Sunday, October 19, 2014

View from the plateau

Desert walk with clouds
A year ago at this time I had cancer and was three months away from knowing it. This week we saw my oncologist, who had looked at my latest MRI and greeted us with “Good news!” The tumor on the right side of my brain has remained stable, and though it’s hard to tell, what’s still visible in the pictures may be no more than dead cells left from radiation while a cloud of swelling still lingers. While my blood count is good enough to allow another five-day round of chemo, the steroid I’ve been taking will be reduced again by half with the eventual goal of reducing it to zero. Meanwhile, monthly MRIs will happen only once every two months.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Glossary additions

Just in…25 more words for the Glossary of Frontier Fiction. These are from Wilson M. Hudson’s collection of Andy Adams campfire stories.


big auger = the big boss. “I’m not afraid of any man in your outfit, from the gimlet to the big auger.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

Black Book = the Texas Rangers’ list of fugitives, published annually. “We looked the ‘Black Book’ over afterward for any description of him. At that time, there were over four thousand criminals and outlaws described in it.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

bobble = jerky, jumpy movement. “We had several bobbles crossing that strip of country; nothing bad, just jump and run a mile or so, and then mill until daylight.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

boomer = a booster for settling lands, especially Indian lands, before it became legal. “I always was such a poor hand afoot that I passed up that country, and here I am a ’boomer’.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

cárcel = jail, prison (from Spanish). “As night set in, we approached the cárcel. The turnkey answered our questions very politely through a grated iron door.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

coffin varnish = liquor. “If there was any one thing that he shone in, it was rustling coffin varnish during the early prohibition days along the Kansas border.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

’dobe / dobe = the Mexican silver dollar (from Spanish, adobe). “Uncle Sam’s strongbox yielded up over a thousand dobes.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

flint = a cowskin. “They headed him for our herd, the flint thumping at his heels.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

gimlet = a rider so poorly experienced he makes a horse’s back sore. “I’m not afraid of any man in your outfit, from the gimlet to the big auger.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

keep a weather eye open = to stay alert. “Surrounded as he was by other horses, he kept his weather eye open for a race.” Andy Adams, The Log of a Cowboy.

ladino = said of a horse or cow in possession of crafty intelligence (from Spanish). “Pasquale had watched the band for an hour, and described the ladino stallion as a cinnamon-colored coyote, splendidly proportioned and unusually large for a mustang.” Andy Adams, A Texas Matchmaker.

ladrón = robber, thief (from Spanish, pl. ladrones) . “All they could tell us was that there was plenty of ladrones and lots of horses.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

leña = firewood (from Spanish). “That’s right, Tiburcio, carry up plenty of good leña.” Andy Adams, A Texas Matchmaker.

manada = herd (from Spanish). “Pasquale reported on his return after dark that the manada were contentedly feeding on their accustomed range within three miles of camp.” Andy Adams, A Texas Matchmaker.

on the prod = on the attack, on the offensive. “At this the Val Verde boy got on the prod slightly, and expressed himself, saying, ‘Why don’t you have two of the other boys count them?’” Andy Adams, The Outlet.

on the tapis = of a subject under discussion. “Whenever there was anything on the tapis, he always got the word for himself and friends.” Andy Adams, The Log of a Cowboy.

parker = a bed comforter. “He whispered to his two big nurses to prop him up. They did so with pillows and parkers.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

peeler = a cowboy, horse breaker; a man who skins cows. “About two o’clock Doc Langford and two of his peelers were seen riding up.” Andy Adams, The Log of a Cowboy.

pot hound = a dog of indeterminate breed, a mongrel. “Common old pot hounds and everyday yellow dogs have gone out of style entirely.” Andy Adams, The Log of a Cowboy.

slash = an area of debris left by logging. “He had something treed about a mile from the house, across a ridge over in some slashes.” Andy Adams, The Outlet.

squaw winter = a spell of wintery weather preceding Indian summer. “Up in that country they have Indian summer and squaw winter, both in the fall.” Andy Adams, The Outlet.

Strip, the = the Oklahoma Panhandle; part of the Texas Republic until 1850 and known officially as the Public Land Strip until attached to Oklahoma Territory in 1890. “The cattle were in charge of Ike Inks as foreman, and had been sold for delivery somewhere in the Strip.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

throw off = to speak offhandedly. “Those two boys were not throwing off on each other—not a little bit. They meant every word and meant it deep.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.


Further reading/viewing:

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: TBD


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Judy Alter and A. T. Row, eds., Unbridled Spirits

This anthology is not quite the book I expected. Subtitled Short Fiction about Women in the Old West, it leads the reader to expect stories written by women, and a wide selection of them. But besides those writers most easily named (Mary Hallock Foote, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Mary Austin, and Dorothy Johnson), there are almost no women whose fiction would surely qualify them for inclusion here.

To name just a few from the early decades of frontier fiction: Molly Davis, Florence Finch Kelly, Mary Etta Stickney, Frances McElrath, Elizabeth Higgins, Marie Manning, B. M. Bower, Eleanor Gates, Caroline Lockhart, and Kate Boyles.

