Dickens on the prairie
Regular readers of this blog will know how highly I rate the late Brian Garfield as a Western writer, not only for his magisterially opinionated guide Western Films but also as a novelist. I have just read and much enjoyed his 1978 yarn Wild Times.
It is a boisterous romp through the history of the ‘Wild West’ from the Civil War into the silent movie era, told by a key participant, the world champion marksman Hugh Cardiff.
In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, Garfield stresses that it is a novel and says that it “should not be regarded as a basis for historical guessing games.” However, many real Western characters do appear, the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and other fictional Garfield characters are clearly modeled on noted figures or are portmanteau persons, as it were. Any Westernista reading the book (and most readers will be Westernstas) will have fun ‘identifying’ the real people portrayed. Garfield does add in his Afterword, “Still, the astute reader who is versed in the history of the American West [I reckon that’s us, pards] may recognize an astonishing number of incidents in this novel. Nearly all the incidents … are based upon or at least suggested by facts.”
The tale opens and closes with a widely-publicized shooting match in Denver. Such contests were of course big news and regarded as major sporting events. Famous marksmen such as Doc Carver (William Frank Carver, 1851 – 1927) enjoyed nationwide renown. Carver, trained as a dentist and, like John Holliday, known as Doc, was a colorful character who coined the sobriquet ‘Evil Spirit’, which he explained with a camp-fire tale that the name had been given to him by Spotted Tail, the famous chief of the Brulé Lakota, because Carver had felled a rare white buffalo. In December 1877 the Evil Spirit issued a challenge to all comers: he would use a rifle and the challenger could use a shotgun, and the targets would be glass balls hurled into the air. He also contended that he could hit more targets from horseback than a challenger could hit while standing on the ground. This act of bravado is very close to what Garfield’s Hugh Cardiff does.
The targets in 1877 were thrown up by the newly-invented Bogardus glass ball trap, and Captain Adam Henry Bogardus (1834–1913) was another famed shooter. He appears as himself in Wild Times, a purported rival but actually close friend of Cardiff. He has become ‘Doc Bogardus’, combining some of Carver’s features – actually Carver too appears briefly in the story. In reality, in 1883 Carver defeated Bogardus 19 times in a series of 25 matches, and there was a celebrated rivalry between many of these marksmen. Captain Bogardus and his sons went on to tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and Cody himself was a noted shot – though there was always the suggestion that he used birdshot in his firearms, the easier to smash the glass balls. Seriously skillful target shooters such as Annie Oakley (1860 – 1926) and her husband Frank Butler (1847 – 1926) also performed for Cody and traveled globally with the Wild West and other shows.
Cardiff’s story begins when he is a boy in Kentucky, unjustly having a murder warrant issued on him for the wartime shooting of a Union soldier and fleeing West with his friend, the Jewish peddler Isaac Singman. Cardiff, by the way, was the name an immigration official gave Hugh’s father because the official couldn’t be bothered to spell out the complicated Welsh family name and instead wrote in where he’d come from.
Hugh fetches up on the Tyree land grant in Arizona and is adopted there by the Tyree family. Of course he falls for the pretty but willful teenage daughter, Libby. Unfortunately, the eldest son of the family, Vernon, surprises Hugh and Libby in a compromising situation when Libby thinks it funny to hover over an embarrassed Hugh while he is bathing naked in a lake and Vern jumps to conclusions, causing the exile of Hugh from the ranch. This will cause a lifelong enmity between Hugh and Vern, which will only be resolved in the last chapter.
I won’t retell the whole plot here; that would be pointless. In any case it’s a long story (too long, actually; it could have been told more concisely) and I wouldn’t want to spoil your enjoyment if you read it. It purports to be an autobiography written by the elderly Hugh in the 1920s.
That 20s date is fortunate, in a way, because Garfield can thus get away with what otherwise would be anachronisms in his language, such as stunt in the movie sense, people seeking an autograph, getting a new hairdo, using a microphone, and so on.
Hugh has a low opinion of “human vermin who called themselves ‘hunters’” who shot up to a thousand buffalo in a single day, leaving the corpses to rot. In fact despite a long life on the violent frontier and getting into a good many scrapes, Hugh never kills anyone, ever, and he doesn’t care for killing animals, either, except for food or self-defense. “Killing is nothing for a man to boast of. There is no sport in necessity, nor necessity in sport.”
Of the real-life celebrities of the West he meets, Hugh talks of the great William F Cody. “Buffalo Bill had his partisans, to whom he wasn’t far short of God, and his detractors, to whom he was a drunken charlatan; I have never numbered myself among either of them but on balance I did not dislike him and sometimes admired him.”
Hugh finds Wyatt Earp “a charming and handsome but slightly shifty fellow”, and says “he was a charlatan by calling – gambler, pimp, confidence man, what-have-you – a likable fellow for all that, very handsome and hungry for fame. He still is like that.” (Earp of course lived into the late 1920s in LA).
Hugh also runs into Burt Mossman, “a small man in stature but he organized the Arizona Rangers and with just twelve good men cleaned up the entire outlaw-infested territory.” Another of Garfield’s novels, The Lawbringers, centers on Mossman – click to the link to know more. But he says the likes of Mossman have not achieved fame: “instead the legends have accrued to gentlemen the likes of the Earp brothers and Billy the Kid – people of no account.”
