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California Desperadoes: Stories of Early California Outlaws in Their Own Words, by William B. Secrest, Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press, Clovis, Calif. 2000, $15.95 paperback.

Back in 1994, Bill Secrest generated interest in the largely neglected gunfighters of early California with his book Lawmen & Desperadoes. And fortunately for Old West fans there and everywhere, he’s still at it. Some of those desperadoes are back in his latest book, and these particular hard cases are talking! Secrest makes use of rare first-person accounts that were written by outlaws or dictated by them to reporters, and which originally appeared in newspaper articles or booklets. And, as he writes in his introduction, “some are confessions taken down in the shadow of the gallows or made to prison officials.”

Outlaw Chris Evans, whose partner in crime was John Sontag, provided plenty of details to the San Francisco Examiner about an 1892 shootout at a cabin in the Sierras. For instance, he recalled finishing off one Andrew McGinnis: “I shot him in the left temple; the gun dropped from his hands; he quivered one instant, and Andy McGinnis climbed the Golden Stairs.”

The educated highwayman Dick Fellows (born George Brittain Lyttle) wrote about his life of misadventure in 1894 while doing time in Folsom State Prison. “Before long I shall be a free man again,” he concludes, “and the problem that confronts me is a hard one. I have tried hog-raising and stage-robbing, the instruction of moral philosophy and literature. The first two were failures, the third hardly profitable. Whether the last is a success I leave the reader to judge.”

The outlaws’ own words make for fascinating reading. Not that they were always in the mood to be gabby. Tiburcio Vasquez, for instance, gave some pretty good interviews (which Secrest includes in his 258-page book), but in the end, as the hangman adjusted the noose, he apparently had only one word left in him: “Pronto!”

Louis Hart