Thursday, January 25, 2018

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Comics Part 1

Most consistent example of the Weird Western genre has to be the comics. Newspaper strips, funny books (what we used to call comics) and these days, digital comics or webcomics. They’re usually one or two folks, or maybe a small team, lot less than some movie or TV crew. They can put out a story quicker and more of ‘em, than what they can in Hollywood.
For regular novels, comics have them beat, too. Takes a hell of a long time to write a book. A good one, anyway. All that prose? Well, comics take care of that with the artwork. And you got a guy for the artwork, you got one for the words, get your cover going, you’re all set.
Not to say there isn’t effort there, hell no. There’s tons of it and a lot of talented people bust a hump putting out weird west comics. But compared to other options, to a passel of actors and all their bullshit and literary agents and publishers and finicky markets that try for broader appeal, well, comics has to be where we look if we’re gonna see that stready output. That day to day, year to year evolution of old west to classic western to revisionist western to weird western.
I looked at it with the movies and we all know where the weird western came from in that medium. Old serials to the John Wayne-John Ford era to the gritty, snarling spaghetti up to the revisionists.  From there come the Hollywood Buffet Western which took all the best parts of every era and turned out everything from horror western mashups to Space Westerns to post-apocalyptic hoorah.  They threw in some hefty biopics, too and long-winded epics and these always delivered a watch-checking runtime but usually came up short on good gunfights.
Comics now, you don’t have to hassle about that. 22 pages usually, action on each one, you can walk out anytime you like. They didn't start off Weird Western, no, but they got there eventually.
It started in the newspapers in 1928 with Buckaroo Bill (later changed to Broncho Bill, not any relation to the silent films of the same name) and it ran until around 1950. Bill was pretty standard fare, fighting Injuns, rustlers, robbers, villains of all stripe. The 30’s was when the trend took off, giving us Red Ryder (yep, the one with the BB gun in Christmas Story) and Little Joe, White Boy and King of the Royal Mounted.  No weird westerns yet, these were just run of the mill funnies with your basic, horse riding heroes.
From there we jump to comic books themselves and around the mid-30’s we see Buckskin Jim and Captain Bill of the Rangers, among a few others. These weren’t their own titles yet, just backup features in what amounted to anthology-type titles that catered to various genres. Like Action Comics where Superman got his start.  These were standalone stories, though some publishers featured regular characters like Tom Mix, or reprinted popular newspaper strips or sometimes adaptations of B-movie westerns shown at the time.
There weren’t any true Western titles until Western Picture Stories and a title called Star Rangers, both in 1936.  Western folded after four issues, but Star kept on three years, while Western Action Thrillers did four, from 1937-1941.  Like the anthology titles above, Thrillers got its start reprinting Red Ryder adventures from the newspaper before moving on to its own material.
Truth be, it was a shaky start and about as far from the Weird West as you can get. Then in 1939, the Masked Raider appeared and while he only ran for about a year, and again in an anthology title, he’s considered the first original Western comic book hero.  Real name Jim Gardley, he and his horse Lightning ran the gamut of tropes from bandits to Injuns to rustlers and the like. 
From here, things took off and the 40’s saw a whole nation of cowboy heroes take up the call.  Basic two-fisted types and while there were some ghosts or strange creatures here and there, the Weird West wasn't on anyone's mind.  Somethin' sure was, but not that.  From Apache Kid, the Outlaw Kid, Prairie Kid, the Arizona Kid, Kid Colt, the Rawhide Kid, hell, the Ringo, the Two-Gun, the Texas, even the Chinatown, all with ‘Kid’ in the name, we can see no one was striving to stand away from the pack.
