Sunday, December 29, 2019

Comanche Moon by William R. Cox

The 2nd printing of the Signet paperback edition.
(The 1st printing was in 1961, but the 75 cents
tag suggests this came later in the decade.)
My copy looks more beat-up than this one.

I didn’t know William R. Cox’s name when I first encountered his writing. It was a novel featuring drifting Thomas Buchanan, a self-proclaimed “peaceable man” who somehow ends up in trouble—usually someone else’s trouble, but it’s someone who must rely on Buchanan to clear up the mess. The Buchanan series of westerns was published by Fawcett-Gold Medal—currently Piccadilly Publishing is re-releasing the novels in the ebooks format—as written by Jonas Ward. William Ard created the series, the first novel of which was published in 1956. Ard completed only five books in the series. He died while writing the sixth, Buchanan on the Prod, which was finished by Robert Silverberg. Brian Garfield, immersed in writing westerns before publishing his breakout novel (DeathWish), wrote the next—Buchanan’s Gun, and Cox took over the series with Buchanan’s War (1971). He ended up writing more Buchanans than Ard, a total of sixteen books. To be honest, I prefer Cox’s Buchanan to Ard’s version.

Comanche Moon was published under Cox’s name in 1959, twelve years before Fawcett released his first Buchanan. The earlier book develops a tone that is harder-boiled than the overall feel of most Buchanan novels, but includes elements one can see arise later in Cox’s Buchanan tales.

For example, Comanche Moon brings together a disparate group of people—an old plot device even at the time Chaucer used it for TheCanterbury Tales—which happens in several Buchanan stories. Further, Comanche Moon focuses on this group trapped in Comanche Station, a stage-line station halfway between Pecos and El Paso, by a war band of raiding Indians. In 1973’s Buchanan’s Siege, the eponymous hero and a band of allies are trapped by a large gang of badguys.

The main difference in the two books is that the Buchanan stories typically have an identified villain, usually a land baron or crooked banker or swindler working toward a big score. For Comanche Moon, the threat comes from a large gathering of Comanches. Cox makes them essentially faceless and thoroughly vicious presences—think of the attackers in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13—who form the stereotypical savage Indians from innumerable Hollywood oaters. While the massed warriors surrounding the station may not—from Cox’s perspective—consciously represent the nightmarish, primeval wilderness arrayed against the representatives of civilization trapped within their deadly circle (harking to cultural critic and historian Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence [“the eternal presence of the native people of the woods, dark of skin and seemingly dark of mind, mysterious, bloody, cruel”] and literary critic Leslie Fiedler in Loveand Death in the American Novel discussing Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel, Edgar Huntly [“It is not the Indian as social victim that appeals to Brown’s imagination, but the Indian as projection of natural evil and the id; his red men are therefore treated essentially as animals, living extensions of the threat of the wilderness, like the panthers with whom they are associated”]), Cox occasionally describes them in ways that echo these dark shadows that haunt civilization’s dreams. As one character states, “They fight to kill. They try to kill you all over, not just in one place.”

Other passages that demonstrate their bogeyman qualities:

They were riding harder and harder. There were so many of them that it seemed they could ride right through the buildings, sweeping everything away.

They were coming as he remembered a storm marching across a wheat field and it was like shooting at slanting raindrops.

Only three members of this mass of warriors are named. More on them later in this essay.

Another similarity between this novel and the Buchanan series: Comanche Moon’s Luke Post is a small-statured gambler who’s full of chutzpah, savvy about the wily and cowardly ways of cornered men, and quick with a gun; Thomas Buchanan mentions at least once per story his acquaintance with real-life Luke Short, a diminutive cardsharp known for his gun skills. (This is not Luke Short, the pseudonym of prolific pulp- and slick-fictioneer Frederick Glidden. Bat Masterson wrote in 1907 of the actual Short, “Luke was a little fellow, so to speak, about five feet, six inches in height, and weighing in the neighborhood of one hundred and forty pounds. It was a small package, but one of great dynamic force.”  Clearly, Short’s history made quite an impression on author Cox.

