Thursday, October 31, 2013

Canada in early frontier fiction

There’s surely as much western frontier north of the 49th parallel as there is south, and Canada has had numerous writers setting their stories there. During the years 1880-1915, a dozen or more of them appeared to write from the mountains and timberland of BC, to the prairie, the border country straddling the international boundary with Montana, all the way to the frozen Yukon.

Ralph Connor
Ralph Connor was the pen name of Charles William Gordon (1860–1937), a Presbyterian minister of some prominence in Canada. The Sky Pilot (1899) was the novel that made him famous, selling over a million copies. It is set in a frontier community, Swan Creek, in the foothills of the Rockies, west of Calgary.

Its characters are early settlers, ranchers, and cowboys, and at the center of them is a church missionary, Arthur Wellington Moore, who has been dubbed “the sky pilot.” Connor served 40 years as a minister at a single parish in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1972 his Works, containing 43 titles, were published by the National Library of Canada.

Bertrand Sinclair (1881-1972) was born in Scotland and came to North America in 1889. He was a young cowpuncher living in Montana when he wrote Raw Gold (1908) set north of the border in the southern corners of what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

The time is shortly after the arrival of the North-West Mounted Police, and the entire story takes place within one or two days’ riding of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. We get the wide-open frontier of the 1870s with outlaws and lawmen, stolen money, and an innocent fugitive wrongly accused of a crime. After a brief marriage to western writer B. M. Bower, Sinclair settled in British Columbia, where he continued to write.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Quigley Down Under (1990)

First of all, this is a movie about a long-range rifle. Almost incidentally, it is carried through most of the film by Tom Selleck. The weapon is a Shiloh Sharps 1874 Long Range, and Selleck, as the title character, Quigley, is an incredible marksman with it. Much of the excitement of the film is watching him take aim at someone else little more than a speck on the screen and seeing them blown away.

Second, it’s a movie about a hat. Selleck sports a 10-gallon cowboy hat that would not be seen again until the days of Tom Mix. As his fortunes wax and wane in the movie, he loses the hat and regains it. In the final scene it reappears by movie magic between one shot and the next.

Plot. The plot of the movie is structured in such a way that the gun is used in the service of exterminating villains. They are villains because they’re attempting to exterminate the indigenous bands of aboriginals populating the vast reaches of a sheep herding station in western Australia. Owner of the station is a man in black, played to perfection by Alan Rickman.

Selleck is an American answering Rickman’s want ad for a sharpshooter. Arriving on the same ship in Fremantle are several white slaves bound for Rickman’s station. One of them is a woman (Laura San Giacomo) more than a little addled by grief at the loss of her husband. The two pair up, get left for dead in the outback, recover with the help of a band of aborigines, and then are witness to an attempt to cruelly slaughter them, men, women, and children.

Rescuing a baby after the attack, San Giacomo is left in a cave with two days’ supply of water and a pistol to defend herself against predators. Selleck rides for supplies and narrowly escapes a fire that burns down a hotel. Then he attempts single-handedly to put an end to Rickman and his men, which ends in a three-against-one gun duel. Selleck and San Giacomo are reunited as they await transport by ship back to the States.

Monday, October 28, 2013

W. R. Benton, James McKay, U. S. Army Scout

This is a kill-or-be-killed western with a very high body count. Something like 20 named characters die in one way or another, plus a lot of hostile Indians and all but one of a troop of cavalrymen. Death comes in various ways, including fever, infection, torture, and a grizzly attack. There are also flashbacks to Civil War battlefields, carnage, and hand-to-hand combat.

The central character is a veteran of that war. Having served as a young Confederate colonel, he is too much his own man to endure taking orders and dealing with fools in uniform. Along with the occasional PTSD-influenced dream, he has been deeply affected by the war. He has learned more than a few survival skills, as well as a coldly business-like way of distancing himself from death. You are a hard man, someone tells him.

Plot. McKay takes a job on the frontier for the U.S. cavalry, chasing down a gunrunner who has been selling war-surplus repeating rifles to the Sioux. His pursuit takes him across the plains from Omaha to Montana, then south to Missouri. Associated with him along the way are a settler and his wife, a mountain man, an Indian, and a former slave. Given the high-risk nature of McKay’s mission, only one of them survives.

