Saturday, March 30, 2013

Saturday music, Jo Stafford

Jo Elizabeth Stafford, born in Coalinga, California, in 1917. Lead singer for the Pied Pipers, hired by Tommy Dorsey in 1939. "You Belong to Me" was a no. 1 hit in the US and UK when it was released in 1952. Married to band leader Paul Weston.

Coming up: David M. Jessup, Mariano's Crossing

Friday, March 29, 2013

Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths: A Romance of Reclamation (1913)

This is one of a crop of early westerns with civil engineers as main characters. As in some other examples, the action of the story involves the development of an irrigation project designed to convert arid land into a “fruited plain.” The novel’s central conceit is the parallel it wants to draw between the reclamation of both land and a man’s worth as a productive member of society.

Plot. Bennet’s main character is a man who rises from the depths of a wasted life to become the doer of heroic deeds. Lafeyette Ashton is a self-indulgent, lazy bum, who has grown up in the lap of luxury and received the finest education. Lacking any kind of work ethic, he has been disowned by his father, his regular remittances reduced to zero. Left to fend for himself, he’s on his own in the West, a hapless tenderfoot.

His foil in the novel is the brilliant young engineer, Thomas Blake, whose daring achievements have made him renowned. Blake is everything Ashton is not. In him, not an ounce of energy goes to waste. Generous and good-humored, he not only throws himself into the most challenging engineering projects; he is a loving husband and devoted father.

A map of the watershed
Their paths cross in western Colorado on the ranch of cattleman Knowles. Blake comes at the invitation of Knowles’ daughter, Isobel, to determine whether her father’s rangeland can be irrigated. Blake goes to work, with Ashton as a reluctant assistant.

It turns out that the two men have a history. While a student of engineering himself, Ashton had once stolen an idea for the design of a bridge from Blake, who had then exposed the theft. While Blake has long dismissed the incident, Ashton is still eaten up by professional jealousy.

They set to surveying the surrounding watershed, which includes a stream that runs at the bottom of a very deep, narrow canyon. And the two men climb down almost sheer cliffs to take measurements. Not only does Blake’s irrigation scheme turn out to be feasible, but he discovers a seam of gold-bearing quartz. Wealth abounds for all concerned.

Wake-up call
Romance. Complicating matters is that Ashton has fallen in love with the rancher’s daughter. She may or may not like him much in return. Sympathetic when she learns of his predicaments, she expresses “motherly tenderness” for his suffering. But it is hard to tell from her bantering conversation the actual depth of her feelings for him.

Meanwhile, she so obviously worships Blake that Ashton’s jealousy drives him mad. He suspects something irregular between them and becomes concerned about preserving her reputation. In the descent into the canyon, he thus plots to make Blake the victim of a fatal accident. When Blake breaks a leg all on his own, Ashton learns that the man he so despises is actually the long-lost brother of Isobel.

Experiencing a wave of guilt for his murderous thoughts, he has a sudden change of heart. He makes a perilous climb back to the canyon’s rim and directs a rescue that has only a slim hope of success. While help and a doctor are sent for, he descends again in the middle of the night by the light of a lantern to take food and first aid to the fallen man.

Convinced now that he is no better than worthless scum, Ashton wants only to see that Blake is returned to safety. That accomplished, he hopes to simply disappear from the face of the earth. But Isobel confesses her love for him, and Blake has only gratitude for his bravery and his heroic efforts. He offers Ashton a job and a future as resident engineer owning a share of an ambitious irrigation project.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cowboy names, no. 3

Hairoil Johnson
Lately I have posted a couple lists of cowboy names from the early westerns I have been reading. Here is the last set of them for now. My favorite out of this bunch is Eleanor Gates’ cowboy, Hairoil Johnson.

Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders
Wind River Smith
Agamemnon G. Jones
Cock-Eyed Peterson
Bronc Thompson

Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher
Hairoil Johnson
Buckshot Milliken
Monkey Mike
Skinflint Curry
Chub Flannagan

G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman
Three-Fingered Jack
Tennessee Dick

Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book
Shorty Sanders
Faro Fett
Eucher Buck
Spanish Fly
Buck Tyson
Pegleg Jim

Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman
Llano Lew
Tobacco Jake

Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded
Lee Skeets
Racketty Smith
Mancos Mitch
Lame Johnny
Bill Ball
Chillili Jim
Tit Moody

Pauline Wilson Worth, Death Valley Slim and Other Stories
Shorty Rogers

Charles G. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen
Bird Pigeon

Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders
Purple Finn

Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins
Happy Hawkins
Cast Steel Judson
Tank Williams
Slinky Bill
Buck Harmon

Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man
Roper Jones

Max Brand, The Untamed
Whistling Dan
Jim Silent

If you missed the other lists, they can be found here and here.

Image credits:
Hairoil Johnson, illustrator, George Gibbs

Coming up: Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths (1913)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Little Big Man (1970)

This is a film very much a product of its time—the war years of Viet Nam. It was made at the same time as Easy Rider (1969) and M.A.S.H. (1970), both appealing to the anti-war sentiments of the youthful counter culture. Its portrayal of George Armstrong Custer as a self-obsessed and maniacal Indian killer challenged Hollywood’s usual heroic view of him.

The film was a deliberate step away from the traditional portrayal of Indians as bloodthirsty savages. Its casting of Native Americans in prominent roles was also something new. Taken altogether, the film delivers a sobering version of the genocidal campaigns of Western history. Yet at the same time it is a big, comic entertainment. Surprisingly, given its pretty heavy “message,” it holds up well today.

Plot. The film tells the story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), raised by Cheyenne Indians when his pioneer family has been murdered by the Pawnee. He is taught to be a warrior by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) and in a skirmish with whites ends up being recaptured by his own people. A preacher’s wife, Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), reintroduces him to white customs, while lusting for him mightily.

Chief Dan George
Before long, he takes a job with a patent medicine seller (Martin Balsam), which gets him tarred and feathered by some irate customers. Found by a long-lost sister, he discovers he has the makings of an expert gunslinger, but after witnessing Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey) kill a man, he realizes that he has no stomach for the occupation. His sister leaves him in disgust.

Marrying and going into business, he is attacked by Indians attempting to waylay a stagecoach, and the Indians make off with his new wife. Searching for her, he is reunited with Old Lodge Skins, who welcomes his son home. 

Jack gets a job with Custer (Richard Mulligan) as a muleskinner but is horrified by the cavalry’s wanton killing of women and children. He saves a young Indian girl,  Sunshine (Amy Eccles), and they take up married life together back with the tribe.

Richard Mulligan
Before long, he is the husband of three of her sisters, who have all been widowed by the whites. Believing themselves on safe ground where they've been promised to live forever umolested, they are attacked by Custer’s men. While Little Big Man saves Old Lodge Skins, his wives are all killed. Finding Custer alone in his tent, he determines to take revenge, but as much as he despises the man, he lacks the courage to take his life.

In despair, he turns to drink in Deadwood, where he is reunited with Wild Bill Hickok, in time to witness his death. Honoring the man’s last wishes, Jack delivers a pouch of money to Bill’s sweetheart at a local whorehouse, who turns out to be Mrs. Pendrake.

Taking a job with Custer as a scout, he advises the commander not to attack the warriors he is about to encounter at Little Big Horn. On the basis of some whacko reverse psychology, Custer determines to do the opposite, and we see his troops advance into the fatal engagement with the Cheyenne and Sioux.

Injured on the battlefield, Jack Crabb is taken to Old Lodge Skins, where he accompanies the aged man to a spot he has picked for his death. But death does not come, and the two men return to camp together. We last see 121-year-old Jack Crabb, in the present day, sadly encumbered with his comic-tragic memories.

Dustin Hoffman
Anti-hero vs. villain. This is a long film, well over two hours, with a large cast. Instead of a single storyline, it is a pastiche of themes and incidents drawn  from numerous Hollywood westerns, all the time giving them ironic turns. Chief among them is having an anti-hero as the central character, who is game but suffers defeat after defeat. And instead of a towering John Wayne in the role, we get pint-size Dustin Hoffman.

Of course, while he looks small, he shows remarkable bravery, and enough of it to deserve the name he’s given by the chief, Little Big Man. He’s also resilient, recovering time and again to attempt yet another way to make his way in the world. But the slaughter of the Human Beings, as the Cheyenne call themselves, finally gets to him. So does the mindless murder of the likable Wild Bill.

