minnesota. His given name was Mikael Herzberg. His mother died of appendicitis when Mike was a baby. His older siblings, too young for the task, raised Mike with neglect and abuse. He was the runt of the litter and grew up mean and angry.
He was permanently expelled from the Duluth schools at twelve and went to work in an uncle’s roach paste factory. He lasted in that job until he was seventeen, skimming profits from the start and getting too greedy at the end. He left Duluth in a hurry.
He went to St. Paul, fell in with a bad crowd and learned the burglary trade. He was well suited for it. Mike was five foot six and one hundred and forty pounds. He was a strong, agile banty rooster and he could climb like a monkey. After a couple of years in Saint Paul, Mike escaped from a second story window with the cops at his door.
He headed west, was arrested for shop lifting in Fergus Falls and did his first jail time, thirty days. The night he was released he went to the house of the judge who sentenced him. He shimmied onto the back porch roof, entered the house through an unlocked window and took a wallet full of cash, a watch, a 38 caliber Colt and the keys to an Oldsmobile. Before leaving, Mike left a calling card. He squatted on a chair and crapped on the judge’s dining room table.
He bid adieu to the great state of Minnesota and headed west, now using the name, Mike Petersen. He whored and gambled away the banker’s money in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, sold the Olds and then stole it back that same night. Mike got a kick out of that. He figured a man should enjoy his work.
He robbed a general store near Jamestown and for the first time felt the thrill of armed robbery. His take from the general store was so small that he soon robbed a farm supply store east of Bismarck. He sold the Olds in Bismarck and bought a T model Ford. Things went bad on his next robbery. Mike didn’t get a dime and got shot in the ass making his escape. It a was painful gash of a flesh wound. Sore and embarrassing, but not life threatening.
He got to Helena, Montana, rented a room and took up the safer trade of burglary again. He left some kind of calling card on the dining room or kitchen table of every burglary. He thought that was pretty funny until he was caught. The judge took the calling cards into consideration when he sentenced Mike.
When he was released from the penitentiary in Deer Lodge, Mike drifted down through Denver, Amarillo, Texas and Oklahoma City where he was caught for burglary again. The lesson Mike and Charles learned in prison was, ‘No more small time crime.’
Mike liked the traveling carnival. Even with long work days and minimal pay, it felt like freedom to him. He skimmed enough money from ticket sales to keep himself in booze and to visit a sporting woman every week or two.
With cold weather, the carnival moved down into south Texas. Mike got rough with a pretty Mexican hooker in Laredo and in turn, got beat up himself by her pimp. The carnival fired him for that and a variety of good reasons.
It was time to leave the carnival anyway. Mike burgled the carny that night but didn’t come up with any money. Mostly for spite, he stole a stuffed two headed kitten from the freak show and Queenie, a black and white border collie, a trick dog that was the carny owner’s pride and joy.
The northbound freight stopped near the village of Hard Scratch, Oklahoma at around seven in the morning. Two empty grain hoppers and a Golden Grain Flour box car were switched onto a side track and left behind. Montana Mike lay asleep in the box car, bundled up in two dirty green wool blankets with ‘his’ dog, Queenie.
Mike eventually woke up and realized the train wasn’t moving. He slid open the box car door and realized his predicament. He unbuttoned his trousers and pissed out the door. Stiff from the cold, he lowered himself to the cinder trackside. Queenie yipped and jumped down too.
Mike was pleased to see a little village on the far side of the box car, including a general store and gas pump. When the store opened he and Queenie walked in. Mike called out, “Good morning!” and went directly to the warmth of a pot belly stove.
Hansen, the store proprietor, had seen more than his share of bums. Some of them had money so Hansen’s policy was to treat them decent unless he found out they were broke. He said, “Good morning. Can I help ya?”
“Ohh, I just came in to buy some dog food for Queenie. Let me warm up a leetle bit. Then I’ll look around and see what you have.”
The storekeeper went about his work but kept an eye on Mike, who was medium to lower medium height with a round little belly that showed from under his tattered gray topcoat. He had pale blue eyes, dirty brown hair, whiskers that needed shaving and a cookie duster mustache
A Choctaw man came in for supplies and Mike casually pocketed two tins of potted meant while he thought Hansen’s eyes were elsewhere. Hansen went behind the sales counter and came back with a 32 Caliber revolver. He Marched up to Mike, stuck the gun in his face and demanded fifty cents for the two tins which were not worth even close to that much.
