Mojave Ode; or, Of Cyborgs, Grit, and Cholla

From the floor of the dry lake, sunrise began with the flaring upthrust of Lonely Mountain…. Silhouetted ramparts in deep shadow rang brightly with the fireball impact of the sun. Etched by early morning dust, sunlight stabbed through crevices as huge glowing shafts across the vast desert floor…. clumps of of scattered tumbleweed hid their brambled surfaces in the form of soft puffballs glowing along one side, casting long shadows behind the other. Along a nearby ridge, midget desert flowers shone in purple and yellow. Sagebrush seemed to glow, but above all there rose from the flat tableland the oldest denizens of this desert nowhere, the great cactus trees known as Joshua trees….

A stage set for a cowboy drifter to come loping through on his cayuse? Nope, the opening scene of Martin Caidin’s Cyborg, the 1973 novel that launched TV’s $6,000,000 man-machine Steve Austin into TVs across America. Foreshadowed by “flaring” and “fireball,” the Mojave desert is about to witness a fiery crash of an M3F5, an experimental orbital jet–and the near death of its pilot, Steve Austin.

palmsprings aerial

A jet’s-eye view above Palm Springs. (c) 2015 es

Austin the literary character isn’t so different from the cowboy heroes of pulp westerns; as a tough, smart, virile, looks-great-in-a-flying-suit fighter pilot and astronaut, even pre-cyborg Steve Austin could probably out-gimlet-eye Jack Palance in a showdown. (Not to mention that he survives an epic seven-page-long crash that takes his legs and an arm , his eye and half his body along with it and made me miss my subway stop it was so engrossing.)

Anyone who’s seen Lee Majors in a track suit fighting bad guys in slow motion knows the story: advanced (for the time) technology outfits the crash victim with sophisticated nuclear-powered prostheses to aid the U.S. in fighting terrorists. Caidin’s novel portrays more of the struggle the man overcomes to accept his cybernetic nature than the TV show did; the gist is that the human becomes more than a man (just ask his lovesick girlfriends) and kicks some butt, happily and cybernetically ever after.

Why Cyborg on a western blog? It’s not polite–or safe–to ask a drifter about his past, but suffice to say I have reasons. One of which is the desert dear to me, the Mojave. It’s not the photo-friendly landscape of the Sonoran desert, replete with photogenic saguaros and horned toads. The Mojave is stark and spare.

mojave landscapeIMG_9464

See? WhaddItellya. (c) 2015 es

Its palette is limited to gray, brown, and brownish gray. Its plants are limited to things with spikes that draw blood: Joshua trees, creosote, cats’ claw, and cholla. Its animals limit themselves to nighttime jaunts or appear in the daytime as bleached bones. The Mojave is the Jack Palance of deserts, people. Don’t mess with it. But get to know it, and it reveals transcendent–and sometimes scary–beauty.

night mojaveIMG_9663

Fine purple-prose novels usually begin with a description of the protagonist or a straight shot of landscape, as if the land is as much a character as the people. “If you get the landscape right,” says Annie Proulx, “the characters will step out of it, and they’ll be in the right place.” Caidin’s searing morning light of the Mojave desert sets the tone for his book, the space age landings of dry lake beds and primordial cliffs matching the epic scientific undertaking.

The Mojave desert is the driest of the North American deserts, with fewer than thirteen inches of rain per year. It has the hottest summer temps, above 120 degrees in Death Valley. It has been described as one big anthill (it is) but its crust is amazingly infinitely rich: packed with organisms, a fragile biological world that can be devastated by a footstep. This minute world is blown by winds, baked by the sun, frozen and thawed and frozen again. It accumulates in your socks, in the corners, in cuffs, bearing gifts like stinging ants and barbed cholla spines and minute mouse femurs.

anthill mojaveIMG_9668

Neighbors. (c) 2015 es

But that’s an up-close-and-personal perspective. The Mojave is actually quite the  TV and movie star. That commercial of cars speeding through a flat, dry landscape? That other one, with the Joshua trees? Those sci-fi alien films and more westerns than one can count? Just the image of the Mojave evokes Freedom, Escape, Strangeness, Danger, Heroism, Apocalypse. For an environment that seems so empty, it certain is filled with associations. For a place that is truly boring to drive through, it is as (sometimes horribly) fascinating as staring into a mirror.

But landscape, the desert particularly, and the Mojave specifically, are more adventurous and romantic than our reflections. These are the blank canvases or screens we project ourselves onto. Even a small action in the desert–a flare of a match or a sidelong look–can be like a calligraphic stroke on white paper: bold and big, unbearably tender or unspeakably violent.

coyoteskullIMG_8518

Another neighbor. (c) 2015 es

 

Annie Proulx again: Walking on the land or digging in the fine soil I am intensely aware that time quivers slightly, changes occurring in imperceptibly and minute ways, accumulating so subtly that they seem not to exist. Yet the tiny shifts in everything–cell replication, the rain of dust mots, lengthening hair, wind-pushed rocks–press inexorably on.

This desert, star of commercials and films and novels, stays long after the credits roll. It quietly accumulates in your soul, gravel and spines and all, until it’s blown out by high winds and mind-dulling drives, blasted by cold nights and searing-hot days. Then the slow trickle of soil begins again.

 

Saddle Up and Move ‘Em Out; or Hello Again, My Gauchos

Whoa, buckos and buckorettes, a year? My, time flies when you’re working and developing projects that don’t, on the surface, seem to connect to westerns. But as we all know, everything that is anything actually connects–

Josey Wales: Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?