Overseas was a different story, specifically in France and Belgium, with several titles springing up to pay homage to the bygone days of the west. Lucky Luke was one of the earliest, running from 1948 right up to today. Part history lesson, part parody, Luke is a comical sort that draws on the tropes for guidance, more than delivery. Blueberry is probably the best-known (for Western comic fans, anyway) that ran from 1965 to 2005. Forty damn years, to you and me.  He was an anti-hero in tune with the spaghetti westerners and was less for good or evil so much as for himself and what he felt needed doing.  Durango, Chick Bill and Buddy Longway were a few others, all paying a nod to the cliches of the time, but changing with the times as they went, as all lasted for years, sometimes even decades.
 Maybe because it was foreign territory to the creators, they were little more layered and mindful in their approach.  Likely too, they hadn't grown up seeing most of the films and their culture wasn't inundated with the western tropes like ours was at that point.  They didn't seem to take it all for granted.
Not so back home, where Johnny Thunder, Trigger Twins, Pow Wow Smith, and of course, the Lone Ranger all creaked open the ol’ batwings and stepped into the fray.  Still standard cowboy fare, but at least things were a little more exciting.  Nothing of course, was more exciting than to watch your favorite hero duking it out on the silver screen every Saturday afternoon. This was the ‘Golden Age’ of the Western, after all and even b-movie boys rode tall in the saddle.
From ‘46 to maybe ‘49, you saw all kinds of western lawmen walk off the screen and into the pages of comic books.  Icons like Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter took their turn, but even lesser-knowns like Charles Starrett, Jimmy Wakely and Rex Allen got a title or two.  If you can believe, even some gals got a turn, Dale Evans and Reno Browne.  Sure, only two, but folks, this was the 40’s.
This format however, saw Western comics through the next decade, with some of the more popular movie comics like Starrett’s Durango Kid comic outliving his film series by three years, up to 1955. 
As Western films became Western TV shows, Bonanza, Wagon Train, the Rifleman and a host of others (oh, Gunsmoke too, of course) all got their own comic titles.  Except for that Bonanza episode with the damn leprechaun, I can't think of much those shows could offer in the way of Weirdness.   
No, superheroes delivered on that score and there weren’t near as many cowboy heroes with their own books as those fools in the spandex PJs. For cowboys, the anthology format reigned supreme, though a few outside the film and TV spinoff proved themselves worthy of their own titles.
The Lone Ranger is the best known and longest running, from 1948 until ‘62.  Tonto even got a shot for 31 issues, as did the Ranger’s horse, Silver, if you can believe that.  Marvel's Rawhide Kid stuck under his own name from 1955-’57 and while that ain’t too long, he came back in 1960 and ran for 19 years. To this day, different versions of him still crop up in superhero titles and he even has a mini-series or two.
Tomahawk is another one, but the anthology trumps again, though he featured across several from 1947 all the way up to 1970.  Black Rider had a go for five years until 1955, when his title changed to yep, an anthology from ‘55 to ‘63. Wild Western was another book, an anthology, true, but one of the most popular and saw it’s run end after 57 issues from 1948 to 1957.
But, as we know from my bit about Western films, by the late 50’s, the genre was done in.  Things were getting hard-worn and hokey as the space program took center stage and genre entertainment at large bent more toward sci-fi.  Comics had changed too, and superheroes were the horse to bet on.  Before long there wasn’t much left for the Old West in comics, but like the their cousin the Western film, they’d find some news ways to tell those tired, but still wild, tales.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

