Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturday music: Craig Morgan

Great dance song if you know how to Texas two-step.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 36

Friday, June 29, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: happy taxi

This one caught my eye a few months ago at the Riverside Downtown train station. The bright yellow and the smiley face seem made for each other. And if you've been putting off getting those tattoo lessons, you might want to jot down that phone number on the roof.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Saturday music, Craig Morgan

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Charles Duff Stuart, Casa Grande (1906)

The “big house” of the title is the comfortable home of a gringo ranchero, John Miller, who has acquired a former land grant in Sonoma County, California. It’s 1858, ten years after the war with Mexico that gave California to the Americans. His problem is that squatters began to settle on his 7,500 acres before he was able to prove ownership in court. Now he has to enlist the local sheriff, Sam Bailey, to evict them.

One family does not leave without a fight. The Clarks, a widow and three grown children, make a last stand, and the daughter, Belle, puts a rifle shot through Bailey’s arm. This is a bitter development for the sheriff, who’s been sweet on 19-year-old Belle for some time and has matrimony in mind. The central character of this “California pastoral,” as it calls itself in a subtitle, is Miller, and the story concerns an attachment that develops against all odds between Belle and himself.

Plot. Belle cannot forgive him for forcing her family off a homestead that they’ve improved and lived on for eight years. It doesn’t matter that at his own expense he helps them rebuild a home on nearby public land that is available for settlers.

When intruders attempt to set fire to one of his barns, he and his vaqueros take shots at them as they flee into the night. The single one of them who takes a hit turns out to be Belle. Her injury is life threatening, and Miller’s emotions are tinged with awareness that it was a shot from his pistol that felled her.

Casa de los Cerritos, Long Beach, California
As her condition worsens, she develops paralysis that leaves her near death for several days. Miller’s old friend, Dr. Payne, a former army surgeon, is called from his practice in San Francisco to save her. His wife, Mabel, bored with city life, comes along later for a stay at Casa Grande, to look after the recuperating Belle. Though each would deny it, she quickly sees romance budding between the girl and Miller.

A novel of no particular interest up to this point comes to life as Mabel attempts to avert what she sees as a bad match. The difference in social class, she believes, makes Belle poor marriage material for Miller. The girl may be pretty and spirited, but she is handicapped by her caste. She cannot compensate for the lack of good breeding that produces a truly refined and respectable wife.

When she recovers her health, a misunderstanding between the two lovers separates them long enough for Bailey the sheriff to renew his suit for her hand. But it’s Miller she wants, and she makes this known with a campaign of gently but persistently stalking him. On the final pages, author Stuart finally brings them together in a pastoral setting thick with blooming azaleas.

Lynch Creek, Petaluma, California
Character. Miller is first and last a gentleman. He might behave coldly toward the Clarks by driving them off his land, but he tries to be reasonable with them and never loses patience.

Out of a sense of fairness, he offers to pay for the improvements they’ve made or to sell the land to them. But they won’t willingly move, and they won’t buy what they consider their rightful property. When they’re arrested and put in jail, Miller tries to pay their bail, but they won’t accept his charity. They finally relent and allow him to help them relocate.

His care for the injured Belle, letting her family move into his house as she slowly recovers, comes from a sense of obligation as well. But while there is decency, there's no great warmth in the man. Think noblesse obliges. He proves himself worthy of respect by showing that he can be even-handed in his dealings with people of the lower social orders. Though the unchallenged master of his vaqueros, for instance, he takes his meals with them.

While Sheriff Bailey might win our sympathies, he is too clearly self-serving in his dealings with the Clarks. Next to Miller, he is coarse and unpolished, a man of modest means and not a real gentleman.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dane Coolidge: photographer

Western writer Dane Coolidge (1873-1940) was also a photographer. Rummaging through old magazines online I came across an article by him about working cowboys in Arizona, fully illustrated with his photographs. The article appeared in a 1904 issue of Sunset Magazine. His book Cowboys of Arizona was published in 1938. His first novel Hidden Water (1910) was reviewed here at BITS a while ago. Find it here.

I like the hip-slung posture of the cowpuncher in the background. I believe it is supposed to be characteristic of the Texas cowboy. You see Paul Newman affecting it in the posters for the movie Hud.

Coming up: Charles Duff Stuart, Casa Grande (1906)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Riding Shotgun (1954)

Here’s another Randolph Scott western from the 1950s. Good script and direction by veteran André de Toth make this one a winner. The live oak dotted, grassy hills of Southern California's Santa Susanna Mountains provide an eye-pleasing location for the story. Scott, of course, is at his best.

Plot. A gang of robbers led by bad man Dan Marady (James Millican) hatches a scheme to rob a casino. They first hold up a stagecoach and draw the local sheriff and his posse into a wild goose chase. This trick leaves the town defenseless while the gang returns to rob the casino.

