December 01, 2010

That Musical Christmas Meeting in Jail - Amarillo, Texas, 1913

By Johnny Hughes © 2010

When the Sheriff's deputies brought Lonnie Hogan to the Amarillo jail, Ryan O'Malley was already incarcerated. It was a meeting that they'd laugh about for many years. Both men were 26 years old, and had thick, curly, brown hair, and chocolate-colored eyes. Both were handsome men, and knew it. At 6'2", Lonnie was six inches taller than Ryan. Ryan talked most of the time. He talked fast, walked fast, ate fast, and was impulsive. Lonnie was naturally quiet, slow-moving, and deliberate. Ryan was most interested in Lonnie's guitar, which the deputies locked in a closet.

"I heard 'em say they had you as a gambler?" Ryan offered his hand to his new cell mate. Lonnie shook, but with little enthusiasm. They were the only prisoners.

"We were playing poker at the Amarillo Hotel. They arrested me for winning a horse and fancy buggy off this old, drunk Doctor. He kept jacking up the stakes. It was a fluke. I've offered to give it back or sell it cheap if they'd cut me loose. It has soft, leather seats. Anyways, what you in for?" Lonnie's Texas cowboy accent and slow speech lent itself to an unexcited calm.

"Singing songs. I'm a Wobbly. A soap boxer. I was down at the railroad yard singing, Joe Hill's 'Pie in the Sky.' My union card says International Workers of the World, ever heard of it? That's the Wobblies. One big union. They got me for Vagrancy, being temporarily without funds." Ryan was boastful, as always.

"I've heard of these union and communist kind of troubles. What's your trade? You a railroad man? A miner?" Lonnie asked. "You a busker? Goin' around singing with your hat on the ground for tips?"

Ryan agreed that basically he was a busker, and said his guitar was with a railroad man he knew only as Hank, but being a union brother, he knew he'd get it back.

"Nah, I want to be a labor organizer. But I've never had any trade or other union card. My family ain't much for working. Most Wobblies are two card men, belonging to a trade union also. I'm headed for southern Colorado. Big labor strikes with the miners against Rockefeller."

Lonnie said they had raided his room at the Amarillo Hotel early that morning. They found six decks of cards, and a dozen pair of dice, all of them on the square. They'd charged him with keeping a gambling house but hinted that he'd be out soon because of Christmas. Ryan said he had no idea of when he would be released, explaining that Wobblies were police targets all over the country. When he asked Lonnie about the poker game, Lonnie explained it was dealer's choice, mostly high draw, no openers, bet or fold with a stiff ante that grew through the night. They agreed that they thought stud was too slow and draw without openers gave the dealer a real advantage.

Then Ryan challenged Lonnie to play heads up draw poker when they were released. Lonnie laughed that off, saying, "You ain't got no money. Cash on the wood makes gambling good. I'm sure I'm a better poker player than you and a better singer."

Lonnie seemed to think this was hilarious. Ryan took offense.

"I'm an O'Malley. I come from a long line of gamblers. You could come up to our family farm by Duke, Oklahoma. There might be a handful of uncles or cousins who are off the road. Ever single one could beat you at any gambling game. And my whole family are great musicians. I'll bet I can play guitar better than you."

Lonnie explained that he had been singing in a duet at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico for over a year, and playing in the daily poker game on the second floor. Then he began to sing in a deep, rich baritone, "There is a house in New Orleans, they call the rising sun, Its been the ruin of many a poor boy, and Lord, I know I'm one."

On the second line, Ryan took the harmony, very loudly, with his perfect-pitch Irish tenor. Both men were on their feet, their dark eyes shining. After a few verses, Ryan said, "I'll bet you five bucks I know more verses than you do to that song."

Ryan said, "A good gambler doesn't gamble with brokes," then he sang, "Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts... He was her man, but he done her wrong."

Now each man would sing lead on a verse and the other would back him up. Lonnie said, "I know verses where she gets off, and I know verses where she goes to prison." They both knew Shine On Harvest Moon and Glow Worm.