LEGENDS OF THE WEIRD WEST: Pirate Raiders of the Colorado

Weird West has a lotta things buried under its sand, locked in its barns, roaming its mountains. Ghosts, UFOs, strange creatures and missing men. It's even got a mighty Spanish Galleon, laden with treasure and the hot, white bones of its plundering warders, glowing bright beneath the noonday sun.
    You heard me. Ships in the desert.
    In 1870, a man named Charley Clusker returned to civilization after some time and reported that yes, he had in fact found the Spanish Galleon sitting out there, aground in the Colorado Desert. Los Angeles Star reported it. He got his wagon stuck after a wrong turn he said, and had to come home.  He was going back again now, better prepared and was gonna be a very rich man. He left some time after November 12.
    Case you're not a geography buff, no, there ain't some desert in Colorado. Oh, sure, there's some little bits in the southwest corner and the one in Wyoming trickles down a bit up north but come on, now. No damn ship is gonna make it from the Pacific over to Colorado. That's just silly talk.
    Now, from the Gulf of California up to a bit of Sonoran Desert say, about 100 miles inland from San Diego known as the Colorado? Why the hell not? Charley says it was there, it was there. Shit, he found it twice. Maybe three times. Found it once and came back and said, 'I'm gonna find it again'. Went and did that, then came back a second time and said 'Yes, there she is. Be right back.' Maybe he did find it that third time. After his story in the paper December 1, 1870, no one knows. He disappeared.
   Was he just tempting fate (three times) on some half-ass local legend? Improper prepared, that desert will kill a man, no question. Charley was lucky with that stuck wagon the first time and the second, barely made it back after running out of supplies. Why a third go? Sure, people are stupid, but someone that dumb would be hard-pressed to find their way out of bed in the morning.
    Hell, maybe Charley was that dumb. Maybe just insane. Or maybe he was relying on the accounts of folks all saying, insisting, for years, either some Spanish Galleon, Viking Warship, the Pearl Ship of Juan De Iturbe, or even a boat from King Solomon's Navy wound up in the piece of the Sonoran they call the Colorado Desert, 100 miles east of San Diego.
    Were they all dumb and crazy? Could be. Little of both could take someone's mind right over in days when facts were a man's word and the world was just too damn big and untested not to always have a little something...weird waiting around every new corner. Man comes up and says he knows of a ship, sure, another man might believe him. Might even try to find it. Three times, though, who knows. If Charley had such bad luck or ill-plans, he was either dumb, crazy, or just so goddamn sure he knew where it was, he rushed it, figuring he'd be there and back in no time.
    And little as he probably knew it at the time, science backs Charley up plenty. See, that desert has a dent in it, called the Salton Sink. Today, it's called the Salton Sea, accidentally made back in 1905 when some fools from the government were trying to irrigate the area and it got away from them. Sink got flooded and here we are. Salton Sea. (More like a lake, though)
    This lake however, is an old thing. Going back at least three million years, that dent in the Colorado was filled many, many times with water. Whole Colorado Desert was. Over the eons, a push of silt and sand (a river delta) formed a barrier between the desert and the Gulf of California. The gulf went back to the ocean, the desert dried up and the Salton was either a sea/lake, or a big, dry dent, depending on the weather. Every 4, 500 years, it'd evaporate and fill back up.
    Now, the Colorado River is basically a big shoelace wadded up and dropped on the southwestern United States. It winds all over but trust me, it eventually runs into top of the Gulf of California. In fact, recently as 1922 (which killed 80-some folks on a capsized steamship), it ran into the Gulf in a big way. See, before we got our heads around that irrigation out there, the River and Gulf would smash up and make "tidal bores" that washed over the delta separating the Gulf from the desert.
    These days, we got millions of folks drawing the Colorado off into lakes and pumps and canals and machines and there's no 'oomph' left in the old girl by the time she gets to the Gulf. But back in Spanish days? Oh, certainly. Spanish were all over that place sniffing around. Maybe the galleon had a map and were feeling brave. Maybe they were lost. Maybe it was weather. One way or the other, they just might've ended up in a bore and found themselves up over the coast of California and dropped down into a filled Sink.
    Wouldn't fill much. Enough to set 'em down and realize they were skunked. Not enough to accommodate the draft of a big ship like that so they'd sit in the shallow, feeling the ship settle more and more into the mud beneath. They'd look back at the high wall of that delta, then on out upon the water seeping, seeping away into the desert beyond and eventually...
    Hell, who knows. I don't know. No one knows.
    Except Charley.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Black Lodges and Sinister Cities Part 3

