Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River (1900)

This must be the original “ranch romance.” Set on a frontier ranch fifty miles from Cheyenne, Wyoming, it has cowboys, a roundup, and rustlers, but the central plot line from start to finish is strictly boy-girl.

Brown of the title is a handsome and highly accomplished horseman, who tames and trains horses. The Lost River, where he has a small ranch, is aptly named, as he is himself “lost” in more ways than one. Chiefly, he’s a Prodigal Son who left the East after a Harvard education to escape the judgment of a disappointed and unforgiving father. His heart is also lost to the fair young sister of another ranch owner.

Edith steps off the train in chapter one, fresh from Boston, and reluctantly accepts a buckboard ride with Brown when there’s no one else at the station to meet her. She has a suitor back East who is pressing her to marry. She’s come out West to get some breathing room before accepting his offer.

Plot. Stickney does not over-burden the reader with plot. What she deftly does is to keep her cowboy on tenterhooks for 300 pages, while Edith’s regard for him runs hot and cold. Hers is the age-old romantic dilemma of heart vs. head. Raised to be a sensible, respectable, and dutiful wife, of a certain social standing, she denies the yearnings of her heart.

Cowgirl, Montana, 1903
Brown has no such problem. It’s love at first sight. His only regret is that he has wasted ten years doing nothing with his education and has so little of material value to offer her. He will settle for her friendship, and when she withdraws that after a misunderstanding, he is distraught.

Romance. Stickney is almost cunning as she throws up obstacles to prevent true love from taking its course. A second woman, Artalissa, who’s a ranch cook and housekeeper, has got her eye on Brown and is not shy about seeking his attentions. His gentlemanly politeness to Artalissa is proof enough to Edith that he prefers her.

Meanwhile, Edith’s sense of decorum and lady-like good manners prevent her from letting Brown get too close. When he is about to unburden his heart to her, she recoils in horror. His love is the last thing she believes she wants.

Cowgirl, Texas, c1908
She eventually persuades herself that her reaction to Brown is actually a sign that she should marry her impatient Boston suitor. Encountering Brown on a late-night meander around the ranch, she agrees to be friends again, safe in her belief that she is now engaged to someone else.

When Brown is bitten by a rattlesnake, Edith rides off in wild pursuit of a doctor in Cheyenne, undaunted by the distance and unsure of her way. Technology comes to her rescue after three hours of hard riding (side saddle), when a ranch where she stops has a telephone.

Returning with a doctor, she learns that Brown’s life has been saved by Artalissa, who had quickly sprung into action to suck the venom from the bite. He’s now recovering, with a skinful of whiskey, which seems to be the frontier antidote for snakebite.

Visiting a family friend in Denver, Edith reads news that Brown has been jailed for stealing horses and is at risk of being lynched. He lacks an alibi because he was with Edith at the time of the theft and had promised to keep their meeting secret.

A telegram and a quick red-eye train trip back to Cheyenne, and Edith finds Brown on the station platform waiting for her. Turns out, he’d never been a serious suspect for the crime, and the news story had come from a gullible reporter taken in by wild rumors.

Sheet music, "Cheyenne," 1906
She’s surprised to find Brown in a business suit and headed back East to be reconciled with his father. He’s given up cowboying and has a job offer in New Mexico. The last impediment between them is her wealth and her suspicion that as a poor cowboy, he might be after her money. True love is finally confessed on the last page, when she realizes he knows nothing about her net worth. Quick fade, and we assume they marry and live happily ever after.

The Virginian. Published just two years before The Virginian (1902), Stickney’s story invites comparison to Wister’s novel. Both cowboy heroes are expert horsemen. There are similar differences between them and the girl from the East each falls in love with. The girl’s class and her resistance to his advances offer similar obstacles to romance.

Both cowboy heroes have a tenderness about them and a playful sense of humor. Their feelings run deep. The difference between them is that Wister’s is a man who has grown up in poverty, and Stickney’s comes with respectable credentials. The Virginian is a natural, unschooled gentleman; Brown is a cultivated and educated one.

While Stickney pokes fun at Easterners plunked down in the West, she is even less kind to the residents of the ranches, especially the women. They lack knowledge of or interest in the outside world, dress without any sense of fashion, and are shameless gossipers whenever they get together.

Comic book cover, 1951
Wrapping up. Mary Etta Stickney (b. 1853) left scant record of her literary output. Circumstantial Evidence, a novella, set in Colorado, was published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in June 1890. FictionMags Index shows two of her stories in The Argosy in 1900-1901. Frank Leslie published her “The World’s Roughest Riding: The Great Cowboy Carnival at Cheyenne” in 1904. That same year saw publication of her collection of western stories, Ouray Jim.

Fans of western romance will find Brown of Lost River an entertaining early example of the genre. It is currently available at google books and Internet Archive, and for the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 33

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Julia Robb, Scalp Mountain

Review and interview

This is a fine novel. If you drew a line between Lonesome Dove and All the Pretty Horses, you would find Scalp Mountain somewhere along the way. Robb immerses you in a West that is saturated in violence and the sorrows that violence brings with it.

It is the 1870s in the border country along the Rio Grande and points west. The killing fields of the Civil War are a fresh memory, and the atrocities of the Indian Wars continue to haunt the days and nights of both whites and Apaches.

