Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Oklahoma Cyclone (1930)

Back again with another classic western I was lucky enough to win at Laurie Powers’ pulpwriter.com. This time, we’re going way back to an early Bob Steele picture, The Oklahoma Cyclone, made in 1930. It’s one of the four movies in the box set of DVDs that came from OutWest, Bobbi Jean and Jim Bell’s well-stocked online western store.

Steele (real name Robert Bradbury, Jr.) was the son of director Robert N. Bradbury, who began directing films in 1920 after a short career as a movie actor. Bob and his twin brother had already been in many short films before 1927 when at age 20 he first appeared as Bob Steele in a silent western, Mojave Kid.

The Oklahoma Cyclone is a heck of a film. Made at a time when Hollywood was converting to sound movies, it shows a silent sensibility in its photography and editing. The opening shots of a lone rider pursued by five other men on horseback across a rolling landscape are beautiful in that visually expressive style of 1920s films.

Not surprisingly, there is also some awkwardness in the use of sound technology. The actors speak lines slowly and deliberately for the microphones. For a western, a little too much of the film takes place indoors, where on a set sound could be better recorded.

Scenes are sometimes stiffly arranged in a tableau to be played out before a stationary camera. Almost no lines are spoken with actors on horseback. For all that, the dialogue is often energetic, fierce, and sometimes comical.

Hacienda, photo by Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916)
The plot. Steele plays the title character, and also goes by the name Jimmy Smith. He’s on the run from the law when we first meet him. He hides in a barn at the Santa Maria hacienda, owned by a Mexican, Don Pablo, with a lovely daughter, Carmelita, and a house full of servants.

The ranch’s cattle herds are taken care of by foreman McKim (Charles King) and his cowhands. The bunch of them are actually thieves, and as the outlaw known as Black Diablo, McKim has a big reward on his head. Admring Jimmy for his spunk, he’s happy to add the young cowboy to the gang.

There are problems right away. The other cowboys don’t like this confident, young newcomer, who has a habit of singing sentimental songs and playing the harmonica. McKim, who has designs on Carmelita, quickly realizes that she is far more interested in Jimmy than himself.

Vaquero, California, 1830s, Time Life Books
Out on roundup, one of McKim’s henchmen, Rawhide (Slim Whitaker), insults Jimmy and tries to get him to draw his gun. But Jimmy is too fast for him, and after shooting the gun from the man's hand, they have a fistfight. Outweighed and only five-foot-five, Jimmy punches the crap out of Rawhide while the other cowboys watch in amazement.

Meanwhile, Jimmy wins the friendship of one of the cowhands, Slim (Al St. John), who encourages him to go straight and make a better life for himself. He learns from Slim that there are plans afoot to rob a bank, then cross the border into Mexico, where the gang will be rich enough to retire from a life of crime.

Jimmy then eludes an attempt by McKim to trap him, this time in Carmelita’s room. He has jumped through an open window and confesses his love for her. She plants a big kiss on his lips before he leaves again. Later, he joins the gang on their bank job.

Afterwards they arrive at a saloon south of the border (where in Prohibition-era Hollywood the cowhands can order up something stronger than coffee). But first they have to oust a Mexican bandit, Gomez, who draws on them, and Jimmy is forced to shoot the gun from his hand. Arms raised in surrender, Gomez has to listen as Slim sings a teasing song to him about a “lavender cowboy.” Meanwhile, the flapper-style saloon girls are waiting for them to start spending their money.

Before the ending, there are some surprises, another fistfight, a father-and-son reunion, some gunfire, and a couple of fatalities before the posse arrives and law and order are restored.

Bob Steele, The Carson City Kid (1940)
Some thoughts. Bob Steele makes a handsome young hero in this film. He has an expressive face and not a bad singing voice. He has an agile physical presence, and in fights he moves like a boxer. At the start of the film, he makes a great entrance in dark clothes and a black hat, and wearing 2-3 days of dark whiskers on his face.

Steele went on to make over 200 films, a great many of them B-westerns. Then in 1939 he appeared as the not-so-likable Curley in Of Mice and Men (with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.). In later years, he was a regular in the TV series F-Troop.

The Oklahoma Cyclone features almost an honor roll of seasoned actors who would have long careers in B-westerns. Al St. John (Slim) began appearing before long as the comic character actor Fuzzy Q. Jones and was cast in well over 300 films.

Charles King (McKim) was the perennial B-western villain, appearing over his career in over 400 films. Slim Whitaker (Rawhide) was a young cowboy when he took a job as extra and stuntman for Broncho Billy films. He also specialized in B-western villainy and was in 350 films over a period of 30 years.

Last and hardly least was Cliff Lyons, one of McKim’s henchmen, who’d been a rodeo rider and was to make a career as stuntman and stunt coordinator. He was considered an equal of legendary Yakima Canutt. I'm guessing it's Lyons doing the hard riding in the film's opening sequence. He takes a horse down a long steep grade of loose rock. Then at full gallop he loosens the saddle and removes the bridle from the horse so he can take cover with them as soon as he jumps off.

The beautiful and apparently bilingual Rita Rey (Carmelita) had only a brief career in movies. Her seemingly authentic Spanish accent was more than a little thick for monolingual audiences. Interestingly, a fair amount of Spanish is spoken in the film. Steele’s Jimmy claims to speak Spanish as well, after a stay in Mexico where, he says with a grin, “the señoritas taught me – plenty.”

Cowboy, art by AHF El Vaquero
Eyebrows may have been raised at the Hayes Office by the sexual innuendo in the film. Not to mention Al St. John’s occasional camping and the ambiguity of the buddying up (“I’m feelin’ like a blushin’ female,” Jimmy says when McKim warmly shakes his hand). But enforcement of the Production Code was still a few years away.

All told, this is an enjoyable film. As one of the first all-talking B-westerns, it hasn’t found the right balance between talk and action. Some of the action, like the bank robbery, takes place entirely off screen. So do the secret meetings of Jimmy and Carmelita, where he comes into possession of her handkerchief.

