Saturday, August 31, 2013



When first asked to write a blog about my favorite Western film, the Lays Potato Chips slogan, "betcha can't eat just one," flashed into my mind. 

Westerns fall into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good ones deliver maximum impact to the storytelling experience. It's difficult to choose from Shane . . . The Magnificent Seven . . . Unforgiven . . . The Good, the Bad and the Ugly . . . The Shootists . . . Tombstone . . . The Wild Bunch . . . High Noon. And, of course, all those Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy films.

At the top of my list is John Ford's The Searchers, a 1956 film ahead of its time. 

The film confronted uncomfortable moral issues - racism and sexism - that American society wouldn't start to address until a couple of decades later. I suppose there's a danger in trying to read too much into a screenplay, but this wasn't just another run-of-the-mill John Ford Cowboys and Indians movie. Of course, I wouldn't appreciate the themes until years later. 

The sometimes-ambiguous story - adapted from a novel by Alan LeMay - centers on an ex-Confederate soldier's long quest to find his nieces, Debbie (Natalie Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott), who were kidnapped by renegade Comanches after they attack and slaughter his brother, beloved sister-in-law, and a young nephew. 

John Wayne, in his most demanding emotional role of all the Westerns he starred in, plays Ethan Edwards, a middle-aged Civil War veteran who returns to the home of his brother three years after the war ends. No explanation is provided about where Ethan has been. He brought with him a quantity of Yankee gold coins that his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) agrees to hide. 

When I first saw the film, I felt a little off-balance watching Wayne's Ethan Edwards.

His role took me by surprise because the kind of man he portrayed was so unexpected --the antithesis of his previous roles as the running', gunnin' mythic Western hero I was so used to seeing and rooting for. From the outset, it's clear that Ethan is a man with demons.

When Ethan finds Lucy's defiled body in a canyon near the Comanche camp, her finance, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr) becomes enraged and recklessly rides into the camp on his own and gets killed. For the next five years, Ethan and his adoptive nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) conduct a relentless search for 16-year old Debbie and for Scar (Henry Brandon), the Comanche chief who abducted her.

Majestic Monument Valley, situated in Northern Arizona and southwestern Utah, serves as Ford's storytelling canvas, and filmed on land belonging to the Navajos.

The valley is a stand-in for a story that takes place in west Texas in 1868. The landscape plays as integral a role in the film as the actors. Its rugged beauty, utter vastness, and emptiness befits Wayne's vengeful character. 

In The Searchers, Wayne delivers Ethan Edwards as an imperfect protagonist--a dark, brooding, mysterious loner whose eyes and words reflect his undisguised hatred of Indians.  

Ironically, Ethan  seems quite familiar with their language and culture. The character, part psychopath and part racist, is layered with complexity. He's a man who hates beyond the grave. When in one scene, for example, the grave of a dead Indian is discovered, Wayne pulls his gun and fires twice, shooting out the dead man's eyes, telling his nephew that if the Indian has no eyes, he'll be doomed to wander in the winds for eternity.

The nephew, by the way, is one-eighth Cherokee. In yet another plot twist, we learn that Ethan was never comfortable with Martin being a part of the brother's family even though Ethan is the one who found Martin when he was abandoned as an infant. 

Ethan and Martin's journey take them to New Mexico Territory where they are lead to Scar. Debbie, they discover, is now an adolescent and one of the chief's wives.

She meets her uncle and half-brother outside the camp and tells them to leave without her because she has become Comanche. Blinded by rage, Ethan tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her from harm.

Ethan is wounded by an Indian arrow, but the two manage to escape, Martin saves his uncle by tending to the wound, but is furious at Ethan's attempt to kill Debbie, and wishes his uncle dead. "That'll be the day," Ethan responds.

We realize Ethan's commitment to rescue Debbie isn't for any humanitarian reason. He feels compelled to kill her because she has become "the leaven's of a Comanche buck."

The two men return home empty-handed, but later learn of Scar's location and resume the search. Under the command of the Revered Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), a makeshift band of Texas Rangers, accompanied by Ethan and Martin, locate the camp.

Clayton plans a direct attack, but allows Martin to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. Martin ends up killing Scar.

Ethan provides the finishing touch by scalping the Comanche leader. 

When Debbie sees Ethan, she tries to escape, and he gives chase. Martin is unable to intervene. 

But, instead of killing her, he takes her in his hands, lifts her to the sky, lowers her to his arms, and says, "Let's go home, Debbie."

A promotional synopsis by Warner Brothers stated that "…in his obsessive five-year quest, Ethan encounters something he didn't expect to find: his own humanity."

This sounds too tidy. Too simplistic.  Ethan Edwards, as far as I'm concerned, is far too conflicted for such a neat one-sentence conclusion. Emotions - pain, loneliness, revenge and hate - don't change or vanish with a snap of a finger.

Debbie's rescue provides no evidence Ethan's racist views toward Indians changed in any way. 

Ford, in several scenes, reveals that atrocities committed by the Indians fueled Ethan's hatred and thirst for revenge. Sixteen years earlier, Ethan's own mother was massacred by Comanches.

At the same time, Scar's viciousness stems from his own appetite for revenge: "Two sons killed by white men. For each son, I take many . . .  scalps."

Ford's symmetrical closing of The Searchers reflects the film's opening. 

The director utilized a framed rectangular doorway to introduce Wayne's character at the beginning. At the conclusion, Ford gives us a view of Ethan holding his arm, then walking away - alone - with the cabin door closing on his receding image. (Check out the video snippets).

Does the healing process begin for Ethan? Maybe or maybe not. I doubt it.

The Searchers enjoyed box-office success. The American Film Institute named it the Greatest American Western of all time, even though it received no major Academy Award nominations.

For some strange reason, the New York Times, in a June 12, 1979, obituary of John Wayne, never once mentioned his role in The Searchers. How it could be ignored is baffling.

