"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Short story: Taking a Chance by Jeff Arnold

Dear e-pards,

Yesterday, in the post about Tom Mix, I promised you a short story and here it is, below.

It comes from the collection The Cabin in the West: The Ten New Mexico Short Stories by Jeff Arnold, as yet unpublished - and indeed, looking for a publisher.

I hope you enjoy it.

Best wishes,

Jeff


The book is available on lulu.com should you be crazy enough.

 


Taking A Chance


The stagecoach hurtled down the rough road, leaving a trail of dust behind it. It bounced and lurched perilously and looked to tip over at any moment. The driver half stood, desperately trying to control the four horses in their runaway stampede. Pistol shots rang out from behind as masked bandits, galloping along, fired recklessly at the coach. Yet again Las Vegas, New Mexico echoed to the sounds of badmen’s revolvers and horses’ thundering hooves. The driver suddenly clutched his breast and toppled sideways, hitting the ground and rolling over. The trail descended into a dip and the driverless stage plunged headlong down.

Suddenly a single unmasked rider in a large white hat was to be seen galloping alongside. In a breathtaking feat of courage and athleticism he leaped from his horse and clambered up to the driver’s seat, grabbed the reins and hauled back on them. He tugged fiercely with one arm, forcing the lead horses sharply to the right, the coach teetered and then toppled to the left and crashed onto its side, slithering to a halt in a cloud of dust. A man’s face appeared up through the window and he clambered out, dazed.

The heroic rider meanwhile had jumped down and was shooting his six-guns at the bandits. Several fell and the others, realizing that the game was hopeless, veered off and galloped away.

“Cut!”

Tom holstered his pistols and walked over to see if Sid was OK. Sid never bothered with padding or protection and would certainly be black and blue from the stage crash. He was sitting on the fallen coach, rubbing his arm.

“I sure hope that’s a wrap ‘cos I ain’t doing that again!”
“I wasn’t too happy with the last bit. I think we might try another take.”
“The hell you will!”
Tom slapped Sid on his bruised arm. “Only kidding, you Cherokee renegade. Come on, let’s go get us a beer.”

 

***

 

It’s a long time ago now. That was the summer of 1915. In 1915 the Wild West was just the other day, like the 1950s to us. In many ways it still existed in 1915. I was twenty-one, green as all get out, new to the West and new to writing. Here we are in 1974 and two things have prompted me to write this little memoir.

First, my doctor has told me I am dying. I have cancer of the lung. I’m not surprised. I have smoked heavily for thirty years. I started in the war, the Second World War, that is, and I never quit. For the last few years I have been on maybe forty, sometimes even sixty Luckies a day. I feel lousy most of the time now, can’t get my breath, cough up blood, look like a skeleton. I’ll spare you more details. But I want to get something down on paper before I go. It’s a story I never published, one that could have been, should have been maybe, the greatest scoop of my career as a journalist. And I never wrote it. Lost my job for not writing it, in fact. Never had a scoop again. I write it now not because I regret not having told it before. I did the right thing and I’d do it again if I had that time all over again. I tell it now because I just don’t want to go to my grave without somebody knowing about it. All the main actors in it (and as you’ll see, actors is an appropriate word) are dead now. If I die without putting this to paper, the story will die with me. That wouldn’t be so grave for the world but it wouldn’t satisfy me. I’ll never be Bernstein or Woodward but a scoop’s a scoop and a life-sentence journo hack like me can’t go to the great newsroom beyond the sky without getting this down on paper. It just isn’t in me.

The other reason is that lies are all the rage just now. The power of lies and how they can bring great men crashing down is really the theme of this year, isn’t it? Why do people tell them and what do they hope to gain? How do they react when they are found out? Well, my story was also based on the lie and the poisonous effects of the lie and how it can lead to foolishness and harm.

