Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 55

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people gleaned from early western fiction. 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, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Effie Graham’s The Passin’-On Party and Francis Lynde’s The Grafters. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “government drops,” “juggler’s rose,” “P.S.M.,” or “tail twister,” leave a comment below.

bedstaff = a wooden pin on the sides of the bedstead to hold the bedclothes from slipping on either side. “I put two and two together in the twinkling of a bedstaff.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

biff = a blow, slap, punch. “But Hawk’s next biff was more to the purpose. He came down here with Halkett’s chief clerk, whom he had hauled out of bed, and two policemen.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Rudyard Kipling
Black Curse of Shielygh = a fearsome malediction uttered in “The Courting of Dinah Shadd,” a story in Rudyard Kipling’s Life’s Handicap (1891). “Hawk smote the air with a clenched fist and called down the Black Curse of Shielygh, or its modern equivalent, on all the fates subversive of well-laid plans.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Blackstone and Chitty = a law book, Commentaries on the Laws of England, written by William Blackstone, first published in the 1760s; the 1826 edition with notes by J. Chitty was often reprinted in America. “By virtue of his diploma, and three years of country practice in the New Hampshire county town where his father before him had read Blackstone and Chitty, he had his window on the fourth floor of the Farquhar Building lettered ‘Attorney and Counselor at Law’.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

blandander = to cajole with flattery; to talk nonsense. “I know where I’m goin’, an’ that’s more thin you know, ye blandhanderin’ divil!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

bread-tackle = food and drink. “It was the one that afterward became the bread-tackle in the famine time.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

by grabs! = a mild oath for “by God.” “Three groans for the land syndicates, alien mortgagees, and the Western Pacific Railroad, by grabs! and to hell with ’em!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Sugar casters
caster/castor = a small container with holes in the top, used for sprinkling sugar or pepper. “I feel honored; there’s my mother’s old silver castor.” Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party.

Castilla = a Havana cigar. “I prefer the pipe myself, for a steady thing; but at this time of night a light Castilla fits me pretty well.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

chloral hydrate = a widely used sedative in the late 19th century; the composition of "knock out" drops [as Richard Wheeler notes below] used in Mickey Finns. “Kent was walking the floor of his room, trying vainly to persuade himself that virtue was its own reward, and wondering if a small dose of chloral hydrate would be defensible under the cruel necessity for sleep.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

cinch = to impose upon; to defeat. “I have it on pretty good authority that the ring is cinching the other companies right and left.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

cold-plucked = bold, nervy. “Did you say that? You’re a cold-plucked one, Kent, and I’m coming to admire you.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Ottoman dragoman
dragoman = an interpreter, guide, diplomat, mediator. “‘You are the pink of dragomans,’ she said. ‘Don’t you want to go and smoke?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

grass cloth = a loosely woven fabric made with grass or vegetable fibers. “The little den behind the drawing-room had but one occupant besides the rear-end brakeman—a tall, saturnine man in a gray grass-cloth duster.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

halt camp = a stop on a route, a train station. “Its beginnings as a halt camp ran back to the days of the later Mormon migrations across the thirsty plain.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

hedge up = to confine, obstruct. “The way to the smoking-den on the floor above was hedged up.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

hide hair and horns = completely. “You rec’lect what he said in them Civic League talks o’ his: said these politicians had stole the road, hide, hair an’ horns.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

hold fast = a device used on a workbench to fix a work piece to the top or side of the bench while it is being worked. “One of his professional hold-fasts—it was the one that afterward became the bread-tackle in the famine time—was his position as local attorney for the railway company.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

houseroom = accommodation; lodging; space in a house. “The town office of the Blue Jay was just across the street, and he took her there and begged house-room and a chair for her.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Balcony, 1787
Juliet balcony = a shallow window balcony that does not protrude from the building. “This was Unk’s name for the small Juliet balcony, which had been give him when the old Ludderman house was displaced by the new one.” Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party.

junto = a clique that seeks power through intrigue. “Gaston the strenuous was still no more than a lusty infant among the cities of the brown plain when the broom broke and the junto was born.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Cophetua, maid
King Cophetua = an ugly legendary king who marries a pretty beggar maid and makes her his queen. “Elinor would go to her wedding with Ormsby as the beggar maid went to King Cophetua.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

leaguer = the camp of a besieging army. “Making the most of the present leaguer of a woman’s heart—a citadel whose capitulation was not to be compassed by mere money-might.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

leg it = to run. “No stops, or Tischer will run him down. Leg it! He’s half-way down the yard, now!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

long purse = wealth, riches. “He made the most of such opportunities for the exercising of his gift as came to one for whom the long purse leveled most barriers.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Preview audiences reportedly were roused by such strong reactions to this film that many left the theater in protest. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch immediately won a reputation for its graphic violence. Because of or in spite of that, it quickly found a place on most western fans’ top 10 list. Over 40 years later, it remains a powerful and absorbing story.