Being single, Jack Collins had drawn Christmas duty guarding the jail. He had come back to the cells and was listening. He told Lonnie he didn't have a key to the closet or he would get him his guitar. Then he said, "Don't say nothing to spoil the surprise, but the Sheriff's wife Alma is cooking a turkey and all the fixins. She'll bring the best damn food you ever laid a lip on over here this afternoon or evening. Y'all can sing for her."

Jack Collins started a song in his off-key, whiskey voice:
"Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie,
Where the wild coyotes will howl over me.
Where the west wind sweeps and the grasses wave,
And sunbeams rest on the prairie grave."
Lonnie took over and sang several verses, with Ryan backing him up as best he could. "See, that's a lot of my act. My daddy had been a cowboy out of Wichita Falls and worked for ol' Burk Burnett some. He got these magazines that had all the words to these cowboy and trail driver songs."

Lonnie said that he had been a cowboy on a ranch outside Mobeetie, Texas. There was so much gambling in the town that he was able to make that his living.

Jack Collins broke in, "First man to own a ranch in the Texas Panhandle was killed in a poker game. Ol' Man Springer opened this here way station, general store, outside Mobeetie to serve the trail herds and buffalo hunters in 1877. He kept a poker game going almost every day. That was only two years after Quanah Parker and the Comanches surrendered to Col. MacKenzie and went on the reservation. Springer and his hired man were playing poker with some Cavalry men, buffalo soldiers, colored soldiers. The Indians called them that because their hair was like a buffalo's. A couple of them killed Springer and his hired man saying they'd been cheating. The Army had a little hearing about it, 'course nothing come of it. Poker can be dangerous. Ol' Springer was supposed to have won a lot of money and cows. The cowboys with them herds could get chips for cows, and Springer got together a big herd."

Lonnie started singing Stag O'Lee. Gentlemen of the jury, what do you think of that? Stag O'Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat.

Ryan knew the song and the two were amazed at just how well their mellifluous voices blended together. They sounded like brothers who had sang together since childhood. They were very good, and they both knew it immediately.

After exchanging sanitized and slightly magnified versions of their life stories, Lonnie said they could get a job singing at the La Fonda in Santa Fe easily if Ryan was really good at guitar and could get over there.

"There's this here powerful Judge, Rudy Vigil. He loves poker and plays there nearly every afternoon. Long as he is there, it is never above five-dollar limit. But at night, after he leaves, they vote and take the limit off. "

Lonnie said he had been singing with an incredible beauty and musician, Gloria Chavez, a member of a well-known musical family. Lonnie didn't reveal that he loved her. He said he and Ryan could "sho nuff make better music and land a job easy." Her three brothers also had an act that rotated with their's at La Fonda. Gloria, only 20, had eloped with a wealthy rancher from northern New Mexico who was 46. Her father and brothers were making death threats. The families had hated each other for a couple of hundred years.

Dr. Grover Monahan, one of Amarillo's first and most respected doctors, sent a hired man over to see Lonnie. He apologized profusely and said the Doctor had nothing to do with his arrest. He also asked if he'd sell the horse and buggy back and asked what Lonnie wanted for it. Lonnie had walked over to the livery stable with the drunk Doctor around daylight and barely looked at his new prize. Lonnie told the man to ask the Doctor for a fair offer.

Lonnie and Ryan weren't surprised that they had both started out on shape note singing. Lonnie had sang with two church choirs. Both of their fathers played guitar and sang. Ryan said his uncle was in this Irish musical show in New York. Ryan said the whole O'Malley clan were big on their Irish roots, Irish foods, and songs. Lonnie said his family were Irish but he knew nothing of that. It was rarely mentioned.

Deputy Jack Collins broke in with another of his stories. "Right after Oklahoma became a state, there was this here man in the Oklahoma panhandle going on trial for something. The night before his trial, Ol' Temple Houston, Sam Houston's son, was playing poker with his two lawyers. He thought they was cheating and shot them both dead. He was a lawyer, so Temple defended the man for free and got him off. Then he got his own self off. Poker can be mighty dangerous."

Right at sundown, with slants of flat land light illuminating the jail, Deputy Sheriff Doak Bradshaw and his wife, Velma, came in with a pumpkin and pecan pies, mashed potatoes, and some unopened cans of cranberry sauce. Right after that, Sheriff Dink Flournoy arrived, followed closely by his wife Alma. She began to spread a white table cloth on the desk. The Sheriff was obviously drunk and carrying a gallon of red wine. He opened the cell door and handed the wine to Ryan who took a big swallow and handed it to Lonnie who did likewise.

