Western Short Story
Even now, 150 years later, within the family historians, and we have a few of them, old Uncle Joshan Rock is more than a legend, and though none of us have a recording from that time, the stories still pass down through the new members of the family as soon as they are keen on listening, paying attention, hearing the music in the words if not in a song.
Some of the stories go like this one, and every once in a while a pair of young eyes find an incandescence telling another chapter is taking root:
Joshan Rock left Cobh (Cork) in the old country aboard a ship bound for America on March 5, 1862; he was 16 years of age, last son left to Anna Rock on her death bed, dragging the promise from Joshan to leave on the next boat and “get out of this cursed place that’s taken two sons and takes my own life in the next day or two.” She was dead before the ship left port, and Joshan Rock was alone in the new world coming at him.
In the shortest order possible, he was in the states, in New York and in the Union Army before he knew what a salute was. He lied about his age to gain entry
He had been a stable boy for a British land owner, and a pub singer of note on his rare nights free from duties at the stable tending horses, He was a decent horseman and a better singer. He ended up in the cavalry, was promoted to a corporal and discharged from service as a sergeant at the end of the war, coming onto his 20th birthday
With two comrades also discharged the same day with him, he headed west, and ended up a month or so later, in Independence, Missouri signing on with a wagon train as scout. On the first night out, around the campfire, he sang his first western song. It was this display that said he owned all the unmarried girls on the train with his songs, his blue eyes, his fair looks, and a sense of confidence in all things that he brought to hand. That confidence soon was attached to his ability with the two guns he wore on his belt; one he bought from an old drover knocked down for good and one he had lifted from a dead Confederate soldier in the last battle fought, a Remington Model 1858 .44 revolver. By 1868 he wore on his belt two .46 Rimfire revolvers, the new Remington on the market.
He was a good rider, a good singer, and soon became a good shooter with the new weapons. Ready for all the wide west was he.
But he was lonely, somewhat rootless, having a lone known cousin in Chicago, and bore the heart of the dreamer that he often sang about. It was the lone cousin in Chicago to whom he sent the occasional but long letters that have brought much of his life forward into the family history.
The cousin was Mary Elizabeth O’Sheehaughn Cassidy, married in 1866 to Peter Joseph Cassidy, from Elphin, Castlerea, Roscommon, whom she met on the ship carrying her to America. Peter Cassidy was a fiddler and a full life was promised her … but in five years no children blessed that marriage. On a cold December day in 1873, her husband in a sick bed for the second week and Mary Elizabeth working as a waitress, two things happened that changed her life: by noon of that day her husband was dead, and a letter came to her from Joshan Rock, announcing that he was the lone cowboy in the family and was working his way all around the western states and territories.
After Peter Cassidy was buried, and Mary Elizabeth was back to work, she read at ease the letter again, treasuring it as the first entry in a family book she promised to maintain. She subsequently found a bound book of blank pages in a used items store and decided she would begin a family record of sorts, hoping that life would change for her with a new interest.
Joshan Rock’s letter in 1873, when she was only 24 years old, in a good and bold hand, said:
`Dear Cousin Mary Elizabeth,
I obtained your address from a friend from Roscommon, William Doherty, a musician I met on the trail who had played with your husband Peter on several occasions. William wants to be remembered to Peter, and you, of course, as he was on his way to San Francisco when we gathered as musicians for a rather nice weekend in a small Nevada town with music holding sway for several of us from the old country.
You are, dear cousin, the only person I know from the family who is here in America, though many more must have come since I left there in 1862, landed in New York and was in a rapid hurry placed into the army of the Union and fought in many battles along with many Irishmen who had made the same journey, though I never met any relatives of ours.
I was let out of the army immediately after hostilities were over and headed west. I have been a wagon scout, a drover, a wrangler, a musician, a saloon singer, a shooter when necessary to protect my life, or those of the fair side of life. I’ve been on cattle drives, freighter’s wagons, posse hunts, and a sworn deputy for half a year in a town that was burned to the ground in New Mexico. For a half year I mined for gold and barely received back my investment of $100. I left that occupation and that dream when I signed on with a freighter’s company, only to give that up as it paid less than other tasks I had undertaken. I have not yet married though I seek the ultimate in a relationship within a family. I hope that things of this order have come to you in our new land of promise.
I have no address where you can reach me, because I move continuously looking for the perfection in matters, if it is available, which may be beyond the next hill, over the next mountain, or in the passage that follows this one I am on now.
