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.

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...