Plot. Part of the impact of the story is its simplicity. Without a lot of twists and turns, it follows a gang of thieves led by William Holden from a failed railroad robbery to a successful one and then on to their deaths. In a parallel subplot, they are followed into Mexico, where most of the story takes place, by a raggedy group of hired guns, led by Robert Ryan.

That’s pretty much it.

It’s 1913 or thereabouts, and Mexican federal troops are fighting a losing battle against revolutionaries led by Pancho Villa. Holden and his gang (Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez) agree with a Mexican general to steal a shipment of arms from a train just north of the border. The train is guarded by a contingent of U.S. soldiers.

William Holden
A half hour in the middle of the film is a hold-your-breath portrayal of the train robbery and an escape with the guns across the border, Ryan and the troopers in hot pursuit. The sequence is beautifully shot and edited, with moments of both nail-biting suspense and comedy.

Character. With over two hours at its disposal, the film has time to thoroughly explore its characters, and it does. We first see the members of the gang disguised as cavalrymen. In Mexico, they gradually shed the uniforms and dress as very different individuals. From a distance you can tell them apart by the hat each has found to wear.

William Holden is especially strong as Pike Bishop (wasn’t there a famous Bishop Pike in the 1960s?), a man of easy stature who happens to be an outlaw. By the way he carries himself, you can see he has the intelligence and the experience to command this group of men. He seldom needs to raise his voice, but when he does, it keeps them in line.

Without question, he is the most admirable man in the film. His leadership of the gang is both firm and fair. When Johnson and Oates want to cut Sanchez’s share of the take, because he’s young and Mexican, Holden sets them straight. The deal was equal shares for everybody, period.

Robert Ryan
By comparison, Harrigan the railroad man (Albert Dekker), is a cheap bastard who hires Ryan to bring in Holden’s gang, but hamstrings him with the support of incompetents. The townsfolk are a pious bunch of temperance advocates. The U.S. Army troops are no more than unseasoned and disorganized young recruits. The Mexican general is a drunken, womanizing despot, and his men are no better.

Sympathy, where there is any in the film, goes to the poor villagers who are at the mercy of the Mexican federales. And we are meant to sympathize with Ryan. He and Holden are former partners in crime. Saddled with an impossible job, Ryan is threatened with being sent back to Yuma prison if he fails. From the look on his face, we know that his respect for Holden gives him feelings that are more than mixed.

Evil. Peckinpah’s wild bunch is not so much wild as they are simply day-by-day survivors in a dark and amoral world. In the opening scenes, a gathering of small boys and girls watches with fascination as two scorpions are being tormented by a swarm of ants. Far from being sweetly innocent, they’re shown as happily participating in human cruelty. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

James D. Best, The Shopkeeper

Review and interview

This is an old-fashioned western in a way that goes back to the western’s roots. For the closest comparison, I’d offer Francis Lynde’s first novel, The Grafters, which was published in 1905. Both novels tell of a newcomer to the West who gets involved in a political intrigue, where influence is bought and sold, and greed rules the workings of government.

Both novels are tightly plotted with twists, turns, and surprises aplenty. One of them is Best’s central character himself, Steve Dancy, the shopkeeper of the title. He’s not the usual tenderfoot from the east, the fish out of water you find in Zane Grey. Nor is he the traditional cowboy drifter Louis L’Amour liked.

He’s comfortably well off, having acquired a bankroll through some shrewd investments. He stays at the best hotel in town and eats at the best cafĂ©, where he lingers over meals indulging an appetite for good reading. We find him in the midst of a Melville novel and looking forward to getting a copy of Mark Twain’s new book, Tom Sawyer.

While modern western writers tend to dwell on makes and models of firearms, as if readers were gun show enthusiasts, Dancy has good reason for being a gun expert. Until he left the business, he was a gunsmith. And years of practice have made him a marksman. A few short days after his arrival in a silver mining camp, Pickhandle Gulch, he has eliminated two nasty thugs who’ve been disturbing the peace. And thus the novel’s plot is set in motion.

Shoshone mine and mill complex, Nevada, 1907

Plot. The arch villain of the novel is a rich mine owner, Washburn, who has acquired his wealth by jumping other men’s claims. With his money he’s bought law officers, public officials, and judges, and he’s attempting to install a governor in the next election. He hires a contract killer, Sprague, to wipe out any man who becomes an intractable nuisance. Dancy soon qualifies himself as a target.

Without giving too much away, let it be said that Washburn and Sprague are eventually “neutralized.” But not until after the introduction of several Pinkertons, the buying of a bank, the writing of a forged letter, and the use of a derringer hidden in a woman’s dress. There’s even a demo of how to dress a sage hen.

The plot takes its central characters from dusty Pickhandle Gulch to Carson City. Key scenes take place on the days-long trail between the two settlements. There are stopovers at an Army fort and a ranch, where a young widow and her battleaxe of a mother-in-law are in a fierce contest of wills. And bustling though it may be, Dancy finds the state capital little different from “all the other collections of slapdash buildings that Nevada called towns.”