At the start of the picture, Scott is riding shotgun on the stage but is lured away before the holdup by the opportunity to find Millican and settle an old score. Millican’s man Pinto (Charles Bronson) takes Scott prisoner instead, ties him up and leaves him to die.

When Scott manages to escape and gets to town, he finds that the stage has been robbed, the driver and his rider have been killed, and a female passenger wounded. The evidence is circumstantial, but the townsfolk quickly assume Scott is one of the gang and get lynch fever.

Three people attempt to protect him. A Mexican cantina owner lets him take shelter in his place of business. An old friend, now deputy sheriff (Wayne Morris), tries to cool down the mob, which lays siege to the cantina. The daughter of the casino owner (Joan Weldon) has a romantic interest in Scott, believes he’s innocent, and does what little she can to help him.

Suspense builds, and the gang filters into town to find its citizens distracted by their effort to take Scott and hang him. The robbery of the casino proceeds as planned, and Scott manages to escape in time to stop them from getting away with the loot. In the shootout, Millican and Bronson are shot. The rest are surprised to find the cinches cut on their saddles, and they’re quickly taken prisoner.

Scott being manhandled by Charles Bronson
Highlights. The style of this film is much like André de Toth’s Thunder Over the Plains (1953), reviewed here recently. Despite a large cast of secondary characters, who make up the assemblage of townsfolk in the street, the script, camerawork, and editing make them all stand out as individual personalities. This is partly achieved through judicious use of close-ups.

Wayne Morris’ deputy sheriff is a nicely serio-comic role. Called “Tub” for his prominent gut and habit of withdrawing from the action to the town’s Lunch Room for a meal, he struggles manfully to keep the crowd in check. But the hot heads among them eventually force him to “do his job.”

Coming at the height of Hollywood blacklisting, the film invites parallels with the impact of Congressional witch-hunts on the film industry. The bloodthirsty crowd is whipped into a frenzy by the hysteria and rage of the most vocal among them, including one who is a member of the gang (Bronson). They become an unreasoning mob, ready to rush a man to justice without benefit of trial.

Scott, Richard Patrick, and Joan Weldon
Wrapping up. Shot in WarnerColor and standard ratio, the film is only 73 minutes long. In general, after more than fifty years, it holds up fairly well. Its female lead, Joan Weldon has a not very substantial role. The steamy picture of her character on the poster does not go with the properly respectable woman she portrays in the film. Trained as an operatic singer, Weldon played mostly in westerns for both film and TV. For Charles Bronson, it was one of his first credited roles, when he was still performing under his birth name, Charles Buchinsky.

The film's few weaknesses are minor flaws. German-born Fritz Feld, who plays a cantina operator named Fritz, had a Hollywood career that began with the silents and extended through over 200 screen roles, mostly on TV. His overacting as an excitable Mexican with a large family gets wearing. The repetitive rants of the more voluble in the crowd have a similar effect.

Scott can be heard at numerous times doing a voice-over narration that seems unneeded. His escape unnoticed from the cantina, which is supposed to be surrounded, is not too plausible. It occasions one of the few stunts in the film, as his character jumps from the roof onto a man with a rifle passing in the street below.

The script was by Thomas Blackburn and based on a story by veteran western writer, Kenneth Perkins (1890-1951).  FictionMags Index lists more than 70 stories, novels, and serials by Perkins published over a period of 30 years, many of them appearing in Street & Smith publications.

Curiously, the film came near the end of the careers of two of its actors. Wayne Morris, regarded as “the last of the B-western stars,” had been a much-decorated Navy pilot during World War II. Returning to Hollywood, he appeared in a handful of pictures, including Kubrik’s Paths of Glory (1957) before dying in 1959 at the age of 45. James Millican, after an extensive acting career over most of 25 years, died in 1955, also at the age of 45.

Riding Shotgun is currently available on a three-movie DVD at netflix and at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.


Coming up: Dane Coolidge, photographer

Monday, June 25, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 35

Here’s another set of terms gleaned 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 Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Marie Manning’s Judith of the Plains, about a mixed-race woman in a remote part of Wyoming, and A. B. Ward’s The Sage Brush Parson, about a Methodist minister in a Nevada mining camp. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “exhibit stock,” “chiny,” “blue country,” “cadunkered,” or “crazy lock,” leave a comment below.

