Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dad

Being a dad isn’t easy, and there should be a medal of honor for dads like mine who got sons like me. Today is my father’s birthday. Born in 1917 to a Lutheran farm family in Nebraska, he grew up speaking German and English. A bright kid, he could have gone to high school, but eight grades were considered enough for a farm boy back then, especially at the start of the Great Depression.

During those grapes-of-wrath years of drought and crop failure, he traveled West with a couple bachelor cousins to find work in California. In 1939 he was back in Nebraska soon to be married, with his future bounded by 80 acres adjoining his father’s farm. The two men farmed together, joined by me when I came along and my legs got long enough to reach the tractor pedals.

The summers I remember were a constant round of haying with him and irrigating corn. Dad had a small dairy herd for several years, which meant a morning and evening commitment 365 days of the year and no vacations.

I was a dreamer and storyteller, a book reader, an over-achiever at school, and ended up getting the education he never had—and then some. Though I was a 4-Her and the only person you’ll probably ever know who was a member of FFA, farming was never in the cards for me. I went off to college, never to return, and if it was ever a disappointment to him, he never said so.

He left farming and worked at what was available to a man with an eighth-grade education in the 1960s. Farming requires a lot of different manual skills. My dad could tear down a tractor and put it back together again. He took a job at a savings and loan company that put him in charge of the physical plant. Perfect for him, he knew how to keep everything running smoothly, and what he didn’t know he could figure out.

After all those years of being at the beck and call of a herd of Holsteins, he loved the chance in those later years to travel. And he visited me wherever I happened to be living with my family—California, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, England. I can’t say we grew closer during those years; he was always a hard man to get close to. But we developed a routine of talking every Sunday on the phone.

Farming is a lonely job, and I think my father was a social man. He enjoyed knowing all the savings and loan employees and being there for them to depend on. And they absolutely could. When he retired at 65, there were some pretty big work shoes for the next man to fill.

He had only another five years of life after that day he retired. I knew he was sick but didn’t understand until the very last months that he might die. He had always been in the best of health. Our last visit together, I tried to get him to talk about himself, but he would only talk about every other member of our far-flung family. I’ll never know what it was to be him in this world, never know his story the way he would tell it.

He died having just turned 70. Far too young, both for him and for me. For years afterwards, whenever something happened, I would catch myself remembering it to tell him the next time we talked. And today, almost 25 years later, I still have dreams about him. Dreams in which he is a quiet presence, and I want so much to please him.

He would surely be embarrassed by what I’ve written about him here. And it would also be like him to never let on he was secretly proud. He deserved more and better than life gave him, yet he patiently shouldered whatever came his way. And that is no small achievement for any man.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Last Stand at Saber River (1997)

Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, this is a traditional western with some B-western elements thrown in for old-fashioned excitement. Tom Selleck gives his usual performance as a man weary with the stupidity and the violence of the world. Shot in New Mexico, with plenty of location and aerial photography, the film is handsome to look at.

Plot. The story is set in 1865, as the Civil War lurches toward its conclusion at Appomattox. Paul Cable (Selleck), a Confederate officer, returns to the family he left behind and to his ranch in Arizona. For Cable, the war is already over, and he just wants to get on with his life.

He finds a wife who for years has believed he was dead. Glad that he’s alive, she’s still angry about his going off to war, as Arizona Territory was not part of the Confederacy. Meanwhile, his neighbors (Keith and David Carradine) are hardly pleased to see him at all. They are Union sympathizers, making a living by rounding up wild horses for delivery to the Army. Only a trading post operator, who is running guns for the South, welcomes him back.

Cable sees war for what it is, a lot of bloodshed and killing. He has been much affected by witnessing a massacre of unarmed Union prisoners. And the killing doesn’t stop, even here, far from the battlefields. The body count by the end of the film must be about 25.

First he has to evict the men who have taken over his house. Then he has to stand his ground against his neighbors. One of them, a blue-eyed, blonde femme fatale puts the moves on him, and he manages to resist her charms as well.

The last third of the film features a considerable firefight, with Cable defending himself against about a half dozen men. More than once in the film his wife comes to his rescue with a double-barreled shotgun. She does it here again.

This is followed by another firefight, ending with a daring rescue. The trading post operator, now the film’s villain, has taken Cable’s daughter hostage and is racing toward the Mexican border with a wagonload of crates filled with rifles. Cable grabs the girl from the wagon moments before it goes over a high cliff and smashes to pieces. At last, the wars on all fronts are over and there is hope for peace in the valley, as Cable and his wife agree to forget the past and focus on the future. 