Nevada Great Basin (CC) Brynn

Style. The story is deftly told in first person. An intelligent and resourceful man, Dancy makes a good teller of his own story. He’s thoroughly reliable as a narrator but doesn’t always let you in on what he’s up to. He may even reveal something important to another character, but you have to wait until matters unfold to find out for yourself.

Clever, that. It intensifies the suspense, which builds steadily as Dancy’s schemes put him in greater danger of being the next name to be crossed off Sprague’s to-do list. A confrontation bristling with malice in a hotel dining room produces a reversal that had me laugh out loud with surprise and relief. That hasn’t happened since I was reading Carol Buchanan’s God’s Thunderbolt, reviewed here a while ago.

Best also grounds the story in history, with occasional references to Nevada’s past. There’s mention of a pony express route through the state and Nevada’s admission to the Union during the Civil War. He casts his Pinkertons as aids to law and order, when they are often portrayed in fiction as hired agents of greedy corporate clients.

While thoroughly professional, Captain McAllen often finds himself at odds with Dancy, who has to keep reminding him that he has hired McAllen, and that makes Dancy the boss. Still, he respects and needs McAllen, and the fine line both men must walk with each other gives their working relationship an added complexity.

Capitol, Carson City (CC) Urban
Romance. Best gives Dancy a curious weakness of character. It does not qualify as a flaw exactly and is more a sign of a human nature that underlies his coolly rational style of problem solving and risk management. Still, the way it clouds his judgment troubles him. Put simply, he has a fatal attraction for the young widow, Jenny.

Part of that attraction is a wish to rescue her from the lecherous clutch of other men. There’s a spark of life in her pretty self that draws him like a moth to the flame. He doesn’t seem to notice that she’s tougher than nails and hardly in need of a helping hand. And he can’t fathom his own impulse to settle down with her in the godforsaken isolation of Nevada’s outback.

Lovers of western romance may be disappointed in the way all this turns out. It comes as no surprise in the end that there is no Jenny in Dancy’s future. She seems happy enough to share the ranch house with another woman, also named Jenny. A thoroughly independent person, she tells him, “I need a friend, not a lover.”

Wrapping up. The Shopkeeper is one heck of a novel. As it ventures into matters of politics, the law, business, and finance, you might call it a thinking reader’s western. Its cast of characters is easy to believe in, and the storytelling is taut and well polished. Complications are neatly and plausibly resolved after many pages of suspenseful tension.

Dancy is the kind of man you’d like to meet and get to know. And it’s good to know that Best has written more novels featuring his well-drawn “shopkeeper.” You can find Best at his website here. His novels and other books are currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble. 

James D. Best

James Best has generously agreed to spend some time with us today talking about writing and the writing of the Steve Dancy novels. So I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

Jim, how did the idea for The Shopkeeper suggest itself to you?
I always liked fish-out-of-water stories. In The Virginian by Owen Wister, the narrator came from the East to provide fresh eyes to tell us about the American frontier. I thought it would be fun if the Easterner was a participant in the story rather than just an observer. At any rate, that is how I came up with the idea for The Shopkeeper. As a nod to The Virginian, the characters play whist as the cowboys did in Wister’s book.

Was the published version similar to how you first conceived it or somewhat different?
The storyline remained as I originally wrote it. The first version was shorter, but a publisher asked me to lengthen it, so I added several new chapters rather than pad the existing story. I tend to write the story first, then do the research. This way the story drives the research instead of research driving the story.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
I start each day by revising what I wrote the prior day. This is the way I put my head back in the story. As a result, when I print the manuscript to edit for plot, clarity, and continuity, I consider it a second draft. I’ll generally continue to make big revisions up to this point. The next step is to give printed copies to three people I trust to give me honest feedback. They give me good story suggestions and fact-check.

Although it’s infrequent, I’ll occasionally make a big plot revision as a result of their readings. This is usually after I stomp around for a couple days in a snit because I refuse to believe they’re right. Once my emotional response recedes, it’s possible for me to take a cold look and make a better decision.

After this step, I believe the manuscript is perfect and send it to a professional editor. Lo and behold, it comes back with metaphorical red ink on every page. As I review each edit, time has provided a fresh perspective, so I sometimes adjust the plot and make other changes. Finally, there is proofreading, which is mostly nip and tuck.

How did you go about deciding on the novel’s title?
I wanted a title that was a bit of misdirection. The Shopkeeper sounds innocent and non-standard for a traditional Western. I’m not sure that was a good marketing choice, but it seems to work for people who have committed to reading the book. The character of the protagonist comes across as a surprise.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Zoe here

You may have noticed that Ron takes off Sundays and doesn’t even touch his laptop—for anything. He says it’s some kind of self-discipline to see if he can stay away from a computer screen for 24 hours. But I figure it’s just so he can lie around reading westerns all day if he wants to, without being distracted.

Having opposable thumbs would make this typing a lot easier, and it’s probably why a lot of dogs don’t do their own blogging. But I’m jumping at the chance to put in a few words here (and if you know any Miniature Pinschers, you know we are jumpers).

I came here a year ago last December from a foster family of min pins over in Orange County. I was a bit dubious about the new arrangement, as I’d just got used to the other place, and where I was before that is not a story I care to go into. Except that's where I got my name, which I like.

