For 36 years Howard Bryan has been reflecting on the past and measuring it against the present and future in a column in the Albuquerque Tribune that is as distinct as the Sandia mountains that tower above his desert home.
Like most converts, Bryan, an Ohio native, is more passionate about New Mexico, his adopted "religion," than many of those born to the faith. The most recent evidence of this is his splendid book, "Wildest of the Wild West."Ostensibly a thumbnail early history of Las Vegas, N.M., the book is really a series of tales about the people who made this town as notorious among aficionados and far more dangerous than such better known fleshpots and watering holes as Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Ariz.
Strategically located on the old Santa Fe Trail and later an end-of-rail town on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, this Hispanic farm and ranch community reeled under the impact of Indian warfare, conquering armies, insurrectionists, outlaws and gunfighters.
Among those who trod its dusty streets and cut their thirst in its 24-hour saloons were such legendary figures as Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Mysterious Dave Mather, Pat Garrett, Gen. Sterling Price - and even Jesse James and the "coward" who shot him, Bob Ford.
But the list of "thieves, thugs, Fakirs and Bunko Steerers" also included such local celebrities as J.J. Harlin (alias "Off Wheeler"), the Saw Dust Kid, Little Jack and the Pock-Marked Kid, all of whom faced vigilante ire and the prospects of twisting slowly from the famous windmill water tower in the center of the town plaza.
Bryan's penchant for letting old newspaper clippings tell the story frequently adds a touch of humor to an otherwise grisly occurrence. For example, from the Las Vegas Optic:
"Of late years, Gordon had been disfigured by the loss of his nose. It had been bitten off by a gambler from whom he had taken money. His antagonist seized him with a grasp of iron by both ears and with his teeth, wrought the disfiguration."
Dramatic highlights include the hanging of Paula Angel, the first woman to be executed on the Western frontier. (Actually, she had to be hanged twice.)
Then there are the stories of the Italian hermit who sought solitude on a mountain peak; the career of Hoodoo Brown, a murdering judge; secret outlaw gangs that included members of the police force; a heavyweight title bout; and the filming of some of the earliest Western movies starring the great Tom Mix.
Accompanying each chapter are remarkable vintage pictures which enhance the feeling of being there that one gets from Bryan's columns.
For those who have been reading Bryan's pieces in the Albuquerque Tribune since 1953, this book is a must. And those who haven't will know what they've been missing in only a few pages.
Bryan spins a great yarn.