Thursday, January 31, 2019

Isley’s Stranger by Henry Wilson Allen


He rode a mule. He was middling tall, middling spare, middling young. He wore a soft dark curly beard. His bedroll was one thready army blanket, wound round a coffee can, tin cup, plate, razor, camp ax, Bible, copy of the Rubaiyat, a mouth harp, some other few treasures of like necessity in the wilderness.
This is one odd tale. On one hand, our stranger is an unusually competent and confident greenhorn whose adventures and calm cool nature in the face of opposition are a delight.
On the other, well, I don’t want to spoil this one for those who plan on reading. Allow me to say the resolution of this stranger’s identity is like nothing I’ve encountered in the genre before.
I’m not sure I’m fully on board for the “reveal” but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy the journey to that point.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Bandit


“I guess you can tell readers of The New Democrat there’s no profit in crime.”
“Well, there’s profit and profit.” He stood up, working the stiffness out of his joints and lifted his suitcase.
Brundage hesitated in the midst of closing his notebook.
“Twenty-nine years of your life a fair trade for a few months of excitement?”
“I don’t reckon there’s much in life you’d trade half of it to have. But in them days a man either broke his back and his heart plowing rocks under in some field or shook his brains loose putting some red-eyed horse to leather or rotted behind some counter in some town. I don’t reckon I’m any older now than I would have been if I done any of them things to live. And I wouldn’t have no youngster like you hanging on my every word neither. Them things become important when you get up around my age.”
Loren Estleman has written a poignant elegy to an aged badman in this well-pointed tale. It has the author’s usual earmark of well-researched authenticity that is folded easily into a brisk and mature narrative.
A superlative example of the genre.

The Old West Food Experiment: Johnny Cakes


Occasionally, I will offer some samples of chow that I have come across in old articles or pamphlets on chuck wagon cooking, lumberjack fare, American Indian recipes and the like.
Well, here’s one with a contentious name. This simple “cake” of cornmeal, salt, and water is called, in various regions: Johnnycakes, johnny cakes, jonnycake, ashcake, battercake, corn cake, cornpone, hoecake, hoe cake, journey cake, mush bread, pone, Shawnee cake, jonakin, and jonikin.
It is surmised that the name is either a slurring of the word “Journey” cakes because you could pack up more than a few of these, toss them in a saddlebag and have them on your journey.
Or, it could be a slurring of “Shawnee” cakes referring to an American Indian recipe encountered by Eastern settlers.
Whichever way you have it we gave it a shot. I made a version based on a recipe I found in an old book on lumberjacks. That recipe called for a touch of milk after adding boiling hot water to the initial batter.
Note: Many “Shawnee” cakes use zero milk, and it strikes me that the batter looked good to go before the addition of milk. I’ll try it that way next time. The boiling water seemed to be enough.
I fried them in a bit of butter and we topped with butter and a drizzle of real maple syrup.
The Verdict: Amazingly delicious. Such simple ingredients provide a light only semi-sweet flavor. We could only say it was akin to a lighter pancake that didn’t have that heavy sweet feeling to it. We will be having them again.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Comanche Woman


Seeing him on the buffalo robes, she thought, “He tried to die; only he was too strong, too brave.” And she was proud.
Fred Grove’s tale of Comanche captives is offered with attentive care but may suffer from the fact that it was read closely on the heels of similar [and to this reader, better] tales by Dorothy Johnson and Noel M. Loomis.
Good, but in a sea of choices…

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Thief in Camp


“He’s a crow you say? I’ve heard the Crows are born thieves and murderers.”
“Man’s apt to hear most anything he listens to the wrong people.”
Bill Gulick gives us a wagon train tale with a morality overlay. It is a common theme in the genre but Gulick handles it ably. We find the usual “people thrown together finding their way in the land and among each other,” the able Stranger, and an incident where assumptions and realties meet and the reactions to that meeting limns each character.
Fans of L ’Amour’s brand of story will find much to enjoy here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Lost Sister


Our household was full of women, who overwhelmed my uncle Charlie and sometimes confused me with their bustle and chatter. We were the only men in the place. I was nine years old when still another woman came—Aunt Bessie, who had been living with the Indians.
This gorgeous Dorothy M. Johnson story is based in part on Cynthia Ann Parker’s abduction by the Comanche Indians and her giving birth the to the chief Quanah Parker.
This theme of a reluctant return to “society” is a common one, but here it is handled with a gentle grace as seen through a child’s eyes.
Beautifully done.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Bad Company


“Here’s to long ropes and loose hobbles!” he proclaimed. “Let the he-wolves howl and the pant’ers prow!”
Big enough talk, just right for a bold, booted buckaroo. At least he hoped it sounded that way. He stuck the neck of the bottle inside his mouth and pretended to swallow a lot more than he actually did.
S. Omar Barker’s coming of age tale of a good boy falling in with the wrong crowd and finding his way out as a good man is reminiscent of Louis L ’Amour’s better work.
It has the same terse energy and way with drawing characters in brief action and a line here or there that allows you the measure of a person without paragraphs of exposition—a seemingly rare gift among many authors.
Moral in tone, but not in a pastorly sense, more “Ain’t this the way of the world?”
Human stuff.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Gun Job


He dropped the badge into the dust of the street and hurried off, a man who had met defeat and accepted it, a man who could now go back to the clothing store and sell shirts and suits and overalls because that was the job he could do best. There was no indignity in Billy Long’s defeat. He had taken a role he wasn’t equipped to handle, and he was admitting it.
I have a fondness for Thomas Thompson. Many years ago, his was the first Western tale that really spoke to me. A story that showed me that the Western could be more than just formulaic shoot-em-ups, and admittedly, those carbon copies abound, but Thompson was the first author that showed me the humanity and maturity that could be explored in the genre.
My re-visiting this tale shows that Thompson’s power still holds, and I am grateful to him for being the finger that pointed to many fine authors, thrilling and heart-breaking stories, and more than a few places to pause  and ponder as the best of the authors hold a mirror up to ourselves.
Fine story, Mr. Thompson, and thank you very much.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Outcasts of Poker Flat


He was too much of a gambler not to accept fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer.
This Bret Harte tale is deeply sentimental, and some may find it borders on the mawkish, but this reader found the craft, the mix of cynicism and sentiment charming as hell.
We occupy most of our time viewing the world through the weary but not unkind eyes of the Gambler. This is a fine place to see the events unfold.
The tale may be brief but there is wall-to-wall skill in the execution.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County


Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat me down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm.
This very short tale from Mark Twain is often anthologized. I find the offered quote from the story my own view on the matter. I take it we are to find this wooly tale one of high amusement, but I found myself more in keeping with Twain’s captive audience.
It’s not a badly done wooly tale, but the merit seems to be in its brevity.

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...