bisque = fired, unglazed pottery; used for doll heads. “Bettine, the bisque toy, sat stiffly erect in a go-cart pushed before her.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

blam-jam = mild expletive for “damned.” “We can’t get that blam-jam handcar up to Palisade and back without somethin’ more’n four-man power.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

blow in = to spend money. “The one thought they shared in common was that of the wages that would come to them at the end of the drive; of the feverish joy of ‘blowing in,’ in a single night.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Bride of the Tomb, The = one of 80 dime novels by popular romance writer Mrs. Alex. McVeigh Miller (1850-1937). “The brand on this here book that effected my change of heart was The Bride of the Tomb. I forget the name of the girl in that romance, but she was in hard luck from the start.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

budge = liquor. “‘He don’t put in any “budge,”’ said an honest-faced young miner. ‘Parson wouldn’t allow it.’” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

cap sheaf = the top sheaf of a stack of grain; the crowning or finishing part of a thing. “‘Ricker’s going to say grace. This’ll put on the cap sheaf,’ his next neighbor whispered to Penrose.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

caryatid = a supporting column sculptured in the form of a draped female figure. “She proposed a bewildering choice—an inverted wash-tub, two buckets sustaining the relation of caryatides to a board, the sheet-iron cooking stove.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Clodd, Edward = an early follower of the work of Charles Darwin, and writer of books popularizing evolution (1840-1930). “There lay on the teacher’s ‘desk’ copies of Clodd’s Childhood of the World, two of that excellent series of History Primers, and The Young Geologist.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

“Cowboy’s Lament” = title of a song, also known as “Streets of Laredo.” “They tried all the old favorites, the ‘Cow-boy’s Lament’ being chief among them.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains. Listen here.

Cranford = a town in a series of novels by English author Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865). “Even now her own letters to Peter were no sprightly scrawl of passing events, but efforts whose seriousness suggested, at least in their carefully elaborated stage of structure, the letters of the ladies of Cranford.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Durham Ox, 1802
Durham = a breed of shorthorn cattle developed in 18th century England. “Mrs. Yellett, who had never heard that ‘a soft voice is an excellent thing in woman’ and whose chest-notes were not unlike those of a Durham in sustained volume of sound, made the valley of the Wind River echo with the summons of the pupils to school.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

fairy well = a small pool of water or spring into which visitors dropped pins or buttons for wishes to be granted. “Judith, going to her favorite pool to bathe, saw that it had shrunk till it seemed but a fairy well hid among the willows.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Flannel band
flannel band = a band made of flannel, worn to protect the navel-cord dressing until a baby was six weeks old. “There were infant ailments to be discussed, there were the questions of food and of teething, of paregoric and of flannel bands.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

gee = voice command to horses or oxen to go right; haw, go left. “He watched the driver gee his train with a steady pull on the rod and haw it with two swift, strong jerks.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

geeswax = a mild expletive for “Jesus.” “If ’twould ease the Parson any to talk, by geeswax, he would stand it!” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

go-cart = a stroller, baby walker. “Elsie reluctantly trundled the go-cart out of the room.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Hannah Cook = something of little or no importance; from “hand or cook,” a nautical reference to the lowest worker on a ship. “This was the final word with Shed. When a thing beat Hannah Cook there was no more to be said.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

High Tippy Bob Royal = a very important person; a show off. “He’s a regular High Tippy Bob Royal! That’s what I told Mart Young yesterday.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

ignus fatuus = will-o’-the-wisp; a phosphorescent light that appears in marsh lands. “At the time he was following that ignis fatuus, Holy Grail, pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, which was to him his Duty.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Kate Greenaway illustration
Indian pipe = monotropa uniflora, a flower-like white plant not requiring sunlight, growing in the understory of dense forests; also ghost plant, corpse plant. “In a niche of the wall an alabaster Piétà, brought home from Florence, slender and white and fragile as the Indian pipes that spring without warning in the black forest mold, ghosts of flowers, caught her eye.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Kate Greenaway = English illustrator of children’s books (1846-1901) . “The flowers, a daily offering from the Barkers and Mrs. Wellman and from the Chisholm conservatories, Martha was allowed to put into empty bottles and set up around the room, like a Kate Greenaway frieze.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

laying pipe = a politician’s efforts to accomplish some particular end, frequently his own political advancement. “Dr. Elliott, who came to atone for Dr. Addison’s shortcomings, found himself a possible candidate for State senator and was usually away, ‘laying pipe,’ when he was needed.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Original Lone Star Brewery
Lone Star = the beer; Lone Star Brewery, built in 1884, was the first large, mechanized brewery in Texas, founded by Adolphus Busch with a group of San Antonio businessmen. “Vaughan selected a vacant space between the picture of a female with floating hair and preternaturally large eyes, offering an open box of ‘Lone Star,’ and a presentment of ‘Highland Whiskies: The Best,’ and tacked up the notice.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

make a poor mouth = to complain, to slander. “‘What I like about him’ said Jack, in his customary drawl, ‘is that he don’t “make a poor mouth.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

oh my suz/dear me suz = an all-purpose phrase of emphasis or surprise. “A nightcapped head appeared in the doorway and was suddenly withdrawn, with an ‘Oh, my suz!” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Old Gentleman = God. “I’d ’a’ sworn ye were one ’o them Prophets in the Wilderness, sent by the Old Gentleman, once in a while, to keep up our courage and show us the way out.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

