The official blog for author John Layne includes short stories, articles and musings about the American West and cowboys.

For us western genre enthusiasts, it’s hard to believe that John Ford’s Stagecoach turned eighty years old on February 15, 2019. Released on that date in 1939, possibly the most historic year in film, Stagecoach became a film that would receive both critical and popular success, especially for its director and his hand-picked future star John Wayne.

While the film was categorized as an action western, a closer look reveals a far more in depth examination of film making and essentially the human spirit. Ford fundamentally created the ensemble cast and brought human vices to the forefront in this film. Comprised of nine, yes nine “leading characters” played by eight veteran noteworthy character actors and one B-list player, the story benefitted from great writing, acting and backdrop. One could argue that no prior film had ever attempted such a task.

Additionally, Ford didn’t attempt to hide man’s seedier side as the film dealt directly with crime, prostitution, gambling, alcoholism and prejudice, not to mention the basis of the story, an alleged criminal’s revenge. Despite all of the heavy burdens carried by the coach’s passengers, the film moves along casually with just enough comedic relief from the coach’s driver Bucky, played by Andy Devine, who Ford depicts as being involved in a multicultural marriage with a Mexican woman.

Along the journey, made perilous by the constant tension of impending Indian attacks, the occupants of the stagecoach learn a little bit about each other as the character studies bloom. The audience eventually learns that none of the characters, with the possible exception of the blowhard embezzling banker, played by Barton Churchill, are as nefarious as they seem. Each character rises to the occasion when needed and the truth about the fugitive Ringo Kid, played by Wayne, is realized and rewarded at the end.

There are numerous reasons why this is one of my favorite films, not only in the western genre, but in all of film. Certainly, the emergence of Wayne and Ford’s exquisite eye for filmmaking remain at the top, but the ability to wrestle with so many characters and their “baggage” in such a simple and atmospheric fashion make viewing this film incredibly easy and fulfilling. It truly is an historic artform and not just because it’s eighty years young.


The genesis of “Gunslingers” can be traced to the weather conditions in north Texas in the summer of 1877. The region had been victimized by a two year drought that saw extreme heat dominate the area from Arizona through New Mexico, Texas and the Oklahoma territory.

The most notable event from the summer of 1877 was known as the Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877 when U. S. Cavalry troops from the 10th Cavalry, accompanied by several buffalo hunters, wandered for days in the arid north-west Llano Estacado region of Texas leading to the deaths of several men from dehydration and heat exposure. The deaths were initially blamed on an Indian attack due to the army’s prior response to sporadic Indian raids across the territory.

In addition to human deaths, the lack of water caused by the severe drought decimated the cattle herds of the big beef producing ranchers. Because of the heavy loss of cattle, outlaws pounced on the opportunity and increased their rustling, turning their livestock contraband into huge payoffs. In order to combat the rustlers, cattlemen employed gunfighters to ride guard on their pastures and subsequent cattle drives. The added security from the big ranches led to an increase in rustling of the small to medium ranch herds. One of these raids on a small rancher’s herd begins the story of “Gunslingers.”

Unlike the wealthy ranchers of the time, Joel Thornton is in the early stages of developing his herd trying to balance the growth of his stock with the need to earn money from selling what he can. This need for increased money is emphasized by the return of his daughter, Elizabeth. After spending seven years back east with family members after her mother’s death, she returns home during this perilous time in history.

Immediately after the events of the raid at her father’s ranch, financially unable to employ gunfighters, she seeks out her father’s friend, retired U. S. Deputy Marshal Ben Chance in the hope that he’ll agree to recover the herd. Because of a series of unrelated events unbeknownst to Elizabeth, she receives more assistance than she hoped for.