This is merely a Cliff notes version of The Searchers. There is so much more to this story and the characters who star in its telling.

Last Stand At Bitter Creek
Finalist: Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award, Best Western First Novel

Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Five With James Reasoner

1. Most exciting day of my life.

There are actually three: the day I married Livia, and the days our two daughters were born. My writing-related runner-up would be the day the box of author copies of my first novel arrived. I don't remember the exact date, but I know it was a warm, sunny day in October 1980. Livia and I were out walking when the UPS truck arrived at our house with a box. When I saw it was from Manor Books, I knew what it was. Sure enough, when I opened it, there were brand-new copies of my first novel. That was quite a rush.

2. My favorite food.

Ice cream. My favorite food for a meal, probably nachos or a really good cheeseburger. I've never been known for my healthy eating habits.

3. My favorite car.

Actually, the Chrysler van and the Honda Element we have now are probably the best vehicles I've ever had. When I was in college I had a Mercury I liked quite a bit. And I have fond memories of a car I never drove, the battleship-gray '56 Ford my parents had when I was a little kid. After they stopped driving it but it was still sitting next to my dad's shop, I spent a lot of time playing in it and pretending to drive.

4. Something you may not know about me.

Although I think I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a writer, when I was in school my plan was to become a history teacher, preferably Texas history. Later, in college, I was going to be a librarian. I guess it all ties together somehow. I've used history in a lot of my books, and I still love libraries.

5. My family's brush with history.

My great-grandfather was born in San Marcos, Texas, and grew up all over central Texas. Once when he was a boy living near Round Rock, his father sent him out to look for some horses that strayed. While he was doing that, he ran into several men, one of whom seemed to be hurt. He was a little afraid of them, but they asked him what he was doing and when he told them, they said for him to go ahead and look for his horses. They rode off, and it was only later he figured out the men were Sam Bass and his gang, on the run from the law after the ambush in Round Rock that ultimately cost Sam Bass his life. (The preceding story is one that my father told frequently. I can't vouch for the truth of it, but it's an interesting family legend, anyway.)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gambling in the Old West #western @JacquieRogers

Gambling in the Old West
by Jacquie Rogers

Gambling in the Old West was not considered a vice as it is today.  People who immigrated risked life and limb, not to mention their life savings, on hitting it rich, whether in land or gold, or both, so it's only reasonable to see why gambling was ubiquitous.  Bat Masterson wrote: "Gambling was a respected profession, almost equal in rank to Medicine and a lot higher than Dentistry and Undertaking."

I'm not a gambler (although there's a casino less than a mile from my house), but my protagonist in Sleight of Heart (High-Stakes Heroes), Burke O'Shaunessey, is a riverboat gambler so I had to delve into the lives and attitudes of the gamblers who left their marks on history.

Westerners bet on anything that moved — how fast it could go and how high it could jump. They bet on foot races, boxing matches, flea-jumping contests, frog-jumping contests, bear and bull matches, dog fights, cock fights, as well as cow-boy tournament events such as saddlebronc riding.

But most of all, westerners like to play the ponies: “Gradually, as wealthy men made a hobby or a sideline of breeding horses, Western races became more carefully orchestrated, the crowds grew and betting flourished. Indeed, gambling and a day at the races became a virtually synonymous. And when Westerners got around to staging formal stakes races the prizes were sometimes much richer than those back East. In 1873 what was billed as “The richest race in the world” was run at Ocean View Park in San Francisco. The winner’s purse was $20,000 paid in gold. In the same year New York’s famous Belmont was worth only $5,200 and Maryland’s Preakness a mere $1,800.” [Gamblers of the Old West, p.200]

While horse racing was wildly popular, a close second was boxing. This sport wasn’t exactly the refined version we have today. Boxers wore no gloves and a round lasted until one of them knocked the other down  with no limit to the number of rounds. As long as both fighters could throw a punch, the match was active. The winner took the purse which could be as much as $10,000.

And of course they played the card and dice games.  Faro was by far the most popular gambling game.  Professional gamblers in the Old West, the really good ones, were called “thoroughbred gamblers.” I’m listing several thoroughbreds and sources where you can get more information, as well as a few famous gamblers, not necessarily thoroughbreds, but definitely well-known.

George Devol
Mississippi riverboat gambler, born in 1829, who worked the river for 40+ years and made a fortune on 3-card monte, poker, and keno. He wrote a fabulous book, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, that I used when I researched Sleight of Heart. I've never found anything even close to this book's helpfulness as far as explaining how gambling and conning works. Mr. Devol was probably charming, rough, and genius (in his way).  He came from a good family who had no idea what to do with such a rambunctious boy, and he won and lost many fortunes over his lifetime.

Elanora Dumont (Madam Mustache)
Quoted from American Gambler Online (which no longer contains history):
“In the 1850s Elanora Dumont was a sexy young dealer who attracted love-starved players that gladly lost their gold to this expert player. As she grew in popularity so did her earning. Eventually she owned her own casino, "Dumont Palace" which also prospered, because she enjoyed a reputation for fairness and free food. The mustache appeared suddenly well after she'd made her money. Following a busted romance and a worse marriage which left her broke and alone, she poisoned herself 1879.”

Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II
A very colorful character, indeed! Soapy is more in the spirit of con men than traditional gamblers, but his talents spanned both and he certainly can’t be overlooked. His family came to Texas from Georgia and early on, young Jeff showed quite an ability for organization, a skill that served him well in building his bunco empire.

Originally running a shell game, he graduated to the soap scheme where he wrapped 5-cent bars of soap with in plain paper, some wrapping covered $20, or $100-dollar bills, and he sold the bars for $5 a piece. Of course, the only people who actually “won” were on Soapy’s payroll.

Always ready to make a buck, Soapy did everything from fixing elections (once with Bat Masterson) to the more standard job owning and operating a poker hall.

His great-grandson, Jeff Smith, wrote Soapy's definitive biography: Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.  And there's lots of great information about him at the Alias Soapy Smith website.

