“THE SPARROWGRASS PAPERS,” BY FREDERIC S. COZZENS;
Derby & Jackson, New York; 1860, pp. 265-282.
A CALIFORNIAN BALLAD
THE sources of the following ballad are to be found in the California papers of December, 1854. It appears from letters published in the Mountain Democrat (extra) and the Sacramento Statesman, (extra) that a party of miners were encamped near Rocky-Cañon, a deep and almost inaccessible, uninhabited, rocky gorge, near Todd’s Valley; and it happened that some of them were out hunting near the cañon, in which they saw “three men quietly following the trail to prospect a mine of gold-bearing quartz in the vicinity. Suddenly, a party of banditti sprang out of a thicket, and commenced firing at the three who were prospecting. James McDonald, of Alabama, was killed at the first shot.
Dr. Bolivar A. Sparks, of Mississippi, fired twice at the robbers, and fell, mortally wounded. Captain Jonathan R. Davis, of South Carolina, then drew his revolvers and commenced shooting at the enemy — every ball forcing its victim to bite the dust. He was easily distinguished from the rest by his white hat, and from his being above the medium height. The robbers then made a charge upon him with their knives and one sabre. Captain Davis stood his ground firmly until they rushed up abreast within four feet of him. He then made a spring upon them with a large Bowie-knife, and gave three of them wounds which proved fatal.” Afterwards he killed all the rest, and then tore up his shirt to bind the wounds of the survivors. The party of spectators then came down. It seems they had been prevented joining in the fight from a sense of etiquette: as the letter of one party expresses it — “Being satisfied that they were all strangers, we hesitated a moment before we ventured to go down.” When they got down, they found eleven men stretched on the ground, with some others in a helpless condition. They then formed a coroner’s jury, and held an inquest over twelve dead bodies. Captain Davis was the only living
person left in the Rocky-Cañon. One letter says: “Although we counted twenty-eight bullet holes through Captain Davis’ hat and clothes (seventeen through his hat and eleven through his coat and shirt), he received but two very slight flesh-wounds.”
The ballad was written, during intervals of severe occupation, upon the backs of business-letters and scraps of cartridge-paper, in railroad cars, and on the Hoboken ferry-boat. This will be obvious to the skillful, upon perusal. The object of the writer was to preserve, in the immortal KNICKERBOCKER Magazine, a record of the ‘Battle of Rocky-Cañon,’ for fear the story might be lost in the perishable pages of the daily press:
Ye Battail of Rocky Canyon.
ALL the heroes that ever were born.
Native or foreign, bearded or shorn,
From the days of Homer to Omar Pasha
Who mauled and maltreated the troops of the Czar,
And drove the rowdy Muscovite back,
Fin and Livonian, Pole and Cossack,
From gray Ladoga to green Ukraine,
And other parts of the Russian domain
With an intimation exceedingly plain,
That they’d better cut! and not come again!
All the heroes of olden time
Who have jingled alike in armor and rhyme,
Hercules, Hector, Quintus Curtius,
Pompey, and Pegasus-riding Perseus,
Brave Bayard, and the brave Roland,
Men who never a fight turned backs on;
Charles the Swede, and the Spartan band,
Coriolanus, and General Jackson,
Richard the Third, and Marcus Brutus,
And others, whose names won’t rhyme to suit us,
Must certainly sink in the dim profound
When Captain Davis’s story gets round.
Know ye the land where the sinking sun
Sees the last of earth when the day is done?
Where the course of empire is sure to stop,
And the play conclude with the fifth-act drop?*
Where, wonderful spectacle! hand in hand
The oldest and youngest nations stand?
Where yellow Asia, withered and dry,
Hears Young America, sharp and spry,
With thumb in his vest, and a quizzical leer,
Sing out, “Old Fogie, come over here!”
Know ye the land of mines and vines,
Of monstrous turnips and giant pines,
Of monstrous profits and quick declines,
And Howland and Aspinwall’s steamship lines?
Know ye the land so wondrous fair?
Fame has blown on his golden bugle,
From Battery-place to Union-square
Over the Park and down McDougal;
Hither, and thither, and everywhere,
In every city its name is known;
There is not a grizzly Wall-street bear
That does not shrink when the blast is blown:
There Dives sits on a golden throne,
With Lazarus holding his shield before,
Charged with a heart of auriferous stone,
And a pick-axe and spade on a field of or,
Know ye the land that looks on Ind?
There only you’ll see a pacific sailor,
Its song has been sung by Jenny Lind,
And the words were furnished by Bayard Taylor.
