Monday, January 31, 2011

Debra Marquart, The Horizontal World

This is going to be Dakota Territory Week at BITS, with reviews of books by five writers who have written well about this big chunk of the continent that became North and South Dakota. I'm starting with this fine collection of personal essays that is part memoir, part social history, and part appreciation for the lunar topography of the northern Great Plains.

Out here, reminders of the geological past are everywhere in the flat expanse of inland seafloor, the rolling terrain of glacial morrain, and the rocks that surface each year in the fields and need to be cleared by hand. Part tongue in cheek, the book's subtitle is Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere.

Marquart, descendant of German-speaking immigrants from Russia, tells of the generations of her family, who have farmed the same North Dakota homestead since the late 19th century. Born the last of five siblings, she grows up driving tractors and pickups and doing chores from an early age, while yearning, always yearning, for escape - life being ever elsewhere.

North Dakota wilderness, photo by Bobjgalindo
With a career as a singer for a heavy metal band behind her and currently teaching creative writing at Iowa State, she looks back over the years, aware that her identity is still linked to her roots "in the middle of nowhere" and to a family that cannot comprehend any of the life she has lived since she left home. Most poignant are her memories of her father, whose funeral begins the book.

In another chapter, an episode on an out-of-state trip with both elderly parents ("To Kill a Deer") is a groaningly hilarious tribute to the impossibility of communicating across generations. Other subjects covered are the special trials of growing up female in a farming community, including the imagined trauma of being among its first settlers from the Old Country. There's also the tenuous self-esteem of North Dakotans whose most well-known celebrity is Lawrence Welk.

Marquart is a fine, entertaining, and moving writer, an eloquent voice for the diminishing number of those who grew up on small family farms on the Great Plains.

Photo credit:

Coming up: Ian Frazier, On the Rez

Friday, January 28, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: The home place

Thought today I'd observe the statistically coldest weekend of the year and commiserate with everyone enduring another Siberian winter. This is a pic my dad took from the top of the windmill on our farm in Nebraska, in what was to be remembered simply as "48".

The worst was still to come in the rest of that winter as snow blew from miles of open fields to the north and drifted deep into the shelter belts trees. As a seven-year-old, I could walk along in their upper branches. The vehicle tracks emerging from behind the house at the right show that we had already abandoned the drifted-shut driveway that connected the place to the road.

It was three years after the war, and we were driving that '46 Ford parked by the gate. We had that car until dad bought a new white Fleetline Chevy in 1952. (You'll have to take my word for it that I'm remembering this all correctly. There's hardly a soul alive anymore to contradict me on the details.)

The tank in the middle of the photo was for the fuel that burned in the heater that stood in the dining room outside my bedroom door. The only other source of heat in the house was a corncob-burning kitchen stove in the kitchen. We apparently had indoor plumbing by this point, as there is no path in the snow leading to the outhouse.

The shed in the foreground is a "brooder house" for baby chickens, which would come in large flat boxes from somewhere and spend their first months in the warmth of their own heater. Don't know what my mother thought of it, but there seems to have been no other place to park the manure spreader beyond spitting distance of the house (left edge of the pic).

The house disappeared sometime in the late 1950s after my father started a new house to take its place. I say disappeared because I came home from school one day and it was gone. Someone had bought it for a hired hand and towed it away. I never saw it again, except in dreams, where the home of one's childhood stays put.

For at least a couple years, only the basement of the new house was finished, and we lived there like old time pioneers in their dugouts. It was a dugout with central heating, however. And a piano.

The new house when it was done was enlarged by my cousin who farmed there until he retired recently and moved to Phoenix. I learned just a while ago that the place has now been sold to someone else. Along with all the other property going back to my grandfather's days, I can no longer lay even a distant claim to it. Except in dreams.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande

This book, published in 1988, is an edition of the writings of N. Howard “Jack” Thorp (1867-1940), New Mexico resident and early cowboy song collector. His 1908 Songs of the Cowboys was among the first collections of traditional western lyrics and ballads to be recorded in print. He was also author of one of the most widely known cowboy songs, “Little Joe the Wrangler.”

In the 1930s, as a writer for the Federal Writers Project of the WPA, he wrote most of a book on New Mexico that never saw publication. A half century after his death, editors Peter White and Mary Ann White put together this edition of his material. Drawn directly from his personal experience, it makes an informative and entertaining addition to any library of frontier history.

The wild bunch. The most colorful chapters of the book concern the era before 1900 when New Mexico was still wild and woolly. Rustlers, robbers, and corrupt politicians held sway. Killing was common and law enforcement undependable. As Thorp osbserves,

The country was overrun with cow and horse thieves and other desperate characters, who for good and sufficient reasons had to leave the states to the east, and seek oblivion in the wild – and then little-known – mountains of New Mexico. (p. 118)

Under these conditions, a man was judged by his grit no matter which side of the law he took up residence. While Thorp disparages Billy the Kid as a two-bit troublemaker, he reserves respect for bad men like Black Jack Ketchum, who went to his end bravely. Ketchum refused anesthetic when his arm had to be amputated following gunshot wounds sustained in an attempted robbery. When the doctor was done, he gamely said, “Let me know if I can do the same for you some day, Doc.”