orris = a kind of lace made of gold or silver. “There were her two little cambric pocket-handkerchiefs, remotely suggestive of orris, and bearing her monogram delicately wrought and characteristic.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Ox-eyed daisy
ox-eyed daisy = the loves-me-loves-me-not daisy, also called dog daisy, margarite, and moon daisy. “A bunch of prairie flowers, flaming cactus blossoms in scarlet and yellow, ox-eyed daisies, white clematis from the creek, seemed none the less decorative for the tin cup that held them.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

punk = soft, crumbly wood that has been attacked by fungus. “Think? With a brain like punk?” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

put on dog = to show off, act superior. “The acting foreman thought the Wetmore men looked down on him, ‘put on dog.’” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

scab = mange, or a similar skin disease in animals. “I hope every herd in the State dies of scab.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

scuttle = a hatchway. “There was a ladder here, leading to a scuttle in the roof.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Southdown = a small British sheep raised chiefly for mutton. “There’s a lot of women as wouldn’t exactly regard me as a Merino, or a Southdown, either.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

stick = a shot of spirits added to a nonalcoholic beverage. “Jack had made lemonade, with a ‘stick,’ a barrelful each time, and had offered it as his donation.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

vinaigrette = a small ornamental container for holding aromatic vinegar, smelling salts, or spirits of ammonia to ward off evil smells. “She was sniffing away at her vinaigrette as she always did when she didn’t like things.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

vinegar and brown paper = a home remedy for headache. “Not a great deal, if there ain’t plenty of vinegar and brown paper handy, and I seldom had such fancy fixings in camp.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

wean = a young child. “She opened her arms to receive a violet-eyed wean brought in by a young woman of perhaps twenty.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Image credits:
Flannel band, The New Dressmaker, 1921
All others, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Dane Coolidge, western photographer

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The western and family values

Family in a drawing room, 1800s
Recently, Patti Abbott posted a link to an essay by Tim Parks at The New York Review of Books on what it is that draws a reader into a novel. Parks refers to a field of psychology that’s focused on an individual’s family and the “conversation” that takes place there among the adults.

This conversation is about specific values that are in conflict, and for a child growing up within earshot, it is the daily bread that feeds that child’s development. Not only that, it defines what deeply matters to the person for the rest of their life.

Take the conflict between obedience and self-determination. In a family where the adults habitually make sense of the world in those terms, the children will follow suit. Each will take a place along the spectrum between those two polarities. A respectful and rule-following offspring, for instance, may have a sibling who is obstinately defiant.

Swedish family, 1902
If it’s true that embedded in each of us is a pair of conflicting core values, Parks wonders if that accounts for the way a work of fiction grabs and holds our attention. We recognize the conflict and want to see how it plays out. It determines whether we are satisfied or disappointed by a novel’s ending. It may explain why a novel that gets rave reviews from your friends and the critics leaves you bored.

This theory is intriguing. It may account for why certain themes and issues come to dominate a genre like the western—in particular, its kill-or-be-killed world and the steady threat of murderous villainy requiring arms for self-defense.

You can trace this thread from the dime novel through The Virginian and Max Brand and Louis L’Amour to today’s western writers. It’s certainly also central to Carol Buchanan’s God’s Thunderbolt, reviewed here recently. And it’s there in the very marrow of Julia Robb’s Scalp Mountain (also reviewed).

James Reasoner, in his recent review of Scalp Mountain, had some things of his own to say about the generic western. He argues that critics of the western forget that writers haven’t always confined themselves to formulas. He names Max Brand and Luke Short as early examples and adds to them more recent ones: H.A. DeRosso, Lewis B. Patten, and Dudley Dean McGaughey.

Australian family, Christmas, 1918
That some writers, like Brand, found the formula confining isn’t surprising. What good, imaginative writer wouldn’t tire of it? But it’s safe to say that western readers have liked the formula, and the editors often blamed for perpetuating it, chose to give that audience what it wanted. 

So Parks’ theory suggests that the audience for the generic or formula western grew from a particular kind of upbringing. It would have been a home where a certain set of values dominated. Not just individual values, but pairs of sharply conflicting values, and a conflict so intense that it required one to take a stand. Violence vs. non-violence, pacifism vs. aggression, the individual vs. community, and so on.

Why, for instance, is there the frequent assumption in the western novel that an individual is alone in a world of predators, and he must always be having to defend himself—to stand his ground? It’s an assumption that produces a darkly intimidating lone hero, like the one in L’Amour’s The Quick and the Dead (reviewed here), who teaches a pacifist family man to use a gun to protect self, family and property.