I did think of writing the story in 1955, when James Dean died in that auto smash. It reminded me so much of Tom’s death in 1940 that I thought it would be the moment to write it up. I was still working then and it could have made me some money and a name. And Western movies were big in the ‘50s. The story would have run, I reckon. But I didn’t. For one thing, some people who might have been hurt by it were still alive then and for another I had taken the decision in 1915 not to damage a great reputation unnecessarily and that still held in 1955.

But here’s the story now. I don’t think it will damage Tom much. A lot of this has already come out in more or less scholarly biographies over the years. And Tom’s fame is such that this little incident won’t dim it or dent it or whatever you do to fame. He ain’t Nixon.

Sorry about that ain’t. If I’d still been working a sub-editor would have struck that out. But it was thinking of Tom and those days in Las Vegas that made it slip out.

But anyway, here’s the story.

 

***

 

In July 1915, after a successful stay in Prescott, Arizona, where he had made about forty films (and won prizes at the local rodeo), Tom Mix, already fast becoming known as a coming movie star, moved his company to Las Vegas. Not the infamous Las Vegas up in Nevada, of course, but the now charming settlement in New Mexico which lay on the old Santa Fe Trail and which, in the 1870s and 80s was one of the classic wide-open towns of the old West, the Dodge or Tombstone of its time. The country round about was (and still is, largely) free of many modern encumbrances to film-making such as ugly pylons and modern housing. There were open hills and dusty trails and fine weather and these made it ideal for cowboy films, which were all the rage. Westerns are based on action. Talking is OK, here and there, but it is essentially a visual genre (John Ford knew that), and silent movies, with their ‘dialogue’ limited to the occasional inter-title card, were appropriate vehicles for the simple tales of cowboys rescuing maidens from a fate worse than death (or death) that Westerns were in those days. That was before the Western grew up. They were innocent in those days. They were about as far from those spaghetti westerns that still infect our movie theaters as you can get.

Las Vegas welcomed Tom with open arms. His motion picture company brought work and money to the town and surrounding area. Extras were hired at five dollars a day (good money then) and had a whale of a time wearing big hats and playing with lariats. Sometimes whole herds of local cattle were rented just for one scene. Small boys earned a dollar a day running errands. The crew paid for wagons and horses and ate at the local restaurants and drank in the bars. Vegas wasn’t going to turn all that down. Prescott had done really well out of the movie makers and before that Cañon City in Colorado the same.

Furthermore, everyone by then had heard of Tom Mix. If William S Hart was still the king of the cowboys, people were beginning to find him too stern and his mania for authenticity too restrictive. A new style of cowboy was coming in, more flamboyant, less concerned with realism, who smiled more and was more dashing and performed daring stunts. Tom fitted the bill perfectly. Then in his mid thirties, he was handsome and athletic. Actually, when you saw that jaw, the word lantern hovered on your tongue, but you never used it. A rugged, square jaw, we’ll say. He had an athletic build. He was one of those men who would have run easily to fat if he hadn’t constantly exercised but he liked exercising. He boxed (had once sparred with Dempsey), ran, lifted weights, swam and rode, of course. Certainly the ladies went for that look. And he went for the ladies. But more of that anon.

Tom had got his first break when Colonel Selig was making a movie called Ranch Life in the South West, which came out in 1910. He was to have been the wrangler and safety man but he begged for the chance of a role and was given a bronc busting scene which went really well. Then he appeared in a series of pictures about the Boer War and the Spanish-American War, mostly shot on the Des Plaines River up near Chicago. In 1910 he was put under contract by Selig for $100 a week. At that time I was getting five dollars a week from my paper.

William Selig was one of the very early movie moguls. He founded the Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago in 1896 and his was the first studio to move out to LA, which was cheaper and had better weather and scenery for filming. He adopted Gilbert M Anderson, known as Broncho Billy, and later used Fatty Arbuckle. He liked to be called Colonel Selig but no one was ever sure if he really had been a Colonel. He was a shrewd operator and saw full well the potential of Tom Mix. He kept him on the hundred dollars for as long as he could and proffered no support or help. Tom had to write, direct and star in his films. That suited Tom just fine. He had a remarkable liberty to do things his way and down on location he was undisputed lord and master. Selig never came near the Las Vegas set and was only known to the crew as a distant and theoretically omnipotent deity.

