An occasional look at the West, wild and otherwise, in fiction and nonfiction, comics, moving pictures, radio, music, and in ways yet determined or created. Caveat lector: Irregular postings from The Woodstove Whittlers and Wrangling Association may include a tall tale whose veracity may be difficult to ascertain, but whose sincerity should never be doubted. This blog may go on unexpected hiatus due to natural disasters, stampedes, seasonal roundups, or spontaneous potluck suppers. (Oh, and everything here is copyright Duane Spurlock unless otherwise noted.)
Western fans may be interested in my new tale, Fighting Alaska, an entry in the Fight Card series. Although it focuses on a NorthWestern setting, its action begins in the Texas Panhandle.
Set in 1900, Fighting Alaska tells the tale of a reluctant fighter's trip to the Alaskan gold rush. On the way, he encounters a fictional hero who may be recognized by fans of TV westerns from the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as historical folks like Wyatt Earp, Rex Beach, and Tex Rickard.
You can find the ebook version now at Amazon. You can reach it by clicking here. (For those who prefer paper and ink over Kindle pages, the print version should be available soon.)
You can also find my article on writing Fighting Alaska, "A Fighter's Trail to the Alaskan Gold Rush," at the Fight Card site. Read the article to find out why Charles Bronson's photo is included with this post. Click here to visit the site and see the article.
Allan Vaughan Elston was a writer for the pulps--remembered primarily today as a writer of westerns--who also wrote for TV. Apparently, according to the Wyoming Author's Wiki, he's claimed by Wyoming, although he was born July 28, 1887 in Kansas City, Missouri, and died October 21, 1976 in Santa Ana, California. The Wyoming Author's Wiki page also includes a nice listing of Elston's books.
His papers are housed by the UCLA Special Collections at the Charles E. Young Research Library. You can find a tidy biographical summary at the Social Archive maintained by the University of Virginia. Elston lived a varied and interesting life.
Elston wrote extensively for the pulps. However, the passage from The Sheriff of San Miquel I quote below originally saw print in the Toronto Star Weekly, a newspaper supplement, of December 18, 1948. It was later published in book form by J.B. Lippincott Company in 1949. That's my source for this example of vigorous pulp prose. Elston demonstrates his mastery and his confidence by describing in a very elegant manner a character who could easily be described in a moment with clichés:
. . . through the veins of each ran generations of an impulse called sporting blood. Alfredo was a Mexican of the ruling class, directly descended from the original Conquerors. He was only twenty-eight years old, with a face smooth, olive and gentle, a mustache thin and black, flashing dark eyes and mellow, courteous speech. In build he was slight, in feature delicate, in dress quietly elegant. Nothing visible to the eye gave evidence that he was sheriff of San Miguel County. Being a scion of los ricos and the owner of a great rancho, he had no need for the pay of a sheriff. But he liked hazard and excitement. That too was in his blood. His trimly fitting vest showed no badge. The badge was in his pocket, along with his cigarillos and watch. His slender waist showed no belt or gun. But a gun was on him somewhere, and upon certain occasion Alfred Baca had been known to produce it with eye-baffling celerity. His real weapons were dignity, self-confidence and a reputation for being utterly fearless. Once he'd walked into this very bar to arrest an outlaw. Showing no gun, he'd merely taken from his pocket a sheriff's badge and exposed it in the palm of his hand. "I am Alfredo Baca. You will follow me, senor." Whereupon, taking obedience for granted, he had turned his back on the outlaw and walked three blocks to the carcel. "After you, senor." And the wanted man, two guns and all, had marched sullenly in.
Iron Men and Silver Stars
Gold Medal, Greenwich, Conn. (Fawcett Publications: 1967)
Donald Hamilton is known among PBO readers and Gold Medal collectors as a writer of vigorous prose, dramatic situations, careful plotting, well-delineated characters with realistic, human personalities and reactions. He's best known as the creator of the Matt Helm series of thrillers. But he's also a writer of westerns.
Based on this last qualification -- and probably to capitalize on the popularity of the Helm novels -- Fawcett had Hamilton edit a western anthology, Iron Men and Silver Stars.
The collection opens with a slight piece by the editor about writing westerns, originally published in the Western Writers of America's April 1956 issue of The Roundup. But everything that follows that preface is a fine example of solid writing by masters of the short prose form. I'll share a few opening paragraphs to demonstrate the energetic, engaging qualities of the writing in this book:
"Green Wounds," Carter Travis Young
He was a big, easy man with a way of relaxing completely that was rare in Burt Haskins' experience. Strangers just didn't settle down on the other side of the sheriff's scarred oak desk and act like they'd come home! (p. 11)
"Epitaph," Tom W. Blackburn
The man in overalls could run like a rabbit. He was shifty on his feet and fast as hell, but he was a sitting duck, just the same. Like the shot Jack Dall had put through his hat inside the Pioneer Bar when the fellow had loudly claimed the marshal of Fort Sand was a saloon marshal, Dall's shots here on the street were precisely planted. A warning, a chastisement, stinging the man's heels, driving him to a more frantic retreat. There was only one way to rule a turbulent town.
