|1907 edition, cover by N.C.Wyeth
White started out as a Midwesterner, growing up and getting his education in Michigan. But he spent time in Arizona in 1904 and eventually settled in California. Arizona Nights includes a novel-length story by the same name, plus two shorter stories published earlier in magazines. “The Rawhide” appeared in McClure’s in 1904, and “The Two-Gun Man” followed in Collier’s in 1905.
“Arizona Nights.” This is actually not a novel. It’s a bunch of campfire stories told by several cowboys who work together for a ranch owner in southeast Arizona. The stories are of various kinds, ranging from personal experiences to tall tales to a real pulp-style adventure.
Linking them together are descriptions of the Arizona desert, a couple of cloudbursts, a night spent out of the weather in a cave, and then a long, detailed description of an open range roundup. I’ve read several accounts of roundups, and this is one of the best, told from the point of view of an unnamed cowboy narrator. He captures the rhythm of the work and the feelings that go along with it – the excitement, the exertion, the exhaustion, the camaraderie.
|Stewart Edward White, 1912
“The Two-Gun Man.” This short story takes place in the same part of southeast Arizona, on the same ranch. Rustlers have been making off with cattle, but pursuit across Apache Territory and into Mexico is dangerous. The ranch owner sends his foreman to find someone willing to take the risk.
The foreman invents a novel way to find the man for the job. In a town full of desperados he challenges anyone there to a knife fight – the two of them holding a bandana between them in their teeth. (Only time I ever came across this before was in the movie The Long Riders.) The foreman then hires the first man who offers to fight him, and goes back to the ranch with the “two-gun man” of the title.
The man agrees, for a big reward, to return with the cattle and the man who took them. And after ten days, he shows up with the cattle, but no man. Then, drawing both guns, he takes the money and reveals that he’s the rustler who took them in the first place, and he is off into the night.
“The Rawhide.” J. Frank Dobie speaks well of this story in his book Life and Literature of the Southwest (1952). It stood out for him as a western rendering of a folk tale. And that may account for what’s unusual about it.
The story is about an unhappy marriage. Romance in westerns normally ends at the happy-ever-after stage. But this one uses a frontier setting to do the opposite. A successful rancher, Buck Johnson, marries a woman from back East that he meets through an ad in the newspaper. Before she arrives, he’s allowed his head to be filled with dreams of what their life together will be like.
|Illustration from "Arizona Nights"
What he doesn’t notice is that she soon becomes bored and miserable. She learns that wet rawhide when it dries, squeezes tight anything it’s wrapped around. It will squeeze the water out of a potato. Life on an isolated ranch two days' ride from town soon squeezes the life out of her.
When the rancher learns that she has left the ranch with one of the top hands, he assumes she’s run off with the man. He catches up with them, ties them with rope and wraps them in the hide of a freshly killed steer. There under the desert sun, they will die, slowly crushed together. In a genre that normally treats women respectfully, this is a startling act of revenge.
While the Brothers Grimm might well have ended the story at that point, White backs away from something so gruesome. He has the rancher read a letter from his wife that helps him see her escape in a truer light. And he learns that he’s the one at fault, not she. After freeing his wife and the ranch hand, he rides off, his dreams of happy-ever-after shattered.
The result is an interesting study in frontier psychology. Out here, in a hostile world, a man must arm himself and fight every inch of the way to get and keep what he wants. But what makes him a man is not enough to make him human. Wrapping himself in the rawhide of what it takes to become wealthy and powerful, he can have his life squeezed out of him. The failure of his marriage is proof of that for Buck Johnson.
White’s popularity. White had a full career as a writer, and this collection of stories is among his first books, written when he was in his early 30s. He was a popular writer. “The Rawhide” was reprinted at least four other times in the pulps from 1925 to 1949. Meanwhile, several of his titles were made into movies. A silent adaptation of Arizona Nights appeared in 1927 and “The Two-Gun Man” became a Michael Curtiz film, Under a Texas Moon in 1930.
1) Stewart Edward White, wikimedia.org
2) Illustration from 1913 edition
Coming up: Stewart Edward White, The Westerners (1901)