He becomes a recluse from humanity, living as a trapper, driven finally to thoughts of suicide. But a chance encounter with the 7th Cavalry on a June day in 1876 gives him opportunity to exact the long postponed revenge against Custer, the one villain of the story. And instead of dispatching him with a weapon of his own, he simply allows the man to self-destruct, along with all the men under his command.

Monday, March 25, 2013

52 Westerns 52

Quite a while now, BITS has been reviewing westerns, about one a week. We thought it was time to put together a compendium of the 52 most recent from the past year or so. They range from the 1920s to the 1990s, with examples from the filmographies of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Clint Eastwood, Tom Mix, Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Alan Ladd, and many others. They are listed below in the order in which they were reviewed and posted. You can click through to any you missed.

Coming up: Dustin Hoffman, Little Big Man (1970)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Saturday music, Merle Travis

Merle Robert Travis (1917-1983), born in Rosewood, Kentucky, best known for coal-mining songs such as this one, "Sixteen Tons," and "Dark as a Dungeon." A phenomenal guitarist who pioneered a syncopated style of finger picking that has been named after him.

Coming up: Dustin Hoffman, Little Big Man (1970)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Vingie E. Roe, The Heart of Night Wind: A Story of the Great North West (1913)

Sandry falls under Siletz' spell
This one is a heavy-duty romance set astride the standard elements of the logging novel. A man is loved by two women and despised by an unscrupulous rival, who is attempting to drive him out of business. Meanwhile, the man, a tenderfoot from the East, develops the true grit of a westerner.

Plot. Walter Sandry has come to the pinewoods of the Oregon coast to make money as owner-operator of a timber cutting company. Success needs to come quickly to (a) pay off potentially crippling debts and (b) please his invalid father.

Sandry’s business rival, a man named Hampden, blocks access to a large stand of his timber by fraudulently claiming a strip of land that the young Easterner believes is his own. Sandry fights to fill a large, important contract despite Hampden’s efforts to stop him, including the hiring away of most of his men and dynamiting a boom of logs as it’s being delivered.

Though he is nearly killed by the explosion, Sandry is able to make good on the contract with the help of his loyal foreman and the men of a local Indian tribe. Defeat, however, is seized from the jaws of victory when Hampden turns arsonist and begins burning down the woods. The novel’s climax involves a massive forest fire, which leaves Sandry singed and Hampden dead.

The Preacher's arrival stops a fight
Romance. The real heavy breathing in the novel involves the conflict between two women who compete for the heart and mind of Sandry. Young Siletz is a mysterious girl who works at the lumber camp for the cook. She is a child of the woods and embodies the spirit of the West, with her Indian name, meaning “Night Wind,” and her knowledge of Indian customs. In her are blended a spiritual purity made up of what she has learned from Nature and from a wandering preacher, a flute-playing and somewhat addled advocate of peace and love.

The other woman, Poppy Ordway, is a glamorous author from New York, who has come west with her typewriter to absorb local color for her current novel. She is a high-class vision straight from Fifth Avenue. Hovering on the brink of Fame—and sure of attaining it—she is surprised by her passionate desire to make a conquest of Sandry as well.

Sandry is suspended between his attraction to both women. One has his heart, but is only a simple girl of no particular breeding. The other, of good stock, comes with a pedigree. It’s a case of blue blood vs. a heart of gold. Meanwhile, he is unaware of the designs of either woman to bag him.

The choice is finally made for him in the forest fire that nearly sweeps them all to their doom. Siletz shows a willingness to die with Sandry in the flames, while Miss Ordway unceremoniously rides off on the only horse that will take her to safety. Saved by the arrival of rains that put out the fires, Sandry is finally assured of his love for Siletz, and they are set to live happily ever after.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thomas McGuane, Gallatin Canyon

I sat recently with an auditorium full of appreciative folks gathered in Missoula to hear McGuane read one of his stories. The laughter in the darkened house was broad and genuine, and afterwards the lobby was jammed with people waiting for their turn at the autograph table. The man has that effect—part celebrity, part entertainer.

