Chapter 8: Buchanan Part 2

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As mentioned in the previous post, Buchanan is the affable but deadly loner, moving across the West through pockets of trouble.

The wandering helper of the underdog is a theme so common it long ago passed from stereotype to a main figure in the collective unconscious.

But one characteristic makes Buchanan unique in western heroes. He laughs. This was the genius of Ard’s creation. Up until Buchanan, most western heroes were serious, tight-lipped guys who say little and despite their humility, seem full of themselves.

Buchanan is also a nice man. He minds his own business, isn’t overly ambitious in the usual sense and is the kind of guy who, though he’s six feet six inches, wouldn’t be an imposition if he stayed with you. You like him. You’d feel comfortable sipping a coffee or a whiskey with him.

You so identify with the guy that it’s upsetting when someone comes along and makes this good-humored fellow mad and forces him to shed his gentle air and become reluctantly violent and often deadly.

The guy loves children, treats women with great respect and hates to harm anything, but anyone who makes him really mad usually gets killed.

While Dane skips about at the outside fringes of the law, he still moves securely within his social environment. Buchanan remains outside of society. As in other westerns, we are reminded that “civilization” is in the East. Society in the West lives in the little towns that have sprung up in the westward post Civil War surge. Between them a man travels alone in an existential wilderness where there is no good and evil, only life and death. The hero finds evil in the pockets of society.

Where Dane’s and Largo’s wisecracks have an angry, defiant edge, always taunting the adversary (law or criminal), Buchanan might be flippant but it’s a flippancy from a man secure with himself, a man who knows who he is, has simple but well-defined set of values and wants simply what is right and just.

Buchanan was so real and so popular that he took on an existence of his own, living on after his creator. More Buchanan books were written after Ard’s death than by the creator himself.

Ard fully completed five of the Buchanan novels. The sixth one, Buchanan On The Prod, was his except for last chapter.

Mrs. Hendrick recalls that, Bob Silverberg completed Buchanan On The Prod. Brian Garfield wrote the seventh Buchanan novel, Buchanan’s Gun and William R. Cox wrote rest of the books in the series, Mrs. Hendrick said. The series ended when Cox “started a series of his own and didn’t have time to do any more Buchanan books” Mrs. Hendrick recalls.

Ambling through the wide open West, the pace of the narration, superficially slows. It’s easy to miss the fact that Ard does keep the action moving through his minimalist character sketches and shaved down dialogue. And unlike Dane and Largo, Buchanan does have a past. We find out in Buchanan Gets Mad that the drifter was born and raised on a ranch and his father was killed by bank robbers.

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In his 1956 debut, The Name’s Buchanan, the 30-year-old loner is returning from Mexico where he’s spent two years as a mercenary in Mexican revolution. He comes across a beautiful young girl, naked and nearly dead. Maria Del Cuervo has been raped, bashed in the head and left for dead. He takes her back to her to the home of her wealthy Mexican family.

The book is very sympathetic to the Mexican culture. Juan, Maria’s brother, rides to Agrytown to avenge her. Agrytown is owned and run by the Agry brothers. (The name is a pretty obvious play on “angry”). He kills the rapist, the wayward son of one of the town leaders.

Buchanan, who becomes embroiled in the problems, winds up fighting off a lynch mob and killing the sheriff.

As guest of honor at the Del Cuervo home, he fends off the romantic advances of Maria and gives in to the more primitive, lusty advances of an Indian servant.

Ard in fact was fully aware of the duality of the romantic and realistic hero. Maria sees him as a knight. The Indian girl sees a man. Ard neatly slices right down the middle of the two extremes in a speech Buchanan makes to those trying to honor him:

“. . . the truth is, as I know Tom Buchanan, he’s not quite so worthless as Lew Agry painted him . . .and not nearly the man the Del Cuervo family would like to imagine. Buchanan is a bum. He’s a restless, rootless drifter who knows a little bit about everybody else’s business but not one damn thing about his own.”

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While Buchanan Says No, published in 1957, is one of the best of the series, it is also the sketchiest. Buchanan is a drifter who is drugged and shanghaied to a cattle drive. When he’s denied his earnings, he goes into the town of Bella to collect. Here he encounters (of course) the evil forces of the bad guys and the temptations (of course) of beautiful women.

No threats, beatings or jail can stop this large, easy striding man from pursuing the men who owe him. In the course of this pursuit he becomes a hero in the town controlled by one man and starts a rebellion.

There is not a bad bone in Buchanan’s body, no dark side. He’s just a cowpoke who wants what’s fair. In the end it turns out that he’s also a very skilled gunfighter. The revealing scene is played so subtly that it seems natural. And whether Ard planned it that way, it opened the way for more Buchanan adventures.

His third adventure, One Man Massacre, appeared a year later in 1958.

Massacre opens in 1857 with Buchanan with an old miner, Fargo Johns. The bitchy, sarcastic Odd Couple interplay between these two characters is both realistic and humorous. Buchanan has been tricked into mining with Fargo.

The plot takes shape when Buchanan, who has nothing, walks from the mountain to Scotsdale where, during a poker game, he’s pulled into a showdown. He kills the man with a borrowed gun.

In fact at this point, Ard amplifies Buchanan’s alienation, underscoring the man’s fate to never be part of society:

“The men’s voices sounded all around Buchanan’s head like so many droning flies, and held about as much interest to him. He was not geared for town life, had no feeling for it, and as he stood here now looking down into a half-empty whiskey glass the big man was asking himself unhappily just what the hell kind of living he was meant for. From the top of the mountains the lights down here had looked warm and inviting, promising a night of companionship with other men….but when Fargo asked him what kind of good time did he have all he could answer was that he had killed a man he’d never even seen before.”

We find the man is part of a gang, imported by leading town light Malcolm Lord to rid the area of squatters under the pretense of killing hostile Mexicans.

Eight gang members attack Buchanan. He returns, wounded, to the safety of the mountain. While he recuperates, the gang lynches innocent Mexicans and sets up an elaborate frame.

Barely healed, Buchanan goes into town and all hell breaks loose.

While heroes have faced huge odds, it’s the way Buchanan goes into the fight that puts him ahead of his time. Read this passage and see if you aren’t reminded of Rambo or Schwarzenegger:

“Buchanan hit him on the point of the jaw and the man went down soundlessly. Two others were attracted by the brief encounter and bore down on him, diagonally. Buchanan bent over the fallen man and very deliberately lifted the .45. The gun in his hand began swinging in a slow arc, exploding six times with a kind of staccato rhythm until it was empty. He tossed it away from him, negligently, took another from the limp fingers of his nearest victim and started walking down the middle of Trail Street. Twenty-one times he was fired at, six times he answered, and when there was nothing left in that gun he borrowed a third.” He goes on to kick in the door of a building and shoot two more men.

The story works on two levels. It’s pure, fast-paced adventure. It also follows the literary formulas of the hero. We have the hero on the mountain, pure, innocent, coming into the din of society, here represented by Scotsdale. The town had been good until Malcolm Lord (you get the play on names by now) imports evil in the form of the gang out of his own greed for more land.

The hero is wounded – a symbolic death –and goes into hiding, to heal or be “reborn.” While he is gone, the evil grows and chaos increases. He returns, eliminates evil and restores order.

Buchanan in this book is not so easy going and friendly.

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