Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday music: Merle Travis

"Another day older and deeper in debt. . ." The man who wrote the song.

Coming up: Randolph Scott, The Nevadan, 1950

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner (1907)

This mining camp novel recounts the domestic affairs of several women living in a small mountain community in Colorado. They are miners’ wives, thoroughly obsessed with town gossip, much of which they originate themselves. The “new missioner” of the title is a newcomer, sent by the bishop to fill a local pulpit. That she is a woman causes no small stir among the miners’ wives who style themselves as the “Ladies Aid Society.”

Plot. The novel is more episodic than it is unified along a single plotline. For overall continuity, it follows the events of one year, from winter through spring and summer to autumn. During that time, Frances Benton, the new missioner, passes through a series of revelations about herself.

Frances and children
Frances is a mostly non-judgmental observer of the carry-on in Zenith, the mining camp that is home for the novel’s collection of characters. Her mission there is to “help people,” which she comes to realize is easy to affirm in the abstract but not so easy to put into practice.

As in a soap opera, incidents blossom into conflicts, there’s a great deal of talk about it all, the crisis passes, and a degree of calm returns. Among the disturbances that erupt during the year, there’s the matter of Mrs. O’Brien’s too casual relations with the men in the village. While her husband is off working at the mine, she’s working her flower garden, where she can be chatted up by any passing male.

The Ladies visit Dan Mayhew
Then there’s Lutie, the female companion of the richest man in town, the silver mine owner Walt Garvin. Lutie is dying of a wasting disease, apparently TB, and he indulges her every material whim in hopes of brightening her last days. The ladies of the Ladies Aid take exception, for the fact that Lutie and Walt are unmarried.

Lutie’s death is followed by another upset when, Mrs. Nitschkan, one of the ladies of the Ladies Aid, happily leaves her family to go on a two-month fishing and hunting excursion. Her friends are aggrieved by this excess of self-indulgence.

Women. Woodrow treats her “Ladies” kindly, but has little real sympathy for them. They are comic figures. For all the women in the novel, one issue dominates the ins and outs of daily life. In one instance after another, Woodrow portrays marriage for them as a mixed blessing. A husband is a necessary nuisance, but the trade-off is the loss of a woman’s independence.

Mrs. O'Brien and a gentleman friend
Mrs. Evans raises eyebrows when she leaves her husband to take a job as stage driver between Zenith and the nearest train depot. As a beleaguered wife, she appreciates the freedom that the extra income gives her. But when her husband is shamed by her self-employment and agrees to terms for her return, she is glad to give up the job.

Mrs. Thomas loses her husband to “miner’s consumption,” and soothes her short-lived grief by puzzling over how to spend the life insurance. She settles finally on making some home improvements. But there’s a wave of shock when she takes up company with a psychic and self-styled professor. Even Frances berates the woman for rushing into marriage so soon after her husband’s death.

Romance. A love story begins to emerge in the later chapters as the wealthy Mr. Garvin takes an interest in Frances, the missioner. She becomes troubled as she realizes she is falling in love with the man. She begins to feel “womanly,” and therefore out of control.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Man From the Alamo, 1953

This is another of those 1950s westerns with a hero who wrongly becomes a social outcast. Glenn Ford plays the role this time. Defending the Alamo, he’s a married man who draws lots with several others like himself for one of them to go look to the welfare of their families. His departure is misinterpreted as an act of cowardice, and the rest of the film portrays his attempts to recover his good name.

Plot. Discovering that he’s too late to save anyone’s family or household, including his own, he is told by a Mexican boy (Marc Cavell) that the villains were not Mexican soldiers. They were a gang of gringo guerillas.

But coming into a town, in search of someone to take in the orphaned Cavell, Ford is identified by a lieutenant in Sam Houston’s service (Hugh O’Brian) as a deserter from the Alamo. The townsfolk, including a one-armed Chill Wills, throw him in jail where he happens to share a cell with one of the gang that killed his family (Neville Brand).

Orders arrive for the women and children to evacuate the town, leaving only the able-bodied men behind to defend it. They are, however, more interested in lynching Ford. When the gang engineers a jailbreak for Brand, Ford goes along with them, though none of them trusts him either.

Chill Wills, Hugh O'Brian
The rest of the film follows the wagon train of women and children under escort of O’Brian and his troops. Transporting the bank’s deposits in one of the wagons, they become a target for the gang who plan an ambush. Ford foils the plan by warning the approaching wagon train with a gunshot, but he ends up at the bottom of a cliff, as good as dead.

