The most famous want-ad in the history of the Wild West appeared in a California newspaper in 1860: “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

What restless, fit and daring male teenager could resist? Besides considerable prestige, the Pony Express job paid north of $100 a month, or more depending – a higher rate of pay than for all but those at an executive-level for the transcontinental freighting company of Russell, Majors & Waddell. The Pony Express service was initiated partly as a stunt to attract public attention and partly for a deadly serious purpose; to fill in the communications gap between the established United States (Northern Division) and the outposts in the Far West – California, Oregon, Nevada and Utah – as a transcontinental telegraph line was being surveyed and constructed. The riders carried nothing valuable in their mochilas; only the mail, and newspaper dispatches; they depended for their safety on the speed of their horses, and perhaps a pair of Navy Colt revolvers in saddle holsters. Company policy was that riders would not engage in careless gunplay. Indeed, their horses – many of them pedigreed and in superlative condition – and those revolvers were the only items tempting the larcenous to even consider attacking a Pony Express rider.

The riders eventually hired did tend to be young; one began work at the age of eleven, and they did tend to be light of build physically. There was no uniform dress provided, although the straight-arrow member of their employer triad, Alexander Majors, did insist on them swearing an oath of teetotality, and also to abjure swearing and fighting with other employees. It was a prestigious thing, to be a rider for the Pony Express; both ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and ‘Buffalo Bill’ William Cody later claimed to have been Pony Express riders. Hickok was a stage station employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, and William Cody was a messenger, but neither of them were on strength as transcontinental express riders during the brief glory year of the Pony Express. The riders gained fame for spectacular feats of endurance; one of them was English-born Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam. He participated in the record-breaking feat of transmitting the written copy of Lincoln’s first inaugural address from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in seven days and seventeen hours. But that wasn’t Pony Bob’s most hazardous drive.
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30. August 2012 · Comments Off on From The Quivera Trail – Chapter 9: A Sky Full of Stars · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West · Tags: , , , , ,

(From the current work in progress, which follows the experiences of Dolph Becker and his English bride, Isobel. Many of the secondary characters are from the Adelsverein Trilogy, or from Deep In the Heart. With luck and a bit, The Quivera Trail will be released late in 2013.)

“So, what did you think of her?” Hansi Richter asked of his sister-in-law late that evening. The tall windows on either side of the study stood opened to the breeze which wandered through, bearing with it the smell of the salt-sea and the night-blooming jasmine shrubs which had been planted under the windows of the house which overlooked West Bay. The faint sounds of piano music came from the parlor at the other side of the house, and the sounds of laughter, where the younger element had rolled back the parlor carpet, and brought out the latest sheet music from the east. Hansi uncorked the decanter which sat on a silver tray on the sideboard, and Magda Vogel Becker sniffed in disapproval.
“She is now Dolphchen’s wife,” she answered. “I had best think well of her.”