The narrative shifts between pursuer and pursued. The gunrunner is an unpleasant man named Wild Bill. More than half afraid of the Sioux, he keeps them suitably intimidated by demonstrating the killing power of a Gatling gun. When they see it used to wipe out a bunch of mounted blucoats, the Sioux would love to get their hands on one themselves.

U. S. Cavalry, 1868
One arch-villain not being enough, Benton provides us with a white man raised as a Sioux, who goes by the name of Sun Warrior. A fierce renegade, he has kept fluent in English and by dressing as other white men is able to pass freely among them, gaining their trust before doing them in. (A chilling foreshadowing of a post-9/11 terrorist.)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: C
(collar box – Cousin Jack)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

collar box = a round cardboard box with a lid, for the storing of collars. “Bill says she was wearin’ one of them fancy collar-box hats, with a duck-wing hitched on to it.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

Collar box, c1890
collar tie = a board or beam fastened between pairs of rafters in a peaked roof, like the crossbar of the letter A, to prevent the rafter ends from forcing the walls outward. “Next came the disguising of the rafter and ‘collar-ties’ of the building.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

collarette = a woman’s ornamental collar of lace or fur. “The editor chose to refer to the pineapple pattern, No. 60 cotton, collarette which Mrs. Jackson had crocheted between beers in the good old Dance Hall days as an ‘exquisite effect in point lace.’” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

Colorado-claro = light brown (said of cigars). “She made a good, mild, Colorado-claro wife.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

coma mott = small grove of trees. “I used to see her in that coma mott back of the little horse corral.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

combination car = a railway car containing two or more compartments used for different purposes. “They run a combination car each way every day—two cars when business is brisk.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

combing = a straightening out. “I gave him a combing just now; but it’s no good, I think.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

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.

come to taw = to meet a requirement or expectation. “In some way he or his partner, Clark, came to taw with additional funds.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

comfort tacking = a process similar to quilting in which the layers of fabric, filling, and lining are tied together rather than sewn. “She agreed that if Cornelia would tack some comforts, and cut some carpet rags for her, that she would yield her objections.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Max Brand, Red Hawk’s Trail (1925)

Five Star has been publishing Max Brand westerns in modern editions, three and four of them a year since 1998. This is a new one, the first time in hardcover since it ran as a serial in Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine in 1925. It appeared there with the title “Fire Brain” and was published under one of Frederick Faust’s pen names, George Owen Baxter.

Plot. Sprung from Faust’s fevered imagination, it tells a complex story of a hard-luck loser, John Sherburn, who is befriended by a man who gives him a second chance. The man, Peter Gresham, owns much of a frontier town, Amityville, in Texas. He is widely respected there for his ongoing fight against a gang of robbers led by an Indian chief, Red Hawk.

Not just generous but one could say magnanimous, Gresham takes Sherburn on as a business partner. His job is to keep order in Gresham’s saloon, a popular hangout for a rough crowd of miners and cowboys. To win their respect, Sherburn talks big and pretends to consume large quantities of whiskey, which are in fact weak tea.

A girl in town, Jenny Langhorne, catches his eye, and she makes little secret of her interest in him. An obstacle between them, however, is that Gresham has already laid claim to her. There’s reason to believe he would kill another man, even Sherburn, who gets too friendly with her.

The issue in which the serial began
Another suitor, Oliver Clement, tangles with Sherburn over Jenny, and after some fisticuffs they come to an odd agreement. Clement wants to settle their differences with a gun duel, but Sherburn doesn’t want to kill the young man. So he gets him to agree that the loser of the duel, should he survive, must hunt down Red Hawk and try to kill him.