Cavell, traveling with the town’s schoolteacher (Julie Adams) retrieves Ford. She, with the help of Wills, brings him back to life. The wagon train proceeds without further problem until O’Brian and his men receive orders to report for duty elsewhere. His family is on one of the wagons, and at first he refuses to leave them—which would make him a deserter like Ford, and for the same reason. How the tables turn.

He finally agrees to leave Ford in command of the wagon train. With rifles in the hands of all the women and a revolver in Wills’ one good hand, they not only repel the gang. They wipe them out completely. Ford dispatches the gang’s leader (Victor Jory) in a fierce fistfight on the brink of a precipitous waterfall.

Now exonerated, Ford heads for San Jacinto, where he will join the fight for Texas independence. As he leaves, Cavell assures Adams that Ford will be back some day, which seems to please her.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saturday music: Willie Nelson

A favorite from Willie (before the braids) at the Grand Ole Opry, 1967.

Coming up: Glenn Ford, The Man From the Alamo (1953)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!: A Romance (1906)

This is a western romance with all the stops pulled out as far as they’ll go. At 499 pages, the novel’s scale, its plot turns, and its emotional range could best be described as operatic. The romance it promises in the subtitle throws its arms around forbidden love, revenge, passion, illicit sex, alcoholism, rivalry, death, reversal of fortune, and babies switched at birth.

Not every early western is overtly organized around an argument, but this one is not only that. It takes up the old debate between Nature and nurture and sets out to show that the character of a man results from the influence of his environment. It ends by proving the opposite. Blood finally tells.

Plot. At the center of the story are a wealthy man, Pierce Eldruth, and his two grown children. We know from the start that one of them, Richard, was born out of wedlock to a low-class woman, Marah, who has worked as a servant to the family. But Eldruth claims to everyone that Richard is the child of his first wife, now deceased.

His second wife, also deceased, gave birth to a child as well, and to the very end of the novel we believe that child is the charming and delightful Lilys. Turns out, her real mother is Marah, the servant, who switched Lilys with the second wife’s newborn, another boy.

That boy, Paul, is “the man” of the book’s title. Growing up, he believes he is the child of Marah and a Mexican sheepherder on the estate, who was hanged by vigilantes shortly after fathering the girl Eldruth believes is his daughter.

While the son Richard, now in his twenties, lives a rake’s life of casual disregard for the consequences of his drinking and whoring, Paul is a model of responsible behavior. He works for Eldruth, rising to a high-level management position supervising the rich man’s many enterprises: mining, quarrying, cattle raising, haying, and timber.

From boyhood, he has also been a playmate of Lilys, and their long friendship has grown into a romantic attraction that each of them resists. There is the class boundary between them. Even she regards him as “not a gentleman” and therefore unfit as marriage material.

The ins and outs of this plot would keep us going for pages. But after many chapters, Lilys is drawn to Paul like a moth to the flame. She finally gets singed during a torrential rainstorm that drives the two to cover and some scarcely stifled passion is triggered between them. In time, she is willing to give up all for him, even to live as a workingman’s wife.

He is too honorable, however, to deprive her of her social standing and privileges. Having reached maturity, he resigns his job with Eldruth to build a fortune of his own as a partner in a gold mine. With his absence, the business of the estate begins to unravel. Paul saves the day, but not before Richard is shot and killed. This event precipitates the revealing of long-held secrets. Paul learns that he is Eldruth’s son and Lilys is Marah’s daughter. The two sweethearts are now free to marry each other.

Snowy Range, Colorado, c1902
Character. Eldruth has insisted all along that a true gentleman is the result of many generations of highborn forebears. While Paul exhibits all the character of a true gentleman, it’s supposedly in his blood to be as low-class as his parentage. While Richard exhibits not a single quality of character, his father regards him as the height of noble manhood. If nothing else, there’s his bloodline to prove it.

Louthan seems to be arguing the direct opposite. Paul has all the qualities Richard lacks. Chiefly he is hard-working, responsible, and respectful of others no matter who they are. There’s not a selfish bone in his body. Embittered at times by his lot in life, he stoically holds to Nature’s universal lesson: “What can’t be cured must be endured.”

In particular, there is his gallantry toward women. Always honorable, Paul represses his own feelings, suffer as he may without the solace of a woman’s affection. For Louthan, the rigid containment of sexual impulses turns out to be the true mark of a gentleman. So when everyone’s actual bloodline has been clarified, it turns out that Nature does in fact trump nurture.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Half-Breed" at Beat to a Pulp

It's 2085. Do you know where your grandchildren are?

