Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Buckskin #01 - Rifle River

Leisure released the debut 'Buckskin' novel in 1984, the height of the adult western boom. The series would run for 42 entries and 10 giant editions. Speculation is aplenty on who wrote a majority of the series, but fingers point to Mitchell Smith as penning the first 12-14 books. After that, names like Chet Cunningham, Lawrence Cerri, Peter McCurtin, David Keller, Dean McElwain and Mary Carr are in the conversation as contributors to the series.

Buckskin is loosely based on the real “Buckskin” Frank Leslie (1842-1927), a former U.S. Army scout, gambler, rancher and gunfighter. The debut novel, “Rifle River”, introduces our protagonist Frank Leslie as a drunken fighting man who accidentally shoots and kills the love of his life in an alcohol-fueled frenzy. After antics with icons like Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday, Leslie eventually changes his name to Fredrick Lee and uses his profits to purchase a horse ranch in Montana.

Right out of the chute, the book really takes off in what we would assume is the typical “rehabilitating cowboy trying to settle down against unfavorable odds” formula. Instead, author Mitchell Smith does some extraordinary things with the western genre. Immediately we sense that this Buckskin character may be a different type of hero in a really unique series.

First, Buckskin brutally beats a young Native American boy who takes a shot at him on the ranch. Shooting the boy's horse out from under him (typically frowned upon), Buckskin wallops the kid with the leather until the servant/cook loosely intervenes. Second, Buckskin rapes a woman. In case you glanced past that – BUCKSKIN RAPES A WOMAN (again...frowned upon – even back then). In fear that the local deputy will arrest him, he sends the lawman an envelope of cash to let him walk free (severely frowned upon). Remember, Buckskin is the guy on the cover selling the books. It's his series.

Oddly, all of the above unpleasantness is written in a way that doesn't appear to be designed to offend the reader. The story here is that the local land baron wants to acquire the Montana ranch. It controls the river flow downstream to other seedy cattlemen that want nothing more than control and power of the water. Buckskin advises the ranchers that he is not damming the river, but this is the 1800s and gunpowder is more convincing. The neighbor's sultry sister is raped...absolutely raped...but towards the end of the incident she starts to enjoy it. This is an adult western and Buckskin proves to her, and three prostitutes, that he aims to please. Take it or leave it, that’s what happened. Don’t shoot the messenger.

“Rifle River” has tremendous staying power as a traditional western – feuding cattlemen, quick draw gunfights, an epic back-alley boxing match and the obligatory hanging. All of these elements should please genre fans. However, the series creator clearly has an anti-hero flavor in mind for this character. Buckskin, while brooding over poor decisions, still continues to make additional poor decisions. It is this aspect of “Rifle River” that leaves you either placing Buckskin as a vile villain or an unlikely hero in a gray chapter of western fiction. If anything, it proves that some westerns don’t fall easily into the black vs. white, good vs. evil formulation that cemented the genre foundation. Buckskin is something completely different in a genre not known for its originality.  I'm intrigued enough to search for the next installment.