I’m guessing it’s aiming for more of an adult audience than the host of formula B-westerns that followed in the 1930s. As such, it’s definitely got its enjoyable moments.

Image credits: wikimedia.org

Coming up: Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith (1906)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cornhusker fiction

Stolen Horses by Dan O’Brien is a new novel set in a small town in the western Nebraska panhandle. It’s kind of a Last Picture Show with an ensemble of characters that would make a good indie movie, like Larry McMurtry’s novel did.

The crux of the story has to do with social and economic shifts that are taking place all over the New West, as outsiders move into long-established rural communities. With their urban ways, they’re fish out of water, like the tenderfoot Easterners in the western novels of 100 years ago.

Difference is, they’ve got money. They don’t have to adapt. And their presence undermines the old order, while disrupting the lives of the lifetime residents. The conflict of values can be a simple matter of consumerism (the new TCBY draws business away from the long-established ice cream shop in town).

Or it can show up in more troubling ways. A new for-profit regional clinic in town serves only those who can afford it. An Indian boy injured in a car crash dies after the clinic declines to treat him. When a local newspaper reporter attempts to get the story, threats are made, and her story is killed before it ever sees print. O’Brien parallels the nastiness of these new intruders to the forcible displacement of Native Americans who lived here for centuries before whites arrived.

It’s great material for a story, and O’Brien carefully sets up the threads of action that lead to a collision in the closing chapters between the old and new orders. In this novel, old ways must surrender to the new. But not before they have left their mark in a blood-spattered field.

More cornhusker fiction. While I’m on the subject of fiction set in Nebraska, here are a few more I’d like to mention. It’s not a long list. Nebraska produces a lot of corn and beef, but novelists not so many.

Willa Cather, photo by Carl Van Vechten
Willa Cather, of course. Cather is known for her stories and pioneer novel My Ántonia, set on the prairies of southern Nebraska, in the Republican River valley, near Red Cloud. Her novel One of Ours (1922) tells of a young man who finds the pioneering spirit of the early settlers long dead. He is trapped on the family farm in a loveless marriage. He escapes finally to soldier in Europe during WWI. Though ridiculed by Hemingway, Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis (probably because it was a novel about a man written by a woman), the book won a Pulitzer Prize.

Mari Sandoz. This writer from the Panhandle grew up on a homestead, the daughter of a domineering Swiss-born father, whose life she recalled in Old Jules (1942). Her early novels were declared offensive for their less than rapturous portrayal of her home state (a sure sign that they are worth reading). She’s best known for her books about the Lakota, including Cheyenne Autumn (1953). She won the Owen Wister award in 1964.

Children in field, Hall Co., Nebraska, 1940, by L. C. Harmon
Wright Morris. Also disliked for his unvarnished portrayal of small town Nebraska, Morris was born and spent his boyhood in the same county where I grew up. Merrick County is in central Nebraska near the Platte River, one of countless stops on Highway 30, which crosses the country. Morris won the National Book Award twice for novels about his home state: The Field of Vision (1956) and Plains Song (1980). His novel Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960) concerns a dysfunctional Nebraska family and features a fictionalized Charles Starkweather, who went on a crime spree with his girlfriend in the late 1950s.

Tom McNeal. In McNeal’s novel Goodnight, Nebraska (1998), a young couple forges an independent relationship in an isolated small town in the treeless, rolling terrain of the Nebraska Sandhills. A memorable sequence in the novel describes a hunting party that grows progressively unnerving, as some of the more trigger-happy in the group get steadily drunker and more frustrated at the lack of game.

Jonis Agee. Cattle ranchers and small-town folks figure in Agee’s well-written novels. A personal favorite is her noir-like The Weight of Dreams (2000). In an account of hanging onto a family ranch on the brink of bankruptcy, it’s also a crime fiction story leading to a courtroom drama, a bitter family melodrama, a tale of guilt and personal salvation, a passionate and sensual love story, a travelogue portraying the stark beauty of the Sandhills, and an examination of white/Native American relations. For a recent interview with the author go here.

Dan Chaon. Short story writer and novelist Dan Chaon grew up in western Nebraska. The stories in his first collection Fitting Ends (1996) are often set in a fictional Nebraska small town. They typically concern youthful characters struggling with the mysteries of emerging identity. In one story, a young man discovers that a fraternity brother injured in a car accident is no longer the person he once was. For recent interviews with the author go here and here. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Photo-finish Friday: Dexter

Count yourself lucky if you don't live in a city with these electronic billboards. They flash through an endless sequence of ads, usually for movies and TV shows, retail outlets, and various consumer products, like bottled water. I know they look cool in Blade Runner and Times Square, but in an already cluttered and graceless urban environment, they just add to the general visual noise.

During the day they are a distraction for motorists. During the night they loom bright as floodlights from above. Sometimes, they are a strange, overpowering presence, as in this blood-soaked one for the TV series Dexter. I snapped this on an early evening recently while crossing Westwood Blvd just south of Wilshire. Makes me think of "Big Brother is Watching."

For all the lovely nature shots from Leah and elsewhere around the globe, I offer this urban answer to pastoral tranquility. Happy weekend.

Coming up: Cornhusker fiction

Forgotten book: White Crosses by Larry Watson

Not sure if this novel from 1998 counts as "forgotten." Not even sure if it was ever much known. Anyway, I found this story of mid-century small-town life and its fascinating character study hard to put down. 

The novel begins with a car accident and the deaths of two people - thus the "white crosses" of the title, those roadside markers where lives have abruptly ended.  Written with elements of crime fiction, it's an ironic account of how a well-meaning county sheriff's cover-up attempt leads to a series of worrisome complications and finally to fatal consequences.

Everyone has their secrets and is guilty of something, the sheriff has come to believe, and he is no exception. As author Watson probes deeper into his character, we find the weaknesses and moral ambiguities hidden within an otherwise likable man who happens to represent law and order. The author's frequent digressions help us to know him inside and out, which turns out to be important.