Elmore Leonard. I haven’t read the novel and don’t know that I’d recognize this story as originating with Leonard. In less capable hands, the film would come across as predictable and true to formula: a man defending himself, his family, and his right to live as he pleases on his own land.

Though Selleck turns in his usual performance, it’s one we enjoy watching. His physical presence on screen is always substantial, and his face reflects an intelligence and a persuasive depth of emotion. When he takes things hard, there’s no mistaking the pain in his eyes. We recognize him as a man who shoulders responsibilities and does his best to embody manly virtues.

The Leonard-like flourishes in the story come in the form of Cable’s tough wife (Suzy Amis). There’s a civil war in their marriage that always threatens to pull them apart. As long as he is a provider, she’ll stick with him, but never surrendering her own pride. In a long take at the end, they walk away together from the barn to the house, each supporting the other. Neither is diminished by their mutual dependence.

Keith Carradine’s character is also unexpected. He remains indifferent about Cable’s return as long as there is money to be made selling horses to the Union Army. Drawing a bead on Cable from ambush, he chooses not to fire, and we have only the ambivalent look on his face to explain his decision. He doesn’t become an adversary until he mistakenly believes that Cable has killed his father. When the blame eventually shifts to the trading post operator, he joins Cable in the rescue of his daughter. 

Wrapping up. Historically, it should be said that there was in fact a good deal of Confederate sympathy in Arizona during the Civil War. The Union Army presence there was unwelcome. Residents in the settlements were especially isolated by the cutting off of trade and communications with Texas.

The film was made for TNT and won a Western Heritage Award for Feature Television Film. Selleck produced, and like his other projects there’s notable attention to period detail and to cinematography. The opening sequence of rounding up horses, with a stirring soundtrack, sets the movie off to a great start.

Haley Joel (“I see dead people”) Osment plays Cable’s young son. Also deserving mention is Mexican actress Lumi Cavazos as Luz, who’s employed at the trading post. Veteran western actor Harry Carey, Jr., has a brief appearance as Cable’s father-in-law at the film’s opening.

Last Stand at Saber River
is available at netflix and amazon. Tuesday's Overlooked Movies is a much appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Coming up: Roger Pocock, Curly: A Tale of the Arizona Desert (1905)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 19

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

These are from novels by Mary Austin and Roger Pocock, about a caballero in Old California and a cowboy who befriends an English lord ranching in Arizona. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the meaning of  “rim-fire cigar,” “baby troubles,” or “glue-glue harp,” leave a comment. 

bear sign = doughnuts. “‘You’ll come with me first,’ says I, ‘for an oyster stew and some bear sign. I ain’t ate since sun-up.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

boss = a round, swelling, knob-like part or body (cf. emboss). “The trail went sidling on the flanks of the hills, and at each upward turn flung them a wider arc of boss and hollow.” Mary Austin, Isidro.

charro = Mexican cowboy. “So while they trotted slow Jim stained his hide all black like a greaser vaquero, then slung on the charro clothes of a poor Mexican cowboy.” Roger Pocock, Curly. 

Drawn-thread work
counter-jumper = a store clerk, a male shop assistant. “He was scared he would miss Jim, and get the counter-jumper who pranced around behind.” Roger Pocock, Curly. 

deadfall = a trap with a weight that falls on the prey. “My house is like a deadfall trap. Indeed—ah, yes, only one door, you see.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

drawn thread work = a form of embroidery based on removing threads from a piece of fabric, the remaining threads grouped or bundled together into a variety of patterns. “She was the repository of all possible patterns and combinations for the drawn-thread work which occupied the leisure of that time.” Mary Austin, Isidro. 

finikin = fussy, fastidious, precise in trifles, squeamish, picky. “He had all the high and formal breeding which runs with pure Castilian blood: the finikin hospitality and that exaggerated punctiliousness toward women.” Mary Austin, Isidro.

flirt = to fling. “When my boys found out that there was going to be trouble in town they surely flirted gravel for fear of arriving too late.” Roger Pocock, Curly. 