Right. Got it. STFU and write.

To paraphrase another Clint, Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I’m going to put my blog on and take my work Stetson off, offering no explanations, no excuses, except to say it’s been a long strange trip, and I’m glad to kick back on this dusty cyber-trail again.

Upcoming are some reviews of westerns and sort-of westerns that have piled up, and an incredible amount of western films that add a little more grit to the genre. And an up-close look at real grit. And a lunchbox, because only real cowboys use lunchboxes, by God.

IMG_5737

(c) 2015 es

 

 

 

Of Cattle and Men: A Review of The Big Drift, by Patrick Dearen

“In the early days storms drove the cattle irresistibly before them; the cowboys not able to handle the frightened and half frozen animals were forced to drift with them, often for a hundred miles, living as best they could.” –Frederic Remington

“A bovine was what made a cowboy a cowboy, with the help of a horse, and to lose one that bore his outfit’s brand meant that he had failed.” –Patrick Dearen, The Big Drift

The “cattleman western” has a dynamic and powerful blend of themes. For every trade novel with a stock greedy cattle baron, hard-bitten cowhands, and [insert gimlet-eyed staunchly individual protagonist here], we get Red RiverShane, and Lonesome Dove to give dimension both to plain folks who believe we need to all get along and those who seek their own path come hell or, well, high snows. The Big Drift by Patrick Dearen (Texas Christian University Press, 2014) is filled with cattlemen and cattle—the latter lowing and frightened as they drift and freeze to death before the winds of the calamitous blizzard of 1884, and as ghastly hills of dead matter, an omnipresent presence of beasts that represent both economical gain and physical obstructions to be contended with.

cover, Big Drift

The aftermath of this singular blizzard also tried men’s souls, the “six-bits-a-day” cowboys rounding up scattered cattle that had flooded the Great Plains and tallying up the dead animals for the owners. The blizzard and the vast roundup is the backdrop of another story, that of Zeke, a freed slave who has become a capable cowhand, and Will, the white cowboy who falls in reluctantly with the man who has saved his life. Will’s reluctance stems from a dark childhood event that has saddled him with guilt he can’t bear to face–yet he finds that Zeke also carries a heavy burden of sorrow and tragedy, a realization that begins to undermine his concept of how races interact and, eventually, allows him to find honor and acceptance with himself. “Me and you, we’s kinda alike, ain’t we,” says Zeke one dark night after they both have nearly succumbed to the cold. “We’re not nothin’ alike,” declares Will. Yet no matter what he feels, they must work together, facing the elements and their inner demons, to bring the cattle home.

Black cowboy with horse (c. 1890). Courtesy Western History:Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

As in Dearen’s book To Hell and the Pecos (review here!),  the West is not a blissful paradise to escape to but a purgatory one must traverse. The blizzard is not only a driving force in bringing the “lost souls” of dual/dueling protagonists Will and Zeke together but also a way to test them, to bring them to acknowledge a force infinitely greater than themselves that is also infinitely wiser and more merciful. While westerns come in all spiritual flavors (the neo-pagan return-to-nature of Dances with Wolves, the humanist community of Stagecoach, the nihilism of every spaghetti western ever), The Big Drift has a powerful Christian theme of being reborn out of suffering.

Drifting Before the Storm, Frederic Remington, Collier’s Magazine, July, 1904

The Big Drift has struck a chord in readers of westerns; it’s recently gone into its second printing (congrats!). No matter how successful a book may be, however, writing westerns can be as hard than wrangling cattle, so I always like to celebrate these authors, especially those who combine respect for western history and conventions with the courage to confront them. Patrick Dearen (website here) is a well-respected historian and folklorist whose interviews with men who cowboyed before the 1930s and decades of archival study enrich his craft. He was kind enough to answer questions as far-ranging as research, character development, and the inevitable (for moi) “which actor would play which character” query.

Dearen mug, close-cropped, 2013

The author! Patrick Dearen, 2013

Bucko: You use the historical calamity of the Big Die-Up to explore how people can be pushed to their limits and find a way past them. What drew you to that event? It’s a well-known historical fact, but you bring it to fierce life. Was there a point in your research when you discovered a crucial, little-known fact or confirmation of what you hypothesized that helped you create your book?

Patrick Dearen: I like to think that my nonfiction research into the American West has enriched my dozen novels, not just by providing ideas and background details, but by unearthing prototypes for characters. I’ve produced nine nonfiction books, with a tenth set for release in March 2016. I’m particularly drawn to the history of West Texas, to which my cowboy-grandfather emigrated in the 1880s. I suppose that my deep roots in the region have led me to try to tap the soul of the nineteenth-century West Texan, a figure who needed courage and grit to cope with the harsh landscape, the recurrent droughts, and the sudden blizzards.

One such winter storm pushed hundreds of thousands of open-range beeves down into West Texas in 1884. This big cattle drift and ensuing roundup on the Devils and Pecos rivers tested the mettle of every cowhand involved. In my research into the Big Drift of history, I was struck most by the unparalleled work ethic of cowboys who stayed with those drifting cattle hour after hour as fearsome winds howled across an 18-inch snow. It’s been said that a cowboy would cling to a herd long after the actual owners would have given up, and accounts of the actual Big Drift bear that out.

In my novel, the cattle drift allowed me to push my characters to their limits and beyond. I’m not speaking of a mere physical journey, but also an inner journey through crippling memories that can destroy as surely as a blizzard. To push ahead through adversity until an inner voice screams “Not another step!” —and then to take that step—is to live, say philosophers. But even as that moment might tell a person who he really is, it can also mean death.