They had known each other all their lives, having been born in the same little Bavarian village of Albeck. Hansi had once courted her, the stepdaughter of Christian Steinmetz, the clockmaker of Ulm, whose ancestral acres were adjacent to those few owned by Hansi’s father. Thirty years and a lifetime ago, they had come from there to Texas, following the promises of the Mainzer Adelsverein; Vati Steinmetz, his wife and twin sons, his stepdaughter Magda and his daughter Liesel and her husband. Years and lives ago … now Hansi chuckled, and drew on his pipe, which glowed briefly in the twilight. Beyond the tall windows, with their blowing muslin curtains, the sky in the west still held the pale golden flush of a departing sunset.
“But what were your first thoughts, eh?” Hansi persisted, and Magda’s strong-featured, intelligent countenance bore on it an expression of fond exasperation.
“I thought – God in Heaven, he has not brought a wife, he has found three sad little orphans, gathered them up and brought them home – just as he has always brought home those poor starving dogs! Where did he find that skinny little lad, Hansi? In some English gutter, I think – and then he felt sorry for him. They all looked so terribly frightened – even Isobel, my new daughter. Are we that fearsome in our aspect, Hansi?”
“You have your moments, Margaretha,” Hansi answered, vastly amused, and Magda snorted.
“But why did he do this, Hansi – do you have any idea? Why did he want to marry the daughter of a First? We are plain people at heart; I cannot see for a moment what my son saw in her, or any advantage in marrying a woman so far outside of what we know. He had his pick of the daughters of our friends … I would that he had married someone of our own kind, like Charley Nimitz’s Bertha.”
Hansi grinned. “He’s a man, Margaretha – and a damned good-looking one. The daughter of a First or a peasant-farmer; they’re all the same in their shifts … and between the sheets. Perhaps she’s uncommonly lively in that respect.”
“You’re disgusting, Hansi,” Magda answered, without any particular heat. In truth, Magda sometimes felt oddly honored that Hansi should converse with her without reservation or guard upon his tongue, as if she was one of his men friends or associates … or sometimes as Dolph’s father would have done, in the privacy of the marriage bed. Yes, she could imagine Carl Becker – fifteen years buried in a grave in a corner of the orchard that he had planted and cherished – saying something of the sort. She could almost hear his voice, see him in candlelight with the bedding fallen to his naked waist … No. Magda wrenched her thoughts from that image. She continued. “And a ladies’ maid – indeed, what earthly use will she have for a ladies’ maid, in our summer in the hills. To assist her in dressing for the garden, for a day of weeding … or to put her apron upon her, when we retire to the kitchen to skim the cream and make cheese?” Hansi chuckled again and drew on his pipe.
“The maid? She’s a pretty little thing, too – and if I noticed it, so will the lads. I don’t think she’ll be a maid for long, in any and either case. Ah, well – Lise will be thrilled no end. There will be at least three or four occasions for your new daughter to dress in all her furbelows and fashions. Every woman of good family in San Antonio will be calling, just to see the daughter of a real First. My wife is probably already planning a whole series of parties and balls … although she needs an excuse, eh?” He puffed on his pipe, and the embers glowed briefly red, as the door to his study opened, admitting his daughter Anna.
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03. March 2012 · Comments Off on When Buntline Was in Flower · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , ,

Ned Buntline, that is … a dime novel writer, publicist, playwright and producer … as well as publisher and popularize of popular cheap novels about the American west, published in mass quantities during the latter half of the 19th century. His name was actually Edward Zane Carroll Judson, and he had been a sailor, a brawler, an instigator of riots, an ex-convict and a prodigious drinker and public lecturer on the benefits of temperance. Presumably he knew whereof he spoke, on this subject, although the phrase ‘do as I say, not as I do’ certainly does occur to one. But this is not about E.Z.C.Judson, or his alter-ego, Ned Buntline … or even any of the Wild West personalities that he wrote about in his dime novels.

No – what he, and his scribbling ilk did in a fair part, was to popularize the far west – the frontier west as it then existed in the late 19th century –  as a fountainhead of unending drama and breathtaking adventure. Granted, anyone who does this now, or in previous decades has had wonderful material to work with: eccentric characters galore, marvelous and improbable events, romance of every variety, warfare and friendship with strange and alien peoples (Indians, unreconstructed Confederates and Mormons among them). But Buntline and his less famous competitors did it first, establishing the meme almost before the dust was settled.

Of course – some of that dust was purposefully raised, in the course of telling a ripping good yarn for the price of one thin dime. They had not the luxury of being able to wait and see, to consider events steadily or see them whole. They were also not able to thoroughly fact-check the back-stories alleged by some of their most famous heroes – say, Buffalo Bill Cody, or Wild Bill Hickok, or cared very little others were out and out criminals and sociopaths. Or that others –like the small landowners and homesteaders who came out on the wrong side of something like the Johnson County War were not, and had experienced the bad fortune of being relatively voiceless in a contest where the other party had the bigger public megaphone. (And that much of their output is hideously racist by modern attitudes should go without saying.) They also were guilty of creating or flat-out exaggerating every convention imaginable regarding cowboys; who were usually plain old working men of every color, performing backbreaking and/or totally boring labor – but they did it in the open air, and from the backs of horses, which must have looked pretty good from the perspective of a factory hand or clerk back east.

Still – Buntline and his ilk set the stage for the enduring image and conventions of the Old West: timeless stories and stock characters, which were lovingly sent up in a movie like Rustler’s Rhapsody. Even so, it was vision of the Wild, Wild West which gripped our grandparents and great grandparents in print, entranced our parents at the movies … and had us glued to the television.

But you know what? The real Wild West was even more incredible than Ned Buntline ever dreamed.