Sherburn arranges to lose and gets himself inducted into the gang. The gang’s next raid is a stage holdup, involving the dynamiting of a bridge. It’s a suspenseful climax as Sherburn is given the job of lighting the fuse while the suspicious gang leader holds him at gunpoint. When Sherburn returns to town, the separate threads of the plot converge and we learn the identity of Red Hawk.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shoot Out (1971)

Two years after Henry Hathaway made True Grit (and at the age of 73), he directed this western with Gregory Peck. It’s a handsome film shot in New Mexico and the Sierras of California, with a notable score by Dave Grusin.

Peck manages to plausibly play an ex-con bent on revenge and a man whose fatherly instincts emerge when he’s put in charge of a six-year-old girl. The role is a reprise of Atticus Finch, but with six-guns and a prison record. Somewhat implausibly, the screenplay claims to be based on Will James’ fictional autobiography, Lone Cowboy.

Plot.  Peck is released from prison after serving a seven-year sentence for bank robbery. While leaving the scene of the crime, his partner shot him in the back, and Peck refused to name him at the time of his trial. Now he plans to find the man and even the score between them.

Expecting some money from a former lover in Kansas City, he is surprised when the train delivers instead a small motherless girl (Dawn Lyn). After trying unsuccessfully to get someone to take her off his hands, he takes her along with him on his mission of revenge. Doing the math, he (and we) suspect that the girl is really his daughter. She is feisty and mouthy and adorable most of the time, though sometimes you wish someone would tell her to shut up, and Peck eventually does.

Dawn Lyn and Gregory Peck
The pair of them are being followed by three punks in the hire of the man Peck intends to kill (James Gregory). Led by a young tough (Robert F. Lyons), they have with them a saloon girl (Rita Gam), whose shrill complaints would put cracks in plaster. Together they are like a street gang as imagined in West Side Story.

The crisis in the film comes as the gang invades the home of a widow and her young son, who have given Peck and the girl shelter on a rainy night. The gang’s wanton violation of the sanctity of hearth and home produces a scene that gets creepy with dread, especially as Lyons takes to shooting pieces of fine china off the head of the girl. After long minutes of scary suspense, Peck finally gets the upper hand. What’s left for him is the final meeting with Gregory and the settling of yet another score with Lyons.

Four stars. This is an above-average western, made when the golden age of the Hollywood western was about over. Peck brings an ease to his character that is evident from the first scene as he makes clear to the prison warden that he has not been rehabilitated by his term behind bars. He still has plenty of fight in him.

The supporting cast includes the excellent Jeff Corey, who plays a saloon owner in a wheelchair. Lyons, on the other hand, plays a sadistic villain who is as much punk as psychopath, and you can weary of his unrelenting mockery and malice. Here are all of them in an early scene:

Despite its GP rating, this is a movie meant for adults. There’s some coarse language. Even the little girl swears. For the time, the sexuality is fairly frank, as two of the gang make a three-way with Gam’s saloon girl, and we get a glimpse of frontal nudity. Their raucous carryon interferes with the post-coital mood of Peck and another woman in the next room.

Shoot Out is currently available online and streamable at netflix. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, hop on over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Image credits:
Peck and Lyn,

Coming up: Max Brand, Red Hawk's Trail (1925)

Monday, October 21, 2013

James D. Best, The Return

You know you’re in good hands with James Best. This new “Steve Dancy Tale” is told with the usual economy, clarity, and attention to detail. Best’s characters are fully three-dimensional and spring to life in a few words of dialogue. Best of all, you enjoy their company.

I like Steve Dancy. He’s an Easterner who has adapted in a few short years to the West, where he has interests in the silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado. He comes with a social pedigree that he never flaunts, and he has grown up the son of a firearms merchant. He has a head for business and is a good judge of character.

He tells his own stories, and Best is one of the best at first-person narration. Dancy is articulate and intelligent, the sort of man who draws similar men to him, so you like his friends, too. They are, as he says, honest and true. In this story, one of those friends is a woman, who offers Dancy some very adult and levelheaded long-term romance.

Leadville, Colorado
Plot. You think this story is going to take place entirely in Leadville, as it sets up the initial conflict. A nasty protection racket has sprung up in town, and one by one the shopkeepers and other places of business are being forced to make weekly cash payment to a gang of thugs. It’s either that or trouble, from broken windows to arson.