"In the Line of Duty," Elmer Kelton
The two horsemen came west over the deep-rutted wagon road from Austin, their halterless Mexican packmule following like a dog, its busy ears pointing toward everything which aroused its active curiosity.
"Coward's Canyon," John Prescott
Jimmy Conroy's mouth was dry and sour in an acid-like way and the jogging of his horse intensified it in some way. The bullet-laden bandoliers, crossing at his breastbone, the big Frontier Colt, slapping at his thigh, and the buck-loaded double shotgun in his scabbard, all dragged their weight upon him in a nagging way, and failed to provide him with the assurance he thought he should expect of them. If he alone of the posse had felt this weight of fear he might have drawn sustenance from the others, but in three days they had lost two men from ambush, and he could tell they all felt the thing by now.
Each of these paragraphs sets a stage for a compact drama that will engage the reader in a narrative as compelling as a novel-length work, but with fewer words. To simply call these pieces short stories denies the energy and craft evident in each. They are all small but potent bursts of narrative magic.
Once upon a time, the western short story ruled the publishing market. Tons of ink and paper were devoted to satisfying the reading public's desire for more western fare.
Options for placing western short stories are far fewer now. But the examples in Iron Men and Silver Stars provide a picture of a time -- late in the heyday, to be sure, but still viable at the time -- when the western short story still commanded respect in the mainstream publishing industry.
Thorndike, Maine (Thorndike Press, 1992). Originally
Many western readers know Peter Dawson is the nom de plume
of Johnathan H. Glidden, brother to Frederick Glidden, better known as Luke
Short. The latter may be the more-recognized name, because a number of his
stories were adapted into well-remembered Hollywood movies, and Short had a
strong career as a writer for the slicks.
Dawson had a long career of his own. I recently read a trio
of his stories in Ghost Brand of the Wishbones,
and as a result wanted to try out a novel-length work by him.
The stories in Ghost Brand were entertaining, but their
artifice as stories was evident: the cause-and-effect of the action that moved
the plot seemed a little forced, as did the romantic elements of the stories.
Something organic was missing. I wondered if the limited lengths of the stories
might have played a part in Dawson’s narratives seeming a bit stilted, and if a
longer form -- the novel -- might allow him more room to build and develop his
story and characters more naturally.
In reading High Country, I think my intuition was correct.
The novel features Jim Sherill’s plans to sell a herd of
horses to prove his worth to the self-proclaimed Commodore Lovelace, a
riverboat magnate, so he may take the hand of the Commodore’s daughter, Ruth,
in marriage. Jim’s plans are thwarted when his herd is stolen. He tracks down
the rustlers, insinuates his way into their camp with a story that they can
throw in together and make money selling stolen horses from Canada to the Army
in nearby Whitewater, and can also send horses rustled nearby from the region for
sale up in Canada.
Along the way, he meets Jean Ruick, running her father’s
ranch after the old man’s death with the help of a trusted old hand, Brick, and her
uncle, Caleb Donovan, whom she doesn’t quite trust. Jim falls for Jean after he
realizes how shallow Ruth actually is and how greedy and domineering the
Commodore truly is -- infatuation had blinded Jim to the faults of both, and
Jean’s integrity and honesty strike home at his heart.
In the course of the novel, Jim wins over one of the
rustler’s lieutenants, and the two steal back Jim’s herd. Donovan’s involvement
in the rustling is revealed, and Jim loses his herd again -- and Jean’s trusted
hand, Brick, is murdered.
If this plot sounds convoluted, it’s so only because I’ve
condensed the narrative so concisely. Peter Dawson pulls it all off very
nicely. In the limited confines of a short story or novelette, this plot
wouldn’t have worked at all. But in the more forgiving parameters of a novel,
Dawson uses the larger narrative space to construct a world, a situation, with
fully developed characters and with appropriate pacing to end up with a very
By the end of the tale, we reach a very satisfactory wrap
up. The bad guys get their deserved comeuppance, and the weary and hard-working
good guys -- and gals -- end up in one another’s arms.
I’m pleased that my curiosity led me to try out Dawson’s
efforts in the longer form. I’m also pleased to say that I’ll be looking for
more Peter Dawson novels to read.