Wyatt Earp
Everything has been written about him, but I’m including him because he was a renowned gambler who owned gaming halls and saloons throughout the West. Here’s an interesting site about Earp’s life: The Wyatt Earp History Page.

Poker Alice (Ivers)

"Praise the Lord and place your bets. I'll take your money with no regrets." Poker Alice was an amazing woman. Outstanding mathematical ability stood her well throughout the years while she made her way quite nicely through a man’s world.  My heroine in Sleight of Heart, Alexandra Campbell, is based on her  and on my aunt Grace, who was so good at counting cards that she was unwelcome in Reno casinos.

There’s a good article about Poker Alice at Legends of America, and another article on Alice's Sturgis, SD, house.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (1837-1876)
We've all heard of aces and eights, the dead man's hand, of Wild Bill Hickok, shot in a Deadwood saloon by Jack McCall. James Butler Hickok fancied himself a gambler, but lost more than he won. Still, when we think of Old West gamblers, his name always comes to mind. Here's a good article on the life of Hickok at Kansas Heritage.

William Barclay "Bat" Masterson (1856-1921)
Bat Masterson made his living as a sports writer for 38 years, but was best known as a lawman and a gambler. He played poker and faro, of course, but he also loved base-ball and was especially fond of boxing. You can learn more about Bat Masterson on the Ford County Historical Society page.

And there you have a handful of gamblers  not all of them the thoroughbred variety, but well known, nevertheless.

Interesting Books

Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, George H. Devol, originally published in 1887 by Devol & Haines, Cincinnati. Republished by Applewood Books, 18 North Road, Bedford, MA, 01730. ISBN 1-55709-110-2. This book is a series of vignettes by Mr. Devol recounting various adventures he had as a Mississippi riverboat gambler.

Gamblers of the Old West, from the Editors of Time-Life Books. ISBN 0-7835-4903-2. This is a terrific book with many fine illustrations the aid in the understanding of gambling in the 19th century. Please bear in mind that the terminology is often modern.

Games You Can’t Lose: A Guide for Sucker$, Harry Anderson and Turk Pipkin, Burford Books, 1989, 2001. ISBN 1-58080-086-6. While certainly not a historical reference, this book is an interesting read for anyone who’s writing a con artist character.

Card Control: Practical Methods and Forty Original Card Experiments, Arthur H. Buckley, Dover Publications, Inc., 1993 (first published in 1946), ISBN 0-486-27757-7. Need to deal from the bottom or stack the deck? This book shows you how. Not that I got anything but gales of laughter from my husband and friends when I tried cheating... (Remember the manual dexterity requirement?)

The Pocket Guide to Dice and Dice Games, Dr. Keith Souter

Interesting Sites:
Gambling in the United States
Western slang and phrases

May your saddle never slip.

Jacquie Rogers 
Romancing The West
Hearts of Owyhee series
#1: Much Ado About Marshals
#2: Much Ado About Madams
#3: Much Ado About Mavericks

Until Nov. 1, Sleight of Heart is only available in the 9 Ways to Fall in Love box set.  9 romance novels for 99¢, including two western historicals.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Sutlers

By Matthew Pizzolato

A sutler's tent during the
Battle of Petersburg
Sutlery during the Civil War highlights one of the vast differences between the availability of supplies in the Union and Confederacy.  The majority of Union regiments were appointed their own sutlers, while very few Confederate regiments had one.  There were sutlers in the South, but they were rare. 

Sutlers provided a valuable service for the soldiers during the War, but there were regarded as more of a necessary evil.  The line of tents where the sutlers set up shop was often referred to as Robber's Row.

They made goods available that weren't provided by the Army.  They were authorized to sell goods on credit but weren't allowed to issue credit that exceeded one-third of a man's monthly pay without the permission of a commanding officer.  Pay for a Union private during the war was exactly $13.00 per month. 

Whenever the paymaster showed up, the sutler set up a table next to his and a large portion of the payroll went directly to the sutler. 

The goods that the sutlers provided included grocery items like eggs, fruit, butter, cheese, and fresh or canned meat.  They also provided dry goods such as playing cards, stationary, needles and thread, toothbrushes, straight razors and everyday items that couldn't be done without. 

The sale of liquor was forbidden but creative sutlers dropped sliced peaches into their whiskey bottles and would sell "pickled peaches." 

Prices were set by the Inspector General Department, but most of the enlisted men couldn't afford the nicer items.  As a way of increasing profits, a lot of sutlers issued change in scrip or tokens that were only redeemable at their establishments.

Sutler's Row at the reenactments of today is an entirely different animal.  By necessity, they cater to both the reenactors and the spectators.  There are modern day foods available as well as toys for the folks who bring their children out to watch. 

The majority of what they sell are period items ranging from any type of clothing to any type of firearm and everything in between. 

The sutlers are the equivalent of "going to town" during a reenactment.  It's one of the ways we pass the time before or after a battle.  

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction that can be found in his story collection, The Wanted Man and the novella Outlaw as well as his newest release, Two of a Kind.

Matthew is the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western and can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter @mattpizzolato.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Western Comics Focus: BLUEBERRY

Troy D. Smith

This time we're putting the Western Comics Focus on a character -one of the best in the history of Western comics, BLUEBERRY.

Some of you have heard of him, most probably have not. That's because Blueberry -created by Belgian writer Jean-Michel Charlier and French artist Jean Giraud, who is best known in the U.S. by his pseudonym Moebius -was a European phenomenon. The character first appeared in an October, 1963 issue of the French comics magazine Pilote. By the late '60s the strip was a huge hit in France and Belgium, and a prequel strip about the character's younger years appeared. English translations have appeared in the U.S. throughout the years, largely due to Moebius' growing international reputation, but sadly I don't know of any that are in print right now. Used copies can be found at online booksellers -but they usually ain't cheap. True connoisseurs (how French!) of comics art snatch 'em up.