Mike took the cans out of his pocket and returned them to the shelf. He said, “I’m sorry, mister. I only took em’ cause’ me and the mutt are hungry. I’ll work for food if you let me.”
Hansen said, “You steal first and ask to work second. I’m calling the law.”
Mike said, “You son of a bitch, I’m goin’ now. You aint gonna shoot a poor hungry man in the back.”
Mike headed for the door just as two more Choctaw men came in. Hansen yelled, “Stop that thief!”
Sheriff Lee Wright escorted Mike and Queenie to the jail house. The jailer saw to it that Mike and the dog were
Queenie went home with the sheriff. It wasn’t the first time a dog, horse or mule went into the sheriff’s care.
Justice was swift. Montana Mike, now going by Mike Paulson, went to court the following morning. The judge heard his sad and false story of hunger and misfortune and Mike got off pretty easy with a week in jail.
The Wright family fell in love with Queenie. Mike had told the sheriff some of Queenie’s tricks and commands. She was the smartest dog anybody had seen. After a day or two, Queenie was going to work with the sheriff.
Sheriff Lee Wright and Queenie were present when Mike was released. Mike called Queenie and she ignored him and stayed at Lee’s side. Lee wanted that dog. He’d already told himself it was wrong to ask to buy her. But when Queenie seemed unwilling to leave him, Lee said, “It’s got to be hard to keep the dog fed on the road like you are. If you’d sell her to me, I’d take real good care of her.”
“Oh, I couldn’t let her go for less than twenty dollars.”
They negotiated. Twenty dollars was a lot of money for a dog, even a trick one. Mike wouldn’t budge on the price and the sheriff agreed to pay it. They went to the bank to withdraw the money.
The sheriff later got word that Mike had found a place to buy a bottle and was seen walking north along the tracks.
That night around two, Montana Mike was slipping the lock on the sheriff’s back door. Queenie fiercely barked at the door and woke the sheriff and his wife.
Lee Wright got out of bed and looked around and didn’t see anything suspicious. He figured maybe a raccoon or stray dog had come by. It was the first time he’d seen Queenie get so agitated.
On the early morning of March 15th, Deputy Del Wright drove through the business section of town at a little after three in the morning. Del saw headlights a half mile or more away. He killed the lights and shut down the Model T.
A car approached, now with it’s headlights off. It went under a street light and Del saw it was a mud covered, but brand new 33 Ford V8, the kind of car Bonnie and Clyde were known to prefer. Two people were inside, both wearing hats. It looked like both were men, but Del couldn’t see their faces.
The V8 cruised downtown at five or ten mph. Del started the Model T, turned on his dash mounted red light and hand cranked his siren for the car to pull over. The V8’s lights came on and it roared away, easily leaving Del and the model T in the dust.
Del told his dad, the sheriff, what happened. Lee raised his eyebrows and said, “Bonnie and Clyde casing the bank? Shit, son. It could be. Can you stay awake for a while? Get you a place to watch the bank once they open?”
Lee called in the state police and he called in people he trusted around the county and asked them to call in if they saw a 32’ Ford or anything suspicious.
For two days the Sheriff’s Department and two state cops covered the bank. Nothing happened and the only reports of a 33 Ford could not be verified.
The state cops left town when the bank closed on Thursday. Sheriff Lee Wright told his deputies, “Let’s give it one more day, boys.”
Two calls came in on Friday morning that a 33’ Ford was headed south toward town. The bank opened Friday at nine with Del and Deputy R.D. Brown hid in the loan office with the window shades drawn. Both deputies had twelve gauge shotguns and their issue 38 caliber Smiths. Sheriff Lee Wright was in the dress shop across the street with a 30-30 Marlin rifle hid under a manikin’s dress.
The Ford V8 drove up to the bank with three men inside. Two were seen to pull bandana masks up over there faces. The two masked men exited the car with hand guns and hustled into the bank. One fired his gun and yelled, “Nobody move! I’m Clyde Barrow and ..”
Del kicked open the loan office door with the shotgun in hand and screamed, “Drop you guns, drop you guns, drop em’ now!”
Clyde Barrow fired at Del and Del fired back, the shotgun blast deafening in the bank. Buck shot slammed Clyde backward and he hit the floor. His partner ran for the exit.
