Saturday, May 31, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: S
(shorthorn – skitter)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

shorthorn = tenderfoot, newcomer. “Let the shorthorn go sleep onder a mesquite-bush; it’ll do him good a whole lot.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

shot in the locker = ammunition and powder. “Ez soon as he got inter trouble he knowed whar ter find a fren’ whut’ll stan’ by him ez long ez there’s a shot in ther locker—savvy?” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

shot tower = a building formerly used in the production of shot, in which molten lead was dropped from a great height into water, thus cooling it and forming the shot. “Hills twenty, thirty miles away rose like apparitions, astonishingly magnified. Willows became elms, a settler’s shanty rose like a shot-tower.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

shotgun messenger = a guard on a stagecoach or train, to oversee a valuable private shipment, such as a strongbox or safe; typically rode next to the stagecoach driver and carried a short (or sawed-off) 12- or 10-gauge double-barreled shotgun, loaded with buckshot. “Only the driver and a friend were on it, and both of them knew the shot-gun messenger and the sheriff, and they asked in some astonishment what the trouble was.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

show-me = skeptical; believing nothing until is it demonstrated. “He belonged to the show-me club, an’ had all his facical muscles spiked fast for fear they’d come loose an’ grin before he saw the point himself.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

John G. Neihardt, Life’s Lure (1914)

I came across this novel while doing research for my book on early frontier fiction. It joins a long list of novels and stories set in mining camps of the West. Like many of them, it tells a cautionary tale of lives ruined by gold fever and the get-rich-quick mania that drove adventurers for half a century to places like Deadwood, California, and the Klondike.

Prospectors and miners had long been at the center of the growing mythology of the Old West, along with the cowboy. Yet the cowboy, representing a different set of values came to dominate western fiction. Less materialistic, maybe, the cowboy came to stand for more admirable qualities of character.

Sudden wealth and the effort to acquire it were generally not part of the cowboy ethos. The prospector, as a stock character of western fiction, then evolved into a secretive, anti-social outlier, likely to be half-crazed from prolonged isolation and lack of human contact. Very much the opposite of the cowboy.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Raw Edge (1956)

Rory Calhoun and Yvonne De Carlo share top billing, but De Carlo seems to get more of the screen time in this odd adult western. Claiming to be set in 1842 Oregon, the story is said to be taking place in disputed territory by both Great Britain and the United States. But those two geopolitical entities have little to do with the film’s plot. The Oregon woods are dominated by a single tyrannical settler (Herbert Rudley), who makes and enforces all the law there is out here. A lone gunman, according to legend, will change all that.

Plot. Other men who have settled on this frontier outpost suffer from the shortage of women. By Rudley’s decree, any unattached female becomes the property of the first man who can lay claim to her. And it’s not just an excessively harsh rule for women, as we soon learn when Rudley’s wife (De Carlo) gets pawed over by an assailant in a dark barn.

The man believed to have assaulted her (John Gavin) is quickly hanged, and his newly widowed wife, an Indian woman from a local Yakima tribe (Mara Corday), becomes the object of a two-fisted melee among several sex-starved men, one of whom gets shot quite dead despite his physical superiority, as revealed by the shirt torn from his back. The fittest survive to reproduce in this Darwinian world only if they are ready with a gun.

Carol Buchanan, Gold Under Ice

Since reading Carol Buchanan’s excellent Spur Award-winning God’s Thunderbolt a while ago, I have been meaning to get to its sequel, Gold Under Ice, which continues the story of frontier lawyer, Dan Stark. In the 1860s gold-mining community of Virginia City, in territory that is now part of Montana, he finds himself an active participant among a group of vigilantes, who hang a number of thieves and killers, who have been menacing the lives and welfare of more law-abiding residents.