Black Jack Ketchum
His hanging in 1901 in Clayton, New Mexico, is described by Thorp in detail. It drew a crowd of spectators, who filled a public area and watched from windows and rooftops. Photos of that day were taken and can be seen here, along with an account of the man’s career.

Another outlaw who wins Thorp’s respect is Bill McGinnis. Though shot four times, he escaped capture after a train robbery with members of Butch Cassidy’s gang. He’d been on the run for over a month when he unwittingly walked into a trap set by a sheriff’s posse for a suspected horse thief. He fired off the one round left in his gun and then fought with his fists until subdued. Reflecting his respect for the man, Thorp makes this observation:

Mac had ridden over three hundred miles with four bullet holes in his body, and been unable to change his bloody shirt for over a month, had no bandages or medicine and little to eat, and still fought the posse like a tiger, until by main force they overpowered him. Whether right or wrong, Mac, as the posse had to admit, was a brave and nervy man. (p. 150)

Even more absorbing is Thorp’s account of the De Autremont brothers, whose life of crime as train bandits was brief and unsuccessful. Following the killings of four members of a train crew, they were pursued for over three years by the Feds.

Despite considerable forensic evidence worked out by a University of California professor, authorities made 500 false arrests before finding them. One turned up in the Philippines, in the U.S. Army, and two in Steubenville, Ohio. This all took place in the 1920s, and you can’t read it without thinking it would make a great movie.

Another chapter is devoted to interesting characters who were not outlaws (apparently a smaller number). Among them is Elfego Baca, a deputy sheriff from Socorro, New Mexico, who runs afoul of a settlement full of Mexican-averse cowpunchers from Texas. After trying unsuccessfully to arrest a drunken cowboy firing his gun in the street, Baca became himself the intended subject of arrest by local lawmen.

For much of two days, he held off what turned into a mob-scene siege by 80 citizens, surviving a barrage of gunfire and the dynamiting of the house he was holed up in. He was eventually rescued when an Anglo deputy arrived from Soccoro to safely escort him into custody.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Day of the cactus

Today's another side trip from 100 years ago to the present. Taking advantage of a pleasant winter day last weekend, we drove over to Morongo Valley to drop in at the Cactus Mart. The yards around the house are more than ready for some serious xeriscaping, and this was field research.

Cactus Mart is a cactus and succulent nursery that advertises itself as "poison free." If you love the prickly things as I do, it's more fun than Disneyland. Walking past the gift and birding shops, you're at the operation's epicenter (never a word used lightly here along the San Andreas Fault). It's a shady spot, under an ancient tamarisk, with a bubbling fountain and a view of the foothills of Joshua Tree in the distance.

Then venture out into a large open area filled with multiple specimens of desert plants. Prickly pears are a personal favorite, and pretty much first thing I found a large congregation of them.

Prickly pears (Opuntia) come with and without spines, and there are some 200 species. They have colorful flowers in the spring, followed by fruit that grow the size of chicken eggs. These have various uses as food, I'm told, though I have only eaten them as napolitos where Mexican food is served.

Palms are actually water lovers, but some varieties are drought resistant, and these fan palms are another personal favorite. There are only a few palm trees native to southern California. Washingtonia filifera survives from a more tropical geological era, and a last remnant of them grows near Palm Springs in Palm Canyon, where there is a constant flow of water.

Here are barrel cactuses, another favorite. These puppies, about the size of cantaloupes, can grow to many feet around. When they flower, the brightly colored blooms appear on the top. Forget about trying to pick them.

I've been wanting to get one of these metal and stone roadrunners that you see on the left of the picture above. As the breeze catches their tail feathers, they rock back and forth. Here a rooster and two hens were busily scratching up edibles from the gravel underfoot.

The browns, tans, and beige of the desert call out for brightly colored pots. These were one of two or more displays of them soaking up the winter sun.

Indoors, there is table upon table of smaller cacti and succulents. Above and in the following pics I tried to capture some of the variety. I haven't figured out yet how I'm going to decide which ones to take home. I like pretty much all of them.

These are agave. The sharp points are at the ends of the leaves. I like their color and how they've figured out a way to look entirely different from all the other desert plants. There are a couple hundred species, some huge and sprawly. These are neatly symmetrical and seem to be standing at attention. Oh, and agave is a source of a sugary nectar, used for sweetening.

More variety, and each with its own name, home, and history.

These are called Mexican fence posts, or Pachycereus marginatus. I've read that they can grow to 20 feet and, planted close together in rows, have actually been used for fences.

I get a kick out of these hand-painted amphibians. I believe this is referred to as Talavera pottery and comes from Mexico.

This feline, by the name of Butch, was snoozing in the succulents, in a sun-warmed greenhouse out of the wind. He was found on the property as a tiny kitten, the owner said, along with a mate (also snoozing and just out of the picture).

I could go one, but I'll stop with this bunch a friendly guys - they seem friendly to me anyway.