Plot. In the midst of all this, a young man, Colum McNeal, is pursued by killers. A fugitive, he has blood on his hands, having done the unspeakable, killing his own brother. He believes his pursuers are gunmen hired by his enraged father. One of them, Lohman, is a man he’s known for many years, who has mysterious reasons of his own for stalking him.

He has also been picked out for revenge by an Apache, Jose Otero, whose family has been killed by whites and his infant son taken. A fierce warrior, he thinks of himself as already dead. He is driven only by his last desire to break the hearts of those who have broken his own and his people’s spirits.

Ocotillo, Big Bend National Park, Texas
A well-meaning ranger, Captain Henry, complicates matters by saving the life of Otero’s infant son and giving him to the care of a childless couple, Michael and Clementine. When Otero abducts Clementine and his son, there follows a long chase into the Big Bend country, an arid and unpopulated desert region along the Mexican border.

Among this party of soldiers and civilians, lives are lost in firefights with Otero’s men. When Clementine is found, most of the surviviors turn back, leaving Colum and a handful of others to follow Otero. Among them are the generous and fatherly Captain Henry and the mysterious Lohman.

There are still many treacherous miles to cover and several turns of plot before the story reaches its end, steeped in more bloodshed and sorrows. Robb leaves a reader with this feeling you get sometimes from both McMurtry and McCarthy, that the West was won at a terrible cost, whether men or women, Indian or white, living or dead.

Heroism. The novel is compelling for the way it takes the elements of the traditional western and casts them in an unaccustomed light. Elmer Kelton would do something similar in his Texas Ranger trilogy, Lone Star Rising, but his focus is on the heroism found on both sides of the Indian Wars.

Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Robb looks past that, not to deny it, but to shake us to the core with the uncertainties and anxieties of living in those times. Also, to strip away some of the myth that obscures history. She humanizes the heroism, and doing so bonds us to her characters as people with hopes, fears, and mixed motives little different from our own.

Some might call her central character, Colum, an anti-hero. He harks back to Cain, the brother-murdering son of Adam and Eve. Alone in the world, he is haunted by guilt, regrets, and painful memories. A sexual urgency in him draws him powerfully to the wife of his friend Michael. We admire him finally for the courage to face whatever threatens to kill him, including his unforgiving father.

Wrapping up. As I began by saying, this is a fine novel. I rarely say about a novel that it was hard to put down. That’s no reflection on good writing; I’m just easily distracted. But there were times when this one had me and refused to let go. For anyone who likes their westerns well grounded in history, this is one you don’t want to miss.

Julia Robb describes herself as a former journalist and magazine writer, who grew up in small-town Texas. She now lives in Marshall, Texas, where she works as a free-lance editor. You can read about her life growing up at her blog. Scalp Mountain is currently available as an ebook for the kindle.

Julia Robb

Julia Robb has generously agreed to talk here today about writing and the writing of Scalp Mountain, so I'm turning the rest of this page over to her.

Fellow Texas writer Larry McMurtry has said, “Backward is just not a natural direction for Americans to look—historical ignorance remains a national characteristic.” Would you share that opinion?
Absolutely. Americans do not know or understand their history, and they have been brainwashed to believe in good guys and bad guys: Somebody has to be right. Liberal thinkers enjoy exposing notables as imperfect and more traditional thinkers believe in the myth of the heroic.

The truth is in between. From the beginning of the world, humans have been imperfect and complicated, thus our history has been imperfect and complicated. Thomas Jefferson was an impressive person and one who, with many others, risked everything to fight the English, but he was also human and probably had a slave mistress. Was he a bad man or a good man? Do we judge him by 21st Century standards, or by the standards of his time?

Much of this ignorance stems from America’s eagerness for the future, which produces a reluctance to look back even one day. It’s easier to put things in categories and go on. Mass media also trains people to want pablum. On the other hand, Americans (and probably most of the world) have always preferred the cheap seats.

Big Bend National Park, Texas
How do you define the term “traditional western,” and is Scalp Mountain an example of one?
I tried to write Scalp Mountain as a historical novel, meaning a book which helps explain events during a specific time period, and one which embodies themes. Many novels which appear to be Westerns are not; for instance, Tom Lea’s very fine The Wonderful Country.

I urge anyone interested in the frontier, Texas, Mexico and/or art, to read this book (Lea was a visual artist as well as a writer and he illustrated Wonderful Country). Lea never got the recognition he deserved for The Wonderful Country.

I guess I don’t know what a traditional Western is. I just take books for what they are.

To what extent did growing up and living in Texas help or hinder the writing of this novel?
I couldn’t have written Scalp Mountain without growing up in Texas, with the distances, the sky spreading to the end of the world. It shaped my spirit, although I’m not sure what shape it took. And Texans are not like other Americans and that has to do with their history; particularly the long, barbaric Comanche wars. It shaped the culture. (Read Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne, to understand this).

I was exiled in Maryland for fifteen years, working, and I can tell you Maryland is wonderful, but its people were shaped by a whole different ethos.

In reading western fiction, can you tell those who write of Texas from a lifetime of first-hand experience and those who don’t?
I’m not sure, I haven’t read that many historical novels or westerns about Texas. There’s really not a whole lot of them. I can sure tell the late Tom Lea grew up in Texas. His tone, meaning the feel of the place, is perfect.