When he heard the first shot, Sheriff Lee Wright stepped out of the dress shop, took aim and shot out the V8’s left front and rear tires and shouted to the driver, “Put up your hands or you’re dead!”
The driver complied and the remaining would be robber sprinted out of the bank and jumped into the car. Almost immediately, the passenger door reopened and the robber’s hands showed above the roof.
Del kicked Clyde Barrow’s gun away and pulled down his mask. It was a surprise and disappointment to see Montana Mike and that Mike was dead.
But things worked out. The Sheriff’s department confiscated the black Ford for their own use. The bank donated two new tires and Charlie’s body shop painted the doors white and lettered , ‘Goodland County Sheriff’.
The Hotel DelRoy ~ A Goodland County Story
By John R. Bolton
Good Friday, 1933
Goodland County, Oklahoma
Emma Wright had been a teacher for more than thirty years. She’d seen poverty as long as she could remember, but nothing like that winter of 32’ and 33’. Kids came to school skinny, hungry and without warm coats. It broke her heart. If something was broken or wrong or unjust, Emma wanted it fixed and would try to see it done.
That’s how the food bank and the soup nights came about. Emma’s leadership and connections led to starting them both, the food bank in November of 32’ and the soup nights in early 33.’ The food bank operated out of the county treasurer’s office. The sheriff’s office or county roads crew would deliver food to people out in the county. Emma’s connections included her husband Lee the sheriff and her son, Del a deputy.
A crew of five volunteers showed up on Good Friday, traditional potato planting day. Some years the ground was too wet and planting would be delayed. In 33’ the soil was dusty dry. A neighbor man had plowed and cultivated three acres with a big pair of reddish mules. Two acres would be planted in potatoes and all of the anticipated harvest would go to the Goodland County Food Bank.
The potatoes were planted and then watered with the irrigation system Lee and Del had rigged up. They were fortunate to have their well close by the natural spring that trickled through town. So far, the spring showed no signs of drying up. Other wells around the county had gone dry.
The next soup night was the Friday after Easter. It was held at Our Savior’s Lutheran. The host minister was supposed to say a brief prayer, but he overstepped his bounds. When he went over a minute, Emma started in with progressively louder ‘ahems’ until he got the idea, gave her a sheepish look and ended the prolonged blessing.
Emma and Lee and sat with a big table of Lutherans and ate vegetable soup and homemade bread and butter. The conversation tended toward hard times and the bank foreclosure auction of the Hotel FitzRoy to be held the following day.
The downtown section of Clayton, the county seat of Goodland County, was devastated as businesses closed. The Hotel Fitzroy closed in 30’. It was one of the first casualties of the depression. The bakery and restaurant on the hotel’s ground floor made it till’ 31 and then too. That entire building gone empty meant a dozen or more people out of work.
The newspapers said 25% of the men in the United States were unemployed. People figured it was that bad or worse in Goodland County. Besides the hotel, restaurant and bakery, the town of Clayton, had also lost a farm supply store, a feed store, a shoe store, a real estate office and two beauty salons. Things were getting ugly. Only one bank remained in the county and it was rumored to be having its own troubles.
The Hotel FitzRoy was built in 1902 with red bricks from the local brick yard. There had once been eight hotel rooms on the second floor, but the current setup was a small apartment and four rooms each with its own bath.
The building was said to be sound and had a fairly new roof. The restaurant, apartment and rooms were judged outdated and shabby. The bakery was in nice shape. Emma said, “Oh, I wonder what it will go for. It would be wonderful to have that bakery. We could bake and have our soup kitchen and food stores there.”
The soup suppers were not meeting Emma’s expectations. The setup was for local churches to rotate hosting Friday night soup nights. The food was free or people could make a donation of money or food supplies. The problem was that Protestants tended not attend suppers at the Catholic church and the Catholics tended not to attend at the Protestant churches.
And the Baptists… Clayton was predominantly Baptist. There were three Baptist churches and the reason for that was people getting mad about something and breaking off with their own church. At one time there had been four Baptist churches. A lot of those Baptists would not attend soup night at any church but their own.
Neutral ground was needed to make soup night a bigger success. Emma had tried to get Lee to try to buy the hotel. He would not consider it. For one thing, he and Del had both taken pay cuts with the new year. Them going to half pay was the only way the county could afford to keep a bare minimum of deputies.