Founded in 1859 during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, Central City, Colorado sat smack upon a number of substantial gold veins. Its first year, over 10,000 folks came to find their fortune and the placer mining didn’t disappoint. They could pan it straight out the streams or even pluck it off the ground.
Once the easy part was done, hard mining began and naturally, the idea of real work didn’t appeal. After 1860, the town dwindled, but sprang up over the years as this or that mine bore out and eventually, managed to drag itself through the end of the century.
It was a ghost town thereafter, and still is, despite playing host to about 700 permanent residents. It’s a tourist spot nowadays, with many of its original buildings providing a glimpse back into its bygone days. You can’t walk the streets of Central City without simply traveling to the Old West. And you damn sure can’t go into much of it, without traveling somewhere else entirely.
When a fire swept through in 1874, it about ended things. Teller House is one of the few that made it through, a fine hotel that charged a staggering .50 cents per night, with a $2.50 cherry on top for tariff.
On the floor of its saloon is a picture of a beautiful woman, the wife of a local miner who was stricken by consumption. It’s said he laid in sorrow upon the floor, slowly drinking himself to death as he painted her. When it was finished, he put down his brush and let the Lord take him right then and there.
While the man is out in the cemetery with his beloved, it’s well-known that on the anniversary of his death, their voices are heard coming from the painting, murmuring in solemn conversation.
If you happen to try and find them (there’s four cemeteries in the city), be sure you don’t stumble over the witch’s grave in your haste. Straying too near it causes hundreds of maggots to appear, writhing on the ground as a green mist slowly seeps about your ankles.
Of course, if you’d actually prefer a spectral encounter among the tombstones, the Masonic Cemetery is a fine choice. April 5th and November 1st of each year, John Edward Cameron draws out a phantom woman, who lays flowers at his grave. No one knows their connection for sure, but plenty have sought to ask. A dozen folks gathered up once to try and catch the woman, but she soared away and vanished into the sunset.
But not all of the city’s ghosts are quite so coy. Mike Dougherty, a miner turned actor, holds court over at the Opera House, his one-man show going well into its 120th year. Mike was a drinker in his day and folks say they can still smell the alcohol backstage. This, shortly before you feel a nudge on the shoulder and your hair gets ruffled. Ol’ Mike, hiccupping on past as he strolls unseen down an empty corridor.
Mike’s mining buddies keep at it too, the word is, down in the mines outside town. Suffocation, cave-ins, huge explosions, all took souls as they tore up the ground for that gold. Naturally, they’d linger, trying to get back to the world and start spending. Hell, every mine on the planet has to be haunted, for all that.
And it doesn’t have to be gold, no sir. Silver, bauxite, or in the case of Jerome, Arizona, copper. We got another haunted town here my friends, full o’ cowboys n’ lawmen, whores n’ crooks. They all came to play in Jerome once upon a time and turns out it was so much damn fun, they never left.
Founded in 1899, by 1903 Jerome was considered “the wickedest town in the West.” Originally there for gold in 1890, a mining camp sprung up when copper was discovered and the town was there to stay.
While a quaint tourist burg of 400 today, back when, it was home to thousands and anything but charming. Prostitution, rape, murder and theft reigned during its boom years, folks shooting and brawling, spending and scheming through its mines, casinos, saloons and brothels.
Oddly enough though, one of the town’s best-known ghosts is over at – of all places – the Community Center.
Of course, the Center is simply built now on the grounds of an old brothel. Or rather, a stretch of ‘cribs’ or shacks, where the ladies could conduct business with the miners. One way or another (and it don’t tax the imagination) one of these ladies was done in by a customer and it’s her soul which stays on about the Center.
Quite a few ‘professional sorts’ drift about in Jerome, as it was indeed a thriving business then. The Mile High Inn (another former brothel) plays host to a former madame, Jennie Banters, who in her time was one of the richest women in Arizona. She and a few companions lurk in various rooms, throwing shadows, turning on radios and moving small objects here and there.
It’s much the same over at the Conner Hotel, dating back to 1897 and the town’s heyday. Built for the spendthrift in mind, rooms rented for a buck a night. It’s considerably more these days, but the entertainment’s still free.
Room 1 features the laughter, cold spots and armoire doors that open and close on their own. Rooms 2 and 4 don’t disappoint either, and even go one better with some moving objects and the growl of a phantom dog.
The Jerome Grand Hotel, just down the way, has a history to rival that of Jerome itself. Having been a hospital for the town during the copper craze, it’s got a few stories to tell.
Coughing, moans, footsteps and even voices, all echo down the halls of the present-day hotel. Cries of pain, as well as slamming doors, join floating objects and appliances that turn on and off on their own.
The Ghost City Inn, the Crib District and of course the town’s many mines (one home to ol’ Headless Charlie), all have their own reputations. All have pools of blacker shadow, colder air, that sense of foreboding you only get when the world’s been through your door with something on its mind.
Remember that next time you’re passing a night in the Weird West. Take a good look around that room and stare through the fresh wallpaper and bright-colored drapes. Dress a few cobwebs around and let the moonlight shine through a crack in the ceiling.
There’s a fella in the corner now, boots crossed on the table. He thumbs back his brim and hoists a bottle.
Let him pour you a drink.