Click over to David Cranmer's Beat to a Pulp this week, and you'll find a story from my fevered imagination. Called "Half-Breed," it's a mix of frontier story and post-apocalyptic speculation that starts this way:

Corless had a grandmother born in 2020, and she was called by her pa, so the story went, Penny-Penny. Supposed to make a cute rhyme.

That was three years before the Grid went down. His grandmother tells him all this so often Corless has it by heart. What she won't tell him is where he came from and why. He's got only this dim memory of someone bringing him to Penny-Penny and leaving in a hurry the next day. Off down the busted road through town in a horse and wagon.

Everybody has somebody, and Corless had his grandmother. Nobody but her called him by his right name. Most called him Half-Breed, even before he started school. Off color, Penny-Penny would say instead.

"Your mama was always a little wild," she'd explain and shake her head. But it didn't explain a thing.

The mystery took a turn when the talk of UFOs started up. They'd been seen, some said, on winter nights over the hills. Bright, shining saucers. Then some hunters along the Dismal came through town bug-eyed with stories. There'd been a mother ship, by god, and a bunch of baby ships floating right down over the treetops.

Continued here. . .

Coming up: Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man! (1907)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Good Day for a Hanging, 1959

You don’t think westerns when you think of Fred MacMurray, but he was a versatile actor and equally at home in just about any kind of role. Here he plays a character found in other 1950s westerns, a lawman alone against a town that has lost faith in him.

Plot. It’s 1878 in a small Nebraska town. A bank holdup in the opening scenes leads to a chase in which the town marshal is killed and a young member of the gang (Robert Vaughan) is captured. In need of a new marshal, the town fathers persuade MacMurray to wear the badge and see that justice is done.

The rest of the film turns on the courtroom testimony of the one witness (MacMurray) who remembers clearly that it was Vaughan who shot the marshal. Though first outraged at the loss of a well-loved public servant, the town’s opinion shifts when a skillful defense lawyer with political ambitions appeals to their sympathies. The young lad, he reminds folks, had a deprived childhood and was obviously not a hardened criminal.

Fred MacMurray and Joan Blackman
There’s also the fact that MacMurray’s daughter (Joan Blackman) is sweet on Vaughan. She brings him food baskets and TLC despite her father’s disapproval. Townspeople begin to suspect that this development may color MacMurray’s judgment and his memory of the shootout. Even the widow (Maggie Hayes) MacMurray is to marry turns against him and calls off their wedding.

The trial jury reluctantly finds Vaughan guilty, and a gallows is constructed outside the jail. Meanwhile, the whole town signs a petition for clemency to be delivered to the state governor. Only Hayes’ young son sticks by MacMurray and praises him for his courage. The widow of the dead marshal also counsels him to stay true to himself and do what he believes is right, though it may alienate everyone.

Margaret Hayes
Script. The film was adapted by veteran screenwriter Daniel B. Ullman from a story by prolific western writer John Reese (1910-1981). Without finding the original story (title unknown), it’s hard to say who gets credit for the sharp plotting and the moral complexity. The dilemma in which MacMurray finds himself is cleverly constructed.

We are also left in doubt until the end about the degree of Vaughan’s guilt—if there's any at all. Exasperating, unless you’re watching on DVD and can replay the scene, is that being witnesses ourselves to the killing of the marshal, we’re not likely to recollect exactly how it all happened. I sure couldn’t.

Like High Noon, this is a western that takes place mostly indoors and in the streets of a small town. The opening scene finds a stagecoach being observed from a distance by several men on horseback, and you expect the usual holdup, but they ride off instead. It’s the first clue that the film is not going to be entirely conventional.

The personal drama is heightened at points by the obligatory gunfire, a chase, a fistfight, and the final shootout. We also get the usual scene in which a woman pleads with the main character to see reason and forego the heroics. The strength of the film, though, is the way it portrays MacMurray’s growing dilemma.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 43

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms gleaned from early western stories. 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, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from John C. Bell’s The Pilgrim and the Pioneer, about lawyering in Colorado mining camps, and Dennis H. Stovall’s The Gold Bug Story Book, about a western mining camp. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “shoot mouth,” “jaw service,” “whisky wheel,” “cold fritter,” “sky lighter,” or “gallon house,” leave a comment below.