I’ve found women and men write different kinds of books about Texas, and/or the American West. Women writers tend to be sloppily sentimental about Indians and their culture (by the way, I’ve asked many Indians what they want to be called, Native American, etc. and they always told me they are comfortable with “Indian”).

Men tend to be more rigorous, although not always. One Texas writer wrote a novel from the Comanches’ point of view and he didn’t even mention Comanche raped their women captives to death, or kept them in sexual slavery. This kind of stuff is important because it’s truth.

Santa Elena Canyon, Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park
Did any of the characters surprise you as they took shape in the writing?
Henry surprised me. He turned out to be such a character; a man willing to do what he had to do, but loving in his attitudes, poetic (although a terrible poet) and whimsical. I missed him so much after, well, you know...

How closely does the finished story compare to the way you originally conceived it?
It’s pretty much the way I thought it out. The characters grew a little. And the research produced complete surprises. It was a revelation to find that everybody on the frontier scalped everybody else; white men scalped other white men, whites scalped Indians, Indians scalped Indians, Indians scalped whites. In one instance, some Indian even scalped a white man’s dog. That’s true.

Talk about how you decided on the novel’s title.
This story is about the Indian Wars. I wanted to tell a balanced story and that meant demonstrating that both sides were right, both were wrong and everybody got hurt. The wholesale scalping was the perfect symbol for this. Do you remember the scene where Henry and Colum were riding past “Scalp Mountain,” and Colum told Henry why it was given that name?

Pima caught two Apache and crucified them on the mountain. They used real crosses and tied the Apache to the crosses with green rawhide, then left them to die in the sun. That really happened. I went a step further, to illustrate the book’s theme, by having the Pima decorate the crosses with scalps; white, Indian, Mexican.

To what extent was writing this novel influenced by western movies and TV?
I think all American writers have been influenced by film. We’ve had movies now more than one hundred years and it has trained everyone to see cinemagraphically. I know that’s the way I see, when I’m writing.

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Talk a bit about the creative decisions that went into the cover of the novel.
I looked online for Texas landscape painters and found the wonderful David Forks. When I looked through his online gallery, I found the book cover. It seemed like a perfect illustration for the book, a somber mountain in West Texas.

I’m grateful to David for letting me use his painting and for designing the book cover for me. I urge everyone to go to his online gallery and look at his work. His website is at, or write him at

Do women writers bring something to the writing of western fiction that male writers generally don’t?

How would you hope to influence other western writers?
I don’t know how to answer that. We just all do what we do. I guess I do hope writers would delve deeper into events and produce books which are more complex and nuanced about cultures and people. Some idiot, writing on Facebook, recently declared that Custer was a psychopath. Total ignorance. Custer was not a psychopath.

What can readers expect from you next?
I’m not sure. I’ve written sixty pages of a novel I’m not happy with and it’s in a drawer. I have another finished novel, about Texas in the 1960s, about the power struggle between Anglos and Hispanics, but nobody will publish it. Agents say it’s not a genre novel, it isn’t mystery, it isn’t thriller, it isn’t fantasy, it isn’t a Western, etc., so we can’t sell it. I’m almost finished with a movie script based on Scalp Mountain. No telling what will happen to it.

Anything you’d like to talk about that we didn’t cover?
Yes, I believe life is tragic, but tragedy can produce redemption. Art, at its best, produces transcendence. And that’s what I’ve tried to do with this book.

Thanks, Julia. Every success.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River (1900)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Man Behind the Gun (1953)

Insurrection in Southern California. Who knew? Actually there was an armed contingent sympathetic to the Confederacy in Los Angeles during the Civil War, and this Randolph Scott western gives a nod to that historical factoid. Just a nod, though. The Man Behind the Gun is basically a political thriller with six-guns.
Scott plays a Union cavalry officer masquerading as a wannabe schoolteacher to uncover cloak and dagger intrigue in the city of surf and sunshine. For sidekicks he has two former Army men (Dick Wesson and Alan Hale, Jr.), who provide the humor. Romance is provided by Patrice Wymore, just arrived in the Southland as the bride-to-be of an Army captain (Philip Carey).

Philip Carey, Operation Pacific, 1951
Plot. The sequence of events in this film is so complicated, it would stretch any reader’s patience to summarize it adequately. Let it be said that the cast of characters includes an outspoken advocate for the secession of Southern California (probably an idea that was not new then or since), and a wishy-washy liberal senator who fakes his own death to acquire control of Los Angeles’ water supply. (Yes, you read that right.)
Up to her ears in treachery is a chanteuse with the unlikely stage name of Chona Degnon (Lina Romay), who turns out to be the captain’s squeeze. She gets to sing a Latino song or two at a big pleasure palace with stage acts and table service. The basement is filled with guns and gunpowder.

Joaquin Murrieta, artist's portrayal, c1858
In an early scene, a smooth highwayman attempts without success to rob a stagecoach. During the failed robbery, Scott meets and befriends the young, real-life bandit, Joaquin Murrieta (Robert Cabal), who had been appearing as a character in movies since 1927. Murrieta happily switches to Scott’s side of the law and helps fight the bad guys, knifing some and igniting a conflagration that burns down the pleasure palace.

