Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, December 8, 2020


 "A Bargain with Peg-leg" by Frank Norris (from Collier's Weekly, March 1, 1902; reprinted in Norris' collection A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West, 1903)

He was, according to the tale told by Bunt McBride, "a cow-rustlin', hair-liftin', only-one-born-in-captivity, man-eatin' brute of a one-legged Greaser which he was named Peg-leg Smith."  He had got his name when his leg was badly wounded by a shotgun.  Since there was now doctor available for twenty miles, Smith amputates his own leg with a Bowie knife, and later makes a stump out of a table leg and an old halter.  Losing his leg affected him:  "the whole jing-bang of it turned his head, for he goes bad and loco thereafter, and begins shootin' and r'arin' up and down the whole Southwest, a roarin' and a bellowin' and a-takin' on amazin'."  Peg-leg Smith became a deadly, vicious man that no one wanted to cross.

Basically, Peg-leg was pure evil, but there one thing he just could not abide.  Swearing.  When he heard someone swear, he would turn lethal.  He just could not stand people "a-swearin' an' a-cussin' an' bedamnin' an' be-devilin' one another."  Those people should be ashamed of themselves, befoulin' their mouths "and disturbin' the peace along of a quiet Sunday morning."  It was at times like this that Peg-leg himself would go on a swearing tirade, sometimes going on for as much as six minutes without repeating himself as he beat (and sometimes killed) the offending party.

So it happened that Peg-leg was in Yuma the same time Bunt McBride was.  Yuma was than a popular gathering place for consumptives ('one-lungers") and McBride had made friends with one of them, a young man named Clarence.  (Clarence was all right, despite the name he was given by his parents.)  A group of consumptives were at a local saloon playing a game:  each would throw four bits into a hat, then they would sit quietly and take their own temperature and the one with the highest temperature would win the pot.  Clarence won, which disturbed the man with the next highest temperature.  That man was far sicker than Clarence and he thought his temperature should have been higher than Clarence's.  He accused Clarence of taking a mouthful of hot tea before taking his temperature.  Clarence took offense at that and begun cussing, unaware that Peg-leg was within listening distance.  With a roar, Peg-leg had at Clarence.

Clarence trips over a chair and Peg-leg is suddenly on top of him, choking him.  McBride, who never thought of himself as brave, instinctively went to help his friend.  He tried to pull Peg-leg off Clarence but only manages to pull Peg-leg's wooden leg off instead.  Very few things make a man angrier than having his leg pulled.  Peg-leg rose up and began to go after McBride, hopping on his one leg and bumping into furniture.  Although McBride knew Peg-leg could not move fast, he still was afraid of what would happen if Peg-leg caught up with him.  McBride then hurled the wooden leg out the saloon window, where the Colorado River waited some seventy feet below.  He then ran to the net room where Peg-leg had left his gun and threw that into the river also.

McBride now felt safe.  Peg-leg had no leg and had no gun.  But the leg did not make it into the river.  It was stuck three-fourths of the way down there.  A young boy, seeking to do a good deed, clambered down and retrieved the leg and brought it back to Peg-leg.  As Peg-leg hopped to get his leg, McBride also hurried to the boy and got there before the one-legged man.  Grabbing the leg, McBride again felt safe, but his nemesis turned to him and vowed that he would trail him once he got a new leg and find him wherever he went, and then would kill him.  

Peg-leg then went on about how his crusade against swearing seemed to be in vain.  "Ten years now I've been range-ridin' all this yere ranch, a-doin' o' my little feeble, or'nary best to clean out the mouths o' you men an' purify the atmosphere o' God's own country, an' I ain't made one convert.  I pounded 'em an' booted 'em an' busted 'em an' shot 'em up, an' they go on cussin' each other harder'n ever.  I don't know w'at all to do an' I sometimes get plumb discouraged-like."

With this, McBride saw a way to continue his life without constantly looking over his back.  He offered a deal to Peg-leg.  If Peg-leg vowed not to get his vengeance on him, McBride would "agree and covenant' with the party o' the first part to abstain an' abjure, early or late, dry or drinkin', in liquor or out, out o' luck or in, rangin' or roundin', from all part an' parcel o' profanity, cuss words, little or big, several or separate, bar none; this yere agreement to be considered as bindin' and obligatory till the day o' your demise, decease or death."

Peg-leg finally got his convert, not that it changed his poisonous, "black-bad" ways for only a week later he "did for a little Mojave kid in ways I don't like to think about."

McBride didn't see Peg-leg for another three years, and then it was to witness his demise.  But to find out what happened, you have to read the story.

Frank Norris (1870-1902) was a journalist and novelist best known for McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899) and The Octopus:  A Story of California (1901).  Although these novels are still highly regarded, Norris' works suffered from racism, antisemitism, and misogyny.  I found "A Bargain with Peg-leg" to suffer only a little from the author's racism and to be an effective little western folktale.

A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West is available to read free online.


  1. I read THE OCTOPUS years ago but Peg-leg is new to me.

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