"Blueberry" is the pseudonym of Mike Donovan, son of a Louisiana plantation owner. Falsely accused of murder, he picks a name at random after seeing a blueberry bush and becomes Mike Blueberry. Charlier had an American friend who loved blueberry jam, whom the Belgian nicknamed after the fruit, and he decided to use the name in his western character- who was a minor supporting character in the first story arc, and was not expected to become the hero, or else the author claimed he would have chosen a more heroic name. I've always suspected, though, that the process of Donovan choosing his new name was inspired by the Akira Kurasawa film Yojimbo, which was very popular at the time; in it, the ronin played by Toshiro Mifune, when asked his name, looks into a field and sees a mulberry bush, then announces his name is Kuwabatake Sanjuro, which means Mulberry Bush, Thirty-Years-Old.

Blueberry, though a Southerner, fights for the Union during the Civil War and serves in the cavalry afterwards as a lieutenant. After years of cavalry adventures, he leaves the army and becomes a lawman. Jean Giraud/Moebius took over both writing and art duties after the death of Charlier in 1989, and continued to occasionally produce new stories until his own death in 2012.

Blueberry made it to the big screen in 2004- kind of. The French-produced film was called Blueberry everywhere in the world except the U.S., where it was renamed Renegade because almost no Americans knew who the heck "Blueberry" was. I did not find Vincent Cassel very convincing as Mike Donovan (they didn't even use the Blueberry nickname in the American version), but the rest of the cast was very promising: Michael Madsen, Juliette Lewis, Djimon Hounsou, Geoffrey Lewis, Colm Meaney, Eddie Izzard, and -and this was a real treat -Ernest Borgnine. Unfortunately -much like the movie version of Jonah Hex a few years later -the producers tinkered with the concept so much they stripped away everything that made the comic work, and the result was very disappointing. Either Jonah Hex or Mike Blueberry would make great big-screen western heroes if they were presented as straight old-fashioned hardboiled, gritty characters, but for some reason producers saw fit to burden both with supernatural psychodelia.

Be that as it may. Blueberry is one of the best. Vive le roi.  

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review Roundup: Ed Gorman's Balancing Act

Dead Man’s Gun and Other Western Stories
By Ed Gorman
The Western Fictioneers Library, April 2013
$2.99: Kindle, ASIN B00CLTS6MC; Nook, BIN 2940016582924
128 pages

Though he’s better known for his crime, mystery, and horror fiction, Ed Gorman is no slouch at writing westerns, either. Gorman’s spare style and uncomplicated prose make it easy to imagine the author as a storyteller in the oral tradition, forced to put pen to paper during an attack of laryngitis.

Perhaps nowhere is that better expressed than in the new anthology Dead Man’s Gun and Other Western Stories. The collection of nine short tales and one brief treatise entitled “Writing the Modern Western” provides eloquent evidence of the author’s exceptional range in storytelling. More than range, though, Gorman’s short stories display the author’s uncommon ability to dig into the darkest recesses of the human psyche and expose the thin lines separating good and evil, bravery and cowardice, love and hate, pride and shame. The way Gorman’s characters balance on those lines — always in danger of falling to one side or the other — will make readers alternately shudder and rejoice.

No matter how uncomfortable the thought may be, Ed Gorman knows us all. Gazing into his mirror is undeniably uncomfortable, yet oddly liberating. “Dead Man’s Gun” will resonate with anyone who’s ever wanted revenge. Writers and movie buffs will relate to “Pards,” a bittersweet tale about a middle-aged, unsuccessful writer who finds a spiritual twin in an aging matinee icon. “The Face,” a Civil War story, is an atmospheric, psychological study of men under pressure, inexorably sliding into madness. “Mainwaring’s Gift” is at once sad and romantic and hopeful. “Gunslinger,” “Blood Truth,” and “Dance Girl” are equally compelling, each in its own way.

Though all the stories take place in the 19th century American west, it’s difficult to define Dead Man’s Gun and Other Western Tales as simply “western.” Fans of psychological horror, crime, and mystery will find much to enjoy in this volume, as well.

Read the book.

Kathleen Rice Adams is a Texan, a voracious reader, a professional journalist, and a novelist in training. Her opinions are her own and are neither endorsed nor necessarily supported by Western Fictioneers or individual members of the organization. The publisher provided a review copy of Dead Man's Gun and Other Western Tales.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Short Story Sunday- "The Art of Dipping Candles"

Troy D. Smith

Today I'm going to tell you about another of my favorite western short stories- believe me, this is one everyone should download and read. It is one of the most powerful, affecting works of short fiction I've ever read, and it still resonates with me almost twenty years after I first read it in the late, lamented Louis L'Amour Western Magazine.

"The Art of Dipping Candles" is by Judy Alter, winner of -among many other things -WWA's Owen Wister Lifetime Achievement Award, and for 22 years the director of TCU Press. The story is based on the true story of a woman whose family was attacked by Comanches, and how she used the art of dipping candles to protect them.

Here is an excerpt:

My mother doesn't make candles any more. Her candles used to be the smoothest and straightest in North Texas. They burned bright with an even flame and never smoked. Ma ran candles in the late fall, when Pa had killed a steer and she had rendered the tallow. She'd make more candles than we needed for daily use for the whole year, just so we could have them all around the house at Christmas. Sometimes, in the summer if she could find beeswax, she made a second batch, but beeswax was hard to come by.
Ma knew just how much clay from the Red River bottoms to put in the kettle so the candles would have some color, and she knew how long to wait for the dirt to color the tallow and then settle to the bottom so that the candles wouldn't be gritty. In front of our cabin Pa had built a stone pit just sized to hold the kettle above a fire, and Ma spent hours there, dipping a wick over and over again, hanging the finished candles to dry, admiring her handiwork when she was done. Sometimes she poured the hot tallow into a mold and it would set in a hour or two on a cold December day, but there wasn't any art in that, she said. Ma liked to dip her candles by hand.
"Mama, can I dip a candle?"
"No, Elizabeth, you haven't the patience yet to make it smooth and straight. Someday . . . ."
I sat and watched and waited for the day I was grown enough to dip candles. To be able to dip a candle was the mark of a woman to me. It wrapped up in one skill all the things that a woman did, and I dreamt of the day I had a husband and children of my own to care for. When I was grown, I would dip candles.