Wymore has shrugged off Carey as a two-timer, and she turns the charm on Scott. But she gets kidnapped and taken by the villains into the hills, where they take their stand against the cavalry, who descend (ascend really; it’s uphill) on them guns blazing. She and Romay have a hair-pulling tussle on the floor as the men stand in an open doorway and gawk. Romay finally takes a round that puts her out of action.

In the lead up to the shoot out, Wesson and Hale play a homesteading couple, Wesson in long dress and bonnet, with a covered wagon full of foot soldiers. This arrangement is milked for laughs, as when Wesson pretends to be offended when Scott strips off his uniform to disguise himself in civilian clothes.

Patrice Wymore with Kirk Douglas, The Big Trees, 1952
And so it goes. The villains are killed or otherwise subdued. Carey tends to the wounded Romay. Scott and Wymore have a big kiss. There’s some physical humor as Wesson and Hale get the last laugh.

Wrapping up. Scott does his usual best in a role that requires him to be quick thinking, confident, and a sharp shooter. Handsome and graceful, he looks good either on or off a horse, in or out of uniform. His wry smile masking his forthright intentions, he’s a stand-up hero.

There’s no room in the busy script for depth of character. The driving intent of the film is to provide plenty of action. Curiously, many of the exterior scenes were effectively shot on the sound stage. Technicolor makes it all look pretty, but the occasional scenes shot outdoors (looks like Simi Valley while it was still ranchland) are less visually interesting.

Old stagecoach road, Simi Hills, near Chatwsorth, California
Character actors Wesson and Hale provide much of the spark in the film. TV fans will remember Hale as The Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island.” Director Felix Feist worked extensively in film and TV from the 1940s into the 1960s. Screenwriter John Twist produced a string of westerns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, going on to write films in other genres, including The FBI Story (1959).

The Man Behind the Gun is currently available at amazon and netflix. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Stagecoach road photo courtesy of PKM

Coming up: Julia Robb, Scalp Mountain

Monday, May 28, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 32

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Willis George Emerson’s Buell Hampton, about the carry-on in a small town in west Kansas, and Ridgwell Cullum’s The Story of the Foss River Ranch, about the fate of a man who cheats at cards. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “sugar-bagging,” “slapsided,” “choyeuse,” or “neche,” leave a comment below.

Room with wicker chairs, c1905
basket chair = a chair made of wickerwork, a wicker chair. “Then he lounged into his basket chair and rubbed his fleshy hands reflectively.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

bob = a short sleigh runner. “The sleigh sped along with that intoxicating smoothness only to be felt when traveling with double ‘bobs’ on a perfect trail.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

boodle = large amount of money. “You told me to lift his boodle. Time was short—he wouldn’t play for long.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

box stove = a box-shaped wood-burning stove, widely used from colonial times in public buildings and residences. “The old farmer at once set about kindling, with the aid of some coal-oil, a fire in the great box-stove.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

Poster for Chickering pianos, 1918
brain fag = mental exhaustion. “I’m mighty near worked to death in my office,—fact is, I’m ’lowin’ I’ll have the brain fag if things don’t let up.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

Chickering = American piano manufacturer located in Boston, founded in 1823. “A Chickering upright stood in one corner, strangely contrasting with the rude sideboard-table, which was supported by pins fastened in the wall.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

deadwood = discarded playing cards. “Bill gathered up the ‘deadwood,’ and, propping his face upon his hands, watched the betting.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

duffing = cattle stealing. “According to your message you are the chief victim of this ‘duffing’ business?” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

Earthen and iron pots, Cobb 2nd Reader, 1911
earthen and iron pots = a fable in which an earthen pot is shattered by an iron pot, the moral being that one should keep the company of one’s own kind. “Nothing will satisfy them but a human sacrifice on the altar of a questionable nobility, and a repetition of the old fable of the earthen and iron pots.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

flank = throw a calf onto its side for branding. “Roping and flanking calves has an interest peculiar to itself.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

BITS is two years old

Yesterday was the second anniversary of this blog. I can’t know what I’ll be thinking a year from now, but I can say today that blogging has been a lifesaver. That’s not an exaggeration.

It has given purpose to what once looked like the uselessness of retirement. Work had long satisfied a need to be useful—to have a calling. What would take the place of that? I’d considered volunteer organizations, but nothing ever clicked. As a low-paid teacher most of my work life, I’d “volunteered” enough time and talent into a service industry to last for a good long while anyway.

Then I almost literally stumbled onto blogging. After reading Paul Powers’ posthumous memoir Pulp Writer, I found Laurie Powers’ blog online and then Blogger itself, which insisted that starting a blog was easy. And so it was.

Settling on a focus for a blog was also easy. There was my long-held interest in the historic Old West and the cowboy, which was starting to cross over into western fiction and movies. My first post was an observance of John Wayne’s birthday (May 26), and it was a slippery slope from there.

There’s never been a need to change the original scope of the blog, which appears in the banner above today as it did two years ago. There’s more than enough in those two sentences to last through many retirements.

What I didn’t expect was that an interest in early westerns, which started with a  previous discovery of writer Dane Coolidge, would expand into a years-long research project. Curious about the origins of the western novel, I began reading fiction set in the West and published around the time of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902).