But the folks here turned out to be pretty friendly. I have no complaints except that I’d welcome a few more snacks during the day. Anyway, I’ve decided there are worse things than being adopted. And the only other thing I have to say on the subject is that people should think “rescue” when they want to get a dog. Pet shops are for fish and birds, not puppies.

I’m proud that I was thoroughly house trained when I moved in here. And as for bad habits, I just don’t have any besides barking at kids on bicycles and skateboards. I probably overdo the hysterics when someone I don’t know comes to the door. I don’t care if it’s the UPS driver, they might be coming to kill us. Otherwise, I’m a credit to my breed and my upbringing.

The picture above was taken of me on the rug in the kitchen, where I like to hang out because I get my meals here. I’m also alert to any people food that gets away from the cooks and slips onto the floor. You never know when you’re going to get lucky. To be honest, I’ll eat just about anything.

I get a long walk in the desert every day, except when it’s really windy or there’s rain. If it’s too chilly, I have to wear a sweater, which I think makes me look a little silly. In the summer, we go out before sunrise, like at 5:30 in the morning. Otherwise you just bake.

Ron won’t let me off the leash in the desert because he says I’ll chase a jackrabbit until my legs fall off, or the coyotes will get me. You can’t change his mind about things like that, though I haven’t given up trying.

So anyway, I just wanted to say hello to everybody. I’m pretty worn out now. I think I’ll go climb up on the back of the couch, where I’ve got a nice spot, and take a nap.


Photo: Lynda Scheer

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday music, Gene Vincent

Vincent Eugene Craddock, born 1935 in Norfolk, Virginia, won rockabilly fame with his band, The Blue Caps, when this song was released in 1956.

Coming up: James D. Best, The Shopkeeper

Friday, January 25, 2013

Dell H. Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn (1912)

This is a domestic western set on the plains of Kansas. Its heroine, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Farnshaw grows up in a fractious homesteading family where her domineering father makes life miserable for his wife and daughter. The long, 564-page novel covers 15 years of Elizabeth’s early life as she grows into womanhood.

Plot. Elizabeth’s fortunes seem to improve when she finds herself being courted by a newcomer in the neighborhood, a young farmer, John Hunter. John has a gentleman’s polish, a smattering of university education, and a comfortable inheritance. His proposal of marriage offers a welcome escape from her father’s domination.

Alas, John Hunter is not what he seems. As her husband, he does not bully her with the brute ignorance of her father, but he is oppressive in his own way. He builds a handsome house on his farm and invites his mother to live with them. Both have strict beliefs about a woman’s domestic duties, and their effect is to keep Elizabeth a virtual slave and a prisoner in her own home. Matters worsen still when Elizabeth gives birth to a child.

Elizabeth and John Hunter
John, it turns out, lacks caution in his investments and, against Elizabeth’s wishes, gets them deeply in debt. They are saved by an infusion of cash from a man who has come to Kansas looking for a business partner. Hugh Noland has a bad heart, which limits his prospects for the future, but farming with Hunter promises to be good for his health and a productive use of his remaining years.

The arrangement works well until Noland suffers an accident with a runaway team of horses. The doctor orders bed rest for him and encourages Elizabeth to give him plenty of tender loving care. But the two have already become too close. Both are torn between their affection for each other and her commitment to her marriage vows. Seeing the burden he has placed upon her, he hastens his demise by overdosing on his heart medicine.

Leaving all his assets to Elizabeth in his will, he gives her the leverage to finally stick up for herself with her husband. Infuriated that she wants to be his “boss,” he leaves her. The farm thrives under her direction, but she does not give up a belief that husbands and wives can live together as equals. In time, her husband asks her to take him back, and the closing pages suggest they might be able to make a go of it.

Elizabeth at the post office
Character. Elizabeth is drawn throughout the novel as an exemplar of character. “Quick to serve, sensitive, honest, dependable,” she has a strong sense of duty. The values of character espoused by the novel are both feminist and moralistic. Munger puts them in conflict with each other and shows how they might be resolved. A husband merely needs to give up the instinctive desire to dominate his wife.

Munger gives several examples of such men. The appearance of Noland offers the finest one. He shares Elizabeth’s love of books and freely regards her as a trusted friend. As she grows exhausted from overwork and motherhood, he has a concern for her that her husband lacks. The concern is shared by the doctor, who has seen from his practice how husbands wear out their wives by committing them to a life of drudgery and dependence.

Mrs. Farnshaw and Elizabeth
Women. While Munger sympathizes with the lot of farm wives, she does not exactly portray them as likeable or admirable. Quick to indulge in their jealousies, they are cruel and unforgiving gossips. For them, the most grievous social offense is to take on airs and act superior. When John refuses to let Elizabeth visit her neighbors, the local women assume she is being “stuck up” and viciously condemn her.