Ma was dipping candles that December day when Pa had gone for supplies and Jeb came screaming across the prairie.
"Ma! Ma! Indians! Indians!" he shouted, running so hard and desperate that I thought sure his lungs would burst. His eyes seemed near bugged out of their sockets, and his voice, just beginning to deepen, was now higher than mine. Any other time, I might have laughed at him for squeaking. "Mr. Belton says they struck the Simpsons and they're headed this way." He collapsed on the ground, his breath having completely left him.


You can get the whole story for 99 cents at Amazon and Smashwords .

Saturday, August 24, 2013


This is the “kick-off” of our new feature here at the WESTERN FICTIONEERS BLOG about our favorite western TV shows. I’m doing an overview of the series Lancer today, created by Samuel A. Peeples. It’s one of those shows that didn’t last long enough, and still has many, many followers in the fan fiction world who continue to write stories using these characters in just about every scenario you can imagine. If you’ve never explored fan fiction, it’s pretty amazing, and there’s a fan fiction group for virtually every movie and TV series that ever came down the pike.

But what can be more exciting to a pre-teen girl than an action–packed TV western with two handsome hunky guys and a ton of family angst? The answer is…not one thing. I was glued to the TV screen every week when Lancer took off, and it was a very, very sad day when they cancelled it.Here’s a bit about Lancer, which was, then, and still is, my favorite TV western ever—and that’s saying a lot, since I was a diehard western fan from a very early age.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it, in a nutshell, just so you can get the gist of the series:

Lancer is an American Western series that aired on CBS from September 1968, to May 1970. The series stars Andrew Duggan, James Stacy, and Wayne Maunder as a father with two half-brother sons, an arrangement similar to the more successful Bonanza on NBC.

Duggan stars as the less than admirable Murdoch Lancer, the patriarch of the Lancer family. Stacy appears as half-Mexican gunslinger Johnny Madrid Lancer. Wayne Maunder was cast as Scott Lancer, the educated older son (though he is younger than Stacy) and a veteran of the Union Army, in contrast to Stacy's role of former gunslinger. Paul Brinegar also appeared as Jelly Hoskins, a series regular from season two after making a one off guest appearance during the first season. Elizabeth Baur (who later replaced Barbara Anderson in 'Ironside' from season five to eight) also was a series regular cast member as Murdoch Lancer's ward Teresa O'Brien.

Guest stars included Joe Don Baker, Scott Brady, Ellen Corby, Jack Elam, Sam Elliott, Bruce Dern, Kevin Hagen, Ron Howard, Cloris Leachman, George Macready, Warren Oates, Agnes Moorehead and Stefanie Powers.

Lancer lasted for fifty-one hour-long episodes shot in color. The program was rerun on CBS during the summer of 1971.

The episode entitled "Zee" with Stefanie Powers earned scriptwriter Andy Lewis the Western Writers of America "Spur Award", the first ever designated for a television script.

Pretty impressive! With the regular cast and the very solid and vivid portrayals each of them gave of their characters, and the stellar roster of guest stars, what’s not to love? I was eleven when LANCER made its appearance, and I thought I had never seen anyone as “cute” as half-brothers Johnny and Scott Lancer. But “cuteness” was not what held my interest.

As the storyline went, Scott’s wealthy mother took him back to Boston, and he was raised as a moneyed gentleman. He served in the Civil War. Johnny’s story was different. His mother took him south of the border, to the territory she was most familiar with, and he was raised in border towns. Life was tough for him, being half-white, and as we say here, “the boy run into some trouble.” So much trouble, in fact, that the Pinkerton man Murdoch Lancer sent to find him barely got there in the nick of time, as Johnny was facing a firing squad.

Murdoch offered his sons “listening money”—to come meet him, hear what he had to offer them, and then stay, or walk away. Of course, both Johnny and Scott decide to stay after this stormy encounter. Take a look here, at the trailer CBS put together for their star show!

The mix of the characters, with Johnny having fended for himself most of his life, earning his living as a fast gun, and Scott being raised with everything money could buy, added to every plot and their general interaction. Scott had known hard times too, during the War, and he had to remind his younger brother of that from time to time. But their growing relationship as brothers, and the respect that they had for one another – and in time, for their father, was what made the show special. Growth of the characters and the way that growth was portrayed kept me glued to the screen week after week—though I couldn’t have told you that’s what it was at that age.

The show is not in syndication here in the States, at last check, but don’t despair! Here’s a link where you can catch season one, at least!

Johnny Lancer has been a “main character” in my imagination from the time I first saw the show. He’d lived a hard life, done some bad things, but was trying to make amends and have the life with a true family that he’d always wanted…and a place to belong. He was the youngest in his family, and so was I. His character portrayal resonated with audiences everywhere, so it was quite a surprise to learn that the show was being canceled. Yet, today, there are still people who love the show and get together online to chat about it and the characters, and write more stories about them—many of which would make fantastic Lancer episodes if the show was still being written.

Do you have a memory of Lancer? Please share if you do! And if you don’t—don’t hesitate to click those links above and see what you missed!

Friday, August 23, 2013


A few months ago, I explored a few Western movie sidekicks. Now I'm featuring the big bad black hats, the villains we loved to hate in movies. I have my own favorites, but I also checked through a few websites to see which names other bloggers came up with for great movie villains.

Since I'm more of a young whippersnapper, I'm sticking to movies *I've* seen, not the B-movie classics (usually made and shown on the big screen and as television reruns before my time). So bear with me if your baddies aren't in my list. Add 'em to the comments below, though!