The story was one of his patented ironic introductions to characters shambling through life in a comic world overflowing with stuff, like a hoarder’s garage. It’s really not so much a story even. The characters are so specific that they come with their own biographies, and the narrative is often more about everything that’s led up to the present moment.

A story may shamble on indefinitely, a compendium of back-stories for their own sake, and all the time sort of amused by the arbitrariness of people’s lives. Sometimes those lives have derailed long ago, and the characters are still plugging along, a little disoriented but believing that meaning can still be salvaged from it all.

Gallatin Canyon is like that, a collection of ten stories, one of them long enough to be a novella. Some take place in McGuane’s Montana. The aptly named novella, “The Refugee,” is mostly set on a sailing boat in the Caribbean. “The Miracle Boy” concerns a family gathering in an unnamed New England city, Boston or Providence. In “Ice,” a boy sets out to skate across the frozen surface of Lake Erie.

Gallatin Range, Montana © Ron Scheer  
Alcohol tends to figure prominently, sometimes drugs. In “Aliens,” a divorced couple has a dispute over a collection of commemorative whiskey bottles. Two backpackers in “North Coast” trade purloined native art for heroin from a Sikh dealer in Vancouver. Not surprisingly, the occasional character has a criminal history.

“Cowboy” turns out to be a life story, told in the flat vernacular of an ex-con who gets work with a Hereford stockbreeder and his sister. As years pass, the partners die off, and the cowhand ends up with the business. The story ends as it began with a refusal to let a saddle horse get sent to a slaughterhouse. The brilliance of the storytelling lies in how it captures the matter-of-fact mindset of a man who spends his life in the precisely defined world of a “goddam ranch.”

Taking a turn on similar material, “Old Friends” tells of an old college friend who comes to Montana with the idea of starting a new life as a cowboy. The cards are pretty much stacked against him, as he is already in his 70s, and he is on the run from the feds, who eventually catch up with him. You might feel some sympathy for him, except that he is mindlessly rude to everyone, including his old friend.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Sundowners (1950)

Not to be confused with last week’s The Sundowners (1960), this is an actual western about a range war in the Texas Panhandle. And as a western, it is something of a puzzle. There’s no easy telling the good guys from the villains. Three brothers, the Clouds, occupy the main plot of the story, Tom (Robert Sterling), James (Robert Preston), and Jeff (John Barrymore, Jr.). They each take a turn at being less than admirable.

Plot. Jim Cloud and his young brother, Jeff, have muscled their way onto a range that has been long ruled by a tough old-time rancher, John Gall (John Litel). The Clouds’ cattle are being run off by rustlers, and in the opening scene they find one of their hands knifed to death. Gall has installed his son as sheriff (Don Haggerty), and he’s no friend of the Clouds either.

Fortunes turn as Preston, alias “Kid Wichita,” shows up with three of his gang. Bringing some rough justice to the range, they start shooting up the rustlers. Then they take to doing some rustling of their own. A neighbor (Chill Wills) tries with good intentions to intervene, but to no avail.

The Clouds: Barrymore, Sterling, and Preston
Sterling does not object, even when Preston cold-bloodedly shoots the sheriff in his own office. What does begin to trouble him, however, is that young Barrymore joins Preston’s gang on their night raids. He takes to wearing a gun and mimicking Preston’s mannerisms.

Gall, pinning on his dead son’s badge, enlists some regulators of his own and asks Sterling for his help in restoring some order. But Sterling makes clear that he only intends to look out for himself. It’s finally gang against gang, and in a running battle over canyon cliffs and boulders, the Clouds prevail.

A side plot involves a ranch couple (Jack Elam and Cathy Downs). The older Cloud brothers have a way of dropping in and getting over-familiar with the wife. Preston has real boundary issues, pressing up behind her while she’s got her hands in bread dough. Sterling is more respectful, and the kiss she gladly gives him makes clear which brother she prefers.

Elam plays a weak man, unable to prevent these home invasions. Taunted by Preston into going for his rifle, he is shot dead for his troubles. In the end, the brothers fall out over this killing, Sterling intent on turning Preston in to face murder charges. This precipitates an exchange of gunfire, after which Kid Wichita dies gamely in Sterling’s arms, while Barrymore breaks into tears.