Quite different from the easy-going but effective Tom Buchanan is Cox’s ostensible protagonist, Pierce—who initially appears to the reader in the guise of a hard-boiled, amoral anti-hero remarkably savvy about fighting Comanches, but who later is revealed to be haunted by demons even he can’t restrain.

We’re introduced to Pierce as he’s going about his business—collecting Indian scalps that he sells to the Mexican government. It’s an ugly business about which he appears to have no qualms. Indeed, his initial appearance suggests he might fit in very well with the band that marauds its way through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. When his two companions are apparently ambushed by a scouting party—their fate remains unknown, because the two simply disappear after Pierce sends them to surprise an Indian family—Pierce gives no thought to rescuing them or even looking for them before skedaddling to a safer location. It doesn’t matter that the two companions are clearly lowlife-types with no more human regard for their victims than Pierce. That Pierce abandons them to certain death—or, more likely, to horrible torture and then death—with no more consideration than he gives his Comanche victims, immediately frames his character for the reader.

Cox doesn’t even tell us Pierce’s full name. We know only that he’s called White Eye Pierce:
“White Eye,” they called him, because of the rage which made glass of his eyes when he caught them unprepared and killed them and took their hair. They hunted him and he hunted them, and so far as he was concerned that was proper and the way it had to be. There would never be an end to this so long as Josie was alive and with them, never.

Only later in the novel does Pierce fully reveal the source of his hatred. He tells one of the trapped travelers, Ben Tyler—a sympathetic and mostly honorable fellow from the East—how the Comanches had killed his parents when he was young, and made captives of him and his sister, Josie; how they’d repeatedly raped his sister until one of the war chiefs, Bear Head, had taken her as a wife; how Pierce, once he was older, had repeatedly implored Josie to escape with him, but she had refused, pointing to the children she’d borne as tying her to the tribe. The first of these children, Walking Jay, had been the child of one of her rapists and was adopted by Bear Head. And Pierce realized that he’d lost all chance of removing her from the Comanches once she’d become pregnant, but he continually fought an internal battle over the pre-captivity sister he’d adored and the adopted Comanche she’d become and that he hated.

Late in the novel, Pierce encounters and kills Walking Jay, his nephew--and his sister's first-born son. Several times he sees Bear Head guiding the warriors during their attacks. And at least once, Pierce sees his sister at Bear Head's side, encouraging the war chief's efforts. It is a sight that nearly crumbles Pierce's precarious mental state.

Tyler is sympathetic to Pierce’s anguish, and he admires his leadership qualities among the besieged as well as his fighting acumen, but he’s also repulsed by the vile manner by which Pierce expresses his hatred toward the Comanches. Although Tyler is among those trapped by the native warriors, he can’t quite align himself with Pierce’s view that the Comanches are aliens whose existence is completely antithetical to anything non-Comanche.

It is Tyler’s observations of Pierce through the rest of the novel that lift the scalp hunter from a mere two-dimensional hating and killing machine to a fully formed character.

Cox demonstrates his storytelling skill by successfully fleshing out Pierce’s character into a believable personality. The writer truly shines in delineating the other characters trapped at the station. While the scenes of action and violence lend a pulse to the plot that pulls along the reader from Chapter One, it’s the quieter moments of interaction between the twelve men and two women that knit the narrative cords binding the story into a cohesive, entertaining whole. As in the best tales, the tension that builds between characters—builds, ebbs, and sometimes explodes—engages the reader in a way far stronger than the external drama (the surrounding threat of the bloodthirsty Comanches) that frames the visceral scenes within the walls of the station. The emotions, the scheming, the cowardice, the dreaming, the foolishness, the heroics of these fourteen characters are what truly bring Comanche Moon to life. The heightened moments Cox composes inside the surrounded station at times rival those dramatic, claustrophobic, deadly scenes that often mark Harry Whittington’s best-remembered books.

Cox, who wrote scripts for a number of television shows over the years, notes at the novel’s beginning that it originally was developed as a screen treatment. My research turns up no info suggesting the story was ever filmed, but its scenes suggest it could have made a powerful movie. It has all the elements to be such: an outsider protagonist with a troubled past that haunts his present, an ensemble cast with room for a variety of character actors, a dramatic plot. Although Anthony Mann and other directors were making noirish, hard-boiled westerns in this vein during the 1950s, some of Cox’s lurid or sexual details might have had to be diluted for the tale to have made it to the screen at that time. Still, there’s plenty of room for an enterprising director to tackle a motion picture based on Comanche Moon today.