Watson is a fine writer with a gift for illuminating the inner worlds of what seem to be predictable and ordinary people. They seem to fill him with a sense of wonder. Like the pair of bachelors, identical twins, drinking at a bar, or a cantankerous rancher who believes, with scant evidence, that his cattle are being rustled, or the widow who reports that her S&H Green Stamps have been stolen. There is much to be known about them that will never be known - and will go with them to the grave.

Watson has a couple other books written with sheriffs as central characters in this same western town of Bentrock, Montana: Justice and Montana 1948. I've read all three and liked them. I believe they are all still in print.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

3-minute western

Happy Thanksgiving for everyone celebrating the holiday. For something different, I've put together a video I'm calling a "3-Minute Western" (suitable for timing your soft-cooked eggs). Thanks to Patti Abbott, who gave me the idea for something like this in the first place.

Hit play, and you can hear my midwestern twang as I read the first two pages of Zane Grey's novel, The Heritage of the Desert, which I reviewed here recently. It's a thrilling beginning, as a man at the point of death hears two men debating the pros and cons of saving his life.

3-minute western: Zane Grey, "The Heritage of the Desert" from Ron Scheer on Vimeo.

Enjoy your holiday! Hope you're with family and friends and folks you care about.

Coming up: Dan O'Brien and Nebraska writers

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Lone Ranger (1949)

As a recent prize winner at Laurie Powers’ pulpwriter.com, I’m inviting everyone to join in an appreciation of the 1949 film The Lone Ranger. It’s one of the four movies in the box set of DVDs that came from OutWest, Bobbi Jean and Jim Bell’s well-stocked online western store.

This 69-minute black and white film, made for TV, recounts the legend of how the Lone Ranger was left for dead after an ambush of Texas Rangers by the outlaw Cavendish gang. Lured into a box canyon, they die one by one in a hail of bullets – all except for one wounded man, John Reid.

Reid is rescued by the buckskin-clad, pinto-riding Tonto, a Mohawk Indian (wandering far from home). Tonto was once rescued by the same John Reid when they were boys. Tonto returns the favor by nursing him back to health. Reid always either has his face covered or is turned away from the camera, so we never get a good look at him.

Texas Rangers, c1845
He stoically grieves for the loss of the brave men who died, especially his brother, Dan, who was leading the Rangers at the time of the ambush. After Tonto has buried the bodies, Reid vows to continue fighting lawlessness on the frontier until the last outlaw is found and punished. To hide his true identity, he wears a mask, and while he will use his gun as needed, he will never shoot to kill.

This vow is put to the test almost immediately, as the half-breed guide who led the Rangers into the trap is still alive and determined to kill Reid. The renegade’s rifle is shot from his hands, and he eventually loses his footing and falls from a canyon ledge to his death. Problem solved.

Next they rescue a beautiful white stallion from an attack by a wild beast, and the animal is so grateful that it decides to become the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver. It’s fun to hear the Lone Ranger again calling him “big fella,” then leaning forward in the saddle to pat him on the shoulder.

The two men then set out to bring to justice the outlaw Cavendish, who has been taking over a frontier town by killing off all the leading citizens and replacing them with men from his own gang. (A plot device that only a 10-year-old kid in 1949 wouldn't question.)

There is much riding to and fro and gunfire, men being tied up, fistfights, and men being held at gunpoint. The Lone Ranger also finds time to reopen an old silver mine and decides to use only silver bullets in his gun, as a sign of his pure intentions to bring law and order to the frontier for all peace-loving folks.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sign of the times

Returning from an afternoon walk on Saturday I looked across Westwood Blvd and saw this banner over the front of the Borders store in my neighborhood. I'm not a big bookstore shopper, but many's the time I have made the short walk over there to shop for a gift or just browse through the shelves.

That it lacked a western section (books or vids) kept me from spending much money. But it was good to know the place was there. So it was with some sadness that I joined the crowds inside scanning the shelves where everything was marked 20% off.

I went through the whole store, upstairs and downstairs, where nothing much caught my eye. My inner English major was both startled and relieved to see maybe 20 shelves in the Lit section completely bare. It was good to know "literature" was finding a home. All the time I was thinking, "You have to take something, even if only as a memento."

Then I got to the 19th-Century History section, and there a voice inside me said, "Here. This is what you want." A half hour later, I walked out with four books: David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard, T. D. Griffith's Deadwood: The Best Writings on the Most Notorious Town in the West, William Leckie's The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Black Cavalry in the West, and a so-called "pulp history" by David Talbot with illustrations by Spain Rodriguez called Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America.

I waited a long time on line to get to a cashier, who turned out to be a new resident from upstate in California, and we joked about adjusting to life in Los Angeles. She even asked if I had a Borders rewards card and optimistically scanned it when I did.

Then I left, with my bag of books, and it was like taking something from a friend who is leaving forever. . .

Monday, November 22, 2010

Zane Grey, Heritage of the Desert (1910)

I put off reading Zane Grey (1872-1939) until after I’d read about a dozen other western writers from this period. Just to see if I could tell why he became so suddenly and hugely popular. Which is pretty much what happened.

Grey was in his late 30s, schooled as a dentist, and an unknown writer of magazine articles about fishing and baseball. Though he’d been an indifferent student in college, he aspired to follow in the footsteps of Owen Wister, whose novel The Virginian (1902) was a best seller.

But his efforts at novel writing had earned him nothing but disappointment. Not only that. One editor is supposed to have told him he had no talent for writing fiction at all. On his last dime, married, and the father of a little Grey, he threw everything he had into a last ditch effort.

It was a story of adventure on the deserts of northern Arizona, where he'd been the guest of a buffalo rancher in 1907. The defendant in a paternity suit while he was still in college, he also seems to have drawn on a degree of reckless infatuation with women. Once in print, the result was a ripping yarn that flew off the shelves. He had stormed the publishing establishment – both Harper’s and Street & Smith on the same day – and the public had declared him a winner. It was all fame and fortune from then on.