The Galls: Haggerty and Litel
B to B+. In various ways, the movie sets the western on its ear. It takes the standard elements of the B-western and then gives them a sharp twist. Sterling is up against a mean rancher used to having his way, but the rancher earns our respect once he puts on a badge and sets to cleaning up the range. And Sterling begins looking not so likable as he lets his brother do his dirty work.

While Preston comes to Sterling’s rescue, he is not a good bad man, just a mean, heartless killer. Downs is far from being the brave heroine she would otherwise be, for she’s unfaithful to her husband with not one but two other men. Only Chill Wills remains a moral center in the film, the wise friend trying to keep Sterling from getting deeper into trouble.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 59

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms 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 Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Robert Alexander Wason’s Happy Hawkins, Charles Alden Seltzer’s The Two-Gun Man, Cyrus Townsend Brady’s The West Wind, and Vingie Roe’s The Heart of Night Wind. One I could not figure out is at the bottom of the page.

besom = a broom made of twigs tied around a stick. “The Indians would undoubtedly line the banks with riflemen and the island would be swept by bullets as with a besom without delay.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

bosun’s chair = a seat suspended by ropes, originally used to lift a navy ship’s officers on board. “Murphy had rigged up a sort of a rude bo’s’n’s chair out of the largest piece of wood he could find.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

bullets = in the game of poker, aces. “Jabez had queens full on Jacks, Piker had three bullets an’ a team o’ ten-spots, Dick had a royal straight flush, an’ I had a nervous chill.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

bunch grasser = a range horse living upon bunch grass, a dense turf grass of the West. “Why didn’t you let him climb his own way? He knew,—he’s a bunch-grasser.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

Loggers using choker, 1941
choker = in logging, a short steel cable with a loop at one end and a hook at the other, used for looping around logs. “Sandry was standing beside it, but the girl passed him without a glance, running to where the foreman set a choker.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

cure = to air. “The scant bedding was ‘cured’ in the white sunlight.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.

dopey = stupefied by sleep. “It don’t take as much sleep for me now as it used to, an’ I never was dopey.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

drill = to walk. “One mornin’ I noticed that I was dead broke; so I drilled down to the dock an’ sat on a post.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

even bones = a tied score. “They played the five hands an’ it was even bones at the fourth show.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

flail = a threshing tool consisting of a wooden staff with a short heavy stick swinging from it. “The gun barrel rose and fell like a flail beating down the heads of grain.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

flat head = a stupid, foolish person. “I enjoyed myself first rate, an’ upset a couple o’ delivery wagons because they wouldn’t make way for me, roped a runaway steer ’at had the whole town scared, an’ chased a flat-head clear into the Palace Hotel.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

flicker out = to die. “She had married a good man, an’ had come out to the coast with him on account of his health, an’ he had flickered out without leavin’ her much but a stack o’ doctor’s bills an’ little Maggie.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

from wire to wire = from start to finish. “They would fuss an’ stew an’ revile each other an’ keep it up all through dinner; an’ then go off in the afternoon an’ scrap from wire to wire.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

hash herder = a cook. “Supper time hove in sight and nairy a report from the substitute hash-herder.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

hitch = a knot (throwed, not tied), e.g., pack hitch, diamond hitch. “‘You, Jim Anworthy,’ she called sharply, ‘you’ll ruin that pump if you don’t quit jerkin’ it so. ’Tain’t no hitched choker.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

hooked = bitten. “Ferguson got hooked by a rattler!” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.

jimcrack = a cheap and showy object of little or no use. “Jabez was buoyant as a balloon, an’ sent here an’ there for nick-nacks an’ jim-cracks an’ such like luxuries.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

keeno = excellent, wonderful, first-rate. “‘Keeno!’ shouts back Ches, some exasperated.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

keep up the stroke = to labor without resting. “‘How do you manage to keep up the stroke?’ ‘Law bless you!’ she laughed easily, “I ben trained into it.’” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

mighty sight = a great deal. “You have give me a mighty sight of heartaches in my time.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

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

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday music, Red Foley

Clyde Julian "Red" Foley was born in 1910 in Blue Lick, Kentucky, and grew up in nearby Berea. He was a singer and songwriter and a radio and TV personality. An early country music performer to record in Nashville, he was long associated with the Grand Ole Opry. 

