Tuesday, February 28, 2023

“The Scalper” by Richard Prosch


Fat Charlie McSnatt could feel the fish slipping off the hook. The old boy had nipped the bait, but the hook wasn’t solid, and now things were going south.

The 2016 Spur Award Winner in the Best Short Fiction category.

This is one of those little gems that illustrates why I love this genre.

A crime novel, no matter how well written, must at all points be slave to the foregone conclusion that a crime must be solved.

Be that resolution clever or clumsy, there is no surprise that the plot must follow those ruts.

Whereas the Western well, the uninitiated assume there must be a shoot-out [and often there is-and I can love myself a fine shoot-out] but…

Just as often, there is not a square-jawed hero in sight. No shooting iron to be fanned.

The Western, beyond place has no boundaries.

Here we have a tale that belies the assumed meaning of the title and bait and switches throughout the journey all the way to the O. Henry twist in the tale.

This gregarious amble calls to mind less the aforementioned O. Henry and more the easy affability of Bret Harte mixed with the superb third episode of the 1960 television series, The Westerner, which has Brian Keith and John Dehner barter over the sale of a dog named Brown.

That gorgeous episode was directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah.

I’d love to have seen his eye and hand tackling this slice of fun.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Three Men from Texas starring William Boyd


Another from film critic, Ted Reinhart’s list of the “Western Series Stars and Their Career Best Movie.”

This 1940 Hopalong Cassidy feature is my first Hopalong and, I must say, I’m impressed.

My exposure to B-Programmer Westerns has been of the square-jawed performer with wooden acting; players chosen more for horseman chops than acting prowess.

Boyd flips that model. He’s a fine actor. His scenes in two-shots as other’s are emoting are a lesson in how reserve is often strength or charisma.

This is not to say that the film itself becomes elevated—no, it is still the same formulaic presentation.

It is Boyd himself who is worth watching and I can easily see why many a fan gravitated to the man on screen.

While not moved to view more of the Hopalong formula, I have profound respect for the man who played him on the screen.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Lethel Expedition by James M. Tabor


A few weeks later, they flew to Bismarck and drove south through frozen farmland that looked to Hallie like sheets of rusted, buckled iron. As they entered the reservation, the road changed from paved to dirt and passed under a crude, lodge-pole pine archway to which someone had nailed a hand-painted sign:


Poorest reservation in the US

Highest suacide rate

Enjoy your stay

What Hallie first took to be derelict shacks with cracked windows and unhinged doors were occupied houses, surrounded by piles of trash and dog shit. Despite the January cold, an inordinate number of children and teenagers were outside fighting, some for fun and more in earnest. Many adults seemed unable to walk normally.

This novella is not actually a Western; it is an action-adventure fiction piece from real-life deep-cave explorer James. M Tabor.

The crux of the story is standard adventure fare, the sort you might find in a James Rollins or Matthew Reilly work but…I include it here as a “B” plot has our heroine visit a Reservation.

The writing here acquires a vividness and immediacy that seems to be lacking in the more formulaic main body of the story.

The Reservation visit is limned so punishingly well, this Reader, wanted more of this and less of the Plot.

Tabor clearly has descriptive power and his vision is informed by experience.

I would love to see what he did if not hampered by the confines of the whiz-bang thriller genre.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

“The Man at Gantt’s Place” by Steve Frazee


“You may be right,” Cameron said vaguely. “But I thought I'd look the ranches over and see what I could stir up. I sort of like this country.”

“Huh! It ain't much.”

 Cameron gave him a grave look. “Maybe you've lived too close to it to see it's good points, Lew.”

A member of the 100 Best Roster.

This coming of age, awakening to adulthood tale moves swiftly and, possibly, by the numbers but. it still has its charms.

It plays as a solidly written episode of a mature 50’s Western TV series.

Not a rafter-shaker, but homiletic charm has its own wiles.

Monday, February 20, 2023

White Eagle starring Buck Jones


Film Critic, Ted Reinhart compiled a list of the “Western Series Stars and Their Career Best Movie.”

I am well-nigh ignorant of the series phenomenon, so I am thankful to Mr. Reinhart for the entry point.

We start with the former stuntman turned cowboy star, Buck Jones, and his 1932 film, White Eagle. [Jones also starred in a 1941 serial of the same name.]