Background. Besides the limited authority of the miners courts, there is in fact no law in the gold fields, and in the first volume of the series, Buchanan explores the realities facing honorable men driven to enforce justice and preserve public safety where they lack legal authority to do so. After much soul-searching and debate, they must resort to extra-legal means, which for a man like Dan Stark contradicts all he has been taught to believe about due process. Necessary as the lynching of bad men happens to be, Stark is haunted by those hangings and what they represent as a betrayal of civilized democratic values, guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and long practiced in his chosen profession.

Buchanan’s telling of his story in God’s Thunderbolt is a corrective to the easy acceptance of lynch law in the formula western, where villains often get their punishment without benefit of trial. Her novel also immerses readers in another kind of frontier, where a continent separates westerners isolated from the centers of power, capital, and civilization, a distance that takes many weeks of primitive travel to cross. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Stress, de-stress

Afternoon rainclouds
My wife reminds me from her reading online that cancer patients need to reduce stress to improve their health, and I’m aware of how little regard I give to this. Even efforts to reduce stress seem to add their own kind of stress. Meditation seldom if ever produces a relaxed state in me. Mindfulness also remains a mystery and takes work, which is not conducive to relaxation. Exercise is another—a chore, and I hate chores.

One day this week, I tried a one-hour sample of Tibetan bells (see below) on YouTube, supposed to reduce stress, which put me to sleep though I felt nothing really soothing about them. Maybe I don’t know how to listen to them. I read another 1–2 chapters of a book by an ALS patient (Philip Simmons’ Learning to Fall) but find his thinking abstract and difficult. I am too impatient for a feeling of achievement or progress or reward, which seems to be part of my problem with a discipline of self-care. The real reward to be aimed for, if I understand this right, should be Nothing. This kind of thinking reminds me of those unfinished jigsaw puzzles at the Cancer Center the patients there work on.

This week I began using the dictation app on my new computer to create blog posts (like this one). Saving the clumsy typing thanks to numbness in my left hand, it may do more for stress reduction than other more arcane practices. Still, 12 hours at the keyboard leaves me weary by noon, and I rejoice in the relief of just lying down for a while. And relaxation deepens as I pick up a new novel to read, sinking into the oblivion of it, until I doze off. This, one day, despite 12 hours of mostly restful sleep the night before.

Ragged rainclouds with a patch of blue
The nearly absent taste of food continues to generate its own brand of stress. Coffee in the morning is brackish and even strong tea, flat. Occasionally I can taste the sweetness in dried fruit and the “green” of salads. But an OK snack: chocolate graham crackers and sweet chai tea. Friday nights have been a tradition of my pepperoni pizza made from Trader Joe ingredients. My wife sometimes has to take over, as I may need another lie-down before a pie is ready for the oven. Eating some later, I sometimes have to rely on a memory of how it’s supposed to taste.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: S
(seven-up – shortening)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

seven-up = card game for 2 or 3 players or 4 playing as partners (cf. pitch). “He sees Curly where he sits at seven-up, with his back turned towards him.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

seventy four = a naval vessel carrying 74 guns. “It rather resembled the Old Testament ark, or a Swedish or Dutch seventy-four, for, like that, it was built of planks and boards.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

shake of a horn = quickly. “He’ll be ready in the shake of a horn.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

shake-down = an impromptu bed. “I crawled over to my neighbors, the Whites, and Mother White made me a shake-down.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

shako = a tall, cylindrical military cap, usually with a peak (British) or visor (American) and sometimes tapered at the top. “They must be lofty enough to do this without recourse to high-heeled boots and two-foot shakos.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

shallop = a small open boat propelled by oars or sails and used in shallow waters. “Isn’t that a good bit like saying that the shallop must see to it that the wind doesn’t blow too hard for it?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shank = to walk. “I started one mornin’ to shank it, for a country they call Puget Sound.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

shantyman = a logger. “He goes poundin’ through the bush like a bunch o’ shantymen to their choppin’.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

sharp = an expert. “He was talking of it once to a man who was a sharp on things like mesmerism.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

sharp-shod =  of a horse, shod with shoes having sharpened projections to prevent slipping 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.