B: The characters seem to emerge from the blinding snow fully formed. But how did you begin to build them? When did you “see” Will and Zeke? 

PD: Before a novelist writes the first sentence of a new work, he needs to know his major characters inside and out. As a character leaps into his first scene, he should reflect reality, and an important aspect of that is to give him a past that has helped shape who he is. I saw a need for my 1884 versions of my white cowhand Will and his black counterpart Zeke, but I got to know them by reaching into their past and creating a common, racially charged element that haunts each man. This immediately established the all-important man-against-man conflict that would play out against the man-against-nature backdrop of the Big Drift and ensuing roundup.

I found the prototype for Zeke in Sam James Washington, a former slave who cowboyed for his onetime master after the Civil War. As Washington related in a Work Projects Administration interview, a killing might have occurred if his employer hadn’t intervened when a drunken cowhand confronted Washington outside a whites-only tavern. As a novelist, I asked myself, “What would the consequences have been if Washington and the drunken cowhand had scuffled over a revolver and it had discharged, killing his employer?”

My white character Will, meanwhile, grew out of my interviews with 76 men who cowboyed in West Texas before 1932. For the one event that shaped his life more than any other, I reached into his childhood and crafted a horrid moment for which he still felt responsible, even though he had been a bystander too young to be accountable.

B: What is your impression of the role of faith (whatever religion one had) in the cattlemen and cowboys of the late 1800s? Were they a religious group in general or a go-on-Holy-Days kind of group?

PD: I’ve already referenced my interviews with 76 old-time cowhands. I supplemented that research with more than 150 archival interviews with nineteenth-century cowboys. One almost universal trait among all these men was that, in the strict sense of the term, they were not religious during their cowboying days. This is not to say they didn’t believe in God; it was more a case of not having an opportunity to know Him well. Isolation on the range ruled out church attendance and thus any instruction in spiritual matters. But the very fact that cowboys were honest and trustworthy—not to mention respectful toward women—meant that they had a moral foundation that led the vast majority of them to become spiritual in later life.

Doubtless, a cowhand had things in his past for which he yearned for forgiveness. The need for redemption is something that’s common to all of us, and the search for it is what drives my characters Will and Zeke.

B: And again, I have to ask! Your novels are so cinematic. Who do you see as playing essential characters in your novel if it were to be made into a film? 

PD: This is fun to think about, but I’m a realist when it comes to the daunting odds in Hollywood. I’ve had screenplays of my novels When Cowboys Die and The Illegal Man floating around producers’ offices for quite a while now. I do have renewed hopes for The Illegal Man, dealing as it does with the tribulations of an illegal Mexican alien who crosses the Rio Grande into Texas in search of ranch work in order to support his family in Coahuila. Texas Christian University Press (TCU Press) will reissue The Illegal Man as an ebook in Spring 2015, so I’m hoping that this new exposure will reignite interest from Hollywood, where it was twice optioned.

Inasmuch as The Big Drift is concerned, I think Matthew McConaughey would be a natural for my character Will. As a Texas native, he already has the appropriate accent and bearing, and he has the lean build and hewn features that I picture in a nineteenth-century cowhand. Even more importantly, McConaughey has the sensitivity and depth as an actor that the role would demand.

Agreed.

Agreed.

Dearen’s gift is that he can write a novel that does double-duty. It fits into the established canon of western romance–not the “sexy cattleman” type, please, but the genre in which a charismatic yet reader-identifiable protagonist overcomes deep self-inflicted obstacles, in which there is such a thing as true feeling, in which there is a “way out.” Yet his research and experience flesh out the mythological Cowboy. Zeke and Will and the other characters evince the canny adaptability of Owen Wister’s formidable “knights” but their wrestling with fear, self-preservation, and despair is very real life.

Purchase The Big Drift in print here or in ebook form here (easier to round up cattle on a Kindle, no?). Purchase, read, enjoy!

 

“Stillness in Motion”; or, The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Westerns

Anson Mount, handsome and gifted star of AMC’s railroad blood-mud-and-guts western Hell on Wheels, waxes poetic in Cowboy & Indians magazine (August 2014) as he explains what about westerns gets him in the solar plexus. But first he stakes an XY chromosome claim on the genre, describing it as perhaps the most masculine of them all, depicting manly manly men men men men men men men men menmenmenmmuhm. Which it does, yes. And very well. BUT–

–oh hell, buckos, just skip over that part, frankly, because it’s a claim we’ve heard before. Go right to the beautiful contrast he sketches out in a few minimal lines soon thereafter.

On one hand is the war genre, in which “the delicate interplay of light and sound is actually exploded and perverted for the sake of shocking us with what we are capable of doing.” On the other, in a western, he says, “the interplay of light and sound must not be ripped from its mooring but achieve a kind of stillness in motion.”

Mr. Mount loves this scene too!

Mr. Mount loves this scene too!

The evocative “stillness in motion” arrested me, halting the sounds of gunplay and galloping hooves still echoing in my ears from a mid-afternoon binge watch of Man with a Steel Whip. He explains it further as a kind of “listening” that is at the heart of the western performance. It’s a beautiful way of depicting the strong, silent protagonist. I think he’s also describing the archetypal western’s omnipresent connection between land and sky, character, and action. It’s always there in a western, always rippling between the elements, the way the reins between a horse and its rider are always in play. (I imagine the ham-fisted directors of bad westerns, sawing at the reins, ruining a horse, and the subtle communication that happens between the elements when a great director is astride a western flick.)

