Tuesday, December 30, 2008

“Traitor of the Natchez Trace” by Ryerson Johnson

“Traitor of the Natchez Trace” by Ryerson Johnson (10-Story Western, issue unknown, 1943; reprinted in The Best Western Stories of Ryerson Johnson [Thorndike, Maine: GK Hall & Co., 1990] edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg).

Once upon a time I was surprised to learn that Kenneth Robeson, the author of Doc Savage and the Avenger, did not truly exist. Instead, Lester Dent was the scripter of all those Doc Savage novels, and Paul Ernst was the Avenger’s author.

Then I was surprised again, later, to learn that Lester Dent wasn’t alone in writing Doc’s adventures; Ryerson Johnson was one of the ghost writers for the series. Still later I was less surprised and more interested to learn that Johnson wrote extensively outside the hero-pulp field, primarily in the arena of north-westerns. As I’ve read more of these latter tales in the past few years, I’ve come to prefer these stories to Johnson’s Doc Savage work.

“Traitor of the Natchez Trace” is actually not a north-western. Instead, it’s a frontier story -- not a western, really, because it’s set along the Natchez Trace (thus the title) when the Mississippi River was consider The West. I enjoy tales like this, which take place outside the typical western formula and include a bit of history or cultural information as additional narrative color to create a stronger verisimilitude. A lot of stories by Les Savage, Jr., are similar in this regard -- tales about some aspect of western history that hasn’t become cliché because of overexposure in stories or movies.

In this story, Johnson relies on a variation of the theme “The Mail Must Go Through.” The Natchez Trace is full of rascals, rogues, and outlaws who rob and murder those traveling along the trail. Many are farmers and such who travel down the river on flatboats to New Orleans with goods to sell; when they return north over land, the robbers take the currency they’ve earned by selling their wares. The two outlaws who feature in Johnson’s story, Big Yellen and Little Yellen, seem based (at least in part) on two actual robber-murderers (who would have been classified serial killers today), the Harpe Brothers -- Big Harpe and Little Harpe -- who operated in Tennessee and Kentucky in the late 1790s.

The hero of the story is a mail carrier who travels the Trace both directions. He has an uneasy truce with the outlaws along the trail because he fills them in on the news from the towns he visits. They let him travel unmolested because he doesn’t turn them in, but he does not help them either -- he won’t tell them when he knows of moneyed travelers on the Trace. This truce exists so the mail can go through. Yet the mail carrier is held in suspicion by both the lawful and the unlawful.

One day the Yellens have had enough. Stopped and searched by Little Yellen, the disgruntled mail carrier continues on his way North, only to meet a man hiding from the outlaws and who tells the carrier he has a bag of money he earned down south. He begs the mail carrier for help getting safely past the outlaws with his money so he and his neighbors can save their homesteads from foreclosure. Against his better judgment, the mail carrier agrees to help, primarily because he’s fed up with the outlaws and the legal authorities’ lack of gumption in taming the Trace.

Complications ensue when Little Yellen unexpectedly shows up again and is shot and killed. The mail carrier and the farmer must figure out how to face Big Yellen, whom they know awaits farther along the trail.

Johnson builds a nice tale in describing their solution, laying out the history and setting for the narrative, and resolving the conundrums the mail carrier encounters. He throws in some history, some interesting characters, and tells his story in a lively way. As with other Johnson stories that were published in genre-specific pulp magazines, “Traitor of the Natchez Trace” would have fit just fine on the pages of that king of pulps, Adventure Magazine. It has the ring of authenticity that was so important to the editors of that publication and that pleases the discerning western reader.

I've added a category page to The Spur & Lock Spinner Rack for some of Johnson's stories.

The murderous Harpe brothers, on whom Johnson based his Natchez Trace bad guys, are the subjects of many books and Internet pages. In some cases legend is difficult to unravel from fact. Click here for info from the Illinois History site, "Frontier serial killers: The Harpes."

Click here for The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, "MICAJAH 'BIG"'(ca. 1768-1799) AND WILEY 'LITTLE' HARPE (ca. 1770-1804)."

The Court TV Crime Library has a chapter on the Harpes: "These killing cousins raped, thieved and [word missing] their way around frontier-era Tennessee and Kentucky with astonishing cruelty, cutting the throats of babies, bashing in the heads of children, killing more for pleasure than plunder." Click here to learn more.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

“The Devil and Strap Buckner” by Evan Lewis

Except for the infrequent appearance of new anthologies of western short stories -- which typically include a mix of new tales and reprints -- the outlets for short-form western fiction have dwindled drastically from the days when pulp-paper magazines appeared fresh on newsstands every week with new adventures to thrill and encourage a chuckle from readers for the grand sum of 10 cents.

Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine was published weekly with cover-featured stories by Max Brand (Frederick Faust) and Walt Coburn; Dime Western, Star Western, Frontier, Lariat, and many others brought readers stories by authors whose names continue to appear on new paperback compilations -- Les Savage, Jr.; Dane Coolidge; Dan Cushman; Peter Dawson; T.T. Flynn; Ernest Haycox; Robert J. Horton; William Colt MacDonald; and more.