In 1950, the novelty song "Cincinnati Dancing Pig" followed more than 15 years of his recordings, in a career that extended to his death in 1968. His 1951 hit, "Peace in the Valley," was among the first million-selling gospel records.

Coming up: Old west glossary, no. 59

Friday, March 15, 2013

Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind: A Story of Red Men and White in Old Wyoming (1912)

This novel is a high-pitched adventure about fighting Indians on the frontier, with the kidnapping of a white woman by a “half breed” as its starting point. Amy Benham, the West Wind of the title, is so called because she is a spirited and independent product of Wyoming’s wide-open spaces.

Saving her from a fate worse than death are two men, Army captain Joseph Kennard and the Irish foreman of her father’s ranch, Pat Sullivan. Both are head over heels in love with her. It is Wyoming in the 1870s, and her rescue is played out in the midst of an uprising of the Sioux and Cheyenne.

Plot. The kidnapping occurs in the opening chapter as Amy’s father is shot dead by Jules Girot, the “half breed,” who wants her for his “squaw.” He rides off with her as his prisoner, promising despite her protests that she will learn to love him.

At nearby Fort McCullough, cavalry troops are being marshaled to round up the Indians, who are reported to be on the warpath. When news arrives of the kidnapping, Colonel Wainwright, the commanding officer, permits Kennard and his men to follow Girot’s tracks. Sullivan goes with them.

They soon discover that he has made a perilous journey along river rapids and has been joined by a band of Indians. The trail leads into a canyon where they surprise the Indians and take a number of lives while the rest flee. But there is no trace of Amy Benham, only a pair of her slippers.

Amy and Mah-Wissah make an escape
Shifting point of view, the narrative reveals that Amy has escaped captivity with the help of an Indian woman, Mah-Wissa. The two women have found a hiding place in a remote and isolated canyon. There they wait to be rescued.

Rejoining Col. Wainwright’s troops, Kennard and Sullivan accompany the regiment until it finally meets a massive force of Indian warriors. Though outnumbered, five to one, the soldiers hold their own, while Kennard’s company is sent on a flanking mission, which leads them to an Indian encampment.

Sullivan is convinced that Amy is being held there and continues onward, while Kennard and his troops turn back under orders from the Colonel, who fears an ambush. Come darkness, Sullivan sneaks into the camp but finds neither Amy nor Girot, whom he’s determined to kill. Waking the camp, Sullivan rides off on a pony, with Indians in hot pursuit.

By chance, he discovers the two women in a cave, where they are besieged by the Indians, who are in turn driven off by Kennard’s search party. Girot is taken and killed, and Sullivan dies with Amy at his side. But before Kennard can return Amy to safety, they must endure yet another days-long battle with the Indians.

Romance. The wrinkle in this story is the presence of two men seeking the hand of the same woman. Normally one would clearly be the better man. He would be more handsome, appropriately aged, and good-hearted. But Brady makes the two men equals in all these regards.

The one difference is that Kennard is socially superior, being a commissioned officer in the Army, while Sullivan is somewhat the lesser man. More than a foreman, he’s in line to become a partner in the Benham’s ranching operation, but Kennard holds the trump card. He can make Amy an officer’s wife.

For the sake of the narrative, Sullivan is a hero better off dead and buried. As long as he’s kept alive, he remains a loose end for the plot. Brady hopes that his demise, attended by the woman he’s given his life for, will compensate for that loss with another kind of romance—the romance of a noble death.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Max Brand, The Untamed (1919)

Max Brand burst on the scene with this striking novel less than two decades after Wister’s The Virginian and just as Zane Grey was topping the bestseller lists. In those three writers one can trace the evolution of western storytelling from history into myth. Wister’s Wyoming and his cowboy characters were drawn from life, while Grey romanticized the desert Southwest and the heroes and villains he put there. Brand stripped away realism and romance in The Untamed and left pure myth—with even a touch of the supernatural.

Plot. The “untamed” in the novel is a trio of beings, only one of them human, a young man Dan Barry. The other two are a black horse named Satan and a wolf-dog named Black Bart. All three of them are feral creatures, each in his way a little more than half wild. Dan was found wandering footloose in the desert by a cattleman, Joseph Cumberland, and a special friendship has grown between Dan and Cumberland’s daughter, Kate.