Fireplace with wood fire
back log = a large log at the back of a fire in a fireplace. “Now, you see this back log in the center of my blankets is the dead line between us.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

blackjack = a common scrubby deciduous tree having dark bark and broad three-lobed leaves; tends to form dense thickets. “That fellow is the very trashiest of the poor white trash found in the blackjack thickets, where the ground is so poor that it won’t sprout a ‘goober pea.’” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

bracer = an alcoholic drink intended to prepare one for something difficult or unpleasant. “The expert took a bracer and a Havana, and soon someone proposed a game of whist.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

bull quartz = in mining, quartz of no appreciable value. “He knew the difference between bull quartz and pay rock.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

bullyrag = to intimidate by bullying. “Every time the owner of the gambling hall got the deal he gave Mr. Campbell a phenomenal hand and had bully-ragged him to bet until he was about to yield.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

chico = a long-lived, evergreen tree native to southern Mexico and Central America, commonly known as sapodilla. “In a few moments they reached a long, meandering arroyo, with tall chicos on either side.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

clam = mouth. “Close your clams or you will be a cold fritter.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

con = to study, peruse, scan. “Slivers was studiously conning a horse book that he had lately become in possession of.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

Horse with crupper
crupper = a strap buckled to the back of a saddle and looped under the animal's tail to prevent the saddle or harness from slipping forward. “These indispensable burros have a little frame called a pack-saddle buckled upon their backs, covered with rings and ropes with which to tie the load securely, with a crupper under the tail.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

dead line = a boundary separating people, animals, or activities, e.g. a dividing line on the range between sheep and cattle herding. “Now, you see this back log in the center of my blankets is the dead line between us.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

dead soldier = an empty bottle. “Then Buck took the flask and studied the constellations for a while, after which a ‘dead soldier’ was consigned to a sage bush.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

Scottish dirk
dirk = a short dagger of a kind formerly carried by Scottish Highlanders. “They go loaded down with six-shooters and dirk knives.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

duffle = equipment or supplies, especially those of a camper. “He piled Millie’s room with everything a girl ever wanted, together with a lot of useless duffle no girl could find use for.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

dyke = a long and relatively thin body of igneous rock that, while in the molten state, intruded a fissure in older rocks. “He described the mountains on the south with their mighty dykes, yawning chasms, grassy basins, snow-slide tracks, cataracts and water-falls.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

Four Hundred = the exclusive social set of a city. “If you go down there take your plug hat, patent-leather shoes, dress suit, and a book on London etiquette, and drop your H’s, if you wish to thrive with the Four Hundred.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

freeze out = a game of poker in which play continues until one player has all the chips. “Let’s put up ten dollars and play ‘freeze-out’ for it.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

gad = a sharp metal spike. “He kept at it and I warned him that if he wanted to live he’d have to drop the gad.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

Mine headframe
hanging wall = in mining, the wall or rock on the upper or top side of a vein or ore deposit. “Up in the maw, loose shale rattled down in a stream, or dropped by the bucketfull from the hanging wall.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

headframe = in mining, the structure surmounting the shaft which supports the hoist rope pulley, and often the hoist itself. “One night The Kid donned his rubber coat, pulled a candle stick from the head-frame post, and waited at the collar of the shaft for Jackson.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

T. Rice as Jim Crow
“Jump Jim Crow” = a song and dance from 1828, sung in blackface by white comedian Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) “Daddy” Rice. “‘The first two gents cross over,’ Peg Leg called, in tune to ‘Jump-Jim-Crow.’ ‘Honors to the right, honors to the left.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

Keeley Institute = a commercial medical operation that offered treatment to alcoholics, wildly popular in the late 1890s. “She, the first wife, sent for him, put him into a Keeley Institute, paid the expenses of his divorce proceedings against wife number two, remarried, him, and was caring for him.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

ki-yi = a whoop or shout, like the howl or yelp of a dog. “Don’t that sound mightily like the ki-yi of the Sewer Gang?” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Saturday music: Bill Monroe

How-dee! Blue grass from the Grand Ole Opry, 1956.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 43

Friday, September 14, 2012

Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman, 1908

1910 edition
Edgar Beecher Bronson (1856-1917) was one of those larger than life writers and adventurers of the 19th and early 20th century. Born in Pennsylvania, he began as a youthful newspaper reporter for The New York Tribune. At nineteen, he was already a model of nerve and persistence. Covering the 1875 Henry Ward Beecher adultery trial in Brooklyn, he crossed the ice-covered East River on foot with his report when there was no boat to ferry him over.

Bronson was a member of that “strenuous” generation praised by Theodore Roosevelt. He anticipated TR’s interest in the West by giving up his reporter’s job and going west to cowboy and then take up ranching. This book is his memoir of that frontier adventure.

The new outfit
Cowboy to rancher. Through a connection with field geologist Clarence King, he found his way to a horse ranch in Wyoming where he endured several months as a tenderfoot among seasoned punchers. His accounts of rising to the challenge show him remarkable for his tenacity, eventually winning the respect of the other men and his employer.