William Doherty was ecstatic in his praise of Roscommon and I have retained much of what he said to me in our few weeks together. It was a sad time at our departure, probably not to see each other again, and I have promised to keep to mind the good things he said of his home, which you can relate to your husband, whom I am sure will remember and enjoy some incidents or memories that William’s words that we played with music and come to me with each note, and thus shake free: (Please take note that all which follows belongs to William until the double star intrudes on these thoughts.)
A Dream from a Roscommon Emigrant in America
There is a land though far away that's very dear to me, an island in the ocean most picturesque to see.
As each day goes by I heave a sigh for those lovely native scenes: Ah! Isle of Saints and Martyrs,
I see you in my dreams. I'm at the gate of Clooniquin, I hear the pearling stream now wend its way to Ross and then to far Culleen. I hear the thrush and blackbird in the holly and laurel tree; my soul says I must loiter in this fair locality.
I cross the bridge and up the walk and toward that lovely grove; with ecstasy my heart does bound as onward I do rove. From the countless pines a shadow runs to meet me on the hill where the pheasant and Rabbit doth wander there at will. Ah, solitude, thy charms are dear, to me how sweet they seem as I set me down and look around on Nature's lovely scene. The hills of Ross are beautiful, and so the lovely glen and meadows fair that stretch between those hills and dear Elphin.
From Castlerea to Carrick I see the places all, from Roscommon down to Lulsk and to the Plains of Boyle. As I travel o'er that scope, with Nature's gifts so strewn, I stop halfway where I was raised now aided by the moon. I look around bewildered on all that I behold; the tree of ash, the hawthorn bush, now burnished in their gold.
The cottage I was born in and raised by parents kind, I enter with impatience but there I could not find the one above all others whose love was dear to me. She has gone to her heaven for all eternity. Father, brothers, sisters, I join in fond embrace as tears of joy and sorrow roll swiftly down each face. I see the gold old nabors, each remembered a pleasant day, and shake each hand with affection as I did when going away. In harmony we all did join and traversed those weary years since that eventful morning when I left them steeped in tears.
Now fond adieu to all my friends around the dear old isle. Though adopted by Columbia I am Erin’s faithful child; for the Stars and Stripes with the flag of Green will line in unity. Adieu again, old Ireland, farewell my dear country. **
I promise that I will provide more communication from this far western land, as often as I can, and while I can, until the day I might present myself to you and Peter and have a pint or two to celebrate the family in whatever shape it is, known or unknown, though I hope that you hear from other members from Cork, Youghal, Wexford, and Limerick.
Yours with all graces and best wishes upon you and your family, your fond cousin, Joshan Rock, last living son of Anna Rock, once a Rooney before marriage to John Martin Rock, gone too with the blight upon him in the year 1854.
In quick order, amidst her sorrow at losing her husband, not having any children of her own to console, and unable to advise Joshan Rock of her husband’s death, Mary Elizabeth began her history of the family, in a bound book of once blank pages that she had paid only $.30 for. (At discovery, in 1952, in a box in an attic in Oak Park, Illinois, a short way from Chicago, the book had only 26 blank pages of 300 total pages.)
The widow did not get another letter for almost a whole year, in 1874, when she was 26, this one from Montana, and was received two months from the date it was written:
Dearest Cousin Mary Elizabeth,
I sincerely hope this finds you and your husband Peter and any blessed issue in good health and fair circumstances. I am in Montana and working on a ranch for a wealthy man who raises beef and sends his product your way in Chicago and to all the great cities east of the great river that I have crossed several times in my treks across the prairies of the country, though I have not yet gotten close to you in Illinois. Be advised that if I ever get with a couple of hundred miles of Chicago, I shall pay my respects at the Cassidy household.
I thought I might have found a soul mate and future wife on a stagecoach between Denver and Tucson on one trip, but learned in time that she was misrepresenting herself to me and me to her parents and siblings, which alarmed me a great deal and caused me to thwart any attempt on my part or her part to engage in all plans for the future.
I have met two comrades from the ranks in my travels, both of them from the old country, in Waterford and Cork itself, and one more from Peter’s Roscommon, from Elphin. His name is Dermot Clougherty and his father was a publican in the village at which Peter may have enjoyed a pint or two, and more if we might have joined him back then.
As for my relaxation from all sorts of labors I find myself in, I continue to sing new songs learned here and the favorite songs from the old country. I sing to those who will listen to them or me in whatever venue I can come forth in with these musical contributions, campfire, fireside, summer porch, saloon or social gathering in any barn available for such gaiety. The real crucible in this endeavor is to sing for group of drovers in from the end of a long drive and see them standing, mouths agape with drinks still in their hands and granting perhaps 5 or 10 seconds of silence before they begin their roaring of approval. That acceptance is the real test out this way; the west has its own manners in lots of ways.
I can also say at the same time that my proficiency with side arms, a necessary activity on these rounds I must make, has increased dramatically and some posse members, at which we avail ourselves when most serious crimes have been committed, call me Two-Gun Rock, the singing shooter, or have chosen such equivalent language. In fact, I have proved myself to be most capable in the face of dastardly men who threaten the peace of the land. I have enabled the incarceration of noted killers, kidnappers, bank and train robbers, which you might likely read about in the simple magazines that some literary men, writers, journalists and other sorts have managed to gather in their chronicles, accounts, missives, billets, commentaries or editorials that befall their pens.
If you chance to read about the Masked Lawman of the Teton Embankments, it is one that has grown from rather a simple and easy-to-subdue encounter with a child kidnapper I found by accident while he was dismounted off his horse with a crying female child that alarmed me. The young girl, son of a well-to-do rancher, explained the entire event of kidnap to me and we were able to produce the culprit at the same time that one of these journalists or penny-dime writers had come on the scene at her father’s ranch. The grateful daughter, with a grand imagination at her grasp, was able to enthrall the journalist with the most fantastic story he could imagine in his own right (write), which he sent off to his magazine post haste. Needless to say, though I am in print, it is not the real Joshan Rock there chronicled.
Devoted to writing to my dear cousin Mary Elizabeth whenever I can, I remain your casual correspondent, Joshan Rock.
She read the letter a dozen or more times, imagined well the girl trying to make a greater hero out of Joshan, and found herself trying to portray him bigger than life herself. In fact, with a secret of her own, and her husband being dead longer than a year, she began to have dreams about the singing gunman. He invaded her nightly thoughts, and soon invaded those of her lively hours, and found herself enamored of him. She eventually agreed that she worked hard and dreamed hard and felt no shame in any portion of her thoughts.
Nor would Joshan Rock, if he knew her secrets.
He was about 29 years old and unmarried, according to the letter, and that fact fluttered around in her heart. She was 26 and afraid of never having a child of her own; some things stood in the way of her motherhood. She might dispel them if she was a different kind of woman. The thought did not linger.
She had taken on the care of an elderly woman of means, both of them finding dear companionship in the other, and Mary Elizabeth shortly moved in with the woman in her most decent home on the North Side of Chicago. Her very first duty was to ensure that mail to her old address was delivered to her new abode.
That precaution assured the delivery of a letter in the following year, in early spring, 1875. She remembered the first thought that came to her when she saw the envelope with the fair and bold handwriting that shook her name right off the envelope in her excitement. She hastened to her own room to read the letter. There was no disappointment in its contents:
Most dearest cousin, Mary Elizabeth Cassidy,
I write from a small town in Kansas to which I had been directed by my employer to arrange purchase and delivery of a special breed of horses, Percheron, most stately equines of enormous strength and character, which I have accomplished and have arranged their shipment by railroad back to Montana by way for most part of a new railroad, the Northern Pacific Line. I have found that many of our countrymen have worked on the construction of the railroad, most of them also being comrades on either side during the Great War Between the States, and most appreciative of some lively nights here after rigorous days of labor. Their requests for songs at various celebrations far exceeded my memory, but all were heightened by demonstrative fellows seeking a night with the song and the pint. I was most happy to do my share … of each element.
And it is, my dear cousin, my most happy opportunity to tell you that my employer, knowing of our relationship, has provided me with time and funds to engage a visit with you and Peter and I will be there within two weeks after my completion of assurances on the delivery of the Percherons at the delivery point. It is April 17, 1875 as I write this and I am sure that I will be able to engage in a visit by the first week of May.
You have no perception of the joy that crowds me now envisioning my visit with you and yours, to sing some of the old songs, to celebrate a union a long time in coming.
Be of patient hopes that we find mutual likes about us, my dear cousin. I look forward with eager anticipation. Your most fond cousin,
He had no idea of her anticipation.
She hurried to her old address and made sure that the new owner would provide one Joshan Rock with her new address, and even supplied a hand-drawn map to ensure his arrival at her new home.
Her patient was almost as happy as Mary Elizabeth was, knowing the fondness her caretaker had for a loyal cousin who wrote interesting letters to her, keeping family ties well knotted. She had none of her own, which was good reason behind her asking Mary Elizabeth to stay in her home.
She did not know Mary Elizabeth’s secret, or her captivation by Joshan Rock.
