Frontier Saloons

You cannot watch a western film (with few exceptions) without images of the local saloon replete with dance hall girls, gaming tables, the barkeep serving customers whiskey and beer from behind a long wooden bar, gunfights or fistfights erupting over a card game or a girl, traveling thespians attempting Shakespeare in front of drunken and raucous crowds, and courtesans entertaining guests in the upstairs rooms.

Though stereotypical, these images of the Old West have their basis in fact. Frontier saloons began as little more than tents, sod, or adobe structures with wooden planking to avoid the mud and excrement from horses tethered outside. However, as the mining or cattle industries flourished, so did the evolution of these establishments. Often the exterior walls were nothing more than false fronts erected to attract more customers, but wood, brick, and glass eventually replaced earlier rudimentary structures while hand-carved bars with brass railings took the place of barrels and sawed lumber, spittoons eliminated spitting on the floor, and mirrors, oil paintings, and chandeliers graced the interiors.

Tombstone, Arizona was home to one such saloon, The Oriental. It was a place where a man could escape the monotony, drudgery, harshness and uncertainty of life while living out his fantasies.

Tombstone had developed first as a mining camp. Silver had been discovered in 1878; there had been only a hundred desperate souls in the beginning hoping to strike a vein and get rich quick, but by 1880 it was considered a “boom town” with over 3,000 residents. Naturally, the gaming business moved in along with the influx of inhabitants, and the Oriental opened its doors in July of that year.

Many frontier saloons were nothing more than canvas tents with false wooden fronts and the establishment’s name on the entrance. They specialized in unrefrigerated beer and hard liquor, mostly whiskey – bourbon and rye. Sometimes that whiskey was nothing more than “Rotgut” made from raw alcohol, burnt sugar and tobacco juice. The Oriental, however, was a much more cultured establishment, with hitchin’ posts out front for the horses, a broad boardwalk at the entrance, swinging doors for easy access, a long hand-carved wooden bar with a brass foot rail where unaltered spirits, even champagne were served by the glass or bottle, carpeting – though with dusty/muddy streets, this proved more of a liability than an asset – glass mirrors and oil paintings, a piano, and “dancing girls” to draw in the clientele.

The girls offered companionship and solace to men who spent long lonely hours working their  mining claims or to the cowboys lonely after a long ride. A buck could get you a “poke”, and for those with money and more perverse carnal desires, just about anything could be “negotiated” at a price. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

 

 

 

The Life-Giving Buffalo

Though the Southwestern Plains Indians warred against each other and against white encroachment onto their lands, they were principally a nomadic people who followed the great buffalo herds during their yearly migrations.

The Indians hunted bison for food, clothing, shelter, fuel, in honor of the Great Spirit… venerating the animal for providing the necessities for their very survival.  Whites, on the other hand killed off  the herds for sport (the thrill of the hunt), to assuage their vanity (buffalo hides becoming fashionable in Eastern and European markets), and to finally deny the Indians their way of life by slaughtering the buffalo in the millions to force the Plains tribes onto reservations and into an agrarian lifestyle.IMG_2176

The Comanche bands and all the Plains Indian tribes relied on the buffalo for their very existence. The “life-force” of the animal was celebrated in their religious ceremonies; the heart was often left after a hunt as an offering to the Great Spirit. They found uses for literally every part of the buffalo. The horns could be made to hold water or gun powder, used as a musical instrument, or ground into an aphrodisiac for the old men who could no longer get an erection on their own. The head and horns were used in ceremonial dress, the warriors wearing the headdress in homage to the life-giving buffalo while dancing to bring about its return. The tongue, heart, liver, rump, and tenderloin fed the people; the meat roasted or dried into jerky, while the sinew was used by the women to sew hides together to provide clothing, shelter, even toys. The entrails including the intestines, stomach, and bladder were thoroughly washed and used to carry water. Even the hooves were boiled down to produce a glue like substance to bond items together including flesh wounds caused in battle or by accident. Nothing was wasted.

The white hunters, however, cared nothing for the multiple uses made of the buffalo by the Indians. Only their woolly hides were of value to them, and the rotting carcasses left behind by the thousands attested to their indifference. For the Comanche this slaughter was a direct threat to their way of life and was seen as a deliberate strategy to destroy a people the whites could not subdue by war alone. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

The Influence of Book Covers

The commonly heard expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is a metaphor, usually applied to people, that speaks to the judgments we make about individuals when we first meet or encounter them. We form broad brush opinions based upon their looks or actions in the moment without really knowing anything about them. We judge worth or value by outward appearance alone. However, if/when we really get to know that person, our preconceived notions may prove completely different from that which we imagined. But does the metaphor apply or hold true when we actually describe book covers?