Before long, he is in Texas, buying up cattle to drive north, with the intention of ranching on the plains. Still in his early twenties, he is out of his depth dealing with dishonest traders and trying to boss trail hands who resent his lack of experience and his Yankee origins.

Holding his herd in Wyoming, he is one of the first cattlemen to venture north of the North Platte River. He winters there with several of his men in a dugout near Fort Laramie. The structure is 18-feet square, with rawhide mattresses in the bed frames, a fireplace, a mountain lion skin on the floor, and tomato can cases nailed to the walls for shelves.

"Shet y'r yawp."
He has problems in Wyoming with rustlers, who take 70 or more of his cattle to Deadwood. In that wild mining camp, over 200 miles away, meat on the hoof is worth a small fortune. Catching a night coach, he is able to track down his cows and, after some hard bargaining, buy them back from a shady and threatening butcher.

By 1877, he has settled in the Nebraska panhandle, just south of Fort Robinson, hundreds of miles from any duly constituted authority. He is on his own, with 8-10 ranch hands, to keep cattle and horses on his range and out of the hands of rustlers and the Sioux.

Chief Dull Knife
Indians. With the Sioux resisting efforts to move them off their traditional lands, and Custer's recent encounter with them at the Little Big Horn, there is also the risk of retaliation. Bronson has several moments in tight spots with them when he’s fully aware that he may be breathing his last.

His understanding of the dilemma faced by the Indians makes him largely sympathetic with them. He admires their courage and ingenuity and gives a long account of Dull Knife’s breakout from Indian Territory. The tribe’s amazing trek northward defied multiple efforts of the U.S. government to intercept them. Fighting valiantly to the last in bitter winter cold, starved and scarcely clothed, they win Bronson’s unreserved respect.

Two chapters are devoted to what Bronson believes are the last Sundance ceremonies by Sioux tribes gathering at the agency near Fort Robinson. There in the spring of 1880 or 1881, he and several other whites observe days of rituals and dancing by an assembly of 10,000 Ogallala Sioux and 2,000 Brules.

Moving on. In 1882, at the age of 26, Bronson saw the writing on the wall. The range was getting overstocked, and homesteaders were arriving in droves. He’d had five good years and knew that staying on he chanced being wiped out by a killing winter. Against the wishes of his loyal cowhands, who were ready to take up their guns and drive the nesters out, he sells the ranch and returns east.

His last summer on the prairie finds him in Ogallala, Nebraska, at the height of its rip-roaring bad old days. There, with one hotel, 20 saloons, dancehalls, and gambling joints, all in a single row facing the railroad tracks, the town is surrounded by the herds of 12 or more trail outfits. He estimates that there are 20-30,000 cattle fresh from Texas.

The fierce, triple-digit heat gives way to a sudden storm front, which sends the temperature down 40-50 degrees F. After torrents of rain, the river floods, driving residents in the hotel to the second floor, raising fears that the whole town will be swept away. A tornado is sighted in the flashes of lightning, but it misses the town.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher (1907)

This is a collection of stories loosely strung together about an Oklahoma cowboy with romance on his mind. Known to one and all as “Cupid” Lloyd, he likes to match up folks he thinks would make good couples. A matchmaking cowboy is an odd premise for a book of fiction, but given Lloyd’s lack of prospects for marriage himself, there is poignance in his situation and potential for serio-comic developments.

Plot. As one example, he volunteers his assistance to a local doctor, Billy Trowbridge, who is sweet on a young widow, Rose Andrews. However, Billy doesn’t pass muster with Rose’s father, as he rides a bicycle and lacks the glamour of another doc in town, Simpson, who drives a horseless carriage. Simpson also practices an updated brand of medicine, which attributes the cause of illness to “bugs” (bacteria and viruses).

Alec Lloyd and Billy Trowbridge
When Rose’s baby falls ill with a number of complaints, Simpson makes daily house calls to discern the “bug” that may be at fault. Suspecting that he’s also making a play for the widow’s affections, Alec takes matters into his own hands. He disables Simpson’s vehicle by causing it to go off the road and into a tree, giving Billy a chance to doctor the baby himself.

He discovers that the poor thing is simply cutting teeth—four of them at once—and quickly brings the baby and everyone else some relief. He also effectively cancels Simpson’s credibility. Asked for his bill for services, Billy requests the hand of Rose in marriage, and the two are soon headed for the altar.

