Friday, December 28, 2018

A Sergeant of the Orphan Troop



Physically, Nature had slobbered all over Carter Johnson; she had lavished on him her very last charm. His skin was pink, albeit the years of Arizona sun had heightened it to a dangerous red; his mustache was yellow and ideally military; while his pure Virginia accent, fired in terse and jerky form at friend and enemy alike, relieved his natural force of character by a shade of humor.
Frederic Remington could not only create evocative Western vistas on canvas and in sculpture he had a way with the pen as well. His having been “out there” lends an authoritative cast to his work that is elevated by his obvious romanticism for the people and places that he saw.
This tale strikes me as a bit thin for narrative propulsion, but it never lacks in evocative detail. Fans of the artist may find this a fine read and a gratifying look at another side of his creativity.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

A Man and Some Others


The horseman canted forward. “Good evening,” he said as he again drew rein.
“Good evenin’,” answered Bill, without committing himself by too much courtesy.
For a moment the two men scanned each other in a way that is not ill-mannered on the plains, where one is in danger of meeting horse-thieves or tourists.
Another well-limned tale from Stephen Crane. This one concerns a man who has lived it all and must go it alone versus a band who no longer desire him on his graze.
On one hand a mighty familiar theme, but Crane’s trip West with time spent among real-deal folks coupled with his gifts of verisimilitude give this one a heft than many imitators lack.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

War Party


Ryerson and his wife were going back. She was a complaining woman and he was a man who was always ailing when there was work to be done. Four or five wagons were turning back, folks with their tails betwixt their legs running for the shelter of towns where their own littleness wouldn’t stand out so plain.
I’ll admit to a love-indifferent relationship with author Louis L ‘Amour. There is some of his work that feels that he’s writing a bit too fast, perhaps a little sloppily and merely going through the paces.
But…there are also times when his narrative seems fueled with jet-propellant and he peoples his books with characters I’d be honored to know.
The prairie and sky had a way of trimming folks down to size, or changing them to giants to whom nothing seemed impossible. Men who had cut a wide swath back in the States found themselves nothing out here. They were folks who were used to doing a lot of talking who suddenly found that no one was listening anymore, and things that seemed mighty important back home, like family and money, they amounted to nothing alongside character and courage.
There was John Sampson from our town. He was a man used to being told to do things, used to looking up to wealth and power, but when he crossed the Mississippi he began to lift his head and look around. He squared his shoulders, put more crack to his whip and began to make his own tracks in the land.
The best version of L ‘Amour, in this reader’s eyes, is the man who has seen much and is able to dispense that wisdom, whether it be of land, people, or history with a gentle hand. One that never makes the “lesson” feel like medicine, but always rock-solid edification couched in an easy style.
This story is the author at his best. Let’s let him close out this offering.
Time to time the men had stopped by to help a little, but next morning nobody came by. We got lined out about as soon as ever, and ma said to me as we sat on the wagon seat, “Pay no attention, Bud. You’ve no call to take up anything if you don’t notice it. There will always be folks who will talk, and the better you do in the world the more bad things they will say of you. Back there in the settlement you remember how the dogs used to run out and bark at our wagons?’
“Yes, ma.”
“Did the wagons stop?”
“No, ma.”
“Remember that, son. The dogs bark, but the wagons go on their way, and if you’re going some place you haven’t time to be bothered with barking dogs.”

Friday, December 21, 2018

At the Sign of the Last Chance


I had begun to see those beards long before they were gray; when no wire fence mutilated the freedom of the range; when fourteen mess-wagons would be at the spring round-up; when cattle wandered and pastured, dotting the endless wilderness; when roping brought the college graduate and the boy who had never learned to read into a lusty equality of youth and skill; when songs rose by the camp-fire; and the dim form of the night herder leaned on his saddle horn as under the stars he circled slowly around the recumbent thousands; when two hundred miles stretched between all this and the whistle of the nearest locomotive.



Oh, Friends, this is one lovely elegy to the West that Was as Owen Wister knew it. It is chockful of descriptive power, but it is also soaked in a sadness, a mournful lament for what was and what may never be again.

