Who That Masked Man Is

Twelve mounted horsemen, bad hombres, their weathered skin and faded clothes stained with the dust of the trail, dried tobacco juice, and the blood of their victims, form a semicircle around the masked stranger. Each draws and cocks a pistol – the staggered mechanical clicking seventy two hushed promises of leaden death.

 Their leader is a lanky, self-assured bastard with a callused hand and a Schofield revolver, the handle bearing thirteen neat little scratches, the only memorials the dead they represent will ever have.

 The stranger will be the fourteenth.

 He grins a yellow smile.

 The stranger is a funny sight, all in blinding white. White hat, white shirt, long white duster. Only his hands and his boots and the finely tooled belt just visible beneath his coat are black. Oh, and the mask. That weird, black felt domino mask through which the stranger’s blue eyes glitter beneath the brim of his white hat. There is a weird synergy between the spurred boots, the gloves, the belt, the mask. The mask, the calling card of the bandit. Funny that the man on the ground wears a mask, hiding his face, when they, the worst villains of the territory go about with their faces brashly uncovered.

 One other thing. The silver cartridges encircling his waist. They can’t be silver. Not really. Can they? He licks his dry lips at the prospect of taking that belt for his own.

 This is the moment. The moment before the killing. The moment he and his men savor and seek always to replenish after the body hits the dust.

 “I make twelve to your one, Ranger,” he drawls. “What do you intend?”

 In answer, the Lone Ranger silently opens his coat and hooks it behind the two shining white pistol butts jutting from the studded black holsters on his hips. They are polished to a mirror shine, and altogether, the figure is blinding.

 A ripple of nervous laughter runs up and down the length of the riders….

 It is cut short by the roar of the Lone Ranger’s guns.

 And it is a roar. A continuous unbroken sound, as if the bullets simply flow from the pistols once cleared of their housings. He doesn’t move, but his hands do, with the speed of a hummingbird’s wings. Those black gloves hands, dealing out death quicker than a faro dealer on Saturday night. They tug and drop the shining hammers, pull the triggers and repeat the action. These are single action pistols – how can they fire so fast? He has heard stories, read such things in the penny dreadfuls, read them and laughed them off.

 But he’s not laughing now.

 Surely the man will be cut down. There are twelve of them, their pistols already drawn, and he has two pistols – only twelve bullets. It’s a game gesture, but futile.

 Then he feels the shock in his gun hand, like a jolt to his bones as his the scarred handle of his Schofield explodes and goes wheeling into the dirt. His hand trembles like a drunkard’s.

 A moment later the roaring stops, and amid the rising smoke, the masked man stands, dropping those bright bullets swiftly into the cylinder of one of the pistols. The other is home on his left hip, smoke curling from the bottom of the holster.

 He feels his jaw slacken and looks down at his trusty Schofield. It will never be fired again. The handle has been destroyed, all memory of his trophy markings obliterated by the silver slug wedged into the bare frame.

 He looks up and down the length of his men. Each one is clutching his hand, each one looking at each other in shock. Some bleed between their fingers, but all remain in their saddles.

 Behind them, a Winchester cocks, and there is the Indian, crouching on the ridge, two black eyes staring down at them, down the barrel of a beaded rifle from the midst of the brown face, long black hair spilling over his shoulders.

 He looks back at the masked man as the Lone Ranger flicks the cylinder of his Colt shut and covers them.

 “What do you intend, Butch?” he says, and a lopsided grin spreads beneath the lip of the mask.

 * *                  

 I have an abiding, long standing affection for The Lone Ranger. Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels riding into town to that thundering William Tell Overture are indelibly linked with my earliest childhood memories. Sunday mornings it was reruns of The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, followed by The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and capping the day of TV watching off with Family Classics, showcasing such classic technicolor adventure films as The Adventures of Robin Hood, George Pal’s The Time Machine and The War of The Worlds, and  Sabu in The Jungle Book. 

I have no doubt that those Sunday mornings have left a deep mark on my entire life. My earliest childhood heroes were usually brilliant, witty, almost always expert marksmen, on horseback, and full of righteous indignation, and the threats they faced were powerful and villainous, sometimes weird and shambling with extraterrestrial origins.

Somewhat tarnished, at their hearts, these are the same heroes I write about today.

I’ve been following the news of the forthcoming The Lone Ranger film pretty closely. I’m one of the ones who lamented the announcement of Johnny Depp as Tonto.

The Lone Ranger is often pointed to as an example of racism against Native Americans. I have to beg to differ here. I think it gets a bad rap, mostly perpetuated by a lot of people who’ve never actually watched The Lone Ranger.

More often then not, the Indians are not the bad guys. In The Lone Ranger and The Lost City of Gold, the Ranger and Tonto are after a group of white treasure hunters who have been murdering Indians. There is another episode where whites dressed as Indians and blaming their crimes on the local tribe are busted by the Ranger and Tonto.

But Tonto is a racist caricature, right?

Tonto doesn’t speak perfect English.

And that’s it. That’s his only failing.