Paiute deadfall
forcemeat = finely ground and highly spiced meat, fish, or poultry that is served alone or used in stuffing. “It was a very comfortable meal,—soup with force-meat balls, chicken, beef dressed with peppers, a dish of spiced pumpkin, another of fried beans, fine flour cakes, and light sour wine of the Mission’s own making.” Mary Austin, Isidro. 

give the office = to give a signal or hint. “Bryant gave me the office that some outlaws have come down from Utah.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

heliograph = solar telegraph that signals using Morse code flashes of sunlight reflected by a mirror. “The thing was a heliograph making talk, as it supposed, to the preacher, and Jim watched harder than ever.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

hurroar = cheer, hurrah, outcry. “It made me laugh to think what a big hurroar there would be presently when the news got wind of that train being held up by robbers.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

lashings = lots, an abundance. “Jim squatted down on the doorstep for a feed of pork and beans, with lashings of coffee.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: great timing

Great timing. Now that I no longer live in west Los Angeles, the brand new light rail line from there is ready to roll. Of course, it goes right by where I work. Riding it would have meant not having to fight traffic or pay for parking. But no, we must wait for these improvements until they are no longer of use to us.

Above is a shiny new car I would have ridden to get to work, at a stop on Figueroa, which I've watched under construction for the past two years. Who knows what other improvements are in store for this city now that I'm retiring and leaving town for good.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat’s Lunchpail.

Coming up: Roger Pocock, Curly: A Tale of the Arizona Desert (1905)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mary Austin, Isidro (1905)

It’s not inaccurate or unfair to say that Mary Austin (1868-1934) was in her own zone. And in this novel of Old California, she is the master of it. Isidro is a tightly plotted novel that is both high-style romance and historical fiction. Among early-early westerns, it is one of a kind.

Plot. The story is set in the 1830s. The central character, Isidro, is a fey young Mexican of a well-to-do family who is about to enter the priesthood. On the way to that end, he is falsely arrested for a murder, rescues a kidnapped boy who turns out to be a girl, gets taken captive during an Indian uprising, and nearly dies in a forest fire. And that’s only half the story.

Mary Austin with Jack London and others, Carmel, c1905
At novel’s end, Isidro is married to the girl, Jacinta, and has decided that the priesthood is not his vocation. The loving couple is on a boat headed for Mexico, where they live happily ever after. Like the ending of The Virginian, we get a flash-forward that tells us so.

Is it a western? While there are those who don’t consider California part of the West, I’ve never heard a good argument in support of this notion. Folks forget the state’s long history of ranching, cowboys, and vaqueros, its long connection with Hispanic culture, and the western terrain of mountains and deserts.

During her life, Austin made a study of Indians, and like other western writers of the period, she wants honestly to include them. Her Indians are not bloodthirsty savages but simple people. Some yield to the ordered life of the missions, where they are put to work by the fathers. Others prefer their own traditions and want the rights of any free human being.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Valdez is Coming (1971)

Spaghetti western style marketing

Shot in Spain, this Elmore Leonard story makes for an absorbing tale of pursuit and justice. The Valdez of the title (Burt Lancaster) is a Mexican-American and former cavalryman, who is now a star-wearing constable of a western border town. In a bungled attempt to secure the surrender of a suspect wanted for murder, he shoots and kills an innocent man.

Valdez wants to compensate the man’s widow and attempts to collect $100 from the man, Frank Tanner, who wrongly accused the victim. Tanner refuses and humiliates Valdez, then has him tied to a cross when he persists. Arming himself, Valdez surprises Tanner in his bed and asks again for the $100. Failing in this attempt, he takes the man’s girlfriend (Susan Clark) as a hostage, and thus begins a long chase.  

Man after man sent after Valdez comes a cropper. By the time we get to the last reel and the final standoff between Valdez and Tanner, eleven men have bitten the dust. We see several picked off by buffalo gun in this clip (click).

Published 1970
The twists and turns and surprises in the plot, all the way to the last line of the movie, are pure Elmore Leonard. The film deftly avoids nearly every western cliché. There are fine, believable performances all around. After the first few minutes, even Lancaster is plausible as a soft-spoken Mexican-American.

The film has a steady level of excitement but is thankfully also interested in character. It’s not just marksmanship with firearms that keeps Valdez going. There’s also a hidden depth of intelligence as he continues to outsmart his pursuers. It’s a battle of wits right to the end.

I really enjoyed this movie. In many ways it beats Hombre (1967), another Elmore Leonard story that picks up some of the same racial issues. (I didn't mention that the man shot at the beginning of the movie is black and his wife is Indian.)

