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Volume 7183

Part Three: Hoboes and Cowboys

by Alan Hanson

 Smoking in ERB’s Fiction III
by Alan Hanson
Blue smoke spiraling upward, cigarettes for nerves, for relaxation, for courage, for musing, for late night parties with friends, and for facing death. Peaceful pipes, pompous cigars, jeweled cigarette cases, packs in shirt pockets, makings in back pockets, blazing matches, coffin nails, and plugs in the cheek.

The images tobaccoism are many and varied in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but, for the most part, those images occur with no apparent pattern. Burroughs utilized smoking in his stories when he wanted to create a certain mood or a certain type of character. However, there were two lifestyles that ERB found particularly romantic, and, while in most other cases he portrayed smoking as being a degenerating habit, when he wrote about the lifestyles of the hobo and the cowboy, smoking was a constant and romantic image.

The Hoboes
The Sky Pilot, Dopey Charlie, Soup Face, Columbus Blackie, The General, and Dirty Eddie. These members of the bumbling hobo band found in The Oakdale Affair were a tightly knit group, loyal to each other, distrustful of outsiders, and always on the lookout to make a dishonest buck. They slept in hay barns and deserted houses and in the open under the moonlight. They didn’t have much to share, only their loyalty to each other and a smoke. The reader first sees them through the eyes of “The Oskaloosa Kid,” who looked through the wall of an abandoned building and saw, “a small fire built upon the earth floor in the center of the building and around the warming blaze the figures of six men. Some reclined at length upon old straw; others squatted, Turk fashion. All were smoking either disreputable pipes or rolled cigarets.”

Smoking was an important part of the hobo group’s lifestyle, and Burroughs perpetuated the image. Sharing a smoke was a signal of closeness in the group, and when Columbus Blackie invited “The Oskaloosa Kid” to join the group, he did so in the traditional way. “Have a smoke?” he asked the Kid. “Here’s the makin’s.” The newcomer joined them by the fire, unaware, of course, that the hobos were less interested in brotherhood than they were in the jewels and cash he had displayed. Through a curtain of smoke, the hoboes plotted the fleecing of the newcomer. “The two sat silent for awhile, The General puffing on a short Briar, Dopey Charlie inhaling deep draughts from a cigarette, and both glaring through narrowed lids at the boy warming himself beside the fire.” Later in the story, still on the hunt for “The Oskaloosa Kid’s” swag, Columbus Blackie, The Sky Pilot, Soup Face, and Dirty Eddie met again, and, over their ever-present cigarettes, planned their dishonest work. “In an old brick structure … four men were smoking as they lay stretched upon the floor.”

Although his portrayal of the Sky Pilot’s hobo band is colored with romanticism, surely Edgar Rice Burroughs never imagined himself a member of that group of rogues. Certainly, ERB’s alter ego of the road was Bridge, whose background and character were quite different from those who followed the Sky Pilot. In addition to being a man of high ethical and moral standards, Bridge was an educated and cultured man, who, for reasons of his own, gave the materialism and pressures of civilized society for simplicity of life on the road. “Simplicity” is the key word in the summing up ERB’s view of the hobo lifestyle. Bridge had simple needs and was content with simple pleasures, and among those simple pleasures was the rolling and smoking of a cigarette.

As was the case with “The Oskaloosa Kid,” the entrance of Billy Byrne into the company of Bridge was cemented with a cigarette. “The poetical one (Bridge) drew a sack of tobacco from his hip pocket and a rumpled package of papers from the pocket in his shirt, extending both toward Billy. ‘Want the makings?’ he asked. ‘I ain’t stuck on sponging,’ said Billy; ‘but maybe I can get even someday, and I sure do want a smoke,’” For many minutes thereafter, the two sat smoking beside the fire without making conversation.