Romance. The women in the novel are seen through the eyes of Alec, a traditionalist about gender roles. They are independent and confident in their abilities to look after themselves without the supervision of males. Alec likes Rose's sister Macie, who has spunk, but he disapproves of what she does with it. At a schoolhouse dance, when she dances with the wrong man, Alec puts his foot down and tries to take her home to show who’s boss.

This, of course, backfires. As soon as she gets a chance, she leaves her father’s ranch and begins supporting herself, waiting tables and keeping a storekeeper's books. When a dying man leaves her $500, she decides to go to New  York and pursue a singing career. Alec eventually finds her there and he’s lucky enough to persuade her to return. They marry, but only after she’s proved that she can make it on her own in what the men believe is a man’s world.

Alec's friend, Hairoil Johnson
Style. The story is told in first person, and Alec’s storytelling is thick with cowboyisms. There’s the occasional malapropism, as when Alec routinely uses the word “erection” for “direction.” The reader is often referred to with “yas, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.”

Mebbe you figger that Mrs. Bridger drawed a knife and sa-a-aved him, ’r I pulled my gun and stood there, tellin’ ’em they’d only hang the sheriff over my dead body. But that ain’t the way it happened. No, ma’am.

The word “chaps” is spelled “shaps” to indicate actual cowboy pronunciation. Alec is rarely moved to description for its own sake, but he can sum up the look of a character with sharply observed details, as he does here:

Hank is a terrible tall feller, and thin as a ramrod. He’s got hair you could flag a train with, and a face as speckled as a turkey aig. And when I come on to him that day, here he was, stretched out on the floor of Dutchy’s back room, mouth wide open, and snorin’ like a rip-saw.

Alec calls out votes for Macie
Social history. One chapter is devoted to the visit of a patent medicine show, which comes to town for a week. For sale are five patent medicines, said to be derived from formulas learned from Blackfoot Indians by a boy taken captive after the massacre of his family. Two dollars buy all five, plus 10 votes to cast for the prettiest girl in town and 10 for the homeliest man.

A competition quickly ensues between the cowboys, in support of Alec’s sweetheart Macie, and the railroad men, who favor a waitress, Molly Brown. Alec drums up the votes for Macie, who edges out Mollie Brown and brings a round of cheers from the cowboys. Then Alec learns that he’s won “homeliest man in town” in a landslide.

Eleanor Gates
Wrapping up. Born in Minnesota, growing up in Dakota Territory, and university educated in California, Eleanor Gates (1875-1951) is remembered today chiefly as a Broadway playwright. Her best-known work, The Poor Little Rich Girl, was first staged in 1913. Its story became a film vehicle for Mary Pickford in 1917. First published as Cupid, the Cowpunch (1907), her collection of Alec Lloyd stories was adapted to a feature film in 1920 with Will Rogers in the starring role.

Her autobiographical novel, The Biography of a Prairie Girl (1902), and another novel, The Plow-Woman (1907), were based on her childhood years in Dakota. FictionMags Index finds her the author of numerous short stories, serials, and a few novels published in mostly slick magazines from 1902-1925.

Cupid, the Cowpunch is currently available online at google books. Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher can be found at Internet Archive and is also available for kindle and the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click over to Patti Abbott’s blog.
The Publishers’ Weekly, January 21, 1922
Richard Abel, editor, Silent Film, 1996

Further reading:

Image credits:  
Illustrations from the novel, George Gibbs and Allen True
Author's photo, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman (1908)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

6 Black Horses, 1962

This western based on a Burt Kennedy script is a gem. A perfect vehicle for Audie Murphy. He gets to play a decent man, a cowpuncher down on his luck, who gets involved in a desert quest with a trail partner (Dan Duryea) and a blonde with money (Joan O’Brien).

Plot. O’Brien offers to pay the two men a grand each to take her across Apache territory to her husband in a border town. Much of the film is just the three of them riding together, two men and a woman. And Kennedy is a master at drawing out the sexual tensions that lurk under the surface in such a situation.

With Murphy as the point of view character, there are only hints that Duryea and O’Brien are not quite what they claim to be. For one thing, Duryea cannot get his mind off her gender. As she bathes in a mountain lake, he stands watch over her under things and observes that she gives him a “low down shiver.” Turning in for the evening, he offers to “spread her blankets.”

On the set of 6 Black Horses, Murphy, Duryea, O'Brien
For her part, she suggests to Murphy that if he had both his and Duryea’s share of the money he could buy the ranch in Montana he wants. She seems to want Duryea done in. However, besides being too honorable to betray a friend, Murphy in fact owes Duryea for his life.

