Sunday, March 30, 2014


After several days of mostly sleeping, plus various meds for headache and vague malaise, and meals of soup, graham crackers, and herb tea, I wake to a day that feels good to be alive—no pain, no nausea. I lie there thinking, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The gusty winds that have closed roads for days with dust clouds have calmed, and a Scott’s oriole is in the palo verde outside the bedroom window when we open the blinds. A wave of welcome energy lasts me a couple of hours for writing, and then I grudgingly concede that another day of bed rest is what I need more than sitting here at this computer.

More next time.

Previously: Losing it

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: N
(nainsook - nut crackers)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

nainsook = a fine, soft cotton fabric, originally from the Indian subcontinent. “She went back to the other clothes, the weblike mulls, the soft nainsooks, and the embroidered, silk-threaded flannels.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

navvy = a railway worker; any unskilled laborer. “Mrs. Flannigan, over at the section house, has a lot of navvies boarding with her, besides having the place about knee-deep with kids.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

nawitka = yes, indeed, for sure (Chinook). “Nawitka, I come straight ’way home.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

near side = the left (i.e. mounting and dismounting) side of a horse. “Actually I didn’t know the off from the nigh side of a hawss!” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.

neck and crop = completely and violently. “Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming, And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop.” Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.

neck yoke = a bar by which the end of the tongue of a wagon or carriage is suspended from the collars of the harnesses. “You’ll eat apples and sugar out of her hand, and if you so much as lay back your ears at her I’ll frale your sinful heart out with a neck yoke.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

needle-tell = a system for marking a deck of cards with invisible needles, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers, which prick “the dealer’s thumb, signaling the presence of certain cards.”

New Thought = a spiritual movement beginning in the 19th century that held that God is everywhere, true human selfhood is divine, sickness originates in the mind, and healing results from right thinking. “The quaint couple, who were born two generations in advance of the birth cry of New Thought, laughed innocently and made no reply.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

New York Ledger = a weekly periodical for young readers, published in New York, 18551898. “I borrowed a huge bundle of The New York Saturday Night and the New York Ledger and from them I derived an almost equal enjoyment.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

Nick Carter = character in a dime novel entitled “The Old Detective’s Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square” (1886), written by John R. Coryell. “I never heard what Struthers said, but it don’t take no Nick Carter to guess.” Rex Beach, Pardners.

nickle library = inexpensive reading material. “We went to the company store an’ got three bushels o’ nickel libraries, enough grub to do six men six months, enough tobacco to do twelve men a year, an’ a little yeller pup ’at we give six bits for.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

nigger heel = racially derogatory reference to chewing tobacco. “My brawny friend cut off a huge chew of ‘nigger heel,’ stowed it away in his capacious cheek, and after a few preliminary expectorations that resembled geysers, continued.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

niggerhead cactus = racially derogatory term for a cactus native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, often growing in clusters, with woolly fruit; now called “cotton top cactus.” “‘Why didn’t you tap the nigger-head there by the barranca?’ his companion asked. ‘What—the big cactus like a green punkin?’” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

nine days’ wonder = a novelty that loses its appeal after a few days. “Foss River settled down after its nine days’ wonder. It was astonishing how quickly the affair was forgotten.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

Nimrod = a hunter. “Aunt Tilda was wont on those gallant occasions to thank the Professor, say he was a perfect Nimrod, and close the incident by requesting him, instead of laying his trophy at her feet, to take it to the kitchen and deliver it into the hands of the Mexican cook.” Alfred Henry Lewis, The Throwback.

nip = of ice, to squeeze or crush the sides of a vessel. “La Bijou skirted a pivoting floe, darted into a nipping channel, and shot out into the open with the walls grinding together behind.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

nippers = teeth. “It shore had a fine set of nippers, and could jerk off the stearin’ gear of a cow quicker ’n greazed lightnin’.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

nixey / nixie = no, certainly not. “They’re all right to marry, all things being equal, but to sacrifice your life for, nixie.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