Whether shopping online or at a bookstore, the first thing that is likely to draw our attention – before reading a synopsis or excerpt – is the book cover. We may have already narrowed our search for a good read by first looking for books written by specific authors or content that aligns with our reading preferences (romance, mystery, biography, war, history, etc.,) but the visual imagery on the jacket has an immediate impact on whether we pick up the book to examine it further.

Sometimes the image has little or no bearing on content. The design is simply a marketing tactic to make the book stand out amidst the multitude of available titles. Only the author and the publisher can decide whether this approach is appropriate, however, as a reader and a writer I believe there should be a connection between appearance and content.

Below are images of the jacket covers to my two books:

 

Silver Taps, my first book, is a personal memoir that pays homage to my father, a career Army officer, who served in World War  II, Korea, and Vietnam. The image of the folded American flag and wooden box depicting a soldier saluting the fallen was taken from an actual photo taken during his memorial service.

Palo Duromy most recent book, is a novel about westward expansion focusing on the Plains Indian wars at the turn of the 19th century. Central to the Indians way of life was the buffalo. It numbered in the millions before the herds were decimated as the result of deliberate U.S. government policy designed to force the tribes into subjugation and onto reservations. The image’s backdrop is a photo of Palo Duro Canyon that I took while doing research into this last stronghold of the Plains Indians, onto which is superimposed an artist’s conception of a buffalo hunt.

For anyone who has read either book, I’d appreciate your feedback on whether you think the images are representative of content. Even if you haven’t read them but you’re reading this blog, what are your thoughts on book jackets and their impact on book sales? Do they matter? Should they relate to content or characters in a book? Do they influence consumers? Whether you are an avid reader, a published author, or an aspiring writer your comments are important.

 

Historical Figures & Fictional Characters

Two of the greatest literary characters in contemporary fiction are Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call. They were first introduced in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic western novel, “Lonesome Dove.” The book explores their relationship and adventures as the two retired Texas Rangers lead a cattle drive from Texas to Montana.

The novel would be the third chronologically in a series of books that include “Dead Man’s Walk,” “Comanche Moon,” and “Streets of Laredo.” All were successful novels and would be adapted as TV mini-series, with “Lonesome Dove” arguably the best of the genre ever to be televised. Robert Duval as “Gus” and Tommy Lee Jones as “Call” give unforgettable performances that capture the creative genius of McMurtry and bring to life an era characterized by lawlessness, brutality, and the indomitable spirit it took to brave and conquer the western frontier.

Though historical figures populate all of his narratives, Larry McMurtry denies that the principal characters were based on any specific individuals. Nonetheless, they call to mind two individuals who made such a cattle drive and whose lives, in many aspects, parallel those of Gus and Call.

In “Lonesome Dove,” during the cattle drive to Montana, Augustus McCrae will be grievously wounded resulting in the amputation of his leg, the onset of gangrene, and his eventual death. While on his deathbed he will entreat his friend to return his body to Texas, and Woodrow Call will fulfill his dying friend’s wish.

In real life, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving launched a trail drive of over 2,000 head of cattle from Fort Belknap, Texas to Fort Sumner, New Mexico on a new thousand mile route they forged together. Historically this route would become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and its success would change the industry forever.

Cattle Drive

Goodnight and Loving would make multiple trips on that trail over a three-year period, earning trust and respect for one another as well as making both men very wealthy.

On their fourth such cattle drive, however, Oliver Loving was severely wounded in a confrontation with Comanche, the wound requiring amputation of his right arm. He developed gangrene, and later died from the infection. Charles Goodnight wasn’t with him when he sustained his wounds; but once reunited, remained by his side until Oliver Loving’s death. True to his dying friend’s request, Charles personally ferried his friend’s body back to his hometown of Weatherford, Texas. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Comanche War Chief

Quanah Parker would become famous not just for his resistance to westward expansion, but as an advocate for Indian rights.

The half-breed son of Lone Wanderer (Peta Nocona) and the white woman, Cynthia Ann Parker, he was raised within the Nokoni (Movers) band of the Comanche and later joined the Quahadi (Human Beings). As a young man he first gained prominence by refusing to sign the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. He rose in stature and commanded a combined force of Southern Plains Indians (Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Plains Apache) in the ill-fated attack against the trading post at Adobe Walls in 1873 which led to what became known as the Red River War. And, he would be the last Comanche war chief to surrender.