sharper = cheater, swindler, trickster. “You’re a nobody, sir, without a place or a name in the world; a common, low-bred, ignorant sharper.” Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth.

shave a note = to discount a promissory note at a very high rate of interest. “By the way, Hunter, that man you bought the team of got in a pinch and asked me to shave the note for him. It’s all right, is it?” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

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.

shawl strap = a pair of leather straps fitted to a handle for carrying a rolled up shawl, steamer rug, parcel, or baggage. “I’ll go back with you and help out with the shawl-strap things.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shebang = hut, house, home, quarters. “There was a kind of sheebang – you couldn’t call it a hotel if you had any regard for the truth – on the outskirts of Walsh, for the accommodation of wayfarers.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold.

sheep = to take advantage in an annoying way; derived from the driving of sheep across a cattleman’s range. “While they was sheepin’ Skelty about his shootin’, two strangers rode up.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

sheet anchor = a person or thing that is very dependable and relied upon in the last resort. “See those settlers’ cabins at an angle of forty-five? Need a sheet anchor to keep ’em from sliding down the mountain!” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

shell man = operator of a shell game. “The great daily, I am proud to say, endureth still, a menace to road agents and shell men.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

shelling up = shooting firearms. “He was a reckless dare-devil, always foremost in the little amenities cowboys loved to indulge in when they came to town, such as shooting out the lights in saloons and generally ‘shelling up the settlement.’” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

Sherry, Louis = a New York restaurateur (1855-1926), whose first restaurant opened c1880 and became popular with the social elite. “Ah, Sherry’s! That’s since my time. I don’t suppose I should know my way about in little old New York now.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

sherry cobbler = a popular drink in the nineteenth century made of sherry, sugar, and lemon or orange wedges served over ice. “Noel laughingly ordered a sherry-cobbler, saying the day was far too hot for anything stronger.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

shift the cut = to cheat at cards by undoing another player’s cut of the deck, i.e., to return the top cards back to the top. “But this yere Piñon Bill shifts the cut on ’em. ‘If one of you-alls so much as cracks a cap,’ he says, ‘I blows the head offen this yere blessed child.’” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

shike-poke = a term of insult, believed to refer to the bittern (a species of heron) that defecates when frightened. “‘Yes! the poor old shike-poke!’ answered Johnson, without looking up from his task.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

shillalah = a cudgel; club made of hardword (from Irish Shillelagh). “With us it has been a sort of Donnybrook Fair: the agricultural voter has shillalahed the head he could reach most easily.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shilling shocker = a novel of crime or violence popular in late Victorian England and costing one shilling. “The Great Powers did not heed them, preferring to take advice from men who did not know an Apache from a Sioux—or either from the creation of the shilling shocker.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

shin = to quickly climb or clamber. “Bob shinned down to the river for water.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

shin oak = a deciduous, low-growing, thicket-forming shrub native chiefly to New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma; also called shinnery oak. “They ain’t such a much, and cain’t raise nothin’ but shin-oak and peanuts and chiggers.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

shin plaster = a money-note worth a quarter of a dollar. “Shin-plasters are what I want. A friend of mine has caught his leg in a trap.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

shindy = a noisy party, shindig; commotion. “I’d have him safe under lock and key before the shindy begins tonight, if it was my job.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

sinker = a sourdough biscuit. “I’d rather eat a wolf or a rustler or even a daring desperado than sinkers and beans, any day.” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.