Elizabeth’s mother shows how a lifetime of subservience to men has made of her a bitter and demanding woman. She is jealous of Elizabeth’s friendship with Susan Hornby, a neighbor of kindred and warmly generous spirits. She is cruel and cutting to her daughter, siding with her husband as he physically abuses her.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Zane Grey, The Drift Fence (1933)
Zane Grey’s writing career was in full stride when this novel was first published in 1929 as a serial in the pages of The American Magazine. That year saw two other serials, in The Country Gentleman and Ladies Home Journal, plus short fiction in Collier’s and McCall’s.

Not much has changed since he found his basic western formula in his first novel, Heritage of the Desert (1910), reviewed here a while ago. A tenderfoot arrives in the Southwest, learns the ways of the West, wins the heart of a western girl, does battle with a nasty villain and his gang, and wins the approval of his superiors.

Plot. It is 1889 in open rangeland of Arizona, where cattlemen are being preyed upon by rustlers. Jim Traft, a young Missourian arrives at the invitation of his uncle, who wants to build a 100-mile fence to keep his cattle from drifting into the wrong hands. To put up the fence, Jim is made foreman of his uncle’s toughest group of cowboys, the Diamond outfit.

His cowboys don’t take kindly to being bossed by a tenderfoot, and they haze him mercilessly. To show his grit, he challenges them one by one to a fistfight and, as he beats them, gradually wins their grudging respect. They are finally just devil-may-care cowboys, not mean-spirited. The most likable of the lot is Curly Prentiss, who is among the first to befriend Jim.

The one mean one of the lot is Hackamore Jocelyn. He schemes to join up with the rustlers, who are led by a young gunman, Arch Dunn, also known as Slinger Dunn. Jocelyn instigates a plot to kidnap Traft and hold him for ransom from his rich uncle, then kill him, cut the fence, and run off a bunch of cattle.

Donkey rider, c1933
A young girl provides the story’s complications. Slinger Dunn has a sweet 16-year-old sister named Molly, who has won the heart of Jim Traft. He meets her at a fair and, before the day is over, gets a kiss from her and professes his undying love. From the start, they are star-crossed lovers.

Her brother, who has killed men before, attempts to put Jim out of the picture, and it’s something of a contest to see which of the two villains will be first to do the job. Molly defends her lover, throwing herself twice between Jim and a gun being drawn on him.

In the end, Jim wins her hand, and it is Jocelyn who dies, shot through the heart by Slinger Dunn. Molly’s brother is a good bad man after all, and in the closing chapter, Jim is offering him a job, to partner on a ranch he’s getting from his grateful uncle, and to go after yet another band of rustlers.

Character. Jim Traft is a man in the making. Decent and honorable but untested, he gladly assumes the responsibilities given to him, though the going is far from easy. In his favor is that he has both brains and brawn. He never loses a fistfight in the novel, even when one opponent attempts to “rooster” him, i.e. to kick him in the face with his spurs.

Hospital, Gleeson, Arizona, 1925
Never mind that this is hard to believe. Any one of a tough bunch of cowboys should have been able to beat a tenderfoot to a pulp. Forget that a tenderfoot would not have been given a foreman’s job over them in the first place.

In a reflective moment near the end, we find Jim wishing he could be more like the tough Slinger Dunn, a leader of men who survives several bullet wounds in a shootout with two gang members. Softening Dunn’s cold resolve, Jim also aspires to be like Curly Prentiss, a loyal friend with a playful sense of humor.

Romance.  Grey’s heroes fall hopelessly and head-over-heels in love. It almost undoes them they suffer so forlornly for the girls of their dreams. As in his first novel, Heritage of the Desert, the girl has to be rescued from the clutches of a darkly evil man. In this case, it is Hackamore Jocelyn, who has plans to leave the country with her, by force if necessary.

In part, it is also social class that comes between them. Nephew of a well-to-do cattleman, Jim seems far above Molly’s lowly station as the daughter of a poor settler. But Jim sees in her a natural simplicity, virtuousness and courage. Despite her “primitive” upbringing, she has the “instincts” of a lady. Later we discover that she is actually the granddaughter of Southern stock from Virginia. Her qualities are in the blood.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Major Dundee (1965)

At some point, ambition has a way of overreaching itself. Sam Peckinpah’s first big-budget western is a lesson in that old observation. Its story tells of an officer in the U.S. cavalry who takes on a job of fighting Indians that is too big for him. Meanwhile, the film itself is the result of an ill-fated attempt to make an epic-scale movie against odds that nearly overwhelmed it.

Plot. Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston), with a company of U.S. cavalrymen, is in charge of a prison in New Mexico in the last year of the Civil War. It is full of Confederate soldiers, Army deserters, and civilian prisoners. From among them he gathers a contingent of volunteers to capture an Apache chief, Sierra Charriba, who has been ravaging white settlements.

They follow the Indians into Mexico where they are surprised by Charriba in an ambush and sustain considerable losses. Next they encounter troops of the French Foreign Legion, who currently occupy Mexico and object to American invaders. Heston’s men liberate a village, which throws a big fiesta in their honor. In the village, they find a beautiful widow (Senta Berger) with whom Heston becomes romantically involved.