The film was directed by Edwin Sherin, who went on to a lot of TV work, including 200 director and producer credits for Law & Order. Barton Heyman deserves mention as El Segundo, Tanner’s chief henchman. The film is rated PG-13 for violence, brief nudity, and some language. [Lancaster wears a Stetson or a cavalry cap in the movie, not the photoshopped one on the the DVD cover.]

Valdez is Coming is currently available at netflix and amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Films is a much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Coming up: Mary Austin, Isidro (1905)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 18

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

These are from novels by Owen Wister and Frederic Remington about a cowboy in Wyoming, a half-breed and a white man raised by Indians in Montana. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the meaning of “getting on rollers,” “spider dog,” or “klat-a-way,” leave a comment. 

Hot Scotch = a drink made of butterscotch schnapps and hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. “Because he liked the smell and had not thought of the mixture for a number of years, Lin took Hot Scotch.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

Money Musk
= a song and partnered folk dance in which couples dance in two facing lines. “Buckskin and feathers may swirl in the tan-bark rings to the tune of Money Musk.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone. [see example here]

noggin = a small drinking vessel, a mug. “They had fought and marched together, spilled many a noggin in each other’s honor, and who drew the other’s monthly pay depended on the paste-boards.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone. 

Old Boy = Satan, the Devil. “The Old Boy himself would have to wave his tail, prick up his sharp ears, and display the best of his Satanic learning to stand the comparison.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

peach-blow = a delicate purplish pink color likened to that of peach blooms; applied especially to Chinese porcelain. “She showed no sign of life; the peach-blow left her cheeks an ivory white.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

Portland Fancy = a traditional dance for four couples. “‘I expect you used to dance a lot,’ remarked Sabina, for a subject. ‘Yes. Do yu’ know the Portland Fancy?’” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

rimfire = a saddle with a single cinch, placed well forward. “A rim-fire, do you call them? Well, do you know, Major, I should say this saddle was better adapted to carrying a sack of corn than a man.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone. 

roach-backed = said of a horse with a convex or up-curving back. “Their gaunt, hammer-headed, grass-bellied, cat-hammed, roach-backed ponies went with them when they took their departure.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone. 

Rough on Rats = a poison, claimed to eliminate rats, mice, roaches, flies, beetles, moths, ants, skunks, weasels, gophers, moles, and muskrats. “It had been wolf-poison. It had been ‘Rough on Rats.’ It had been something in a bottle.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

shavetail = a second lieutenant; a noncommissioned officer in the army, from a nickname for an untrained mule marked by a shaved tail. “A bunch of ‘shave-tails’ were marched ashore amid a storm of good-natured raillery from the ‘vets’.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

Sibley tent = a conical-shaped tent used by the military, patented 1856, twelve feet high and eighteen feet in diameter, with a single central pole, housing about a dozen men. “Before the gray of morning they were safely ensconced under a bluff, waiting for the daylight and within a mile of the long line of Sibley tents.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone. 

signal service = national weather service originated in 1870 by the Army Signal Corps. “Jode received us at the signal-service office, and began to show us his instruments with the careful pride of an orchid-collector.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean. 

skin game = any form of gambling designed to fleece the uninitiated. “Dey was ’ave plenty money, un I tink we play de skin game on dem.” Frederic Remington, Sundown Leflare.

stager = a horse used to pulling a stagecoach. “The girl’s horse was a stager, which had been selected because he was highly educated concerning badger-holes and rocky hillsides.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone. 

tanbark = the bark of the oak or hemlock, milled for use in tanning hides; tanbark ring, a surface covered with pieces of tanbark, especially a circus ring. “Buckskin and feathers may swirl in the tan-bark rings to the tune of Money Musk.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

throw down = to cover someone with a gun, to shoot. “He had sat up and leveled a finger at me with the throw-down jerk of a marksman.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

tush = elongated tooth of an animal. “Tommy Postmaster had paid high for a necklace of elk-tushes the government scout at McKinney sold him.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

valley tan = a kind of whisky derived from wheat and potatoes, produced by Utah Mormons; anything homemade. “The ‘valley tan’ having been disposed of, Dan added:— ‘It was a boy!’” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

yellow eyes = Indian term for whites; also “hat-wearers.” “These yellow-eyes are only fit to play badger in a gravel-pit or harness themselves to loaded boats, which pull powder and lead up the long river.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone. 