Monday, January 1, 2018

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Black Lodges and Sinister Cities Part 2

Cimarron, New Mexico back in the day, was as two-fisted, six-gunnin’ an Old West town as ever was. Story has it when a man strode the morning streets, the first question as he tipped his hat to someone was, “Who got killed at Lambert’s last night?”
This was of course, The Lambert Inn. Built in 1872, it gave a bed and bath to many famous figures over the years, among them Wyatt Earp and his brother Morgan, Bat Masterson and Black Jack Ketchum. Dozens more and dozens more deadly.
In its heyday, 26 murders in or around its 43 rooms. It was renamed the St. James at one point, but that didn’t cease the thunder of history roaring through the place.
Jesse James stayed there, as did his would-be killer, Bob Ford. Pat Garret, Fred Remington, Zane Grey, Doc Holliday, Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley. Even Billy the Kid. Knife fights, fistfights, straight up gundowns. But even if folks were getting along, you took your life in your hands. Celebrating this or that with a gunshot in the air became such an occurrence, they had to install double slabs of wood in the saloon ceiling to keep guests in the rooms upstairs from getting killed.
When the railroads came through, traffic out St. James Way began to lessen and the town followed. Cimarron shrank and with it, the once glorious aura of its infamous hotel. It’s up to snuff once more nowadays as are, they say, its former inhabitants.
Especially in Room 18.
See, Thomas James Wright won the rights to the hotel in a poker game one night and that’s where he was staying. Gunned down as he stepped over the threshold, ol’ TJ then dragged himself in to die. A few mysterious deaths followed when the room was let out to others after that. It’s under lock and key now and the owners forbid entrance by anyone, staff and guests both.
All that sits in there is a bed frame and a bureau. Atop the bureau is a whiskey bottle, some shotglasses and a hand of cards. An offering, maybe, to the spirit of a man railing between those four walls in hatred of the living.
Cigar smoke is often smelled around the hotel (smoking is no longer allowed there), as is the rose perfume of the former owner’s wife Mary, who died at the hotel in 1926. She’s been spotted herself, drifting through the halls as a misty, transparent shade.
There are cold spots, phantom taps upon windows and here and there, shadowy apparitions blink in and out. Lights flicker, electronics behave strangely. Cameras are said not to work on the property at times, then resume their function once beyond its influence.
Makes it hard to record those mischief makers, but then you consider a place like the Victor Hotel out in Colorado, maybe you could do without any mementos.
Built in 1894, the original Victor was a two-story wooden building, dominating its corner of a downtown intersection. After it went down in a fire, the owners re-imagined it as a four story brick and mortar, with accommodations up top, some shops along the bottom and office space in between.
In the winter, when the ground got too hard to bury folks proper, that top floor doubled as a morgue until the weather straightened out. More than one of them long-forgotten souls drifts through the place still, disembodied-like. Arms, legs, even just heads have been seen trailing vapor about the halls. The elevator that ferried them up runs on its own at times, stopping on various floors and rattling open to admit unseen passengers.
Can’t be too surprising for folks, considering. You have enough souls dreaming through your rooms at night, only stands to reason inviting actual dead bodies inside just compounds the deal. A place can only be so many things before it all starts to overlap. And if it changes hands, well, no telling how it’ll end up.
Take the Crescent Hotel & Spa in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Hotel in 1886, then a women’s college in 1924. Hospital after that, around 1930 to about 40. Hotel again in ’46 up to ’67. From then until 2002 it wasn’t much of anything, but once again stands as one of the finest hotels in the South. And certainly one of the most haunted.
Ol’ Michael is probably its most popular ‘guest’. He was a mason on the original Crescent and fell off the roof one day. Or rather, in. Straight inside and down to the second floor. Room 218 is now Michael’s otherworldy wheelhouse and if you’d like your lights played with, hands coming out the mirror and someone shaking you awake at night, 218’s where it’s at.
In recognition of its former hospital days, Ol’ ‘Doc’ Baker makes an appearance in a white linen suit and purple shirt. People who see him wandering around say the Doc looks confused. No wonder, he was just in Hell a second ago.
Doc see, peddled a snake oil cure for cancer back when and took folks for millions. Probably hastened a few deaths too, from some thinking his pisswater would do ‘em better than conventional treatment. Some of his patients stick around too, as does a nurse, pushing her gurney along the third floor.
Before the hospital though, was that college and a young student who hopped out her window one day. No one’s ever seen her but a few have heard her screams as she falls, over and over.
Does she land outside the Crystal Dining Room window? Maybe. But that’s not why a certain gentleman is said to sit there, staring wistfully out. Dressed in duds from the hotel’s glory days, he might tell you he met a lovely lady the night before, and is waiting for her to return.
If you miss him, stick around the dance floor until the wee hours. It’s said they all come out to play then. Tops and tails, opera gloves and glossy curls, everyone taking a few spins to the unheard strains of a phantom orchestra.
When you get tired take a seat. Then we’ll head on out to Central City, Colorado.
Whole damn town is haunted over there…