No. 9 = Irish whiskey. “‘A little number nine, Billy. Here’s a ho!’ He set his glass down, and faced Cross.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

no chicken = someone who is no longer young. “I am free to say that I should be uneasy myself, were I to be similarly accosted, and they say I am—well, that I’m ‘no chicken’, you know.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

noggin = a small drinking vessel, a mug. “They had fought and marched together, spilled many a noggin in each other’s honor, and who drew the other’s monthly pay depended on the paste-boards.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

nooning = making a noon stop for camp, to unharness and rest draft animals, cook a meal, and move on. “Their nooning was at a running stream called Smith’s Creek.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

nopal = prickly pear cactus. “They frequented trails he was known to travel, and lay sometimes for hours and days awaiting him, making themselves as comfortable as possible in the meantime behind some convenient boulder or tall nopal.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

nose paint = whiskey. “The Yallerhouse gent tracks along into the Red Light, an’ tells the barkeep to set out the nose-paint.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

not a cheep = not the slightest sound, not a word. “Not a cheep about the little gal; wouldn’t ’a’ laughed fer a nickel; and never’d go anywheres nigh the lunch-counter.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

not for Joe = by no means, not by any account. “We ain’t goin’ to sleep in here to-night, anyways, not for Jo, wi’ them mountain rats comin’ in on us.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

not on your tintype = absolutely not; a general term of derision, dismissal, denial. “Want to stay here and keep your feet warm while I go and do it? Not on your tintype, you yapping hound!” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

Machine-made Nottingham lace
Nottingham lace = lace from Nottingham, England, the center of the world’s lace industry during the years of the British Empire. “But you know the type—Nottingham lace curtains in the parlour, and ‘God Bless Our Home’ over the mantel!” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

nubia = a woman’s soft fleecy scarf for the head and neck. “Her mother stood with her back turned toward the raw April wind as they talked, her old nubia tied loosely about her head and neck and her hands red with the cold.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

nun’s veiling = a thin, plain-woven, worsted fabric, originally for nuns’ veils. “Since old maid Davis made over that blue nun’s veilin’ of hers it looks ’most as good as new.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

nut crackers = teeth. “He shuts his face hard ’nough t’ bust his nut crackers.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.


Sources: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and various online dictionaries

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: TBD

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dorothy Johnson, The Hanging Tree (1957)

The movie based on this novella would have you believe it’s mainly a story about a mining camp doctor (played by Gary Cooper). However, in her original version, Dorothy Johnson develops more fully the character of Elizabeth, the “lost lady,” who is brought to him for care.

Like Rance Foster, in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” she is a newcomer in the West, whose introduction to the frontier is violent and shattering. Each is the victim of a stagecoach holdup. Elizabeth’s father is killed, and she nearly perishes of exposure   before being found in the wild.

Both characters face difficulties as they become residents of a frontier settlement. Foster wants to practice law but finds himself in a lawless land, where men settle differences with guns. Elizabeth confronts another kind of obstacle. As a single woman in a mostly male community, she is an object of fascination. Men are both protective and predatory in their regard for her. Without a father, brother, or husband to guard her honor, she risks loss of social approval as a “respectable” woman.

She is befriended by the doctor, Joe Frail, who tends to her recovery and tactfully finds shelter for her in the cabin of another woman, the proprietor of the camp’s restaurant. But tongues will wag, and without her knowledge, she comes to be seen as the doctor’s kept woman. Determined to be self-supporting, she tries to open a school, but not a single mother in the camp will allow her children to have any contact with her.

Themes. What Johnson tackles in The Hanging Tree is the ambiguous role of unattached women in the West. While Doc Frail is granted some liberty to provide for her because of his profession, it is assumed by men and women alike that he takes advantage of their relationship. This is partly due to his reputation as a gambler and gunman. He is no Doc Adams from Gunsmoke. He has killed one man in the past, and some believe that he has killed four. Haunted by his own demons and a guilty belief that he will some day hang for his misdeeds, he carries himself with a degree of arrogance that intimidates others.