This is a strong, excellent novel composed in the guise of a traditional western. As noted earlier, Piccadilly Publishing is releasing Cox’s Buchanan novels. The company also is releasing another series Cox wrote under his own name—the Cemetery Jones novels—plus a number of Cox’s stand-alone westerns. As of this writing, Comanche Moon isn’t yet one of these, but be on the lookout, as it would surely be a fine addition to their catalog.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Lewis B. Patten's rough-hewn Ruthless Men

According to Wikipedia, The Ruthless Men was the second of four novels written by Lewis B. Patten published in 1959. All were paperback originals. This and one other of the four were published by Fawcett Gold Medal. The other two were published by Avon Books.

Patten had been publishing novels for seven years by this time—his first published story, according to Robert E. Briney in The Best Western Stories of Lewis B. Patten by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg [Southern Illinois University Press: 1987], appeared in the April 1950 issue of Zane Grey’s Western Magazine. According to the “Bibliography of Western Publications,” Ruthless Men was his twenty-first novel for adults (Pronzini and Greenberg)—he’d also written at least three novels for younger readers featuring Gene Autry and Jim Bowie (what we’d call tie-in novels today) for Whitman Books and Big Little Books.

All that preamble is to say, Patten’s apprenticeship was done by 1959. He knew what he was doing as a storyteller of traditional westerns. For the most part, The Ruthless Men demonstrates the truth of that statement. In other ways, it also demonstrates that Patten hadn’t yet achieved mastery in his storytelling efforts. There was still time for that. After all, his last novel wasn’t published until 1980.

The Ruthless Men focuses on Luke Partin, who opens the novel intending to kill a man he’s tracked for days after he follows his trail from the house of a family who’s been butchered. Years before, the family had nursed Luke back to health after he’d been left for dead by Apaches. For Luke, this vengeance trail is a way to repay a debt and assuage his fury.

After Luke succeeds in his quest, his target’s surviving family members set after him on an enraged vendetta. This sets up a long chase-and-fight narrative that drives Luke to the end of his reserves and lets Patten show a character dealing with deadly situations as he nears the end of his rope.

This narrative landscape allows Patten to demonstrate his skills at showing a hero under stress—something he did very well for years in nearly all his books—as Luke must deal with the ramifications of his vengeful ride.

On the other hand, the story relies on melodrama and pulp-magazine-style schemes and strategies for scenes featuring ambush and escape to support its plot. While Patten’s pacing and characterizations keep a strong grip on the reader’s attention, the pulpy flavor of some of the drama shows that his mastery of the traditional western isn’t quite complete. For instance, some of the subtlety Patten would employ in later novels isn’t quite evident here:

Riding away, Nancy Holcomb glanced up at the foot of the rim and saw Luke watching her. She raised a hand, then dropped it abruptly and turned her face away.
She hated him. He was brutal and savage and had probably lied about the man he had killed and about those who were following him.
And yet, if she hated him, why did she feel such shame at leaving him thus? Why did she feel like weeping all over again, just as she had last night? (p. 39)

This is rather simplistic emotional turmoil. It may form the reality of some folks' perceptions at some level, but Patten drops it on the page in a rather raw form, belying his efforts to describe his characters as having more complicated or mature interior lives. The nuanced emotional and psychological portraits readers have come to expect from Gold Medal's genre novels isn't entirely on display here, but the sort of fast-moving action novel that readers look for—or at least I look for—in Fawcett westerns is certainly evident in The Ruthless Men.

Still, these quibbles shouldn’t stop you from seeking and reading this early-ish novel by a writer who would win three Spur Awards and become a master of the traditional western.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

What led to the trail to Santa Fe Passage?

Not the actual Sante Fe Trail. A novel with that title.

While reading a book, I’ll sometimes wonder what prompted the author to write it. Was there some event in the news that capture the nation’s attention? Was there a historical commemoration? Was a Broadway play, a song, or a movie popular in such a way that a writer wanted to ride its coat tails?

