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.

Gentle Annie by MacKinlay Kantor

When we reached the place where Cotton had left his horse and buggy, we had a few moments’ conversation. The Goss brothers spoke with rar...