Hugh likes Hickok. “Everybody considered him a peacock but he did make those pearl-handles [Navy Colts] sing; there wasn’t a better pistol-man in Nebraska.” Hugh says “he drank too much to be dependable but he had flair and color.” He also suggests that Hickok’s death at the hands of Jack McCall in Deadwood in 1876 was a kind of suicide.
Mind, Hugh attributes some of the doings of Hickok and Earp to his pal Caleb Rice. “It was Caleb, not Hickok, who faced down John Wesley Hardin in Abilene; and it was Caleb, not Wyatt Earp, who brought an end to the outlawry of John Ringo in Arizona.” So now you know. Caleb is also a crack shot. He later becomes a lawman in Dodge, and then says he is “going to work for Billy Tilghman down in the Indian Nations. Deputy federal marshal for Judge Parker.”
Hugh doesn’t like Al Sieber, though, who figures quite largely in the story. He thinks Sieber is “a man who boasted that he liked to kill Indians”. Sieber “had a crude personality, an ugly appearance and a cynical single-mindedness that I thought petty.” Hugh does give Al some grudging respect: “It was Sieber who brought those wars to an end when in 1886 he finally brought Geronimo to bay. But he had killed a great many people to do it and he took too much pleasure in the killings.”
Hugh becomes the brother-in-law of a lesser Apache chief, Ibran, a close consort of Geronimo, and will play an important part in tracking down the rogue Apache band, along with another fictional character, mountain man Fitz Bragg (no sign of Tom Horn). As for Geronimo, he “was a clever brigand but as a soldier he took no real interest in war; his interest was in battle.” In general, Hugh is pro-Apache. “We cheated them, did our best to deprive them of their dignity, outlawed them, murdered them. But we were never able to enslave them.”
He doesn’t like Doc Holliday either, “a twisted man who relied on meanness to terrify everyone [except Hugh, natch]; he was the kind of man who takes pleasure only in others’ fear or pain.”
Sometimes Hugh gets it wrong. He describes how Jesse James tried to rob two banks at once in Northfield, Minnesota. He was getting confused there with the Dalton brothers in Coffeyville, Kansas.
Probably the most entertaining of Hugh’s friends is Nate Loving, clearly Nat Love (1854 – 1921), an African-American cowboy who in Wild Times heroically grabs a charging bull by the horns and wrestles it to the ground, saving a life and thus inventing the rodeo act (Nate says, “I seen young Bill Pickett do that lots of times over in Texas”). Nate is full of life and energy, always dashing hither and yon, laughing out loud, and a very sympathetic character. “There wasn’t much you could do about civilizing Nate Loving. He had too much fun in him.” The real Nat (in fact pronounced Nate) was born into slavery but became a cowboy in Dodge City, later to be known as Deadwood Dick when he drove a herd up to the Dakotas. In 1907 he published an autobiography, the Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself, one of the reasons we know so much about him, though the book was full of ‘tall tales’. Bizarrely, Nat became a Pullman porter later in life, which Garfield’s Nate Loving does too.
Another likable fellow In the book is Bob Halburton, very much a Ned Buntline figure. He is an alcoholic who lectures on temperance and who writes sensational dime novels about Hugh and decides to put Hugh and a reluctant Caleb on the stage (before Buntline got the idea) in Heroes of the West. Hugh and, especially, Caleb do not turn out to be great actors, rather far from it, but the show is quite a hit for a while. At one point an annoyed Caleb shoots out a spotlight that is annoying him. True West aficionados will recognize that bit.
When Hugh gets the idea (well before Cody, of course) to put on a traveling Wild West show, he hires Bob to do the publicity. Much of the later part of the book is concerned with the successes and difficulties encountered by the show, as it travels the world. Garfield had certainly studied Buffalo Bill’s spectacle and other such shows, as he describes the highs and lows of Hugh Cardiff’s Wild West. Hugh buys the Tombstone Mail Coach, giving celebrity visitors to the show rides in it, thus pre-empting Cody’s Deadwood Stage.
As the popularity of Wild West shows declined at the turn of the century, Hugh and his friends turn to motion pictures, forming the Arizona Mutoscene Company to make Westerns. They aren’t too proficient at it and the whole enterprise smacks of Bill Tighman’s The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws, a 1915 silent movie directed by and featuring himself, and released by Tilghman’s own Eagle Film Company.
It all climaxes in a final marathon shooting match when Hugh is an old man, when old enmities resurface and come to a head. It’s dramatic stuff.
The novel has an almost Dickensian tang to it with its memorable and picaresque characters, rambling narrative and colorful portrayal of the place and time.
Hugh makes no bones about having possibly exaggerated his yarn here and there. “An honest man might come out from the States as truthful as George Washington but the West just naturally stretches facts and pretty soon the honest man will be swapping lies with the best of them.” So we have to take the tale with a pinch (nay, a barrelful) of salt. But like all the best tall tales of the Wild West, true or not, it’s huge fun.
Jim Cornelius of Frontier Partisans said, “I read the covers off Brian Garfield’s Wild Times. How I loved this tale of a fictional Wild West showman.” I concur.
In 1980 there was a two-episode mini-series made of the book with Sam Elliott as Cardiff, Ben Johnson as Doc Bogardus and Harry Carey Jr as Fitz Bragg. That we shall review shortly!