Dorothy Johnson
For her part, Elizabeth complicates matters by investing in the gold claim of a miner, Frenchy Plante, who has designs on her as well as her money. By chance and against the odds, her investment pays off grandly. Now a wealthy woman, she stirs up envy and ill will, compounded by arrival of a fire and brimstone preacher, who brands her as a fallen woman and calls down the wrath of God, while inciting a mob that gathers at her door. Frail is so alarmed and infuriated that he kills the man. The mob then wastes no time dragging him off to be hanged.

Wrapping up. As in the film, Elizabeth saves Frail’s life by giving away her gold and claims contracts to the rabble eager to see a hanging. “She’s buying her man,” Frenchy Plante cynically observes. And we are left at the end with more of the cold irony Johnson has layered into her story of a woman’s fate where her welfare depends on the good will of strangers in a world corrupted by gold fever.

The Hanging Tree is currently available in print at amazon, Barnes&Noble, Powell’s Books, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Further reading/:

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Wonderful Country (1959)

Based on Tom Lea’s 1952 border novel of the same name, this Robert Mitchum western tells a story of a man without a country, wonderful or otherwise. Fleeing to Mexico as a boy, after killing the man who murdered his father, he becomes a pistolero for a powerful Mexican family, the Castros.

Plot. Older now, he  crosses the border into Texas, where a broken leg keeps him from returning to Mexico with a shipment of contraband rifles. Recovering, he befriends a German immigrant, is offered a job with the Texas Rangers, and meets the newly arrived commanding officer (Gary Merrill) at a nearby Army post. He also meets Merrill’s discontented wife (Julie London).

When it looks like Mitchum is about to start a new life, gainfully employed and reclaiming his lost identity as an American citizen, he finds himself in deep trouble and fleeing once more across the border. There is no real sanctuary for him this time in Mexico. The shipment of rifles has been stolen, and he is held responsible. Also, a power play between two bothers of the Castro family leaves him caught perilously in the middle.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Losing it

Chemo caps

. . . my hair, that is. Time to face that side effect of cancer treatment. At the right are two knit caps from  a charitable group called Caring About People Palm Springs (CAPPS), available for patients at the hospital’s Cancer Center. I am told that they make me look “cool” – and I’m not turning down any compliments.

Here are more excerpts from the journal I’ve been keeping since brain surgery in January.

3/1/14. Yesterday was a little hard. Radiation went smoothly, and afterward two nurses gave me some aloe lotion for my scalp, which will soon need it as I grow bald. The usual quick drive home turned into an hour-long ordeal as the roads across the valley were closed for flash flooding (a massive Pacific storm coming ashore along the length and breadth of California). Poor traffic management had the streets jammed with tailbacks at the lights.

Purple orchid blooming in side yard
Waiting at a Carl’s Jr. for fast food to simplify the rest of the day, I got a call from the home security company reporting that an alarm had gone off at the house, and the police had been called. As it turned out, there had been no break-in. The stormy weather while we were gone had tripped the system. 

All of us, the dog included, were exhausted as the day then wound down, and I could hardly stay awake until 9 p.m. to take my chemo meds for the night. I have begun to respect the fatigue that comes with treatment, and how quickly one burns through reserves of energy.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: M
(milk pan – Mustang liniment )

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

milk pan = a small type of saucepan, with a lip, used for heating milk. “Callie Grainger sang it, and the moon was managed by means of the traditional milk-pan and candle.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

mill = a fight, prizefight. “Dear, dear! what a mill it was, and neither of ’em wore the American flag or talked into phonographs!” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

mill tail = the current of water running in a channel and turning a mill wheel. “While I go after ’em, you ride like the mill tails o’ hell an’ bring out Bull and Jake.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

mimosa = various leafy tropical and subtropical house plants. “Besides all this, there was the mimosa, a perfect forest of it stuck about, a resting-place for dust and the myriads of ecstatically buzzing flies which crowded the hotel from cellar to roof.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