The question came to mind while reading Santa Fe Passage by Clay Fisher. I can’t say why I wondered—the Trail is a worthy setting for a novel.

The Trail’s timeframe normally is defined as 1821-1880—an important period bridging the early era of the United States’ establishing itself as a nation to the post-Civil War expansion and settlement of the western territories. The Trail also fueled the country’s economic growth, playing a part in the spread of the U.S. presence and influence westward and southwestward; and the flow of people and goods and money placed markers for future relations with Spain and Mexico. But on the whole, the Trail and its environs seem to be an era rarely explored by writers of traditional westerns (at least compared to the number of novels focused on the Wild West and Trail Drive periods of the nation’s history).

So I did a little research.

Santa Fe Passage was published in 1952 by Houghton Mifflin Company. It also appeared in the April 1952 issue of Esquire illustrated by pulp-and-slick stalwart Walter Baumhofer. Was anything happening in popular culture at the time that may have sparked the writing of Santa Fe Passage?

A Michael Curtiz film, Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey and Ronald Reagan, was released by Warner Brothers in 1940. A little early to have sparked a 1952 novel. A Randolph Scott movie, Santa Fe, was released in 1951 by Columbia Pictures. (Interestingly, Scott had been considered for the lead role in the 1940 film, Santa Fe Trail.) This movie was based on a novel by James Vance Marshall, Santa Fe: The Railroad That Built an Empire, published by Random House in 1945. It’s possible the book may have sparked an idea in Fisher’s creative mind, but more likely the Scott film did so.

Of course, there’s always the possibility Fisher just had a notion about a story independent of any other external stimuli. Clay Fisher is a pseudonym of the prolific Spur Award-winning Will Henry—a name that also is a pseudonym for Henry Wilson Allen. My general perception of a Will Henry novel is that it will be historically accurate and focus on a particular person, event, or thing—like the Santa Fe Trail—that carries some significance. This examined point of significance—what modernist poet Ezra Pound called the “barb of time”—allows Henry to build engaging, entertaining narratives in ways that may be said to elevate his tales from mere genre fiction (the “traditional western” label) to carrying the cachet of “historical fiction.”

Which doesn’t mean Santa Fe Passage doesn’t carry the tropes of melodrama. The story includes a hero, a villain (actually, more than one), romance, and violence.

Sounds like a traditional western, right? This one isn’t about the wild-and-woolly post-war West we expect in most traditional westerns—that is, those novels that fully conform to the genre tropes and expectations typically in place for those novels popularly known as Westerns. It is, instead, a novel set in the pre-Civil War era frontier. It takes place on the Santa Fe Trail—in fact, the characters do not even complete their journey and reach Santa Fe by the book’s end.

The tale focuses on a wagon train heading to Santa Fe from St. Louis. There are a number of conflicts—thanks to an unscrupulous wagon master, Kiowa raiders, terrible weather and bogs, to name only a few. One suspects Fisher pulled unfortunate events from every published history of the trail and crammed ‘em all into this single journey. Even if that is true, the travails have the feel of authenticity—particularly if one has also read some of the journals written by the Trail’s actual travelers. Fisher accomplishes the storyteller’s goal: the story is filled with incidents told at an interesting pace, making for an entertaining read.

The hero and his sidekick are Kirby Randolph and Sam Beekman, mountain men who’ve come east to civilization—in this case, St. Louis—after a long spell in the wilderness. They remind me a bit of the two male leads in David Thompson’s (David Robbins’) Wilderness series of books, Nathaniel King and Shakespeare McNair. Just as Thompson’s McNair teaches King how to survive and thrive in the frontier, Beekman attempts to mentor Kirby in the ways to live among civilized folks. Kirby’s attempts to shoehorn his oversized personality into the molds crafted by civilized expectations are sometimes humorous, sometimes deadly.

Fisher’s continual reliance on Mountain Main Idiom for Kirby and Beekman’s dialog is colorful but tiresome. David Thompson handles this much more successfully and satisfyingly in his Wilderness series. Here’s a sample from Santa Fe Passage:

“Wal, if them mules is packin’ whut we heered they was, we should ought to have a reular guard commander. When the Kioways and Commanches get the wind of whut’s laced onto them longears, ye’ll have yer hands full jest bossin’, without yer tryin’ to run the camp guard, too.”