Wister gave us this tale towards the end of his life and one gets the feeling it is not a mere story,  nor rose-colored nostalgia but a sad-eyed goodbye to what the man saw as a better time.

Superlative craft here.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Honk-Honk Breed


My pardner called himself Tuscarora Maxillary. I asked him once if that was his real name.

"It's the realest little old name you ever heerd tell of," says he. "I know, for I made it myself—liked the sound of her. Parents ain't got no rights to name their children. Parents don't have to be called them names."

Stewart Edward White offers us a tall-tale of schemers and chicken-ranching. It’s amiable and presents White in a humorous mood.

Not essential, but not a bad time either.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Colt


Later, as they came in the wagon up along the cutbank, the colt tied down in the wagon box with his head sometimes lifting, sometimes bumping on the boards, the mare trotting after with chuckling vibrations of solicitude in her throat, Bruce leaned far over and tried to touch the colt’s haunch. “Gee whiz!” he said. “Poor old Socks.”

Oh, my, my friends. Get out your box of tissues as Mr. Wallace Stegner has composed one heart-breaking tale of a boy and a crippled colt that, if you got any love of horses or humanity in you will punch you in the chest.

This tale has heft to it and much like Vardis Fisher’s horse tale Scarecrow [also reviewed here] it will stick with you for a while.

It is a work of art, but…you’ve been warned. Hankies required.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Girl in the Humbert


When the valley was friendly once more, the rancher drew his horse up before the girl, waist deep in her moon poppies, stringing the finest blossoms for seed. He had brought the check for the hay, with a notation of his measurements.

“I can’t say anything definite about next year,” he told her regretfully, “but for this year, I’m grateful—”

Without finishing he touched the sorrel into a lope, and for once the girl from the Humbert stood to look after him, the white slip of paper blowing in her hand.

A gorgeous story from Mari Sandoz showing us a feud that persists long after its original kindlers are dead and the burdens of continuing someone else’s hatred.

Human in its detail and not a bad lesson to remind oneself of.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Beyond the Desert


“His face was a large red face, heavy, square, course-featured, stubbly. It now expressed no emotion. Unhurriedly, he took up a long thirty-forty from the sling below the stirrup leather, raised the sights high, and dropped two bullets before the trail of the advancing party.”

This tale from the highly regarded Eugene Manlove Rhodes is without a doubt well written, but I must confess that thus far I have not been bit by the appreciation bug for this author.

It has descriptive power and fine substance here and there but forward momentum was a bit lacking for this reader.

The fault may be mine.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Last Thunder Song


The greatest number of the white men who had witnessed the last thunder dance of the Omaha went homeward much pleased. The show had turned out quite funny indeed. “Ha, ha, ha! Did you see how surprised that old cuggie looked? He, he, he!” Life, being necessarily selfish, argues from its own standpoint.

But as the minister rode slowly toward his home there was no laughter in his heart. He was saying to himself: “If the whole fabric of my belief should suddenly be wrenched from me, what then?” Even the question was born of selfishness, but it brought pity.

John G. Neihardt writes this sad tale from a place of wisdom and heart. We are treated to a scene of passing days and that scene is a bit sad, a bit cruel in places, a bit tender. In other words, a human tale.

There is nothing surface here. All depth.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Builder of Murderer’s Bar




“I remember the day that Lisbeth Peyton announced herself promised to Lysander Cox. Along the Americam, where miners outnumbered women a thousand to one, this was an event of importance. I also remember how Edmond Jones took the news. The camp expected him to get drunk. He didn’t. He went to work.”

Todhunter Ballard brings us this amiable story of a “lazy” dreamer and his Rube Goldberg efforts to mine with as little effort as possible and the ramifications those schemes have upon a community.

The story is infused with mining details but that does not intrude with the amiable drawl of the story. While not an essential read it’s also not bad at all.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Champs at the Chuckabug


“He’s an ol’ time cowman from who skinned the skunk, an’ he loves these moderun cowboy sports knowed as rodeo contests the way he loves ticks in his beard.”

This highly regarded tale from S. Omar Barker really did not a thing for this reader. I’ll admit to being no fan of dialect in prose. I have and can enjoy it in a well-turned work, but I’ll admit to even then finding it exasperating to have to decipher willy-nilly spellings and askew syntax.