miner’s inch = a unit of measure of water flow, equaling 1.5 cu. ft. (0.04 cu. meter ) per minute. “In vain he showed them the big canal and beautiful system of ditches, and pointed with much enthusiasm to the armour-belted, double-riveted clause in the sale contracts guaranteeing to the lucky buyer the delivery of so many miner’s inches or cubic feet of water every day in the year.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

minié ball = a rifle bullet with a conical head used in muzzle-loading firearms. “Poor Billy! A minie ball fell into his breast one day, fell wailing like a cat, and tore a great ragged hole in his heart.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

mint and anise and cumin = reference to Jesus’ warning to the scribes and Pharisees: “Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” “Mrs. Landvetter sighed with relief. She had paid her mint and anise and cumin to Mrs. Grundy.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

Miss Nancy = an effeminate man; presumably homosexual. “Parting a name always seemed to me like parting a man’s hair in the middle, and both habits to belong to Miss Nancy’s.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

“Mistletoe Bough, The” = a ghost story, first appearing as a song in 1830, popular in the 19th century at Christmastime. “The most ambitious undertaking in the whole exhibition was the acting out with tableaux of The Mistletoe Bough.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

mizzle = to make a sudden departure. “You’d better mizzle—go home, you know.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

mockish = counterfeit, sham. “Right at the time it didn’t sound so empty an’ mockish.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Richard S. Wheeler, Flint’s Gift (1997)

“Profiles in Courage” would have been a good title for this novel of life in a frontier settlement in Arizona Territory. The title character, Sam Flint, is a young newspaper editor who sets up his press in little Payday, agreeing to boost the town in the interests of its growth, in return for complete freedom to print all the news he finds fit to print.

Plot. His editorial encomiums to Payday’s edenic virtues soon bring settlers and new residents. And with them comes a pack of unexpected trouble. A cattleman, Clayton Buell, long used to free use of open range for his stock brutally resists the attempts of families to homestead on public land he deems his own.

Worse yet, a black-clad business entrepreneur, Odie Racine, throws up a saloon called the Golden Calf that draws in an unwelcome element for drink, gambling, prostitution, and related forms of crime and vice. To tighten her grip on the town, she introduces a protection racket, extorting the town’s business owners, under threat of being pulverized by a couple of her brass knuckled thugs. Soon, as the sheriff and judge yield to pressure, duly constituted authority, law and order have been undermined and compromised.

Mogollon Range, Arizona
As Odie and her goons monitor the content of Flint’s newspaper each week, he falls prey to her as well. Meanwhile, he has the ire of Clayton Buell to deal with. The rancher follows through on a threat to horsewhip him should Flint print a word about his unlawful tactics preventing homesteaders from settling on his range.

Tension and suspense build in the novel as Flint plots to save himself, the newspaper, and the town. One by one, others join him in resistance, each finding the courage to put their lives on the line.

Storytelling style. Wheeler is adept at this kind of storytelling. We get an ensemble of characters, with shifting points of view and one of them, the editor Flint, at the center. As they comprise a community, we learn what drives and motivates each of them, as well as their secrets and regrets. There grows in the reader a sense of loyalty to them, the kind that made of Gunsmoke an irresistible weekly formula on TV.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Abilene Town (1946)

This post-war western comes wrapped in the American flag. In a story about conflict in a Kansas frontier town between cattlemen and homesteaders, it celebrates the defeat of lawlessness and the triumph of democratic articles of faith. In the end, the battle is literally taken to the streets as trail-hardened cowboys wreak havoc on private property and farmers and peace-loving citizens march against them to the rousing chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Instrumental in the defense of law and order is the town marshal (Randolph Scott), who negotiates the hostilities of all the interested parties. He is a pragmatist and avoids making enemies. As played by Scott, he exhibits intelligence, patience, and a lack of fear. He is also tall, lean, and handsome in a role that brings to mind lawman and peacekeeper Wyatt Earp.