Expecting to find maybe a dozen or so writers, I discovered a multitude of them, many preceding Wister by decades, many of them women, and virtually all of them forgotten. By happy chance, nooks and kindles came along, and these old forgotten out-of-print writers became available again as cheap or free ebooks. There was nothing stopping me from reading them all.

Blogging gave the opportunity to write about them as I read them. And the writing then began to look like the makings of a book—then several books. Blogging also invited a way to write about them that wasn’t the stuffy academic style with its theory-driven fashions. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, trust me, you don’t want to know.)

Connection. It’s a gift to find the hundreds of western fiction fans and writers in the blogs and the other social media. You’re in touch with people who love westerns simply for themselves, not as a subject of approved discourse for the scholarly journals. So this post is in part a big thanks to everyone I’ve met online who has become an audience and encouraged me by their comments or simply by the attention they’ve paid.

Something I didn't expect is that blogging offers the acquaintance of writers, who make great company for someone who loves the written word. Carolyn See, a southern California novelist, once recommended that aspiring writers send a fan letter a day to writers they have liked. It was  good discipline, she said. It also diminished the isolation that writers experience, who too infrequently enjoy connection with the professional community they are part of.

How quaintly old fashioned to think of trusting such sentiments to snail mail, especially when your only mailing address is the writer’s publisher. Today writers and readers can find each other, meet if they want in the blogs (and to a lesser extent in the other social media), and writers can meet other writers.

I have loved books all my life, and I have done some writing of my own that can be found in books and journals. I love the written word like some people love the movies. (How often have I sat in a so-so movie thinking, I could be reading a book.) And I enjoy people who enjoy reading so much that they write, too. People who don’t read books are like people without curiosity—without souls.

I’d like to make a list of the blogs and blog readers who have been good company over the past two years. Some have turned me on to ideas, interests, and books I would not have known otherwise. Some have shared their personal words and pictures that have made me feel part of their lives. But a list would make this post way too long.

So I’ll end by saying this. You can say what you want about how the social media increase rather than diminish social isolation (and in some ways they apparently do). But blogging gives someone like me a place to feel both connected and useful. On this road not taken that I call my life, it has made all the difference.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons; Lifebuoy photo by benkid77

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 32

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saturday music: Vince Gill

Out of 100 Vince Gill songs, how do you pick just one? You get double your money with this one--Vince singing a Willie Nelson favorite. The song was written by Fred Rose and first performed by Roy Acuff. Willie made it his own in 1975 on his album Red Headed Stranger.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: desert walk

 Two shadows. Snapped this one about 6:30 one recent morning while out with the dog (lower right) on our daily walk in the desert. Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail. 

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 32

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch (1903)

Bow River Valley, Alberta
This definitely dark early western is set in Alberta, Canada, well beyond the reach of the civilized frontier. Residents of the settlement at Foss River are a handful of whites and a prairie ghetto of so-called “half-breeds.” All have a view of the Rockies to the West and, running along its foothills, a 40-mile-long muskeg, or bog. This natural feature plays naturally into the hands of cattle thieves, who know a way to drive stolen cattle across it without getting sucked permanently beneath its surface.

Plot. But accidents happen. Before the start of the story, a celebrated thief by the name of Peter Retief suddenly disappeared, an apparent victim of the muskeg. Two years later, his horse is discovered grazing on the far side of it, and Retief’s 22-year-old half-sister, Jacky, crosses over to investigate.

Muskeg, northern Alaska
Jacky is of one-quarter native parentage. Raised by her uncle, John Allandale, an unmarried white man, she gratefully looks after him in his declining years and runs his cattle ranch, while he drinks heavily and obsessively plays poker. Meanwhile, she keeps up her connections with the other “breeds.”

Allandale has, in fact, gambled away all he’s worth. The man who has won it from him is a storekeeper in the village, Lablache. A crafty Shylock of a moneylender, he’s waiting for the opportunity to forgive the debts in exchange for the hand of the lovely Jacky.

Meanwhile, Jacky and another rancher, Bill Bunning-Ford, are busy getting friendly. Bunning-Ford is another victim of poker debt, and when Lablache calls in his loan to get him out of the way, it means the sale of his ranch.

North West Mounted Police, c1885
Retief then reappears in a daring nighttime raid. He steals the entire herd of cattle Lablache has just acquired at Bunning-Ford’s auction. Only it’s not Retief, as the astute reader quickly figures out. It’s Bunning-Ford in disguise.

The North West Mounted Police take notice and send out a Sergeant Horrocks, who sets about capturing the renegade. Too confident in his abilities at detection, Horrocks gets kidnapped instead. While a captive, he is shown the way across the muskeg by his kidnappers.

Later, determined to cross it himself to capture the man he believes to be Retief, he makes a fatal misstep, and the muskeg claims another life. That leaves justice in the hands of the local authorities, which in this case means anybody who has a gun and is willing to use it.

In the climax of the story, Lablache makes his play for Jacky, in a final game of poker with Allandale. Guns are drawn before the game is over, and Allandale falls dead. The “half-breeds” take revenge, and as Jacky and Bunning-Ford watch in horror, they cruelly take Lablache to the muskeg and force him at gunpoint to find his own way across. Which he doesn’t.

Early settler, Calgary, Alberta, c1880
Character. In this grim story, there’s hardly a single man to admire for his character traits. Bunning-Ford comes close, for his daring and his decency, but he is first of all a gentleman and a man of his class. When he inadvertently discovers that Lablache has been cheating at cards, he says nothing about it, as if it were bad form to reveal misconduct he’s learned of by chance.