But, more often than not, I am left cold by tales told in this way. With that said, Barker’s slight tale of amusing doings at a rodeo may play well for readers who are charmed by dialect exercises.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Gift of Cochise


He had several drinks—his first in months—in one of the saloons. As the liquor warmed his stomach, Ed Lowe looked around agreeably. For a moment, his eyes clouded with worry as he thought about his wife and children back in Apache country, but it was not in Ed Lowe to worry for long. He had another drink and leaned on the bar, talking to the bartender. All Ed had ever asked of life was enough to eat, a horse to ride, an occasional drink, and companions to talk with. Not that he had anything important to say. He just liked to talk.

That passage nails one of the gifts of Louis L ’Amour, his ability to paint a picture of a man’s character in a few brief defining sentences and small actions. This terseness is often mistaken for simplicity. It is as far from simple as gimlet-eyed observation gets.

L ’Amour’s “simplicity” was in aid of propulsive narrative. He at times allowed it to traipse into formula, but when he was working with full burners, as in this story—you’ve got gold.


A fine story indeed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Traitor of the Natchez Trace


“It was 500 miles through these Indian Nations on the winding Natchez Trace—500 miles through swamp and canebrake and wilderness desolation. Here no law had penetrated, and no religion. Renegade white men, crowded from more ordered lands, found the territory a pirate’s paradise.”

That is the fascinating setting of this Ryerson Johnson tale. Johnson seemed to specialize in well-researched tales of not your usual Western settings and not your usual protagonist occupations—here we have a courageous mail-carrier.

His descriptions of the terrain and the climate of lawlessness are endlessly interesting here, but I must admit the narrative itself didn’t match the background for this reader.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Burn Him Out


“Will Starrett squatted before the campfire in the creek bottom, drinking his coffee and watching the other men over the rim of his cup. In the strong light from the fire, the sweat and the dirt and the weariness made harsh masks of their faces. They were tired men. But pushing up through their fatigue was a growing restlessness. Now and then, a man’s face was lost in heavy shadow as he turned away to talk with a neighbor. A head nodded vigorously, and the buzz of talk grew louder. To Starrett, listening, it was like the hum a tin of water makes as it comes to a boil. The men were growing impatient now, and drawing confidence from each other. Snatches of talk rose clearly. Without the courtesy of direct address, they were telling Tim Urban what to do.”

That magnificent passage opens this lean Frank Bonham tale. He gives us a dirt-grimed account of desperate farmers fighting a grasshopper invasion. In this tale there are no black hats and white hats and no showdowns in the street.

Rather it is one of those tremendous Westerns that takes flesh and blood people, pits them against the elements and sees what shakes out as the stresses of survival and the fatigue of a natural trial grinds them down.

An excellent story.

Monday, December 3, 2018

All the Long Years


“I didn’t think so. Whatever else Lyle Dennison is, he’s not a brand-burner and a cow thief.”

“I’ll tell you what he is,” the boy said. “He’s twice the man you are.”

“Maybe so. But you’re not half the man either of us ever was.”

This highly-regarded tale from Bill Pronzini has got a lot of punch packed into the few pages that comprise its fist.

Historical verisimilitude, well-limned characters, and a bit of the masterful O. Henry twist to bring it home.

A highly regarded tale, and rightly so.

Friday, November 30, 2018

One Man’s Honor


This happened out where distance ran past vision and only clumped silver-green of sagebrush and blunt bare rising ridges of rock broke the red-brown reaches of sand and sun-baked silt.

This spare tale by Jack Schaefer, author of the rightly vaunted Shane, is one of shifting perspectives. In one view we have a pursuit over the harsh ground so memorably described in the opening passage.

In the other view we have a heart-breaking visit to a homestead and the tragedies that have been visited upon it.

Schaefer has these two perspectives combine in an unexpected manner. While this highly regarded story is good, in this reader’s mind it is not up to his earlier reviewed Emmet Dutrow, but lesser Schaefer is often head and shoulders above many.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Only the Dead Ride Proudly


Captain Marsh had picked his deckhands carefully, too, thirty of them, knowing it would likely be a hard summer. Stuart had been one of them, fair-haired and blue-eyed and young-old, a military straightness to his spine and a bitter hunger naked in his face, a man who spoke a language that was not a roustabout’s, but whose eyes were squinted from looking across great distances.