Randolph Scott, Ann Dvorak, Edgar Buchanan
Scott dutifully enforces a town ordinance that keeps the saloons doing business on one side of town and the providers of goods and services for law-abiding, church-going citizens on the other. He also monitors the surrender of firearms in the interest of public safety.

Plot. The year is 1870, a key moment in frontier history, as cattle drives from Texas to the railways in Kansas are reaching a peak. Homesteaders are crowding in from the east, introducing barbwire to fence off the open range. The merchants of Abilene have divided loyalties. The cowboys spend freely when they arrive in town, and accommodating the homesteaders threatens to disrupt the cash flow.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Push back

Here are more excerpts from the journal I have been keeping since returning from the hospital after brain surgery.

To be completely honest, this is not just a bad cold I’ve got. It has at its disposal the wherewithal to dispose of me. Treatment is a process of push back against the inevitable. I’m OK with that. The focus and clarity it gives to each waking moment are what you can wait a lifetime for anyway, so acceptance is joined by an unusual degree of gratitude.

2/26/14. Yesterday was a hard one. Time got away from us in the a.m. and we were 20 minutes late for the first radiation session. Then there was a long wait for my chemo meds at the pharmacy, where I discovered that the credit card I intended to use had expired, the credit union, once I reached them, unable to explain how new cards sent to my correct address had been returned undelivered. Then, with some blind stroke of luck the charge for well over $1000 worth of drugs came to less than $20.

Rock garden by front door
Witness to the growing stress on my wife, whom I’ve unreasonably expected to be my “minder” since leaving the hospital, I resolve to do more of my own minding, starting with management of all the meds I’m supposed to be taking now, and I painstakingly create a schedule, studying the pill bottle labels. Before long, I’m feeling a wave of fatigue, which I take to be a side effect of the radiation. Mostly I’m aware of the chemo capsules themselves, Temodar, scheduled for bedtime and the expectation of possible nausea and vomiting. I admit to being daunted after days of insisting that I’m not.

The day has been the crossing of a threshold. Washing down the Temodar with a glass of water before turning out the light for the night, I become a cancer patient for real. Treatment is no longer an abstraction. It has invaded me.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: M
(macer – mikonaree )

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

macer = swindler, thief, villain. “Gamblers, miners, suckers, marks, / Spieler, macers, bunco sharks.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Mackinaw boat = a flat-bottomed boat used by fur traders on the Great Lakes and the Missouri River. “Unfortunately, the last steamboat had left Fort Union for the South, making it necessary that the trip be made in a mackinaw boat.” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

madroño = evergreen shrub or tree of the Pacific coast of North America with glossy leathery leaves and orange-red edible berries. “The ranchero was mounted on a lithe bay mare, which swiftly climbed the lazy rises of intervening hills dotted thick with oak, buckeye and madroño.” Charles Duff Stuart, Casa Grande.

Maggie Tulliver, 1910
Maggie Tulliver = the impoverished but idealistic young heroine of George Eliot’s novel, The Mill on the Floss. “A Maggie Tulliver in her own family, Luther was the one compensating feature of her life.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

mahala = a slang word for an Indian woman in 1800's California, from a mispronunciation of the Spanish word  “mujer.” “Here are no wives, unless you have a fancy yourself for turning mahala, as seems likely.” Mary Austin, Isidro. [Thanks to

“Maiden’s Prayer, The” = a composition for piano by Tekla Badarzewska, first published in 1856. “It was announced to the audience very loudly that this piece was called The Maiden’s Prayer.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

main stem = the main course of a river or stream; the trunk of a tree. “They have lots of land, but are running shy on money, an’ the main stem of the family is getting purty well thinned out.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

make a mash = to seduce someone. “‘He’s makin’ a mash,’ said Ling laconically, as he jerked his thumb toward the open door of the living-room.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel (1964)

Reading this novel about a 95-year-old woman from a prairie town in Manitoba, I kept thinking of how seldom frontier fiction tells the stories of frontier women. The genre has so long relegated them to the sidelines of action-adventure stories about men, it seems not even odd to find them mostly missing from the panoramic narrative of the West.