I'll start with a thriller movie starring ROBERT MITCHUM as "Reverend" Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. Yes, I know it isn't a western, being based on a real life killer in West Virginia. But it could be, given the river setting (try the muddy Missouri), the Midwest-style flavor of small town life, the poverty-stricken Depression, and the nightmarish sequences. Directed by Charles Laughton, (yes, the star of Ruggles of Red Gap), it's a haunting film. And Mitchum is a fabulous villain. Scared me to death as a kid, and still scares me. He's perfect "with his long face, his gravel voice, and the silky tones of a snake-oil salesman." The righteous Lillian Gish "looks nothing so much as Whistler's mother holding a shotgun." (Roger Ebert)

One of my favorite western movies is The Magnificent Seven. A small Mexican village is overrun by bandits on a regular basis, and the only heroes available are gunfighters - most of them not regular "white hats" either, like Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. But ELI WALLACH plays Calvera, and he truly is the baddest of the Mexican bandit band. Wallach also played Tuco, the Ugly role as a gunman in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and the outlaw Charlie Gant in How The West Was Won. The actor played roles into his nineties, a trooper until the end.

WALTER BRENNAN, a villain? No way! I remember him fondly from The Guns of Will Sonnett, The Real McCoys and The Over-The-Hill Gang movies. But he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, his third, as 'Old Man' Clanton in the western My Darling Clementine where I rooted for Henry Fonda. He also portrayed a murderous Colonel in How the West Was Won opposite James Stewart. I already featured him as a great western sidekick, too. A man of many talents indeed. He also is only one of three actors to win three Best Supporting Actor Oscars - Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis are the others. His career lasted from 1929 to 1971, quite an accomplishment.

Another surprise-surprise pick - good guy HENRY FONDA. Who would believe him as a villain? But I did, again in Once Upon a Time in the West, as a hired gun. He killed three little kids, for crying out loud! That's baaaad. Cast against type from his usual hero role, he made it memorable. I still prefer Fonda as the stern Mister Roberts or in the western The Ox-Bow Incident, puzzled over the injustice of it all.

Next up, let's go with BRUCE DERN. I mean, he killed the Duke, John Wayne, in The Cowboys! And while wearing a pale hat!! That made me hate him, and that movie was one of the best "coming of age" plots you can ever find. Dern had already been typecast long before as pyscho-killers in many movies, and his portrayal of an outlaw sure convinced me of that ego-centric arrogance that villains are sure to have to motivate their actions. His higher-pitched voice helped, along with his squinty eyes and buckish teeth - if I'd met him in the Old West, you can bet I'd never turn my back on a skunk like that.

I'll throw in a female villain, since there aren't many as good as BARBARA STANWYCK. Granted, she was a better villainous femme fatale in Double Indemnity with Fred MacMurray, but in the western 40 Guns, she portrays Jessica Drummond who runs a county "with an iron fist" and allows her brother and his gang to run amok. She's also the boss of a gang of thieves in The Maverick Queen. I preferred watching her in Union Pacific with Joel McCrea playing Molly Monahan, the daughter of a train engineer, but she also starred in Annie Oakley, California, Cattle Queen of Montana and was best known in The Big Valley. More fun as a strong heroine, in my opinion.

Who can forget the classic movie Shane pitting Alan Ladd against the nasty hired gun Jack Wilson as portrayed by JACK PALANCE? He earned an Oscar nod for that role. He resurrected his career later in life playing Murphy in Young Guns plus prickly cowboy Curly Washburn with Billy Crystal in City Slickers. His hilarious performance won him a "Triple Crown" - the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a Golden Globe for the same title AND the American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. Well-deserved, too.

Don't forget LEE MARVIN as the lawless gunfighter Liberty Valance opposite James Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Marvin also won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing opposite Jane Fonda in the comical Cat Ballou, and led a band of mercenaries in The Professionals. In the western musical Paint Your Wagon, Lee Marvin got top billing over Clint Eastwood. Other westerns Marvin starred in are The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday with Oliver Reed, Bad Day at Black Rock with Spencer Tracy, Monte Walsh with Jack Palance and plenty of TV spots on The Virginian, Bonanza and Wagon Train.

And who doesn't remember Liberty Valance's henchman, LEE VAN CLEEF? He polished his bad guy role in High Noon over the years in many many westerns and reached the zenith as Angel Eyes in Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He also played heroes in Leone's spaghetti westerns that followed. "His gravelly voice... gruff, often aloof appearance and persona, became as idiosyncratic as the movies themselves." It seems a villain with a unique voice may be a running theme along with that gruff badness.

Last (for now) and not least is RICHARD BOONE who played Paladin in the TV western Have Gun, Will Travel. He also played the ruthless outlaw and kidnapper in Big Jake opposite John Wayne, Cicero Grimes the gang-leader and kidnapper in Hombre with Paul Newman, plus a man with a grudge against the gunfighter John Wayne in The Shootist. Boone also had a gravelly voice and gruff features. Seems to be a requirement to play villainous parts, and he played plenty of others in westerns.

So... who are your favorite villains? 

Meg Mims is an award-winning author with two western mysteries under her Eastern belt. She lives in Michigan, where the hills are like driveway slopes and trees block any type of prairie winds. LIKE her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or check out her books on her website.


Thursday, August 22, 2013



By Keith Souter, aka CLAY MORE

How many movies have you watched and heard those words? Quite a few, I imagine. Did you wonder exactly what the water was for? I mean, boiling water? Surely not to apply to the mother-to-be? But of course, you never find out because as soon as the water is brought in, the menfolk are rushed out and the expectant mother and her female neighbour, midwife or doctor are left to do their magic. Then you see the anxious father pacing up and down, acting clumsily or irrationally as he awaits that slapping noise, which was always followed by the cry of a newborn babe. Then the door opens and either a neatly wrapped baby is presented to the father or he is ushered in to see his wife with the baby ready for  the proud father to see.