Case in point! The Searchers, 1956

What amuses me–and truly, I appreciate throughout the article his depiction of stellar male protagonists and the power of the genre–is the totally quote feminine unquote dynamic that he actually invokes, a term I use with a quote eye roll unquote but which seems important to use in the context of his dichotomization: a “listening” that communes closely with the desire to merge with the monumental dry landscape, the squeak of saddle leather, the bite of the wind, the piercing sun. Jane Tompkins in West of Everything calls it what it is: a romance, a “desire for, wish to identify with…an object that draws the viewer ineluctably to itself….”

"Shane, come baaaaack," is actually the western landscape's line, if you listen very, very, very closely...

“Shane, come baaaaack,” is actually the western landscape’s line, if you listen very, very, very closely…

Owen Wister, the granddaddy of the modern western, was himself a yearning kind of man, and his archetypal hero, the tall cool drink of water called the Virginian, describes this swooning kind of love when he shows his secret grove to his ladylove.

Often when I have camped here, it has made me want to become the ground, become the water, become the trees, mix with the whole thing. Not know myself from it. Never unmix again. (Chapter 36: At Dubarton)

And what an awesome mix of feminine and masculine in that written scene.

Follow that there linkage thing at the beginning of the post, dear buckos, to read a fine writeup of westerns from an actor working in a great one. Now if we can just retire that “masculine” thing, that would be awesome.

Courtesy Wyoming Tales and Trails

Courtesy Wyoming Tales and Trails

 

Searching for the Mother Lode; or, How Writing about Writing Reviews for Western Novels Is Like One Big Gold Rush

Mission: Craft  reasonably intelligent author queries to write reviews of two novels set in a western mining town (new trend?).

Focus: Mining towns. No idea, really, what they’re all about. I’m all gunslingers and cowboys. Miners are all gold and digging and claims. I think. 

Objective: Get back in the saddle and…research!!!

I mean, look, classic western towns are easy. Bank to be robbed. Bath house for bathing dusty cowpokes. Whorehouse for nonprocreating.

pioneertown

Pioneertown, one of the finest examples of storytelling around.

Monument Valley, ditto. Wagons. Apaches. Epic.

Monument Valley cowboylands

Wagons ho, John Ford!

Weird Lone Pine outcroppings, also. Bushwacking and ambushes–all you need to know.

Lone Pine Alabama Hills

From westerns to sci-fi…

But what about this subgenre of mining+town? Here, buckos, look at this example–what is up with it?

Gold Hill, Nevada Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan

Gold Hill, Nevada
Photo by Timothy O’Sullivan

Are those houses? Tents?  Where are the streets? Where is the center? Figuring out the essence of mining towns is crucial: like wrestling with a steroidal chicken-or-egg question, and–one would argue–more than any other genre–a writer of a western must dealz with this old chestnut:

what comes first, the setting or the character?

Or are there more important questions to ask: with western backdrops as well known and set-in-stone as false-fronted frontier towns and high plains and everything else John Wayne rode through, is it even possible to create a setting that doesn’t turn out to be cardboard thin? Or to create a rich character who can thrive in (or conflict mightily with) such a setting?

As usual, perhaps I am overcomplicating things. Characters need their settings. Settings require characters. Period. So stop stressing over some formulaic order of operations, right?

The (often) subconscious choice is probably a bit of both, in a simultaneous birthing that ends with heroes like Shane and Will Kane and the Stranger rising out from their environments like fully fleshed buckskinned, tin-starred Aphrodites.

Case Study #1: Shane, riding his way out of the wilderness to a small farm Eden–the snake, a rival Adam, or their guardian archangel.

opening sceneshane

#2: The Coop’s Will Kane penned by a town’s high walls–literally unable to see his way out of his predicament.

high-noon

#3: Eastwood’s Stranger, reborn to wreak revenge, tracing a thin, umbilical trail to a windswept mining town where it all began.

Stranger High Plains Drifter town

 

So it’s more algebra that formula. Not so much 

C + S = Story

as

[(Genre ./.  Subgenre) x (C + C + C) + (S x Th)] x Authorial Chutzpah  = Epically Awesome Western.

And to solve for “S”: The classic reel-life western town branded on our western subconscious  has one main street straight down its center, high-fronted buildings crowded together, a train depot not too far away, perhaps separated by a scenic stretch of corrals. Alleys and streets ray out from the backbone of the main road like ribs. (Actually, often real-life western towns along the railroads–despite being planned from afar in a comfortable East Coast office and imposed on a jumble of rocks and cactus–retained this sense of regularity.)

In many westerns, the theme becomes Individual against Civilization. And the author gets the story.

#1: Shane riding into his classic town–and ultimately unable to fit into its ordered streets and riding back out again, mortally(?) wounded.

#2: A stalwart Will Kane finding his moral bearings in the wooden trap of his classic town, rejecting its rotten heart, and leaving with his ladylove and morals intact.

#3: The suspiciously supernatural Stranger turning his classic town inside out and upside down (and red).

welcome-to-hell

And next to find the rules of the subgenre of mining westerns…

Mining towns were created around a discovery–a glimpse of silver or gold, a wide seam in the rock that could yield the mother lode. Instantaneous building ensued. Shacks and tents and roads extended out from claims, straggling around hills and along cliffs, beside rivers and inside valleys. Slapped up by miners and those who made money from miners, the structures were left vacant and creaking in the incessant wind as fast as good luck turns to bad. A few towns, like Virginia City, grew up enough to become a real-life organized town, but a number of mining clusters-of-shacks never made it past the wishing-for phase.