Charlton Heston
From the start, Heston has commanded a fractious group of men, including black cavalrymen, civilians, and Confederate prisoners. Among the Southerners is an officer, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), who has agreed to follow Heston’s command until Charriba is captured. The celebration in the village temporarily unites the men and brings a truce between Heston and Harris, who have been at odds.

When one of the Confederates (Warren Oates) tries to escape, Harris defends him but keeps his word to obey Heston’s orders and executes the deserter himself. Berger then joins the band of Americans, having escaped reprisals in the village by the French garrisoned in nearby Durango.

Everything goes downhill for Heston when he is struck in the thigh by an Apache arrow. Treated by a doctor in Durango, Heston descends into a slough of defeat and self-pity. Berger discovers him with a whore who’s been keeping him company. Harris finds him literally drunk and in the gutter.

Richard Harris
Back on his feet, Heston rallies the men for a retreat to the border. Before leaving Mexico, they lure Charriba’s Apaches into a trap, killing many including the chief. Then they have to do combat with the French to cross the Rio Grande. In this climactic battle, fighting on horseback in the water, Harris and many others are killed. Only a couple of dozen men survive to escape into Texas, leaving behind the bodies of the dead.

Contingencies. Thus summarized, the film sounds a good deal more coherent that it is during its 2+ hours of running time. The “extended version,” released in 2005, reconstructs the film as cut by its producer Jerry Bresler. It had later been recut by the studio before its theatrical release to make it shorter. Peckinpah did not have a hand in either version.

Given the scale of the film, it is arguable that Peckinpah’s version would have run much longer. The story goes that his original budget of $4.5 million was cut by one-third before the film went into production, but he went ahead to make a $4.5 million movie anyway. There are numerous characters and plot threads, much as we find in a John Ford western. Shot on location in Mexico, in color and Panavision, Peckinpah clearly intended to produce an epic.

Senta Berger
A budget cut wasn’t the only obstacle. Many of the film’s problems can be traced to its being started with only a half-finished script. Writing while they were shooting, Peckinpah allowed the story’s central plot to shift away from its original conception. Part of that shift is due to the studio’s hiring Senta Berger, a European actress who would help the film sell in the international market. A major role not envisioned in the original storyline needed to be created for her.

Much of this behind the scenes material can be learned on the audio commentary that accompanies the DVD release of the film’s extended version. There, several film historians generally agree that Major Dundee works well during the first half, but while the second half has remarkable moments, it generally lacks coherence. The best that can be said is that learning from his mistakes, Peckinpah was able to make a much better film with The Wild Bunch, which followed in 1969.

James Coburn

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday music, Les Paul and Mary Ford

Famous multi-track husband and wife duo, Les Paul and Mary Ford. "Tiger Rag" recorded 1952. 

From Wikipedia: Between the years 1950 and 1954, Les Paul and Mary Ford had 16 top-ten hits. They had five top-ten hits within nine months: "Tennessee Waltz," "Mockin' Bird Hill," "How High the Moon" (#1 for nine weeks), "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," and "Whispering." 

From August 1952 to March 1953 they had five more top-ten hits: "My Baby's Coming Home," "Lady of Spain," "Bye Bye Blues," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," and "Vaya Con Dios" (#1 for 11 weeks).

Coming up: Major Dundee (1965)

Friday, January 18, 2013

A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River (1911)

For a first novel, this logging adventure shows the work of an accomplished storyteller. It grips you from the beginning with an unexpected crisis thrust upon a young man and doesn’t let you or him go until the final pages. Neither far-fetched nor implausible, the tightly plotted story is based in the real-life world of the timber industry.

At the center of the story is Joe Kent, just graduated from college and called home from a trip abroad to take over his deceased father’s lumber company. He has only modest hope for success but gives it a go despite being almost totally inexperienced. The company has also been leveraged rather too uncomfortably, and a railroad monopolist wants to run him out of business.

Plot. Young Kent contracts to fell and deliver a winter’s cutting of timber to a sawmill. There’s a strict deadline for delivery, and if he doesn’t make it, the buyer will not only refuse to pay but sue for damages. Should that happen, loans and a mortgage will come due, with no extensions, and the company will go under.

Trouble at the logging camp
There’s trouble before Kent and his men even get out to the woods. Garwood, the railway tycoon, raises freight rates, which severely cuts into the company’s bottom line. This development produces friction between Kent and the owners of a sawmill, the Clancy brothers.

Setting up camp for his logging crew on the Wind River, Kent discovers that the Clancys are cutting on an allotment right next to him. Their crew is bossed by a rough thug named McCane. There is immediately trouble as McCane makes one attempt after another to sabotage Kent’s operation.

When winter ends and it’s time to send the logs downstream, McCane and his outfit continue to interfere with Kent’s drive. With a Herculean effort, Kent’s men are able to make delivery to his client’s sawmills before the deadline. Paid the agreed price, Kent is able to liquidate most of his debt and save the company from bankruptcy.