Dancy, his friend Jeff Sharp, and their business partner Virginia Barker stir up enough support to stage a protest, and they are joined by six Pinkerton agents from Denver. Soon the thugs are sent packing. And before we know it, Dancy, Sharp, Mrs. Barker, and Captain Joseph McAllen of the Pinkertons are involved in quite another gambit. This one takes them back East.

There, they work as a team of investigators for none other than Thomas Edison. The famous inventor retains them to find out whether a project to bring electric lights to lower Manhattan is being sabotaged by competitors vying to grab up the market for this new technology.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: C
(chokeweed - cold plucked)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880-1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

chokeweed = a weed that chokes other plants. “You’ve growed an’ growed around this country like choke-weed, an’ it’s ter’ble hard to get good an’ started on you.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

cholo = a derogatory term for a Mexican, especially lower class or mixed blood. “Them cholos was all quiet now, and actin’ as keerful as if that rock was dynamite.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

chop = to stop. “Oh, chop on yellin’ ’n’ let’s hear!” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

Chop house, Toronto, 1866
chop-house = a cheap restaurant. “McCloud took supper afterward with Whispering Smith at a Front Street chop-house, and the two men separated at eleven o’clock.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

chow-chow = a pickled relish made from a combination of vegetables. “These derelicts stood among the long tables laid out with chow-chow and condensed milk (watered in pitchers), shouting coarse stories to one another.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

chromo = a mass-produced color image using a lithographic printing process; a chromolithograph. “The altar flared with innumerable candles which twinkled on ancient saints and modern chromos, on mirrors and tinsel and paper flowers.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

chromo = an unattractive person. “Git onto that old chromo; Beach has got a school marm that will stay this time.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

chrysoprase = a green gemstone. “She had the green eyes of California—the limpid, translucent green of crysoprase.” Gertrude Atherton, Los Cerritos.

chuck it = to give up. “I do not believe these people ever take a bawth. I’ll have to chuck it or I’ll cat.” Marion Reid-Girardot, Steve of the Bar-G Ranch.

chuck tender = in mining, a workman who replaces drills in the drilling machines. “When ken you go to work? I want a chuck-tender on der night-shift.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

chuck-a-luck = a gambling game played with dice. “And a man's so sick of himself by the time he gets this far that he’d play chuck-a-luck, let alone faro or monte.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

chuckwalla = a stocky, wide-bodied lizard with a flattened midsection, a prominent belly, and a thick tail, tapering to a blunt tip. “Once he thought a chuckwalla addressed him, saying: ‘Hello, Bob Sangster, what are you runnin’ away from?’” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

chunk = to hit with a missile. “He got so hungry for meat he up ’n’ chunks ’n’ kills ’n’ cooks ’n’ eats a porcupine.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

church privileges = protections granted to churches limiting intrusion by secular authorities. “You are blasphemous, you unconscionable creature! I lament afresh that we are fifty miles from church privileges.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

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

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ralph Connor, The Doctor: A Tale of the Rockies (1906)

This novel by Canadian Ralph Connor was a top-10 bestseller in the U.S. when it was published. Set partly in Ontario and partly in British Columbia, it’s an inspirational story of sacrifice and suffering that would strike most readers today as profoundly sentimental.

The doctor of the title, Barney Boyle, is a man from a country village who overcomes the disadvantages of rural poverty to become a world-traveling doctor. Tirelessly serving others, he at last exhausts himself and falls ill while treating the miners and railway workers on the Canadian frontier.

Plot. At the center of the novel are three more characters: Boyle’s brother, Dick; a childhood friend, Margaret Robertson; and a schoolmistress from the American South, Iola Lane. It is a foursome fraught with unrequited affection. Margaret loves Barney, Dick loves Margaret, Barney loves Iola, and Iola wants a high-profile singing career.

Years pass as each finds a place for themselves in the world, winning the adulation of others. While Barney becomes a skilled doctor championing the introduction of proper health care for workingmen, Dick achieves fame as a frontier missionary and social reformer. Margaret becomes matron of a charity hospital, and Iola a world-famous opera diva.