So, turns out, real-life mining towns do make sense, in a dynamic, impromptu, disorderly sort of way, and so I’ll be looking to see if these authors’ fictional mining-town characters do too. What will these characters complement/work with/react against/build/rebuild/destroy/reject? Are they as mercurial as their environments? Are they more superstitious than gunslingers? More romantic than cowboys? Are the villains more urbane or more rustic or more all-or-nothing?

Having poked through ramshackle ghost towns and abandoned mines, I know there will be danger ahead, perhaps shallow 2-D characters that collapse at a gust of skepticism or the gaping maws of incomprehensible plots. But in reading westerns, I’m like those unwashed, crazy-eyed miners: it’s the mere hope of discovery that keeps me going. Just stay off my claim, damn you.

Gold Mine Incline Photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan

Gold Mine Incline
Photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan

(And O ye Writing Gods, why does everything end up reminding me about the dratted novel–the damn thing’s outline can and does stretch out as cardboard-cutout repetitious as a B-western movie set–and how I scrawl every little “discovery” with boom-or-bust enthusiasm??? More later–better ride this slippery slope into writing….it’ll probably all be fool’s gold anyway…)

 

Return of Bucko; or, Now That My Saddle Sores Have Disappeared I Have to Start All Over Again

Every once in a long while, there comes a time in a cowboy/girl’s life, when he/she has to stop drifting, stop gambling and whoring and paying for expensive whiskey, and pay down some bills. Hang up the hat a while and put on a clean shirt.

After all, if Shane could do it, so could I, was my reasoning.

I got teased some too. "How's the writing?" Grrr.

I got teased some too. “How’s the writing?” Grrr.

But really, this is just a long-winded way of saying yeah, long time no see. 

You see, what makes for a rather dull B-movie scenario is this paying-bills stuff, so hence the lack of blog. Unlike Shane, no evil rancher has been trying to stampede my farmer friends. It’s all been, well, quiet. Just working and bills and visiting the apple of my eye, the reason for laser-like focus on said bills:

my desert maison, where lizards and tarantulas and jackrabbits and roadrunners and coyotes and owls play and the skies are not cloudy all day–

(c)es2014

–unless it’s monsoon season and then there sure are some BIG goddamn clouds.

IMG_2446

(c)es2014

But the mind has been rolling, rolling, rolling (RawHIDE!) and there have been some amazing westerns to read…

Goodreads gives this one a thumbs-up.

Goodreads gives this one a thumbs-up.

such as Silver and Glorious, two books I’ll be reviewing…

cowboy heroes to mourn…

Herbert Jeffrey, who died at 100 (or so) years of age this week...

Herbert Jeffrey, who died at 100 (or so) years of age this week…

and westerns to praise and pan.

Best. Fight. Scene. Ever.

Best. Fight. Scene. Ever.

and dare I hope or should I just skip One Million Ways to Die in the West?

Or maybe I'll just read the book...

Or maybe I’ll just read the book…

In any case, pull up a stump. We’ve got a lot to catch up on…

Cowboy cutouts, Kanab, Utah, 2012. (c)es2012

Cowboy cutouts, Kanab, Utah, 2012.
(c)es2012

 

When the Legend Becomes Fact; or, The Sand Creek Massacre’s Inconvenient Truths

This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

John Wayne Valence

That infamous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford, 1962) succinctly describes much of what lies behind sepia-toned country nostalgia and pumped-up cowboy-wannabe posturing: the legend of the West is bigger than its reality, and it’s a lot more interesting to watch with popcorn. 

But there is at least one instance when the facts trumped the legend. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day in 1864 when seven hundred volunteers under Colonel John Chivington struck against a band of Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe camped at Sand Creek, in Colorado Territory, killing scores of them in what as at first called a pitched battle, scattering the tribes and effectively breaking tribal alliances in the area forever.

Attack on Sand Creek Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

Attack on Sand Creek Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

From the Rocky Mountain News (1864): The Battle of Sand Creek!

Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results. . . . A thousand incidents of individual daring and the passing events of the day might be told, but space forbids. We leave the task for eye-witnesses to chronicle. All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.

Chivington, a Civil War hero and staunch anti-slavery advocate, was the stuff of legends again. White people everywhere drew a sigh of relief.
But pesky facts soon began to break through this narrative. Witnesses and survivors began to speak. The people in the encampment were mainly the elderly, women, and children. Black Kettle of the Southern Cheyenne and other chiefs had recently swapped land for peace. An American flag flew above Black Kettle’s lodge. The warriors were out hunting. A white flag was waved in panic when the soldiers swooped into the camp. Women and children were killed. Bodies mutilated.
At the Sand Creek Massacre

At the Sand Creek Massacre

 

From the Congressional testimony of Mr. John S. Smith, Washington, DC, March 14, 1865
Question. Were the women and children slaughtered indiscriminately, or only so far as they were with the warriors?

Answer. Indiscriminately.

Question. Were there any acts of barbarity perpetrated there that came under your own observation?

Answer. Yes, sir; I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces.

By Mr. Buckalew: Question. How cut?

Answer. With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.

By Mr. Gooch: Question. Did you see it done?

Answer. Yes, sir; I saw them fall.

Question. Fall when they were killed?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. Did you see them when they were mutilated?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. By whom were they mutilated?

Answer. By the United States troops.

Question. Do you know whether or not it was done by the direction or consent of any of the officers?

Answer. I do not; I hardly think it was.