And then there were these little ones from South Africa, which look more like funny shaped stones than living plants.

And what's a nursery without a half acre of terracotta. Besides the gift shop and the birding shop (already mentioned) there is a whole separate gardening tool shop. The Cactus Mart can be found on Highway 62 in Morongo Valley, about 30 miles north of Palm Springs. Great place to spend some time away from the computer screen.

Coming up: Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


A friend long ago had a house out in the woods in Brown County, Indiana, where I spent a few days one summer when I was a young single man. The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" was on the radio, dinner was served on the back deck after midnight, and in the morning there were copperhead snakes in the backyard. Some memories stay with you forever. Anyway, Hiatus was what she called her place. I'm having one of my own right now.

I'm not the big crime fiction fan in the house. But I'm willing to indulge in a good crime film now and then. And I'm taking a break from the early westerns I've been obsessing over here in this blog to mention two of them.

A reviewer on the local public station called the Australian movie ANIMAL KINGDOM the best crime film of the last 30 years. I'm no expert, but I'd certainly put it in my top 10. Like the Sopranos, it's about a crime family. These guys, however, are small-time criminals by comparison, bank robbers mostly. There's nothing really organized about their kind of crime.

To a degree, like the Sopranos, it's Greek tragedy. Blood is shed and power shifts from one member of the family to another. The central character, a 17-year-old boy, comes of age in a world where there is nowhere for him to go for safety - except into the sheltering (and perilous) arms of the family. A friendly cop, played nicely by Guy Pearce, cannot save him.

It's rare that a movie ends on just the right note - the final moments a surprise as well as utterly inevitable. As the curtain came down on this little family drama, it was like the final smashing chord at the end of "A Day in the Life." The logic of it was totally right.

I've only watched one episode, so it's still a little early to tell, but my second recommendation is JUSTIFIED, a series that ran on Fox last year. The first season is on DVD. I was drawn to this series because the central character is based on one created by Elmore Leonard, and the show promised to blend Leonard's skill as a writer of westerns with his work as a crime fiction writer.

The central character, Raylan Givens is a deputy US Marshal working in his home territory, Harlan County, Kentucky. Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a lawman straight out of the Old West, a fast draw, with nerves of steel, a wry smile, and the cool manner of a man who belongs in a Stetson, boots and Levi's. Meanwhile, his ex-wife says he's the angriest man she's ever known.

The ensemble of characters who enforce the law along with him are engagingly real. Holding two white supremacists at gunpoint after an attempted ambush, a female African-American deputy says, "Please, do something stupid." I look forward to the rest of the series, which I will parcel out over the coming evenings.

Meanwhile, there's a queue of books lined up that you will find reviews of here in the weeks to come. I'm currently finishing a book called Print the Legend about the development of photography in the West during the 19th century. Fascinating stuff, and I'll be sharing some of what I'm learning here when I finally get through it. It's long, scholarly, and not exactly a page-turner.

Following that, I have some more books (mostly novels downloaded to my nook) from the turn of the last century:

Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck (1912)
Ralph Connor, The Sky Pilot (1899)
Frederick Ritchie Bechdolt, The Hard Rock Man (1910)
Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western (1910)
Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent (1892)

Plus a couple more recent:
Richard Wheeler, Yancey's Jackpot
James Reasoner, Texas Wind

So don't touch that dial.

Coming up: Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande

Monday, January 24, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 8

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from A. M. Chisholm’s Desert Conquest (1913) and  Herbert Henry Knibbs’ Overland Red (1914). Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the meaning of “string one’s chips,” “dope book,” “kickie pants,” “stick to the bugs,” or “Red Cross beer” leave a comment.

alley = a china marble described as yellowish-white streaked with wavy lines of bluish green.  “She had a regular strawberry-ice-cream-soda complexion, and her eyes looked like a couple of glass alleys with electric lights in ’em.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

Alphonse and Gaston = a comic strip by Frederick Burr Opper, featuring a bumbling pair of Frenchmen with a penchant for politeness; first appeared in William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, the New York Journal, on September 22, 1901. “He’s out to down me, and I know it. There ain’t no Alphonse and Gaston stuff when he comes boilin’ out, pullin’ his gun.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

black dog = A bad mood, characterized by anger, depression, or a mixture of the two. “‘Th’ black dog is on him sure enough,’ he observed. ‘Since his dam was blowed up, he has th’ civil word for nobody.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

black pill = opium. “Faix, ’uts no murder to kill a Chinaman, but a bright jewel in me starry crown, ye long-nailed, rat-eatin’, harrse-haired, pipe-hittin’ slave iv th’ black pill!” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

carry a load = to be intoxicated, drunk. “You’re actin’ locoed. Guess you’re carryin’ your load yet.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

Celestial = a Chinese person; derives from Celestial Empire, an ancient name for China. “And when the angry Celestial had gone he lay back in his chair, and laughed till he was weak.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

circuit binding = a style of limp-leather binding, used especially for Bibles and prayer books, in which the edges of the cover bend over to protect the edges of the pages. “He waved a hand at the formidable rows of half-calf and circuit bindings in his bookcase.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

compound = a locomotive steam engine. “Th’ man that invinted dynymite should have a set iv goold medals th’ size iv a compound’s dhrivers.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

cross fencing = fence lines that divide pastures within a piece of property. “There were many miles of it, inclosing some twenty thousand acres of grazing-land, and the cross-fencing of the oat, alfalfa, fruit, and vegetable acreage.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

dub = awkward, unskillful person. “‘Why, you old dub,’ cried Wade, ‘the wire is from Jim Hess, Clyde’s uncle’.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Courage

Anybody get seasonal affective disorder? Mine sets in about now and will last until May. Energy levels going through the floor. Easily overtaken by a feeling of gloom and doom.