The plot. The novel begins in the desert of southern Utah. It is the 1870s. The central character is a young man, Jack Hare. He shows up suddenly on page one, discovered at the point of death by a Mormon rancher, who has taken to heart the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The rancher, August Naab, is the patriarch of a large family, with two wives and several sons and daughters. His ranch is an oasis in a canyon near the Colorado River, just over the line into northern Arizona.

Hare is a consumptive and needs nursing back to health. Naab puts him to work with an adopted daughter, Mescal, who tends his herd of sheep. Mescal is a half-breed, her father a Spaniard and her mother a Navajo. Out in the open air, Hare not only recovers his health; he falls for Mescal in a big way.

The first 100 pages of this novel are actually kind of tedious. Nothing happens that you can’t see coming a mile away. Then it takes off like fireworks and doesn’t let up until the end. Mescal, we learn, has been promised to Naab’s oldest son Snap, who is no prize. He’s a drinker, a killer, a wife-beater, and has friends among a band of rustlers who work for another rancher, Holderness.

Holderness is the main villain of the novel, moving in on other ranchers’ ranges, stealing their cattle, taking away their water, killing a man now and then as needed. Naab, a god-fearing man, refuses to fight him. He also has high hopes for his wayward son, Snap. Neither of these objectives works out.

Mormon and wives, photo by C. Weitfle (1836-1921)
While the family celebrates the wedding of Mescal and Snap, the bride-to-be disappears into the night. Snap snaps and the new leaf he’s turned to win everyone’s good will goes right to hell. He takes off and joins up with Holderness against his father.

Meanwhile, Hare is in agony over the absence of his true love, and he travels across trackless wastes in search of Mescal. With the help of her dog, Wolf, he eventually finds her. And they return to the ranch, after a perilous crossing of the Colorado River.

There are more escapes and chases, and a final shoot-out occurs in the Mormon settlement of White Sage, where Hare kills Holderness, and the remnants of the band of cowboy rustlers are either shot or hanged. Finally, the much-delayed consummation of the love between Hare and Mescal takes place with an idyllic wedding. After enough bloodshed, the strongest have survived, and peace and love return to the desert.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Photo-finish Friday: Felix

This car dealership has stood at the corner of Jefferson and Figueroa in LA for decades. The owners got the right to use Felix the Cat of cartoon fame in the 1920s and the current sign went up in 1958. Now there are efforts afoot to have it preserved as a Historic Cultural Monument. I walk by here on the way to/from work and snapped this one afternoon recently.

Forgotten books: Bat Wing Bowles by Dane Coolidge

Just about all the books I review here on BITS are "forgotten books," but here's another one. This early novel by prolific western writer Dane Coolidge (1873-1940) was first published in 1913, a decade after its famous predecessor The Virginian (1902). There are many of the same elements in this story: an easterner who's a fish out of water in the West, a rivalry between a man of strong principle and one with none, a close friendship between two men, class differences, and a long-running and much frustrated courtship.

A big difference is that having grown up in rural California, Coolidge knew of the West and ranch life much better than Owen Wister. And he was more interested in representing the actual work of real cowboys - something entirely missing from Wister's novel. Based on his own field research, Coolidge's novels describe the business of working cattle, living conditions on a ranch, and the ins and outs of cowboy culture. He knows, for instance, the three books to be found in any bunkhouse.

Set on the Bat Wing ranch in southern Arizona, this story tells of a young Easterner, Bowles, who falls in love with the daughter of a rancher. Through luck and persistence he manages to prove himself as a cowboy and win her hand. Through him, we learn of the grueling work of rounding up and branding cattle. We experience the difficulty of being accepted into a fraternity of rough-riding men who labor tirelessly, amuse each other with long-winded tales, play practical jokes, get drunk in town, haze newcomers, and just as easily square off into heated disputes and fist fights.

One of the more strongly drawn characters is Gus, a stereotypically grumpy camp cook. Another is Brigham, a lapsed Mormon with grievances about his church that keep him from marrying. There is some humor in all this but little romanticizing. The subduing of an unbroken horse, for instance, is described in brutal detail.

This one is for readers interested in the old West as it was actually lived. Without gunfights, chases, outlaws, Indians, or a mounting body count, he maintains our interest, rings a range of emotions, and keeps things moving along. Available free at Barnes and Noble for the Nook.

Image credit: wikimedia.org

Coming up: Zane Grey, The Heritage of the Desert (1910)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A. B. Snyder, Pinnacle Jake

Herding cattle, Montana, 1910
This cowboy memoir takes readers back to the 1890s, as remembered by A. B. Snyder, known as "Pinnacle Jake," who cowboyed for the 101 ranch. This huge agribusiness ran thousands of cattle on the open ranges of Wyoming and Montana. The company headquarters were in eastern Nebraska, where there was a massive operation of barns and feedlots.

Like many other cowboys of that era, Snyder was a teenager when he left his home in southern Nebraska near the Kansas border, and he worked for the 101 - often as a rep - into his mid-20s. His reminiscences are chiefly of the many men that he worked with, and his account covers the different jobs and responsibilities that he was given to do.

Cowboys are known for practical jokes and hair-raising stunts, and readers will be entertained by a variety of these. As a bronc buster, Snyder also has an equally vivid memory of the horses he rode. One escapade involves the chasing down of a runaway horse, which eludes capture for days on the open range.

We are also reminded of the risks in this line of work, as Snyder tells of death by lightning and other accidents. In one incident, an already one-handed cook plunges with his mule team and chuck wagon down a steep slope and breaks both arms and a leg.

Unusual for this kind of writing is the high toll of casualties reported among horses, as many are lost to injury, drowning, and other mishaps. Though out of print, this book is worth finding and adding to any shelf of cowboy lit. It includes many vintage photographs of the era.

Picture credit: wikimedia.org

Coming up: Zane Grey, Heritage of the Desert (1910)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Con Price, Memories of Old Montana

Branding cattle, Montana ranch, 1880s
This priceless memoir is told by one of the early cowboys in Montana. Con Price was a friend and sometime business partner of the cowboy-artist Charlie Russell, whom he remembers fondly, as he does a number of other men he worked with and for.