About Tom’s early career, before he started in the movies, there were all sorts of tales told. He had been a Sheriff in Indian Territory, it was said, and had ridden with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba. He was champion roper of the world and held the record for bull-dogging and tying a steer in fourteen and a half seconds. Some thought these tall tales and some were convinced they were true. What was certain was that Tom had learned from Buffalo Bill’s career and that of many myths of the glorious West: he knew the value of publicity and did nothing to deny or contradict the rumors that flew. Those stories were part of his stardom. They furthered his career.

There were those who said that Tom told windies. Windies is a cowboy expression for tall tales or fibs, stories you told to build yourself up. Actually, I myself found Tom quite reticent about his early life. He appeared not to want to talk about it much. I found out more from those who knew him than I did from Tom himself. His pal Sid Jordan, for example, told me a lot. Sid was a Cherokee, son of John Jordan, Sheriff in Dewey, Oklahoma and had served with Tom as a Deputy Sheriff for his father. Sid and Tom had both worked for the famous 101 Ranch and appeared in Wild West Shows together. When Tom started making pictures he sent for Sid who was a natural. In fact Sid had a long and successful career in movies. He was the perfect companion for Tom because they were equally crazy. They were both reckless and had a wild sense of humor. They drank and womanized and played practical jokes and drove automobiles at breakneck speeds. It was Sid who told me that Tom had indeed been a lawman in Oklahoma, a night Sheriff, and had indeed served in the army, though Sid became quieter when the Rough Riders were mentioned.

Well, there they were in Las Vegas. In those days they made a movie in about four days and had the rest of the week off to carouse. The films were one- or at most two-reelers and had pretty simple plots in which Tom saved the damsel in distress. Sid often played the bad guy.

I say carouse but in fact Tom was proud of his movies being suitable for family entertainment. In those puritan days that meant not a hint of wickedness. He never smoked or drank on screen and a chaste kiss was the most he could expect from the leading lady at the end. Sometimes it was only a handshake. In order to reinforce this image, Tom and the crew would attend Las Vegas social events and go to church on Sundays and generally behave. There were receptions at the Commercial Club and picnics and basket socials. Occasionally they put in an appearance at the horse races in Galinas Park. Tom had rented a house on Ninth Street and walked out from it like any worthy Las Vegas citizen.

But all this wasn’t the real Tom. Trust me, I know.

 

***

 

Tom lived in that house on Ninth with his second wife Olive and their baby daughter Ruth. He had married Olive because she could ride almost as well as he could and shoot too and was beautiful to boot. But while Olive liked the outdoor life of the West and was happy to talk of saddles and bits, she knew little about movies and cared less. With Colonel Selig far away in LA, Tom had learned the movie business on the job and he had learned a lot. His early efforts had been pretty crude and basic. Now he had mastered picture composition and editing. The talk at the dinner table was now all of camera angles and rushes. Olive didn’t even understand the jargon and found it all tiresome.

In Cañon City and Prescott, Tom’s leading ladies had been Kathlyn Williams and Myrtle Steadman. He was happy to work with them but there was never any hint that the relationships were anything more than professional. Then Victoria arrived. Victoria Forde was a dark-haired beauty with the oval mouth and heavy brows fashionable at the time. She smiled a lot and dressed elegantly. She had a way of flicking her hair back that showed off her beautiful white skin. And Victoria, daughter of a Broadway actress, knew all there was to know about poise and deportment and how to dominate a camera shot. To her talk of camera angles and rushes was her mother tongue. I saw her and Tom together on the set and off. There was an attraction there alright. I could see it. Everyone could see it. Including Olive.

