There is one constant in human history. Change. There are times when change seems terribly distant, and others when change is so near and terrifying we try to ignore and hope it doesn’t last. It always does last however, and the only thing that will take its place is more change, and that expected change never moves us back to where we were. Sometimes it seems like we step back, but we never really do—it is always forward, although not always for the better, and only sometimes for the worse.
The Western story is a glimpse at that change—the moving from the old to the new, and then further past still. It is a window to the past. A vision of what was. The technology of an era gone by—the freight wagon was the high technology of its day, and without it we never would have devised such a thing as the freight train or the modern semi-tractor trailer rig, or even the airplane. There is a progression that is natural and scary as hell that is defined by one word: time. It moves forward with an unflinching eye and we either stay with it, or we are unmercifully left behind.
I recently read a short story that reminded me of change and its unrelenting march forward. It is a Western story written by one of the best writers the genre has produced: Loren D. Estleman. It was published in 1986 and won the Golden Spur Award for best short story. Its title: “The Bandit”.
It is the chronicle of an outlaw who was incarcerated in 1878—the pinnacle of the post Civil War mythologized Western outlaw era. He spent the prime years of his life in a penitentiary only to be released 29 years later at the age of 60.The automobile was replacing the horse and wagon as the major mode of transportation, and the American economy was moving from its old agrarian self into the industrial age—and still it changes today as we move into the so-called post industrial age.
The old man is in awe at his first glimpse at an automobile—“He watched it go by towing a plume of dust and blue smoke and said, ‘Oldsmobile.’” He kept up with modern life and technology through magazines and newspapers, but there is nothing like the real thing, and when he is released he finds the world a changed place. He doesn’t know if the train station is still in the same place, and he doesn’t know exactly how he will live in this world—a world to which he really no longer belongs.
The irony of the story is that it is his past—the past—that gives him currency in this new place. It is his stories and wisdom that allow him a position. Very much as it is our own pasts—both our personal past as well as the cultural past—that give us a future. We depend on the past to define ourselves, and in that definition and experience we create both today and tomorrow.
“The Bandit” is a wonderful tale that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. It can be read as both a genre piece and a deeply affecting literary story. The difference between the two is probably no more than semantic, but this story should appeal to anyone who enjoys a story as a story and also to those who need to grapple with deep meaning and nuance. A line that is nearly impossible to walk, but a line that Loren Estleman often approaches and straddles in his Western fiction.