Though the Comanche were never really defeated in battle, their way of life effectively ended in 1874 with the attack by U.S. forces under the command of Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie on their stronghold in West Texas at Palo Duro Canyon and the destruction of their horse herd. The execution of their ponies crippled their mobility and ended their mastery of the plains. Combined with the systematic slaughter of their main food source (the buffalo), it convinced them of the futility of further resistance and forced them onto the reservation in order to survive. The last of the once proud Comanche, the Quahadi under Quanah Parker, officially surrendered June 2, 1875.

Quanah Parker , after finally surrendering in 1875, would not be prosecuted or imprisoned and would go on to become an influential historical figure, not for his wartime actions but for the symbolic role he would assume as champion of the Southern Plains Indians. He would oppose privatization of Indian lands, host dignitaries up to and including President Theodore Roosevelt at the home he built in Oklahoma, and exploit his fame by appearing in numerous community and state venues including the State Fair of Texas. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Thoughts on Father’s Day

Father’s Day in the United States was celebrated this past Sunday, June 18th. At the time I was recuperating from major surgery and missed the opportunity to express my thoughts on the holiday. However, as there is no universal date observed worldwide (expressions of gratitude occur on different dates in different countries,) I still wanted to weigh-in with a few comments.

The genesis of the modern holiday in the U.S. dates to the early 1900’s, though an official Presidential Proclamation declaring the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day wasn’t issued until 1966, and it would be 1972 before President Richard Nixon conferred permanence on that calendar day for our national celebration.

Expressions of appreciation for the influence of fathers in the lives of their children take many forms. For the living, it is common practice for dads to receive gift cards, flowers, men’s clothing items, or cologne. For the deceased, a more solemn observance might include a gravesite visitation or even posting a favorite photo along with a cherished memory on social media.

For many, the full impact of their dad’s influence on their character, personality, likes and dislikes, activities, associations and professions is not fully realized nor acknowledged until after he has passed away.

It is difficult coming to grips with the loss when it happens. My dad died 31 July, 2006 yet it would take me years to understand our relationship and finally put down my thoughts and pay tribute to the man who remains my hero to this day. In 2015 I published Silver Taps, a very personal memoir that honestly looks at the bonds between father and son and the expectations of each in the context of love, friendship, and respect. I sincerely hope that I honored his memory.

All sons, at some time in their lives, strive to please their fathers and intrinsically wonder whether they’ve met their expectations. Similarly, all dads wonder what impact they’ve had on their children and what their worth is as a father.Few of us ever get an answer to these questions. As a son, I never felt that I was the person my father wanted me to be. I was never the star athlete, I never rose to prominence in the Corps at A&M or during my military career, and I failed in my first marriage. As a father, I know that I should have done better by my children. I was often gone on deployment or getting reassigned at critical junctures in their lives. I could have been more sympathetic to their concerns and more flexible in my response. But these are afterthoughts, so perhaps this is a dilemma best left alone. No matter the generation, parents always expect more from and want more for their children. Because we do, we find faults in them and in ourselves. – excerpt from Silver Taps.

 

Contested Borderland

In the aftermath of the Civil War there was little law and order along Texas’ southern border with Mexico. Post war turmoil allowed bandits, gunmen, horse thieves, and cattle rustlers to flourish. One area in particular, commonly referred to as the “Nueces Strip,” was known for its lawlessness.

Situated between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, ownership of the land had been contested between Texas and Mexico since 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought an official end to the Mexican-American war. Article V of the treaty established the Rio Grande as the southern boundary with the United States and also required Mexico to relinquish all claims to Texas.

However, the 150 mile strip became a virtual no man’s land with Texas claiming the Rio Grande as its southern border, and Mexico maintaining that the line of demarcation extended north to the Nueces River. The dispute resulted in frequent cross-border raids with Texas cattlemen and Mexican “caudillos” perpetrating acts of violence against the other and livestock exchanging hands illegally back and forth between the two warring parties.

To end the lawlessness Texas governor Richard Coke authorized a “Special Force” of Texas Rangers under the command of Captain Leander H. McNelly to aggressively deal with the situation. From 1875-1876 this force of some 41 men used brutal tactics to quell the illegal activity.

 

Captain Leander H. McNelly was your stereotypical Texan, tall and lithe. He also embodied the definition of the commonly used description “lean and mean;” he was utterly ruthless in the execution of the mandate given to him by the governor of the State of Texas. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Though successful, McNelly was eventually removed from his Ranger command for using questionable methods – including torture and summary executions, ignoring the orders of his superiors,  and making multiple border crossings into Mexico in violation of Mexican territorial sovereignty.