By Mr. Buckalew: Question. What was the date of that massacre?

Answer. On the 29th of November last.

The “pitched battle” scenario did not hold up for long. Nine of Chivington’s men were killed; 148 of Black Kettle’s followers were slaughtered, more than half of them women and children. After the massacre, the Colorado militia returned and killed the wounded, mutilated the bodies, and set fire to the village.

How did a Civil War hero who fought against the spread of slavery ever get on the wrong side of history? The “destroy the savage for the Christian people” Force was strong in this one. A narrative that neatly dispensed with actual facts made the march across the West a Godgiven right for the betterment of all humankind everywhere, amen. But for once, facts seeped through this myth, bringing widespread disgust for and condemnation of Chivington’s actions and those of his men. However, no charges were ever brought against them.

This and other atrocities of the Indian Wars are an inconvenient truth that became relegated to sidebars in textbooks (and always weighing in on the side of inevitability). And as I’ve made scores of  paper feather headdresses and Puritan hats in my schooldays, celebrating communal harmony and a peaceful gathering of cultures, as stuffed as I am on turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pie leftovers, I have to agree that Ford was right when he made his rather cynical Western: the legend always makes way better copy.

 

A Peace Council before the Sand Creek Massacre, September 28, 1864

A Peace Council before the Sand Creek Massacre, September 28, 1864

Justin America, Webisode 1; or, The Extreme Perils of Parting Ways

Justin America is just the average guy pursuing the American dream—although he’s doing it in a dusty red union suit, no boots or hat or clothes, and with a bullet hole in his side. But Americans always have that sense, rightly or wrongly, that they can do ANYTHING, so no worries! Right? . . . um, I said . . . right . . .?

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Justin America is a new western web series that’s riding into town on the musical twang of spaghetti western–meets–The Magnificent Seven bombast. With the attitude of both—the humor is dark yet the storyline is classic—this pilot episode, “Parting Ways,” is as promising as it is dynamic. In the space of six minutes, we have hope, betrayal, and bloodshed. Cool.

First, the story. There’s been a power play in a tight-knit outlaw gang and all Justin (Myko Olivier) wants is to leave the gang, clear his name as an outlaw, and to “put a few dollars in [his] pocket the honest way.” A chance to start over is what practically every person on this earth yearns to do. Yet not everyone hides the—well, darn, don’t want to spoil it for you. You see, his boots are where he—okay, can’t tell you that either.

Anyway, Justin’s not some naive Eastern dud of a dude; he anticipates danger in his break from the outlaw gang so he’s craftily thought ahead and taken care of that problem. But what he doesn’t take into account is the fury of a broken heart from—okay, can’t. So forget the plot.

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Bloodthirsty killer or long-johned hero?
Co-Creator John Schimke (right) finds the shot with Myko Olivier (Justin, left).

Suffice it to say that the poor guy is bootless and in his red long johns and shot—all before the webisode’s six taut minutes ends. (There are more twists and turns in “Parting Ways” than in the total of How the West Was Won’s turgid 162 minutes.) Then our hero Justin is forced to hike into the wilderness and stumbles, literally, over what will become his biggest problem yet. Run credits…

And nope, not the end but a good cliffhanger, a “stay tuned for the next episode, when…!” And durn it all, they have me hooked. Check it out!

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The two creators of the series, Jared Isham and John Schimke, ride comfortably in the saddle of Justin America, as familiar with horses as they are with scripts that call for outlawry on the 1880s frontier. This is the third western for Jared, the first being 2009’s Bounty, also a film about second chances, and Trail to Mercy, to be released later this year, about a man on a mission to fulfill a promise to his deceased wife. John’s credits range from thrillers to cowboy-hatted dramas, a matchup that kicks up some dust in this webisode. The spaghetti western twang that sets up the action is from award-winning Nolan Livesey (I love the quick switch from spaghetti to the sweeping  “let’s ride, buckos” chords).

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Aaron Lyons as outlaw Tanner (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

Jared was kind enough to take a break in the final week before the pilot of Justin America goes live and tell me about the making of what could be the shortest yet most complete western on earth. (And thanks, John, for your input too!)

Jared said that most of all, he and John wanted to tell a story about “someone who is striving for something good.” But to make a western, you just throw in some guns and horses and saloons, right? “The danger of making a western,” Jared cautions, echoing one his favorite directors, James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), is that “a western can become a movie about westerns rather than about character.”

So they focused on the characters first, spending five or six months on backstory, getting the lay of the land. “Once we did that,” Jared says, “we went to page one.” A true western tests the mettle of its protagonist, and so they made sure to throw plenty of mettle-making problems at our long-john-clad hero right from the first page. What does a guy who wants everything do when he has nothing? (And by nothing, they mean nothing, not even his boots, one of the primary tools of a cowboy out in the West, good for horseback riding, protection from snakebite—you can even drink water from them.)

What’s great about this approach to a western is that it shifts the focus from stereotypes to types—the outlaw leader, the woman gang member, the burly, gleeful bully, etc.—and then to characters ready to be breathed into life by actors. Over the course of John and Jared’s developmental work, the characters, as people tend to do over time, began to reveal themselves. The gang, the community that Justin is breaking from in the first episode, took on a life of its own, with a shift in hierarchy—a grim-faced Max (Mark Jeffrey Miller) as new leader—that makes Justin’s staying with the gang unbearable. As Max grits through his yellowed teeth, “You’re loyal or you’re dead.”