For someone with a hyphenate name, it also seems bad form to work very hard at anything. Cigarettes, drink, cards, and dressing well seem about the limit of his efforts. Only when disguised as Retief in greasepaint and a horsehair wig and riding a magnificent horse is he free to behave recklessly and with purpose. One is reminded of Zorro.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Man in the Saddle (1951)

Randolph Scott is a rancher in this western, with a nasty neighbor (Alexander Knox) who doesn’t like to share. Knox is the biggest rancher in the valley, and he wants the whole valley. That includes Joan Leslie, who tires of waiting for Scott to pop the question and marries Knox instead in the first reel.

From that point on, Kenneth Gamet’s script either runs out of ideas or goes after too many of them. There’s a second woman (Ellen Drew), with a small ranch nearby and a lot of gumption. She is sweet on Scott, but he’s still hankering for the married Leslie. It’s hard to understand why. She’s heartless as they come having married for money, and skip the connubial bliss, as the groom learns on his wedding night.

Plot. Knox and his foreman (Richard Rober) try to force Scott off his ranch, and they get pretty rough. They stampede his cattle and kill first one and then another of two cowboys. When Scott retaliates by shooting up a line camp full of Knox’s men, he and his house get shot up in return.

Ellen Drew, 1939
Leslie, meanwhile, has second thoughts about marriage to Knox and wants Scott to run off with her. But when he takes a round in one leg, he is rescued by Drew, who takes him to a mountain cabin to recuperate. Things are pretty friendly between them, and there’s the suggestion that something’s going on when the lights go out at night.

Enter loose cannon John Russell, who’s been making moves on Drew from the beginning and won’t get the hint that she’s not interested. He follows Scott and Drew to the mountain cabin with the professed intent to finish them both off. There’s a spectacular fistfight that first brings down the roof of the cabin and ends up with both men (then Drew) hurtling down a muddy mountain slope. Russell not only gets a drubbing from Scott but, when he returns to the ranch, is shot dead by Knox, his boss.

Cutting to the chase here, the final settling of scores happens in the hotel and the streets of town during a fierce, tumbleweed-blowing gale. Knox is shot when he steps into the line of fire between his foreman and Scott. The foreman attempts to outdraw Scott but fails. Scott and Drew then ride off together in a buckboard.

Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1957
Added value. The film was shot in Technicolor in the always handsome Alabama Hills of central California, with the snow-clad Sierras as a backdrop. The mountain cabin is located on wooded slopes above the snowline, where spring thaws swell the streams.

Tennessee Ernie Ford with his rich baritone voice appears by a roundup campfire to sing the theme song, “Man in the Saddle.” It was his first film appearance, and with a cowboy hat and a shaved upper lip, he passes easily as a ranch hand.

The presence of wonderful character actor Clem Bevans is a pleasure in the early scenes before he disappears from the plot. Bevans, thin as a rail and sporting a thick mustache, had a career of playing codgers. John Russell, of course, with his chiseled features, went on to star as TV's Lawman (1958-1962). The film also marks an early appearance of Cameron Mitchell, who would later turn in performances on 97 episodes of TV’s High Chaparral (1967-71).

Clem Bevans (right), The Kansan (1943)
Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya plays Scott’s cook, and while taking a ribbing for his awful coffee, his character is more than an ethnic stereotype. He gets to play in some action scenes, and a running gag about his unsuccessful attempts to acquire a proper hat plays right to the last scene, where he snaps up the dead villain’s Stetson. Not sure how funny that is, but for what it’s worth, Bedoya gets the last laugh.

As for the action, there’s that spectacular fistfight between Scott and Russell. During the cattle stampede, Scott races to jump onto a runaway chuck wagon, which then ignites and bursts into flames behind him. A shootout in a saloon takes place in the dark, and we have to wait until the lights come back on to see who was a casualty.

Wrapping up. The film was based on a 1938 novel by Ernest Haycox, and anyone who has read it can say whether one bears any resemblance to the other. What’s missing for the audience is a clear understanding of Scott’s character beyond his desire to keep his ranch. His stiff upper lip says a lot but not enough.

His adversaries are cardboard characters, with the murderously irrational desire to possess what they can’t have. Leslie’s character is downright puzzling. What does she really want and does she even know? At the end, she seems intent on carrying out the wishes of her dying husband, but where did that come from?

There’s a slap-happy humor in some scenes and outright farce in others that might fit in a B-western but seem somewhat out of place in this film, where the drama seems meant to be taken seriously. The costuming and domestic interiors take advantage of the Technicolor and are so tastefully designed, you know you’re not far from Hollywood and Vine.

In a directing career that lasted from 1939-1987, Andre de Toth brought a number of memorable westerns to the screen, including Springfield Rifle (1952) and Day of the Outlaw (1959) both reviewed here earlier. Man in the Saddle is currently available at netflix and amazon.

For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies, head on over to Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch (1903)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Wayne D. Dundee, Manhunter’s Mountain

Review and interview
This bracing Cash Laramie adventure has been available for several months, and don’t ask how it happened to take me so long to give it a proper reading. Wayne Dundee spins a helluva yarn, and this novella-length novel really delivers.

