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Ragtime Cowboy Joe 

In subsequent years, the Western hero became more heroic, less existential, more taciturn. More like John Wayne.

Well, it's finally been done, podnah. ...

Talking about Brokeback Mountain, this year's Oscar favorite and something as old as cinema, the Western-short story-made-movie. Yet something new, too; the riding, roping, risible cowboy buddies become boyfriends and yet another constituency has claimed for itself a slice of America's most durable mythology.

Who can blame them? As even female novelist Sara Davidson -- a female novelist! -- wrote in Cowboy, she's always been partial to the breed:

"It's an image that suggests ruggedness and wildness, cockiness, a sense of fun and an intimate power over animals."

Larry McMurtry knew the image well before Brokeback Mountain, whose screenplay he co-wrote. In Lonesome Dove, he described a cowboy fleeing Indians who cuts his horse's throat:

"When the horse fell, he managed to turn him so the horse lay across one end of the wallow, his blood pumping out into the dust ... It was a desperate trick, but the only one he would think of that increased his chances -- most horses shied from the smell of fresh blood."

Of course, even then McMurtry had ideas on cowboy sexuality. Here's a prostitute's opinion:

"The problem with cowboys is all the time it takes to get their boots off ... I don't get paid for watching cowboys wrestle with their dern boots, so I just leave the sheets off the bed. If they can't shuck 'em quick, they have to do it with them on."

It wasn't always compositionally so. Maybe the first Western novel came from the inexhaustible pen of James Fenimore Cooper, who merely moved his popular leatherstocking cast West from the land of the Mohicans to the land of the Sioux in The Prairie:

"'Teton' returned the trapper, throwing the breech of his rifle to the earth with startling vehemence, and regarding his companion with steady serenity, 'I have heard that there are men among my people who study their great medicines until they believe themselves to be gods, and who laugh at all faith except in their own vanities. It may be true ... When man is shut up in towns and schools with his own follies, it may be easier to believe himself greater than the Master of Life; but a warrior who lives in a house with the clouds for its roof ... and who daily sees the power of the Great Spirit, should be more humble.'"

Cooper's skepticism about modern civilized man found an ache in the early fiction of Bret Harte, grandson of a founder of the New York Stock Exchange. One of his most-anthologized tales, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, tells of a bunch of misfits who have been kicked out of a mining camp. Holding the group together is a fatalistic gambler, who finally surrenders to a fatal snowstorm. The others find the deuce of clubs pinned to a tree with the following inscription ending the tale:

"Beneath this tree

Lies the Body


John Oakhurst

Who Struck A Streak of Bad Luck

On the 23rd of November, 1850,


Handed In His Checks

On the 7th December, 1850."

"And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat."

In subsequent years, the Western hero became more heroic, less existential, more taciturn. More like John Wayne. Authors like Zane Gray and Louis L'Amour penned stories of men with their own sense of aplomb and book-buyers around the globe bought it. Nobody sold more than L'Amour, whose heroes often resembled Hondo:

"He was a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard and dangerous. Whatever gentleness that might lie within him was guarded and deep ... His name was Hondo and he could almost smell the trouble coming."

Part of the cowboy's trouble was the steady encroachment of civilized domestication. L'Amour's Hondo felt it:

"He had kissed her because a woman should not die unkissed, unloved. Yet after the kiss it had not been the same. He had gone away, yet even as he rode he knew he would return."

Hondo made it from page to screen. And yes, he was played by John Wayne. ...

Which brings us to Cormac McCarthy, the great novelist, who chronologically followed the West in his "Desert Trilogy." In the most modern of them, Cities of the Plain, his heroes experience the timelessness of the place:

"They dismounted and led the horses. They crossed gray bands of midden soil from ancient campsites washed down out of the arroyo that carried bits of bone and pottery and they passed under pictographs upon the rimland boulders that bore images of hunter and shaman and meeting fires and desert sheep all picked into the rock a thousand years and more."

They should have looked harder for books. Tales of the True West, I'd guess.


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