Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rex Beach

Rex Beach (1877–1949) has been an enjoyable discovery. I’ve started with a collection of his short stories, Pardners, published in 1906. Four of them had already appeared in McClure’s and one in Everybody’s Magazine.

1906 edition
Beach was college-educated and an adventurer. He was preparing for a law career in Chicago when he raced off to the Klondike for five years. He never struck it rich as a prospector, but he turned the experience into a best-selling novel The Spoilers, which became a play and then a film. In his time, he was a big deal.

“Pardners.” The title story in this collection takes place in the Alaska gold fields and Seattle. The narrator is a big, rough bruiser, Bill Joyce, who tells of taking a young tenderfoot under his wing. They have mixed fortunes as prospectors, but the real drama involves the young man’s wife back home.

When she won’t answer his letters, he gets so heartsick the two men return to the States. In Seattle, they find her singing in a variety show. She considers the marriage over because of some unflattering photos she’s seen of her husband in the newspaper. In doing a photo feature on life up north, some yellow journalist has made him out to be a carouser and womanizer. Eventually, Bill does his part to reunite man and wife in wedded bliss.

Illustration for the story "Pardners"
The plot may or may not hold your interest, but the character of Bill Joyce as he tells the story is priceless. Like the Old Cattleman of Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville stories, he is an unfailingly entertaining and colorful yarn spinner.

“Pardners” was made into an Edwin S. Porter film in 1910. It was the first of many of Rex Beach’s stories and novels to be adapted to the screen. The Spoilers appeared first in 1914 and was remade four more times, once with Gary Cooper (1930) and once with John Wayne (1942). Altogether, Beach has 52 writing credits at

“The Mule Driver and the Garrulous Mute.” This is one of four stories in the collection that qualify as westerns. The storyteller again is Bill Joyce. This time he recalls a time prospecting with a different partner, called Kink, in Arizona. The plot is quickly set in motion when Kink happens to shoot and kill an Indian.

Long past the time when this became a criminal offense, Kink evades arrest by making a run for the Mexican border. When soldiers from a nearby fort show up looking for him, Bill covers for his partner by pretending to be mute and mentally deficient.

This persuades no one of his ignorance of the facts, and he’s dragged in for further questioning. He persists in the mute act, buying time for Kink to make his escape. And the ruse just about works until Bill witnesses a mule driver inexpertly handling a team of mules. At which point he springs into action, cussing out the driver and taking over the team.

This spoils the ruse, and he’s soon facing the post commander and fessing up. Turns out the colonel was a man Bill rescued in an Indian attack many years before. So he’s allowed to slip away and make a run for the border himself.

Issue in which "Pardners" was published
Thanks to Bill’s gift of injecting deadpan humor into nearly every line of these stories, they are a joy to read. They are also an unembarrassed celebration of male bonding and undying loyalty to a mate. At the opening of “Pardners,” Bill argues that “the guy that alluded to marriages germinating in heaven certainly got off on the wrong foot. He meant pardnerships.”

Explaining to the Colonel why he covered for his partner Kink, he tells how Kink once gave him his last swallow of water when they were dying of thirst in the Mojave. Then there was the time in the Bitter Roots when Kink went for help through twelve-foot snowdrifts to save him. “Colonel! we’ve slept on the same blanket, we’ve et the same grub, we’ve made and lost together, and I had to give him a show, that’s all.”

“The Colonel and the Horse-Thief.” This is my favorite story of the lot. It’s about a bunch of five Texas boys who travel to Indian Territory for a horse race. Their scheme is to get the Indians to match their money in a big wager and then take off with the pot before the race is over.

The Indians, they figure, will pursue them as far as Texas and then give up the chase. The only problem is that the Indians have the same idea and make off with the pot before the boys can get to it themselves.

Back in Texas, they’re broke and have a ride of several days to return home. So they hatch a plan to pretend that four of them are lawmen escorting the fifth, a desperado they’ve arrested. Comes the end of the day, they stop at a ranch and ask for lodging and promise to pay for their keep with vouchers on the county in the morning. Then as they are about to leave, their “captive” feigns an escape, and they all race off after him – without paying.

Battle of Palo Alto, near Brownsville, US-Mexican War, 1846
And the plan works fine. Each night they and their horses get well fed and bedded down by some unsuspecting country folk. Each morning they take off. Until they make the mistake of over-nighting at the home of a man who was a colonel in the War with Mexico. The colonel treats their captive like the bloodthirsty murderer they have made him out to be. He is made to sleep on the floor, chained to one of the household staff.

The next morning, when he makes his “escape,” the colonel grabs a shotgun, jumps on a horse, and takes off after him. The result is some buckshot in his arm before he finally manages to get away. When his friends catch up to him, the story ends with a quick punch line.

The entire story is told in first person by the boy (now grown) who played the prisoner. It’s told straight without the cowboyisms of Bill Joyce. And while some of these stories are a little far-fetched, this one doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination. You get the feeling that it could have happened.

Digression. I’ve got some more to say about these stories, but I’m saving that till next time. Reading these long-gone writers from 100 years ago, I often think of how so much of their creative output has been scorned and dismissed by critics for various reasons. So I get irritated when I read a comment like this from wikipedia about Rex Beach:

Beach was lionized as the "Victor Hugo of the North," but others found his novels formulaic and predictable. Critics described them as cut from the "he-man school" of literature: stories of "strong hairy men doing strong hairy deeds." Alaska historian Stephen Haycox has said many of Beach's works are "mercifully forgotten today."

Pretty darn presumptuous, right? After reading some of Beach’s stories, I have my doubts about those judgments. I’m guessing there are at least a few ways for readers today to read his work in ways that interest them. Even to enjoy them. 

To heck with what critics have said. You and I can decide for ourselves what we like and don’t like. Now I'll step down from this soap box . . .

More next time.

Further reading:
Picture credits:
1) Story illustration, "Don't let me kill him, Billy," from the 1906 edition.
2) McClure’s cover, illustration by Maxwell Parrish. The Willa Cather story in this issue was "Paul's Case." Cover image courtesy of Heritage Auctions (
3) Battle of Palo Alto, originally published in George Wilkins Kendall and Carl Nebel, The War between the United States and Mexico, 1851,

Coming up: More early western movies and Stewart Edward Smith's Arizona Nights (1907)


  1. the klondike rushes influenced quite a few writers it seems, including Jack London, of course.

  2. Rex Beach had quite a career in the higher paying slicks and very seldom appeared in the pulps. I recall POPULAR MAGAZINE publishing some of his work. I see he had a sad end due to his wife's death and his cancer of the throat and some threat of blindness, he ended up shooting himself.

  3. Charles, "the North," is a whole genre covering Canada and Alaska. Beach has a novel about salmon fishing, too.

    Walker, Beach seems to have had a fairly high profile career, producing his movies, etc. But I think he kind of peaked early on. Yes, he had an unfortunate end.

  4. Thanks for writing about Rex Beach - I've always been curious about him.