Yellow Hair = Indian name for Gen. Custer. “I spak de English; I was scout with Yellow Hair. I am brav mans.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

Image credits:
Frederic Remington

Coming up:
Valdez is Coming (1971)

Friday, August 19, 2011

The summing up, Summer 2011

Reviewed June 20, 2011
I’m borrowing a phrase from Patti Abbott today to mark the end of my summer. Monday it’s back to work for one last year in the classroom. Charles Gramlich does this kind of summing up, and it’s a measure of his discipline as a writer that he observes such things. I’m following his noteworthy example.

As many know by now, I’ve been working for over a year on what is turning into a two-volume book about early-early western writers. Thus, while moving at a steady pace over the summer of 2011 and taking copious notes, I became immersed in another time (1880-1915).

The list. I’ve also kept company with mostly forgotten writers who, thanks to digital media, have had a second life on the kindle and nook. Since May, I read and will have written up each of the following novels. (By my count, I still have ten to go.)

Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders (1901)
Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap (1914)
Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars (1907)
Ralph Connor, The Sky Pilot (1899)
Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck (1912)
William R. Lighton, Uncle Mac’s Nebrasky (1904)
Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch (1909)
Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair (1905)
Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer (1906)
Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim (1883)
Charles King, Dunraven Ranch (1890)
Charles King, Two Soldiers (1888)
John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman (1905)
Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest (1913)
George W. Ogden, The Long Fight (1915)
Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907)
Owen Wister, Red Men and White (1896)
Owen Wister, Lin McLean (1897)
Frederic Remington, Sundown Leflare (1899)
Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902)
Mary Austin, Isidro (1905)
Roger Pocock, Curly: A Tale of the Arizona Desert (1905)

Reviewed June 6, 2011
Other writers. I’d planned to read a whole lot more recent western and historical fiction. My TBR stack reaches the ceiling. But I kept finding more early-early writers, and so most of the leisure reading got put on hold. I look forward to the day I can thoroughly indulge myself among the many, many later western writers who have contributed and are still contributing to the genre. Here’s what I did get to:

Loren D. Estelman, Roy & Lillie
Max Brand, Best Western Stories, 3
Max Brand, South of Rio Grande (1936)
Charles Gramlich, Killing Trail
Johnny Boggs, Lonely Trumpet
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)
Axel Brand, The Dead Genius
Edward A. Grainger, Adventures of Cash Laramie and Miles Gideon
H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
Gerald So, We Might Have: Poems
Charles Whipple, A Matter of Tea and Other Stories

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902)

Well known as an illustrator, Frederic Remington (1861-1909) tried his hand at fiction about the West with curious results. In this novel he takes on the dicey subject of race relations and loads it with such irony it’s hard to say for sure what he’s trying to say about it.

He seems to want to tell an eyebrow-raising story of an Indian who desires and attempts to marry a white girl. There is romance and excitement of all kinds in such a setup, but not in a way that has a chance of working out well for the characters. So Remington evens the odds by making his hero not an Indian but a white man raised by Indians.  

"Halt, who goes there?"
Plot. John Ermine is a scout for the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars of Montana. There he wins the admiration of the officers for his single-minded, selfless devotion to duty. When hostilities are mostly over, the officers’ wives and families come West to join their men.

Among them is the pretty daughter of Major Searles, Katherine, who draws the young, unmarried bachelors like bees to honey. One of the men, Lt. Butler, seems to be first in line. But she likes the more reserved attentions of handsome John Ermine. She expresses an idle fondness for him, which he mistakes for affection, and he falls into a delirium of love-sickness.

The crisis comes when his proposal of marriage takes her by surprise, and Lt. Butler demands that he return a photo of her that he has been carrying. That unfriendly request gets the response of a gunshot meant to kill, and Ermine becomes at once a fugitive. It’s an unhappy ending in the making, and when it’s over, the white man raised by Indians lies dead—killed by another Indian.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Frederic Remington, Sundown Leflare (1899)

Frederic Remington’s reputation as a western artist and illustrator has far eclipsed his own writings, which are not extensive but notable. His career as a western writer paralleled Wister’s, with articles and short fiction appearing in Harper’s and Collier’s during the 1890s, and two novels after the turn of the century.

Yale-educated, he had the predictable racial and ethnic prejudices of his class. As Jon Tuska has pointed out in Twentieth Century Western Writers, the mythic drama of the West for him was the U.S. Cavalry and the Indian Wars. Still, like many early western writers, there is a deep ambivalence in him for nearly everything else about western expansion. 