Meanwhile, relationships founder. The immune system goes down. Life is elsewhere.

I have devices for dealing with it. Coffee, always a mood lifter, is a welcome companion. Old routines give the day a sense of purpose and order. Escape can be found in books.

If I get a little “distant” here, don’t worry. I’ll be back. Eventually.

The photo is from one side of a tall column on the campus where I work. Looks like it has stood there forever. Passing by, one takes heart.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

H. H. Knibbs, Overland Red (1914)

Old West meets New West in this novel set in Southern California by early western writer Henry Herbert Knibbs (1874-1945). Most of the story, in fact, would happily take place in the 19th century. There is a ranch with cowboys on horses, gold prospecting in the Mojave, and a big gunfight outside a saloon. But for good measure, Knibbs also throws in a motor car, Los Angeles, and references to movie-making.

Reality meets myth in the book, as well. The title refers to its central character, a former sheriff of Abilene, now an itinerant (hobo) on the run from the law in Barstow, where he’s mistakenly believed to have killed a man. Living rough, he has his wits and plenty of grit to keep him going.

The novel’s subtitle, A Romance of the Moonstone Cañon Trail, gives a whole different impression of the book’s contents. You might guess that you’re in for some poetic renderings of landscapes and sunsets or a dew-fresh story of young lovers. You get all that, too. The novel even begins with a long, long prose poem about the Camino Real.

Becoming a man. At the heart of the novel is a study of how a teenage boy, Collie, becomes a man. An outcast, he has been adopted by Overland Red, and the two have been traveling together for four years when we first meet them. Collie is then taken under the wing of a ranch foreman, Brand Williams, who gives him a job as a ranch hand and helps him learn to be a cowboy.

For Knibbs, as for many of the early western writers, the achievement of manhood involves the discovery of longing and tender feelings for a young female. In this case, we get the spunky niece of the ranch owner, Louise.

Love between Collie and Louise smolders for a long time, dampened by the social distance between them. She is well-to-do and educated, he is neither. Both are pure-hearted and innocent. Collie knows nothing of love but the confusion his feelings generate. She wants him as a friend, but keeps deeper feelings at bay. It’s safer being a coy mistress of her doting uncle.

East also meets West in the novel, as yet another young man falls under the influence of Overland Red. He is Billy Winthrop, who arrives on the scene in a motorcar. He is rich and bored with life, looking for adventure. He is also a lunger, afflicted with consumption and expecting a short life. (Readers today need to be reminded that 100 years ago TB was the cause of 1 out of 10 deaths in America.)

Billy’s is yet another story of growing into manhood. He gladly puts up the capital to underwrite Overland Red’s gold prospecting in the Mojave. Though Red objects, Billy follows him into the desert. And so, working side by side with Red, Billy recovers his health. Honest labor and the dry desert air work their wonders.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Connie Brooks, The Last Cowboys

This 1993 study of the Old West by historian Connie Brooks is subtitled Closing the Open Range in Southeastern New Mexico, 1890s-1920s. Brooks writes of how this arid region on the border with Texas was the last to be settled in the Southwest. An area of over 4000 square miles, on the western reaches of the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains), it remained open range years after ranches and towns were established to the east and west.

Her main interest is the cowboys who came to work here on one or more of the five ranches that occupied what is now Lea County, New Mexico. Studying census records and interviewing descendants, she was able to identify 32 of these men. And she found that as a group they were far different from the stereotype of early cowboys that exists today.

The popular notion of the frontier cowboy is that he was a drifter, spent all his money on gambling, drink, and whores, couldn’t read or write, never married, and never amounted to much. What he had was a fierce spirit of independence, proud of his calling to the end of his days. This belief is shared by many historians of the West, as well.

Map of New Mexico, Lea County in red
Brooks found in her small sample a different picture. Nearly all of her men became farmers and small ranchers as soon as they could lay claim to some property. By their mid-thirties they were married and raising families. Some became high-profile citizens, operating businesses, holding public office, or taking up law enforcement. Some became owners of large ranching operations. And they all tended to live to a ripe old age.

A few had brushes with the law, but only one was a true outlaw, fleeing to Montana after killing two men in Texas in 1923. He was already in his 50s by then and evaded capture until 1929, when at the point of being arrested he committed suicide. Before all that, like the others in the study, he’d married, started a family, and even joined a church.