Actually, Victoria had a very positive effect on Tom’s work. Not that he was showing off exactly but he put new vigor into his acting and performed ever more daring stunts. He wanted to impress, and he did.

In these days of professional stuntmen we sometimes forget what it was like in the early days. Then, the actors did their own stunts and vied with each other to make them ever more daring. Tom had broken endless bones (and lost valuable shooting days as a result) and been knocked unconscious countless times. His front teeth were nearly all false. Once a dynamite charge went off too early and he stripped his shirt off and showed us a back lacerated with cuts. He just laughed. He and Sid egged each other on. Once Tom had to shoot Sid’s hat off and he came so close to the crown that the exit hole had some of Sid’s hair jammed in it. Another time Sid shot Tom’s necktie off. They used reduced charges of powder but live ammunition. It’s incredible to think about now. Sometimes they did crazy things off the set, just for the hell of it. Once they got into a barrel together and rolled down a hill until the barrel burst. They were covered with bruises and Sid sprained a wrist and they limped away, laughing.

Up in Cañon City, after the Selig company had left, they were so anxious to get the movie makers back that they set up a motion picture company of their own. They wanted Tom but couldn’t afford the salary and they used their town sheriff. In one scene the leading lady had to cross the river but the current was too strong and it swept her away. The leading man dove in to save her and it would have made a great scene had it gone well but both were drowned. That’s how dangerous film making was then.

 

***

 

You might be wondering what I was doing there. I was certainly no Westerner taking part in the ridin’ and shootin’, I can tell you that. I was a young newspaper reporter, a bit like Bat Masterson in Wichita, working for a paper I shall not name in a big Eastern city, and I was eager and determined to make my name. I was going to get the biggest scoop ever, become editor of the paper and be admired by the whole profession. I forget how many Pulitzers I was going to win. I had it all mapped out. Actually I don’t think Pulitzers were invented then. They came in later dreams.

I was new to the profession and new to the West. But I had sniffed out a story. It started simply by my being a fan of Westerns and of Tom Mix in particular. Like many an eastern boy I was hypnotized by the action and the dash of those fellows in big soft hats and chaps and checkered shirts as they galloped about and fired off their silver six-guns. Actually, I have remained a fan of the genre ever since and never miss a Western when one comes out. Just the other day I went to see Blazing Saddles. I’m not a great admirer of the comedy Western as a rule. I find them faintly sacrilegious. But I must say Blazing Saddles was mighty funny. I was born in 1894 so the Western movie and I have pretty well grown up alongside each other. I don’t remember The Great Train Robbery of 1903, which many people regard as the first Western, maybe I wasn’t hooked by then, but by 1910 I was sixteen and a committed fan. I followed Broncho Billy’s adventures whenever I could and hugely admired Hart. But as soon as Tom appeared I was entranced. Now that was a Western! In those days the movies were very short and Westerns were often shown on a program of other films but those other movies never did it for me. I wanted the cowboys.

A fan’s curiosity led me to read whatever came my way about Tom. A young newspaperman’s drive made me dig further. Not that I was seriously thinking of a story, still less a scoop, but I plugged away, writing a letter here and reading an archived newspaper edition there. I guess you could say it was a hobby.

One day in 1912, on one of my first tasks as a reporter, I was in Cameron, Pennsylvania to write up an accident in a mine, when I discovered to my surprise that the Mixes had lived nearby and Thomas Hezekiah had been born there. I had always thought Tom had been born in El Paso. I asked around and found that Tom’s parents had been Ed Mix, a lumberjack, and Elizabeth, née Hiestand, of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. Tom had grown up there and gone to school (he only got as far as fifth grade) and learned all about horses working with his father.

Well, that was interesting enough for me but hardly earth-shattering stuff. I filed it away (literally as well as in my mind because I was an organized young reporter in those days) and got on with life.