Since both Billy and Bridge were going the same place (“nowhere in particular”), they decided to travel together. Their subsequent adventurous but simple life together was filled with references to smoking. The morning after their first meeting, Billy chopped wood for a farmer to earn a takeout meal for them. “When they had eaten, they lay back upon the grass and smoked some more of Bridge’s tobacco.” Several nights later the two men were smoking by the camp fire talking about another simple pleasure — poetry. “You know so much of that stuff,” said Billy, “that I’d think you’d be able to make some up yourself.” Later, after nearly being nabbed by Detective Sergeant Flannagan in Kansas City, Billy told his road mate of his decision to flee into Mexico. “Bridge finished rolling a brown paper cigarette before he spoke.” Then he told Billy he was going with him. 

Six weeks and many adventures later, they shared another adventure. Both received bullet wounds in a shootout with Mexican outlaws. The next day, they parted company for good, Billy returning to Chicago to marry his Penelope, while Bridge went back out on the road looking for his. No doubt Billy’s lifestyle changed drastically in Chicago, but when Bridge is next seen in “The Oakdale Affair,” he was still on the road. It is in this short novel that the reader learns the source of ERB’s close identification of cigarette smoking with the hobo lifestyle. It is the same source from which Burroughs drew his overall romantic notion of life on the road. After sharing a quiet breakfast with “The Oskaloosa Kid,” Bridge producer a pouch of tobacco and paper from his inside pocket and began to recite the poetry of Henry Herbert Knibbs.

“ I had the makings and I smoked
“And wondered over different things,
“Thinkin’ as how this old world joked
“In callin’ only some men kings
“While I sat there a-blowing’ rings.”

It’s not hard to envision Edgar Rice Burroughs at his desk “a-blowin’ rings” from a cigarette, taking a break from his writing and imagining himself on the road with Bridge sharing a smoke beside a camp fire under a clear and quiet sky.

The Cowboys
Romanticized characters and situations, moving against a background of realistic detail, mark Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Western novels. The descriptions are based on the author’s first-hand knowledge of the American West at the turn of the century. ERB often made reference to the use of tobacco to create the notion of a carefree lifestyle or the American cowboy.

The cowboy at rest — it’s a peaceful image, and one that is invariably associated with the cigarette in ERB’s Western novels. Early in the day, the Burroughs cowboy took advantage of any free moment to have a smoke, as in this scene from The Bandit of Hell’s Bend. “The men resumed their preparations for the work of the day, or, if they were ready, lolled in their saddles rolling cigarettes.”

However, it was when a cowboy’s work was done at the end of the day that he was most likely to find time for a smoke. Again, in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend. “At the Bar Y Ranch the men sat smoking after the evening meal,” and later, “a smoke, a little gossip and rough banter and the men jingled away through the darkness in search of their bed-rolls.” When not on the range, the men found the bunkhouse a popular place in the evening for a smoke and some conversation. Early in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend, Bull, “rolling a cigarette, sat down on the edge of Colby’s bunk and commenced to talk.” Later in the novel, again in the bunkhouse, the cowboys “smoked for awhile and then, one by one, lay down upon the rough boards to sleep.”

Of course, rather than in the bunkhouse, real cowboys spent most of their time in the saddle, and, that being the case, real cowboys had to be adept at rolling a cigarette with one hand. In addition to its practicality, the ability to smoothly roll a cigarette with one hand was portrayed by Burroughs as a way of differentiating between a real cowboy and a tenderfoot. For example, a cigarette rolling competition occurred between foreman Hal Colby and Harvard grad Jefferson Wainright, Jr., as they jockeyed for position beside Diana Henders in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend.

Wainright “paused to roll a cigarette — an accomplishment he had only recently brought to a state even approximately perfection. He used both hands and was rather slow. Colby eyed him, guessing that he was merely fighting for time in order to force the foreman to go first. Slowly the latter withdrew his own pouch of tobacco from his shirt pocket. ‘Reckon I’ll roll a smoke by the light of your fire, Di …’ he remarked. He creased the paper, poured in a little tobacco, and, as he drew the pouch closed with his teeth and left hand, deftly rolled the cigarette with his right, bending in slightly in the center to keep it from opening up. Wainright realized that if he had a conversational advantage over Colby there were other activities in which the foreman greatly outshone him. Rolling a smoke was one of them.”