Starting out as a teenager from Iowa, Price was a horse wrangler, freight-wagon driver, and bronc buster. Though he was fairly accomplished in these skills, he seems to have been broke most of the time. Then at the age of 30 he courted and married the daughter of a prominent cattleman.

His story, jumping backward and forward in time, recalls the 1880s. These were the years of the open range, as ranchers moved their herds continually northward, across the Missouri and into Canada, braving winters that sometimes wiped out whole herds. Price remembers working in the coldest of weather, once or twice nearly losing his life in blizzards.

Somewhat ambivalent about Indians, he devotes a chapter to them, in which he grants them a certain dignity above and beyond the typical cowboy's disdain for them. He tells of an incident I've never read before in which Sitting Bull offended the chief of the Crows while on a government-granted visit to the site of Custer's defeat at the Little Big Horn.

A Crow chief, Crazy Hair, is revealed as the probable descendant of an African-American whom the tribe had given shelter to years before. There is also an illuminating chapter on outlaw Kid Curry. This enjoyable short book (154 pp.) was published in 1945, includes several illustrations, and is currently out of print. It shouldn't be.

Picture credit: wikimedia.org 

Coming up: Zane Grey, The Heritage of the Desert (1910)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ross Santee, Lost Pony Tracks

First published in 1953, this book is currently out of print, and it shouldn't be. It's a fine, wonderfully written, sensitively drawn memoir of cowboying in Arizona in the years before and after WWI. Ross Santee (1889-1965) was 26 years old when he left his small-town Iowa roots and a struggling career as an artist in New York to spend some time with his family in Arizona.

There he took a job as a "lowly" horse wrangler for an outfit near Globe. Over the years, as a western writer, who illustrated his own books in his distinctive style (now much appreciated), he based his stories and novels on this experience of the everyday lives of men and their horses.

Santee was a perceptive, thoughtful, and observant writer who captured in accounts of incidents and conversations a depth of social history that is hard to find in other books of its kind. It's also rare to find a portrayal of cowboy life so heart-felt.

He had his complaints about men whose faults and deficiencies made them ill-suited to being cowboys. But he was chiefly interested in the many men he regarded as admirable for their one-of-a-kind personalities and their strength of character. Among them is the foreman, whose early years on the range are recounted in Santee's novel Cowboy (1928).

Many others he writes of are captured with a precise and loving eye for detail. There is a generous spirit and a gentle humor throughout this book that is sometimes sentimental without ever being corny. In his depiction of daily life in an all-male work environment, Santee gets it all right. His books belong on any shelf of western literature.

Coming up: Zane Grey, The Heritage of the Desert (1910)

Monday, November 15, 2010

A. B. Guthrie, Playing Catch-Up

Didn’t know until I stumbled across this book that A. B. Guthrie (1901-1991) ever wrote crime fiction. This one comes fifth in a series of novels featuring Guthrie’s small town sheriff Chick Charleston. Guthrie was 85 when he wrote Playing Catch-Up, after a writing career that started in journalism and flourished in his sweeping historical novels set on the Montana frontier.

With The Big Sky  (1947) and The Way West (1949) he created his own brand of western storytelling. The grand scale of his books didn’t translate well into Hollywood movies. Still, he’s guaranteed a place in Hollywood history as the screenwriter for Shane (1953).

Most of Guthrie’s Chick Charleston books were written in the 1970s and 80s. I don’t know what the rest are like, but this one is kind of quirky. There are twice as many characters as you’d expect in its 183 pages. We learn little about its first-person narrator, Jason Beard, except that he lives with his mother, is fierce in a fistfight, and is trying to rekindle a romance with an old girlfriend.

The short chapters pack a punch, but the story refuses to build with the usual coherence you expect in crime fiction. A rape and murder has occurred before the opening chapter, and another occurs a short time later. A ruffian living rough in a camper is a prime suspect.

Sheriff Charleston is a common sense kind of public servant, with a relaxed style, who has learned to trust his hunches. A state inspector arrives on the scene to run his own investigation, generally making a nuisance of himself. Deputy Beard, the narrator, is often a passive observer, attentive to his boss.

White Sulphur Springs, Montana
As the story jumps forward in various unpredictable directions, you expect the basic elements of the mystery to snap into sharper relief in the last third of the book. Instead, it takes some meandering digressions involving the employment of several women at various jobs. And then the mystery kind of solves itself. It ends in fact with another murder, the outcome of which is left hanging.

I liked the characters in the book and the description of rural life in a small western town under the influx of oil field workers. Guthrie sets the story on the cusp of seasons between spring and summer. He also has an ear for wry, clipped dialogue.

Looking back over the book, you realize how much of it has to do with women – partly as objects of lust and rage, but also as rural poor, underemployed and overworked. The first murder victim is a woman who has a second income as a prostitute. Another woman has a live-in arrangement with a man who beats her. Guthrie has her gratefully accepting cast-off clothes and a job cleaning houses.

The men meanwhile get plenty of chances for camaraderie. Mostly single, they’re often gathering around a table for a good meal, or they’re bellying up to the bar for a brew or two. It’s not quite the good life, but it ain’t bad.

You wonder how much Guthrie’s intent was to show the lot of women in the New West, where men are men, and women supposedly like them that way. It sure doesn’t work out like that in this novel.

Image credits: Photo by Ron Scheer

Coming up: Zane Grey, Heritage of the Desert (1910)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Casual Friday: Cowboys in art

Looking for cowboy pics at wikimedia this week, I came across a bunch of reproductions by painters from 100 years ago. As a break from all the verbiage here, I am posting some of them today. Enjoy.