Del worked that Friday night. Around ten he went to a domestic dispute. When he called in after that, he was told there was a fire at the old Garner Township School house.
The school was closed and in disrepair, but there was talk of the school board using or selling the building. Del headed there and could see flames for the last few miles. There were fire trucks and firemen there, but the building was a loss by the time they arrived. They let it burn.
On Saturday morning, Del sat in the red rocker in the sheriff’s department reading the newspaper and talking to his dad, the sheriff. He held out the front page and said, “Will you look at this shit? Now they’re calling it ‘The Great Depression.’
“Huh”, Lee grunted and said, “Don’t seem that great to me. Did you smell gas out there at the fire?”
“Yup. Purty sure somebody set it on purpose.”
“Nobody saw anything or anybody suspicious?”
“Nope. Just the school afire. Maybe if we go round and ask people when they’re by themselves.”
“That’s what I’m gonna do today. Goin’ to the hotel auction first. You goin’ too or goin’ home to sleep?”
“Believe I will tag along. Wake me if I fall asleep and snore.”
Del had been living with his parents for the past several years. He paid a little rent and helped out with yard work, keeping the house and barn up and doing some cooking on the days his mom taught school. He’d been brought up to think he should move out of the house when he came of age but the depression changed the outlook on that. There were quite a few adult sons and daughters living with their parents. The other way around too.
Del took in extra money playing guitar and singing. Even after going to half pay, he was a lot better off than most folks. He’d saved nearly enough money to buy his dream car, a 33’ Ford Victoria V8, which was $545.00. The thing was, it would look bad for him to be driving around in a fine car like that when so much of the county was flat broke.
The auction commenced with a good sized crowd present. Del saw no strangers. Everybody was curious about who would buy the hotel, for how much and what they would do with it. The auctioneer stood on a chair in the hotel entry and cupped his hands and called out, “Good morning everbody! We got us a fine hotel for sale with a bakery and restaurant. Got an apartment upstairs. Ohh and it’s cozy! Make somebody a fine home and business. Could rent out rooms. All kinda possibilities here folks. Let’s start low and work our way up. Start the bidding at one thousand dollars. Do I hear a thousand?”
The crowd looked around at each other. No one bid and there was an anticipatory hum and low laughter.
“All right, all right now. Don’t be bashful. Somebody get the ball rollin’ here! Let’s start off now at nine hundred dollars. Nine hundred. Do I hear nine hundred?”
No response. The auctioneer conferred with the banker. He tried for seven fifty. Then seven. Six fifty. He huddled with the banker again. Six hundred – no takers. Five fifty. No bids. “People, people! This is your last chance to buy this fine building. Five hundred dollar. The bank will keep the property if it can’t get that much or more. Five hundred, five hundred, do I hear five hundred dollars?”
Del turned to his dad and asked, “Can I borrow twenty bucks?” The sheriff looked at Del with a puzzled look on his face. “I guess.”
Del stood, waved his arm and yelled, “Five hundred here. Hey! Somebody else bid. What am I gonna do with a hotel?”
Strange times. Del owned a hotel. People hung around and talked with Lee and Del about the hotel and the fire.
Del walked home to try and sleep. Lee took his dog, Queenie, and drove out to poke around the fire site, which still smoldered. Someone had plowed around the school yard to stop the fire from spreading.
The Sheriff pulled up to the nearest farmstead where a boy of ten or so was pushing a younger brother on a tire swing. “Howdy boys. How ya doin’?
“Purty good, mister. You here about the fire?”
“Yup. You know anything about it?”
“Nope. Can I pet yer dog?”
“You bet. She’s friendly. See anybody over at the school house before the fire? Any cars?”
“I saw a green and black car go in there last night about supper time. It weren’t a Ford but it looked kinda like a Model A. But it left an’ the fire wasn’t till after dark.”
The sheriff made the rounds of the neighborhood and learned nothing new. He went back to the first place and asked if he could take the boy to town. The boy’s name was Tommy and he was twelve, older than the sheriff had guessed. They drove around town and found a green and black 28’ Buick with unpainted wood spoke wheels.
Tommy said, “Yeah, it was just like that.”
The sheriff said, “Good job, boy. How bout’ we kind of keep this a secret? Don’t tell nobody we found that car. Okay?”