Kent challenges his crew
Character. During the twelve months that elapse during the telling of the story, young Kent grows into his manhood. The biggest challenge is gaining the good will and confidence of the workingmen. Achieving that means the difference between their merely working for wages and the tireless self-sacrifice that follows loyalty and commitment to a boss they admire.

Though he’s seldom totally sure of himself, Kent has a combative streak that shows him to be fearless and willing to confront any challenge. It helps that he dresses like his men and is willing to work alongside them. More impressive to his men is that he can give as good as he gets when it comes to a fistfight.

Kent’s transition to manhood parallels the men’s growing acceptance of him as their boss. One observer sees that the work has made him physically tougher. In his “battered felt hat” and cork boots, he appears “bronzed and hard.” He’s become “stronger, graver, more self-reliant.”

Women. Chisholm almost but doesn’t quite exclude women from this story. Kent’s mentor, Crooks, has a daughter who’s been a chum to Kent since childhood. She’s something of a tomboy and prefers to be known as “Jack,” often complaining that she’d rather have been a man. She yearns to be out in the woods, living the life of the shanty men, enjoying the freedoms she doesn’t have as a female.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Max Evans, The Hi Lo Country (1962)
Max Evans says in the introduction to the 1995 edition of this novella that he set out to capture the “Old West” of the 1940s-50s, before it became mythologized like all the earlier ones. His central character, Big Boy Matson, is a larger-than-life cowboy full of the give-em-hell spirit of the generation before him. He scorns the modernizing of cattle ranching and would sooner ride a horse than drive a pickup to do his job.

Big, strong, and fearless, he is a fighter and drinker, who defies civil conventions when they get in the way of his free-for-all style of life. When he sets his eye on another man’s wife, Mona Birk, there’s no stopping him. It doesn’t matter that her husband is the foreman for the biggest and richest cattleman around.

Plot. We know from page one that Big Boy gets killed. The son and grandson of men who died from gunshots, he is remembered by the story’s narrator, Pete West, who has been his best friend. Pete is a small rancher and more than a little drawn to Mona himself. Marriage to a girlfriend, Josepha, is much postponed as Pete suffers miserably under Mona’s spell.

Meanwhile, Big Boy openly flaunts his affair with her and gets on the wrong side of just about everybody but a handful of close associates. “That always happens,” Pete says, “when someone’s his own man and goes his own way.” His demise is temporarily averted when Mona’s husband is goaded to draw a gun on him at a dance. The brawl that follows leaves Birk’s cowboys thoroughly thrashed and Birk himself next to dead.

New Mexico Fair rodeo, 1940
Matters worsen on a drunken double date, as Josepha persuades the other three to have their fortunes told by a local witch. Not only is Pete’s fortune disturbingly dark, but he is driven to an unwelcome understanding of Mona and his unrequited desire for her. Big Boy’s death finally comes, in a way that is both surprising and inevitable. Pete is elsewhere at the time, so we have only the report of those present, and they are each unreliable.

Storytelling. Max Evans has a fiercely loyal following among western readers. The Hi Lo Country is testament to his gifts as a storyteller. While committed to a realistic portrayal of the West that he knows from his own experience, he gives us that realism once removed. With its first-person narration, it offers the further reality of a western style of storytelling.

Much of the novella is a collection of shorter stories told about the people who are among the residents of Hi Lo country. With the settlement of Hi Lo at its center (pop. 500), this country is ranchland extending over much of northeast New Mexico and adjacent parts of Colorado and Texas. There are Anglos here and Mexicans, all of them scratching out a living. Social life is almost exclusively to be found in the two bars in Hi Lo.

Homesteaders, New Mexico, 1944
The country is prone to drought, and the withering winds blow, hot or cold, 300 days of the year. Maybe not since Dorothy Scarborough’s The Wind (1925) has it been so much a feature of a story about western life. Cattlemen watch their herds die for lack of water and feed. Or blizzards overwhelm them, as they did in the winter of 1948-49, which Evans records here.

Like the many stories told by Pete and Big Boy as they get steadily drunker in either of Hi Lo’s bars, the novella is itself another barroom story. Well crafted, it holds the hearer’s attention with the hard-to-believe account of a fiercely independent and colorful character.

It is the West transformed and memorialized by the West’s own way of regarding itself—as a harsh land with a harsh climate producing extreme behavior. And in the telling, there’s an entertaining avowal of acceptance. What doesn’t kill you may or may not make you stronger, but it sure as hell can make a good story.

Along with Joseph Conrad, one might add to that, “Pass the bottle.”

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Corner (2000)

Whether they’ve seen it or not, most readers here probably know of the HBO series The Wire, which ran 2002-2008. Written by David Simon and Ed Burns, that brilliant series was preceded by their raw look at inner-city drug addiction, The Corner. Also made for HBO, it was directed by Charles S. Dutton as a quasi-documentary telling of the story of a real-life family.

Like The Wire, the series is set in the mean streets of Baltimore. It’s the mid-1990s, after the introduction of crack has devastated the already-fragile social structure of black neighborhoods. The family at the center of the story is the Boyds. Fran and Gary, both addicts, have already split up. They have two sons, a teenager DeAndre and DeRodd, who is still a schoolboy.