Friday, December 22, 2017

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Black Lodges and Sinister Cities Part 1

You sign the receipt and with a nod to the clerk, bend for your suitcase. Elevator up to your floor, turning left then going ‘Oops,’ and heading right instead. Narrow halls, dim lighting, but it’s an old place and they can’t just tear everything out to put in the latest and greatest. Besides, it adds atmosphere.
A waiter passes you in the hall, a silver tray of champagne glasses on the end of his fingers. They clink as he passes, then the sound stops abruptly. You turn and catch your breath at the sight of an empty hallway. Flickering lights above hasten you to your room.
Constant backward glances along the way do nothing to calm your nerves. For every check if something’s there, comes the growing certainty something is and far more horrifying than the thing you hoped wasn’t there a moment before.
Key in the lock, nothing lines up right. The door is stuck! Then the elevator dings and you hear the clink of glasses once more.
He’s coming back!
You push inside, throwing your suitcase and leaning hard against the door. The lights snap on. The television squeals up a throaty spray of static. The curtains blow, drawers slam open and closed.
A knock on the door!
You cry out but it’s too late! The air itself begins to shimmer and a portal opens above the bed! Skeletal arms reach out amid ragged tatters of blue flame! A demon roars upon you, claws and teeth sinking deep into your flesh!
Outside, the waiter stands watching your door, rattling on its hinges, blood seeping from beneath the crack. He reaches to his tray and plucks off a flute, toasting your agony as you’re dragged screaming into the furious, hell-scorched Beyond.
Welcome to the historic Weird West Motor Lodge, conveniently located upon converging lines of cosmic force featuring demonic apparitions, shadowy ghouls and sixteen luxuriously appointed portals to utter damnation.
At least, that’s how it should play out. We want that, when we think of haunted places. That’s how it should be. The titillation, the tremors, the terror. Acts one through three, in that order, no waiting.
Never does though. Maybe since ghosts – if they do exist – possess some measure of thought. They don’t want themselves known on purpose. Hell, maybe they can’t gather their ‘spiritual piss n’ vinegar’ if you got too many ‘earthbound minds’ staring them down. Who knows.
Fact remains plenty folks got plenty to say on the matter of haunted places and plenty haunted places to choose from. Couldn’t really say what makes a place haunted, like a hotel, though you put one out in the Weird West, you can’t expect much else.
The way lines of force converge, ghost trains roaring by, doomed prospectors, wandering tribes of bloody Indians or murderous soldiers, they’re bound to cross. Stick a building on it, you might as well invite the Devil to dinner. Shit, it’s like you want the place to be haunted.
Can’t speak to it myself. Yeah, I been in the Eldridge Hotel in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, but no, never did get sucked into that otherworldly dimension they say appears in different rooms. I was waiting for a friend, oh, seven, eight years ago, and just sat in the lobby. Being there though, reminded me back in the late 70’s – in town for a funeral – I did have a few beers on the second or third floor. They were apartments back then, I can’t remember who lived there. Didn’t sleep on their couch that night, I’m sure of that. I’d know if I got up to pee and ended up in some dimension.
So, I don’t know from ghosts or the portals or any of that. Never met anyone who does. Not saying it don’t go on, but as close as I get to the Other Side is saying I been in the lobby and had a beer on the second or third floor of a haunted hotel that was once apartments.
Maybe I need to do a little traveling. Say, down South Dakota Way.
Bullock Hotel in Deadwood there is the former property of the one and only Seth Bullock, yes sir. Long before he got his show on HBO though, ol’ Seth was just another entrepreneur, scappin’ his way through one of the deadliest gold towns to ever plant a shovel. He started up a hardware store and thrived at it, then later, became first sheriff the place had ever seen. After that, it was owner/operator of Bullock’s Hotel.
Grand place, with a big restaurant to seat 100, a fine Steinway piano in the lobby and 60-odd lushly appointed rooms. Not a damn thing haunted about it.
That is, until September 1919, when Seth passed on. Or rather, died. Folks say he hasn’t really gone anywhere. Hum a tune or turn idle working in Seth’s place these days and they say there’s a feeling. Not sinister so much as stern, hovering a bit over their shoulder until they pick up the pace again. Apparitions in the rooms and some of the halls and sometimes even Seth himself stops by, down in the basement bar, Seth’s Cellar, just to keep an eye on things.
Now, Seth plan that? ‘Course not. So what’s the deal? Why he get special treatment?
I ain’t here to solve the mysteries of the universe, no. Can’t deny though, some places, at some times, have a certain…gravity. And they maintain it, long after the times have passed which drew that hoorah in the first place. Stones, dirt, wood, it just soaks it up and can’t let go.
Works best, it seems, if those stones are real bloody. And the dirt screams when it blows and that wood sighs under footsteps creaking on toward evil deeds…

Friday, December 15, 2017

WEIRD WEST FICTION: Night of the Six-Gun Gorilla

I adapted this from the original story (by an anonymous author) which first appeared in The Wizard magazine in 1939. It's in the public domain now and we're free to do as we please with it. First order of business was changing the ape's name from O'Neil to O'Shea. Also had to figure a way to make the gorilla smart as a man, and give him know-how on guns. Once done, it was just a matter of taking Anonymous' 80K words about a rundown gundown and tightening that up something
fierce. As a result, several months in the original piece is now one night. 

One hell of a night.

