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"Spud & Cochise" is Extraordinary

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

"A Pause in the Desert and Other Stories" by Oliver La Farge.
There's more magic in here than the cover might lead you to believe...

In my first entry about the history of the Weird Western genre, we discussed "The Horror from the Mound," a tense and cryptic story from a pioneer of weird fiction, Robert E. Howard. This time I want to discuss a story that followed Howard by just a few years, but took the genre in surprising directions.

"Spud & Cochise" was written by Oliver La Farge, a noted novelist and Native American scholar, and appeared in his 1957 collection of short stories titled A Pause in the Desert. Its original appearance, however, was in 1936, making it one of the earliest examples of the weird western genre. And it kicked things off in an incredible way!

It's a masterful and gritty tale of a cowpuncher named Spud and his quest to kill a man named Snakeweed (maybe partly out of name-coolness envy? It's unclear). Snakeweed is a terror to everyone he meets, a certified sex pest, and by all reports completely invincible. So Spud looks for help from an Apache chief named Cochise, to get his hands on the only thing that will help him to kill the menace.

It's particularly notable how different La Farge's take on the weird western was in comparison to Howard's. Where Howard's tale stretched backward into a darkened history, and featured a danger that crept in the shadows, La Farge's story has a sun-bleached immediacy that blends fantasy into the gritty American west. This was also at a time before fantasy was as well-defined as we see it today.

"Spud & Cochise" approaches its supernatural elements as an accepted part of the world, rather than a sudden invader like Howard's titular horror. The malachite bullet that will kill Snakeweed is no more notable than the powerful liquor they imbibe, though both have supernatural effects. Spud and Cochise meet on the field of competition, and exchange magical pleasantries with the same ease as exchanging smoke signals. La Farge's comfort in the dangerous and unpleasant west is joined to the mystical with an expert hand, and it's a sight to behold.

"Spud and Cochise" is a short tale, and absolutely worth tracking down. It unfortunately (and expertly) ends too soon, but while it lasts it rattles along with some striking prose and makes for a stirring read. It's a bit of a trick to find a place to read it, even in our shiny modern age, but there are a few options. You can find it in A Pause in the Desert, or in Spider Robinson's collection The Best of all Possible Worlds. And if you're not sold yet, there's a scene in which a cowboy swears so hard that it kills a bird. Read that sentence again and tell me you're not at least a bit intrigued.

In our next exploration, I'll be taking a look at an early weird west novel with an odd pedigree: The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles G. Finney.

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