DeAndre is already dealing on a “corner” with some of his buddies. They scorn the addicts who buy from them and have firearms stashed nearby should they be threatened by suppliers trying to move in on their territory. DeAndre has a girlfriend, Tyreeka. By series end, Tyreeka has given birth to their baby, and DeAndre has become a user himself.

The Boyds
The series strikes a delicate balance between portraying drug addicts as irresponsibly self-destructive and as plague victims. We see them as human beings with both strengths and weaknesses and often a wry sense of humor about themselves and their drug-induced predicaments. In flashbacks, we also see them in better times, gainfully employed, credit-worthy citizens. They are people whose lives have simply been derailed.

Gary is the most poignant example as an intelligent man with all-American aspirations, who once ran his own business and lived comfortably. The pull of recreational drugging first sucked his wife into addiction and then himself, as their relationship disintegrated. He laments the loss of that life but lacks the will to resist the siren call of the next high.

His wife Fran becomes a survivor, persistently waiting for an opening at a rehab and taking the 12 steps to recovery. After months of sobriety, she slips, but shows up at an NA meeting to start the steps over again. At the end, when we meet the real Fran Boyd in a series epilogue, she’s remained straight for several years.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 54

Montana cowboys, c1910

Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people gleaned from early western fiction. 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, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from A. M. Chisholm’s The Boss of Wind River and Dell Munger’s The Wind Before the Dawn.

Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “cold shut,” “gambol stick,” or “worth a lift,” leave a comment below.

Alsatian bow = a large bow of wide ribbon, worn in the hair with the knot at the top of the head. “She rolled her hair from neck to brow in a ‘French twist’ and set on the top of it an ‘Alsatian bow,’ which stood like gigantic butterfly wings across her proud head.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

banking grounds = in logging, the area along the shoreline for holding felled timber. “All went merry as a marriage bell, and the quantity of logs pouring down to the banking grounds attested the quality of the work done.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

bitt = one of a pair of upright posts on the deck of a ship for fastening cables or ropes. “It came inboard to the bucking clatter of a winch and was made fast to the towing bitts.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

botfly = a stout hairy-bodied fly with larvae that are internal parasites of mammals. “A botfly buzzed suddenly about the forelegs of the off-wheel horse.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

bull wheel = a wheel of horse-drawn farm implements, providing traction with the ground and powering the moving parts, e.g. the knives, reel, rake, binder. “The bull-wheel, striking a badger hole, threw the machine over sidewise and completely upside down.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

by ginger = a mild oath. “We know it’s a bad school, but, by ginger! we’ll see that you’re stood by.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

by jing = a mild oath. “‘I’ll do it, by jing!’ he exclaimed.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

by the Mortal = a mild oath. “By the Mortal! The moon’s high, an’ the travelin’s good. Come on, bullies, we’ll burn them out of their bunks this night!” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

circular = a woman’s cape extending to the bottom of the dress with a hood fitting tight around the face. “He didn’t feel that he could afford a coat, so I’m going to get the cloth and you and I will make you a circular this week.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

clevis = a U-shaped fastening device secured by a bolt or pin through holes in the two arms. “On six-inch spikes, hung extra clevises, buckles, straps, and such materials as accidents to farm machinery required.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

come-all-ye = a popular narrative ballad, folk song. “Great Scott, Jack, where did you pick up that old come-all-ye?” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

Butter churn
dasher = a plunger for agitating cream in a churn. “He took the dasher into his own hand and began a brave onslaught on the over-sour cream.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

deacon seat = in logging camp bunkhouses, a bench made of halved logs, flat side up, usually extending across the room. “He could see the bunk-house filled with the smoke of unspeakable tobacco, the unkempt, weather-hardened men on the ‘deacon seat,’ and the festoons of garments drying above the stove.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

dip = a candle made by repeatedly dipping a wick into tallow. “By the time ‘a dip’ had been constructed the full weight of the disaster had fallen upon the defeated and despairing woman.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

fix = condition, state; euphemism for “pregnant.” “Sadie, ain’t you ’fraid t’ talk that way an’ you in that fix?” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

gag = a deception. “No, ma’am; you don’t run any such gag as that on me.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

gosh all Friday = a euphemism for “God Almighty.” “Why, Gosh all Friday, what’s happened to your horse?” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

gosh a livin’s = a mild oath. “‘Gosh-a-livin’s!’ he exclaimed as a new thought struck him.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

hang out = to live. “You can run the place and I’m not hanging out like I thought I could.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

high banker = a logger’s term for a pretentious person. “All the blasted high-bankers between this and the booms of hell can’t hang us up.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

hornswoggle = to get the better of someone by cheating or deception. “And you are the Elizabeth these folk have been talkin’ about? Well, I’ll be hornswoggled!” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

Tom and Maggie Tulliver
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.

Mexican Mustang liniment = a preparation for relief of aches and pains, for use by “man and beast,” produced by the Lyon Manufacturing Company, New York. “I’ll rub it good with Mustang liniment; that’s th’ best thing I know of.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.