Tag Archives: Frank H. Spearman

‘The Mountain Divide,’ by Frank H. Spearman

I’ve read and appreciated a couple of Frank H. Spearman’s classic westerns (he wrote Whispering Smith, most famously), and thought I’d try another. The Mountain Divide is somewhat different from my previous choices. It has the feel of a boy’s book, a genre which was big at one time. That’s mainly because the main character is a 17-year-old boy, and due to the lack of a romantic element in the plot. The book is also different from the others in not being set in the author’s contemporary time, but several decades back in history. It’s about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, just after the Civil War.

We first meet Bucks, our hero, as a newly hired telegrapher in the track town of Medicine Bend. Faced with a mob of angry customers, he handles himself with coolness and good sense, gaining the favor of his bosses and senior employees. Important among them is Bob Scott, the action hero of the book, who – interestingly enough – is a “half-breed.”

The story proceeds with Bucks advancing in his career, and clashing again and again with the outlaw element that accompanies the progress of the track laying. In the end it will come to open war between the railroad men and the lawless elements. Hostile Indians are also a constant threat. Bucks and Bob Scott will nearly lose their lives before their final triumph.

I should probably mention that, to the best of my knowledge, author Spearman gives a false impression of the legal situation. The recent miniseries Hell On Wheels, which I gave up watching, more realistically portrayed the arrangement – the saloons and gambling dens and houses of ill fame went west with the construction, and were tolerated – or facilitated – by the railroad companies. In this story, the two groups are mortal enemies.

As you’d expect for a book written around the turn of the 20th Century and aimed at boys, The Mountain Divide is a pretty straightforward adventure story, easily enjoyed. I consider Spearman a superior stylist to most of his contemporaries, and I liked this book.

‘Laramie Holds the Range,’ by Frank H. Spearman

I so enjoyed Whispering Smith, which I reviewed here, that I picked up another Frank H. Spearman western, Laramie Holds the Range. It’s very much of a formula with Smith in terms of characters, but the plot is quite different.

The background of the story seems to be the Johnson County War, that long (1889 to 1893) Wyoming conflict between big ranchers and small ranchers (or, as the big ranchers called them, “rustlers”). The facts of that brutal struggle are relentlessly depressing to anyone looking for romance in the history of the real west, and its final resolution is entirely unsatisfactory. Therefore many writers have attempted over the years to re-cast it along more chivalric lines. Fine books have been written from the big ranchers’ side (The Virginian), and the small ranchers’ side (Shane). Author Spearman more or less splits the difference in Laramie Holds the Range. Its improbably named hero, Jim Laramie, avoids taking sides, seeing some wrong in both. But in a pinch he helps the small ranchers, because they’ve been dealt a bad hand and have been treated badly by the rich men.

Jim Laramie is the son of an early settler in the Falling Wall region, near the town of Sleepy Cat. The area is known as a nest of rustlers, but no one has ever seriously accused Jim of being one of them. Nevertheless, men working for “Barb” (not, I’m pretty sure, short for Barbara) Doubleday, the big rancher in those parts, tear down Jim’s fence one day. Jim travels to Sleepy Cat to confront Barb, fully aware it could mean his death, or both their deaths.

But he never sees him on that occasion. Instead he meets Kate Doubleday, Barb’s daughter, newly arrived from the east. She showed up unannounced one day, her father having been unaware of her existence, and since he didn’t kick her out she took up residence at his ranch. Jim is smitten with her immediately, and decides a) not to kill Barb for the time being, and b) to court Kate. This proves difficult, as she, based on her father’s opinion, considers him next thing to a rustler and an enemy. The story proceeds to tell how Jim overcomes killers, bad weather, and a cloud of lies to remain true to his friends, hang on to his land, and get the girl.

Great fun. Slightly old-fashioned writing, but Spearman knew how to build characters, and told an entertaining tale. Jim Laramie is essentially a taller version of Whispering Smith, but I’m perfectly OK with that.

‘Whispering Smith,’ by Frank H. Spearman

I grew curious about the character of Whispering Smith years back. I was reading a book about the Wild West, and the author mentioned, in an aside, that Smith was based – in part – on the real life lawman Joe Lefors. Lefors is best remembered nowadays as the faceless posseman in a straw boater who so spooks Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the movie. In real life, alas, Joe Lefors was less of… well, of a force. He didn’t catch Butch and Sundance, after all, and his greatest achievement was extracting the confession that sent Tom Horn to the gallows for murder in 1903. Historians ever since have disputed the validity of that confession.

The same writer mentioned that the vicious killer Harvey DuSang in the novel is based on another Wild Bunch member, Harvey Logan (Kid Curry).

I first heard of Whispering Smith in a short-lived 1961 TV series that starred Audie Murphy. That series is notorious for being cited in a Senate Juvenile Delinquency Committee hearing as an egregious example of TV violence. The series actually bore almost no resemblance to the book, retaining the hero’s name and pretty much nothing else.

The series was loosely based on a 1948 movie (actually the last of several film adaptations) that starred Alan Ladd and Robert Preston. That movie was based on the book, though they moved it back in time (the novel is set around 1900, and everybody has telephones), and omitted a rather charming romantic subplot.

Having established that, let’s talk about the actual book, Whispering Smith, by Frank H. Spearman. It’s free for Kindle, so I thought that after all these years I’d find out what it was about. I had a pleasant surprise in store.

The story starts with a railroad foreman, Murray Sinclair, arriving at a wreck site to clear the track. He’s a well-paid and competent employee of the company, popular and efficient. But, we also learn, he’s pretty much a man without a conscience. We’d call him a sociopath today. He considers it one of his perks to plunder the wrecks. He’s caught at it by a railroad supervisor, and fired on the spot.

Sinclair withdraws along with his work crew, and becomes an outlaw, dynamiting and wrecking the trains he used to salvage. This causes the railroad president to call in his best detective, Gordon “Whispering” Smith.

Smith has been keeping away from that particular area for some time, out of consideration for a resident of the town. Marion Sinclair is Smith’s old flame, but she married his childhood friend Murray Sinclair. She’s learned Murray’s true character by now and has separated from him, but (in one of those plot points that would be incomprehensible to today’s reader) they both respect the sanctity of marriage and wouldn’t dream of committing adultery together.

But Sinclair is too proud to run, and Smith has principles about doing his job, so their final showdown is inevitable.

When I started reading Whispering Smith, it seemed to me a pretty standard old-fashioned novel. The prose was a little more florid than what we prefer today, and the dialogue doubtlessly bowdlerized. But the more I read, the more I got caught up in the story. The characters are exceedingly well done, especially that of Smith himself. He’s one of those seemingly ordinary men who reveals increasingly intriguing depths.

Everything surprised Whispering Smith, even his salary; but an important consequence was that nothing excited him.

I truly enjoyed Whispering Smith, and I recommend it heartily.