Frederic Remington
Half-breed. This short collection of stories features a half-breed Indian, Sundown Leflare, who tells of incidents in his life in a French-inflected dialect. The narrator, like an ethnographer from the East, lets him talk. And while there’s considerable cultural and social difference between them, Remington clearly has a degree of admiration for this man so utterly different from himself.

Sundown is from Crow stock and living in Montana. He has worked as a scout for the U.S. Army and as a trader in skins at a trading post. Any additional income is likely to come from gambling and dealing in stolen horses. He has been married six times and has many children. The most recent is the infant of a white woman who left the child with him and departed by train for parts unknown.

Most of his wives have been purchased by him—for 25 ponies in one case. Then they may be sold after a time to someone else—$100 for that same wife. One was killed while trying to skin a buffalo that turned out to be not quite dead. Another was killed by a Sioux, after only a year of marriage, as she picked wild plums.

Sundown Leflare
One wife, he says, married him for love, leaving her chieftain husband to run off with him. When the whole tribe follows and lays siege to the couple, he gets the spurned husband to settle the matter by agreeing to hand-to-hand combat with buffalo spears and knives. Sundown takes a spear through the shoulder but is the better man with a knife.

There is a long account of a trek on horseback through winter snows, delivering an order from Fort Keogh to Fort Buford, a distance of over 150 miles. Nearly freezing along the way, Sundown is finally so cold he cannot get on his pony. After briefly joining two Indians, he parts company with them, predicting correctly that they will be attacked on their route by hostile Assiniboine.

Wolves following him, he is too cold to fire a rifle at game for food. He finally stumbles starving into a friendly Indian camp after falling through the ice trying to cross a stream. Stripped and covered in snow, he is slowly brought back to life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Crossfire Trail (2001)

This TNT western brings together the talents of Tom Selleck and director Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove) with an adaptation of a novel by Louis L’Amour. The plot is pretty true to formula, as Selleck comes to the rescue of a widow about to lose her ranch and herself to an unscrupulous villain. But it’s all done with such care for detail, and the cinematography is so grand, you forget you’ve already seen this story before.

A novel twist is that the story begins aboard a ship off the California coast, where a crew member’s death is avenged on the ship’s captain. Selleck takes care of him in a jaw-wrenching fistfight that gets the movie off to a brisk start. The three-man crew then turns up on horseback in Wyoming (with Alberta as a breathtaking stand-in). There they will fulfill Selleck’s promise to their dying shipmate to look after his wife and now-abandoned ranch.

They are joined by Wilford Brimley, a former hand at the ranch, and the four men take on slick banker Mark Harmon and his henchmen. The villains have a cover-up story for the disappearance of the ranch owner, supposedly killed by Indians on a return trip from San Francisco where he had business interests. We gather that they’ve engineered a plot to have the man shanghaied and put aboard the ship where we first see him and Selleck.

The widow is not easy to rescue. She doesn’t believe Selleck’s story and seems intent on accepting the banker’s proposal of marriage. She only gradually relents. The turning point comes when she stops the banker’s attempt to have Selleck and his men evicted from the ranch.

Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, photo by Michael Rogers (CC) Mjrogers50

The banker ups the ante by hiring a hit man from Kansas to dispose of Selleck. Not a gunslinger, he’s more of a sniper, using a high-powered rifle to first kill the youngest of the four men while he’s picking raspberries. Then he climbs into the church tower to await Selleck’s arrival in town.

Meanwhile, the banker has moved quickly to marry the widow, without her consent, begging for a truckload of bad karma by slugging her into submission. Long intimidated by the man, the townsfolk stand by without a word. The only objection comes from the bartender, played by William Sanderson (remembered as E.B. by Deadwood fans), who gets shot for his efforts.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 17

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

These are from novels by Owen Wister and Frederic Remington, about a cowboy in Wyoming, a half-breed, and a white man raised by Indians in Montana. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the meaning of “heifer’s delight” or  “molasses and slivers,” leave a comment. 