Hagar Currie in Margaret Laurence’s novel shows what it might have been like to enrich that picture with stories reflecting lives actually lived by women on the frontier. Named for the slave of Abraham and the mother of his son Ishmael in Genesis, Hagar has all the grit and survival instincts of her biblical counterpart. She is as much a feature of the western landscape as any adventuring man who has fetched up there.

Abraham sending away Hagar
Plot. The novel is more a character study than a story with beginning, middle, and end. It has all those, actually, but not in chronological order. As memories of the past crowd into Hagar’s awareness of the present, we are able to piece together the circumstances and the sequence of events that have shaped her as the person she has become.

These are dominated by the men in her life: her father and brothers, her husband, her two sons. Her mother, dead in childbirth, is an unknown, commemorated in the novel as a sightless stone angel in a cemetery overlooking the town of Manawaka, where Hagar’s father is a merchant and storekeeper.

Against his wishes, Hagar marries a widowed homesteader, Bram (cf. Abraham) Shipley, and gives birth to two sons, one of whom, John, she much prefers to the other. Aching for independence, she leaves Bram, taking John with her westward to a housekeeping job for a wealthy man in Vancouver.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Painted Desert (1931)

This early sound western is something of a novelty. Shot on location in scenic locations in Arizona, it shows a visual sensibility from the Silent Era, while featuring the onscreen talents of two actors we don’t associate with each other today—William “Bill” Boyd before fame found him as Hopalong Cassidy, and Clark Gable, before fame found him, period.

Plot. Boyd is the grown foster son of a cattleman (William Farnum), and yearns to see Farnum reconciled with a former partner (J. Farrell MacDonald), both of whom found him as a toddler in the desert. In a complicated plot, Boyd discovers tungsten ore on MacDonald’s land and tries unsuccessfully to get the two men to partner again in what promises to be a lucrative mining project. But a couple of decades of ill will have kept the two men enemies. Boyd then approaches MacDonald with a mining deal of his own, and soon they are in business together.

Boyd also has eyes on MacDonald’s pretty rifle-toting daughter (Helen Twelvetrees). This does not go down well with a new employee (Clark Gable), a ranch hand who hires on in the middle of escalated hostilities between the two former partners over access to water. He sabotages the mining operation and interferes with time-sensitive delivery of ore in repayment of bank loans.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

No doubt

Rain-washed morning sky
Here are some more excerpts from the journal I have been keeping since returning from the hospital after brain surgery. Last week, I started calling my journal “Dodging Bullets,” which is what this all feels like some days. I said that next week would no doubt be different again. So, “No doubt” it is.

2/14/14. And life goes on. There’s no stopping it. I wake at dawn and take coffee outside with my roller-walker to sit on a fat rock near the front walk and watch the eastern sky, traced with vapor trails, listen to the neighborhood doves coo-cooing, my neighbor’s flag flapping softly in a light breeze from somewhere. I’m noticing the flowering plants in the yard, trimmed back and ready for the spring’s burst of growth. I’m thankful for Manuel, our “tree whisperer,” who has taken such expert charge of all things growing around the house now that I am scarcely able.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: L
(light-o’-love – lyed corn)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

light-o’-love = a woman inconstant in love. “‘His palace,’ came the arresting, accusing, stern tones of Campbell, ‘the palace that he built for his light-o’love.’” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

lighter = a barge or other unpowered boat used to transfer cargo to and from ships in harbor. “A lighter grounded on Alki Point; he has been helping to float her.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

lightning artist = an artist-entertainer who draws subjects very quickly. “A lightning artist appeared, drawing caricatures and portraits with incredible swiftness.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