Thanksgiving aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, 2007
If I understand Parks, he’d say that this storyline would be satisfying to a reader growing up in a family where the core issue was trust of others vs. paranoia. The parents could have been vocal advocates of nonviolence or survivalists with a cache of weapons. It doesn’t matter. A reader growing up in an environment where the conversation always came around to this issue would recognize it in the generic western. It would feel like home.

Richard Wheeler has argued that the audience for the formula western is aging and dying off. If Parks is right, it could be because family values have shifted. The western that granddad enjoyed seems outdated or alien to the current generation of readers (and movie-goers) because the conversation in their families was about different values.

Wheeler would agree, I think, that the western needs to reinvent itself to find the audience that’s out there waiting for it. In the new western writers that have been appearing in print and ebooks and online, we can see efforts to discover and connect with that audience’s values.  

Coal miner's family, West Virginia, 1946
I’d point to Edward Grainger’s Cash Laramie series as one example. The rogue U.S. marshal with the arrowhead lanyard takes on challenges that we are not used to seeing in the everyday western. For Cash a frequent theme is social justice vs. personal justice.

Personal justice has had a long run as the driving force in the revenge western, which has dominated the form. A man is out to avenge the violent deaths of his parents, a brother, or his wife and family. It’s one of the main plot threads in the TV series Hell on Wheels, reviewed here recently.

The Cash Laramie stories are often about justice, too, but Cash is not avenging a grievous wrong done to himself. He’s after villains who prey on the vulnerable. He doesn’t accept the dictum at the core of a L’Amour story that in this world it’s kill or be killed and a man best be armed to defend himself and his property. For Cash, a good man comes to the defense of those too weak to defend themselves.

Ranch family, Texas, 1973
This conflict between social and personal justice has been at the heart of the American drama for a long time. The competing demands of both values have sparked national debate over and again. Today, it polarizes opinion on nearly every public issue. It accounts for both the clamor for social programs like healthcare and the fear of socialized medicine. Are we all in this together, or is it every man for himself?

That question is at the heart of the Cash Laramie stories. And with each episode in his job as a lawman, Cash locates himself somewhere between those two extremes. It’s not easy. He makes mistakes sometimes or things go wrong, which causes him self-doubt. But his remorse is also part of what makes him admirable.

According to Park’s argument, what Grainger does is to reflect a family conversation different from the one that produced the kill-or-be-killed revenge western. And it has found an audience of readers who recognize in the imaginative world he’s created something that feels more like home. It does to me, anyway.

As usual, just my opinion. I’m open to reasoned argument.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 35

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday music: Charley Pride

When I was growing up in Nebraska in the 1940s, this was not "country." It was just plain "music." And I puzzle today that country music in this more enlightened age seems to have so little room for African American voices and faces.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 35

Friday, June 22, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: airship

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a dirigible. I snapped this on a calm winter day in downtown LA a few months ago. Dirigibles make for a playful change from the constant traffic of big airliners gliding overhead to LAX. When you can hear them above the sound of the traffic, they make a soft, purring noise.

Stopping in a crosswalk to take this pic, I irritated the impatient driver of a Hummer, who honked at me to get out of the way so he could make a left turn. Such is the life of a pedestrian in the city of motorists on the brink of road rage.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Saturday music, Charley Pride

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cy Warman, Frontier Stories (1897)

Cy Warman
Before fame and fortune found Cy Warman, he had been a struggling writer in Colorado. After a short career working for the railroad, he was editor of the Creede, Colorado, newspaper, The Chronicle. There he knew both Bob Ford and Soapy Smith, and on a fateful June day in 1892, he was one of the first to rush through the door of Ford’s dancehall to find him shot dead.

Warman was a collector and teller of stories, some of them told in the manner of yarn swapping at a gentlemen’s club, some with the energetic flair of a news writer. How much is fiction and how much nonfiction is hard to say. He knows his audience’s fascination for the Old West when it was chiefly occupied by Indians, cowboys, outlaws, and the first railroad men.

Indians. There are 18 stories in this collection. Almost all of them involve white encounters with Indians—Utes, Paiutes, Sioux, Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Crow. The narrators of his stories are interested observers. Among them is one not altogether sure Indians are human, but respect is given, as to a species of armed, dangerous, and unpredictable bipeds.

Some Indians are friendly, some not. They steal what they can and behave in contradictory ways. The Hydes among them, we are told,  outnumber the Jekylls sixteen to one. An Indian boy may skin a live rabbit to see how long it lives. He's just as likely to share his food with a crippled dog. Bathing for the sake of cleanliness is unknown.

Creede Camp, Colorado, 1905
The Indians are also relentless in battle, whether with whites or other tribes. In “In the Hospital” the narrator hears a story of a railroad man working on a construction crew who goes missing. He is found at the bottom of a cliff, pressed against it as Indians above shower him with rocks and arrows, until one of them successfully puts an arrow through his heart.