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Mark Jeffrey Miller as Max (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

The character of Audry (Samantha Colburn), the sharpshooter in this first episode, especially changed and developed over those months, says Jared. “Max is stronger and has more backing from the group [of outlaws],” he continues, “but Audry is smarter and able to manipulate people.” And she’s not the average 1880s woman. She takes her revenge in a short, sharp, and effective way and, I’m betting there’s a lot more to her that will come out. As the camera circled around the fight between outlaw thug Tanner (Aaron Lyons) and Justin, the glee with which Tanner beats up his former fellow gang member is beautiful to behold—and hints that he has a story too. In this western, it’s clear that all characters will get a voice.

Samantha Colburn as Audry (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

Samantha Colburn as Audry (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

It was also important to the co-creators to create a western that was historically accurate. To that end they were helped by the team at Caravan Western Productions movie ranch, with Peter Sherayko as technical consultant and all-around wrangler of all things western. (No stranger to the genre, Sherayko played “Texas Jack” Vermillion in Tombstone and has written prized books about the guns and gear of western films.)

Most of the cast had experience shooting guns and riding horses, so with Caravan’s help they trained in using period guns as casually as outlaws would, while keeping up with modern-day notions like safety. No doubt smartphones were turned off while the actors were in character, but one story I liked was about how one actor read Moby-Dick to get into the mood. (Of course! Man versus non-Disneyland nature.)

Aaron Lyons as Tanner (left) and Samantha Colburn as Audry (right) (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

Aaron Lyons as Tanner (left) and Samantha Colburn as Audry (right) (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

There’s always a story in why a modern-day artist will choose to work with this genre—westerns are often viewed as fusty, dusty, racist, cardboard-cutout cheeseball fluff. (And yup, some of them are.) For Jared and John, watching westerns as kids gave them a familiarity with the bones of the genre and classic mid-century episodic storytelling. Jared grew up watching reruns of 1950s heroes Roy Rogers as well as Gunsmoke and The Long Ranger. Both John and Jared learned to ride horses early on (this seems to be quite the pattern for people who write/film westerns), but quick fact you can surprise him with if you meet him: he learned on a Shetland pony (aw!), graduating to a mustang when he was ready (classic!).

Justin America will eventually find his town and will get a chance to clear his name—just not the way he was planning. And there will be a bounty hunter . . . and a cattle drive . . . and Justin will cross the western region of the continent, from plains to desert to canyons to towns fueled by railroad expansion, along the lines of Deadwood’s den of iniquity (filmed at Melody Ranch, on the short list of possible set locations) or Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman’s town (filmed at Paramount Ranch, another on the short list of possibilities).

There will be at least one scene in a saloon (because, duh, a western without a scene in a saloon with a guy or gal huskily saying, “Give me a whiskey,” is not really a western). This the co-creators know well, but they also know their characters have hidden quirks and depths. When their grim-visaged man or woman glares around the saloon and orders something, they have a feeling it might not be “the usual.” Tea with sugar? Dynamite? Whatever it is, it’ll be unexpected, the way the real west always is.

Justin America is an American story in a distinctly American genre in a perfect western style, with a minimum of words. This is the first episode of what I hope will be many. Buckos and buckarettes, watch it, tweet about it, Facebook page like the darn thing! Because studios should know westerns have fans. And OMG I HAVE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.

Justin America’s pilot episode is just a click—and the ching of a spur away.

 

And more western trivia, because I had to ask

Favorite films??

Jared’s a John Ford fan, with The Searchers and Stagecoach high up on his list, which also includes 2007’s 3:10 to YumaTombstone, Unforgiven, and Once Upon a Time in the West. John Wayne’s 1973 western The Train Robbers, he says, was of particular interest in the creation of Justin America, as it also incorporates some fantastical elements of the west as well as typical western history and great John Wayne–worthy lines. John is a spaghetti western fan, appreciating 1966’s Django and the epic oater Once Upon a Time in the West, among others.

Favorite western wear???

Jared says cowboy hats while writing is key—also very useful for directing for the same reasons cowboys wore them since time immemorial—good against sun and rain, wind and dust. John’s trusty Justin boots see him through all tasks. (And I heartily agree. If you can’t do something in cowboy boots, it probably isn’t worth doing at all.)

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Less Talk, More Action; or, The Gimlet-Eyed Beauty of Buying Cowboys

The silence of a cowboy-hatted western hero speaks volumes.

cowboy says little does much

This ad for billboards–discovered on a NYC avenue–says it all: if you have to explain yourself, you might as well herd toenail fungus for a living.

So the best of the best buckos never use more words when fewer will do.

In the best of the best westerns, just unadulterated looks could kill.  (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966)

good bad ugly montage

 

(Although check this out–here is one western hero who talked for a living: Wyatt Earp sold his story–some of it true–for books and films.)

Wyatt Earp, age 79, 1923. Still a badass.

Wyatt Earp, age 79, 1923.

But he was unusual. Many western heroes were like the masterful cowboys that Gary Cooper played, able to melt women with a single glance. Remember: No Words!!!! They defeat the purpose of melting the womenfolk! (The Virginian, 1929)

 

Gary Cooper Virginian

 

Most just badassed their opponents with a cold, hard stare. Exhibit A: Woody Strode practicing before Harmonica gets into town. (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968)

woody strode

 

“Say your prayers varmint … dead rabbits tell no tales…“Say yer prayers ya long eared galoot!…Oooo … that gastronomic, epicure, culinary crepe suzette–I hate him!”

OK, except for this guy… But think about it: in the world of Rabbit versus Yosemite Sam, who always wins? Not the talker.

