A caveat at the outset, for readers of the traditional western. There’s both a dark and raunchy edge to some of these stories. If they were movies themselves, they would challenge the MPAA reviewers given the job of labeling them with suitable parental warnings. One or two would be candidates for an NC-17 rating.
Themes. The stories take place in a world of shootings, killings, and various frontier atrocities, but the recurring interest in them has to do with relations between men and women. Typically a man of some character finds himself dealing with a woman of equal nerve and grit.
In the longest of the stories, “The Girl From the Red River Shore,” a cowboy on the run from the law finds a girl left for dead by outlaws in Comanche country. Rescuing her, he is persuaded to go after the men who attacked her, and there follows a series of encounters with ruthless desperados. Adapting almost too easily to the kill-or-be-killed ethos of the West, she puts an end to her share of them, braining one with a rock, putting bullets through others.
|Texas cowboys, 1901|
The two get themselves in and out of one tight spot after another, but it’s the give and take between them that provides the most entertainment. Their scenes of dialogue show the tentative building of a bond. As she opens up to him, he holds to a belief that folks should mind their own business, which turns every conversation into a kind of chess game.
As they confront one perilous obstacle after another in their journey, a reader suspects that the story was originally conceived as an idea for a western movie. In it are homages to Budd Boetticher’s Comanche Station (1960) and Don Siegel’s Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970).
|In the Desert, Frederic Remington, c1888|
In “Sans Peur et Sans Reproche,” a dashing lieutenant is matched up by the officers’ wives with a stunning beauty who arrives from New Orleans for a visit at a remote fort. He gallantly escorts her to the post and is her dance partner at a breathlessly awaited social event. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, however, he declines to offer marriage, explaining that life as an Army wife would be miserable for her.
Romance. The understated irony in many of the stories tempts one to think of them as anti-romances. Yet beneath that façade, there is an undercurrent of romance that is sometimes comic and occasionally pretty dark. A good example is “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” In that story, a cowboy sets out for Mexico on a quest to be reunited with a girl he loved long ago, though it means facing death because of a man there he once killed.
Wrapping up. The stories are well paced and told with an economy that many writers would find instructive. The narrative voice is wry, matter-of-fact, and dry as the desert West. Dialogue between his often laconic characters is sharp and humorously pointed.
The blunt sexual content of some stories pushes the boundaries of the genre. While it may shock some readers, the intent seems not to be erotic but to represent a fact of frontier life, reflecting a gross brutality to be found sometimes among hardened men and women.
Fourteen Western Stories is currently available at amazon in paper and ebook formats.
Henry Parke has a lengthy and informative interview with the author at his blog.
Author’s photo, amazon.com
Others, Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: John Reese, Rich Man's Land (1966)