Records show that the cowboys in her study had been born in various Southern states and grew up mostly in Texas. Most had at least some education and were literate. As sons of farmers, they took to cowboying for lack of other opportunities. A few had trailed herds to the north.

There’s the belief that cowboys disdained farming and any work that required them to descend from their horses. Yet these farmers’ sons left cowboying and returned to the soil, apparently without complaint. No different from other laboring men, she argues, they wanted economic independence. The freedom of the penniless drifting cowboy belongs more to myth than reality.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A few words in Chinook

13th edition, 1891, photo by Joe Mabel
This is an appendix to Monday's Old West glossary. A. M. Chisholm has several characters speaking Chinook in his novel Desert Conquest (1913). Chinook was a pidgin language spoken in the Pacific Northwest, derived from Indian dialects, French, and English.

It has infiltrated the language of many of the novel's characters regardless of their ethnic origins and gives the story a kind of linguistic authenticity. Here is a sampling:

cultus = bad. “Cultus man come at night. Dark. Black. No see um.”

halo = no, not. “Halo cuss word – no bad word – no. D-a-m, ‘dam’.”

kumtuks = to know. “He waved his hand at the wreck. ‘You kumtuks that?

mamook tumtum = to make up one’s mind. “Mostly, Casey, you mamook tumtum a heap – you look ahead and savvy plenty.”

oleman = old. “‘Oleman moccasin, him,’ Simon replied oracularly. ‘White man throw him away; Injun keep him, mend him’.”

sitkum = half. “ ‘Huh!’ Simon grunted. ‘Mebbyso white man; mebbyso sitkum Siwash.”

skookum = strong, powerful. “Bring dynamite – kiyu skookum powder.”

tillikum = friend. “And I’ll bet it was his tillikum, Cross, that took the first crack at us.”

tumtum = heartbeat; firmly held belief. “ ‘This kid is some obstinate,’ he called to Dade. ‘His tumtum is that he’ll stick. I don’t want him in it.”

I like the logic of this last word. It indicates sincerity with reference to feelings that are heart-felt. And it implies a whole lot more, since tumtum, the sound of a heartbeat, is one of the earliest sounds we hear at the beginning of life.

Wikipedia has a lengthy guide to Chinook.

Picture credit:

Coming up: Connie Brooks, The Last Cowboys

Monday, January 17, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 7

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from reading books of that era. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Most of these are from Peter B. Kyne’s The Three Godfathers (1913), W. C. Tuttle’s Thicker Than Water (1927), and A. M. Chisholm’s Desert Conquest (1913). Once again I struck out on a term or two. If anybody knows the Old West meaning of “soul-trapper” or “case cards,” leave a comment. From context, I’m guessing the word “bluffers” was used for baby bottle nipples, but try as I might, I couldn’t run that one down either.

Bannock, photo by Lou Sander
bannock = a round, flat, thick griddle-cake, made from oatmeal, barley, or flour; a wedge of it is called a scone. “A white man that can cook hates to stay sober long enough to build a bannock.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

buckbrush = common name for several species of North American shrubs that deer feed on. “The country was very rough, and the buck-brush grew thick.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

cat claw = a tree native to the Southwest with hooked thorns the shape and size of a cat's claw that tend to hook onto passers-by. “They were picking their way carefully through clusters of murderous catclaw.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

chuckwalla = a stocky, wide-bodied lizard with a flattened midsection, a prominent belly, and a thick tail, tapering to a blunt tip. “Once he thought a chuckwalla addressed him, saying: ‘Hello, Bob Sangster, what are you runnin’ away from?’” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

Buckbrush, photo by Walter Siegmund
crash = a coarse kind of linen used for towels. “The babe, wrapped in a coarse crash towel, lay in the hollow of the little mother’s arm.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

crawl = to assault. “I jus’ had a battle with Angel. He says he’s goin’ to crawl Slim Caldwell.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

dinger = something outstanding of its kind (cf. humdinger). “It would shore make a dinger of a hide-out.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

dog tent = a small tent shaped like a kennel. “He led a nomadic existence, moved continually from one piece of work to another, his temporary habitations ranging from modern hotels to dog tents and shacks.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.
Catclaw, photo by Stan Shebs

dottle = the plug of half-smoked tobacco in the bottom of a pipe after smoking. “Old Rance knocked the dottle out of his pipe, shoved the pipe in his pocket, and leaned forward on the table, facing the sheriff.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

dulce domum = home sweet home (literally, “Sweetly at Home,” a holiday song associated with St. Mary’s College, Winchester, originating in the 17th century). “Theoretically – heretofore always strictly theoretically – he possessed a strong dulce domum impulse.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest. Full story here.

fog = to go fast. “He ain’t hidin’; he’s foggin’. Betcha ten to one he never comes back.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

gallinipper = a stinging or biting insect. “‘You long-legged gallinipper!’ he roared.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

goose gun = a long-barreled shot gun, so designed for shooting geese in flight. “Yust wait, you faller. Ay gat my goose gun, and Ay blow you all to hal!” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Chuckwalla (Sauromalus obesus)
greasewood = a shrub growing in arid regions, with spiny branches and succulent green leaves, flowering June to August. “The country was rough, and the buck-brush grew thick, with here and there a large patch of greasewood.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

hematite = a very common mineral, iron oxide, occurring in steel-gray to black crystals and in red earthy masses; the principal ore of iron. “The sun was just coming up over the low red hummocks of hematite.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

hummock = a knoll or hillock. “The sun was just coming up over the low red hummocks of hematite.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