Illustration from the novel
The two brothers vow undying love for each other as young men. Barney has yielded without complaint to their mother’s wish that Dick should be the one to get an education. But as Barney struggles against adversity to become a doctor, he discovers that Dick and Iola have become improperly friendly. This severs the bond between the two men until they meet again by chance in the wilds of British Columbia and are reconciled.

Romance. Connor’s characters are possessed by feelings of romantic attachment, while each is doomed to be unloved in return. The energies they might throw into passionate enjoyment of eros are diverted instead to their careers. And Connor would have us believe that this is God’s plan for them.

At the heart of the novel is a belief that God uses the suffering of unrequited love to bring these four to a deeper faith and a higher spirituality. When the heart starves for affection, it surrenders of necessity to the love that passeth all understanding. To add a merciless twist to this argument, Connor has two of the characters die just as they are joyfully reunited after many years of painful separation.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Good For Nothing (2011)

This gritty, sweaty western looks like it was shot somewhere on the endless arid plains under the great open sky of the American West. But think South—way South. Good For Nothing was filmed entirely and convincingly in New Zealand. Its story plays out over a vast, lonely landscape, where its characters are often shown as mere specks crossing vast, empty reaches. The panoramic views evoke the romance of the West at the same time they transport you back in time, in a way that many Hollywood westerns fail to achieve.

The visual and dramatic styles are sharply and precisely realistic. This is a West where men are surly and whiskery, seldom speak, and do not bathe. Long stretches of the film pass without a word of dialogue. Meanwhile, it tells a story in which western movie conventions abound—the lone rider, a smoky saloon, a woman in peril, a pursuit on horseback, gunplay and shootouts. The soundtrack reverberates with oversized western movie music.

The hero of the film (Cohen Holloway) would be a plausible stand-in for one of Clint Eastwood’s laconic heroes. Fast and lethal with a gun, he doesn’t crack a smile, and eyes everything with suspicious scrutiny.  He is the iconic paladin roaming the West alone. But as chance would have it, he currently has company. Along for the ride is an English girl (Inge Rademeyer) he has taken hostage after an explosive gunfight in a saloon.

And we soon learn that he has, alas, an unexpected flaw that provides the comic thread that runs through the film. That being his futile attempts to find a doctor who will cure a bad case of erectile dysfunction. What’s amazing is that this particular detail does not render him any less a man. It is a perplexing and desolate sorrow that accounts in part for his usually grim demeanor.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Johnny D. Boggs, East of the Border

Imagine the Three Stooges on tour in a play about themselves, and you’ll get a hint of this antic novel about Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and Texas Jack Omohundro. It’s the 1873-74 theatrical season, and while the country’s economy dissolves into another panic, Cody’s troupe of actors turn away eager crowds everywhere east of the Mississippi.

They present two plays, Scouts of the Plains and Buffalo Bill! King of the Border Men. Best described as lunatic melodramas, they feature the killing of large numbers of Indians and dances performed by the Italian entertainer, Guiseppina Morlacchi.

Buffalo Bill Cody
Plot. Boggs’ novel follows Cody’s acting company as their tour has been documented in memoirs and newspapers of the time. Where there is a thread of plot, it concerns Buffalo Bill’s mostly unsuccessful attempts to manage the behavioral excesses of Wild Bill, who lives up to his name. Each undyingly loyal to the other as lifetime “pards,” they are rarely an easy match of temperaments.

Cody is the enterprising showman, missing the freedom of his youth as a scout, but married with kids. Hickok, the older of the two men, is sliding into an alcoholic haze, darkly given to brawling, whores, and other forms of mischief. Cody keeps him in the show long after everyone else has begged him to fire the man.

Meanwhile, Hickok would welcome release from the promise he’s made to stick with the tour for a year. The clownish fakery of the playacting gets riotous applause but galls the man who survived the perils of life on the border. The displays of Indian killing are cheap farce and demeaning. Making this point during a backstage dispute, he pulls off his costume to show the scars of a gash from an actual Indian’s lance.