Seaward stretches a valley there,
Seldom frequented by men or women;
Its rocks are hung with the prickly-pear,
And the golden balls of the wild persimmon;
Haunts congenial to wolf and bear,
Covered with thickets, are everywhere;
There’s nothing at all in the place to attract us,
Except some grotesque kinds of cactus;
Glittering beetles with golden wings,
Royal lizards with golden rings,
And a gorgeous species of poisonous snake,
That lets you know when he means to battle
By giving his tail a rousing shake,
To which is attached a muffled rattle.
Captain Davis, (Jonathan R.,)
With James McDonald, of Alabama,
And Dr. Bolivar Sparks were thar,
Cracking the rocks with a miner’s hammer;
272 Of the valley they’d heard reports
“That plenty of gold was there in quartz.”
Gold in quartz they marked not there,
But p’ints enough on the prickly pear,
As they very soon found
When they sat on the ground,
To scrape the blood from their cuts and scratches;
For a rickety cactus had stripped them bare,
And cobbled their hides with crimson patches.
Thousands of miles they are from home,
Hundreds from San Francisco city;
Little they think that near them roam
A baker’s dozen of wild banditti;
Fellows who prowl, like stealthy cats,
In velvet jackets and sugar-loaf hats,
Covered all over with trinkets and crimes,
Watches and crosses, pistols and feathers,
Squeezing virgins and wives like limes,
And wrapping their legs in unpatented leathers:
Little they think how close at hand
Is that cock of the walk — “the Bold Brigand!”
And here I wish to make a suggestion
In regard to those conical, sugar-loaf hats,
I think those banditti, beyond all question,
Some day will find out they ’re a parcel of flats;
For if that style is with them a passion,
And they stick to those hats in spite of the fashion,
Some Tuscan Leary, Genin, or Knox,
Will get those brigands in a —— bad box;
For the Chief of Police will send a “Star”
To keep a look-out near the hat bazaar;
And when Fra Diavolo comes to buy
The peculiar mode that suits his whim,
He may find out, if the Star is spry,
That instead of the hat they’ve ironed him!
Captain Davis, and James McDonald,
And Doctor Sparks together stand;
Suddenly, like the fierce Clan Ronald,
Bursts from the thicket the Bold Brigand,
Sudden, and never a word spoke they,
But pulled their triggers and blazed away.
“Music,” says Halleck, “is everywhere;”
Harmony guides the whole creation;
But when a bullet sings in the air
So close to your hat that it moves your hair,
To enjoy it requires a taste quite rare,
With a certain amount of cultivation.
But never music, homely or grand,
Grisi’s “Norma” or Gungl’s band,
The distant sound of the watch-dog’s bark,
The coffee-mill’s breakfast-psalm in the cellar,
“Home, Sweet Home,” or the sweet “Sky-lark,”
Sung by Miss Pyne, in “Cinderella;”
Songs that remind us of days of yore,
Curb-stone ditties we loved to hear,
“Brewers’ yeast!” and “Straw, oat straw!”
“Lily-white corn, a penny an ear!”
Rustic music of chanticleer,
“Robert the Devil,” by Meyerbeer,
Played at the “Park” when the Woods were here.
Or any thing else that an echo brings
From those mysterious vibrant strings,
That answer at once, like a telegraph line,
To notes that were written in “Old Lang Syne;”
Nothing, I say, ever played or sung,
Organ panted, or bugle rung,
Not even the horn on the Switazer Alp,
Was half so sweet to the Captain’s ear
As the sound of the bullet that split his scalp,
And told him a scrimmage was awful near.
Come, O Danger! in any form,
“The earthquake’s shock or the ocean-storm;”
Come, when its century’s weight of snow
The avalanche hurls on the Swiss chateau;
Come with the murderous Hindoo Thug,
Come with the Grizzly’s fearful hug,
With the Malay’s stab, or the adder’s fang,
Or the deadly flight of the boomerang,
But never come when carbines bang
That are fired by men who must fight or hang.
On they came, with a thunderous shout
That made the rocky-cañon ring:
(“Cañon,” in Spanish, means tube, or spout,
Gorge, or hollow, or some such thing.)
On they come, with a thunderous noise;
Captain Davis said, calmly, “Boys,
I’ve been a-waiting to see them chaps;”
And with that he examined his pistol-caps;
Then a long, deep breath he drew,
Put in his cheek a tremendous chew,
Stripped off his waist-coat and coat, and threw
Them down, and was ready to die or do.