He’s an expert tracker and horseman, adept at first aid (who else patches the Ranger up when they’re miles from town?), a loyal friend, and frankly, a badass fighter too.

Who the heck cares if he speaks pidgeon English? Do we measure a person’s intelligence by how well they speak English? That’s Tea Party thinking, I think. There are astrophysicists at the cutting edge of scientific thought who probably conjugate their English verbs incorrectly. But I’m not going to bother correcting them.

Tonto is a Pottawatomie. That’s stated in the show. He’s not depicted in the usual manner as a feather wearing pig-tailed Indian (with no tribe ever mentioned, because who cares what tribe he’s from right? Let’s just say he’s Cherokee) from a catchall plains tribe. I don’t think I ever saw him use a bow, even.

Yes, for all his traveling with the Ranger, he never improves his English. Yes the writers likely got some things wrong, and yes, he does get beat up a lot. But for the 1950’s, he’s a pretty dang progressive representation.  I mean, at least he doesn’t do any magic, and he’s not accompanied by a drumbeat or indigenous vocal musical motiff everytime he appears.

Most importantly, he was played by Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk Indian who helped pave the way for aboriginal American actors in Hollywood by working in the establishment of the Indian Actors Workshop.

Yes, an Indian actor, playing an Indian, in an era of television when on F Troop, the Indians were played by Jewish Americans and in one case….Don Rickles (as Chief Bald Eagle).

So anyway, apologies to Gore Verbinski, who I think could do a great Lone Ranger film (and to Johnny Depp, who is still an entertaining actor but sorry, not Indian enough to play Tonto) I’m not sorry to see this version shelved.

The above-written passage is the Lone Ranger as I see him.

 No werewolves, no Johnny Depp instant-Indian.

 What Hollywood needs to understand is The Lone Ranger is American’s first crimefighter. He’s the Batman of the 1870’s. And while Batman is occasionally updated to great effect, he remains essentially the same. He’s wealthy, he’s mysterious, he doesn’t kill.

 The Lone Ranger has one of the greatest, most mythic origin stories ever.

 Already a Texas Ranger riding with his older brother (and, I imagine from what follows, idolizing him), he is betrayed by their half-Indian scout and ambushed in a box canyon by the Cavendish gang, in what is essentially a bloody massacre.

 The Cavendishes slaughter the Rangers and leave their corpses lying in the sun.

 A lone Indian rider on a piebald pony perhaps following the sound or the buzzards, rides into the canyon soon after, inspecting the dead.

 Tonto is his name.

 And he finds one stirring.

 More startling, Tonto finds he knows the man. Years ago, when he was a boy, his own Pottawatomie band was attacked and burned out, his entire family killed and he himself was left for dead. Seeking the killers has become the driving force of his life since.

 On that bloody day a white boy his age, a scout for a wagon train, came across him and nursed him to health. A boy named John Reid, the only white man who has ever shown him kindness.

 Kemosabe, he called him. Trusty scout.

 And the man lying in this canyon, bleeding to death, is the very same John Reid.

 Tonto knows the movement of creation. He knows the white concept of Providence. He knows this is no accident.

 Using all his skills, he brings the surviving ranger back from the brink of death.

 While John Reid recuperates, Tonto digs graves for the other rangers.

 When he comes to the last, John Reid calls for him to wait. This was his brother. The man who, seeing the dangerous combination of John Reid’s devil-may-care young attitude and his astounding proficiency with a pistol, strove to teach him there is more to life than glory and money and gunplay. There must be temperance. There must be responsibility.

 He told John once the story of William Tell, the expert marksman who refused to bow to a tyrant called Gessler. Gessler forces Tell to shoot an apple from the head of his son with a crossbow. In answer, Tell took out two bolts. The first split the apple, winning him everlasting fame. The second took the life of Gessler, winning Tell’s people their freedom.

 Which do you think was more important? His brother used to ask him.

 John Reid is changed. The young gun, hungry for fame and action has died. And as Tonto understands it, he has come away from the other side with a vision from the spirits that he must follow. So Tonto does not question when he cuts a mask from his dead brother’s vest and dons it. He doesn’t question when he digs his own grave alongside the grave of his brother and the other rangers.

 The whites would call itProvidence.

 Of course he finds the wild white stallion soon after, saving it from a charging buffalo, healing its wounds, and riding it with nothing more than a hackamore bridle after. The horse is a part of the vision, and the two become as one.

 Tonto does not question the silver bullets either, forged from a hidden mine belonging to the Ranger’s brother. Silver is the purest of metals, and the Ranger says it will ensure his aim, as his target is injustice.

 But when the Ranger says he will not kill, there Tonto begs to differ. He knows that there exist some men who will not stop their evil but with death.

 Sacred vision or no, Tonto will one day kill the men who took the lives of his family and friends.

 And there is the dichotomy of Tonto and The Lone Ranger.

 At least, if I were writing it.

 Hopefully whoever gets next crack at it will stay truer to the characters their history.

 No redface actors, no werewolves, if you please.

 Hi-Yo Silver.