Jones plays a full-blooded Bannock Indian who rides for the Pony Express who must overcome racism and bad guys.

It is square-jawed basic work.

We are treated to under-cranked fistfights [versus a young Ward Bond, no less] and shirtless hero heroics.

The running time is brief, which likely aided my enjoyment. Jones mounts and dismounts a horse well at speed—always a joy to see good horsemanship.

I also call attention to the early anti-racism message and a surprisingly violent raid on a peaceful Indian camp where a trampled child’s toy echoes the later far more explicit Soldier Blue.

Assessment: A bit square for my tastes to pursue Mr. Jones further but I did respect my hour spent with him.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

“Winterkill” by Richard Ford


My mother had her boyfriend then, an old wildcatter named Harley Reeves. And Harley and I did not get along, though I don't blame him for that. He had been laid off himself down near Gillette, Wyoming, where the boom was finished. And he was just doing what I was doing and had arrived there first. Everyone was laid off then. It was not a good time in that part of Montana, nor was it going to be. The two of them were just giving it a final try, both of them in their sixties, strangers together in the little house my father had left her.

Another in the 100 Best roster, the second from Richard Ford.

Both are undoubtedly well-written tales of a hardscrabble down-trodden modern West. In both stories, plot is not key, rather it is humanity. Men and women trapped in circumstances and getting though each day by existing rather than by living.

Of the two well-written tales I prefer “Great Falls” for its unusual confrontation.

That is not to say this is a poor second, simply that the despair to elliptical ending appealed a bit less to this reader.

Still, craft is craft, and you have craft here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

“The Higher Abdication” by O. Henry


Curly the tramp sidled toward the free-lunch counter. He caught a fleeting glance from the bartender's eye, and stood still, trying to look like a business man who had just dined at the Menger and was waiting for a friend who had promised to pick him up in his motor car. Curly's histrionic powers were equal to the impersonation; but his make-up was wanting. The bartender rounded the bar in a casual way, looking up at the ceiling as though he was pondering some intricate problem of kalsomining, and then fell upon Curly so suddenly that the roadster had no excuses ready. Irresistibly, but so composedly that it seemed almost absendmindedness on his part, the dispenser of drinks pushed Curly to the swinging doors and kicked him out, with a nonchalance that almost amounted to sadness. That was the way of the Southwest.

Another in the 100 Best Roster. The offered paragraph reveals a light raconteuring tone but…not offered are the stretches of dialogue rendered in dialect.

I must admit, dialect passages seldom work for me—rather than draw me in, I am pushed away.

I am puzzled by this stab at rendering language “authentic.”

We accept novels and poetry in translation that we may better appreciate the inherent charms, where dialect in the native language seems to provide a chore or hurdle that the reader must overcome to get at what the author intends.

The dialect hurdle and a pat coincidence ending make this one a puzzle for 100 Best inclusion, to this reader.

If you have no such dialect prejudice, you may find charms that elude me.

Good on you!

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

“Tennessee’s Partner” by Bret Harte


I do not think that we ever knew his real name. Our ignorance of it certainly never gave us any social inconvenience, for at Sandy Bar in 1854 most men were christened anew. Sometimes these appellatives were derived from some distinctiveness of dress, as in the case of "Dungaree Jack;" or from some peculiarity of habit, as shown in "Saleratus Bill," so called from an undue proportion of that chemical in his daily bread; or from some unlucky slip, as exhibited in "The Iron Pirate," a mild, inoffensive man, who earned that baleful title by his unfortunate mispronunciation of the term "iron pyrites." Perhaps this may have been the beginning of a rude heraldry; but I am constrained to think that it was because a man's real name in that day rested solely upon his own unsupported statement. "Call yourself Clifford, do you?" said Boston, addressing a timid newcomer with infinite scorn; "hell is full of such Cliffords!" He then introduced the unfortunate man, whose name happened to be really Clifford, as "Jaybird Charley,"—an unhallowed inspiration of the moment that clung to him ever after.

Another from the 100 Best roster—the 3rd from Mr. Harte.

Again, the epitome of the jocular raconteur. Such an easy offhandedly detailed style. It never bogs or feels forced and again, the lightness of tone suffuses all and, bafflingly, he tells a tale of loss and grief wrapped in a gossamer of affectionate humor that adds to the poignancy.