In “Wantawanda,” a band of Cheyenne team up with a band of Sioux to massacre a small camp of Crow, their traditional enemies. Cunningly, the Cheyenne chief “persuades” a group of white trappers and adventurers to take up arms with them, though the Crow have long been allies of the whites.

The Crow are taken by surprise and fight valiantly until the only man standing is the chief, Little Gray Bull. Covered in wounds and blood, he is outraged and demands that they finish him off. The surviving Cheyenne and Sioux cower in awe, reluctant to take the life of such a brave man, until a “half-breed,” tired of waiting for breakfast, shoots him dead.

Pony Express riders, 1860
In one of the most engaging of the stories, "Little Cayuse," a trapper named Whip Saw buys a Pawnee boy from a Sioux in exchange for a knife. The two of them man a Pony Express station at White Horse, Wyoming, where they and the express riders are often under attack by the Sioux. Called Little Cayuse for his love of horses, the boy is taken captive again and lives with the Sioux in Nebraska Territory until he is able to escape.

Returning on foot to Wyoming, he is tracked by wolves who attack him as he is met by a Pony Express rider, who turns out to be his old friend Whip Saw. As another rider races off westward from White Horse, Whip Saw washes the boy's wounds with whiskey and quietly sheds his tears.

“Half-breeds.” The matter of mixed blood Indians comes up in several of the stories, and always the narrator characterizes them as worse than savage. The white blood in them makes them “ambitious,” while the red makes them vicious enough to “kill a man for a new saddle.”

In a story called “Half-Breeds,” the narrator tells of a family of mixed-blood brothers fathered by a Frenchman in British Columbia. After they and their gang kill a shepherd and the constable who tries to arrest them, a vigilante force of citizens and sympathetic Indians travels 50 miles to lay siege to them where they have holed up in a cabin. Surrendering, they are returned to the settlement for trial, where three are hanged, and three are put in prison because they are underage. A squaw with them is set free.

Cripple Creek, Colorado, 1906
In “Wantawanda,” the mixed-blood chief of a band of Crow Indians, Medicine Calf, turns out to be a “mulatto,” whose dark coloring and curly hair make him an object of curiosity among the whites. He surrounds himself with so-called “dog soldiers” who successfully protect a traveling company of whites from being slain by other Crow Indians.

Women. Warman’s West is almost bereft of females. A white woman, who keeps a boarding house in Cripple Creek, Colorado, shoots a suspicious man who turns out to be a deputy on duty during a miner’s strike. Nursed back to health by her, he falls in love. She makes a claim on a spot she likes, and the two invest his money in a dig for gold. They eventually find gold on the day the money runs out, in the last bucket of rock taken from the mine.

In “A Quiet Day in Creede,” a prostitute figures in the story only because she visits Bob Ford’s dancehall collecting for the burial of another woman just before he is shot. He signs her list of subscribers, and when he sees that Soapy Smith has pledged five dollars, he puts in five and “raises” Smith another five. She is described only as “sorry-looking.” A woman inside the entrance of the dancehall gets no description at all, except that she is a “silent partner” in the business.

Sheet music, 1893
Wrapping up. Cy Warman (1855-1914) must be the only western writer who made a living as a poet. His “Sweet Marie,” a love lyric to his wife, became a popular song in the 1890s after it was published in The New York Sun and set to music. Years later, at his death, he was remembered as “The Poet of the Rockies.”

Two collections of railroad stories preceded Frontier Stories, and he continued publishing stories about the railroad, Indians, and western life for the rest of his life. From 1893, he was a frequent contributor of poems, fiction, and articles to McClure’s and a few other slick magazines. In his later years, he settled in Ontario, his wife’s home.

Frontier Stories is currently available at google books and Internet Archive, and for the nook. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click over to Patti Abbot's blog.

The Overland Monthly, vol. 37 (1901)
The Publisher’s Weekly, vol. 71 (1914)

Image credits:
Cy Warman photo, The Canadian Magazine, vol. 31 (1908)
Pony Express riders, Wikimedia Commons
All others, USGS Photographic Library

Coming up: Saturday music, Charley Pride

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

O. Henry: the early years

When O. Henry died in 1910, he was fondly remembered in the magazines. This full page photo showed up in a 1912 issue of Bookman, which I came across recently while looking for something else at google books. Dated 1886, it shows him in the front row (left) as "W. Porter," with three other young men identifying themselves as the "Hill City Quartette." 

He would have been a 24-year-old bachelor at the time, living in Austin, Texas. According to Wikipedia: "Porter was a good singer and musician. He played both the guitar and mandolin." The quartet "sang at gatherings and serenaded young women of the town." His writing career was yet to begin.

