Thursday, February 28, 2013

A year of interviews

Cowhand and rope, Colorado, 1974
It’s time to look back over the last twelve months and make mention of the generous authors who have generously consented to interviews here at BITS. While my priority is chiefly the reading of early westerns (1880-1915) for a forthcoming book, it’s a genuine pleasure to converse with actual living writers. I get to ask them questions about their work in a way that would otherwise make for pretty one-sided conversations with those authors who are long gone.

Here is I hope a complete list of interviews with writers busily at work contributing to what has been well over a century of western fiction. If you see one you missed, just click on through to it.

Chuck Tyrell, Big Enough

If you know of one that I left out, let me know. It was not intentional.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins (1909)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

This well-meaning film has not weathered well. John Ford may have thought it an interesting challenge to make a courtroom drama, but the results are awkward. It wants to tell a story, set in the military, about race and racial prejudice. And that’s honorable enough, but instead of one story it tells two, and one muddies the effect of the other.

Plot. Sgt. Rutledge (Woody Strode), a respected officer in the Ninth Cavalry, is seen leaving the scene of a rape and double murder. The victims are an officer and his daughter. Finally apprehended, the suspect is brought before a court martial. There his guilt or innocence is argued by his counsel (Jeffrey Hunter) and the prosecutor (Carleton Young). Attempting to maintain order and assure a fair trial is Col. Fosgate (Willis Bouchey), president of the court martial panel. That’s one story.

The other story, revealed in the testimony of witnesses, concerns events preceding and following the arrest. Strode has been friends with the commander’s daughter, teaching her how to jump horses. The officers’ wives, a small flock of clucking hens led by Col. Fosgate’s wife (Billie Burke), naturally disapprove of this.

After the murders, the doctor called to examine the bodies observes that it was the work of a “degenerate.” It is noted that a gold chain the rape victim was known to wear has been torn from her neck. An examination of her dead father’s gun reveals that two shots were fired.

Woody Strode, Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Towers
Strode is found at an isolated railway station, where he and a traveler (Constance Towers) have been under attack by a small band of renegade Apaches. During that attack, he has saved her life. It is also revealed that he has sustained a gunshot wound in his side. 

She objects when Strode is taken prisoner by Hunter and a small company of black troops who arrive some time later. As they return to the fort, they attempt to intercept the band of Apaches who have been burning ranches. Strode is allowed to ride without being handcuffed, and when the troops are attacked by the Apaches, he is permitted to carry a rifle.

Given the opportunity to escape in the confusion, he remains with his troops and, under his command, they take a stand in a firefight with the Indians, who finally retreat. To one and all he is a hero. The men sing a song to him, “Captain Buffalo.”

The two stories finally converge in the last scenes, as Strode testifies that the Ninth Cavalry has been his home and his freedom. He has proved that he’s not “a swamp runnin’ nigger.” Facing the court, he says with pride and a quiet dignity, “I’m a man.”

Endings are hard, and this one is harder than most. A gold chain and a coat with initials taken from the body of an Indian are presented as evidence by Hunter. They are plausibly challenged by the prosecutor. Then, like a Perry Mason mystery, the guilty party finally confesses on the witness stand with an implausible display of melodrama. Strode’s Sgt. Rutledge is thus exonerated.

Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Towers
Romance. Strode’s character is at the center of a film bearing his name, but Strode gets only fourth billing, after Hunter, Towers, and (oddly) Billie Burke. Stapled onto both of the film’s stories is a romance between Hunter and Towers. They meet on the train that delivers her to the railway station where she first encounters Strode, and Hunter falls in love with her at first sight.

Meeting up again at Strode’s arrest, the two become more acquainted. She testifies at the court martial, and when Hunter wins his case, he stops her before she leaves, to tell her she’s the prettiest girl he’s ever seen. This wins him a big kiss as several black troops march by with sly grins. That’s the extent of the romantic subplot.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saturday music, The Flamingos

Recorded numerous times after it was written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin for the movie Dames in 1934. The Flamingos gave it the doo-wop treatment in this version from 1959, when it reached #11 at Billboard.

Coming up: Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord: A Tale of the Old West (1903)

It’s a safe bet this novel was never a bestseller in Salt Lake City. Harry Leon Wilson uses a portrayal of early-day Mormons in the West to tell the unfortunate story of a true believer. Unlike Zane Grey, whose first novels simply cast a jaundiced eye on the practice of polygamy among Joseph Smith’s followers, this novel argues that it helped lead to a grievous tragedy.