shinny-on-your-own-side = stay within the lines; mind your own business (name given to an early version of field hockey). “They left me here to play shinny-on-your-own-side.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

ship a sea = to be awash with water coming over the side of a boat. “While he watched her, shouting repeatedly, against reason, the dugout shipped a sea that all but swamped her.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

ship’s biscuit = hardtack, a simple type of cracker or biscuit, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt, inexpensive and long-lasting. “Syrup and ship’s biscuits and corn-meal porridge were good enough.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

shirt band = a band of material sewn into a shirt for stiffening or finishing, as a neckband to which the collar is sewn or buttoned. “If you get time, you better show me how you want your shirt-bands let out.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

shoepac / shoepack = a heavy, warm, waterproof laced boot. “One might encounter the pioneers who had built the town, with their wives or women, the ilk of Nick Pelcher and Wilbur Arnold—the idols to whom the multitude in shoepacks and mackinaws must sell their vigour and mortgage their dreams.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

shoo-fly = a temporary railway track constructed for use while the main track is obstructed or under repair. “The train plunged down and out of the first ‘shoo-fly’around a burned bridge.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

shoot one’s bolt = to give everything one has, to be incapable of further effort. “Colonel Knowlton says he can hold them now, sir! He thinks they have shot their bolt.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

shoot the chutes = any phenomenon or experience of persistent or violent ups and downs as one fluctuating between prosperity and recession or elation and despair. “I never permitted myself to be identified with failures. When I see that things are shootin’ the chutes I pull out.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

shooting box = a small country house providing accommodation for a shooting party during hunting season. “It seems Stratton used this shooting box out here to cache his dope in.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

short cut = shredded tobacco. “He drew a sack of short cut from his pocket and filled his brier.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

short yearlings = steers between the ages of one and two years. “On other occasions the herd would consist of a certain kind, such as long yearlings, short yearlings, tail end and scabs.” Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.

shortening = beginning to dress a baby in short clothes. “Behold the pair fussing and sewing certain small garments with much tucking, trimming, insertioning, regulating said processes by the needs of some future mystery dight ‘shortening.’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.


Sources: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and various online dictionaries

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Carol Buchanan, Gold Under Ice

Thursday, May 22, 2014

John Henry Reese, Big Hitch (1972)

This is a western that tells you things you didn’t know instead of repeating the timeworn clichés. True enough, the central character is a cowboy and “the worst no-account fool west of the Mississippi but the finest horseman anywhere.”

He’s got his eye on a girl who’s his boss’s granddaughter, an independent-minded suffragist he lacks the class for. But further resemblance to the standard western formula ends there. The plot of the novel involves a “big hitch” of six matched Clydesdales, who perform in public for an Omaha brewer, and that makes all the difference.

Plot. Mase Grayson is discovered by the brewer, August Heillman, on an excursion into Arizona Territory in search of an artesian well to supply water for a new brewery. Hooking up a team of wild horses and mules to cross a flooding creek bordered by quicksand, Mase demonstrates a fearless and uncanny command of draft stock.

He is soon hired on by Heillman as driver for his Clydesdales. They have been disappointing him in competitions and reflecting poorly on the Golden Age Beer they represent. Only problem: the team already has a driver, one Chauncey Battlestock.

Budweiser Clydesdale hitch
He’s an Englishman with not only a proprietary attitude toward his hitch of horses. As a former sergeant-major in the Royal Horse Guards, wounded in India, he has no intention of yielding rank to a scruffy cowboy. As a further hold on his position, he’s also won the affections of Heillman’s granddaughter, Ilene, who is ready to run off with him if the old man will not approve of a marriage.

Mase settles for a job breaking and training three-year-olds and eventually hatches a plan to put together a Big Hitch of unmatched teams. This is where you learn something you probably don’t already know, and horse lovers among readers should be especially taken by how Reese presents the subject.

John Henry Reese
Romance blooms confusingly for Ilene as she finds herself drawn to Mase despite her attachment to Chauncey. And a crisis looms as Chauncey loses face as a driver unable to bring home the blue ribbons like he used to. Mase finally has to save the day—with both teams of Clydesdales and something called “the water trick” he once learned from Indians.

Wrapping up. At 168 pages, Big Hitch is a short novel with much to recommend it in the way of humor, strong characters, conflict, and suspense. You won’t look at the Budweiser Clydesdales again without thinking, “Oh, I know something about that.”