Allston cocktail = a very strong, somewhat bitter drink made with gin, peppermint schnapps, and lemon juice. “At the club I found the governor teaching Ogden a Cheyenne specialty—a particular drink, the Allston cocktail.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

beef = to knock someone down. “I beefed him under the ear, and we took his guns away, sir.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

biscuit shooter = a waitress. “I felt a rising hate for the ruby-cheeked, large-eyed, eating-house lady, the biscuit-shooter whose influence was dimming this jaunty, irrepressible spirit.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

blue ribbon = a badge worn by those who had taken the pledge of temperance. “I have offered that boy a drink out of my flask on campaign, when we were cold enough and tired enough to make my old Aunt Jane weaken on her blue ribbon.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

Bogardus = successful New York Daguerreotypist (1822-1908). “He handed the much-soiled photograph labeled ‘Bogardus’ to her.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

boss = the best, excellent. “You don’t want to go in there. We’ll show yer the boss place in Market Street.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

bugged up = dressed up. “Who’s your friend all bugged up in English clothes.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean. 

cat-hammed = said of a horse with long, thin, insufficiently muscled thighs. “Their gaunt, hammer-headed, grass-bellied, cat-hammed, roach-backed ponies went with them when they took their departure.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

coffee cooler = anyone who lazes around instead of doing his duty. “Lieutenant was say I dam coffee-cooler. Well—I was not.” Frederic Remington, Sundown Leflare.

cook’s police = general assistant to the Army cook, dish washing, peeling potatoes, carrying coal, washing windows, dining room cleanup. “It was not long before the young scout could tell a colonel from a cook’s police at a glance.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

dray = a low, heavy cart without sides, used for haulage. “The great flat-topped dray for hauling poles came last, with its four government mules.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean. 

fire-bag = a long leather bag, containing pipe, tobacco, knife, flint and steel. “He also carried a fire-bag, the Spencer repeating carbine given him by his comrade, together with an elk-horn whip.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

flannel cake = a flat cake of thin batter fried on both sides on a griddle. “Billy pronounced the flannel cakes superior to flapjacks, which were not upon the bill of fare.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

flubdub = pretentious nonsense; bunkum. “She’s lamed me up twice beating me—an’ Perkins wanting me to say ‘God bless my mother!’ a-getting up and a-going to bed—he’s a flubdub.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

galligaskins = loose trousers, leggings. “Some of the infantrymen got tired of sewing up three-cornered tears in their galligaskins.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

Gothic self-abandonment = the heedless enthusiasm with which Teutonic warriors were believed to throw themselves into battle. “The two old men understood what they saw even if they had never heard of the ‘Gothic self-abandonment’ which was the inheritance of White Weasel.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone. 

grass-bellied = bloated, big-bellied. “Their gaunt, hammer-headed, grass-bellied, cat-hammed, roach-backed ponies went with them when they took their departure.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

grass-bellied with spot cash
= rich, having plenty of money. “Just as a loan, Doc—some of it. I’m grass-bellied with spot-cash.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

hammer-headed = said of a horse with a short, stiff neck. “Their gaunt, hammer-headed, grass-bellied, cat-hammed, roach-backed ponies went with them when they took their departure.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

high wine = a distillate containing a high percentage of alcohol. “His poor stomach kept trying to crawl out of his body in its desperate strife to escape Wilmore’s decoction of high-wine.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

histe over the jiste = roughly, do some damage (histe, an old form of hoist). “You, Lin, if you try any of your foolin’ with me, I’ll histe yu’s over the jiste.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean. 

hive up = store up (like honey in a hive). “He was able to hive up enough gold dust to fill his wants from the traders.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

hog ranch = a brothel. “Across the river some were holding horse-races upon the level beyond the hog-ranch.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

honey-cooler = an extraordinary person or thing. “It’s a honey-cooler. You will fall dead when you see it.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

hotchpot = in law, the collecting of property for equal distribution. “He had fallen, along with other incongruities, into the roaring Western hotch-pot, and he passed his careful, precise days with barometers and weather-charts.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

Image credits: Frederic Remington

Coming up: Crossfire Trail (2001)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Photo-Finish Friday: nook tricks

If you ever get tired of the screensavers that come with your nook (cityscape, nature, authors) you can load it with a bunch of your own. A frequent reviewer of books on my blog, I have a truckload of jpgs of book covers. So now my nook cycles through them, a different one popping up each time it switches over to screensaver.

It was maybe ten minutes’ work gathering together the pic files into a folder. Crossloading them onto the nook was pretty simple. Now as I use the nook, the screensavers are always reminding me of books I’ve already read and enjoyed.