Injun sign = a magic spell, a curse, a jinx. “You may be able to hang the Injun-sign on old Rance McCoy, but to us, you’re just another dirty shirt that needs doin’ up.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


This is for any fans of the Parisian arch-criminal, Fantômas, brainchild of French pulp writers Marcel Allain (1885–1969) and Pierre Souvestre (1874–1914). The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles had a screening Thursday night of the third film in this franchise, Le Mort Qui Tue (1913). It drew nearly a full house at the Billy Wilder Theatre. Afterward, there was a panel discussion with screenwriter Howard Rodman, LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan, and pulp scholar Robin Walz.

Fantômas is a kind of Professor James Moriarty, a fiendish psychopath who kills for the apparent pleasure of it. When he is not lurking around in a black mask and black tights, he sometimes assumes the identity of people he has killed. After him, and never quite capturing him, are police detective Juve and a journalist Fandor.

Between them, Allain and Souvestre wrote 43 novels in the series, which was hugely popular. Five of the stories were made into films by Louis Feuillade during 1913-1914 (interrupted by WWI).

As an early feature-length film, Le Mort Qui Tue (The Death that Kills) moves at a slow pace for a thriller. Yet it has a mesmerizing quality as mystery is compounded by mystery. The body of a man strangled in his prison cell suddenly disappears. When a Russian princess is robbed of her pearls, the fingerprint left on her neck turns out to be that of the same man.

Program for the event
Unlike Hollywood films of the period, there is an absence of guns in the story. Victims get chloroformed, drugged, gassed, and (as already mentioned) strangled. One character narrowly escapes being knifed by a man stalking him.

Most scenes are long shots, filmed with a stationary camera, intercut now and then with startling close-ups. While most scenes are interiors, some were shot on the streets of Paris, where motorcar taxis share the road with horse-drawn wagons. In another scene, a man swims for his life in the Seine.

The intertitles, alas, were in French, and my franglais was just about adequate to follow the plot. But I needed the panel discussion afterward for help with the nuances. Prof. Walz, by the way, is an informed enthusiast and has a book on the subject, Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Culture in Early Twentieth-Century France. When asked about predecessors of Fantômas, he rattled off a bunch of them.

Live music was provided for the screening, as a musician alternated between an accordion and a piano. It was a recently restored print, provided by the French consulate. If it gets a museum showing near you, it’s worth seeing.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Buen día

Chano's Original, 3309 North Mission Road, Los Angeles
Found myself in East LA most of yesterday and when lunch time came around, the GPS sent me here for some Mexican fast food. A great thing about LA if you love Mexican food. It's authentic and it's everywhere.

Chano's is home of "World Famous Burritos" (I'm still trying to grasp that concept). This place doesn't quite match up to Tito's Tacos in my old neighborhood, almost under the 405 freeway and where there's always a line at the window. But in deference to the ever-widening range of LA lifestyles, Chano's makes the extra effort. It has a hand-picked menu for vegetarians.

I went for the chile rellenos (cheese-stuffed chile peppers), which came with refried beans, rice, a good helping of excellent pico de gallo, and a fist full of steaming hot tortillas. When I opened the take-out container and saw how much there was, I said, "I'll never eat all this." Some time later, I was eating those words, too.

A mixed clientele added the ambiance, including city employees, construction workers, men in security uniforms with side arms, and a girl with a guy covered in tattoos (without seeming to look too closely, I spied a larger-than-life-size set of brass knuckles across the back of his neck). Everybody friendly and laid-back, of course. Hey, it's LA.

Only one problem. No cerveza. A Negra Modelo would have made it perfect.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers (1913)

Illustration by Maynard Dixon, 1913
This Christmas story by Peter B. Kyne (1880-1957) is about as sentimental as they get. Three robbers (not three wise men, as the author points out) head off on foot across the California deserts after a failed bank job. Near a dried up waterhole, they find a pregnant young woman in an abandoned wagon. She’s in the final hours before giving birth.

The new mother dies, after leaving her infant son to the care of the three robbers. They promise her to be his godfathers and to bring him up right. With help from a book they find on baby care, the robbers bathe the newborn baby in olive oil and feed him from several cans of condensed milk.

After burying the woman’s body, they start on a 45-mile trek to a mining camp called New Jerusalem. With a dwindling supply of water, they are aware that only the youngest of them has a chance of surviving the trip.

Traveling by night, the man who was wounded in the robbery carries the baby first. The other older robber takes him second. Then the youngest carries on alone, covering the last miles under the desert sun with hungry coyotes dogging his steps. It is Christmas Eve.