In early chapters, Dan makes an enemy of Jim Silent, the leader of a pack of train robbers. When Silent takes Kate hostage, Dan teams up with Texas Calder, a marshal who has been tracking the outlaw.

Pocket Books, 1955
Silent and his gang rob a train, killing two of the guards. Hot on their trail, Texas and Dan catch up with them at a hotel, but Silent shoots Calder, and the marshal dies in the young man’s arms.

The rest of the novel is a fierce complexity of pursuit and counter-pursuit, with more hostage taking and a jailbreak, in which Dan is shot and nearly dies from loss of blood and a bout of fever. A daring rescue reunites Dan and Kate, and he leads a posse to the gang’s hideout. Silent meets his doom in a saloon, where he dies not in a gun duel but by being strangled to death by Dan.

Character. Dan is known as “Whistling Dan” because of his habit of whistling mysterious and melancholy tunes. From the start there is a youthful, trusting innocence about him. While he is a blindingly fast draw and an expert marksman, he only shoots to maim and never kills another man with a gun.

At first meeting, he is so easy-going that folks take him for a tenderfoot. But as he appears and disappears at will and his behavior seems uncanny, he develops a fearsome reputation. When angry, there is a yellow gleam in his eyes. By the novel’s end, some believe he is a werewolf.

Pocket Books, 1977
Romance. Once all obstacles have been surmounted, the novel seems meant to end in marriage between Dan and Kate. She is thoroughly in love with him, but he is deeply wounded when he believes she has betrayed him to the gang. He begins calling her Delilah, after the temptress who double-crossed Samson.

When he is almost fatally shot, she helps him recover, much as western heroines had been doing since Molly, the schoolmarm, played nurse to the Virginian. Fully restored, he takes his leave again to go after Silent, but he refuses to properly kiss her goodbye. He wants to remove the taste of blood from his own lips before he will touch them to hers.

However, once Silent is dead and gone, Brand finds a reason to keep the two unwed. There is still in Dan the call of the wild. Hearing the sound of migrating geese overhead, he gets restless, realizing that he is unready for domestication. He leaves again, taking Satan and Black Bart with him.

In some ways, the novel is an anti-romance, portraying love as foolish and empty of real substance. Silent’s second in command, a man called Haines, falls in a big way for Kate when he first meets her. His affection for her drives some of the plot points, and his continued belief that he can win her heart while she’s the gang’s hostage makes him seem desperate and deluded.

Meanwhile, a rookie member of the gang, Buck Daniels, plots her escape by making a show of his irresistible effect on women. They like to be “manhandled,” he tells Haines. Ordering her about, he gets Kate to pretend to succumb to his charms. Then he allows her to slip away at night, while he is supposed to be guarding her.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cowboy names, no. 2

Roger Pocock, Curly, 1904
A week or so ago, I posted a bunch of the names of cowboy characters I've been collecting. They are all from the early westerns I'm reading. They got such a big response from readers, I'm offering some more today. A few this time, like Gumboot Annie, a saloon keeper, are from other walks of life.

Roger Pocock, Curly
Low-Lived Joe
Alabama Kid
Beef Jones
Thimble-Rig Phipps
Pincushion Shorty
Cranky Joe
Mutiny Robertson
Cocky Brown
Lying Ike
Crazy Hoss
Black Stanley
Texas Bob
Dog-gone Hawkins

Frederick Niven, Hands Up!
Yuma Bill
Panamint Pete
Merry Mike
Bucket Bill

Alice and Grace MacGowan, Aunt Huldah
Eldom Bayliss
Roach Porterman
Kid Barringer
Lengthy Malone
Lon Prendergast
Bunt Tarver
Bige Kervis
Long Forbes
Kansas Charlie
Billy Bascom

Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains
Joplin Joe

Lewis B. France, Pine Valley
Shanghai Dickson
Baltimore Hatch
Champagne Terrant

Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted
Chilkat Jo
Dandy Raish
Bully Nick
Gumboot Annie
Lucky Durant

Herman Whitaker, The Settler
Carrots Smith
Michigan Red

Image credit:
Illustration by Stanley L. Wood from Roger Pocock's Curly 

Coming up: Max Brand, The Untamed (1919)