Had I Bryan’s belligerent skill,
Wouldn’t I make this a bloody fight?
Or Alfred Tennyson’s crimson quill,
What thundering, blundering lines I’d write!
I’d batter, and hack, and cut, and stab,
And gouge, and throttle, and curse, and jab;
I’d wade to my ears in oaths and slaughter,
Pour out blood like brandy and water;
Hit ’em again if they asked for quarter,
And clinch, and wrestle, and yell, and bite.
But I never could wield a carnivorous pen
Like either of these intellectual men;
I love a peaceful, pastoral scene,
With drowsy mountains, and meadows green,
Covered with daisies, grass, and clover,
Mottled with Dorset or South-down sheep --
Better, than fields with a red turf over,
And men piled up in a Waterloo heap.
But, notwithstanding, my fate cries out:
“Put Captain Davis in song and story!
That children hereafter may read about
His deeds in the Rocky-Cañon foray!”
James McDonald, of Alabama
Fell at the feet of Doctor Sparks;
“Doctor,” said he, “I’m as dead as a hammer,
And you have a couple of bullet marks.
This,” he said, “is the end of life.”
“Yes,” said Sparks, “’t is a mighty solver;
Excuse me a moment — just hold my knife,
And I’ll hit that brigand with my Colt’s revolver.”
Then through the valley the contest rang,
Pistols rattle and carbines bang;
Horrible, terrible, frightful, dire
Flashed from the vapor the foot-pad’s fire,
Frequent, as when in a sultry night
Twinkles a meadow with insect-light;
But deadlier far as the Doctor found,
When, crack! a ball through his frontal bone
Laid him flat on his back on the hard-fought ground,
And left Captain Davis to go it alone!
Oh! that Roger Bacon had died!
Or Schwartz, the monk, or whoever first tried
Cold iron to choke with a mortal load,
To see if saltpetre wouldn’t explode.
For now, when you get up a scrimmage in rhyme,
The use of gunpowder so shortens the time,
That just as your Iliad should have begun,
Your epic gets smashed with a Paixhan gun;
And the hero for whom you are tuning the string
Is dead before ‘arms and the man’ you sing;
To say nothing of how it will jar and shock
Your verses with hammer, and rammer, and stock,
Bullet and wad, trigger and lock,
Nipple and cap, and pan and cock;
But wouldn’t I like to spread a few pages
All over with arms of the middle ages?
Wouldn’t I like to expatiate
On Captain Davis in chain or plate? --
Spur to heel, and plume to crest,
Visor barred, and lance in rest,
Long, cross-hilted brand to wield,
Cuirass, gauntlets, mace, and shield;
Cased in proof himself and horse,
From frontlet-spike to buckler-boss;
Harness glistering in the sun,
Plebeian foes, and twelve to one!
I tell you now there’s a beautiful chance
To make a hero of old romance;
But I’m painting his picture for after-time.
And don’t mean to sacrifice truth for rhyme.
Cease, Digression; the fray grows hot!
Never an instant stops the firing;
Two of the conical hats are shot,
And a velvet jacket is just expiring:
Never yields Captain Davis an inch,
For he didn’t know how, if he wished, to flinch;
Firm he stands in the Rocky Gorge,
Moved as much by those vagrom men
As an anvil that stands by a blacksmith’s forge
Is moved by the sledge-hammer’s “ten-pound-ten!”
Firm, though his shirt, with jag and rag,
Resembles an army’s storming-flag:
Firm, till sudden they give a shout,
Drop their shooters and clutch their knives;
When he said: “I reckon their powder’s out,
And I’ve got three barrels, and that’s three lives!
One! and the nearest steeple-crown
Stood aghast, as a minster spire
Stands, when the church below is on fire,
Then trembles, and totters, and tumbles down.
Don Pasquale the name he bore.
Near Lecco was reared his ancestral cot,
Close by Lago Como’s shore,
For description of which, see “Claude Melnotte.”
Two! and instantly drops, with a crash,
An antediluvial sort of moustache;
Such as hundreds of years had grown,
When scissors and razors were quite unknown.
He from that Tuscan city had come,
Where a tower is built all out of — plumb!
Puritani his name was hight —
A terrible fellow to pray or fight.
Three! and as if his head were cheese,
Through Castadiva a bullet cut;
Knocked a hole in his os unguis,
And bedded itself in the occiput.
Daily to mass his widow will go,
In that beautiful city a lovely moaner,
Where those supernatural sausages grow,
Which we mis-pronounce when we style “Bellona!”