Wild Bill Hickok, c1874
A subplot concerns the ongoing marital discord between Cody and his wife Louisa. He is true to her as the mother of his children—in his way. She distrusts him, often on the verge of volcanic fury, showing up during the tour to accuse him of consorting with one of his actresses. Hickok, playing a joke on his old friend, has tipped her off.

Cody is already overtaxed by the constant demands of managing his fractious company while busy meeting and greeting the public. Keeping Louisa happy nearly undoes him. In a desperate move, he gets her to come onstage during a performance. Instead of being pleased by the warm reception of the audience, she is deeply embarrassed and determines to go back to Nebraska, taking the kids.

But this crisis, too, passes. While real-life Cody and his wife seem never to have been reconciled, Boggs gives their part of the story a happy ending that is surely a stretch of his own imagination.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: C
(catchpenny – choker)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880-1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

catchpenny = made to sell readily at a low price, regardless of value or use. “With his catch-penny plausibility, his thin-spread good-fellowship, and his New York clothes, he mistook himself for a respectable man.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

catkins = a usually dense, cylindrical, often drooping cluster of flowers found in willows, birches, and oaks. “Soft, wet and tender, with a faint green filming the sodden pasture field, and a rose-pink veil covering the maples, and blue-grey catkins tinting the dark alders, spring had come.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

catspaw = a person used as a tool by another. “Be sure that she is promised something she thinks worth her while, by Bob or by Moore, for her sudden interest in politics and—Charlie Blair. She is a good catspaw.” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

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.

cave canem = beware the dog. “From behind their barrier of thorns, every plant and shrub bristling a cave canem to the tactless marauders who should seek to prey upon them.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

Celestial = a Chinese person; derives from Celestial Empire, an ancient name for China. “And when the angry Celestial had gone he lay back in his chair, and laughed till he was weak.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

cellaret = a case for holding wine bottles and decanters, often built as part of a sideboard. “He crossed to the table and, springing the silver catch of a tiny door, cunningly empaneled in the wall, selected from the cellaret a long-necked, cut-glass decanter.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

chaffing = teasing, bantering (also chaffering). “I was prepared to hear a good deal of chaffing about getting lost.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold.

Chaos and Old Night = a scene of wreckage and confusion; reference to deities in John Milton’s Paradise Lost who reign over the realm of Anarchy that lies between Heaven and Hell. “[description of a trainwreck] Chaos and Old Night: a pile of scrap with a hole torn in the middle of it as if by an explosion, and a fire going.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

chariots of fire = an emphatic expression; reference to usually airborne modes of transportation associated in the Old Testament with the divinity. “It looked like a put-up job, all right; an’ chariots of fire, but he was mad!” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

charivari = a  noisy mock serenade, typically performed by a group of people in celebration of a marriage (also spelled “shivaree”). “The next night about sixty of the white neighbors gave us a charivari and my wife was much pleased to know there was no color prejudice among them.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Arthur Henry Paterson, The Better Man (1890)

This novel may qualify as the first western, and it was written by an Englishman. The central characters of the novel are also English, and the author writes as someone who acquired a familiarity with the people and customs of the American West. He lived there for a time in the 1870s.

Plot.  Two school chums, who first met as schoolboys at Eton, meet again in a settlement called Toros in New Mexico. Frank Houghton has lived here as a cattle rancher for four years. He is joined by the younger Tom Eckersley, who has left his upper-class family to seek his fortune in America. Against the advice of Houghton, Tom befriends a shady character, Mark Galt. With the help of an unscrupulous judge, Galt and his gang run a town 50 miles away called Carita.

Confident in his ability to judge character, Tom signs a contract that commits him to a year of sheepherding for Galt. When Tom also agrees to persuade his father to invest £1,000 in their ranch, he does not sense that Galt is laying a trap for him. But eventually, he is so enraged by Galt’s duplicity he nearly kills the man.

Apprehended before he can flee to safety, he is thrown in jail and faces attempted murder charges. Frank gathers a small army of cowboys to ride all day and night to rescue Tom, who has been found guilty in a hurried trial and sentenced to be hanged. The rescuers meet little resistance, and the crooks are quickly overwhelmed and sent packing.

