Blood Dance, p.1Joe R. Lansdale
Joe R. Lansdale
In memory of my father,
and with thanks to my friends,
Jeff Banks and Greg Tobin
About the Author
Blood Dance was written in the early eighties, accepted by editor Greg Tobin for Ace books, in, I think, ’83 or ’84. I thought it was a pretty good conventional Western. It has humor, a fast pace, action, mystery, and even a bit of the fantastic; at least the fantastic is hinted at in one scene involving the Sun Dance.
I wasn’t a fan of Western novels growing up, but I was a fan of Western movies, and I liked Western history and stories about the West as told to me by my daddy. My ventures into reading Western books and stories, however, had borne little fruit. I had enjoyed some of the Max Brand books I had read, and a number of short stories by Twain and Bret Harte had been interesting, but I wasn’t hooked.
My father, who could not read or write, began to make an effort to learn to read, and though it could never be said he became a literate man, he did gradually manage enough knowledge to read the newspaper and ponder over a comic book; in his later days, even a Western paperback.
It must have been a great chore for him, as I remember seeing him mouth the words as he read, but once he began to get a bit of the knack, he stayed with it. I doubt he read more than a dozen paperbacks in his lifetime, and then probably had to guess at a lot of it. He would ask me a word now and then, but I know it hurt his pride. Strangely, however, he enjoyed what little reading he was able to do, and, consequently, he started picking up cheap paperbacks.
Most went unread, but they ended up at his garage or on a shelf at home, and one day I picked up one called Slip Hammer by Brian Garfield. This was probably the first true Adult Western. Later, there would be a long period in time where the Adult Western was the most popular Western being written, but this was years ahead of its time.
And when I say the first Adult Western, I don’t mean the first thinking person’s Western, as that had existed for a long time. I mean a Western labeled Adult for its graphic sex content.
Sure, there had been books with Western backgrounds and sex in them before, but they were underground, and really were nothing more than sleazy screw books gussied up with hats and horses and a little shooting, and they were generally poorly and quickly written for the sex market.
(NOTE: When Adult Westerns became standard fare for the stands later on, they mostly weren’t as good as Garfield’s book, and, with a handful of exceptions, were only a little better than the old gussied up screw books.)
Slip Hammer was well researched, well written with excellent character development. And though the sex was entirely comfortable within the novel, it was interesting, and, ahem, hot.
The villains of the book were uncharacteristically Wyatt Earp and his brothers. I had never read anything like it. Sure, lots of books have made Wyatt Earp a villain since, but at the time I hadn’t encountered this. And it was based on historical evidence, though based on the same evidence, conclusions about the Earps are still open to interpretation.
Although Garfield didn’t dodge sex in his books from then on, I don’t know that he ever wrote one like this again. This was an experiment, and once he had done it, he moved on.
As a side note, Garfield later became famous for his novel Death Wish, which was made even more famous by the film, which, by the way, Garfield hated.
Okay, that said, this has nothing do to with my Western, which is not a sex Western. What it has to do with is the fact that I began to read Westerns. Even those without the sex. I went back and read the classics, like The Ox-Bow Incident, Shane, and so on and so on.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was pretty well read in both classic Western novels and popular ones, and by the time I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I was ready to write one.
My first was Dead in the West, a horror Western. My second, Texas Night Riders, was a pure dee ole fashioned pulpy shoot-’em-up written under the name Ray Slater. By the time I wrote Blood Dance I was a decent enough writer, thought the book was pretty damn good, and was proud to put my name on it.
Ace gave me a contract, paid me, but the only problem was Ace was sold to Berkeley Books, and the entire Western line was canceled.
I then placed it again at Silver Saddle, which was supposed to be an arm of Black Lizard, but the house folded before any book could be published. Golden Apple expressed interest, but for some reason they wanted it in third person.
I couldn’t face it. I collaborated by letting my friend Jeff Banks revise it. By the time we were finished, Golden Apple was gone.
I threw it in a drawer and forgot about it. Later, I rediscovered it, packed it off to the library that keeps my manuscripts. Bill Schafer wanted a look at it. He contacted the library, read it, liked it, and here it is in its original first person form.
I also like this. It’s no Western classic, but it is fun. I wouldn’t mind seeing it picked up in paperback. Mostly, I just hope you enjoy it.
—Joe R. Lansdale (his ownself)
Watching from the hills we could see the Northern Pacific coming into view, chugging rhythmically, coughing black smoke up to the clouds. It wound in amongst the trees and out of sight, but not sound.
It was a lovely day in the Dakota Territory, and I guess it was just as good a day as any for robbing a train. But truth to tell, my heart wasn’t in it.
Bob Bucklaw, my partner, said, “Getting close to time. Reckon we ought to saddle up.”
We had spent the night on the rise waiting for just this moment, but now that it had arrived I felt myself stalling. “Another five minutes,” I said. “It won’t be solid below us for awhile yet.”