How it's done:
1. Fill a folder with whatever pics you’d like to use for your screensaver. Book covers (also pulp magazine covers) are the same dimensions as the nook screen, so they’re a near perfect fit.

2. Give the folder any name you like.

3. Use the nook power cord to connect the nook to your computer’s USB port.

4. Double-click the nook icon that appears on the desktop.

5. A window will open with several folders. One of them should be called “my screensavers.”

6. Drag and drop your folder of pics into the “my screensavers” folder.

7. Close the window and eject your nook.

8. Disconnect your nook and go to its main menu.

9. Go to “Settings” and open that.

10. In the new menu that comes up, select “Display.”

11. In the next menu, select “Screensaver.”

12. In the next menu, find the folder you just crossloaded, select it, and a check mark should appear beside it.

Your new screensavers should start up the next time your nook goes to sleep. 

BTW. When you had your nook open on your computer screen, you may have seen a folder for “my wallpaper.” You can do the same for that. For a while I had a Remington drawing of a bronc buster that I loaded. Now I have a portrait of a cowboy by Will James (shown in the pic above). You can also drag and drop PDF files into the “my documents” folder for reading on the nook. 

If you already know all this, just say so, and you’ll get a hat-tip from me for being so darn smart. Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat’s Lunchpail. 

Coming up: Old West glossary no. 17

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Owen Wister, Lin McLean (1897)

I came across a reference to this novel a few years ago in Dane Coolidge’s Bat Wing Bowles (1913). He notes there that Lin McLean was one of the few books you could find in nearly any cow-country bunkhouse in the West. So I read Lin McLean and loved it, and together these two writers got me hooked on the early-early westerns of that period.

Not quite a novel, Lin McLean is a series of stories centered around its title character, a young cowboy learning the lessons of life. Cowboys had been shooting up the Wild West in dime novels for decades. With Lin McLean, Wister reintroduced him to mainstream popular fiction as a three-dimensional character.

Reinvented. Lin McLean first appeared in 1892 when Harper’s Magazine published Wister’s story “How Lin McLean Went East,” which was later to be the opening chapter of the book. Wister, the product of European schooling and a Harvard education, knew the West from frequent travels there. He had a writer’s gift of observation and the ability to reproduce in words the types of men he found there.

If you’ve ever met cowboys, you recognize them in the manners, speech, and attitudes of Wister’s men on horseback. Call it a mix of hell raising, reserve, deep sentimentality, and arrested adolescence. Among Easterners at the time, “cowboy” meant “outlaw.” Wister cast his hero instead as a hard-working, fun-loving “cowpuncher.”

Lin McLean
Plot. The story is set in Wyoming during the open range era of the 1880s. Young Lin McLean has been cowboying for several years. Hearing a sermon on the parable of the Prodigal Son, he is moved to return East for a visit. There he discovers that his sole surviving sibling is embarrassed having a cowpuncher for a brother. Saddened to learn so young that you can’t go home again, he returns to Wyoming, a lost soul.

Meeting a railroad restaurant waitress, he decides in haste to marry. It’s a bad match, but he’s saved by the discovery that she’s already married to another man, Mr. Lusk. She returns to her husband, leaving McLean something of a laughing stock on the range.

Spending a lonely Christmas in Denver, McLean meets a bootblack, Billy, who turns out to be a runaway from the Lusk household. Concerned for the boy, he takes him along back to Wyoming. The arrival of a girl named Jessamine from Kentucky has McLean considering marriage a second time.

This plan is derailed when she learns he’s been married before. Mrs. Lusk makes a dramatic exit with an overdose of laudanum, and McLean, his bride-to-be, and Billy are finally happily together in the last scene.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Frederick Remington, illustrations

Sundown, washed and dressed up
I've been reading Frederic Remington's set of stories, Sundown Leflare (1899) and his novel John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902). Both are generously illustrated with his own drawings.

Sundown is a half-breed, and his stories are almost all about his dealing with Indians. John Ermine is a white man raised by Indians who signs on as a scout for the cavalry.

I'll include some of the illustrations when I post the reviews, but here is a whole set for fans of Remington.

Bullets kicked up the dust.
A tremendous bang roared around the room.
The ponies save Little Weasel from the wolves.
Sundown (in hat) wagers for the wife of a chief
A duel with spears to settle a dispute
A former gambling partner gets away riding under a box car.
A spirit guides Sundown through the winter cold.
Sundown observes a gathering of gamblers