Norman Fox packs a lot of wallop in this tale of a steamer transporting Custer and his troops to the apocalyptic battle. We are shifted forward and back in time and gain depth from backstory, stark relief from present battle preparation and letters to loved ones back home, and poignancy for we know what is to come at the disembarkment of this historical journey.

It is all handled with an ace hand and a knowing respect for the dead.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

All Gold Canyon


The song grew faint and fainter, and through the silence crept back the spirt of the pkace. The stream once more drowned and whispered; the hum of the mountain bees rose sleepily. Down through the perfume weighted air fluttered the snowy fluffs of the cottonwoods. The butterflies drifted in and out among the trees, and over all blazed the quiet sunshine. Only remained the hoof-marks in the meadow and the torn hillside to mark the boisterous trail of the life that had broken the peace of the place and passed on.

This story from the prolific Jack London is a sort of dual tale. On one hand it is an almost documentary look at the methods of using placer mining to home in on a vein of ore.

On the other hand, it is a tale of pristine Nature with the “N” intentionally capitalized. A tale where Man [also capitalized] blunders in, destroys much with action and moral infestation, but, in the end, Nature obliterates Man.

It is a well-wrought tale, but it may be rendered a little dull by the devotion to the details of the placer miner. It was rendered rather faithfully by the Coen Brothers in their excellent western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Again, a highly regarded tale, often listed in the 100 Best Western Short stories, but I would easily substitute London’s visceral Love of Life for this one. [Also reviewed here.]

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Emmet Dutrow


“I’m headed toward town,” I said. “I thought maybe you’d like a ride in and back. You can look the place over and meet some of the folks around here.”

“No, neighbor,” he said. He looked at me and then let his voice out a notch. “Sin and temptation abide in towns. When we came past I saw two saloons and a painted woman.”

“Hell, man,” I said, “you find those things everywhere. They don’t bite if you let them alone.”

Jack Schaefer delivers a powerful story of poorly expressed faith in this brief tale. The author of the superlative novel Shane shows that his powers of observation and ability to get to the heart of humanity were no one-trick pony feat.

Excellent.

Monday, November 26, 2018

All the Young Men


His granddaughter heard how poor and ragged he was, and finally she sent for him to live with her and her husband, Homer Wesley. They were a smart pair of educated Indians who dressed well and spoke good English, and affected to despise Navajo ways.  Sometimes they professed Christianity, but really thy had no religion save, in the secret part of their hearts, a little longing for and a real fear of the old gods.

This sad tale from Oliver La Farge follow the downfall of a medicine man who is no longer needed by the “new way” of his people.

It is written with care and heart and undoubtedly is well-informed. It ranks on the 100 Best Western Short-Story List, but I must admit, while well-crafted and deeply felt this one had an execution approach that left me a little removed.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A Question of Blood


Ernest Haycox, an author I make no bones about admiring, delivers much in this brief tale. We visit a “Squaw Man” and his family and follow them from the early days of pristine love, untouched by the taint of culture, through to the advent of other men “of his kind” and how the inevitable pull of comparison causes some to become unhappy with a lot that formerly provided much happiness.

Often at night, smoking before the fire and watching his boy crawl so awkwardly across the floor, he felt a strangeness at seeing her darkly crouched in a corner, lost in thoughts he could never reach. Sometimes the color and the sound of his early days in Missouri came strongly to him and he wished that she might know what was in his head. But he talked her tongue poorly and she would speak no English; and so silence lay between them.

A sad tale marked by truthful observation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Scarecrow


I fell asleep; and later was awakened by a terrific screeching of wire; and upon looking up, I saw a very tall gaunt horse caught on the fence. In the moonlight it seemed to be nothing but hide and bones and eyes. It had jumped and now stood with its front legs over the wire and with the taut wire under its belly; and a more forlorn and helpless creature I had never seen. I rose and went over to it, intending to flog the ungainly beast off of the place, but something in its eyes made me pause. It was a kind of sad resignation, a hopeless surrender, mixed with shame for having got into such a predicament. And instead of flogging the thief I patted its gaunt and ancient head and looked at its eyes. “You old fool,” I said. “Don’t you know enough to keep off a wire fence?” I went over and stirred the torn sacks of wheat and watched the beast’s eyes, but it gave no sign. It did not even lift an ear or turn its eyes to watch me. Then I put a halter on it and cut the wires to get it off the fence and tied it to a post.