Buccaroos, 1902 by Charles Russell (1864-1926)

A Dash for Timber, 1889 by Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
 The Herd Quitter, 1897 by Charles Russell

Arizona Cowboy, 1902 by Frederic Remington

Rounded Up by God by Henry F. Farny (1847-1916)

Defending the Stagecoach by Henry F. Farny

A Bad Hoss, 1904 by Charles Russell

Lassooing a Steer by Charles Russell

Cowboys in the Badlands by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

Cowboy Singing, 1890 by Thomas Eakins

Further reading:
C. M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana
Frederic Remington Museum, Ogdensburg, New York
Thomas Eakins gallery tour, Philadelphia Museum
Online gallery of works by Henry F. Farny

Image credits: wikimedia.org

Coming up: A. B. Guthrie, Playing Catch-up

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Old West saloons

Until they were closed down with the introduction of Prohibition in 1919, saloons were the social center of life in frontier towns. Drinking and gambling (usually faro) were the chief forms of recreation, and the place was a clearing house of local news.

Men playing faro, Arizona saloon, 1895
In settlements populated almost entirely by men, they were more than a place to hang out, "where everybody knows your name." They were a social institution that was never fully restored with the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s. I got to thinking about all this looking at photos of old saloons, and thought I'd share some here to kind of revive their memory.

First up is the Toll Gate Saloon in Black Hawk, Colorado, 1897. Notice the arched windows, swinging front doors, stove in foreground, and wooden floor. Over the center mirror are three mounted animal heads. The shelves behind the bartender are lined with liquor bottles, and there's a brass spittoon at the foot rail, where a variety of stains indicate the bad aim of previous customers. What the hanging towel is for, I'm not sure.

Toll Gate Saloon, Blackhawk, Colorado, 1897

Next up is a bar from the 1880s in the Columbian Hotel, Trinidad, Colorado. Notice all the carved wood, the decorated ceiling with painted scenes around the edge. There are stuffed pheasants behind the man at the center of the photo. 

Bar in Columbian Hotel, Trinidad, Colorado, 1880s
A gas lamp hangs overhead, and there's a spittoon or two under the brass foot rail, where you can see more tell-tale stains. There's an oriental rug on the floor and more towels hanging from the bar. With so many things for the eye to see, can you imagine what all this looked like at night lit by gaslight?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rigwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole (1909)

Right off, we’re going to have to deal with the title of this one. Author Ridgwell Cullum (1867-1943) was British born and his spelling of the word “dike” comes from that side of the Atlantic. There’s also a broad swathe of humor in this story about the residents of mining camps, and the place names verge on the satirical: Chloride, Spawn City, and the abovementioned Dyke Hole.

Cullum must have been quite a character. He fought in the Boer War, lived in the Yukon, prospected for gold, and may even have been involved in quelling the Sioux uprisings in South Dakota. By the time he published his first novel in 1903, he’d taken up cattle ranching in Montana.

Novel writing was a big success for him. In a career that spanned over three decades, he published dozens of books. This one was his seventh. Six of his stories were made into films (1917-1923). In England, it’s said that he held his own in popularity against Zane Grey.

Character. Though there’s a sheriff in the title, this novel is not about cowboys and cattle. We find ourselves instead in the mountains of Montana where the local economy is based on silver mining. But compared to other western writers, we learn little about mining itself.

Instead, the novel is a character study of Tombstone Joe, the sheriff of Dyke Hole. He is a dominating, head-strong man who maintains law and order by force of personality, his six-guns, and a good measure of pure bluff. Physically, he’s described as having “a great raw frame, all bone and muscle.”

He has to be all this because he’s Dyke Hole’s last defense against certain chaos. The residents are an unruly, malingering lot – and they’re the “good guys” in the novel. A neighboring settlement, Spawn City, and the surrounding hills are crawling with lawless and ruthless men.

Joe’s methods of law enforcement are unconventional. Early in the novel, there’s a cricket match (baseball has unaccountably not caught on here) in which players participate fully armed. Joe is the referee, and instead of calling a foul, he makes an arrest. But not before one of the players gets shot.

Behind Joe’s rough exterior, however, there beats a sentimental heart. Unknown to anyone else, he looks after the two children of a man he’s sent to the gallows. He’s also not immune to romantic feelings. Though she has highwaymen for friends, there’s a fiercely independent woman known as Six-Shooter Kit who has Joe more than a little weak in the knees.

Cullum puts Joe in a community of men who drink too much and neglect and abuse their wives and children, if they have them. They are a society of misfits and outcasts given to “ungoverned impulse.” What seems to interest Cullum is how a man of certain qualities of character emerges in such an unlikely place. Joe is uneducated and barely able to read and write. Yet he has a highly developed sense of decency and responsibility.

East vs. West. Early western novels often have a tenderfoot character representing the values of the East. A stand-in for the reader, they are full of first impressions about the West and westerners. Here that character is a Brit named Dick Roydon.

The English are often cast as effete and self-important in western novels, proverbial fish out of water. But Roydon is no snob. Virtually lifted out of the gutter at an early age by a benevolent benefactor, he has no class pretensions. He’s decent to the core.

His English decency, however, makes him a poor judge of other men. He is easily fooled into trusting the novel’s villain. Because the man has been civil with him, Roydon takes it as a sign of good breeding and fair play.

Roydon also considers a gunfight “cold-blooded” and “inhuman.” He’d rather settle matters with his fists. But by the midpoint of the novel, he is learning that civilization ends at the limits of the administration of the law. Beyond that limit, human nature asserts itself, and men are ruled by their passions.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fred Gipson, Cowhand

This is an as-told-to profile of Texas cowhand Ed "Fat" Alford, related as a string of yarns you might hear told around the campfire or the bunkhouse at the end of a hard day's work.

Fat was the oldest of a large family of siblings, never married, who gave his life to cowboying and whatever else in the way of work he could scrounge up during the 1920s and 1930s. Gipson has a gift for making these times and the men who lived them come to life with plenty of good humor, even though they were often struggling just to keep a buck in their jeans.

At a young age, he's obliged to support his mother and her several children when his father dies in an outbreak of meningitis. While often entertaining, Fat's story does a lot to take the romance out of the profession and reveal how much plain, sweaty, dirty, exhausting hard work there is in being a "working cowboy."

Thanks to Texas A&M University Press for keeping this entertaining memoir in print.