Illustration by Maynard Dixon, 1913
Getting religion. The nakedly religious message of this story is unusual for western fiction. Men on the open range were not believers in much of anything beyond the material world. They held values based on a sense of fairness and human decency, but there was no turn-the-other-cheek morality. The code of the West was only a remote equivalent of the Ten Commandments.

It was a man’s world, and religion and morality were more a women’s affair. This feminine association is recalled as one of the robbers has memories of being taken to church by his mother. There, he remembers, was a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus, illuminated with light from a stained glass window.

When preachers appear in western fiction, they are the proverbial boar with tits and are often held up to scorn for that reason. The Virginian, for example, makes a fool of an itinerant minister by pretending to experience a midnight conversion. Still, if we can believe the folklore, cowboys were not atheists. They wouldn’t deny the existence of a Creator – or Satan, for that matter. They just didn’t live in fear of them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest, or Precious Waters (1913)

Here’s a curious western novel from Canadian writer Arthur Murray Chisholm (1872-1960). It was first serialized as Precious Waters in The Popular Magazine starting November 1, 1912, and then published in book form the following year, with illustrations by Clarence Rowe and a new title, Desert Conquest, or Precious Waters.

This is one of those westerns without cowboys, but it has nearly every other element that goes with the genre. It begins, in fact, with a train robbery that is actually a “cute meet” between its two central characters, Casey Dunne (the guy) and Clyde Burnaby (the girl). Don’t ask me where you get Clyde for a girl’s name.

The plot. While love eventually unites these two in promised matrimony by the end of the novel, the real conflict involves a railroad and a settlement of dry-land ranchers. The ranchers rely on a limited supply of river water to irrigate their crops. The railroad is building a dam to divert the river onto its own lands, for development and sale to new settlers.

Illustration by Clarence Rowe
Though this will make the ranchers’ lands as good as worthless, the railroad’s scheme is indifferent to their welfare and callously legal. Never mind any assumed water rights of those who came there first. The railroad can keep any threatened litigation in the courts for as long as it takes, until the ranchers go broke.

An engineer, Farwell, who hasn’t the least concern for the consequences, is assigned to the job of building the dam. In short order, he finds himself up against the armed resistance of the ranchers. The dam is dynamited while it’s still under construction, then the new system of ditches and flumes is sabotaged.

The two antagonists are the honest, hard-working Dunne and the company man Farwell, who efficiently serves the interests of his employer no matter what. They are equally dedicated, but Farwell is all work and no play. He’s married to the railroad – that is, until he meets Sheila McCrae, the spunky daughter of one of the ranchers. Though it doesn’t weaken his resolve to do his job, meeting her loosens his grip on his single-minded devotion to his career.

It takes almost the full length of the novel to resolve the conflict between the railroad and the ranchers. Although there is bloodshed and violence, the ranchers manage to win a bloodless victory. The way that happens has more to do with high finance and insider trading than is usual in the western novel.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wild Horse (1931)

You can’t watch this film with Hoot Gibson (1892-1962) and not have mixed feelings. It is a window into the past that shows a lot more than you really care to see.

Born in Nebraska in 1892, Gibson reportedly left home at the age of 13 to join the circus. By 16, he had worked as a cowboy and as a performer in Wild West rodeo shows. In his early twenties, he began in movies as a stuntman and double. After returning from service in WWI, he had a career as a film star that ranked him for a while among the likes of Tom Mix.

In 1931, when Wild Horse was made, he was pushing 40 and a new army of younger talent was taking over the western – such as singing cowboy Gene Autry. With his own ranch and his own movie pals, Hoot kept on making movies, though he never really survived the transition to talkies.

Appearing along with Hoot in this film is the far more authentic cowboy-actor Skeeter Bill Robbins. More cowboy than actor, Robbins was the manager of Gibson’s ranch in Saugus, California. A head taller than Gibson and skinny as a pipe cleaner, Robbins looks even thinner next to the well-fed Gibson.

Poster for King of the Rodeo (1929)
The plot. Wild Horse is set at a ranch rodeo, with Hoot as a bronc rider. The wild horse of the title is a magnificent stallion called Devil worth $1000 to anyone who captures him. Gibson and Skeeter Bill do the capturing, but a jealous competitor, Gil Davis, steals the horse after killing Skeeter, and wins the money.

A bank robber figures into the story as witness to the murder. But when the sheriff arrives the evidence points, unfortunately, to Hoot, and he gets arrested for the death of his partner. “The best pal I ever had,” he says.