As a crowd, that near a depot stands
Impatiently waiting to take the cars,
Will “clear the track” when its iron bands
The ponderous, fiery hipogriff jars,
Yet the moment it stops don’t care a pin,
But hustle and bustle and go right in;
So the half of the band that still survives,
Comes up with long moustaches and knives,
Determined to mince the Captain to chowder,
So soon as it’s known he is out of powder.
Six feet one, in trowsers and shirt,
Covered with sweat, and blood, and dirt;
Not very much scared (though his hat was hurt,
And as full of holes as a garden-squirt);
Awaiting the onslaught, behold him stand
With a twelve-inch “Bowie” in either hand.
His cause was right, and his arms were long,
His blades were bright, and his heart was strong;
All he asks of the trinketed clan
Is a bird’s-eye view of the foremost man;
But shoulder to shoulder they come together,
Six sugar-loaf hats and twelve legs of leather: —
Fellows whose names you can’t rehearse
Without instinctively clutching your purse:
Badiali and Bottesini,
Fierce Alboni and fat Dandini,
Old Rabini and Mantillini,
Cherubini and Paganini:
(But I had forgot the last were shot;
No matter, it don’t hurt the tale a jot.)
Onward come the terrible crew!
Waving their poignards high in air,
But little they dream that seldom grew
Of human arms so long a pair
As the Captain had hanging beside him there,
Matted, from shoulder to wrist, with hair;
Brawny, and broad, and brown, and bare.
Crack! and his blade from point to heft
Has cloven a skull, as an egg is cleft;
And round he swings those terrible flails,
Heavy and swift, as a grist-mill sails;
Whack! and the loftiest conical crown
Falls full length in the Rocky Valley;
Smack! and a duplicate Don goes down,
As a ten-pin falls in a bowling alley.
None remain but old Rubini,
Fierce Alboni, and fat Daldini:
Wary fellows, who take delight
In prolonging, as long as they can, a fight,
To show the science of cut and thrust,
The politest method of taking life;
As some men love, when a bird is trussed,
To exhibit their skill with a carving-knife:
But now with desperate hate and strength,
They cope with those arms of fearful length.
A scenic effect of skill and art,
A beautiful play of tierce and carte,
A fine exhibition it was, to teach
The science of keeping quite out of reach.
But they parry, and ward, and guard, and fend,
And rally, and dodge, and slash, and shout,
In hopes that from mere fatigue in the end
He either will have to give in or give out.
Never a Yankee was born or bred
Without that peculiar kink in his head
By which he could turn the smallest amount
Of whatever he had to the best account.
So while the banditti cavil and shrink,
It gives Captain Davis a chance TO THINK!
And the coupled ideas shot through his brain,
As shoots through a village an express-train;
And then! as swift as the lightning flight,
When the pile-driver falls from its fearful height,
He brings into play, by way of assister,
His dexter leg as a sort of ballista;
Smash! in the teeth of the nearest rogue,
He threw the whole force of his hob-nailed brogue!
And a horrible yell from the rocky chasm
Rose in the air like a border slogan,
When old Rubini lay in a spasm,
From the merciless kick of the iron brogan.
As some old Walton, with line and hook
Will stand by the side of a mountain-brook,
Intent upon taking a creel of trout,
But finds so many poking about
Under the roots, and stones, and sedges,
In the middle, and near the edges,
Eager to bite, so soon as the hackle
Drops in the stream from his slender tackle,
And finally thinks it a weary sport,
To fish where trout are so easily caught;
So Captain Davis gets tired at last
Of fighting with those that drop down so fast,
And a tussle with only a couple of men
Seems poor kind of fun, after killing-off ten;
But just for the purpose of ending the play
He puts fierce Alboni first out of the way,
And then to show Signor Dandini his skill,
He splits him right up, as you’d split up a quill;
Then drops his Bowie, and rips his shirt
To bandage the wounds of the parties hurt;
An act, as good as a moral, to teach
“That none are out of humanity’s reach,”
An act that might have produced good fruit,
Had the brigands survived, but they didn’t do it.
Sixteen men do depose and say,
“That in December, the twentieth day,
They were standing close by when the fight occurred,
And are ready to swear to it, word for word,
That a bloodier scrimmage they never saw;
That the bodies were sot on, accordin’ to law;
That the provocation and great excitement
Wouldn’t justify them in a bill of indictment:
But this verdict they find against Captain Davis,
That if ever a brave man lived — he brave is.”
* See Berkeley.