Tennyson's home, from book by A. Paterson
Romance. Midway through the novel, Tom’s family arrives in Toros to take him back to England. With his parents is his sister, Edith, whose presence disturbs the already taciturn Frank. He had once proposed marriage to her, and she declined his offer. She is now being courted by a military man, Major Crawford, who arrives in town as well.

Frank is not a happy soul, still suffering from a broken heart. Edith’s arrival revives his hopes, but she remains unaware of his feelings, and hardly knows her own. Belatedly discovering her love for Frank, she turns down Crawford’s proposal of marriage.

When a young telegraph operator observes the major’s abrupt departure from town, he sends word to Frank who returns from his ranch just as the family is about to leave for England. Frank and Edith are united once more, this time confessing their love, and he promises to wrap up his affairs within three months and return to England himself.

Character. Before we meet Frank Houghton, a crusty old stage driver describes him warmly as “a man!” By that he means a trailblazer, “one who cuts a notch in every tree he passes as he walks through life.” Frank has been transformed by his four years in the West. Already a big man at six-foot-three and a half, he has developed a massive chest, his skin has browned, and he has grown a thick beard.

Someone observes that the West has been hard on Frank. Edith tells him he has “a tired, grim look, as if you did not find life very much worth living.” She guesses that it must be lonely with no one to speak to but the men who work for him. He tells her he can bear it, because he’s a man and he has no choice. Meanwhile, he has won a place in the hearts and minds of the local residents. Through his courageous effort, he has helped rid the town of a ring of crooks and outlaws.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Cowboys in early frontier fiction

Cowboy, 1898
The cowboy western originated with the dime novels of the nineteenth century. These were exaggerated tales of adventure in the Wild West. But when did cowboys first appear in mainstream popular fiction?

Vaqueros. In early examples, set in California, they appear as vaqueros, and remind us that the actual horsemen who herded cattle in the frontier West were itinerant agricultural laborers. In Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don (1885), a californio ranch owner has vaqueros among his employees. They figure into the plot as a herd of cattle are driven through a winter storm in the mountains above San Diego. 

A foil to the central character of Gertrude Atherton’s Los Cerritos (1890), Carlos Castro is the chief vaquero at a neighboring ranch. He is a burly giant of a man, so full of energy he is like a volcano waiting to erupt. His comrades adore him for his “enormous vitality” and his “rude magnetism.” Though a horse thief, he is always acquitted of any crime. He is opposed to americanos moving onto California rangeland, picks a fight with and grievously wounds one of them, and sets fire to his ranch.

Ranch hands. English-speaking cowboys make an early appearance in Charles King’s Dunraven Ranch (1890). They are employed on a mysterious ranch located near a cavalry outpost in Texas. Eager to solve the mystery, a young lieutenant pays a call with several troopers, who are of Irish descent. The visit develops into a donnybrook between the cavalrymen and the ranch hands, who are English.

Three ranch hands are minor characters in Marah Ellis Ryan’s Told in the Hills (1890), set in western Montana. Jim the youngest is an innocent, who gets excited when the cavalry arrives to set up camp near the ranch. Another, Andrews, is occasionally sent to the nearest settlement for the mail, but tends to stay overlong and come home drunk.

Cowboys are a “wild combustible element” in Arthur Paterson’s A Better Man (1890). They gather in numbers in the saloon of a New Mexico frontier settlement. Some are given to drunkenness and insulting women. The novel’s central character, a rancher, assembles a small army of them to ride all day and night to rescue an innocent man, who has been found guilty in a hurried trial and sentenced to be hanged.

Cowboys. Owen Wister may have popularized the cowboy, but in his early western stories written for Harper’s and collected in Red Men and White (1896), they are dubious characters. Two crop up in “A Pilgrim on the Gila.” The story’s narrator learns that one of them is avoiding a woman who is two months shy of claiming him as a common-law husband. Later, the two cowboys are among a dozen road agents who hold up an army paymaster and make off with the strongbox.