Bucklaw was already tightening the cinch on his saddle. “You know how Carson is. One minute late and there will be hell to pay.”
“Since when do we care?” I said, but I began saddling my horse in spite of what I had said.
“Since he’s paying us four thousand dollars in gold, that’s when.”
“Maybe I don’t cotton much to train robbing.”
“Yeah, and maybe you don’t cotton much to eating, either.”
“I’m thinking about riding out of this. Let the boys down there do the train robbing. I think I’ll just go look for me a real job.”
Bucklaw smiled at me.
“Doing what, Jim?”
“I don’t know.”
“Punching cows? Herding sheep? Hunting men? You call those real jobs. Not me.”
“This sure isn’t a real job. Let’s not do it.”
Bucklaw put his foot in the stirrup. “Sorry, Jim. After the war they didn’t leave nothing for us Johnny Rebs. We’ve got to take what we want, just like the James Brothers or the Youngers.”
“Can’t say I think all that much of Dingus and his boys.”
Bucklaw swung into the saddle. “I’m going down there,” he said. “I hired on to back Carson’s play, that’s what I’m going to do.”
“You don’t owe that scum anything. Besides, we’re outsiders; we haven’t got a price on our heads. Yet.”
I sighed. “Hell, why not?” I climbed on my horse. “I’m saying now that I don’t like this none. Not even a little bit.”
“All right, you’ve said it. Just this one time, Jim. Then we’ll quit. Four thousand
“You know… Let’s go.”
We started down the rise, the train smoke rising upwards to meet us. I took my watch from my coat pocket and looked at it. We were a minute behind Carson’s schedule.
Down below came the sound of gunfire and shouting men. Spurring our horses, we went down to meet them, rifles in hand.
It was a long fall from country gentlemen to ragtail train robber. Once I had been full of dreams; dreams of studying law and building up my own practice.
That was before the War between the States tore both my dreams and the nation apart, washed them in blood, slapped them with gun thunder.
After the war, I went home. Wasn’t much left for me in Louisiana. My mother and father were dead and the farm was burned to the ground. My brother had been lost in action, somewhere up Virginia way.
I tried to make a go of the place for awhile. Built a cabin and farmed the land, but my heart wasn’t in it. Every day reminded me of what the place had once been. Each time the magnolias bloomed or the bayou kicked up childhood memories with the odor of its sludge, I was sick at heart.
So I sold the place and got away from there, tried my fortune in Texas punching cows. That was where I had met Bucklaw. He, too, was a war veteran, a lost soul in a new Yankee world. We became fast friends. It was as if God had given me Bob Bucklaw to replace my brother Blue. And Bucklaw was not unlike my brother. He was quick-witted and charming, a good hand with a gun, a bit too inclined to take the easy way out.
Couldn’t complain, though. I followed right after him, just the way I had my big brother. Yeah, Bob Bucklaw and Blue Melgrhue were much alike.
From Texas we drifted to Kansas, herded sheep and worked around stockyards. Once we hired on to trail Apaches in Arizona Territory and Mexico. That didn’t suit us much. Those Apaches reminded us of ourselves. We knew what it was like to lose a way of life, to drift aimlessly in a world of hate.
I would just as soon have forgotten the war. Not Bucklaw. He wore it like an old, ragged shirt he was fond of and would not throw away.
We went up north to the Black Hills and panned for the gold that Custer had found there in July of ‘74. But though the strike was real, and the winter of ‘75 was unseasonably mild, our luck was no good. Gold was there all right, and miners were carrying it out by the sackful. But Bucklaw and I had lived our lives behind plows, cows and guns. Our shovel and pickmanship was not so good; in fact, it matched our knowledge of mining.
Where others found gold, we found rocks and their meager leavings. There wasn’t much to recommend it.
It was late in December, down in the mining town of Custer, that we met Mix Miller. The man was five-foot-six, stoop-shouldered with droopy brown eyes. I didn’t like him the minute I saw him. He sat outside the general store, which had just recently been founded by a fellow by the name of W. H. Cole, and whittled on a piece of wood with a knife made from a broken saber.
He watched us enter the store, and I didn’t like the way he was looking at us. Not one bit. It reminded me of how stockmen eye prime beef and pick out the ones for butchering.
The general store was also the new minter’s service, and we went in there to trade our gold for money and pick up a few supplies.
The little fellow followed us inside and I elbowed Bucklaw. “That guy’s been eyeing us since we hit town.”
“I think we should keep an eye on him.”
“What’s he going to do? Kill us with that saber and pointed stick?”
“That .44 looks like it could help.”
“He’d have to draw it first,” Bucklaw said with a wink.
We got our gold weighed without being laughed at, collected our money, bought some supplies. Basic stuff. Tobacco and flour. When we went outside the little man followed us.
Halfway across the street he said, “Say, you gents looking for work?”
We stopped and turned. “I don’t think so,” I said, shifting the flour sack under my arm.