In 1857, during a period of intense hostility between the U.S. government and Brigham Young’s Latter Day Saints, an attack was made on an emigrant train passing through Utah. The incident, known as the Mountain Meadows massacre, left over 100 dead. It was first blamed on Indians, some of whom took part. Years later, it was revealed as the work of a territorial militia.

Plot. The central character in this long, 520-page novel is a young man raised in the faith, Joel Rae. We follow him from the moment of the Saints’ departure from Illinois in 1846, where he has experienced the violent intolerance of nonbelievers, so-called Gentiles. Violence has taken the lives of his family, and the girl who has promised to marry him, Prudence Corson, leaves the Church to remain in Illinois.

Prue and Joel Rae
Wilson follows the first band of Brigham Young’s followers in a difficult journey across the plains and mountains to a desert valley where they expect to be finally left alone. There they are joined by more wagon trains of Mormon settlers, and with a burst of industry the desert valley is made to flourish.

But the U.S. annexation of the Southwest and the discovery of gold in California produce a growing influx of non-Mormons that soon ends the isolation. The U.S. government assumes a civil authority that conflicts with the theocratic rule of the Church and its practice of polygamy. Brigham Young threatens to do battle with the U.S. Army if necessary, and in a siege of mounting war fever, the emigrant train is attacked at Mountain Meadows.

Joel Rae has thrived in the West, with a fiercely burning faith that disturbs the Church elders. For one thing, he has accepted the doctrines regarding polygamy as having been revealed to an infallible authority, but in his heart he has never approved of them for himself. Rae remains true to his first love, Prudence Corson, and believes them married in spirit.

Mara Cavan, who falls in love with Rae
Circumstances involve him in the massacre of the emigrant wagon train, and to his horror, among the women murdered is the sweetheart he left behind, Prudence. In a gruesome scene, she is not only killed by one of the Indians but scalped before his eyes. He finds her daughter among the still living children and whisks her away, finally raising her himself and allowing her to believe that he is her father.

Despite efforts at atonement, he is tormented by guilt for the events of that day. Eventually, he determines that the practice of polygamy is a false doctrine. At a church gathering he confronts Brigham Young himself with what he has come to believe. But he is shunned and declared an apostate. Expecting to be killed for his heresy, he returns to Mountain Meadows, where he dies.

Romance. Believe it or not, there is also room for a love story in this sad tale. The little girl he saves, named Prue after her mother, grows to be an attractive and intelligent young woman. She is met in the woods one day by a prince charming, Ruel Follett. At their first meeting, he doffs his hat, a courtly gesture she has only seen in the theatre.

Follett threatens to shoot Rae
He is, in fact, another child survivor of the massacre, having returned to avenge his own attempted murder. Now a handsome young cowboy, he allows her to try converting him to the faith, and a tentative affection grows between them.

When they talk of marriage, he tells her he could only love one woman and could never be married to more than one. She has long shared this aversion to polygamy herself, having found a deep desire to be someone’s one-and-only love after seeing a performance of Romeo and Juliet.

A crisis develops as Brigham Young himself wishes to “seal” himself to her in marriage and have her join his large stable of wives. Follett finally confesses his love and steals the bride on her wedding day. They stop to spend Joel Rae’s dying hours with him at Mountain Meadows, and then Follett puts her on a train back East to live with her grandparents until they can marry.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cowboy names, no. 1

Cherokee Hall
A while ago, I got to noticing the imaginative names that early western writers give to their cowboy characters. Curious and amused, I started collecting them. None are names that were bestowed at birth. Women characters, by the way, rarely go by anything but their actual names, unless they are habitués of saloons, dancehalls, or gaming parlors.

Here are thirty or so from a half dozen authors, starting with Owen Wister himself, whose Virginian would be the best known example of a man whose given name is unknown. My favorite is Henry Herbert Knibbs’ cowboy, Bud Light.