Then the next year I had to do some research in the army archives in Washington DC and to relieve some of the boredom I looked up Thomas Hezekiah Mix. I found a Thomas E Mix (he seemed to have adopted his father’s name) who had taken a pre-enlistment medical on 28th April 1898. He had lied about his age, saying he was twenty-one. Well, nothing unusual there. The USS Maine had just been sunk and any number of hotheaded young men were lying about their age to get into uniform. I seriously considered it myself in 1914.

That year all the news was dominated by the Kaiser and his war and I had by then achieved an unearned reputation for being the paper’s expert on military matters. They did interest me, in fact, but at twenty I was hardly an experienced veteran. In any case I was assigned a job interviewing some old soldiers in the National Soldiers’ Home in Fort Monroe, Virginia and it was there by pure chance one of the veterans told me that Tom Mix had served there. The fellow had known Tom and the old man had recounted to him exaggerated tales of battlefield derring-do from his time in Cuba. When I asked him if Tom had been in Cuba or Puerto Rico, he told me, “Why no, Tom spent that war guarding the Du Pont chemical works in Delaware!”

That rather surprised and disappointed a Tom Mix fan. I had seen him in my mind charging up San Juan Hill with Lt Col Theodore Roosevelt.

But what I discovered when I used some of my rare and precious vacation time to go up to Fort Hancock, New Jersey put all these minor discrepancies in the shade.

 

***

 

Now I take an old man’s license and tell the story for a moment from Tom’s side.

“Sid, do you have any idea who that fellow is? The tall, skinny boy over there?”
“Nope. I’ve seen him hanging about the last couple of days is all. I’ll find out for you if you like.”
“Do, please.”

Later in the afternoon Sid walked back up to Tom.

“Says he’s a newspaper reporter.”
“Do you think that’s true?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Well, Sid, to be frank, you know how it is with me and Olive right now. I wouldn’t want to think she’d hired anyone to…”
“You mean a detective? Oh, come on, Tom.”
“Well, stranger things have happened, ain’t they? Then again, it could be someone sniffing round from the 101.”

Tom was fighting the 101 Ranch in the courts at that time. There was a disagreement over contracts and rights and what have you.

Tom looked worried. “And saying he was a newspaper man would be a great cover, wouldn’t it? It would give him the right to ask any number of questions.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. We’ll just keep and eye on him and be discreet for a bit, eh?”
“Yes, OK, maybe you’re right.”

But he didn’t sound convinced.

And being discreet wasn’t very much in Tom and Sid’s line either. The next evening, a Saturday, Tom and Victoria, with Sid in the back seat, drove off in one of Tom’s over-powered cars. The damn thing deafened everyone as it roared out of Las Vegas. It didn’t seem to have any mufflers and it sounded like an aero engine.

They drove hell-for-leather down to Albuquerque. It was maybe a hundred and twenty miles and they did it in two hours. That may not seem remarkable in these days of Interstates and Porsches but in those days that was an Indy 500 time. Tom was never happier than when at the wheel of a powerful car and Sid urged him on from the back. Whereas Olive tended to nag him to slow down, Victoria, hair flying and grinning widely, holding onto the windshield, cried out “Yippee!” from time to time.

They spent the evening in Albuquerque drifting from one bar to the next and by midnight they were all pretty well oiled. They walked arm in arm, the three of them, with Victoria in the middle, and it wasn’t quite clear who was supporting whom. If one had fallen they all would have. They got back to the plaza where they had left the race car and piled unsteadily in. Then Tom revved that aero motor up and drove round and round the plaza, fishtailing and tire-squealing with abandon. The noise was enough to wake the dead and it wasn’t helped by Sid, who was now in the passenger seat alongside Tom, leaning over the driver and sounding the horn. It wasn’t long, therefore, before a cop arrived on the scene. Tom was fined ten dollars for disturbing the peace and Sid had to drive, modestly, out of town. Of course once out on the open road Sid opened her up again and they hurtled back at high speed, Tom and Victoria snoozing in each other’s arms in the back.