Meanwhile, there’s the threat posed by the Apaches. Like many novel twists of plot, Kennedy introduces the film’s Indians in an unconventional way. When a small band of them rides up to the three whites, it turns out that one of them wants to trade a horse for O’Brien. Murphy takes a careful look at the horse and then says, “No deal,” before the three of them race off.

No spoilers here, so no more of the plot. For the first-time viewer, the multi-layered suspense builds nicely, and it’s a pleasure being surprised by the well-paced revelations as they come.

Blackridge Wilderness, Utah
Added value. There are the usual fistfights, ambushes, gunfire, chases, and a final gun duel. But it’s the many unexpected elements and the sharp dialogue that are evidence of an intelligent mind at work in the script. Right from the start, instead of the standard western opening of a lone horseman crossing a vast landscape, the film begins with a man on foot, carrying a saddle and blanket.

A closer shot reveals it is Murphy, his face damp with sweat as he stops to survey the desert terrain. After roping and saddling a beautiful black horse, he’s taken by some cowhands who accuse him of being a horse thief. They throw up a wagon tongue and set about hanging him.

Before progressing to the deed, one of them asks if he’ll “will” his gun belt and gun to one of them. It will prevent a dispute after he’s dead. It doesn’t much matter to Murphy, but he decides he’d like them to go to the youngest of the cowboys. “Thanks,” the cowboy says, surprised and pleased.

When Duryea frees Murphy at gunpoint, and he gets back his gun belt, the young man is sorely disappointed. In scene after scene, the film has moments like this, when Kennedy takes the situation in some direction you haven’t seen before in a western.

Monday, September 10, 2012

John Henry Reese, Halter-Broke (1977)

Nebraska does not have a lot of homegrown writers, but you can certainly add western-writer John Reese (1910-1981) to the list. Born in Sweetwater, on the fringe of the Sandhills, he knew frontier old-timers who remembered the 1880s and 1890s. The oldest of six children, he described his father as a horse breaker and former cavalryman. His mother was the daughter of a blacksmith and woodworker.

Sweetwater is a wide spot in the road in north Buffalo County, in central Nebraska. It’s on Highway 2, next to the Burlington Railroad line, which today hauls coal from strip mines in Wyoming. Nearly as remote a place on earth as my own humbly rural origins some 50 miles to the east, it gives me a particular feeling of kinship with the man.

Reese was a prolific writer and a good one. He produced hundreds of stories that were published in pulps and slicks, including The Saturday Evening Post, plus numerous novels, mostly westerns. His widely praised and wonderfully named Jesus on Horseback trilogy dates from 1971, and he also produced the long-running Jefferson Hewitt series (1973-1980).

Farmstead, Buffalo County, Nebraska, 1903
Plot. Halter-Broke is a short novel that is cleverly constructed of different kinds of plot elements and an ensemble of characters. Rather than a central plot, it closely interweaves the threads of several stories, so that as a reader you’re always a little unsure how the pieces are going to come together. But come together they do in a way that’s both darkly comic and leavened with sentiment.

Reese’s familiarity with rural western attitudes and people, his knowledge of horses, and the sparks that flare up between the genders combine here in a perfectly believable way. Add to that the mechanics of well-digging, and you know we’re in the hands of a writer with his boots on the ground.

There’s also a playful kind of bait and switch with readers’ expectations as characters you don’t immediately warm to turn out to be OK after all. They don’t change or redeem themselves. By the end of the novel, you just get around to seeing things their way.

Bridge over Mud Creek, Sweetwater, Nebraska, built 1909
Character. The central character in this case is Alec Pitman, a well-to-do rancher, kind of a hardass and plain spoken, who has worked himself to the bone over the years. He’s unmarried, thirty-something, and has the worn look of a much older man. Oh, yes, he’s under the thumb of his domineering mother, who can’t abide the one woman he cares for, a young widow, Mrs. Butterworth, who owns a neighboring ranch.

Actually, “cares for” doesn’t quite describe his interest in her. He wants her ranch, too. And he isn’t so much sweet on her as he'd like to involve her in some good old-fashioned lovemaking. These feelings are further complicated by his rivalry with another rancher, a maybe shady guy who is courting her by digging a new well at her ranch.

That’s only one thread, and mixed together with it is Pitman’s foreman who’s a few bricks shy of a load, a runaway boy who has “walked down” a horse, two villains who have brutally murdered a local blacksmith and his wife, an old-timer living in fear of a younger partner with plans to take his ranch away from him, a doctor/coroner, and a played-out sheriff.

John Henry Reese
Wrapping up. If there isn’t a John Reese cult, there should be. The guy understands the western and puts a spin on it that’s full of surprises and poker-faced amusement. In the midst of the comic world he creates there is bloodshed and some nasty violence. The mix shows a wryly-entertaining intelligence at work. I intend to read more of his work and will review it here.