Coming up: Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole (1909)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Old West glossary, no. 3

Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from reading books about that era. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as Ramon Adams’ Cowboy Dictionary and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

A couple terms I couldn't turn up this time were "buzzcock" and "dead gut." If anyone has any guesses about them, leave a comment below.

aguardiente = generic name for alcoholic drinks between 29 and 60 percent alcohol; literally, burning water. “Riots of mounted men in the days when the desperadoes of the range came riding into town now and again for love of danger, or for lack of aguardiente.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

author cards = Authors, a literary card game with portraits of 13 famous authors appearing on the cards: Twain, Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson, Shakespeare, Cooper, Irving, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Scott, Tennyson, Alcott, and Poe. “He says to me I might as well trade my old grays for a nice new checkerboard, or a deck of author cards.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

Blue Back Speller = schoolbook developed by Noah Webster, published 1783. “Our education was very much alike, the principal studies being ‘Blue Back Speller’ and the ‘Dog-wood Switch.’” R. B. Pumphrey, The Trail Drivers of Texas.

blue blotter = one who drinks heavily. “But when a man’s making a blue blotter of himself, things don’t look the same to him.” William MacLeod Raine, Brand Blotters.

bluestone = the very lowest quality gin or whisky. “I’ve know’d you fer awhiles, an’ I tell you right here, Boyle, you’re runin’ a fine career with that same bluestone swill Moe dopes out fer whiskey.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

bucket man = derogatory rustler term for a cowboy. “Sometimes they were called ‘pliers men,’ or ‘bucket men’ by ex-cowboys who would have scorned to carry a ‘bucket of sheep dip,’ or to bother too much about mending a gap in a wire fence.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

choke-weed = a weed that chokes other plants. “You’ve growed an’ growed around this country like choke-weed, an’ it’s ter’ble hard to get good an’ started on you.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

copper-stick = a truncheon. “There had been some debate, and for a while matters hovered in the balance, but a sudden contact with a copper-stick, which took Shaggy in the left eye, seemed to decide matters.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

crawfish = to back down, run away. “He's took his stand, and done what he allowed was right. After that, he ain't built to crawfish.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

dark as Egypt = maybe a reference to the plague of darkness cast on Egypt by Moses in Exodus 10:21. “Flatray counted four other cabins as dark as Egypt.” William MacLeod Raine, Brand Blotters.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mack Hughes, Hashknife Cowboy

Mack Hughes was his parents' third oldest child, with something like seven siblings, almost all of them boys. His father, also a cowboy, brought his family to the huge Hashknife spread near Winslow, Arizona, in the 1920s. Mack quickly came of age there helping to support the family.

When he left again, it was 14 years later, and he'd had a broad range of experiences from cowboying to running trucks of sugar from Phoenix for local bootleggers. We get to know his brothers (one of them a mechanic and lover of cars) and many more cowboys. Some of them Mack is truly fond of and makes no secret of it.

There are accounts of exteme weather, illness, an infestation of scabbies (cattle) and lice (he and a bed-mate) and spectacular wrecks that leave him with broken bones and a smashed face. He is touched by the deaths of good men, and he has near fatal accidents of his own. Once he loses a good horse and saddle over a sheer drop into a deep canyon.

The language is colorful and salty, and with the help of his wife Stella (who wrote the book) he's able to tell a really good yarn. Sometimes it's exciting as he and some friends chase a wild horse, or darkly humorous as they rid the countryside of wild dogs.

Sometimes it's inspiring as he and his family struggle to survive during the Great Depression. The book also has excellent illustrations by Joe Beeler. Thanks to the University of Arizona Press for keeping this fine book in print.

Coming up: Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole (1909)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Richmond Hobson, Jr., Nothing Too Good for a Cowboy

This enjoyable and well-written cowboy memoir takes readers to the hinterlands of central British Columbia during the war years of 1939-1942. The author and his partner Panhandle Phillips take over the two-million-acre Frontier Cattle Company.

This operation is located in grassland valleys among the mountain ranges, several days' ride from the nearest town and over 200 miles from the nearest rail line. It is a land where winters are severe, and the first challenge facing them is a December cattle drive that ends in near-disaster as the men are overtaken by a fierce blizzard and sub-zero temperatures.

The son of an admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hobson is an educated Easterner living a life of pioneering adventure on one of the last western frontiers on the continent. His story is peopled with a large cast of memorable characters, including cowhands, ranchers, storekeepers, and Indians.

His gifts as a writer are many, as he intensifies the suspense and drama of several high-risk enterprises and fully relishes the humor in others. The attempt to transport a herd of wild horses by night from an offshore island to the Vancouver stockyards is told with a masterful grasp of knee-slapping farce.

There's even a little romance, as our cowboy hero goes in breathless search of the girl of his dreams, armed only with a snapshot of her standing beside a prize Jersey bull. The book became the basis for a TV series on Canadian television in 1998-99.

Coming up: Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole (1909)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tom Groneberg, The Secret Life of Cowboys

This is a great title for maybe a different book. I expected to find some salty insight into the hearts and minds of cowboys, the men who live and work as agricultural laborers in the modern West. Instead, I found the memoir of a young man from Chicago, still in his 30s, who falls in love with wide open spaces and tries to live out a dream of working with cattle and being a rancher.

The problem is that he is almost totally unprepared for the arduous task of running a ranch and lacks the seasoned philosophy of a man who has experienced lean years, loss, and failure. Taking on a 15-square-mile ranch outside Miles City, Montana, he is quickly in over his head and in a matter of time is surviving on anti-depressants.

Hard winters, hard luck, and lack of experience combine to turn his dream into heartbreak. I seldom read a book that makes me tear up, but this one did, about page 220 when on a September day, he watches as his neighbors gather to buy at auction his machinery and equipment.

Any reader used to the unforgiving seasons of the plains, especially in Montana, might remain dried-eyed at Groneberg's foolhardy and romantic expectations of ranching. But to know him for the tender, ingenuous soul that he seems to be in his book, it's hard to see his failure as anything but the unhappy end of a big-hearted dream.