That was the nearest Tom could manage to discreet.

The next day that ‘reporter’ was still hanging round and Tom decided to take the bull by the horns (he was used to that) and speak to the man himself.

“Good morning. You are a newspaper man, I hear.”
“Yessir, Mr. Mix. And I’d be happy to ask you a few questions.”
“I’ll bet you would. What do you want to know?”
“Well, sir, first of all, this current movie you are making. What will it be called? I sure want to see it when it comes out.”
“We haven’t decided yet. I was considering Taking a Chance. What do you think?”
“Well, yes, that sounds snappy and fits the story. As far as I can gather the story!”
“And what else?”
“Well, have you a favorite movie out of all the ones you’ve done?”
“My favorite is always the one I’m working on.”
“And what do you think are the essential qualities of a Western movie star?”
“Athleticism, good looks, intelligence, courage, all those qualities you see displayed before you.”
“Why, sure! I’d like to ask you some questions about your early life, Mr. Mix.”
“I’m sorry, Mr., er, I didn’t catch your name?”
“Oh, how rude of me. Excuse me. Here’s my card.” Tom studied it and looked quizzical.
“I’m sorry but I have to go now. Perhaps we an talk again.”
“I’d like that. I sure would. And good luck!”

That night, Sid and Tom sat drinking in the brick house on Ninth Street. Olive had gone to bed. Tom was quiet, even morose. Sid tried to jolly him up but it wasn’t working.

“Something wrong, Tom?”
“Yes.”
“Olive?”
“Well, yes, sure but it isn’t that.” He looked deep into his glass then sat up, as if taking a decision. “Sid, I need your help and advice.”
“Why, sure. Shoot.”

And Tom told him what the reporter had discovered at Fort Hancock, New Jersey; what the newspaper man had come down to Las Vegas to verify.

 

***

 

“We’d like you to get a true feel of what motion pictures are all about and wondered if you’d like to participate, as an extra or actor with a minor part?”
“Why, I’d love to! I never thought of such a thing but that would make an excellent story and as an admirer it would be a great moment for me. And an honor! What would you like me to do?”
“Well, in the scene we’re shooting this afternoon, Several bad men try to ambush me from the canyon walls there, and I foil them by shooting over their heads to dislodge some rocks which roll down on them. If you like, you could be one of the bad guys. Have you ever fired a rifle?”
“No, sir, but I’m sure I could manage.”
“Don’t worry, there’s no danger. We’ll put blanks in the rifle and I don’t really dislodge the rocks, of course. We have men up there who roll a few down to give the idea.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid!”
“Fine. You can get a costume over there and we’ll let you know when you have to take up position.”

It was clearly a high point of the young fellow’s life when he appeared from the trailer in Western shirt and pants, with a large kerchief tied under his chin, a wide-brimmed slouch hat and a pair of crossed gunbelts. He looked everywhere for a mirror and took big, swinging steps so that his spurs clanked.

At the lunch break the journalist tried again to pump Tom about his early life but he didn’t get very far. Sid deflected many of the questions and when Tom did answer he often just said, “You can find all that kind of information in the official studio releases.”

 

***

 

 

Tom and Sid looked up. The bandits were in position, taking some cover but visible, of course, looking menacing as they crouched and levered rounds into the breeches of their Winchesters. All except the journalist, that is, who even as an extra had no idea at all. Still, he wouldn’t be in the shot. Tom gave some instructions to the cameraman and Sid disappeared.

The clapperboard clacked and there was a cry of “Action!” Tom rode Old Blue down the canyon and at one point paused, took off his hat and wiped his brow with a bandanna. Then he started again. Suddenly, shots rang out as the badmen fired their rifles and puffs of white smoke were seen. The paper boy fired enthusiastically down into the canyon. Tom leaned over to the side so that he was protected by Blue’s flank and fired his six-gun from under Blue’s neck. Then he drew his rifle from its scabbard and started aiming high. The camera on the other side hastily moved for a better shot and the operator started cranking it again. Then the rocks started to roll down on the badmen. If the journalist had been expecting papier maché boulders, he was disappointed because real stones rattled down, many small, no bigger than gravel, but some large. And even the smaller ones, gathering speed, were quite capable of damage.