“How bout we get you a bag a’ penny candy and take you home?”
The sheriff drove up to the hotel as Del was climbing down off a ladder. “What’s cookin’ Del?”
Del pointed up to the sign that previously said ‘Hotel FitzRoy’. Del had painted over Fitz and re placed it with Del. The sheriff shook his head and groaned. He said, “That’s some funny shit, Del. That why you bought the place?”
“Makes me glad you’re and only child.”
“Hey pops, you know the word entrepreneur? I never heard it till yesterday. Now I are one. Means somebody who gets rich off ‘bidness’ opportunity. I’ve got the apartment rented. Mom’s gonna use the bakery for the food bank, and I got people with ideas for the restaurant.”
George Boley was the owner of the green and black 28’ Oldsmobile. He ran the Goodland Telephone Company. He’d been there since before the stock market crash of 29’. Came from Tulsa. The sheriff knew who he was, but didn’t know him. George was a single man living in a small house behind the telephone company.
Del knew him. “Yeah, I know him. Likes to gamble. I see his car around. Places I think got a game goin.’ I helped him get that Olds out of a ditch one night. He was drunk, but not stupid drunk. I followed him home and let him off with a warning. Seemed like an okay guy. I don’t see him burnin’ school houses.”
“Del, How’s the county gonna make money if we let everybody go?”
“Gees, dad. Booking em’s and all the paperwork. It’s bullshit.”
“Yeah. Great. So glad I hired you. Well, let’s not question him yet. Why don’t you ask around. Keep it quiet. And keep track of where you see him at night. Probably nothin’ll come from it.”
Del had seen George Boley’s Buick at Gerald Osborn’s farm the night before the fire. His and four other cars if Del remembered correctly.
Del knocked on Gerald’s Osborn’s door a little before six in the evening. Mrs. Osborn answered and he told her, “Sorry to bother you Mrs. Osborn. I need to see Gerald and that old milking barn.”
The milking barn was nicely fixed up inside. There was a pool table, a poker table, a black jack setup and a lot of bootleg whiskey. “Gerald,” Del said, “You are a bad, bad boy. Did you make that whiskey?”
“Gerald, we know we can’t stop booze and gambling. Don’t pay to try. Seems like we don’t notice unless there’s trouble. And of course people got to treat us right. Treat me right, Gerald. Was George Boley here the other night?”
“He win or lose?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Quite a bit. Had a bad night.”
“Thanks Gerald. Do not, do not say anything about this to anybody. Same with your missus. Oh. Also, the sheriff says we don’t want to hear about people losing too much. Cut em off. Do you understand what I’m saying, Gerald?”
“Yes sir. Want to stay to supper? We’re having ham and beans and cornbread. And a taste of whiskey if you want.”
“Gerald, I can’t drink on duty. But supper sounds good. Thank you kindly, sir.”
There was another fire. This time a railroad shanty of minimal value. No one saw anything suspicious. The shanty was within easy walking of George Boley's place.
Things were looking up with the Hotel Delroy. The apartment and now two rooms were rented. The rent was low, but it was money coming in. Del was picky about who he rented to. He wanted people who wouldn’t tear things up. He wanted people to keep an eye on the place.
The food bank, now called ‘The Food Pantry’ had moved into the bakery. With Emma Wright in charge, the bakery was open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon till seven. If things went right, Emma didn’t have to do much.
The churches rotated days in the bakery and making the soups. They had neutral territory now and business and donations were better than expected. Both lunch and supper – a big bowl of soup and a thick slice of bread were served for free or a donation. The churches could also bake and sell rolls, pies and cakes and anything else they wanted and keep the profits. Del got a portion of that. Of course the churches seemed to be in unofficial competition over who made the best bakery goods and soups and brought in the most money.
Painting and work was underway for the restaurant too. Jerry Eischied who’d run restaurants before would run ‘Del’s Café’. This would be a for profit business. There was some worry that the soup kitchen would be too much competition, but they were going ahead just the same. Del’s Café would also serve pies and rolls from the church’s operating the bakery.
Del was flying high with success. He was working a quiet Monday night when a call came in about another domestic dispute at Tim and Patty Conrad’s. That was where he’d been had the night of the school house fire.