Instead, the editors find room for one of their own stories (Alter’s “Fool Girl”) and beef up the rest of the book with stories by male writers, which happen to include female characters. These are actually okay, especially Elmer Kelton’s “The Last Indian Fight in Kerr County,” Owen Wister’s “Hank’s Woman,” and Elmore Leonard’s “The Tonto Woman,” but they hardly help showcase the generally under-appreciated work of the many women who have taken pen in hand to tell their own stories of the Old West.

Alter and Row may argue that women writers have left too little to choose from in short form fiction, which is their chosen scope for their anthology. I’d argue that a wide reading of novels would have produced many worthy excerpts from them that would fairly represent the field and reintroduce forgotten writers to a modern audience. That job, alas, has been left to someone else.

First published in 1994 by Texas Christian University Press, Unbridled Spirits is currently available in paperback at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click over to Patti Abbott's blog.

Further reading/viewing:

Coming up: Wilson Hudson, ed., Andy Adams' Campfire Tales (1956)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Old time radio, Gunsmoke

William Conrad
I grew up on radio in the 1940s and early 1950s, and I have come to think of these years before TV as a golden age of storytelling. It did not require the cheap tricks of TV to hold an audience’s attention, just voices, sound effects, and a little music between scenes.

For me, CBS radio’s long-running series, Gunsmoke (1952–1961), is the best example. It opened the listener’s imagination to a gritty, sweaty, dusty Old West that the TV series approximated but never quite matched. It had a tone and attitude that was often moody and downbeat. Its central character, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, was a weary officer of the law, drawn more directly from the school of hardboiled crime fiction than he was the handsome, patiently congenial and family-friendly man behind the badge TV gave us.

The two Dillons. I like James Arness’s Dillon. He is a likable guy, a basically easy-going man with a ready smile, yet always ready when needed to use his authority in the service of law and order.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Angle of repose

Angle of repose
I would not know the meaning of this term were it not for Wallace Stegner’s novel of the same name. I think of it whenever I pass along a narrow roadway cut from a rocky hillside where I sometimes walk in the desert. 

The road was once planned, I gather, for access to lots for houses with high views of the valley below and the mountain range beyond. Now the shelf of exposed granite is crumbling and spills into a slope of debris that’s held in place by gravity—at an angle of repose—until more rock falls and new instability urges a new state of rest.

All of this is a roundabout way of talking about time. As each day passes, I cross it off the desk calendar where I keep track of doctors appointments and bills to pay. Above on the wall is a battery-powered clock that ticks off the seconds. Meanwhile, out in the desert I am witness to geological time in the exposed layers of rock strata and twisting ravines. Everywhere I am reminded of this adventure of being human and how, more than ever after 72 years, it is linked to time’s coming and going.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Coming: A Glossary of Frontier Fiction

OK, I have completed, proofed, polished, and sent off Vol. 2 of How the West Was Written. (For more about Vol. 1 and how to get your copy—published by Beat to a Pulp Press and at a hard to beat price—click on the book cover in the left sidebar.)

Time to move on to the next project, a glossary of frontier fiction, which covers the same years, 1880–1915. As I read more from this period, I continue to add words, phrases, and their definitions. Here is the current crop from recent reading:


Bill = reference to a Wild West show, as in Bill-show, Bill-show cowboy, Bill-horse. “You she’d have seen Rusty Mikel, Miss, the time his Bill-hoss turned a flip-flop onto him.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

charro = a Mexican horseman or cowboy, typically one wearing an elaborate outfit, often with silver decorations, of tight trousers, ruffled shirt, short jacket, and sombrero. “In their motley uniforms, regulation khaki or linen alternating with tight charro suits and peon cottons, they were exceedingly picturesque.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

Chemisettes, 1850
chemisette = a woman's garment of linen, lace, or the like, worn, toward the end of the Victorian era, over a low-cut or open bodice to cover the neck and breast. “Under pretense of admiring the hand-made lace edging on the girl’s chemisette, she managed another peep and saw the leather worked with Gordon’s monogram in gold.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

calzones = breeches, pants. “It appears that he had only has dirty cotton calzones to be buried in, so his wife begged a worn white suit from Mr. Benson.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)


Willa Cather, c1912
Willa Cather was a fine writer, with a special take on what it was like to grow up in a small town on the plains among descendants of immigrant homesteaders. The Song of the Lark tells of a young woman, Thea Kronborg, with a talent for music, who as the daughter of a minister finds friendship and approval not among her peers but among older men: a railway brakeman, the town doctor, and a piano teacher. They coach her through childhood and into adulthood, encouraging her to develop her musical abilities.

Plot. Cather follows her heroine to Chicago to study with a pianist, who discovers that she has an even greater talent for singing. Eventually, she goes to Germany to train as an operatic singer, and by novel’s end, she has been cast in roles that have her drawing enthusiastic audiences at the Met in New York.