Chapter 1: An Association of Apes

Bart Masters threw down his pick with a grunt of relief. It was almost dark now at the bottom of the shaft. Bent and scarred by a lifetime of toil, sixty-two years felt like two hundred. If he was ever going to spend all the gold he’d torn from the earth the last couple years, he’d have to quit for civilization. Today’s haul and everything stashed under the floor of the cabin, it was more than enough.
It was time.
He finished packing the last bucket and tugged the rope. Foot on the rim, he shouted, “Hoist ‘er on, O’Shea!”
Simple as slick, up he went. Breaking into the crisp air of early evening, Masters grabbed the crosspiece above and stepped out.
“Thanks, son.”
The gorilla shuffled away from the winch handle.
“Hoo,” he grunted. “Heh.”
A tremendous creature and Masters was still taken aback at times. Hunched but huge, at least six foot. Glossy black as a coal broom with a face like a nightmare. Cold weather creature, from what Masters could discern – from its love of daytime shade and evening frolics in the brisk desert – but New Mexico had treated it well enough. ‘Least up in the Cristobals this time of year. Spring was always kind.
The old man had never up and asked where the thing had come from, though part of him figured if he did, it might answer.
It had to do with the scar above its eye, certainly. Oh, there were others. The creature contained an entire history of some terrible practice head to foot. Rakes along its skull, its chest. Long scrapes and trails visible when the breeze moved the fur on its arms and legs. But the one on its head was the thing. A puckered hole in, with a pink, hairless exit around back.
Which had to be a bullet. There was no other explanation. Something had creased its brain and cinched up the years Mr. Darwin said held the apes and men apart.
When Masters had found the beast shuffling dust on the horizon as he’d dragged his wagon to the claim, there was no denying the craft in its eyes. The grunts when Masters had leaned in the saddle to coo at it like some pet. No words, but the ape had gestured back the way it came and even gave some small shrugs, as if to say:
I got real problems back there. What’s going on up this way?
Did it understand like a man? Masters had decided it did. At the very least, the animal seemed to understand Masters, little as it could tell of itself. He’d named it for his own wife Maggie, gone to the fever years back and since, found something of comfort in the thing’s company, if not outright friendship.
Now, the old man directed the bucket into a few sacks and got them loaded on the horse. O’Shea knuckled beside, long arms out front to tuck its legs and do his hop-gallop down the edge of the mountain toward the cabin below. The last bit of sun winkled on the creek flowing beside it and Masters had to smile.
Dragonfly Mine, he called his piece of the world, and there’d been no better stroke of luck around it. Either in the gold itself, or chancing upon O’Shea to help him turn it out. The beast had fallen right to work, easy as pie.
Even got down in the shaft at times with the pick and shovel. Masters felt foolish speaking like he did to the animal, spouting odd thoughts throughout the day, but damned if it wasn’t easy. He just knew there were notions in that creature’s mind. Thoughts of loves and hates, pasts and futures.
Everything was in them eyes, the way they looked right at him. Felt shameful to consider, but Masters often wished that bullet had gone deep enough to knock some words loose.
“’Bout time, I think,” he said, swinging a leg off the horse. Without being told, the ape grunted over and helped unload the sacks.
“How ‘bout you?”
O’Shea snuffled, cradling one of the sacks like an infant.
“Civilization? Y’all got one o’ those?” Masters untied the other sack and let it drop, to give the horse some relief. “Some ape society?”
O’Shea grunted again ‘hoo, ho-ho’ and waddled up the porch, shaking his head.
‘Ape Society.’ You’re a card, old man.
Masters led the horse to its corral around back, a horizontal post next to the outhouse and tool shack. Charity was a fine Appaloosa, quick and strong and made stronger for all her work hauling out the mine. He went in the shack for a blanket and feedbag, tying oats on and heaving the saddle off. He draped the blanket in its place and gave her a pat. Wiping his hands on his front, he took in the sunset one more time with a deep, satisfying breath.
It was just touching the top of the woods at the end of the grassy field. This, just past the creek. The woods carpeted another slope, steeper than his mine was and continued down toward town. From just above the mine, it was easy enough to see the place out there.
Copper Drop was built on the paraje Fray, the last hospitable land on the Royal Road, the Camino Real just before Jornada Basin. The Royal itself ran 1500 miles, Mexico City to Santa Fe and oh, dangers abounded. But that southern piece through the basin, 100 miles to the border, was considered the worst of it. They called it Jornada Del Muerto, or Dead Man’s Route.
A powerful hell, made worse for the fact the mountains followed you the whole way, hiding the Rio Grande behind ‘em. ‘Least ’til Fort Selden, but most were dead by then.
Powerful hell. Only seemed right a shitty minin’ burg like Copper Drop sat at the head of it.
Be good to finally leave. Good to be back in the world with telephones and canned fish and that new kinda water closet. Shit, Yale gone and give some nigger a goddamn degree! Oh, they could do anything back in the world. A man met it head-on or got to runnin’. And no man ran that damn fast.
The old man sighed.
Inside, the gorilla had already pried up the loose boards and stowed their day’s take. While he sat beside the black-belly stove picking burrs from his coat, the old man set about some supper.
They chatted over it, or, Masters did, spooning stew at his little table while the ape retired to the corner. Here, he fed up on some grass and flowers from the wooden bin. O’Shea and the old man went out of a morning or night, picking flowers and thistles and tying them in bundles for the beast to eat.
The ape mostly grazed the land on his own – eating as much as he did everyday – but their picking expeditions were a way to relax. And the little bundles were like bites of food at a man’s table, when Masters was taking his own evening meal. O’Shea could use a chair and sometimes sat across, but seemed to prefer his corner.
“So, you ain’t said much,” Masters said, licking out his bowl and setting it on the shelf. He stared at the Territory map on the wall, then took up a log from beside the stove. He cleared his throat and creaked open the front to toss it in.
“So, then.”
O’Shea grunted.
“Back to town ‘fore long? No?”
The ape munched and snorted and waved a hand.
Foolishness. I can’t be among Men.
“What’s that?” Masters imitated the gesture. “You sayin’ no? Why the hell not?”
O’Shea held out his foot, that brand burned into the heel. The number 9 in peculiar script, inside a circle.
Where do you think this came from?
“Well –”
He let it go and whapped a palm over his eye, at the hole there.
And this?!
“C’mon now, not all’re bad. We’ll take it slow, maybe –”
O’Shea stood with a snarl. It wasn’t aggressive as such. Masters had never feared for himself around the gorilla. But he knew when enough was enough. He held up his hands and looked at the floor with a sigh.
“Conve’sation over.”
The gorilla stared at him.
“Don’t have to go nowhere y’don’t want.”
O’Shea snorted again.
Uh huh.
He knuckled to the door and pushed outside.