lights and liver = stuffings; literally, lungs and liver. “O’ course ’t ain’t calc’lated t’ sweeten a feller’s temper none t’ have his dog handled, his worst outlaw rid, ’n’ t’ have th’ hull lites ’n’ liver o’ his conceit ’bout bein’ th’ best gun shot on th’ desert kicked plumb outen him at one kick.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

limit = a tract or allotment granted for the cutting of timber. “Kent’s tender for the choice Wind River limits was accepted, somewhat to his surprise and to Crooks’s profane amazement.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

line out = to leave, depart. “I has only time to make camp, saddle up, an’ line out of thar, to keep from bein’ burned before my time.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

line out / line up = to scold, discipline, punish. “What do you mean by usin’ such langwidge? I’ll line you out for this.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

liquidate = to drink. “We passed into the bar and liquidated.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

lisle thread = a strong, tightly twisted cotton thread, named after the town in France where it was first manufactured. “From lisle-thread stockings; from round, tight garters; from brilliant brass belts; Kind Devil, deliver me.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

listeners = ears. “His listeners ’peared t’ be workin’ all right, fo’ sometimes he’d loosen up t’ th’ extent o’ a ‘yes’ o’ ‘nop,’ but that was all.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

“Little Annie Rooney” = music hall song from 1890, by Michael Nolan; popular also in the US. “He rattled ‘Playmates’ off, and then he switched to ‘Annie Rooney.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Sheet music, 1853
“Little More Cider, A” = a popular 19th-century song, published in 1853. “In the early days of the march they sang with spirit, to the tune of ‘A Little More Cider,’ the hymn of the hand-cart written by one of their number.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Little White Bird, The = a novel by Scottish author and dramatist J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), published in 1902. “Helen was sitting beside him in an easy chair, and he watched the play of her face in the lamplight as she read from ‘The Little White Bird’.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

J. M. Barrie, 1901
Little Willie = a genre of macabre short verse, usually involving children, originated by English writer Harry Graham (1874-1936). “Used to follow him down to the midnight train at St. Joe, gist to hear him speak ‘Little Willie’ to the ticket agent.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

lo-the-poor-Indian = a reference to 18th century English poet Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man: “Lo! The poor Indian, whose untutored mind sees God in the clouds, or hears him in the wind.” “Denver, I’ll take care of these beauties while y’u step into the pantry with Mrs. Lo-the-poor-Indian and put up a lunch.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

loafer = a subspecies of the wolf, also known as the buffalo wolf and Great Plains wolf.  “The night silence was rent by the hunting cry of the loafer.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

lobelia = an herbal remedy for respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and cough; also called Indian tobacco. “If I’m sick and have to depend on myself, all right. I’ll dose up with lobelia or gamboge.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Eleanor Gates, The Biography of a Prairie Girl (1902)

Eleanor Gates

This autobiographical novel begins with one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve found in more than 100 books of early frontier fiction. Eleanor Gates begins her story with the birth of her central character on a remote Dakota homestead during a raging blizzard. The family waits with growing dread the return of the newborn girl’s father, who has ventured into the storm for help.

The man’s remains are not found until the spring thaw, only a short distance from the family’s cabin. Told from the distance of a few childhood years, the girl thinks of her birth as the time she was brought by the stork—which chose the same day to take away her father. The raw realities of frontier life are thus embedded early on in a story of growing up on the prairie.

Plot. The novel is a rarity for its time, as it takes for its subject the emergence of a character’s consciousness during 15 years of childhood. Each chapter is a separate episode during those years, and each illustrates how the conditions of life on the prairie give form and shape to the girl’s personality and identity.

Heroine is actually not the right word for her, as she does nothing that requires heroism. Yes, she shows spunk, independence, curiosity, and a reckless daring at times, but what we are witness to is her gradual absorption of what’s to be learned from life’s limitations and contingencies.

Map of Dakota and nearby territories, 1864
Sometimes they are harsh, as when drought nearly destroys her family’s livelihood and prairie fire wipes out the little that is left of it. Sometimes they are trivial, as when an uncooperative chicken refuses to sit a nest of eggs and then refuses to lay altogether. 