On another occasion, ERB used the rolling of a cigarette as a device to give the reader some inside information. It happened in Apache Devil, when “Dirty” Cheetim and a secret partner were engaged in stealing cattle from Witchita Billings. Cheetim gave Luis Mariel half of a jack of spades when he hired the Mexican to guard the stolen cattle. Luis was to turn the cattle over to the man who brought the other half of the card. Later, in a conversation between Witchita and “Smooth” Kreff, the reader learns the identity of Cheetim’s partner in crime.

“‘But you’ll think it over, Chita?’ he (Kreff) asked, drawing a sack of Durham and a package of brown papers from his shirt pocket. ‘You dropped something, ‘Smooth,’ she said, gesturing toward the ground at his feet. ‘You pulled it out of your pocket with the makings.’ He looked down at a piece of pace board, at one half of playing card that had been torn in two — one half of a jack of spades.”

In addition to cigarettes, tobacco was used in other ways in the Old West of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Again, as is often the case the Burroughs, the particular way a character used tobacco was an indication of his personality. Take the quiet, pipe-smoking Hi Bryam in The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County. The inscrutable Bryam is seen several times smoking his pipe while sitting in the doorway of his shack far up toward the head of Mill Creek Canyon. Bruce Marvel knew Bryam was connected with the mystery he was trying to solve, but he wasn’t sure how to approach the man. “After supper that night, Marvel strode over to Bryam’s camp, where the hunter was sitting upon his doorstep, puffing on his pipe … Marvel seated himself upon the doorstep at the hunter’s side. In the silence that followed, Bryam puffed intermittently at his pipe, while Marvel bent his eyes upon the ground in thought.”

It was a pipe for the quiet man, but neither pipe nor cigarettes would do for one of Burroughs’ most colorful western characters, Wildcat Bob in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend. Bob is described as, “the little old gentleman with the tobacco-dewed whiskers.” Of course, having a cheek full of chew could occasionally be inconvenient, as Bob discovered when Mary Donovan broached the subject of marriage to him. “Bob essayed reply, but a mouthful of tobacco juice prevented. Rising, he walked into the office, cross the room, opened the front door and spat copiously without.” It’s a scene drawn surely not from ERB’s Chicago or Tarzana days, but rather from his pre-writing days in the American West.

Other anecdotes involving tobacco use appear in ERB’s Western novels, such as the time Bill Gatlin nearly swallowed his quid of tobacco in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend. Then there’s the scene in The Mucker when Billy Byrne casually rolled a cigarette as he cased the Mexican bank he planned to rob. And then there are other times when ERB used tobacco in a symbolic way, as with the arrogant black cigar protruding from the mouth of the crooked Maurice Corson in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend. Of course, there are the smoking habits of Geronimo and Shoz-Dijiji and the rest of the Apaches, but that is another story altogether. However, too much has already been written on this subject to interest the average Burroughs fan. In closing this look into tobacco in Burroughs’ fiction, let’s give ERB the final words.

As with the hobo lifestyle, Burroughs found the romantic lifestyle of the cowboy could best be conveyed through poetry. However, Burroughs did not borrow someone else’s verse, but wrote his own. His mouthpiece was Texas Pete in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend. One of Pete’s verses neatly capsulizes ERB’s romantic notion of the cowboy and the place in it of the hand-rolled cigarette.

“And thet wasn’t jest jaw—when it come to a draw
This here guy was like lightnin’ turned loose.
Then we rolled us a smoke an’ neither one spoke
Til he said, ‘Climb aboard your cyuse.’
Then he reined the hill each a-puffin’ his pill
To the town ’neath its shimmer o’ heat
An’ heads up to the shack that’s a-leanin’ its back
‘Gainst the side o’ The Cowboys’ Retreat.”

— The End —

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Oakdale Affair
The Bandit of Hell’s Bend
Apache Devil
The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County
The Mucker

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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