#johnlayne #gunslingers #westernfiction #oldwest #books #texas

The Legend of Luxton Danner Begins

Two nights ago, the battle between Major General Edward Canby’s Union Army and Confederate forces led by Brigadier General St. John R. Liddell provided little support of the rumors the war was ending soon. Heavily outnumbered, the rebel army wreaked havoc on Canby’s men, cutting off dozens of soldiers from their regiments and inflicting heavy casualties. When darkness finally fell over the Blakely river delta, four Union soldiers found themselves separated from their unit and lost in the Alabama wilderness. After electing their leader, the four soldiers consumed the better part of two days searching for their blue-shirt brothers. Off in the distance, sporadic artillery fire was the lone evidence of the enduring hostilities. The young leader paused at the faint sound of running water. A creek leading to the river? He didn’t know, but at least it was an opportunity to fill their canteens.

The sun perched straight overhead sending pulsating heat waves down through the porous timberland canopy. He had no idea if he was going in the right direction, but it appeared there was an opening up ahead. Pushing his way through the thicket, a barberry branch ripped across his neck slashing the skin to bloody ribbons. Clutching his neck, he lunged forward nearly smashing his face against a rock. His Yankee cap went flying into the brush as his rifle struck the back of his head sending piercing pain through his temples. Seeing their leader fall to the ground the three young soldiers in tow dove face first into the scrub fearing the enemy had been spotted.

“What do you see?” Private Jonathan Phillips whispered to Private Luxton Danner.

“Nothing, barberry thorns cut my neck. Stay still,” he quietly ordered.

Phillips turned to the two boys behind him and silently waved his hand downward. He looked back to see Danner fumbling with a dirty bandage. Before Danner could secure the pad, a shot rang out.

Crack! The bullet ripped through the brush smacking into a tree. Crack! Crack! Crack! Three more shots whizzed by sending leaves airborne. A bullet hit the ground to his right prompting Danner to drop the blood-soaked bandage and quickly shoulder his Springfield rifle. Phillips crawled forward and took a position to the left of his point man shouldering his rifle.

“I don’t have many bullets left,” Phillips declared between rasping breaths.

Danner put his left hand over his soldier’s mouth. He slowly looked back to see the other two boys frozen face down in the muck.

“They’ve stopped shooting, don’t move,” Danner whispered.

Minutes passed. The silence boomed like canon fire. He barely took a breath. The sound of his heartbeat roared in his ears. The heat felt like fire scorching his skin beneath his Yankee blue uniform.

I should do something, Danner thought.

But what? Maybe it’s our own troops? I can’t see them, maybe they can’t see us? The young soldier’s mind raced like a thoroughbred stallion at the county fair.

“Stay here,” he told Phillips. He then slowly crawled forward staying as flat as possible. Another shot broke the silence.

Crack! Crack! Bullets plunged into the thick foliage around him. Dirt flew up into his mouth causing him to choke. He squinted and strained his eyes as hard as he could trying to see beyond the thick foliage. Nothing.

Crack! Another bullet whizzed over his head. Phillips returned fire and began to reload as quickly as he could. One of the boys in the rear rolled behind a tree and fired his Springfield into the thicket wall. Phillips cocked his rifle and fired again.

This time the enemy response was unrelenting. Fire erupted with bullets covering the young soldiers’ position. Branches snapped; bark filled the air. One bullet found its mark with a different sound. Thump! Danner looked back to see half of Phillips head mangled in a bloody mess. He was dead. Danner closed his eyes tight. His chest heaved.

This fight won’t last long. That’s it! he thought.

“Stop! Stop shooting!” he yelled.

The hellfire of bullets ceased.

“Come out into the creek with your hands up!” a thundering voice from beyond the camouflaged creek ordered.

“I’m coming out now!” Danner shouted as he stood leaving his rifle behind.

Danner carefully stepped forward forcing his way through the thicket out into the open bank of the creek raising his hands above his head. His boots sunk into the soft soil of the creek’s edge. His pulse raced. He looked across the rivulet to see twenty or so gray uniforms emerge from various positions. A tall soldier with broad shoulders and a weathered face appeared from behind a massive rock on the creek’s far side.