Owen Wister, Lin McLean (1897)
Toothpick Kid
Limber Jim
The Doughie
Jerky Bill
Dollar Bill
Honey Wiggin

William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming (1908)
Beet Collins
Soapy Southern
Chalkeye Dave
Denver Halliday

Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red (1912)
Bud Light
Billy Dime
Pars Long
Silent Saunders

Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville (1897)
Short Creek Dave
Texas Thompson
Cherokee Hall
Tucson Jennie
Faro Nell
Jaybird Bob
Rainbow Sam
Curly Bill
Doby Dawson
Mace Bowman
Piñon Bill
Crawfish Jim
Cimarron Pete
Slim Jim

Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith (1911)
Banjo Johnson
Babe Britt
Arkansaw Red
Meeteese Ed
Old Man Rulison

Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer (1906)
Long Pete Lumley
Sandy Winn
Three-Finger Boone
Bad-Eye Connelly
Silent Murphy

Image credit:
Drawing of Cherokee Hall, Frederic Remington

Coming up: Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord (1903)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Monte Walsh (1970)

There’s an elegiac tone to this story of aging cowboys. The glory days are over for the men who used to ride the open ranges, and now they are hanging on to whatever work they can find in a shrinking rural economy. Distant corporate owners make the decisions about how the ranches are run. What used to be “money” is now “capital.”

Plot. Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) are old saddle pals, resisting the changes being ushered in by the new century. Monte’s identity is inseparable from the riding and roping horseman he’s been all his life. A sharp shooter with a pistol, he can still ride an untamed horse, though it demolishes corral fences, knocks down porch roofs, and overturns a water tank.

Just like the old days, he enjoys a good drunk and a good fistfight. He also enjoys the company of a saloon girl (Jeanne Moreau) who cancels her “appointments” when he’s in town for a midnight call. She’s been holding out for a marriage proposal from him, and he’s been waiting to put enough “capital” together to properly provide for her.

Lee Marvin
Chet is cut from the same cloth, though he’s willing to hang up his spurs to marry the widow of a hardware shop owner and help run the store. The transition doesn’t trouble him so much, as he’s getting too old to be spending all day in the saddle.

Matters worsen when a corporate boss orders lay-offs, and their friend Shorty (Mitch Ryan) is let go with two others, simply because they are the youngest cowboys in the outfit. Desperate for a dollar, they try rustling, and then a hold-up attempt at the hardware store goes bad. Chet is killed by a shot from Shorty’s gun.

The losses mount up sharply for Monte, as death takes not only his pal but also his girlfriend, who is felled by poor health, consumption we assume. And he is left to a final confrontation with Shorty, whose hard-luck life has led him into a world of trouble.

Jack Palance
Comment. Monte Walsh is more a character study than a story, as if to say there are no more stories to be told of the frontier. The time of adventure is long over, as Jumpin’ Joe (Bo Hopkins) laments. Reduced to fixing fences, he finally puts an end to his misery with a spectacular ride on his horse over the edge of a sharp slope.

It’s a melancholy portrayal of westerners who have outlived the Old West. Dorothy Johnson tells a similar story in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” For Monte, it is one loss after another, but he sustains them with a kind of dignity and fortitude. In the end, he is not quite alone. There is still his horse, which we last see him talking to as they ride off into the sage.

Wrapping up. Based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, this is a beautifully photographed film, the wide-screen exteriors shot in Arizona. The realistic costuming is dusty and sweat stained. Marvin’s hats are especially true to the period. His slouch-brimmed Stetson is pushed up in front, and he trades it for a brand new, undented Boss of the Plains to wear to a funeral.

Lee Marvin and Jeanne Moureau
The performances are fine. The three lead actors seem well suited to each other. Palance is a warm and friendly presence. As saddle pals, the two men are like a pair of old, well-worn boots. Moureau and Marvin are believable as long-time lovers, as when they lie together in a post-coital glow and her arms keep getting in the way as he tries to roll a cigarette. Their final scene, as he sits by her deathbed, is a simple but tenderly moving farewell.

William Fraker, best known as a cinematographer, directed. The opening credits are shown over pen-and-ink renderings of Charles Russell paintings. Then as if to pin this faithful replica of the past to not one but two points in time, we get an echo of another era in the title song, sung by Mama Cass. The film was remade for TV in 2003 with Tom Selleck in the title role.

Monte Walsh is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog.


Coming up: Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord (1903)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 57

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 Harry Leon Wilson’s The Lions of the Lord. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “grass stomach,” “composition tea,” “chitcup,” or “on the bark,” leave a comment below.

baize = a bright green fabric napped to resemble felt; used to cover gaming tables. “The little man arose and came hesitatingly forward to the baize-covered table that served as a pulpit.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

beat the cars = to surpass in every way. “And her paw—though Lord knows who her maw was—a-dressing her to beat the cars.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

beau catcher = a small flat curl of hair worn on the temple. “My mother was making a company for me, putting up my waterfall and curling my beau-catchers.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

blind = of a way or path that is confusing, uncertain. “You have to take a long squint, like when you’re in the woods on a path that ain’t been used much lately and has got blind.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

cavayard = a group of saddle horses, remuda. “They’d go right out and make Amalon look like a whole cavayard of razor-hoofed buffaloes had raced back and forth over it.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

daystar = the morning star, the sun. “It was his day-star and his life, the one pleasure that brought no suffering with it.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Dick’s hatband = anything improvised, makeshift. “Of course, he’s closer than Dick’s hat-band, but she’ll have the best there is until he takes another.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Dutch gilt paper = a type of highly decorative papers that were printed by means of blocks of wood or metal, or by engraved rollers, and dusted with gold. “She was taught these verses from a little old book bound in the gaudiest of Dutch gilt paper.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Caroline Norton
“Fair Bingen on the Rhine” = a sentimental poem by British poet Caroline Norton (1808-1877) about the death of a soldier in Algiers. “By his side was his wife, Amelia, the reigning favourite, who could play the piano and sing ‘Fair Bingen on the Rhine’ with a dash that was said to be superb.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord. Full text here.

froe / frow = a cleaving tool for splitting thick pieces of wood into thinner slabs, used for making wooden roof shingles. “I had my mallet and frow up there two days now, just beyond the lower dry-fork, splitting out shakes for my new addition.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

gamboge = a gum resin used as a purgative. “If I’m sick and have to depend on myself, all right. I’ll dose up with lobelia or gamboge.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

go to hell across lots = a curse sending someone directly to eternal punishment. “He was ready to ‘usheathe his bowie knife’ and send apostates ‘to hell across lots.’” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

“Gone With the Gypsy Davey” = a traditional ballad about a married woman who takes a gypsy lover. “Tonight I shall lie on the cold, cold ground / In the arms of a Gypsy Davy-O!” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord. Listen to Woody Guthrie sing it.

J. Murphy = a very large covered wagon developed by Joseph Murphy of St. Louis, used by freighters on the Santa Fe Trail. “They’re coming back light, and we can have a J. Murphy that is bigger than a whole lot of houses in this country.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord. Learn more here.

lapstone = a stone held in the lap for beating or shaping leather in the making of shoes. “At every halt of the wagons a shoemaker would be seen searching for a lapstone.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

From Leaflets of Memory, 1846
Leaflets of Memory = an annual illustrated anthology of verse and prose. “And there was her book; not the book of Mormon, but a secular, frivolous thing called ‘Leaflets of Memory, an Illuminated Annual for the Year 1847’.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord. View example here.

lickety-brindle = very fast. “They fuss through a chapter here and there, and rush lickety-brindle through another.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

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

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

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Saturday music, Margaret Whiting & Jimmy Wakeley

"Bushel and a Peck" recorded 1950. Margaret Whiting, born Detroit, 1924. Featured singer for big bands in the 1940s. James Clarence Wakeley, born Mineola, Arkansas, 1914. Singing cowboy, recording 1930s-50s, appearing in several B-westerns.

The two had another hit in 1951 with the Christmas song, "Silver Bells."

Coming up: Monte Walsh (1970)

Friday, February 15, 2013

William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming (1908)

In this first novel by one of the western’s most published writers, mistaken identities bring together a schoolmarm from the East with a sheep man believed to be an outlaw. While menace endangers its central characters on the plains of Wyoming, love overtakes the hearts of not one but two young couples.

Plot. Helen Messiter comes West from Michigan as the new owner of the Lazy D cattle ranch. She makes a spectacular entrance, arriving in an automobile just as the Lazy D cowboys, guns blazing, have cornered a fugitive in the sagebrush. She decides to even the odds and drives at full speed between them to carry out a daring rescue.

After ducking bullets, she and the man trade bantering comments as they disappear together in a cloud of dust. She is full of high spirits, and he is playfully gallant. A later generation would call it a cute meet.

Helen and Ned under fire
She learns, alas, that his name is Ned Bannister and has a reputation as a villainous outlaw, who has robbed banks and trains and killed men. Helen can’t square such heinous deeds with the well-mannered gentleman whose capture she has prevented. Puzzled, she shelves her initial attraction to him and goes about the business of running her ranch.

But the astute reader begins to gather that the real villain is yet another man, who also goes by the name of Ned Bannister. This “bad” Ned kidnaps Helen and takes her to his Robbers Roost. There she finds herself the prisoner of a man whose mercurial moods shift between gentlemanly refinement and vicious savageness.

Rescued and returned to the Lazy D, she learns that the two Neds are cousins. The “good” Ned has spent his life trying unsuccessfully to persuade “bad” Ned to mend his ways. The long unhappy history of the two cousins comes to an end as Bad Ned gets belligerent with one of his men, who draws on him and they kill each other. Good riddance.

But the excitement is not yet over. As Good Ned returns to the Lazy D, where Helen is supervising the autumn roundup, he finds her about to be trampled in a cattle stampede. In a reverse of the novel’s opening, he rescues her, lifting her onto his horse as he rides by. In the final pages, they declare their love and intention to marry.

Helen and the two Neds
Character. Both Ned Bannisters come from good Virginia stock, their grandfather a Confederate officer during the Civil War. But each grandson has inherited the temperament of his father, one self-disciplined and moral, the other a ne’er-do-well.

Bad Ned’s presence in Wyoming puts Good Ned’s character to the test. As he continues to cover up for his outlaw cousin, in hopes of reforming him, he allows people to believe that he’s guilty of Bad Ned’s crimes.

Villainy. A college education has not altered the dispositions of either cousin. Good Ned was a student athlete who gained both fame and physical dexterity on the football field. Bad Ned has developed a taste for the arts and can sing operatic arias in a way that stuns hearers into ecstasies. Like Good Ned, he’s also expert in rodeo events. He has the skill and the daring that make him a crowd-pleasing champion in the arena.

But, as Helen surmises, he’s an example of “good blood gone wrong.” Good Ned believes that his cousin was “handicapped” in his fight against the “depraved instincts and tastes” he inherited from his father. This genetic weakness in him prevented the building of good character.

Ned's horse falls at the rodeo
Romance. For a novel about dealing with a menacing villain, it is dominated by scenes related to romance and its discontents. After that cute meet, obstacles in the path of true love multiply and keep the characters separated or continually at odds with each other.

The chief obstacle for a long while is Helen’s belief that Good Ned is really an outlaw, and the Puritan in her keeps her love for him unspoken. Instead, there are many scenes of playful and ironic bantering as she makes a pretense of being offended by his advances. Or she grows more bitter and angry as she willfully misunderstands him. The course of true romance is similarly rocky for Helen's foreman, Mac, and her housemaid, Nora.

The scenes between Helen and Bad Ned are a dark burlesque by comparison, as Bad Ned lays on the charm and she attempts to keep him at bay with withering wit. When he’s on his best behavior, she is surprised that she rather enjoys his company. Despite his  “colossal egotism,” she is touched by his Byronic despair.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thomas Eidson, St. Agnes’ Stand

Three belief systems collide in this western novel of survival in a hostile land. All of them, as it happens, are a little shaky though they may seem firm and unquestioned on the surface. Each of them takes a turn at dominating the course of action and what seems to be the fate of the characters.

That’s just one level of a story that is deceptively simple on its surface. St. Agnes’ Stand rings the changes on the western novel’s traditional themes, while finding some new ones in the process. Just about every western writer you can think of would have written this story very differently.

Plot. It is 1858 in the desert wastes of New Mexico. Nat Swanson is a fugitive riding westward from Texas where he killed a man. Fleeing three pursuers intent on revenge, he stumbles upon two wagons full of children being shepherded by three nuns. They have been attacked by Apaches, who are already mercilessly torturing the driver and passengers of another wagon.

Hildegard von Bingen
The oldest of the nuns, Sister St. Agnes, believes Swanson has been sent by God to rescue them. He not only believes but knows there’s not a chance in hell to accomplish that. Yet he stays with them, sneaking off under cover of darkness, to bring them water and venison.

Meanwhile, the Apaches are undergoing a crisis of their own. Their fierce leader, Locan, has botched the capture of the entire wagon train. In the third day of the siege, they have lost five of their own, and he is being challenged by an upstart, Joca.

Their shaman, traveling with them, is uncertain what to make of these women in black robes. They are human but lack fear. They don’t beg for their own lives but for the lives of the others. They are seen praying and thus assumed to be “spirit keepers.”

Days pass and Swanson finally engineers a daring escape by night, but the novel is still far from over. His plan to give his life for the women and children is confounded by Sister St. Agnes. She objects to being left out of his plans, as does one of the children, a mute and crippled boy who has become attached to him.

Three Nuns, Armand Gautier
Character. Swanson starts out as the conventional hero of what people think of today as the “traditional western.” He is a loner, thirty-five years old, long hair tied back with a silk ribbon. The rest of his family were killed by Indians when he was eight, and he’s been living on his own since he was fourteen.

Alone in the world and without kin, he has hardened himself to his lonely lot in life. His only companion is a dog he’s risked so little attachment to that he’s never called it anything but Dog. In addition to firearms, he carries a crossbow. He has only one dream, taking ownership of a ranch in Santa Barbara, California.

He is already wounded when we first meet him, having sustained a gunshot wound in his leg. During the course of the siege, his arm is broken. Despite his injuries and all the cards Eidson has stacked against him, he’s able to achieve nearly superhuman feats.

Still, the man is clearly human. At one point, he reluctantly faces what he believes is the truth, that saving the women and children is impossible. He attempts to abandon them, but then turns back. He is exactly the “fool” that Locan judges him to be—willing to die for strangers. Such behavior is incomprehensible to the Apache.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nevada Smith (1966)

Steve McQueen starred in this rambling movie set mostly in the West. Its central character goes by different names until almost the end, when he calls himself “Nevada Smith.” The film was a prequel, based on a character in Harold Robbins’ 1961 potboiler, The Carpetbaggers. That novel had been made into a film in 1964, the character of Nevada Smith played by Alan Ladd  as a Tom Mix-style cowboy actor.

While it’s always a pleasure to watch McQueen on screen, this story was an odd fit for him. Already in his 30s, he is supposed to be a rank teenager in the opening scenes. More of a stretch is accepting him as a blond-haired “half-breed,” whose mother was a Kiowa Indian.

Plot. The story of the film has often been told in westerns. A man (or young woman, as in the case of True Grit) revenges the death of a family member. In this film, McQueen’s parents are tortured and killed by three outlaws (Arthur Kennedy, Karl Malden, Martin Landau). Then in 2+ hours of screen time, he tracks them down one by one to kill them.

First he has to learn how to use a gun and the many survival skills a man needs to stay alive in the West. A traveling gunsmith (Brian Keith) reluctantly but generously teaches him what he needs to know.

McQueen, parents' cabin burning
Believing himself ready to pursue his quest, he finally leaves Keith and begins looking for the three outlaws. He first finds Landau, who’s making a living as a gambler. After denying that he’s ever killed anyone, Landau tries to make an escape. In a knife fight, the two are wounded, Landau fatally, and McQueen is nursed back to health by the Kiowa.

Next he follows Kennedy into a state prison somewhere in the swamps of the Mississippi Delta. There he befriends the man and gets him to attempt an escape with the help of a prisoner from a nearby women’s prison camp (Suzanne Pleshette). Kennedy gets his due as McQueen shoots him dead with a revolver that he’s taken from a guard. Pleshette expires from snakebite.

Back in the West, arriving in the gold fields of California, McQueen gets a job with the last of the three villains, Karl Malden, who plans to hold up a shipment of bullion. In the middle of the robbery, as the other men ride off in every direction with the loot, McQueen turns his gun on Malden and leaves him to die, while Malden begs to be finished off.

Brian Keith
Structure. The film uses the structure of a revenge plot to tell the story of a boy’s loss of innocence and growth into manhood. Unable to read and inexperienced at playing cards, drinking alcohol, and sex, McQueen’s young man gets some exposure to all these aspects of adulthood.

The screenplay also introduces him to religion when he is saved by a mission priest from being maliciously roughed up by some of Malden’s gang. The good father tries to persuade him to give up a life of violence. However, seeing a crucifix on the wall, McQueen observes that forgiving and forgetting didn’t work out so well for the man on the cross. He’ll stick with “an eye for an eye.”

Realism. McQueen does well with all this and is convincing in a role that demands a lot of him, while not giving him much more than a two-dimensional character. His “half-breed” parentage is used to make the villains more hateful, as they sneer at him and his mother. But his character is untouched by any ethnic or racial heritage. True to movie conventions of the time, white ancestry obliterates all traces of red.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 56

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 Francis Lynde’s The Grafters, William MacLeod Raine’s Wyoming, and Harry Leon Wilson’s The Lions of the Lord. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “send someone over the road,” “beat up the scenery,” “hill steer,” “bye-low land,” or “party call,” leave a comment below.

across the divide = long gone; gotten rid of. “Hadn’t been for her these boys would have been across the divide hours ago.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Balaam and the angel
Balaam’s burro = a biblical beast of burden who, after a startling encounter with an angel, develops powers of speech. “There is one difference between you and Rabbi Balaam’s burro, David: it could talk sense, and you can’t.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

burn the wind = to ride fast, make haste. “No use buck-jumpin’ along to burn the wind while they drill streaks of light through us.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

caplock = a muzzle-loading firearm, using a small metal percussion cap, which is struck by the hammer, creating a flash which ignites powder. “If the gun was a caplock, the cap was to be taken off and a piece of leather put on to exclude moisture and dirt.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.
Berdan Sharps rifle

cipher = to calculate, think out. “Glad to hear of it. I’ll cipher out somehow to be there.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

crown sheet = the upper sheet and hottest part of the inner firebox on a locomotive boiler. “There is about one chance in a thousand that Callahan’s crown-sheet won’t get red-hot and crumple up on him in the last twenty miles.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

diamond hitch = a kind of knot used to fasten one thing temporarily to another; a common method of roping a pack on an animal. “I’ve a notion those boys are sufferin’ for a woman to put the diamond-hitch on them bandages.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

drop light = a portable gas lamp attached to the gas pipe by a flexible tube; an electric light suspended from the ceiling. “The judge pressed the button of the drop-light and waved his visitor to a chair.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

dumping bar = a device for removing ash and clinker from the fire grate of a locomotive steam engine. “While they wrestle with the dumping-bar, these two, the poising figures have swarmed upon the Naught-seven, and a voice is lifted above the Babel of others in sharp protest.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

dust cutter = an alcoholic drink. “The ball’s about to open. Pardners for a waltz. Have a dust-cutter, Mac, before she grows warm.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Dutch courage = false bravery, fortified by alcohol. “This assurance lent an added braggadocio to the Dutch courage of the lynchers.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

flapper = the arm, hand. “Y’u see, I get him in the flapper without spoiling him complete.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

flintlock = a muzzle-loading firearm, using flint and steel to create a shower of sparks, which ignites the powder. “If a flintlock, the filling was to be taken out and the pan filled with tow or cotton.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

for fair = completely, absolutely, altogether. “The way y’u straddle them high notes is a caution for fair.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

French Fours = a country dance. “There were French Fours, Copenhagen jigs, Virginia reels,—spirited figures blithely stepped.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

go to grass = a dismissive exclamation demanding that someone leave or suggesting that they are talking nonsense. “Y’u go to grass, Mac. I don’t aim to ask y’u to be my valley yet awhile.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

go to Halifax = a mild oath for “go to hell.” “‘Y’u go to Halifax,’ returned Mac genially over his shoulder as he loped away.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

jarred up = shaken, surprised. “I reckon I never did get jarred up so. It’s plumb discouraging.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

J. M. Barrie, 1901
Little White Bird, The = a novel by Scottish author and dramatist J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), published in 1902. “Helen was sitting beside him in an easy chair, and he watched the play of her face in the lamplight as she read from ‘The Little White Bird’.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

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

mast = the fruit of beech, oak, chestnut, and other forest trees, used as food for pigs and wild animals. “We lived on mast and corn, the winter, in tents and a few dugouts and rickety huts.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Whitewater Preserve

The Wildlands Conservancy manages a 2,826-acre preserve on the Whitewater River that flows from San Gorgonio Mountain into the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs. A short drive from where the Scheers live, it is a busy but tranquil place on a winter weekend.

Once a trout farm, there is a pond for fish and duck gazing, and the maze of flat trails on the valley floor are about the right level of difficulty for a man and a dog named Zoe. Meanwhile, some in the party have been known to stay in the car and read the Sunday newspaper. Here are some snapshots from a recent visit.

The boulder as you exit the trail leaves hikers with food for thought from the often quotable Emerson. It reads: "What lies before us and what lies behind us is a tiny matter compared to what lies within us."

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 56