Even slick-paper magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Liberty included westerns by Luke Short, Zane Grey, Alan LeMay, and others.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that westerns probably accounted for more ink being pressed onto pages than any other genre of fiction. That’s certainly not the case now.

But short western fiction has an online presence at a few Web sites. Rope and Wire is one, which I’ll examine in a future post. Another, Reflection’s Edge, isn’t dedicated to westerns alone, but spotlights a number of genres. (It seems to lean more toward SF and fantasy, but some western work can be found there.)

Fans of western reading shouldn’t dismiss all online fiction simply because it doesn’t have the permanence of a bound format. There’s a lot of good reading to be had from online sources.

For instance, “The Devil and Strap Buckner,” by Evan Lewis, is a dandy western tale on the Reflection’s Edge site from its November 2008 “issue.” It would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any tall tale that you might find in the pages of Western Story Magazine, Argosy magazine, Short Stories magazine, or any number of others in their heydays.

According to an endnote from Lewis, “Aylett 'Strap' Buckner was a real life Texas hero who became a legend. The story of his fight with the Devil began as oral tradition and first saw print in 1877.” Lewis’ take on the tale is humorous and larger than life, with the right amount of exaggeration and verisimilitude to give any reader a smile and maybe an outloud laugh. The story has an oral quality that appropriately captures the spirit of the tale’s history, and it’s debunking slant (for want of a better term) is right in line with the traditions of this sort of storytelling.

Here’s a pleasant passage that captures the story’s flavor:

To call Strap big was a major understatement, like saying the ocean is wide or the sky is high. Seated there on that log, he might have been mistaken for a mountain with a hat on. Add to this his flame-red hair and freckles, and he was altogether an extraordinary sight.

Strap took a draught from the barrel he used for a whiskey mug, and let out a belch that singed my whiskers. The blacksmith, who had been directly in its path, picked himself up off his keister and began slapping dust from his breeches.

"It works thusly," I said. "Each time a new man moves into the colony, Strap knocks him down. This reminds us lesser mortals what'll result if we don't behave well toward one another." I aimed my pipe stem at the blacksmith. "Since you, mister, have already been knocked down, we'll just proceed to the next feller in your party."

This “Strap Buckner” story reminds us that good western tales aren’t focused just on horses and gunplay. The western is more universal than what's captured in that limited description: it encompasses romance, elegy, tomfoolery, epiphany, heartbreak, war, and more. I hope we’ll soon see more work from Lewis.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Spur & Lock's Spinner Rack

The Mercantile has added a book store -- what I call the Spinner Rack -- to provide links to books at Amazon.com. I've used one of Amazon's widgets to build this book store. I'll add items to the Spinner Rack as I add posts to the Mercantile's inventory. The Spinner Rack provides an easy way for Mercantile patrons to check into titles discussed here. If you purchase an item reached through the Spinner Rack links, or any other item during the same Amazon session, you'll also drop a few pennies into the Mercantile's till to help support our efforts, for which we thank you kindly.

The Spinner Rack's link is the top link in the list of "Sites We Like," on the left side of the screen under "Why We're Here." The first category page we've stocked on the Spinner Rack is westerns by Lewis B. Patten, the author most recently read and discussed by the WWWA. You can also reach the Spinner Rack at this URL:

Thanks for your patronage and support. Now, why are you sitting there reading this? Go read more westerns!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The WWWA reads The Cheyenne Pool by Lewis Patten

Okay, here is the inaugural posting from the Mercantile’s reading group, The Woodstove Whittlers and Wrangling Association. You may want to wear your boots, as the muck sometimes gets high in the course of these meetings.

The reading group has been busy fussing over the merits (or the opposite) of a few volumes during the past months. Most activity occurs during the winter, but occasional discussions take place in the rest of the year. The reading group was the idea of Adolphus Husky -- he wanted an excuse to tell his wife whenever she claimed he was being lazy sitting around the woodstove at the Mercantile all winter; by participating in the rigorous and vigorous debates on literature, Adolphus could say he was expanding his mind. When he played this tactic one day at the dinner table, his wife, Renee, then asked if his mind would need a longer belt by the middle of February, just like his britches do each year.

While discussions were lively this past winter among the Association members, there were no violent outbursts of grub-throwing as when the topic of Brokeback Mountain came up -- all vittles stayed in the pot and on the plates these recent weeks. (However, more than one discerning critic suggested that Pickle Pennington was making a silent and subliminal derogatory remark about a colleague's comments on a storyteller’s abilities when he wiped his mouth on his flannel sleeve after eating the homemade apple fritter contributed to a recent potluck. Harsh words followed until cooler minds served the ice cream.)

But these sorts of warm discussions keep the chill off while the snow wheels around outside the front door. So without further ado, here is one of the books the Association tackled this past winter.