Coming up: Cy Warman, Frontier Stories (1897)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hack, first season (2002-03)

Bit of a departure today from the usual Tuesday western. We just finished the first season of the 2002-04 CBS series Hack. A police drama, it starred David Morse and Andre Braugher. The two men play former partners on the Philadelphia police force. Morse’s character, Olshansky, has been suspended for helping himself to some drug money, which in a weak moment he regards as “combat pay.” Braugher, as Washington, is at least equally culpable, but Olshansky abides by a code of honor that prevents him from cooperating with Internal Affairs and revealing what he knows about his former partner.

Olshansky has a family and is already separated from his wife as the series starts. A little late, he tries to salvage the marriage and rebuild a relationship with his young son (Matthew Borish). To make up for lost income, he takes a job as a cab driver, or “hack.”

A basically decent man, he’s also trying to recover a sense of self-respect, while suffering a load of Catholic guilt for screwing up his life. In particular, he has disappointed his father, a former cop who is shamed by his son’s dishonorable discharge from the police force. It doesn’t help that the man is a drunk and a past perpetrator of domestic violence.

David Morse, Andre Braugher
In a supporting role is George Dzundza as Father Tom, the priest of an inner city parish and a lifelong friend of Olshansky. He has some problems of his own, including a history of gambling debts and drinking. Still, he’s Olshansky’s conscience as the former cop labors to set his life right.

Each week’s episode puts someone in Olshansky’s cab who is in desperate need of a helping hand. As a seasoned cop who knows how things get done in the city, especially on the shady side of the law, Olshansky becomes involved. A newspaper columnist writes him up as a “dirty cop” trying to redeem himself with good deeds. Olshansky simply can’t stay out of somebody else’s trouble.

George Dzundza
Typically, he enlists the help of his former partner, Washington, to do the detective work he’d be able to do himself if he were still on the force. There’s also Morse’s sheer physical presence and his ability to really get rough when the situation calls for it. Both aspects of the plot are hugely satisfying, as the scenes between the two men bristle with fine dialogue from creator/writer David Koepp, and the physical violence is often explosive and well justified.

There is fine ensemble acting throughout, with guest appearances by John Heard, Martha Plimpton, Lindsay Crouse, and Bebe Neuwirth. The writing also avoids a lot of clichés common to the genre. Heather, Olshansky’s wife (Donna Murphy), is not the shrill adversary intent on avenging every grievance on her former husband. She still loves him, she says; she just can’t trust him. 

Matthew Borish
The scripts also focus on Olshansky’s struggle to be the loving father that his own father never was to him. Morse and the boy’s scenes together are often difficult and touching.

We never really know until the final episode what happened during the drug bust that ended Olshansky’s career. We also never learn until then what he may be covering up about his partner, Washington—or for that matter the true character of the man himself. The series slowly reveals his behavior as suspect, but even to the end, while there are revelations about Washington, one can’t be sure what to believe.

Bebe Neuwirth
It’s commercial TV, and commercials drive me nuts, so I never even heard of the show when it was running. I stumbled across it at netflix, where it can be streamed in HD (DVDs do not seem to be currently available). Watching a couple episodes a night, I found its style of storytelling a great pleasure, for it tackles issues that you don’t find in the usual cop show—issues of integrity, responsibility, friendship, trust, intimacy, character, and self-respect.

While it deals often with the dark underbelly of city life, it does not glamorize it, and it refuses to get cynical in the face of it. You see ordinary people attempting to live decent and honorable lives, always against the odds. And it’s gratifying to find a hero who is flawed but still a credible moral center in the crime-infested world he inhabits.

For more Overlooked Movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.

Coming up: Cy Warman, Frontier Stories (1897)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Carol Buchanan, God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana

Review and interview

This is not a novel for the squeamish. It also plays a little fast and loose with some sacred myths about the West. It takes a fact about many Old West communities, that they were often magnets for villains and corruptible officials. And instead of telling a story about a western hero cleaning up the town single-handedly, or with the help of a partner, it cuts a lot closer to the realities of history.

God’s Thunderbolt immerses the reader in a time and place where the only protection for honest men and women was vigilante justice. Today, Old West vigilantes are rarely if ever portrayed in fiction as heroic. A secret organization skulking around at night to take the law into their own hands, that’s not supposed to be the American way.

So it’s a challenge to credibly portray an honorable man—and a lawyer—as a willing participant in the hanging of malefactors without due process. And not just 2-3 horse thieves, as in The Virginian or Lonesome Dove. Cleaning the thieves and murderers out of the mining camps along Alder Gulch in 1860s Montana meant a deliberate roundup of more than a dozen men, including a few otherwise prominent citizens.

Virginia City, Montana, 1866
Plot. The central character, in this case, is Daniel Stark, a decent man who lawyers at securing claims for prospectors and occasionally wins money playing poker. He’s putting together a stake of gold dust to take back East, where he intends to reverse a family misfortune, get married there, and settle down.