A natural birth
Nowadays most fathers attend antenatal classes and so they have a good idea of what is happening throughout the pregnancy. They know what to expect when labour begins, what they need to do, and a lot of fathers are present during the birth of their children. Some may been have delivered the baby themselves.

In the 19th century things were very different. Fathers didn't tend to have much to do with the pregnancy, apart from the obvious conception, of course. Most women received no antenatal care. When they went into labour they may have just gone somewhere on their own and given birth, or may have had a willing relative or neighbour that they could have help from. The father may have kept on working the land. A day or two after the birth she may have been back there helping him. Interestingly, this is still pretty much what happens in rural areas in the developing world.

Explanation of the birth mechanism from Fleetwood Churchill's 'On the Theory and Practice of Midwifery,' 1850.

So let's look at what happens
This lasts 40 weeks, on average. A rule of thumb for calculating the expected date of delivery (EDD) is to take the first day of the last menstrual period (LMP) and add seven days, then subtract 3 months. This is working on the basis of conception occurring about two weeks before that, when ovulation, or the release of the egg from the ovary occurs.

During the first twenty weeks the baby is developing. During the second twenty weeks the baby's organs have all developed and it grows.

Another rule of thumb - the average mother will put on 28 pounds in pregnancy, 8 pounds only in the first 20 weeks, then a pound a week until term (ready to give birth).

There are three stages of pregnancy:

First stage - from the onset of contractions until the mouth of the womb (uterus) has opened up fully enough to allow for delivery. This can take 12-16 hours in a primiparous womb (first timer), but only 6-8 hours in a multiparous (a mother having had at least one previous pregnancy).

Second stage - the birth of the baby. This lasts 3-4 hours in a primiparous women, but may be very fast in a multip.

Third stage - the delivery of the placenta, or afterbirth. It usually comes away within half an hour of the birth of the baby.

After the baby is born the cord is ligated and separated. This is done a few inches from the umbilicus. This umbilical stump will gradually shrivel and separate after a few days. It used to be advised to cut quickly, but modern research suggests that waiting until the placenta has delivered gives a premature baby more blood and more stem cells, all of which is better for them.

While the majority of pregnancies do go through to an uncomplicated labour and birth of a child, yet there are still a considerable number that have complications. There can be problems with the baby as the result of failure to develop one organ or another. The result can be miscarriage, when nature ends the pregnancy or stillbirth of a dead baby, or birth of a baby with a congenital malformation.

There can be problems with the pregnancy itself; for example, difficulties with the mother's blood pressure, which can lead to kidney failure, convulsions and even death. Nowadays we are familiar with pre-eclampsia, toxaemia of pregnancy and the various related problems, but back in the mid-nineteenth century there was no conception about blood pressure, so no way of helping.

Then there can be problems about the position of the placenta. If it is too low, which we call placenta praevia, then this can produce hemorrhage either before labour or during labour if it detaches from the uterine wall.

The cord can prolapse during labour. That means it can come out before the baby and the baby's own head can therefore obstruct its own blood supply.

And there can be problems about going over term, or just not progressing during the labour. These are things that we can do a lot about nowadays, but back then there were a limited number of drugs and herbs that could be used. [I'll be looking at herbs and drugs in a later blog.]

Multiple births 
Twin and triple pregnancies occurred and would challenge whoever was assisting the mother. These are more likely to be difficult labours and there is a lot of potential for things to go wrong with both babies. You may think that if a baby is born quickly then all will be well. Not necessarily. If a baby is born too quickly there can hemorrhage into the baby's brain.

Twins presentation in The Rose Garden, a 1513 publication for midwives

And of course, there can be problems from the twins' positions. Caesarian sections would not have been a ready option and a good midwife or doctor would be essential.

Good old Doc Adams was adept at delivering babies and looking after the newborn. Indeed, in The Baker's Dozen, from Gunsmoke's season 13, in 1967, he is involved in the aftercare of triplets who were born to a woman who arrived in Dodge City on a stage that had just been robbed. The mother sadly dies in the process, and it transpires that the father was a stage robber who has been killed. Doc looks after the triplets and is determined that they should be kept together and not sent to the State orphanage.

When we assess a mother's abdomen we talk about the presentation. That means the anatomical part of the baby that is leading and which is likely to be born first. There are whole number of ways that we refer to them - cephalic, meaning the head first. This is the one we always want to find. There are variations, of course, so you can have vertex (top of head), sinciput (forehead), face, chin, occiput (back of head) and others.

Other presentations are called malpresentations. Thus a foot, a shoulder, a hand or a bottom (breech) all present difficulties for the doctor or midwife. Indeed, nowadays with good antenatal care you aim to know precisely how a baby is lying well in advance of the due date and plans can be made. This may well be a planned Caesarian Section. Back in the 19th century there were no scans, everything had to be worked out through clinical acumen alone and the use of a simple foetal stethoscope.

The author's foetal stethoscope - which is more or less obsolete today, since most doctors have an ultrasound gadget

A breech presentation occurs in about one in every 40 cases. It is a common position early on in about a quarter of pregnancies, but a fair number will turn round before the critical 36 weeks stage. In the 19th century the first inkling of this would probably be at term, when the woman was going into labour. Again, nowadays we would aim to know well ahead and plans would be made.

External cephalic version is the name of the technique used in trying to turn a baby from the outside. It would be done from 32 weeks to 35.

External Cephalic Version - an attempt to gently turn the baby from breech to cephalic presentation in advance of term

The instruments
Most frontier doctors would carry obstetric instruments with them. That is they would have obstetric forceps to help to deliver the baby's head when it is is in the vagina and effect delivery by traction  without causing injury.

There are several types, but the common features are the two curves. They have a cephalic curve  to be applied to the baby's head, and they are have a pelvic curve to fit the pelvic curve of the birth canal.