The Cheyenne Pool by Lewis B. Patten
This is the first book by Patten the Association read. Buell, oldest of the Barlow brothers, had heard good things about his work, so we all agreed it was time to give it a try.

This is a well-written, traditional western by this prolific author. A group of cattle owners (the Cheyenne Pool) are keeping smaller ranchers off free range illegally by preventing other folks from filing claims on the land with their hired muscle. The primary character is Dan Foxworthy, foreman for the Pool. Trouble starts when Foxworthy kills a cow belonging to one of the small ranchers as a warning not to rustle any more beef from the Pool. The novel follows Foxworthy’s change from a hard-boiled, I’m-number-one type of character to a more likeable, more introspective and thoughtful man who decides to make amends for the trouble his fiery temper has caused.

This tale has a hard-boiled quality that suggests Patten was a follower of Luke Short's style of tough-guy cowboy stories. The assembled members of the WWWA appreciated this manly, stoic, don't-give-me-no-guff characterization, although Adolphus mentioned at one point, "You could just see early on this kind of behavior was gonna get Foxworthy in trouble later." Waldo Grinter hooted and said that type of feller needed trouble to come his way to keep him tough. General discussions erupted about what "manly" really should mean, and Buell Barlow pointed out that fire tempers and strengthens iron. Pickle Pennington snorted and said the character's name was Foxworthy, not Fireworthy, and Buell should pay better attention to the page. Adolphus said Foxworthy was proper in taking no guff off anyone. Conversation got louder after that, and the spit sometimes didn't make it all the way to the spittoons, but by the time dusk fell and things quieted a bit -- that is, when Renee Husky arrived and informed Adolphus the furnace pilot light needed a fresh match put to it -- everyone agreed this was a fine selection for the group, and likely we'd be reading more by Patten in the future.

Some of Patten's books have been reprinted the last few years in large print library editions, so you don't just have to haunt used bookstores and thrift shops for his titles these days. Unfortunately, the most recent edition of The Cheyenne Pool appeared in 1993, so may be tougher to locate. You can check out its availability at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Introducing the Woodstove Whittlers and Wrangling Association

Welcome to the Spur & Lock Mercantile and Sundries Emporium. Have a seat and pick up a stick for whittlin’. Please remember to bring your own whetstones, and don’t spit on the floor, but aim for the cuspidors, located ubiquitously about the store. And before you decide on a course of action or speech directed toward a fellow store-sitter that may result in strong words or fisticuffs, please ask yourself, “What would Roy Rogers do?”

The Woodstove Whittlers and Wrangling Association is the Mercantile’s reading group. Discussion is lively, members are opinionated, and the snacks are tasty. On occasion the Top Hand will allow the WWWA members to post a report of their discussions. Feel free to join in. (Fair warnin': if you think your opinion might turn out to be off-trail to those others expressed by the group, you might be wise to grease the wheels and jollify the crowd by bringing along a nice chocolate cake or blackberry cobbler to the meeting.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Appeal of the Western

Western stories probably covered more magazine pages with ink than any other sort of story. Even before the dime novels focusing on the fictionalized heroics of Buffalo Bill and Jesse James, there were the so-called “almanacks” carrying tall tales about Davy Crockett. Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century the dime novel format evolved to that of the pulp magazine. The general interest fiction magazines like Munsey’s and Argosy carried western stories, but the magazines dedicated to western fiction also had their places, with Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine perhaps the best known.

There were many, many pulps devoted solely to western fiction -- some general western magazines, such as S&S Western Story Magazine and Dime Western, and others that took a cue from the hero pulps, like Pete Rice Western, Rio Kid Western, and Texas Rangers magazine. And westerns also appeared in magazines like All-Story, Adventure, Argosy, and Blue Book. In fact, one of the longest-lasting pulps was a western: Ranch Romances, which finally ended its run in 1971.

Popular contemporary authors had their career starts in these publications -- among them Elmore Leonard, Louis L'Amour, and Elmer Kelton. And classic western writers who remain in high regard today, had work first published on pulp paper -- Zane Grey, Max Brand, Les Savage, Luke Short, and many more.

The appeal of the west to a popular audience began with the dime novels in the second half of the 19th Century. These featured heroes based on historical figures -- Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, and so on -- but you can be sure that their fictional exploits took great license with the actual facts of their real-world counterparts' lives.

The appeal of the western story did not diminish with the growth of the new century. Readers continued to appreciate stories of good versus bad in a frontier setting, even as the real world exploded into war, sank into economic depression, and marched to war again. Year after year, new writers churned out new stories based on the old themes to fill issue after issue of pulp paper magazines and eventually slick-paper magazines, such as Colliers and Saturday Evening Post. From the pages of the latter publication came stories that were the basis of some classic movie westerns: The Searchers by Alan LeMay, Blood on the Moon by Luke Short. Although fewer western movies are made these days, the western still resonates in the mind.