Cash Laramie, the sometimes rogue U.S. marshal, is the creation of David Cranmer, writing as Edward Grainger. It’s fun watching this character perform in Dundee’s capable hands. Typically coming to the aid of the oppressed and downtrodden, Cash has a more routine job this time—taking in a wanted man.

His familiar no-nonsense attitude prevails, however, and it’s soon needed as he deals with the uncooperative bar owner in a boom-and-bust mining settlement. Before we know it, the man is dead or dying and the saloon itself is a flaming inferno. Which happens to put two prostitutes out of work.

Plot. The main plot proceeds simply enough then as Cash heads down off the mountain with the ill-mannered fugitive he’s come to arrest and the two women, who join him. But what starts as a straightforward man-against-nature story—they need to make it over a pass before winter weather descends—quickly gets more complicated.

Cash learns that he’s being followed by three men who intend to ambush him. One of them, a bounty hunter, is about the meanest villain you’d ever care to be within 100 miles of. The other two have their eyes on the whores.

Magic. Dundee is a precision-sharp storyteller, and he shines when he turns his talents to the western. His story is well paced and briskly told. You keep wondering just how he manages such a tight grip on your attention. Part of it is the simple matter of continuing to raise the stakes for his characters, which itself is easier said than done.

Another part is the enigmatic character of Cash himself. There’s a shadowed ambiguity about him you can’t quite explain. Raised by Indians, whose culture is embedded deep within him, he’s like the brother from another planet—never quite at home in this world. Meanwhile, he has this dangerous and never pleasant job to do.

He’s a displaced person, and you might say his frequent identification with the disenfranchised and marginalized is a reflection of that. We identify with him in our own benighted age because he’s connected to a moral center in a world that doesn’t recognize one. It respects only material gain and lethal force.

Part of Dundee’s magic is the ability to make plot emerge from character. Each of his people is vividly original. Each of them wants something and wants it badly. Thus each brings his individual complications to the story.

Dundee shows how he can take a few of the western’s standard elements and fit them to a familiar plotline—hunter and hunted, in this case. His characters then do the work of creating a narrative pressure that doesn’t stop. This is a story to read once for the plot and once again for the art of storyteller. Every aspiring western writer can learn from it. Manhunter’s Mountain is currently available for the kindle at amazon.

Wayne has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS today to talk about writing and about Manhunter's Mountain. So I am turning the rest of this page over to him.

Wayne D. Dundee

Ernest Hemingway said about writing, “All you need is a perfect ear, absolute pitch, the devotion to your work that a priest of God has for his, the guts of a burglar, no conscience except to writing, and you’re in. It’s easy.” Has that been your experience?
No. Not at all. With all due respect to Hemingway and others of his ilk (or stature, if you will), every time I read one of those overblown, overly dramatic, angst-ridden quotes about how one must suffer for his or her art and how you must open up your veins onto the blank piece of paper ... blah, blah, blah ... it makes me want to slap 'em up alongside the head and tell them to knock off the bullshit and get real.

Writers write. It is something you chose to pursue—or maybe it chooses you. Either way, if and when you DO decide to go down that path, it becomes something that, like any other skill or craft you seek to develop, you can enhance only by working at it and having a burning desire in your gut to want to KEEP working at it until you (hopefully) hone it to an acceptable level, and then keep honing to try and make it sharper.

I've put in 14-hour shifts at hard, physical labor and then gone home and written another two or three hours at whatever my current WIP was because I had that burning desire to get it down and get it done and tell my story as good as I was able. To me, THAT'S what writing is about. Neither God nor an aspiration toward the priesthood nor a burglar's fortitude nor limiting my conscience in other areas ever entered into it ... But then, I don't have a Pulitzer Prize for literature either. So what the hell do I know...

How do you define the term “traditional western,” and is Manhunter’s Mountain an example?
To answer the last part of your question first, yes I think Manhunter's Mountain is very much a traditional Western. How do I define "traditional Western"? Broadly put, it is a story taking place in the time frame between 1870 and 1910, and set in the United States somewhere west of the Missouri River. The northern regions of Mexico bordering Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California also often serve as a setting and, to a lesser degree, perhaps the Yukon region of Canada.

Basically, that's it. Within this framework, the Western can envelope many other genre categories. At its heart, however, there is always a broad, sweeping awareness of the land and a sense of the rugged frontier spirit propelling the people trying to tame it (either by fair means or foul).

How did it affect your usual way of telling a story to have a central character created by someone else?
Once I got into it, not as much as I thought it might. For starters, I was already very familiar with the Cash character from having read all of David's previous stories. Plus I cut back and forth between different "sets" of characters as the story progressed, so Cash's POV became one of many (although the most prominent) and once I had his character fixed in my mind it felt fairly natural and easy to work from that perspective.

To what extent did Cash’s boyhood among Indians affect the way you imagined him in this novel?
Not a great deal, not for the purposes of this particular story. As I said, I already had Cash's character fixed pretty well in my head before I started—his mannerisms, his outlook on things. Since his upbringing was obviously a part of FORMING those traits, I just went with that.

Otherwise, there is a scene where he tells Faye, one of the prostitutes he is rescuing, about his time with the Arapaho. And near the climax, where he is struggling to survive the blizzard after being swept downstream in frozen waters, he calls upon his Indian stoicism and perhaps even a bit of mysticism to not only survive the ordeal but to come out stronger and more focused for what he has to do next.