"Sure hope y'all are hungry," Sheriff said, "'Cause Alma has been fussing over this all day."

When Sheriff Dink staggered across the room with Lonnie's guitar, both men pulled guitar picks from their pockets. Ryan reached out and grabbed the guitar. He picked a few notes, tuned it, and then quickly demonstrated that his finger picking style was more advanced than Lonnie's cording and strumming. Then he launched into House of the Rising Sun, and he and Lonnie stood facing the others, singing together, obviously delighted. Dink said, "these are bound to be the happiest jail birds I ever saw."

Just then, Ryan made it a medley doing a few verses of Frankie and Johnny and on into Stag O' Lee.

"These ol' boys don't just gamble, they sings about gambling," Dink continued. "Y'all need to sing a hymn or Christmas music for Alma. She's mighty religious."

Jack Collins started Rock of Ages, and then Silent Night. Ryan led them all on Joy to the World. Before dinner, Alma said a long prayer mentioning several Amarillo residents, her Arkansas cousins, sinful Texas cowboys, and other lost souls. Dink brought out two more gallons of red wine, and everyone but Alma was drinking freely. At the end of dinner, Dink was slurring his words when he presented Lonnie a check for $350 from Doc Monahan for the horse and buggy which was worth four times that. Lonnie accepted graciously, very surprised and happy to get it. They ate, sang, and drank long into the night, and often praised Alma for the memorable feast.

Lonnie staked Ryan to a train ticket to Santa Fe, a cheap suit, and a Porkpie hat that Ryan always wore with the brim up. He located his guitar. Lonnie had this annoying habit of writing down all his expenses, especially money loaned to or spent on Ryan, in a little black notebook he always carried in his coat pocket. They drew great crowds at La Fonda Thursday though Saturday nights. They always opened with House of the Rising Sun, their signature song. Ryan went into every business and government office in downtown Santa Fe introducing himself and inviting people to their show. Soon he put a tip jar on stage, which brought in good extra money. They added a Sunday afternoon show which was always packed.

Lonnie made the rules and was the unofficial boss. He banned any form of cheating at the poker, union songs, and mention of unions, especially Wobblies. Ryan swore he knew lots about cheating but never would because of the danger. Bravery was never Ryan's long suit. They were both regular winners in the afternoon poker games with a limit of $5. They played each other heads up and Lonnie always won. If wealthy ranchers made the night game too high for him, Lonnie would quit. Not Ryan. He went broke and built back up a bank roll over and over. One night Ryan was $1600 winner with Lonnie as his partner. Lonnie cut out his share of the winnings, urging Ryan to quit. Ryan lost his share all back. The very next morning, Lonnie was making Ryan a loan and marking it in the little notebook. Ryan wrote a funny song about Scrooge's Notebook and sang it at La Fonda. Lonnie loved it and wrote a couple of verses while they sang. That was the beginning of their song-writing partnership.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, a novel.


Anonymous said...

I live in West Texas, controlled by Comanches from 1720 to 1875. Recently, I've read twenty books of history on this and may write an essay for Truckin' The best book is S.C. Gynne which is in discussion for movies. Larry McMurty, who I tried to sign to McGraw-Hill, is interested. There was heavy brutality on both sides, but the Comanches kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered as part of their culture. There is a history book by Paul Carlson about lost Buffalo Soldiers near here that is fantastic. Quanah Parker and Col. MacKenzie battled in the canyons I know so well.

Anonymous said...

I live in West Texas, controlled by Comanches from 1720 to 1875. Recently, I've read twenty books of history on this and may write an essay for Truckin' The best book is S.C. Gynne which is in discussion for movies. Larry McMurty, who I tried to sign to McGraw-Hill, is interested. There was heavy brutality on both sides, but the Comanches kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered as part of their culture. There is a history book by Paul Carlson about lost Buffalo Soldiers near here that is fantastic. Quanah Parker and Col. MacKenzie battled in the canyons I know so well.