Suddenly Tom seemed to go crazy. He was down there waving his arms and shouting “Cut! Cut!” The whole company stopped acting. Some of the badmen stood and asked each other what the problem was. There were shrugs and most people just stopped and waited.

Sid walked up to Tom on the canyon floor.

“I couldn’t do it,” he said.
“No, nor could I. I suddenly realized that we may be crazy but we ain’t that crazy.”

 

***

 


That evening, Tom invited the journalist to dinner. Sid and Olive were there, and Ruth, Tom and Olive’s baby daughter, then a toddler, was running about and squealing happily.

In the room they grandly called the library, really a sitting room, after dinner, the men smoked cigars and drank French cognac. The young newspaper man wasn’t used to either but he put on a brave show, he thought. He tapped ash from the Havana and smiled.
 
“Mr. Mix, Mr. Jordan, I would like to say that that was one of the greatest days of my life. And it is now coming to a perfect end as we chat together beside the old cook fire.”
“Well, we are mighty grateful for your work. I hope you’ll be able to see yourself in a few months at the local movie theater. The second take went just fine. I’m sorry you had to be shot but well you were the villain after all.”
“Oh no, I was happy to get shot! I didn’t like those rocks too much but in the second take they were well wide of me.”
“Have you any more questions for your article? About my days as soldier or sheriff, for example”
“Well, Mr. Mix, I have been thinking about that and no, I don’t. I believe that, as you say, I can get all the background information I need from your studio people. In any case, what people are interested in is Tom Mix the movie star and Western hero, not Tom Mix the boy in Pennsylvania. Or rather Texas. Or wherever...”
“That’s sure the way I prefer it. I had a job on the 101 Ranch once telling windies. I had to impress the dudes who came by frightening them with tales of Indians and wolves and rattlesnakes and so on and the boys all backed me up as I told them hair-raising tales. But I never really liked that job. I prefer to let the past be the past. Let people judge me for what I do now, not for what I did or didn’t do in the past.”
“That’s fine with me, Mr. Mix. Just fine. I’ll be writing about your films. And I’d be happy to submit the draft of the article to you beforehand so you can correct anything that might be wrong.”
“Oh no, that won’t be necessary. And may I call you John? Do please call me Tom.”
“Why, Tom, here’s to you, my hero and the greatest cowboy who ever lived!”

 

***

 

So that’s how it ended. I went back east and told my editor there was nothing in the rumors. He didn’t believe me (he had a great journalist’s nose for a story) and told me that I either wrote it up or I was fired. I moved on and soon found a job on another paper. My first story there was an anodyne piece about movie making and described how I had co-starred with Tom Mix. That’s how I saw it. But I never revealed in the article or anywhere else until today that on 25th October 1902 First Sergeant Thomas E Mix did not return from furlough and was posted as AWOL. On 4th November, Mix, still not having returned to Fort Hancock, was officially listed as a deserter.

Telling windies was one thing and letting people believe that he had fought valiantly in the Spanish-American war or was a new Wyatt Earp cleaning up the town was all part of the game. But had it come out that Tom was a deserter, that he had grown tired of the army and fallen for a girl and just left, that could have been the end of his career in those days. And in 1915 the deserter status would still have been active; he could have been arrested and imprisoned.

No wonder he didn’t want too much delving into his past. But who was I to bring a whole career crashing down? Tom Mix was a great star, a hugely popular hero to many. And he was a decent man who genuinely did his best. He was quite extraordinarily generous with his wealth and supported any number of good causes. On foreign tours and in the States he visited orphanages and children’s hospitals. He was charming and witty and fun. And he really was the greatest cowboy of them all.


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