What was it like working with David Cranmer, who developed the Cash-Miles series?
Easy as pie. Once we agreed I would do a short novel in the series, David sent me the "Cash Laramie Bible" that had all the necessary histories and references. I followed it. He liked what I sent him.

I don't recall a single request for alteration other than I made a mistake on the name of Cash's horse. Oh yeah, and at one point he kinda nudged me to open up a bit with the violence. Otherwise, he kept saying that I'd nailed the character of Cash right from the get-go, and I was happy to go with that.

Does it concern you that a certain kind of reader might get off on the novel’s scenes of rough sex?
I don't really see where there were any "scenes of rough sex" ... There was some abuse of the two prostitutes implied and/or discussed, but any actual scenes involving sex were "off camera" and, I thought, handled realistically but rather discreetly.

At any rate, if I'd seen fit to include such scenes then I would stand by them as something I felt necessary. I owe the readers a good, well crafted story told to the best of my ability. I don't set out to offend anyone but at the same time I don't shirk from possible offense if there's something I think fits the story or a particular character. There's always the possibility I will strike the wrong chord with some readers—I can't help that.

All this fuss over trying to be politically correct all the time drives me nuts. There are way too many people in this whine-ass/watch-dog world we currently live in who spend way too much time LOOKING for something to be offended by, either for themselves or "for the sake" of someone else ... they need to lighten up, get a sense of humor and focus their attention on some of the REAL problems in our society.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Myth of the Code of the West

Cattle drovers, El Centro, California, 1972
Among western fans, a lot of deference is paid to something called “The Code of the West.” There apparently was such a code of behavior on the frontier—more likely several codes. Since they were unwritten, there’s no sure way of knowing exactly what they were.

A popular book Cowboy Ethics with beautiful western photographs by David R. Stoecklein gets mentioned by cowboy enthusiasts, often in connection with National Day of the Cowboy. Its subtitle, What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, gives a curious twist to the subject. Published in 2004, just before the current economic meltdown, it also sounds more than a little prophetic.

Like the Commandments, the author James P. Owen lays out ten rules of conduct that the book calls “The Code of the West.” His source for these rules seems to be the western movies he has seen (Open Range, Shane), not any kind of historical research. Though he claims to have read a stack of books, there’s no list of them to verify that claim.

I’m not writing this to knock Owen’s efforts to get some accountability in the financial industry, or anywhere else for that matter. But while there may be some truth in it, the problem with his argument is that it’s based so thoroughly on myth.

When western fans evoke the Code of the West, it’s nearly always in service of an argument about an ideal American past when men were decent, honest, and incorruptible. My argument is that outside of a handful of idealists, some cowboys among them, that America never existed.

Land sale poster, Texas, 1800s
If you don’t read, you don’t know this. Over and again, reading early western novels, I find an America that’s little different from today. What you learn is that the urge to get rich quick prevailed. Everywhere, there were people gaming the system to milk it for every dollar they could get.

The land giveaways in the West are a prime example. For all those homesteaders with the best of intentions, there were many speculators with no higher aspiration than to buy low and sell high. Greed built boomtowns that were no more than bubbles engineered by profiteers. There were phony investment companies and banks absconding with people’s savings.

The railroad monopolies had their part to play in all this, luring settlers into the West with false promises and then bleeding them dry with crippling freight rates. They bought legislators and judges to look after their interests. The American West was a free-for-all for crooks, swindlers and robber barons.

Working cowboys. The code-abiding cowboy probably existed to a degree. The best evidence of that is his poverty. He worked and worked hard for low wages, and unless he turned to thievery, there was little alternative, given his lack of education and social polish. To tighten their grip on the cattle industry, cattlemen squeezed cowboys out of developing equity in a herd of their own by turning “rustling” into a crime.

Working cowboys, South Dakota, 1888
We know from reading newspaper accounts of the time that cowboys were regarded as a menace to society. Armed as they usually were, young, and given to drink, cowboys were also prone to high-risk, often lethal misbehavior. Some rebelled against the incursions of Eastern-style law and order. A gang of them, as just one example, gave the Earps trouble in Tombstone.

Historically, it makes more sense to see cowboys as social outcasts. Law abiding or law breaking, they clung to a kind of personal honor that men do anywhere who are disadvantaged and opposed by the same adversaries. The codes they lived by originated before the coming of the law in the West, and they remained mostly extra-legal.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Where men administer their own code of conduct, there are rarely any loopholes—and no need for lawyers. That system of justice has a tempting appeal in today's complex world. And its celebration in western movies accounts in large part for their continuing appeal.

But it has nothing to do with a lost America that many western fans believe once existed and yearn for a return to. I would argue that a return to the America of, say, 1885 would find a world little different from our own. Greed, corruption, and malfeasance up and down the social order—and people disadvantaged by them—would prevail as they do now.

And where there was a belief in progress, a hope for a more equitable future would be found everywhere. As we struggle clumsily for that same future today, an honorable code of conduct would do much to making progress toward that goal a reality. But myths about the past won’t do it.

Just my opinion, of course. I’m open to reasoned argument.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Randolph Scott, Man in the Saddle (1951)