“Whut’s on them mules is Company business. I don’t know nothin’ about it. But I’m handlin’ the guard and if ye don’t like it, ye’d best haul out right now.”

An interesting historical note: Santa Fe Passage is set in 1839. Part of the novel’s conflict arises from the transport of a woman—Aurelie St. Clair, Kirby’s eventual romantic interest—along the Trail. Women were few and far between on the actual Trail. For instance, the remarkability of one woman’s trip is documented in Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847 published in 1926. (Magoffin was long described as first woman to travel the trail, but more recent research [1984] by Marian Meyer has turned up documentation that another woman—Mary Donoho [like Magoffin, from Kentucky]—actually made the trip 13 years before Magoffin’s journey, earlier still than Fisher’s fictional passage. You can see my earlier blog post about this account by clicking here.)

I’m going to stray afield—or off-trail—for a bit and mention that Magoffin’s claim to the title of first “American lady” to travel the trail is somewhat spurious based on the cultural biases of the time (indeed, Meyer’s further investigations suggest Magoffin may actually have been the sixth woman): after all, she was accompanied by her maid, Jane, who may have been excluded from consideration because she was a servant, because she wasn’t white, or both. As Kelley Pounds points out in the online version of an article that first appeared in the January/February/March 1998 issue of Calico Trails, “Mary Donoho: The Santa Fe Trail’s New First Lady,”

In Jean M. Burroughs' fictionalized account of Susan Magoffin's life, titled Bride of the Santa Fe Trail, Jane is portrayed as a black woman who had cared for Susan since childhood. If Burroughs' supposition is true, Jane might have been the first African American woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail all the way to Santa Fe. "Black Charlotte," wife of Dick Green and slave to Charles Bent, preceded Jane at least to Bent's Fort, where she worked as a cook in the early 1840s.  According to David Lavender in Bent's Fort, published in 1954, Charlotte supposedly made the claim that she was the "only lady in de whole damn Indian country."

You can read more of Donoho's essay by clicking here.

These historical notes aside, Santa Fe Passage remains an entertaining frontier tale. And as to its possible spark in Fisher’s mind—the question that kicked off this essay—I lean toward thinking it was the release of the Randolph Scott movie Santa Fe in 1951. (Randolph Scott . . . Kirby Randolph. Hmmm.) After all, Fisher—under his actual name of Henry Wilson Allen—worked as a screenwriter for MGM’s animation division. Santa Fe Passage was filmed and released by Republic Pictures in 1955, starring John Payne, Faith Domergue and Rod Cameron. It was directed by Republic stalwart William Witney. Interestingly enough, the script was by Heck Allen—another pseudonym of Henry Wilson Allen.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tex Rickard, boxing promoter

George Lewis Rickard, known as Tex, died January 6, 1959—four days after his 59th birthday.

He was a true entrepreneur. He launched the New York Rangers franchise of the National Hockey League in 1926. He owned the team until his death.

Tex was the primary force behind building the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden in 1925. It was located at Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets in Manhattan.

Rickard was an innovator. Between 1921 and 1927, Tex raised the popularity of boxing by promoting a number of fights for “The Manassa Mauler,” world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. For the Dempsey-Charles Carpentier bout in 1921, Tex was responsible for the first live radio broadcast of a title fight and the first million-dollar fight.

Tex promoted the July 4, 1910 Fight Of The Century in Reno, Nevada, between former heavyweight champion and “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries and reigning heavyweight Jack Johnson. 15,760 fans paid $270,775 to watch the bout. Tex sold the film rights to the match for $101,000.
In 1906, while running a saloon in Goldfield, Nevada, Tex organized the first boxing matches in that state.

After moving to Alaska in 1895 during the Gold Rush, Tex earned and lost several fortunes. As owner of The Northern Saloon in Nome, he befriended famous lawman and gunman Wyatt Earp. And in 1900, he met down-on-his-luck bareknuckle boxer Jean St. Vrain—an encounter that would lead to a very different sort of fight.

You can read about the results of their meeting in FIGHTING ALASKA, a Fight Card book, now in paperback, by clicking here.