Out of jail again, he is trampled by the now-captured wild horse and hospitalized. After recovering, he successfully rides the horse before a cheering crowd. Then he captures the killer, who makes a confession when he is confronted with the truth by the robber, who has now been captured, too.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 6

Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from reading books about that era. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from George Pattullo’s collection of western animal stories, The Untamed (1911), and W. C. Tuttle’s Thicker Than Water (1927). Once again I struck out on a term or two. If anybody knows the meaning of “Gourd puncher,” leave a comment.

bear grass = a flowering grass-like plant, growing in bunches and native to western North America; long used by Native Americans to weave baskets; also known as squaw grass, soap grass, and quip-quip.  “Behind a clump of bear-grass crouched a coyote, his foxlike nose pointed toward the spot where snoozed her unprotected son.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Bear grass, photo by Sterlic
blackleg = a quickly fatal disease of young cattle caused by a bacterial infection; symptoms include lameness, loss of appetite, rapid breathing, high fever, and swelling. “They saw a companion die slowly from blackleg, and another practically eaten alive by the fearful screw-worm.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

blatherskite = rubbish, foolish talk. “For she would have fought anything on four legs for the life of that loose-jointed, red-and-white blatherskite she held to be prince of his race.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Bear grass basket, photo by Joe Mabel
bo = a vagrant, a tramp. “Maybe some bo flagged us down for a ride.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

bole = the trunk of a tree. “While the dark was yet young, he scaled a pine tree – a tree bole was to the lion as greensward to the antelope – and sat comfortably on a thick limb.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

buck = to play faro or poker. “Some of the boys would drop in at the Eagle, buy a round of drinks and go out, none of them offering to buck the games.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

caracole = a half-turn on horseback, to left or right. “The horses caught the infection of excitement from the packed stands and champed on their bits and caracoled and waltzed sideways in a manner highly unbecoming a staid cow-pony.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

curvet = a light leap by a horse, in which both hind legs leave the ground just before the forelegs are set down. “As a starter and a spur to courage he curveted clumsily, but was brought up short by the sight of another calf of about his own age, standing not a dozen yards away, surveying him with the liveliest interest.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

demijohn = a large bottle having a short, narrow neck, and usually being encased in wickerwork. “He spent much time by himself in his dirty shack, drinking from a demijohn which he kept hidden under some sacks in a corner.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Driving wheel, by Duncan Harris
drivers = the wheels of a locomotive that transmit the power of an engine or motor to the track. “Then the drivers gripped heavily and the engine surged ahead.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

ecarte = a two-player card game similar to whist and closely related to euchre. “I just got nicked for a hundred in your ecarte game.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

frog = an elastic, horny substance growing in the middle of the sole of a horse’s hoof. “His horse had picked up a small stone in the frog of its right front foot, and was limping badly.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

Go it! = a general exclamation of encouragement; Go for it! “‘Hi, Corazon! Go it, boy!’ they yelled.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

heel fly = a large, bee-like parasite that deposits its eggs on the legs of cattle; also called cattle grub and warble fly. “He learned to eat grass, of which accomplishment he was at first inordinately proud, and he throve on it; and he had but one worry in the world – heel flies.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Horse hoof by Alex brollo
high-ball = a railway man’s hand signal to set a train in motion. “‘Nobody in sight,’ said the brakeman wearily. ‘Might as well high-ball, Charley.’” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

hoodlum wagon = on trail drives a second wagon used to carry gear and supplies of a large crew.  “Behind came Al with the hoodlum wagon, which, being much lighter, made easy work for a pair of stout horses.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

loafer = a subspecies of the wolf, also known as the buffalo wolf and Great Plains wolf.  “The night silence was rent by the hunting cry of the loafer.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

mug = to ruin, interfere with, make a mess of . “The spaniel persisted in messing about and mugging a trail, and his owner pig-headedly abetted him.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

oil-cake = coarse residue obtained after oil is removed from various oilseeds, rich in protein and minerals and valuable as animal feed. “The men rode range in all weathers, setting out oil-cake and salt.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

panocha = a fudge-like confection of brown sugar, cream or milk, and chopped nuts. “Tommy was eating panocha on the steps of the porch, a favorite diversion with him.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Wolf (canus lupus baileyi)
pass the buck = originally, the use of a knife with a buckhorn handle as a marker in the game of poker [explanations vary]. “In the larger houses there is a dealer, who merely does the dealing and takes care of the rake-off for the house, but in a place like the Eagle the dealer takes an active part in the game, passing the buck each time to indicate which player is to be dealt to first.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

pike = back out, hold oneself back.  “The rest of the players piked along, causing the dealer little concern.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

pringle = cause or experience a tingling sensation; prickle. “Suddenly he stiffened, the hairs on neck and back pringling.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

roach = to clip or cut off (a horse’s mane). “He may be riding a sorrel horse with a roached mane, branded 93 on left hip.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Panocha, photo by JerryFriedman
rounder = vagrant, habitual drunkard or wastrel. “Indeed, Come-a-Seven bade fair to be a rounder. While the other cattle would be sleeping peacefully on the bed ground, the young red-and-white would go up and down through the herd, trying to start some excitement.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

sharp-shod = of a horse, shod with shoes having sharpened projections to prevent sliping on ice. “Several years previous to this time Butch had been kicked square in the face by a sharp-shod horse.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

water-gap = the location on a stream that is crossed by a fence, typically requiring repair after flooding. “There was a water-gap to be repaired and they headed for the Salt Fork of the Brazos.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

zacatón = a wiry grass native to the southwest US and Mexico, used in making brushes and paper. “Instead she was roaming the zacaton flats of the Tumbling K and losing herself among the blackbrush ridges, in vague wonder that the world was grown so large.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Image credits:

Coming up: Hoot Gibson in Wild Horse (1931)