But the murder of a young man becomes the tipping point in the willingness of men like himself to confront the rising tide of lawlessness around them. He’s joined by two other lawyers to bring to trial in a miners court a man believed to have committed the murder. Feelings run high in a population of both Union and Confederate sympathizers, at a time when the Civil War was still raging on the other side of the continent.

The first half of the novel is devoted to this trial, and the suspense builds as the element of danger steadily rises. Through Dan Stark, with his Spencer repeating rifle, which he carries at all times for protection, we ride a tide of uncertainty as a civil process threatens to be overwhelmed at each step by mob rule.

Brewery, Virginia City, Montana
Realism. In the hands of another writer, the outcome of that trial would leave a clean, clear sense of justice done. But Buchanan treats it more realistically as the lesser of two evils. And it’s just the beginning for the men who have taken it upon themselves to confront and eliminate the conspirators and wrongdoers who prey on other men and women trying to make an honest living.

It is a perilous mission, partly because it means putting themselves in harm’s way. Dan himself takes a gunshot wound from a man who resists arrest. It’s also a morally perilous enterprise, for cold-blooded execution, even of heartless villains, exacts a toll on the soul. Stark cannot know at the end whether he may be haunted by what he’s done for the rest of his life.

Buchanan reminds us that death by hanging is a foul and ugly business. Some prisoners go bravely, some go cursing, some ask to pray, some fight to the end, slowly strangling instead of dying of a broken neck. And when the hangings are public, there are in the crowd both whipped-up emotions and shameless curiosity. The stuff of bad dreams and nightmares.

Home, Virginia City, Montana
Wrapping up. Buchanan balances all this against the indifference of a remote and isolated setting, in the cold of high-altitude autumn and the blizzards of winter. Living conditions and standards of personal conduct here are primitive at best. People stink; their clothing stinks. The air in a saloon is hardly breathable. A game of poker requires not only a deck of cards, but players are best armed.

And there is a domestic drama in the novel as well, with an abusive husband and father, a son grown old enough to rebel, and a wife torn between her marriage vows and a decent man who comes to care for her so deeply that he is in heart-felt anguish at the sight of her.

This is one of those books you don’t skim read. At least I couldn’t. On each page you are aware of the meticulous choice of details and the painstaking measure of emotions. It’s no wonder that this book won the Spur Award for Best First Novel when it was published. God’s Thunderbolt is currently available in paper at amazon and Barnes&Noble and for the kindle.


Carol Buchanan
Carol Buchanan has graciously agreed to talk at BITS today about writing and the writing of God’s Thunderbolt. So I’m turning the rest of this page over to her.

Talking about how long it takes to write a novel, author Graham Swift recently said, “It can be dismaying for a novelist to compare the slowness of the writing with the speed of the reading.” Do you share that feeling? 
Not really. I enjoy the process of writing, the sense of delving more deeply into the story, the characters, the events. As I go, I discover connections and a truer sense of what the novel is about. Frustrating as that can be, I love it.

Working with historical records, did you ever find the facts getting in the way of a good story?
Sure. I expect most historical novelists do. But I stick to the historically factual order of events and the facts. God's Thunderbolt took 7 years to write: 5 for research and 2 for writing, when research continued but didn't consume the same amount of time. I kept thinking the Ives trial would spring the story out of shape because it took up so much of the novel, but I plowed ahead anyway. History tells good stories.

What liberties, if any, do you feel you took with history?
I can't remember taking any liberties on purpose, but I'm sure I made a lot of mistakes in interpretation because I didn't have a source to go by.

Hydraulic mining, near Virginia City, Montana, 1871
What parts are you particularly satisfied with as a faithful representation of history? 
Why the Vigilantes had to do what they did. People talk about vigilantes violating due process, and these men did, in a sense, but what most historians and novelists don't get is that in that place at that time there was no code of law, let alone criminal procedure, in place to safeguard anyone's Constitutional rights to due process

Besides that, Congress had passed the Habeas Corpus Act of March 1863, so it may have been a combination of necessity (self-defense) and example that led the historical vigilantes to hang men after a hearing in their tribunal. The sources are vague about both the evidence and the procedures in the tribunals, so I had to be a bit of a detective in piecing it all together.

How closely does the finished novel compare to the way you originally conceived it? 
As all novels seem to do (or so I've heard), this one moved on its own the deeper I dove into it. But I don't remember what I intended at the beginning, except that I set out to learn why on earth a lawyer would become a vigilante.

To what extent did living in Montana help or hinder the writing of this novel?
It helped a lot. People are more forthcoming when they know I'm a Montanan and living in the state. And the distances are less. It's a huge state, but 350 miles from the places I write about is much easier to cope with than 750.