Big Hitch is currently available at amazon and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click over to Patti Abbott’sblog.

Further reading:

Image credits:
Budweiser hitch, Wikimedia Commons
Author's photo,

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959)

History remembers Bat Masterson as a buffalo hunter, U S. marshal, and Army scout, gambler, gunfighter, frontier lawman, and in later years as a newspaper columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph. The movies and TV remember him somewhat differently, though this western with Joel McCrea as Bat actually works in some factual details from his years in the Old West. Still, the difference between the two Bats is well represented by photos of both. You just have to look at their hats (see below).

The Gunfight at Dodge City parallels Bat’s time in the infamous cow town of the same name, during the years 1877 – 1879. There he joined a brother, Ed Masterson, who was town marshal.

Plot. The movie takes those few details and spins a story that casts Bat as a reluctant champion of justice against a corrupt sheriff (Don Haggerty) and his gang of deputized thugs, who run Dodge City and kill anyone who interferes with them. 

Joel McCrea as Bat Masterson
McCrea partners with the widow (Nancy Gates) of an uncooperative saloon owner the gang has removed from among the living. Reopening the saloon, he hires on the town doctor (John McIntire) as a card dealer, happy to have some diversion from patching up cowboys with accidental gunshot wounds from the weekly Saturday night hurrah in the streets.

Running as a reform candidate against Haggerty for county sheriff, Ed Masterson (Harry Lauter) is shot dead by an unknown assailant, and McCrea is persuaded to take his place on the ticket. Elected by a grateful citizenry, he gets unruly cowboys in line by cracking heads with his gun barrel and threatening to shoot anyone who still wants to run riot. His method brings to mind the brand of law enforcement usually associated with Wyatt Earp.

Bat Masterson as himself, 1879
As the story unfolds, complications multiply, none of them having to do with historical facts, though they would suffice. Bat was not all that careful about the company he kept or how he used public office.

Romance. With a nod to legend, if not history, the film begins with a flashback to a shooting in which Bat kills an Army sergeant who draws on him in a dispute over a girl. And the screenwriters quickly establish him as good with a gun and a ladies man. Besides the attractive widow and business partner in Dodge City, Bat enjoys the company of a preacher’s daughter (Julie Adams). Betrothed to Bat’s brother, Ed, before he is killed, she is understandably taken aback by Bat’s attentions. She admits to being afraid of him.

Long story short, Gates finally makes known what’s long been obvious to us—Bat has stolen her heart. Unable to keep him from his final gun duel with Haggerty, she hears him deliver the usual reason why a western hero does not run from a gunfight. Not running, McCrea tells her, is the difference between a rabbit and a man. By this time they have locked lips and, when it’s the other man who dies, McCrea is surrounded again by grateful citizens, and he gets his new sweetheart, too.

Joel McCrea, Nancy Gates
Wrapping up. The film was shot in Cinemascope and Technicolor, and was handsomely produced using Melody Ranch as a stand-in for Dodge City. Working in a variety of genres including film noir and sci-fi, director Joseph M. Newman is also remembered for another Joel McCrea western, Fort Massacre (1958), as well as The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Pony Soldier, and Red Skies of Montana, all of them in 1952.

John McIntire is particularly enjoyable in the film as the town doctor and friend of Bat. In 1959 he had already appeared as a continuing character in TV’s cop drama, Naked City. In a screen career that included roles in many westerns, he continued on TV for long runs of Wagon Train (1959 – 1965) and The Virginian (1967 – 1970). 

The screenwriters were Martin Goldsmith (Fort Massacre) and Dan Ullman, whose numerous writing credits for film and TV included many westerns, such as Good Day For a Hanging (1959), reviewed here a while ago.

The Gunfight at Dodge City is currently available online at youtube, and on DVD at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more Overlooked movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading:

Image credits:
Photo of Bat Masterson, Wikimedia Commons
Joel McRae as Bat Masterson,

Coming up: Carol Buchanan, Gold Under Ice