This short masterpiece by Vardis Fisher is a heart-breaker. Fisher takes a mighty simple premise and runs it through believable paces and you wind up with a tale of good men thinking they know what’s best and the regrets that follow a cascade of well-intentioned decisions.

Chockful of weary observation. A sincere piece of art.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Caballero’s Way


“The Cisco Kid had killed six men in more or less fair scrimmages, had murdered twice as many (mostly Mexicans), and winged a larger number whom he modestly forbore to count. Therefore, a woman loved him.

The Kid was twenty-five, looked twenty; and a careful insurance company would have estimated the probable time of his demise at, say, twenty-six.”

O. Henry created the Cisco Kid which in no way bears any resemblance to the amiable hero of the film and television series. O. Henry’s Cisco Kid is a cold-blooded killer. Affable, charming, but a killer through and through.

The story’s twist-in-the tale [a veritable O. Henry ending] is telegraphed a bit, but the descriptive and narrative language make this one a more than pleasing read.

Considered one of the Top 100 Western Tales, and rightfully so.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Open Boat


Sometimes the misfortune of others provides hearty fodder for reflection in those of us in more fortunate circumstances. Wisdom that we can use to avoid our own calamities, or sage signage as to how to comport our own selves when neck deep in treacherous waters.

In 1896, author and journalist Stephen Crane, recived a commission to be a war correspondent. He was directed to ship to Cuba to cover the hostilities there. His transport ship the SS Commodore sank en route and he and a handful of others were left to chance in a wooden dinghy.

Once ashore he turned this harrowing and uncertain experience into a story, “The Open Boat,” that is deeply infused with trenchant insight.

Often when we hear of another’s plight or dire circumstance, we imagine ourselves in that same predicament and begin the hypothetical role-playing deciding what we would or would not do. The very basis of my main line of work, preparing the self and others for conflict is just this sort of hypothetical hair-splitting and preparation.

A core problem with our “Here’s what I would do’s” is that we imagine ourselves and our responses in the best of circumstances, at the peak or our abilities, or at the very least how we feel right now if right now is relatively neat-o. Seldom do we cast our hero stories from the standpoint of our own selves in the clutches of the flu, hobbled with a snapped femur, or flash forward to our “Golden Years” and inevitable waning of abilities.

We, more often than not, have a rather dear evaluation of just how adept or “awesome” we would be when things go “South.”

This is Mr. Crane on the subject.

“Shipwrecks are à propos of nothing. If men could only train for them and have them occur when the men had reached pink condition, there would be less drowning at sea. Of the four in the dingey none had slept any time worth mentioning for two days and two nights previous to embarking in the dingey, and in the excitement of clambering about the deck of a foundering ship they had also forgotten to eat heartily. For these reasons, and for others, neither the oiler nor the correspondent was fond of rowing at this time. The correspondent wondered ingenuously how in the name of all that was sane could there be people who thought it amusing to row a boat. It was not an amusement; it was a diabolical punishment, and even a genius of mental aberrations could never conclude that it was anything but a horror to the muscles and a crime against the back. He mentioned to the boat in general how the amusement of rowing struck him, and the weary-faced oiler smiled in full sympathy. Previously to the foundering, by the way, the oiler had worked double-watch in the engine-room of the ship.”

Indeed. There is no best time for the dire to occur. Dire does not postpone. But we often postpone in our preparations, whether that be training, financial stability, life-plans, “So many things I want to do but I’ll get to them later” or even making sure loved ones know that your love is embodied by more than a “Thumbs Up” on a “Post” owned by a third-party entity.

Often these brushes with mortality, Crane’s and our own, act as a great winnowing of the wheat and the chaff.

You discover how to prioritize. Prioritize duties, responsibilities, and, alas, people.

