Tales of the wild West

150 Years of Howard History

May 22, 2001

Ellicott City resident Charlotte T. Holland, 59, wrote these stories about life on her family's Lisbon farm for her nieces and nephews. She lived there from 1947 to 1953, when most of the property was sold. This is one of several excerpts from her unpublished manuscript.

The old man walked slowly down the lane. He carried a railroad flashlight and held its large bright ray of light steady on the road ahead. It was night in our county, but the blackness was broken by this single ray of light.

As the old man sauntered past the carriage house, we could hear him whistling. It was a low hoarse whistle, like when your mouth is dry. I stepped out of my hiding place to watch him and tripped over a can of paint. The old man turned.

"Whoa there, Bill."

He always said that. He moved his light in our direction, slowly and without taking a step. When the light found us, he ambled over.

"Thought ya could scare me, eh?"

There was a chuckle in his voice when he said, "Lots of folks have tried; ain't none done it yet."[My brothers and I] ran out and surrounded him. "We were going to surprise you, Uncle Nick."

"Figured that much."

"Are you going to finish the story tonight, Uncle Nick?"

"Reckon I might."

"Which story ya gonna finish tonight, Uncle Nick? The one about the time you saddled Frank James' horse?"

"It wasn't Frank James' horse, silly. It was Frank James' son's horse, and besides we've heard that story before," [said a voice in the dark].

"No, it was Frank James' son that he played ball with. It was Jesse James' horse he saddled," [came a retort].

"Whose horse was it, Uncle Nick?"

The old man spat on the ground before he opened the front door. We followed. [My brother] Charlie spat on the ground.

"You'd better not let Pop catch you doin' that, Charlie."

"You better not let me catch you telling Pop about it either." ...

We followed the old man into the kitchen. He laid his flashlight on the table, took off his leather jacket and carried it into the parlor. Standing in the center of the room, he reached into his pants pocket and slowly drew out a penknife. From another pocket, he extracted a pack of chewing tobacco. Slowly he cut off a piece of the tobacco and ... lifted it on the knife to his mouth. Then he ran the wet knife, one side at a time, along his trousers and folded it, and put both the pack and the knife into his pockets. Then he sat down.

We all knew every movement of this ritual, but still it held us speechless. When Uncle Nick did that, we knew there was a good story coming.

He usually began his stories, "When I was out in El Paso." Everything in the West seemed to have begun in El Paso, although he had been other places. Uncle Nick had been there when they opened the Cherokee Strip [in 1893 and thousands of settlers scrambled to stake claims] to what eventually became Oklahoma. And he knew [the outlaw] Belle Starr. But they weren't tonight's stories.

"What about the story, Uncle Nick? You said you'd finish it tonight. Remember? You were ridin' with the posse out of El Paso, after that bank robber?" ...

There was a twinkle in his eye and a little bit of tobacco juice on his lower lip as he started to speak. He spoke very slowly and deliberately.

"Well, I was happ'nin' through town one afternoon and this guy rode outta town like he was apt to be goin' to a fire or someplace. Raised a lot o' dust. He was pushin' that horse right smart. 'Fore long, the townsfolk commence to come alive. One of the fellas come up to me and asked if I seen this fella beatin' it outta town and which way'd he go. I pointed out west yonder a piece and he asked if I'd ride in a posse after 'im. Seems he'd robbed the bank. But that's what'll happen if folks don't hold on to their own money. Always kep' mine in my boot."

"Has anyone ever robbed Woodbine Bank, Uncle Nick?" Charlie's eyes got big and I knew he had an adventure spinning around in his brain.

"Nope. Don't know that they have."

"Did you catch the robber, Uncle Nick?"

"Nope. He give us the slip. I reckon somebody ketched 'im [eventually], though."

"That wasn't a very good story, really. What about the one about Jesse James or Frank James or whoever it was?"

"Isn't it time for you to go to bed, Nuisance?"

"No it isn't," and I hit my brother. He hit me back and called me "Pipsqueak."

The old man laughed quietly ... pulled out his spectacles and picked up the evening paper. That was our signal to leave, that his story-telling - or yarn-spinning as they called it in Lisbon - was done for the evening.

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