The secret in the secret life of cowboys remains something of an elusive mystery for Groneberg. Along with him, we observe cowboys from the outside, a fraternity of men engaged in hard, physical labor, masters of skills learned from boyhood, and able to do their jobs in severe working conditions. They're also possessors of a kind of grace beyond words to describe.

Groneberg's book is an attempt over and over to capture this grace in words, always falling a little short, while making ever more vivid the extent of his admiration. He even takes a class in saddle bronc riding in hopes of breaking through this barrier and feeling at least for a moment like a cowboy.

In anyone else's hands, this might all seem over the top, but his love of cowboys comes from a heart that is pure as a boy's. It is easy to allow him his earnest wish to become and be accepted as a man of their perceived character - honest, true, fearless, tough, physically agile, and ethically uncompromised.

At the end of the book, he has not yet forgiven himself for being less than all that, but he has found a place for himself as a hand on another smaller ranch, chastened by his experiences toward a kind of self-respect. Most important, he's loving the life he has found for himself, his wife, and young son.

Coming up: Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole (1909)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Trail Drivers of Texas (1925)

This 1000+ page compendium was published by the Old Trail Drovers Association in Texas. This organization was formed in 1915 as an offshoot of the Cattle Raisers’ Association of Texas. Chief organizer was George W. Saunders, a cattleman who had gone up the trail as a teenager.

The book started out as Saunders’ idea to preserve the memories of that first generation of trail drovers. Publication was delayed when the printer went out of business and the first batch of submissions was lost. The completed book was something of a rush job, and for its length, its scope is still somewhat limited.

Some numbers. Of the 350 entries, less than half are from drovers, representing a group estimated to have numbered 6,000 at one time. The rest are first-person stories of others, tributes, reprints from books and newspapers, and a few poems. J. Marvin Hunter, the editor, also added accounts of cattlemen, Indian fighting, and outlaws that have nothing to do with droving.

The memories of drovers recorded in the book are mostly from Texans (91%), and of those more than half came from within a 150-mile radius of San Antonio. Accounts are mostly of men born 1840-1860. While most contributors trailed cattle more than once, Saunders says that was true of only one-third of the drovers.

Saunders also estimated that one-third of the drovers were blacks and Mexicans, yet there are almost no accounts in the book from either of these groups. B. Byron Price, who wrote the introduction for the modern-day reprint of the book, uses this absence to suggest that Saunders’ estimate was exaggerated. As noted in previous posts for Black Cowboys of Texas, historical evidence supports Saunders.

Despite any shortcomings, the book is still a rich store of first-hand accounts from that era. The memories of this generation reach from pre-Civil War days to the Jazz Age.

George W. Saunders. Let’s consider the man who gathered and herded these collected memories into print. Saunders tells his own story on pages 426-454. Born in 1854 in central Texas, he was a boy on the family ranch near Goliad when his father and older brothers went off as soldiers for the Confederacy.

He was left to care for the family’s cattle “with the assistance of a few old men and some negroes.” Necessities during those times could not be purchased, so everything they wore and used had to be homemade. Once, twenty beeves were taken across the border and traded in Mexico for a sack of coffee and two each of knives and forks, pairs of spurs, bridle bits, and bridles.

In 1871, barely 17, he hired on for his first trail drive that took 1000 steers from Stockdale, near San Antonio, to Abilene, Kansas. While still in central Texas, north of Austin, the herd stampeded in a thunderstorm. He discovered himself the next day with 75 steers. Unable to find the way back to the main herd, he stayed with them until the trail boss finally located him.

They crossed the Red River into Indian Territory, following the Chisholm Trail. There they forded swollen streams and chased buffalo, killing a number of them. They discovered that shooting them in the head had no effect. The skulls were too thick for a revolver bullet to penetrate. During this trip, his only disappointment was that they did not get “mixed up in an Indian fight.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

William MacLeod Raine, Brand Blotters (1911)

This is a darn curious book. I really had to force my way through parts of it, and then other parts just took off like fireworks. Part of the experience was the wartime printing of the book, as explained on the title page:

This book, while produced under wartime conditions, in full compliance with government regulations for the conservation of paper and other essential materials, is COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED.

The paper quality was so compromised, the pages were practically crumbling in my hands.

William MacLeod Raine (1871-1954) was a hugely prolific writer for over fifty years. Raine was British-born, emigrating to the U.S. with his family when he was ten. He grew up on a cattle ranch on the Arkansas-Texas border, got a college education, and began work as a teacher and journalist in Seattle before settling in Denver.

Most of his fiction is set in the West, and he seems to have found ready publication in the pulps. By 1911, when Brand Blotters was published, Raine had already seen 40 some works of his fiction in the magazines. The book is actually two novellas, which seem to have appeared separately as “The Brand Blotters” in The Popular Magazine and “Dead Man’s Cache” in People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine, both in January 1911.

Raine as a storyteller. Raine can spin out a plot of considerable complexity. A lot of both novellas in this book involves mistaken and assumed identities, among a large cast of characters, a few with multiple names. I’m thinking Raine must have been affected by an early exposure to Shakespeare.

Instead of a cowboy or lawman as a central character, Raine gives us a smart, spirited young woman, Melissy. While hearts are set aflutter at points in the story, this is no ranch romance. She is surrounded by a variety of men of various stripes, ranging from the brave young sheriff, Jack Flatray, to a despicable villain and gang leader, Black MacQueen. All of them are fiercely handsome men who take a romantic interest in her.

That interest usually has a degree of the carnal, and part of the drama is her unsure response to the feelings these men stir up in her. Raine is pretty fearless in diving into the pool of steamy passions – and the deep end at that. Here’s one example:

She was a splendid young animal, untaught of life, generous, passionate, tempestuous, and as her pliant, supple body lay against his some sex instinct old as creation stirred potently within her (p. 127).

The man Melissy is destined to end up in the arms of is the young sheriff. But Raine gives him little time on stage. His absence leaves her vulnerable to the advances of others, and as all her interactions with them play out, the book begins to resemble a coming-of-age novel.