It is a marvelous feat to pull off. He does it handily.

Monday, February 13, 2023

“Great Falls” by Richard Ford


Woody took a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it. Smoke shot through his nose into the cold air, and he sniffed, looked around the ground and threw his match on the gravel. His blonde hair was combed backwards and neat on the sides, and I could smell his aftershave on him, a sweet, lemon smell. And for the first time I noticed his shoes. They were two-tones, black with white tops and black laces. They stuck out below his baggy pants and were long and polished and shiny, as if he had been planning on a big occasion. They looked like shoes some country singer would wear, or a salesman. He was handsome, but only like someone you would see beside you a dime store and not notice again.

Another entry in the 100 Best Western Short Stories roster. It is a contemporary Western with a domestic theme.

In lieu of a shoot-out we have a tense confrontation that never quite walks where expectations and lesser craft usually leads.

A brief, wise tale with no easy answers—much like life itself. A fine read.

Friday, February 10, 2023

“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx


He didn’t ask Ennis if he had a watch but took a cheap round ticker on a braided cord from a box on a high shelf, wound and set it, tossed it to him as if he weren’t worth the reach. “TOMORROW MORNIN we’ll truck you up the jump-off.” Pair of deuces going nowhere.

Jon Lewis selected this as one of the 100 Best Short Stories and I’ll admit I was skeptical. I was lukewarm to the film—fine performances, just found the pace slow.

I held off on reading this one due to the celluloid memory.

I was wrong. Proulx has her cowboyin’ down and shooting it through the lens of two confused men trapped in a life they didn’t ask for like pinned butterflies is wise and ultimately sad.

Candidly, my resistance to this story mirrors the resistance the characters encounter in their own lives and in their own psyches as they are at once motivated by and repelled by what is within them.

Smart, rife with craft, and something of jewel to make me admire what I simply did not want to read.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte


The assemblage numbered about a hundred men. One or two of these were actual fugitives from justice, some were criminal, and all were reckless. Physically they exhibited no indication of their past lives and character. The greatest scamp had a Raphael face, with a profusion of blonde hair; Oakhurst, a gambler, had the melancholy air and intellectual abstraction of a Hamlet; the coolest and most courageous man was scarcely over five feet in height, with a soft voice and an embarrassed, timid manner. The term "roughs" applied to them was a distinction rather than a definition. Perhaps in the minor details of fingers, toes, ears, etc., the camp may have been deficient, but these slight omissions did not detract from their aggregate force. The strongest man had but three fingers on his right hand; the best shot had but one eye.

Another in the roster of The 100 Best Western Short Stories as selected by Mr. Lewis.

One that is likely familiar to many, one that I myself had read in younger days and returned to for its brevity.

If anything, the older me found far more to enjoy.

Harte’s craft is magnificent. He has a light touch that limns large scenes with ease as the offered extract attests.

There is a jocular jovial feel about the entire proceeding which is quite a feat when one considers this is nothing but a tale of somber events.

Somber turns of fortune made noble by rough men finding redemption in…well, I’ll not spoil it for first time readers or those who have been away for a while.

My review may make it sound like heady stuff, but Harte is better than that. He hides his art like the artist he is.

Easy A.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

“The Alien” by John Neihardt


Through the quiet night, crystalline with the pervading spirit of the frost, under prairie skies of mystic purple pierced with the glass-like glinting of stars, fled Antoine.

A story selected by editor, Jon Lewis, as one of the 100 Best Western Stories.

It was penned by the gentleman, who in cooperation with Oglala holy man Black Elk, gave the world the volume Black Elk Speaks.

The tale, as one might tell from the offered opening paragraph, is a bit purplish in prose, as for the tale itself—it is a variation of Jack London themes—“Man and Wolf” “Civilized and Savage.”

On its face it does not hold with the best of London, but I suspect that Mr. Lewis selected it for another reason. If one reads between the lines, we are led to the conclusion that savagery and loneliness has led to a far more bizarre relationship with the wild than London ever presented.

I found the tale unremarkable save for this hinted at aspect.

Not essential, but short enough to provide a “WTF?” for the curious.

A Frontier Phrase Worth Resurrecting: “He Bubbles Pure"

  [Excerpted from our book The Frontier Stoic: Life Lessons from Those Who Lived a Life.] “ He bubbles pure .” ·         Said of a man w...