Dell got to the Conrads just in time to sidestep a hurricane lamp crashing through the front door window. Thankfully the lamp wasn’t lit and Del was pretty sure it wasn’t aimed at him.
He pounded thunderously on the door. It got quiet inside. He knocked some more and ordered, “Sheriff’s department. Let me in.”
Tim opened the door holding a bloody cloth to his nose and slurred, “Everthing ish fine here.”
“Really? Wasn’t that a hurricane lamp that just came through your door glass?”
“Yeah. Musta been a hurricane.”
“Huh. Didn’t think they got this far north. Looks like it gave you a nose bleed, Tim. Let me in.”
Tim opened up. The place did look like a hurricane had passed through. Patty looked drunk and disheveled, but unharmed. Tim looked harmed. Del asked, “You okay, Patty?”
“No. That little bastard hit me. And it ain’t the first time. You know that. Take his ass to jail this time.”
Del took the handcuffs off his belt, opened them and held them out for Tim to put on. Del said, “Okay then. A night in jail, Tim. This shit’s got to stop.”
Del put the cuffs on Tim and led him to the door. Patty suddenly wailed, “No! Don’t take my Tim!”
Things can turn to shit in a hurry. Del turned and Patty’s right fist slammed into his cheek bone. She’d put her whole two hundred plus pounds into the punch. Del’s knees buckled and he staggered into the closed door with the broken window. He saw red, but didn’t fall. Patty jostled between Del and Tim trying to save her man.
Del gave Patty a firm shove and she staggered backwards and tripped over a chair. Tim screamed, “Leave Patty alone, you shit-ass.”
He plowed into Del like a football lineman and then all three of them were on the floor. Del elbowed Tim in the face. Patty jumped on Del’s back, grabbed his right arm and sunk her teeth into it.
It was Del’s first time to hit a woman and he didn’t mind a bit. Later after the Conrads were in jail, he knew he’d messed up and let the situation get out of hand. He would have another black eye to show for it. But the feeling he’d messed up would last longer.
Ginny Lewis was the night switchboard operator at the Goodland Phone Company. She heard a crash come from the front of the building and she quickly got up and locked herself inside the switchboard room. She called the sheriff’s department and the night jailer answered. Ginny told him someone was breaking in. Del was on duty and right there by the jailer. He ran to the squad car and sped away
George Boley used his key and came in through the back door of the phone company. He banged on the door to the operator’s room and shouted, “Ginny! The building’s on fire. Ring the fire bell!”
The control to the town’s fire bell was there in the switchboard room. Ginny rang it and fled the building while George stayed and hooked up a garden hose and tried to put out the fire. George was able to keep the fire from spreading laterally, but it got to the roof.
Del helped the volunteer firemen set up from the hydrant and the
roof fire was soon put out. The sheriff was there by then and he and Del talked with the fire chief. The three men approached George Boley. George said, “Thanks so much to you guys. You saved most of the building. Really good work.”
The sheriff asked, “How’d you get here so fast this time of night? Did Ginny call you?”
“No, I was looking out my window before getting ready for bed. I saw somebody running away from the phone company and I came to see if anything was wrong. I got here and the office was on fire. I went in the back had had Ginny ring the fire bell and get outta there. I stayed and fought the fire.”
Del said, “My hero.”
Del grabbed one of George’s arms and the sheriff grabbed the other. The sheriff told the fire chief, “Smell his hands.”
The chief did and nodded affirmatively. He said, “Yeah, I can smell it.”
They cuffed George’s hands behind his back and roughly led him off to jail. They let him stew in a cell for over an hour and then brought him out to question him, still handcuffed and now with the county attorney present.
The sheriff scratched the whisker stubble on his chin and said, “George, we know purty much everything. The gambling losses, all three fires. Figure you must have been embezzling and set the fires to cover things up. I think we’ll be able to prove that too. At least you saved Ginny. That’s in your favor. Why not just make it easy and tell us the whole story?”
Geoge admitted to the fires and embezzling from the phone company. The county attorney typed up a confession. They removed the handcuffs and George signed it.
With Geogre in a cell and the county attorney gone, the sheriff, fire chief and Del sat down for a cup of coffee. Del asked the fire chief, “Could you smell kerosene or gas or his hands?”
The fire chief shrugged and replied, “If I get asked in court? Then yeah, I did.”
Del chuckled and said, “Good man.”