You discover who is there for you and who is a valuable hand on an oar when the pull of the sea is incessant.

And…hard times also reveal some less savory sides of things.

It is in emergencies that men of worth show their superiority; prosperity helps to hide the baseness of inferior men, but adversity speedily reveals every man as he really is.”-Isocrates Archidamus

The facts are some of those around you in the best of times are worth their salt. Some are not.

Unfortunately, you won’t discover this salt-worth until dire times strike.

There’s not much we can do in advance of that regarding our judge of character, but we can internally evaluate ourselves and be harsh with our assessments.

Mr. Crane again.

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no brick and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers. Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: "Yes, but I love myself."…

“It is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws of his life, and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity, he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction or at a tea.”

If we are honest with ourselves, we will look at our own habits and find many of them lacking, and then with utmost desire yearn beyond all yearning to be better and brighter versions of ourselves without need of shipwrecks and dire circumstances.

But..dire things do happen.

But even here, Crane has something mighty interesting to teach us. It is a lesson echoed again and again in survivors’ accounts and spoken of elegiacally in Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

Let’s look to Mr. Crane again.

“It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain, lying against the water-jar in the bow, spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three of the dingey. It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety. There was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.”

Dire times. The best experience of life.

Why?

These times can reveal a rawness, a perspective shattering gimlet-eyed view of the world that the day-in-day-out hamster wheel we choose for ourselves simply cannot.

We do not create ourselves with thoughts, poses, and opinions.

We are revealed via tests, experiences, what we have endured.

With good fortune, we endure with good companions by our side and come out better and brighter in the everyday.

To all of us being better and brighter.

To all of us being good companions.


Thursday, November 15, 2018

Spoil the Child


I heard Maude saying her prayers in the wagon, but no sound from ma. I couldn’t say my prayers. Usually, ma saw to it that I did, but tonight I couldn’t say a word aloud. I tried, opening my mouth, but no words came out. I thought them, as much as I could. I tried not to think about pa. Spreading the blanket, I lay down on it, holding the carbine close to me. It seemed a part of pa and all that was left; I hugged it.”

This Howard Fast story follows the trail of a young boy on a Westward Trek who has to grow up fast. While it is well-written and has heart, I was a bit less absorbed in the narrative than in other similar tales.

That may, indeed, be the fault of this particular reader.

The Cloud Puncher


A while before the cyclone season, a man with uncommon bow legs arrived and said people usually called him Parentheses, he didn’t know why. He said he would work for the outfit if we furnished a horse.

The foreman said that was real kind of him, and what kind of a horse would he like.

Parentheses said it made no difference, only he preferred a spirited mount.”

That wry and dry as Texas panhandle dust beginning kicks off William Cunningham’s tall tale that could put any of Pecos Bill’s adventures to shame.

It is brief and full of amiable charm. One can easily imagine this story being told by an old hand leaning against a corral post.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky


A newly married pair had boarded the coach at San Antonio. The man’s face was reddened by many days in the winds and sun, and a direct result of his new black clothes was that his brick-coloured hands were constantly performing in a most conscious fashion. From time to time he looked down respectfully at his attire. He sat with a hand on each knee, like a man waiting in a barber’s shop. The glances he devoted to other passengers were furtive and shy.”

Another of Stephen Crane’s beautifully observed Western tales. A newspaper sent the journalist on a tour of the West and Mexico and Crane went with eyes wide open and talent blazing white hot.

In this tale, the newlyweds are observed in heartbreaking and heartwarming detail. These observations are coupled with a look at their train’s destination where there is a spot of trouble waiting for their arrival. Both sides of the story are beautifully portrayed.

One wishes the short-lived Crane had more left in his artistic wake, but what is there is evidence of enormous talent.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

How Lin McLean Went East


“In the old days, the happy days, when Wyoming was a Territory with a future instead of a State with a past, and the unfenced cattle grazed upon her ranges by prosperous thousands, young Lin McLean awaked early one morning in cow camp, and lay staring out of his blankets upon the world. He would be twenty-two this week. He was the youngest cow-puncher in camp. But because he could break wild horses, he was earning more dollars a month than any man there, except one. The cook was a more indispensable person. None save the cook was up, so far, this morning. Lin's brother punchers slept about him on the ground, some motionless, some shifting their prone heads to burrow deeper from the increasing day. The busy work of spring was over, that of the fall, or beef round-up, not yet come. It was mid-July, a lull for these hard-riding bachelors of the saddle, and many unspent dollars stood to Mr. McLean's credit on the ranch books.”

