Monday, October 12, 2009

An Extended Essay - Part Two


I was still a Roy Rogers kid when one day in the early ‘50’s I happened on a book in the Greensboro, NC public library called Dodge City: Queen of Cowtowns by Stanley Vestal. Today I know the author’s name was actually Walter Stanley Campbell and that he was a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Vestal was the non de plume under which Campbell wrote many fine works of history and biography set in the Old West. But at the time the name meant nothing to me. It was his book that caught my fancy. In it I found the following passage, a story told by a young buffalo hunter who’d walked into a saloon in Dodge City, Kansas one night in the early 1870’s:

"She was the hardest woman I ever saw and I have seen a good many. She was a beautiful woman and had a fine physique and she dressed beautifully. I saw her sitting cross-legged on a corner of the billiard table next to the bar in a big white dress. Two men were standing at the bar; I saw one of them step behind it. At the far end of the saloon there was a wheel of fortune running and thirty or forty people around it, but there was nobody up front but this woman. Just as I opened the door to go in there, the man behind the bar pointed and called the man’s attention to something down there and he turned his head to look. The man behind the bar had his gun in his right hand, put it to the other man’s ear and blew his head off. He never knew what struck him. When he fell she jumped off the table, put the palms of her hands into the blood that was running over the floor, jumped up and down and hollered, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Then she held her hands up and clapped them in front of her, splattering the blood all over her white dress. He killed him just as I opened the door, and I closed the door and went back to camp and never told anybody I knew anything. I just closed the door and went back to bed. Oh, that was a wicked bitch!"

I was about fifteen when I read this. Fifteen in 1952 was not fifteen today—what was shocking then would hardly turn a hair now. Though I’m ashamed to admit it, at the time I was even more immature than most males in my age cohort, who had long since moved on from cowboy stars to sports and hot cars (what in hell was a Hemmi?) and incessant talk about which girls would let you feel them up. Thanks to the well-meant vigilance of my parents against all things possibly sinful, I guess I was a case of arrested development. Instead of swimming in testosterone, I still dreamt of meeting Roy Rogers and riding Trigger.

Most boys my age hardly ever read anything they weren’t compelled to, so I don’t know how they might’ve reacted. But I was a shameless bookworm, an innocent, yes; but still, not unaccustomed to some of what passed for violence in the historical fiction of the time. And as I will confess presently, I was not without my own somewhat disturbing dark side. But that passage in Vestal’s book riveted me. It struck me as both inconceivable—nothing like that had ever appeared in a Roy Rogers movie—and as truthful in a way no written words had ever been before. I instantly recognized in its plain language, its vividness and its incongruities the very stuff of reality.

In the years since, I have read that passage over many a time. I even incorporated it into the novel I'm presently running on my Rangerider blog. The more I've considered it, the more the buffalo hunter’s story has come to have a powerful symbolism for me. It fuses the separate strong but contradictory elements that went to make up the Old West. There is the spontaneous, almost casual nature of the killing itself, showing how cheap human life could be in a society so freely armed and so often drunk on bad whisky. The Bloody Woman adds a ghastly touch; some profound depravity is present—not only present but tolerated as a feature that is consonant with the environment. Her behavior suggests a degradation not so much original in her as resonating from the conditions of her existence. Yet the witness—as much an innocent as I was when I read his account—shares none of this harshness. His simple rectitude and his horror cast a mood of touching melancholy over the event he describes. And yet, in telling his tale he’s recalling that very innocence, now long lost, in tones coarsened by his own experience since: “She was the hardest woman I ever saw and I have seen a good many.” In the time that has passed since that night, he has become what he beheld.

Violence, debasement and artless innocence are coexisting, shaping the times and being shaped by them in some strange reciprocal process. All that is needed to perfect the symbolism is an explicit mention of the grand and terrible open spaces that surround the event and, yes, nourish it. Yet one senses their presence nonetheless because the incident seems to play itself out in an awful moral silence that must be at least an echo of the physical emptiness of the plains that encircle it.

Beside this one story, all the best of Roy Rogers’ adventures dwindled into a comical triviality. It brought to mind my baleful memory of that trailer for Blood on the Moon; the buffalo hunter’s tale confirmed the dark surmise the Mitchum film had awakened in me, that there was another, more savage West. It changed me; it set me on a path I follow still. But on second thought, maybe it only deepened an original darkness. Maybe it only set a name to a trait that already marked me.


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