Mapping Brave History of Wild West in Tales of Good and Evil

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Croke, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Westerns - like mysteries and science fiction - are considered to be pablum in academic circles. Yet like those aforementioned genres, they draw legions of readers because they are character-motivated and plot-driven. In the end, it's usually a case of the triumph of good over evil, a staple of classic fiction. There is nothing modernist about a western.

"Westward: A Fictional History of the American West," edited by award-winning western author Dale L. Walker, is an anthology of 28 short stories by as many writers. Some are well known practitioners of the genre (Win Blevins, Loren Estleman, John Jakes); others are newcomers (Troy Smith, Elaine Long, Bill Crider). The collection's theme is historical. Most of the stories are set in the 19th century and feature historical characters interacting with fictional ones.

Richard House's "Gabe and the Doctor," is the story of the famous and difficult outdoor surgery at the 1835 Green River Rendezvous, where the physician-missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman removed a large arrowhead from Jim Bridger's back. The iron point had been there for three years (Bridger picking it up when ambushed by Blackfeet in 1832) and muscle tissue had grown around it. Afterward, Whitman marveled at the young mountain man's general vitality and absence of infection. The grateful trapper famously told him: "Meat don't spoil in the mountains, doctor."

Win Blevin's "Melodies the Song Dogs Sing" is another fur trade era yarn in which Jedediah Smith (the American West's most noted explorer after Lewis and Clark, and as a devout Christian, an anomaly among the mountain men) is remembered by his compatriot Thomas Fitzpatrick after Smith's murder by Comanches on the Santa Fe Trail in 1831. After recounting Smith's compelling biography in a cantina in Santa Fe, Fitzpatrick ends by saying: "I think he died where he wanted to, and maybe when. I think his casket of sand is a good one, and the murmurings of the river waters as good as hymns."

In another story within a story, the married life of Gen. George Armstrong and Elizabeth Bacon - "Autie" and "Libbie" - Custer is examined in Susan Salzer's "Miss Libbie Tells All." Despite their legendary mutual devotion the marriage was flawed because it turns out that the tragic hero of the Little Bighorn was a notorious womanizer, causing his widow to tell a friend years later " . . . that without betrayal, there can be no loyalty." Mrs. Custer kept an elaborate shrine to the general's memory in her New York apartment through a 57-year widowhood that culminated in her death at 91 in 1933.

The saloon reminiscence is a popular device in the "Westward" anthology, and like the previously considered Win Blevins piece, the narrator of Emery Mehok's "Noah" uses a barroom setting to relate the details of the early life of "Kid Russell", that is, Charles Marion Russell, the noted Western painter who got his start as a Montana cowhand in the 1880s, that early, hard life being the subject of his best work. …