 

Bugs Bunny Rides Again showdown

 

So it’s clear that advertising has always known what it’s doing when it slaps cowboy duds on an ad campaign: You’re a winner! You make things happen in boardrooms and on the frontier!

(And good thing they used scare quotes so we know for sure that the cereal wasn’t actually shot from guns…)

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And what got me on this tangent? Just an item I HAD to purchase. It  screamed “western hero!”

 

lunchbox end shooting cowboy

 

Because nothing says “I’m a big cocky superboss gunslinger with six-guns the size of Texas…

 

lunchbox cowboy side

 

…like a lunchbox with “Cowboy” on it.

 

 

Wild, Wildebeest West; or, When Wagon Train Jumped the Gnu

Sometimes it  takes just a split second to realize (or remember) that those peddling the western mythos in the middle of last century thought their audience–the common folk eating TV dinners on vinyl poufs–were idiots.

I know full well that our nostalgia for westerns and the monolithic western hero is only made possible by crafty screenwriting and well-rehearsed shootouts with blanks (and, one hopes, unionized labor for cast and crew). But I always believed that the mythmakers had at least some, well, respect for western fans. Especially those honchos behind TV’s classic Wagon Train, whose creaky scripts and stock footage of the same old crooked tree at the mountain pass yet again would’ve cancelled the show, but for  the wellspring of affection from the many Wagon Train groupies.

Speaking of groupie, let me just pause a moment for a Robert Horton moment!!!

shirtless_robert horton

I was settling in with a shot (ahem, or three) of whiskey, ready to soak up the bromance between Seth Adams and Flint McCollough–in the second season of Wagon Train they’re often spatting at each other, figuring out who was on top–when a buffalo was shot by one of the men on the wagon train, and my nostalgia was punctured like a proverbial balloon.

“Did you see that?” I asked my urban cowboy. He had not. I stepped the scene back a few frames and paused it.

“That’s a wildebeest,” he said. “Not a buffalo.”

And he was right. And the mystery that obsessed me, that snatched away my concentration from the strutting Flint and Seth, was the question of all questions: A wildebeest? Really?

“The Tent City Story” aired December 10, 1958. Seth Adams (Ward Bond), in his second season leading pioneers westward, had forbidden those on the train  to kill any game while crossing a warlike Native American tribe’s lands. Sure enough, one of them shoots a buffalo, sparking a confrontation that threatens to wipe out the wagon train, and, much more importantly, destroy the wonderful friendship of wagon master and scout, Flint McCollough.

Seth Adams shackles the man in irons, a harsh punishment that brings out the fire in Flint and causes the scout to leave the wagon train and fall into a job as lawman for a wild and woolly tent city. There’re pretty women (“Flint…that’s a nice name…”) and gunfire and a fight in the mud between a warrior chief White Eagle and Flint (whoo!). Slim Pickens has a short turn as a hapless man who’s also killed game on tribal lands, allowing Flint to show that he is less of a hardass than Seth Adams. All in all, it’s a fine episode that lets Ward Bond roar and Robert Horton grit his jaw and character actor Slim Pickens do a muted refinement of his schtick. Everything a fan can ask for!!!

But that wildebeest…dang, guys.

Scene opens, man gallops down trail. Smiles. (And sorry for the crappy screenshots–had to use Youtube…)

Wagon train man on horseback

Wagon Train Smile man on horseSees herd of bovids. (Least they had the family right.)

Wagon Train wildebeest

Shoots one. (Squeamish note: Animals were totally, utterly harmed in this stock footage from the wilds of Africa.)

Wagon Train shot wildebeest

A brief pause for a science lesson.

Connochaetes taurinus:

Photo by Stig Nygaard

Photo by Stig Nygaard

Bison bison:

Photo (c) 2004 es. Buffalo exhibit, Nebraska City

Photo (c) 2004 es. Buffalo exhibit, Nebraska City

I thought their wagons had taken a wrong turn to another continent at Idaho? Or White Eagle’s tribe had taken to caring for exotic animals from a zoo? But then the man walked up to the dead stuffed buffalo, a bovid of North America, and I knew.

Wagon train stuffed dead buffalo

Viewers are kind of idiots.

Even in 2013. Example 1: there are TV shows where car chases through NYC landmarks are geographically impossible. Who cares? it’s all about the chase in NYC/Toronto streets. Example 2: Recently my urban cowboy missed the point of a movie because he was arguing about why the protagonist had driven from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon to Tucson–I told him just think “Arizona” and get back to the movie.

So who’s the idiot–the audience that goes with the flow, suspending disbelief, or the viewer who knows too much for his or her own good?

But a wildebeest?! I draw the line.

Did viewers back then notice the switcheroo? Did scores of families watching this not blink an eye at the sleight of hand with these massive land mammals? Did they not know the difference?

But can you really blame the creatives who made the scene in 1958? Bison had been protected for years, so there was probably no footage of a buffalo being shot that could be found for the lightning-speed-need of the TV production world. (A wildebeest being killed, on the other hand, was obviously far easier to find.) I pulled at my whiskey and brooded. Then thought, “Brilliant.” Clearly another directorial gem that allowed this episode to live in my brain far longer than it deserved. I downed the shot. Poured another. Toasted the wild western wildebeest and wild, wild Wagon Train.

Flint McCollough (Robert Horton): He’s yelled at me for the last time. I’ve got a little pride too, you know.

Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath): Between the pride you’ve got, and the pride he’s got, you both lost a good friend. You were good friends, you know.