Thursday, December 7, 2017

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: The Bloody Benders Part 4

Well, we know ol’ Hank York was found in that orchard by his brother Colonel Ed. Remember I mentioned that third brother, Alex? Well, ol’ Alex, he was a man with some pull, a Kansas senator who decided upon the results of Ed’s efforts, that a reward would hasten the capture of that sinister slasher family.
   $1,000 back then was a piece of money, no question. About 20 grand these days and that got some attention. Governor of that fine state, Mr. Osborn saw ol’ Alex step up and offered $2,000 on top. Whoever caught them murderin’ sumbitch Benders well, they was in for a hell of a payday.
   The chase was on.
   Of course, before heading off to skate along that razor sharp horizon and bring a vengeful thunder upon the culprits, there were certain…local matters to attend to. The Benders kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but their dread business still meant a certain amount of actual business and that meant accessories.
   They nabbed about a dozen of them type-folks, those lawmen and vigilantes. People of ‘ill-repute’ known to associate with the Benders, the thought likely being, their arrest would, if not produce the whereabouts of their fugitive murderers, at least cultivate some goodwill with respect to their efforts toward finding them. Even ol’ Brockman made the scene again.
   This wasn’t smoke and mirrors, now. Not entirely. Every one that stood in jail or before some judge had their hand in tying up loose ends. Mainly in disposing of, or fencing, the stolen goods of the Bender victims. Hell, they even squared away a member of the Vigilante Committee itself! Oh, Mit Cherry, he’d gone and written up a letter supposed to be from one of the victims, saying he’d arrived safely at his destination.
   The man had not, of course. Had the Benders? It was time to find out.
   After all, wagons did leave tracks and the Benders did leave in one. Some detectives hired on followed these and came upon a handful of half-dead horses teamed to it about ten miles from the Bender Inn. From there, witnesses pointed them along that the Benders (or folks like ‘em) had bought some train tickets.
   In a town south called Chanute KS, the Bender kids left the train and hied toward Texas on their own. Outlaw conclave on the border of Texas and New Mexico awaited and they were not pursued. No, that was the badlands for many reasons and the law hesitated to tread there. Or so they say. Could be that, could also be they were just surmising the kids’ destination and couldn’t afford the expense of being wrong. Ma and Pa, though, stayed on that train and – some say – went east, arriving finally in St. Louis, MO.
   From here, well, no one knows. Stories abound. Everyone says they saw the Benders, chased the Benders, even killed ‘em. Little House on the Prairie gal, Ingalls, said her dad was on a Vigilance Committee gone caught the family and strung ‘em up or shot ‘em, she’s not specific.
   It’s not a tale much believed, mainly for the math. The Ingalls’ moved from the area in 1871 when Miss Laura was 4. Bender story didn’t break until 1873. The others over the years, well, that’s more speculation. There’s even less to support these claims, but at the same time, they’re mostly contemporary with the times. Ms. Ingalls brought hers up long after, in 1937.
   Whether they told the tale in some saloon, or to the law itself, burning, hanging or shooting down the evil Bender clan, it don’t much matter. Not a soul ever brought in a scrap of evidence to support themselves and not a one ever laid claim to that fine pile of money, that 3 grand waitin’ for whoever run ‘em down.
   So folks talked, as folks do. The Benders had escaped and for the next fifty years, would remain so. That is, until it was safe to assume each of them had died. Meantime, there were the tales of who’d killed them, and every so often, a story about how they’d actually just died or been arrested.
   Take the case of an old man fitting Pa Bender’s description, arrested in Idaho for killing someone with a hammer to the head. He was brought in, but cut off his own foot to get out of his leg irons. That worked back then about as well as it would now, and yes, the man bled to death. By the time they got a Kansas deputy out to ID the remains, the corpse had rotted too far. Nevertheless, the folks in our fine potato state took credit for the capture and long displayed the man’s skull in a local saloon as that of Pa Bender. That is, until Prohibition, when the place closed and someone grabbed them bones as a souvenir.
   There’s also the damned strange case of Almira Monroe and Sarah Davis, arrested as Kate Jr. and Ma Bender in 1889. Each accused the other of being either Kate Jr. or Ma, and who really knows why. It’s a host of blog posts to just suss out the details of the preliminary reports. They were crooks, true enough, but it was determined that they were not the ladies in question.
   All in all then, the Benders were long gone. Stayed gone, too. Twenty victims total, they say, once the graves were counted, assumptions were made and body parts got strung back together. Most were claimed and laid to rest where need be. Those that weren’t were re-interred in a specially ordained area south or so of the Bender orchard, called ‘The Benders Mounds’.
   Now, whether it’s an inn at the gateway to the Weird West, or a marker showing the souls claimed upon its threshold, any place got the Bender name on it is one howling with ghosts and daring you to visit.
   I wouldn’t recommend it.