Reese’s novels are out of print and used copies can be found at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. Several titles are available online at OpenLibrary.

Photo credits:
Author’s photo,
Sweetwater bridge,
Farm family,

Coming up: Audie Murphy, 6 Black Horses (1962)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Desert sunrise

Call this one "Moon over Banning Pass." Snapped it last weekend during a walk at sunrise that began with the discovery of a coyote in the street outside the house when I opened the door. The desert air unusually clear, and a curious pattern of clouds, the bright moon a punctuation mark just hanging there like it had no place to go.

Coming up: John Henry Reese, Halter-Broke

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Saturday music: Tex Ritter

Tex Ritter sings the theme from High Noon.

Coming up: John Henry Reese, Halter-Broke (1977)

Friday, September 7, 2012

Wayne D. Dundee, Reckoning at Rainrock

Wayne Dundee writes westerns faster than I can read them. Reckoning at Rainrock was published earlier this year, not long after Manhunter’s Mountain, and already there’s another one out, Rio Matanza.

Reckoning is a Lone McGantry novel, a follow-up to last year’s Dismal River, both set in 1880s Nebraska. It tells a neatly crafted story with multiple characters who become involved in the fortunes of a woman convicted of the killing of her father.

Plot. Like a private eye novel—a form of fiction Dundee also practices—the story kicks off with a visit by an attractive female with a problem she wants the hero to solve. In this case, the female is a lawyer, Harriet Munro, and her problem is a missing client, Roxanne Purdom Bigbee. She’s not exactly missing, but held captive by what could be called human traffickers. She’s being kept across the line in Julesburg, Colorado, as a sex-worker in a bucket-of-blood saloon.

McGantry retrieves her, and because she’s a fugitive from justice, collects a reward for her capture. The lady lawyer has new evidence, and her plan is to get a retrial with a new judge. She expects the judge to reverse the guilty verdict and the sentence of death by hanging handed down at the previous trial.

Turns out there are too many people in town with too much to lose if that happens. Roxanne gets sprung from jail by an interested party, and the rest of the novel is a pursuit by posse—and others, including McGantry—into the Toadstool badlands of the Nebraska panhandle.

Toadstool Geological Park, Nebraska
Storytelling. For me, part of the enjoyment of westerns is seeing the way different western writers go about telling their stories. As a reader, you’re familiar with the western franchise, but the ways of marshaling its rich material are infinite. Stories set in some previous period of history are also interesting for what they say about the time when they were written. The past is made familiar and less remote by recasting it in terms of the present.

Dundee is free to disagree with me about this, but about a third of the way into this novel, I realized that it reminded me a lot of TV westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Like the continuing characters in those westerns, Dundee’s people talk a lot. The scene is often of two people in friendly conversation, and the plot moves forward as they discuss the past, present, and future.

And the talk is that smoothly even-tempered, lightly humorous manner of casual conversation that TV writers put into the mouths of their characters. It’s familiar to the ear, modern-sounding for the way it fills a social space. You don’t notice that modernisms creep in, as they do when Dundee’s characters talk. Somehow the word “coldcock” rings true, even though a slang dictionary says it was not in use in the 1880s.

The values in the novel are also modern ones. Julia Roberts can sympathetically play a prostitute in a movie today, and an audience is not puzzled or appalled as it would have been in the Victorian 1880s. Sting can sing of his own “Roxanne,” and in both cases what we get is romantic and palatable. So Dundee’s Roxanne glides easily into a modern reader’s imagination.

McGantry. Dundee’s central character Lone McGantry is something of a loner, comfortable with being alone and, like many western heroes, on his own from an early age. All the same, he is gallant and chivalrous, comfortable in the company of a respectable, educated woman.

Still, beneath his calm surface, you sense that he harbors a cauldron of cold rage. His rescue of Roxanne from the saloon is precise and methodical, and the deaths of those who stand in his way are sudden and brutal. Stopping at a relay station on a stagecoach line, he takes exception to a cowboy’s salacious remarks about Roxanne and gets into a fight. Rudely interrupted by a local rancher during a pleasant meal with lawyer Munro, he leaps instantly to her defense, ready to draw his gun, though they’re in a hotel dining room. 

He is a fierce protector of women’s honor. When he himself is sexually stirred by the sleeping Roxanne while camping with her on the trail, he berates himself for his urges. When she makes clear that she’d happily give him a roll in the hay, he backs off, shunning anything that might remotely suggest a romantic entanglement.