“Now wait a minute,” Bucklaw said. “What you got in mind?”
“If you ain’t interested,” the little man said, “then to hell with it.”
“All right,” I said, “to hell with it.”
“Now wait a minute,” Bucklaw said. “I want to hear what he’s got to say.”
“Okay,” the little man said, “you can hear it, but not him.”
“No,” Bucklaw said. “Both of us.”
“He ain’t interested.”
“He might get interested.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I get suspicious of folks who offer me jobs when I’m not looking for any.”
“Just a minute,” Bucklaw said. “Let me speak to my partner.” He turned to me, draped an arm around my shoulders and walked me about six paces. He looked back at the little man and smiled, winked reassuringly. When he turned back to me, he said softly, “Is your kettle cracked?”
“What you want a job for? We’re mining.”
“Are we, now? Some folks might not think so. Like the real miners. They laugh and snicker every time we bring in our dust.”
“I grin and snicker every time I spend it.”
“That ought to be equal to about one grin and half a snicker. I don’t like looking like a jackass.”
“I don’t care what the miners think.”
“To hell with mining. I’m no good at shaking a lot of damned sand around in a pan, and I’m no mole, either. Come on, Jim, you’re as sick of poking around in the ground as I am.”
I was at that. “You think this fellow has a square deal?”
“Probably not. But maybe it’s square enough. What would it hurt to listen?”
“Am I being conned again, Bob?”
He smiled. “A little. Come on, would it hurt to listen?”
“I reckon not.”
“All right, quit acting like it’s going to get us killed just to listen. Let’s see what the old boy has to offer.”
“Okay, okay, get on with it.”
We walked back to the man and Bucklaw stuck out his hand, put a smile on his face. When he wanted to, he could charm a bear out of its teeth. “Bob Bucklaw.”
The little man put his sabre knife in its sheath, tossed down the wood he had been sharpening, stuck out his hand. “Bob, they call me Mix Miller, or just plain Mix.”
Mix turned to me. “Jim Melgrhue,” I said. “First or last name will do.” I didn’t offer to shake hands.
“You boys look to be Southerners, like myself,” Mix said.
“What’s the offer?” I said.
“Fought in the war, I guess?” Mix said.
“I asked what the offer was.”
“Keep your toenails on. Just trying to see if I’ve got my boys pegged right.”
“Yeah, we’re Southerners,” Bob said. “I was in the Texas Sharpshooters under Major Jim Burnet. Later I was in a Louisiana outfit. Jim here was in the Ninth Louisiana. What’s it matter?”
“It matters because we’re going to bleed the Yankees and we need good Southerners for the job.”
“In case you haven’t heard,” I said, “the war’s over. Been a few years. About ten.”
“In your book, maybe,” Mix said. “Not in mine.”
“Or mine,” Bucklaw said. “I assume there’s more than us?”
“Think maybe you could answer my question sometime today?” I said. “I mean when you boys are through reminiscing about old war times and such. You do remember the question, don’t you, about the job and all?”
“Testy, ain’t he?” Mix said.
“He doesn’t get his full turn of sleep,” Bucklaw said, “he gets that way. Plumb nasty.”
“You boys ride out to meet the boss, he’ll explain the deal. I’m just an errand boy,” Mix said.
“Just explain right here,” I said.
Bucklaw looked at me. “Well?”
“It’s against my better judgment,” I said, “but I guess so.”
“Well,” Mix said, “let’s get on with it.”
“We’ll need to get our stuff,” I said.
“What stuff we got up there in camp can go to the rocks, far as I’m concerned,” Bucklaw said. “We can sell the mule here, just take what we got on our horses.”
“Good enough,” I said. “Let’s get going, I’m tired of lugging this flour sack around.” I turned to Mix. “Mix, you try and pull something on us, and I’m going to feed you that fancy knife.”
Mix laughed at me.
We had followed Mix much longer than we expected, and had covered quite a distance. Each time we asked how much to go, Mix would say,
“Not much.” Then we would ride for another half hour.
Once, after I asked the question, and gotten that answer again, I said, “You say that again, Mix, and I’m going to kick you off that mule.”
Mix turned around and smiled. “Are you now?”
“That’s right, and feed you your teeth.”
“You got a tough streak in you, don’t you?” Mix said.
“I just don’t like being messed with. You said it wasn’t far when we first left town. You’ve told us that more than three times since. It’s almost dark.”
“Well, it ain’t far now,” Mix said, and he gave his mule some heel and picked up his pace.
I dropped back to Bucklaw and said, “I don’t like the looks of this. He could be leading us into a trap, leading us up here to be bushwhacked.”
“For a bag of flour and some tobacco?”
“Men have been bushwhacked for less.”
“He was watching us back there in town, us and some of the other miners,” Bucklaw said. “Some of them—all of them, had a lot more gold and got a lot more for it than we did. Why not one of them instead of our flour sack?”
Blood Dance by Joe R. Lansdale / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes