The Cowboy’s Son
Vernon Gomez was born on November 26, 1908, at his family’s homestead in Rodeo, California, on the south coast of San Pablo Bay, northeast of San Francisco. “Five hundred people if you counted the cows,” he would say. “Rodeo was a town with two local trains, one comin’ and one goin’. Down by the depot, there was a haystack close to the train tracks. If we rode the express, we jumped into it as the train passed through.”
Although he was later referred to in the New York press as “the lanky Castilian” or “the singular senõr,” Lefty’s heritage was in many ways more quintessentially American than that of any newspaperman who wrote about him. Lefty’s paternal grandfather had sunk roots in California pastureland courtesy of that most American of events, the Civil War. While California might not have been the scene of epic battles between blue and gray, throughout the war the navies of both sides did engage in an ongoing series of skirmishes just off the Pacific coast. Confederate raiders prowled the San Francisco coastline trying to disrupt the flow of commerce, while Union warships tried to head them off and keep the sea-lanes -open.
The stakes for a port far removed from Antietam and Gettysburg were surprisingly high. By the early 1860s, San Francisco had been transformed from the sleepy mission settlement of the 1830s into America’s most prominent boomtown, swelled to bursting by the throngs who had come west either to search for gold or to reap the immense profits engendered by those who did. Shipments of wheat, constantly in demand in Europe, or kerosene, a new fuel for illumination derived from petroleum, left by the hour in the holds of clipper ships to begin the torturous journey around the Horn, their crews often supplemented by sailors who had chosen the wrong drinking companions along the Barbary Coast. A steady stream of whaling vessels sailed for the Bering -Sea.
With the explosion of enterprise, trading vessels from the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific flocked to San Francisco. The captain of one of those vessels, a Spaniard named Juan Gomez, arrived in 1862, his ship laden with fine leather goods to satisfy the appetites of the West’s nouveau riche. After selling his cargo, he loaded his ship with wheat for the return trip. Just after he embarked, Juan Gomez’s ship was shot out from under him, torched to the waterline by a Confederate privateer. Juan was rescued but his cargo was -lost.
Juan did not sail again. Instead, he sent for his Portuguese wife, Rita, to join him in California with their -sevenyearold son, Juan Enrique. Rita arrived to find that her husband had turned in his compass and sextant to try his hand at growing wheat and raising horses on a 150acre ranch in El Sobrante in the Pinole Valley. Rita and Juan enrolled their son in a local school, then set to pioneering. In late 1863, the couple had a second son, Francisco, who was christened in the San Bautista mission, a -nativeborn American. Francisco would not be sent to school but would remain home to help on the ranch. An illiterate son, it was then believed, would be less likely to up and leave for another profession, and so only the eldest received a formal education. Francisco grew up with a keen intelligence and prodigious memory, but completely unlettered. By early adulthood, he was fluent in three languages, Spanish, Portuguese, and -En-glish, though he was unable to sign his name in any of them. But he had learned roping from the Mexican vaqueros who worked the ranches and earned the moniker “Coyote” as a slick predator with a lasso in his -hand.
Coyote had not been made to toil his life away in a wheat field. He dreamed, as did many boys in the 1870s, of -driv-ing longhorns up the Great Western Trail from Bandera, Texas, to the railhead at Dodge City, Kansas. In 1879, only fifteen years old, Coyote did just that. He drifted east to Nevada, then Texas, ranch to ranch, breaking horses. Then for ten years he rode with the cowboys from Oklahoma to Montana, enduring dust, stampedes, broiling days and frigid nights, long hours in the saddle, and the constant threat of attack from hostile tribes. By his -midtwenties, Coyote had grown into a hardened trail hand, expert at reading tracks and understanding the instincts of the cattle and horses, a master at throwing loops, branding calves, breaking horses, running the fall roundup, and moving cattle to -market.
But the open range was disappearing. Cowboys were sometimes forced to avoid -shotgunwielding homesteaders none too keen to watch thousands of cattle tromp across their fields. -Barbedwire fences increasingly blocked the path of the herds. In 1890, Coyote learned that his father had died of a heart attack. He returned home to help his two younger brothers, Carlos and Manuel, run the El Sobrante ranch. He would never ride the trail -again.
But the homecoming did have its -advantages.
One of Coyote’s responsibilities was to bring the cash crops to the grain warehouses on the Pinole waterfront. Wheat, barley, and oats from the Pinole Valley were then shipped to Port Costa, where the European ships were -docked.
The Gomez farm sold to the area’s most prominent broker, Bernardo Fernandez. In 1892, Fernandez hired a new bookkeeper. Her name was Lizzie Herring, a recent arrival from San Francisco. There, Lizzie had performed similar duties for the postmaster general, B. F. McKinley, whose brother William would that year be elected governor of Ohio and, four years afterward, president of the United -States.
Lizzie was a -sixthgeneration American of -WelshIrish descent; her grandparents had struck out decades earlier in search of winter sun, free land, and an escape from Bleeding Kansas, where Lizzie’s -greatuncle Franklin had been murdered with a Bowie knife for opposing slavery. In Independence, Missouri, her grandfather John B. P. Williams had purchased a Conestoga wagon and then set out in 1857 on the Oregon Trail with his wife, Lucinda, a son, and three daughters. The family crossed the Rockies at Fort Hall in Idaho, took a cutoff to the Humboldt River in northern Nevada, and finally made their way through a pass in the Sierra Nevada range to Old Shasta in -California.
Each of John B. P.’s daughters married a pioneer; one of them, Mary Jane, wed a logger named Elias Herring. Lizzie was born in 1870 in Bodega Township, near the Russian River, in redwood country. Five years later, her parents were dead. Lizzie was raised by an aunt and sent to school; as an adult, she journeyed south to San Francisco. Another aunt moved north, settling in Oregon, then journeyed farther still, not stopping until her family reached the salmon fisheries in Homer, Alaska, where they started a -cannery.
Lizzie described what happened one fall afternoon at the Fernandez warehouse. “I was sitting behind the counter on a stool, my head bent over a bookkeeping ledger as I tallied up the bales of hay and sacks of wheat that the ranchers had brought in from the valley. I heard the staccato of -highheeled boots on the wooden floor. I looked up at the cowboy and met a pair of pale blue eyes under a battered broad-brimmed hat. He pulled off the hat and held it in his -hand.
“ ‘Coyote’s the name. Four hundred bushels of wheat, two hundred hay.’ Having said that, he stood waiting for his cash. I handed him the money, then asked him to sign his name to the -receipt.
“He gave me a slow grin. ‘I spell it with an X.’ He made his mark on the paper, laid the receipt on the counter, said, ‘Thank you, ma’am,’ then turned on his heel and walked out the door. Within minutes, he was back inside. ‘Miss Lizzie, ain’t it?’ When I said yes, he smiled -again.
“ ‘Seein’ as how I’m goin’ to the square, would you want to be goin’ with me to the Saturday dance?’
“ ‘I’d like that fine, Coyote.’ ”
Coyote Gomez, the -hardbitten, taciturn cowboy, married Lizzie Herring, the shy young bookkeeper, in August 1893. For Coyote, Lizzie, who read -En-glish novels purely for enjoyment, represented a sophistication he had never before encountered. After their marriage, the couple moved to the El Sobrante ranch that Coyote was now running for his mother. But Rita had a tyrannical streak and thought Lizzie “soft,” not the pioneer woman her son should have married. When Lizzie became pregnant, Rita refused to even discuss hiring a midwife to help with the delivery. Childbirth was “women’s work,” Rita insisted; a midwife was an affectation. Lizzie would give birth alone, as Rita had seven times before -her.
In rural California in 1894 a -motherinlaw could make such a demand stick, especially a -motherinlaw in whose home you were living. So in solitude Lizzie delivered her child, a son, whom she and Coyote named Earl. Lizzie cut and knotted the umbilical cord herself, then tended to the newborn without help, as Rita had done. The next year another son was born, Milfred, named, as had been Earl, for a character in one of Lizzie’s favorite -En-glish novels. Lizzie birthed Milfred alone as -well.
A third child, Albert, was born on Christmas Eve, 1896, while Coyote was in Nevada selling horses at a saddle stock auction. Albert was a month premature and there were immediate problems. The baby had entered the birth canal feetfirst, and midway through the delivery his arms and head became trapped. After the baby was out, Lizzie began to bleed profusely. She feared she might faint from loss of blood. She yelled for help, but Rita either -couldn’t hear or -wouldn’t respond. Lizzie flailed about for something she could use to tie off the umbilical cord. All that was available was a white bib lying on the table, which Milfred had worn when Lizzie fed him breakfast that morning. She ripped off the strings, used them to tie off the cord, then stanched her own -bleeding.
Days later, Albert grew ill. On New Year’s Eve, 1896, he went into convulsions and died. Rita had refused to call a doctor. Albert, it was later determined, had contracted an infection from the contaminated bib strings. Lizzie had carried her child for nine months, and now he was dead by her own hand. She never ceased blaming herself for Albert’s death, but she also knew full well that if a doctor or midwife had been present, the boy would have -lived.
Coyote returned home from Nevada shortly after New Year’s, in time, he thought, for his baby’s arrival. Lizzie met him at the door. She told him his son had already been born and was already buried. Then she issued an ultimatum. “Never again. It’s your mother or me. I’m leaving.” Coyote walked to the barn, hitched the horses to the spring wagon, then left with his wife, two boys, and meager savings. They stopped at Rodeo, a dusty backwater about three miles up the coast where land was cheap. Coyote and Lizzie placed a small down payment on a $450 plot of land and set to building a house. Rita remained in Pinole on her 150 acres of ranchland, stubborn and uncompromising. In 1906, the state of California appropriated all but fifteen acres of her land under eminent domain to make way for the San Pablo Dam Reservoir. Rita fought the order in court, but the state prevailed. Once the “American bandits” had taken her land, Rita vowed never again to speak another word of -En-glish, nor allow it to be spoken in her home. She kept that vow until the day she -died.
Coyote and Lizzie had four more children in the next six years: Lloyd, Irene, Cecil, and Gladys. A doctor helped with each delivery. Then, on November 26, 1908, the last of their children was born. They named him Vernon -Louis.