The Great K&A Train Robbery
The cowboys in Paul Leicester Ford’s The Great K&A Train Robbery (1897) talk in stereotypical lingo. Asked if he is carrying a weapon, one responds, “Do I chaw terbaccy?” Threatening another man, one calls him a “stinkin’ coyote” and tells him to stay put “or I’ll blow yer so full of lead that yer couldn’t float in Salt Lake.”

Colorful, yes, also ungovernable and potentially dangerous. They are frequenters of saloons, eager to accept a wild rumor as fact, and quick to rush a suspected wrongdoer to justice. Believing the young hero of the novel to be a train robber, they try to lynch him from a telegraph pole.

Cowboys of a similar stripe appear in two of Cy Warman’s Frontier Stories (1897). Given to gunplay and playful troublemaking, they can easily find themselves on the wrong side of the law. In one of them, several cowboys play a trick on a band of Indian cattle thieves. Finding the cremated remains of one of them, they leave a handwritten curse in the man’s skull that frightens the thieves away.

Warman’s “A Cowboy’s Funeral” starts out with some hijinks of a half-dozen cowboys, who have ridden 200 miles to a town in Utah to mail a letter. They get drunk and start firing their pistols until a bystander is accidentally shot and killed. They make a hasty retreat into the desert, but when the sheriff gives chase, one of them is shot dead.

When the cowboys put enough distance between themselves and the law, they stop and make camp. There they pass the bottle before eventually putting the dead man into a grave. One cowboy leads them in a version of “The Streets of Laredo,” which the narrator describes as “plaintive and pleading—a sort of mixture of negro minstrel and the old time Methodist revival song.”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Thomas D. Clagett, The Pursuit of Murieta

This novel is a lot like a Budd Boetticher western. It has the structure of a movie plot, and much of the action takes place a good distance from civilization. A group of male characters deal with life and death issues like what to do with and what to believe about a man they have captured. And a woman riding with them has an agenda of her own.

Plot.  At the center of the story is real-life Mexican bandit Joaquin Murieta who harried the americanos flooding into California after it became a state. Something of a Robin Hood, he reputedly stole from the wealthy to distribute among the poor. He was a popular hero among the disenfranchised and a pain in the backside of law enforcement, which found itself plagued with not one but several “Joaquins” roaming the state.

The story begins with a scene of unprovoked yanqui violence against Murieta and his wife as they attempt to return to Mexico after an unfruitful sojourn in the California gold fields. Then it jumps ahead to 1853 during a few days in which Murieta is pursued by a contingent of rangers tasked by the governor with bringing him in. They finally run him down in the mountains above San Gabriel Mission.

Lt. Ambrose Quick, the young man in command, has trouble keeping order among his men and deciding whether to believe their captive when he claims to be Murieta. Addie Moody, a saloon girl who has joined them has revenge in mind. Her sister was raped and killed by a man she believes is Murieta.

Style and structure. Like a movie, the novel has a single central conflict, pitting two men against each other: Murieta and Lt. Quick. One of them is more admirable than the other, but neither of them is a villain. That honor goes to one of Quick’s men, Ned Needle, who is a hateful bigot, driven by sneering contempt for everyone.

As in a movie, the characters tend to be types whom we quickly recognize. Besides the bigot Needle, there’s a drunk, a self-important sheriff, his featherbrained daughter, and a mysterious Mexican woman. Addie Moody is the outspoken prostitute with more intelligence than any of the men. Besides Lt. Quick, only one of them actually breaks out of the pattern created for them and makes a choice that amounts to a change in their character.

Quick is interesting for starting out a man with aspirations far beyond his capacity to achieve. He wants to be mayor of Los Angeles, but has no qualifications for the job. He hopes that capturing Murieta will sweep him into office. Before the story is over, he makes some difficult decisions and some unwelcome discoveries that both lift and lower him in our estimation.

Many of the characters in the novel are based on actual historical figures. Ten or more of them walk from the pages of history. Maybe most surprising is to find “Judge” Roy Bean running a saloon in the little settlement of San Gabriel. Andres Pico, retired Mexican general runs horses on the verdant ranges of the San Fernando Valley.