This short story by one of the pioneers of the genre, Owen Wister, is an amiable ramble as we follow the affable Lin McLean through his many side-trips and byways to make it “back home.”

There is a lesson about going home in McLean’s destinations that we might ought to ponder in our own lives. But, again, along the way Wister provides us with many smaller incidences rife with life lived. In the hands of this skillful pioneer character can be summed in a word and the dance of young men and women meeting can be encompassed in a brief passage.

“Mr. McLean's hours were already various and successful. Even at the wolf-dance, before he had wearied of its monotonous drumming and pageant, his roving eye had rested upon a girl whose eyes he caught resting upon him. A look, an approach, a word, and each was soon content with the other.”

The story is an amiable ride with a master at the reins.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Love of Life



He was squatting in the moss, a bone in his mouth, sucking at the shreds of life that still dyed it faintly pink.  The sweet meaty taste, thin and elusive almost as a memory, maddened him.  He closed his jaws on the bones and crunched.  Sometimes it was the bone that broke, sometimes his teeth.  Then he crushed the bones between rocks, pounded them to a pulp, and swallowed them.  He pounded his fingers, too, in his haste, and yet found a moment in which to feel surprise at the fact that his fingers did not hurt much when caught under the descending rock.”

That bit of informed descriptive genius is from Jack London’s story of survival in the Yukon “Love of Life.” London, an adventurous sort and no mere poseur or pretender to life, knew hunger and suffering and struggle in his early days and he brings that vivid in-the-midst experience to stark life in this, rightly, high-regarded tale.

One is slapped in the face in each paragraph with the realties of gnawing hunger, tearful fatigue, and the fragility of propriety in the face of want.

Anyone who has ever been through a bit of a tough time in a grueling outdoor environment will recognize that much truth is to be found here. It may be alien to some who have not stepped outside the confines of comfort, but this story drips with bleary-eyed authenticity.

An absolute classic of what it “feels” like to exist where survival is not so much a choice as a directive from the soul.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Blue Hotel


One morning, when a snow-crusted engine dragged its long string of freight cars and its one passenger coach to the station, Scully performed the marvel of catching three men. One was a shaky and quick-eyed Swede, with a great shining cheap valise; one was a tall bronzed cowboy, who was on his way to a ranch near the Dakota line; one was a little silent man from the East, who didn't look it, and didn't announce it.”

Stephen Crane displays his fine ability to paint a scene in a few naturalistic brush strokes in this tale of an industrious hotelier that turns to a rumination on “justice” and how wide the web of accountability just might be.

Whether or not one agrees with Crane’s sting in the tale of his moral, there is much here to enjoy in scenes that feel more like reportage than narrative fiction.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Red Badge of Courage



That quote is the theme of Stephen Crane’s novel.

What might we do when the chips are down?

What might we do when the heat turns up?

Do we possess the heroic qualities that we would like to think we possess?

Do we possess more cowardly attributes than we would like to admit?

Crane’s brief novel is often inflicted on middle and high-school students, I wager, because of it’s very briefness. I also say “inflict” as the novel, as taught [I suffered through three classes that included it as required reading myself] often is viewed as an anti-war tract.

It is anti-war in the same vein that Robert Leckie’s true account of his experiences Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific is anti-war.

Both Leckie’s memoir of true events and Crane’s fictional depiction dwell on an un-romanticized blood and grue version of armed conflict where the “glory” is stripped off the top of the narrative and what valor or courage that claws its way through the mud and blood is all the more valorous all the more marrow-bone inspiring as it comes from a place of truth rather than one pre-packaged as heroism wrapped in flag-draped heroics.

Both books are anti-war in the sense that any human with a compassionate commiserating soul would read of such misery and never wish it inflicted upon another human being. And if such armed action is required, to sit idly by and provide nary a hand in support, be that one’s own skin-in-the-game service or at the very least a return to the days of Victory Gardens where sacrifices were made and bumper sticker phrases of “I Support the Troops” would have been viewed as the weak-sauce that it is.

