Bad Company and Burnt Powder: Justice and Injustice in the Old Southwest, by Bob Alexander, No. 13 in the Frances B. Vick series, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2014, $32.95
This offering from prolific Texas author Bob Alexander presents a dozen detailed profiles of frontier figures most general readers won’t recognize and who probably wouldn’t crack anyone’s list of top lawmen and outlaws in the old Southwest or anyplace else. But their stories, as related by an author who knows how to tell tales, are plenty lively. His style, which has been termed “breezy and colloquial,” makes one feel as if he is sitting around the home fires being entertained by good company.
Alexander’s preface starts on an odd note when he argues over several paragraphs that the Old West was tamed not by gunfighters but by mothers, who demanded stability and safety for their children. While an interesting proposition, the book has little to do with mothers or even childless women. He goes on to explain that the book “is a true bloodletting Old West nonfiction narrative, but its overall outlook is multidimensional, consciously so,” thus the reader can “earnestly and thoughtfully look past the busting of a cap and the mopping up of blood.” The common thread in these tales might be how the justice system in the Wild West worked, in theory and in practice. The winners and losers are all male. Several stories involve Texas Rangers (an Alexander specialty), including one about Cal Aten, who joined the service as a young recruit in search of adventure but who in his memoir wrote: “It seems to me as I look back I never had any thrills compared to famous Rangers. I was never shot, wounded, and never even had my horse killed under me.” Not every story is about a lawman or outlaw. Some readers will recognize the name John “Cattle Jack” Hittson, a notable Texas and Colorado cattleman. Alexander focuses on how Cattle Jack took the law into his own hands and dispensed ruthless justice to cow thieves. Was he right or wrong? The answer is debatable, although Alexander titles that chapter “A Modern Hercules to the Rescue.”