“At ease!” he called to his troops as he holstered his pistol and stepped forward. Three gold bars donned the big soldier’s collar.

“Step across the creek Yank!” the Rebel Captain ordered his adversary.

Danner followed the command and stepped across the shallow creek onto the far bank facing the Confederate Captain.

The Rebel Commander tilted his head to the right and narrowed his eyes peering straight into the mud and blood masked face of a boy.

“How old are you son?” he asked.

“Sixteen sir.”

The Captain managed a faint smile.

“I didn’t think the Yankee Army needed to recruit sixteen-year old’s these days. I thought we were the only fool Army doing that.”

“No sir, I enlisted just after my birthday.”

“I’m Ben Chance, Captain, Confederate States Army. Who are you?”

“Luxton Robert Danner, Private, Union Army sir.”

“How many troops you have with you?”

“There are two others sir. You just killed the third.”

Chance’s smile faded to a heavy frown and his face fell dark.

“Are you sure son?”

“Yes sir, bullet caught him in the head.”

Chance glanced over his shoulder at his men, then looked down at the slow- moving water in the creek shaking his head.

“I’m sorry. Tell your two troopers to come out unarmed.”

“Bud! Henry! Come on out with your hands up and no rifles!”

Captain Ben Chance raised his left hand toward his troops and shook his head ordering them to hold their fire. A moment later Danner’s two remaining troopers emerged from the brush and stood on the far bank of the creek.

“Put your hands down,” Chance called out. They didn’t look any older than the kid in front of him.

“Private Danner, what are you doing out here in this Alabama quagmire?”

“We’re part of sixteen corps under General John Hawkins. We were engaged in battle a couple of days ago and got separated from our unit. We’ve been trying to get back to our base camp ever since. I heard this creek and thought we could follow it to camp. I was wrong. It’s my fault Phillips is dead now.”

“I hardly think a sixteen-year-old Private can be blamed for the loss of a man in his unit.”

“Yes sir, they picked me to lead. My fault sir.”

“I see. You may be in the Union Army, but you damn sure don’t talk like a Yank. Where you from?”

“Charleston South Carolina sir,” Danner announced standing tall with pride.

“How did a Charleston boy end up in dirty shirt blue?”

“My father was originally from Pittsburg and believed there was gonna be a war. He figured the North would win, so he moved us all to Pennsylvania just before the war started. He wanted us to be on the winning side sir.”

“Well, he was correct about the war alright, and probably about the winner. Why did you enlist?”

“My older brother hated my father for leaving Charleston and joined the Confederate Army. My father convinced me that joining the Union army was the right thing to do, so I joined. I didn’t want to fight against my brother though.”

“What’s your brother’s name?”

“Landon Richard Danner sir.”

“Do you know where he is, what outfit?”

“No sir.”

Chance let out a sigh.

“Well, your Yankee Army camp is just south of here on the east bank of the river. Follow this creek east to the river then turn south. You shouldn’t come across any of our boys between here and there.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“For what?”

“Not taking us prisoner sir.”

“Private Danner, this war is about over. It might already be over for all I know. I see no reason to take prisoners now. You had any food in the last two days?”

“No sir.”

“Sergeant!” Chance called to his next in command.

“Yes sir!”

“Provisions for our Yankee rivals.”

The sergeant quickly brought a bag of rations to Chance who passed them to Danner. Danner snapped to attention and offered a sharp salute to his opposing Captain. Chance returned the salute.

“Good luck son. We’ll bury your casualty.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Danner turned and started down the creek bed waving for his troopers to follow. Chance watched the three Yankee soldiers make their way home.


“Yes sir!”

“Burial detail. Then let’s get out of here before some Yankee officer forces that kid to tell him where we are.

“Yes sir! Corporal, let’s get moving!”

Chance looked back at the three boys and smiled.

Maybe there’s some hope for this country after all, he thought.

#westernfiction #johnlayne #cowboys


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