Not only would a doctor carry forceps, but he would have instruments to perform an episiotomy, an incision needed to allow room for the forceps and often also to give a baby enough room to get out. He would also have to have sutures and instruments to repair the episiotomy.

Yet sadly, he would also have to carry other instruments in case things had gone wrong and the baby had died. I think that is as far as I need explain, but if anyone would wish for further information, then I can be contacted off-line.

Sepsis - the great killer
At this point we really have to talk about maternal mortality. Here I am going to talk about the situation in the UK, since I am more familiar with it and have figures. I believe that the points are still germane when applied to the USA and the frontier.

At the beginning of the 19th century pregnancy and childbirth carried significant risks for the health of a woman. One in 200 women died in childbirth. In part this was to do with complications of being poor, of not having enough money for food. Rickets, due to vitamin D deficiency caused skeletal problems and pelvic distortions, so labour could be difficult and become obstructed with catastrophic results for mother and child.

Yet the maternal mortality in hospitals was actually greater! That is right, you had a higher risk if you went into hospital for treatment. They did not realise it, but the problem was puerperal fever - which they recognised - but they still did not understand the problem of sepsis.

In fact, a Scottish physician, Dr Alexander Gordon, working in Aberdeen had made the link at the end of the 18th century when he deduced that there was a connection between puerperal fever and erysipelas (an infection later found to be due to Streptococcus). He wrote a treatise about it, but it had no impact. He drew a significant conclusion and stated that he believed that somehow doctors and midwives spread the problem. Yet along with his fellow physicians he advocated that the treatment should be venesection or bleeding.

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), a doctor, poet and writer, sometime dean of Harvard Medical School, also made the connection and suggested that doctors in particular were the problem. He went so far in a paper of 1843  to suggest that doctors who conducted autopsies should not also practice obstetrics.

Professor Oliver Wendell Homes

Yet history proclaims Ignatz Semmelweis (1818-1867) as the man who made the breakthrough. He published a treatise in Budapest in 1861, entitled ‘The Cause, Concept and Prophylaxis of Puerperal Fever.’ It was based on work he conducted in the 1840s. He suggested that women who died from puerperal fever (childbearing fever) had been contaminated by doctors who had not washed their hands between attending morning autopsies and going to the labour wards. He was castigated by his fellow practitioners for daring to suggest that they should wash their hands, without any 'scientific evidence' as to why. It was said that he  was not saying anything new, it was just the same thing that Holmes had been saying. 

He actually suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an asylum in Vienna, where he died a fortnight after his committal, after having been beaten by guards. 

 Dr Ignatz Semmelweis

Semmelweis was vindicated after his death when Lister started using carbolic acid sprays and advocated strict hygiene. And most importantly, Louis Pasteur proved the germ theory of infection. 

Another reason for morbidity in hospitals was the tendency to make women 'lie-in,' or stay in bed for a couple of weeks after birth. This is not a good idea, since the risk of blood clotting is increased. Yet again, the women on the frontier who needed to get going to fix the corral or feed the animals, possibly fared better.

Caesarian sections
These are operations performed to remove the child from the mother's womb through an incision in the abdomen. They first one to be done in which the mother survived was in Ireland in 1738. The first in England was performed by Dr James Barlow in 1797 and the first in the USA was by Dr John Richmond in 1827. These were all done without anaesthetic and so when anaesthesia became generally used, together with aseptic surgical techniques, Caesarian Sections became viable operations.

In the 1880s the classical Caesarian Section method was developed, which involves a longitudinal incision in the upper uterine segment. That is, in the upper part of the womb. These do not heal well, so they were replaced in 1906 by the lower segment Caesarian section. This is the method favoured today, although under certain situations the classical may be performed.

So what about that boiled water?
Well, it would be useful. Not only to sterilise as best one could the instruments, but also to use to make warm(not booing) compresses to place over the perineum prior to labour. This would tend to soften the tissues, which get stretched, of course, and lessen pain and reduce tearing of the tissues.

And of course, it would be for washing hands and swabbing everything down afterwards. On the point of washing hands, it should be noted that the frontier doctor's hands would probably have a greater need of being washed than would a midwife. Quite simply, the midwife would not be handling purulent matter, operating on diseased tissue or conducting autopsies. Nor would she have been exposed to coughs and sneezes to the same extent as the doctor.

And that slap on the back?
Well, we don't do that any more either. Doctors and midwives used to do it to stimulate the baby, in the belief that you needed it to help it to breathe and to cry to clear all those secretions out of nose and mouth. Now we just suck it out with a tube and if needed, give controlled oxygen.

A couple of final points about cutting the cord
This is really if you ever find yourself having to deliver a baby. Don't go searching for a scissors of anything else to cut that cord. nature generally does a good job. Don't cut it, or tie it off, just call the emergency services and let them clamp it off for you.  As noted above, a slight delay is no bad thing, and may be quite beneficial to the baby.

Lastly, any cutting of a cord has to be done with a clean instrument. I say this from experience of many moons ago, when I was working in a fever hospital in India. There was a whole ward devoted to cases of neonatal tetanus. Almost all of them had been due to injudicious severing of the cord with any sharp object hat was at hand- knives, scissors, sickles!

Tetanus or Lockjaw is a horrid condition - which I'll be getting round to at some stage.

Hell on the Prairie, the sixth Wolf Creek book features Keith (Clay More's) character Dr Logan Munro, the town doctor in THE OATH, a story about a spectre from his past. Logan has been in Books 1, 4 and 6, and is due to appear in books 8 & 9.

And his other new character, Doc Marcus Quigley, dentist, gambler and occasional bounty hunter continues in his quest to bring a murderer to justice, in AMBUSH AT DEAD MAN'S RAVINE, the fourth in his monthly ebook short stories THE ADVENTURES OF DOCTOR MARCUS QUIGLEY published by High Noon Press.

Vol 5 THE SHOOTER should be out soon.