In the few weeks of expectancy, she filled page after page of the book with her dreams, fantasies and hopes of things that might come to her, along with a series of sketches of what she thought Joshan Rock looked like, including the type of hat he wore, and the weapons he carried while he enforced the law, and watched out for the unfortunate. In particular she admired his stand for women, upon which she entered many significant observations garnered from her dreams and his letters.
She did have fears come upon her; that Joshan would not get to her old home, or the new owner would be away or suddenly dead, or Joshan would be killed by robbers, or he would not even get to Chicago because his employer changed his mind on the liberties granted. When the reverse happened, when good hope and fortune countered her fears, she imagined him walking to the front door and catching her in her best dress, her hair adorned full and properly, her smile anxious but full as a blossom.
The book, in the end, told the story:
May 8, 1875
Oh, he has come at last to this door, providence bringing him here, and the lady of the house invited him in and told him he could stay as long as he wished as a guest in her home and that I could have all the time I needed to catch up to family history. He is more handsome than I thought and none of my little sketches show him in proper manner. I must tell you how it happened, myself in a full working dress, in the front garden, my patient Maureen Cudahy sitting her porch chair under a shady arbor of vines with bright sunshine in bars and rays plummeting down through a morass of leaves and vines in their early crawl of the year, the shadows all moving on her in flits the way a shallow wind found leaves to twist and cast their element of shade upon her face, which I must say said she saw him first, a smile lighting up the small shadows that found her as she found him.
I saw the glimmer of expectancy, then one of reality, as she looked, at first toward me, then on past me. It was a telegraphic smile and I was initially afraid to turn, knowing that my working dress was far from my best introduction. But he was so handsome when I spun about, his face lit with a smile as he sat his horse, a huge black animal that surely must have owned the wide prairie that he told me about. Joshan’s hat was as white as a lily the garden had promised already, a wide hat that sat down atop his shattering smile, a mustache decorating his upper lip, his shirt a pale green as if he was announcing the old land itself, his weapons out of sight, perhaps packed away in a saddle bag or under his shirt for quick protection if needed, his stature that of a god on that magnificent animal, and me on my proper knees on the cultivated earth I had just turned to stay ahead of promising weeds.
Oh, Lord, he dismounted that horse in a majestic swing of his leg, looked me in the face across the front yard, dropped the reins that he commanded in his hands, and rushed to me, sweeping me up in his arms, saying, all in one breath, to me, “Oh, Mary Elizabeth, my joy swells at sight of you,” and to Maureen Cudahy, “My pardon, dear madam, as I find my lone relative in this wide land, a new heart within me, and one now in my arms.”
Maureen Cudahy blushed in a sweet happiness, and I, I swooned in his arms, and the first words out of my mouth, were, “Oh, Joshan, I have misrepresented things to you. I am not a cousin. I was taken in and raised by your family, the O’Sheehaughns. I am not your cousin, I am not a blood relative. That has been my secret.”
And my heart leaped wildly, again and again, and Maureen, dear soul, clapped her hands in joy because she knew what she was looking at, two souls in love, for Joshan said, as he hugged me and kissed me on the forehead, “I have dreamed of nothing but you for a few years, never once faulting at making you a cousin, for damned the difference or indifference in the matter.
Then, sensing my reception of him, and my employers, this cowboy gunman and singer kissed me as my dreams had brought to bear.
We were in love, after all stories had been told, all explanations put forth, two people cast out from home by the troubles that ran from person to person, home to home, village to village, throughout a whole country, and brought together by chance and the intervention of the good Lord. Even my hand feeling the revolver under his shirt as he hugged me brought no more fear rising in me. For surely it must have aided him to come to me. And that evening, to the joy of Maureen Cudahy and her neighbors, he sang on her wide porch songs from the old country and from the prairies of our new country in a voice that descended on us as if from on high, and I imagined all the campfires on the wide grasses and all the saloons that he had dashed into momentary silences, all those gone on behind us and a full life in front of us.
I have seen that book, that thick volume from an elegant pen, the one from Mary Elizabeth (O’Sheehaughn Cassidy) Rock, the one found in an attic in Oak Park, Illinois and brought inquisitively to one of my sons, now of that fair locality, by a friend. That friend’s grandparents found it in their attic in 1952 and it came to that friend when he inherited their home. He noted the names O’Siodhachain and O’Sheehaughn on the inside of the front cover and read the full story of the fair lady and the singing gunman who were married, had seven children, and saw them and their descendants spread across The Land of New Hope; in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Illinois, Wyoming, Mississippi, Louisiana, California, and beyond, some still on the move outward from dear Elphin.