In a comic turn, a visiting botanist discovers a petroglyph he believes is evidence of an earlier form of human life on the plains. We learn instead that what he’s found are the little girl’s initials inscribed on a rock face by a favorite playmate, the son of an officer from a nearby fort. More menacing is her night’s stay in an outlaw-infested hotel, where she and an older brother, with cash from the sale of a small herd of cattle, come perilously close to being victims of foul play.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dodging bullets

Room with a view, and flowers from a friend
Here are some more excerpts from the journal I have been keeping since returning from the hospital after brain surgery.  Last week, I was calling my journal "Big Baby," and for good reason. This week it changed to "Dodging Bullets," which describes more of what this all feels like some days. Next week will no doubt be different again.

2/18/14. Sleep comes in longer swaths, 3-hour stretches of it last night. The in-between times of almost maddening restlessness are shorter. Dreams are spin-offs from whatever we last watched from Netflix. I still wake at dawn, ready to start the day, eager to write and read more. Part of me watches amazed as words and sentences tumble together triggered by thought and feeling. I enjoyed writing before, but never with this intensity. 

There is maybe some trauma-induced illusion at work here, but the flow of words seems to come from some bedrock deeper within. I cling to that urge and marvel at the continuing ability to make and find meaning in language. So I am up this morning when I see it’s after 5 a.m., make coffee and toast, dress in sweats, and pull out this journal to write for a while as morning sun begins to show on clouds in the eastern sky outside my window.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: L
(La France rose – light a shuck )

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

La France rose = a rose developed in 1867 by Jean-Baptiste Guillot (1803–1882); generally accepted to be the first hybrid tea rose. “Marie Hampton was attired in a beautiful evening gown of white silk, with a knot of La France roses at her corsage.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

laboring oar = a position of hard work and chief responsibility. “I’ll bet they have to pull the laboring oar to get it.” S. Carleton Jones, Out of Drowning Valley.

lacking = a fool, a dunce. “It be a hard blow to me to know that my sons are lackings.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

ladino = said of a horse or cow in possession of crafty intelligence (from Spanish). “Pasquale had watched the band for an hour, and described the ladino stallion as a cinnamon-colored coyote, splendidly proportioned and unusually large for a mustang.” Andy Adams, A Texas Matchmaker.

ladrón = robber, thief (from Spanish, pl. ladrones). “All they could tell us was that there was plenty of ladrones and lots of horses.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

Lady Baltimore cake = a white cake described in Owen Wister’s novel Lady Baltimore (1909) as “all soft and it’s in layers and it has nuts.” “The whites of sixteen aigs I put in this Lady Baltimore cake, and it’s light as a feather.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

Lady of Lyons, The = a popular romantic melodrama by English dramatist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1903-1873); first performed in 1838. “Mrs. Tutts showed her public spirit by rehearsing Crowheart’s talented amateurs in an emergency performance of the ‘Lady of Lyons’ for the strangers’ evening entertainment.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

lag = to arrest. “I’ve kind of seen to the end of this racket. Maybe there’s trouble coming. Who’s to be lagged I can’t say.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

lagging = a covering for something either as insulation or protection. “The shaft was inclined, four by eight, and timbered with lagging.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

lala-kadinks = the high and mighty, style setters, culture vultures. “I ain’t a-layin’ no plans to have the lala-kadinks from the civilized parts o’ this country come out an’ round up my langwidge, same as they gather Injun specimens.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

Lalla = Persian princess, in a poetic romance, Lalla Rookh (1817), by Irish poet Thomas Moore. “He would do all right for the poet-prince—or was it a king? But  you—well, Rachel, you are not just one’s idea of a Lalla.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

lally/lolly cooler = someone or something successful or admirable. “An’ she was a shore lally-cooler all right! More prittys about th’ fixin’ up o’ that house than I’d allowed anything but a woman could pack.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.