The true theme of Crane’s novel is: Does our protagonist have what it takes to face what is to come?

In turn, the thoughtful reader is left to ask him or herself: Do YOU have what it takes?

Have a read of that opening quote again, the crux and truth is here: He finally concluded that the only way to prove himself was to go into the blaze, and figuratively to watch his legs to discover their merits and faults. He reluctantly admitted that he could not sit still and with a mental slate and pencil derive an answer. To gain it, he must have blaze, blood, and danger, even as a chemist requires this, that, and the other.”

The proof of life is always in the doing. You find your character, your strengths, your weaknesses when under fire figuratively or literally.

You discover your true self when you do something, anything risky. However, you define risk, whether you are willing to face it or not answers your own question of what you are.

Crane did not write a “war novel” [anti or otherwise.] He asked a universal question of all humans and merely framed it in a brief Civil War tale.

What are the merits of your own legs in the face of risk?

We will only know if we test them.

All the guesses and surmises in the world regarding your bravery, your cowardice are mere suppositions until we test ourselves.

In short Crane’s theme is “Deeds not words define us.”

May we all test our legs often and discover what we are. Until then, all else is a guess.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Son


“They could not seem to grasp that what mattered was what you did. Not what you said or thought about.”

This grand bold novel by Philip Meyer smacks of authenticity from the word go. Meyer took the pains to learn Comanche archery, walk the terrain he writes of, and taste raw buffalo liver. His experiential/research efforts loom large in this epic.

We follow a family from Comanche captive days to Texas Wildcatting. We are privy to the ins and outs of changing times and family squabbles. It reminds me in many ways of Edna Ferber’s sprawling works.

Being a bit of a Comanche-phile I was fascinated by the lore, but I must admit I found myself wandering here and there in the pages. My attention was rapt in the old days passages and a bit less so in the “modern” soap opera. But, that may just be this reader.

It is a very well-written novel, so the failing might well be mine that I didn’t fall down the large-epic rabbit hole that one feels when encountering McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove epic.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Rough & Tumble Duel


Not all showdowns involved a weapon or had the tincture of muddy fun as one finds in the films The Spoilers or McLintock. I offer this glimpse of fact to illustrate.

The following is from The Sioux City Journal circa 1880s regarding a “Rough & Tumble Duel” that took place between two farmers, Duggan Points and Will Moss. At the heart of the duel, the charms of one, Miss Sallie Craig.




The vicious character of the duel is part and parcel of the rough and tumble tradition. I warn, the account is violent and the character of even witnessing such spectated murder is questionable.




Keep in mind, this was a planned for rough and tumble duel, the accounts of impromptu duels are far more dire.




“The place of the fight was agreed upon as halfway between the respective residents. A man from Loveland seconded Moss, and Point’s brother acted as his second. The fight was not to be conducted to any specified rules, but in the most approved rough-and-tumble style. About sixty people were on the ground, among whom was the girl over whom the contest was caused, to witness the brutal affair. The seconds stood with cocked revolvers in hand and warned no one to interfere. The men commenced fighting fiercely. They used fists, heels and teeth; and in clinching and tumbling about rolled over a large area of ground. The fight lasted fifty-five minutes, and throughout was of the most brutal character. It was brought to a fast conclusion by Points’ strength entirely giving way, and then Moss, with the last efforts of his madness, stamped upon his prostrate foe and crushed in his breast and kicked in his head. The spectators at this overpowered the seconds and dragged the men apart. Points was dying when picked up, and expired soon afterwards. Moss had been severely bitten by his antagonist, having had two fingers, an ear and his nose taken off, and was in a deplorable condition from other injuries.




The account does not offer if Miss Craig was happy with the outcome or impressed by the efforts in her favor.

[The above is research from my day job/avocation/vocation as a fight trainer and combat historian. If this intrigues have a look here or here.]

Sierra Showdown by John Reese

“ Bobby, men is the cheapest thing in the world! I can buy all the men I need. It’s like buying nails—by the pound or by the keg, whic...