A Northern Vision: Frontiers and the West in the Canadian and American Imagination

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An Englishman-become-Canadian named Robert Service was the favorite poet of Ronald Reagan, notes Daniel Francis in his book on myth, memory, and Canadian history. (1) Service, who was a ranch hand and later a bank teller, moved to the Yukon in 1904, soon after the Gold Rush ended, and reinvented that recent history in poetry. His first poem was "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," a frontier tale of the sort that inspired Reagan, the cowboy actor and president.

In the poem, Service set up a classic Western barroom scene, with music and booze, two gun-slinging frontiersmen, and the none-too-respectable woman caught between them. (2) It starts:

    A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
    The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
    Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
    And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known
    as Lou.

    When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and
    the glare,
    There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded
    for bear.
    He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the
    strength of a louse,
    Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks
    for the house.
    There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched
    ourselves for a clue;
    But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan
    McGrew.

    There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard
    like a spell;
    And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in
    hell;
    With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is
    done,
    As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one
    by one.
    Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
    And I turned my head--and there watching him was the lady that's
    known as Lou.

As the poem goes on, the strange miner from the wilds of the Yukon takes over the piano and plays a savage Northern tune. The poem's narrator says:

    Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
    And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could
    hear;
    With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the
    cold,
    A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck
    called gold;
    While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept
    in bars?
    Then you've a hunch what the music meant ... hunger and night and
    the stars.

The stranger's music ends with tones of revenge and a lust to kill. At the end of the poem, in good Western fashion, gunplay erupts, and the reader is left with the body count.

    And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar
    way;
    In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw
    him sway;
    Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice
    was calm,
    And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a
    damn;
    But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke
    they're true,
    That one of you is a hound of hell ... and that one is Dan McGrew."

    Then I ducked my head and the lights went out, and two guns blazed
    in the dark;
    And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff
    and stark.
    Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan
    McGrew,
    While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady
    that's known as Lou.

    These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
    They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch," and I'm not
    denying it's so.
    I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two-
    The woman that kissed him and--pinched his pok--was the lady known
    as Lou. …