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[the first 9 (of 20) sections of the text accompanying the (1970s) screenplay]

 

NAT LOVE
OTHERWISE KNOWN AS DEADWOOD DICK

[by Howard Fast]

Nat Love was the first black cowboy to achieve prominence and to emerge in his time as one of the legendary western figures. His road to prominence was the same as that travelled by William F. Cody, Wild Bill Hickock and others. In other words, a book about him was written, in the first person, as his autobiography.

This book which was called THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NAT LOVE is almost all of the research material concerning Nat Love that exists today. It was published in the 1890's [1907] and has been reprinted recently by the New York Times Press [1968].

Aside from the few bare facts, such as dates and places, there is probably not much truth in the autobiography.* It is written in the overly pedantic manner of an eastern scholar. Nat Love himself was born a slave and very likely remained illiterate or partly literate up to his death. The book is written in the style of Ned Buntline, the famous pseudo-biographer of Buffalo Bill; and as with the Buntline books and so many others of the genre, the story content is very much of a pattern. One could, by changing a few names, substitute half a dozen other books of the period for this one and it would read identically. So there is nothing usable in the book itself since dates and places are available elsewhere.

However, this doesn't leave us without a story. Even the barest surmise can project wonderful possibilities. The cattlehands who drove the herds north from Texas to Dodge City were almost entirely Southerners -- men from Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee. Most of them had fought with the Confederate Army. Their contempt for and hatred of blacks was deeply ingrained. Achieving the position he did, Nat Love must have been a man of extraordinary character, poise, strength and determination. The odds against him were enormous. The situation required a coolness of character and the wisdom of decision not usually found in most people. The photographs extant of him, of which there are several, show a tall, broad-shouldered man with clean-cut almost aquiline features. He was unquestionably a marvelous natural horseman, and his fame and reputation grew out of his skill as a rider and, subsequently, as a rodeo contestant.

The fact that he lived his post-cowboy days as a pullman porter must be understood in the context of those times; namely, the 1890's. By then, he was past forty, no longer young enough to make his living as a range rider. He had a wife and children by that time, and the pay of a cowboy could barely keep a single man alive. The position of pullman porter was the highest level to which a black man could aspire in the 1890's. All things considered, the pay was good and the pullman porters were among the first unionized workers in America.

What follows here is essentially the story of how a black man in the 1870's won his position in a cruel and demanding white man's world. Those who did so were extraordinary men. This is the story of a very extraordinary man.

I

INT. A PULLMAN CAR OF THE EIGHTEEN NINETIES.

This is Nat Love's car. He is now in his forties, a strong, heavily-set, well-built man. A gentleman of the time, a millionaire by the name of J.J. Corbett, enters the car presumably from the dining car. He sits down in his seat, takes out a cigar, clips off the end and lights it. His action is noticed by Love who goes to him and tells him that smoking is prohibited in the sleeping car. Corbett is enraged but Love stands firm, and finally Corbett rises and strides out of the car.

The action is observed by a man sitting across the aisle. This man is presumably Nat Love's biographer-to-be.

He has watched the preceding incident with interest. Now he calls Nat Love over and informs him that he has just had a squabble with one of the richest and most powerful men in the west. Love takes the news philosophically.

Later that night, Love is seated in his little cubicle at the end of the car shining the shoes of the passengers. The conductor stops by and they have some words about the incident. Love explains his position. The pullman conductor tells him not to worry. He won't be fired for this. During this, the writer has been standing a little to one side listening. When the conductor departs, the writer asks Nat Love if they could talk. The writer recognizes the name and brings into the conversation the fact that this is Deadwood Dick. He says he would like to write Love's story if Love would tell it to him.

From this we lead into our story.

II

EXT. A CATTLE CAMP. NORTHERN TEXAS EVENING.

The time is eighteen seventy-three. This is the camp of a group of Texas cowpunchers driving a herd north on the Chisolm Trail to the rail point at Dodge City. The day's drive is over. The men are sprawled around the campfire eating. In the background there are tethered horses and to one side of the camp the chuck- wagon.

The cook is an old black man, white-haired, his face seamed, his way very knowledgeable. His name is Sam. From his POV, he picks up Nat Love standing just at the edge of the circle of light watching him. Love is barefooted -- ragged pants and a worn tattered shirt.

The black man approaches Love and they exchange a few words. Love is from Tennessee. He walked from Tennessee to Texas living as best he could. Now he has not eaten for three days.

A good deal comes out in this exchange. The old black man feeds him. The cattle boss, Rustim by name, comes over and the black man convinces Rustim to allow Nat Love to remain with the outfit and help him.

III

EXT. CATTLE CAMP. MORNING.

Nat Love helps the old man clean up the breakfast dishes. And from his POV, the cowboys saddling up to ride up and start the cattle moving. Love hitches the mule to the chuckwagon and sits next to the old black man as they take off in the wake of the cowboys and the cattle. Love tells of his own dream of being a cowhand.

The old man laughs at him. "I heard of black cowboys," the old man says, "I never seen one."

Nat Love looks at him coolly. "Maybe you never seen a black man who walked here from Tennessee. I did that. Maybe you never seen a black man who they decided to lynch in Arkansas. I am that man and they didn't lynch me. There were six of them and they put a bullet through my arm." He shows him the scar. "But they didn't lynch me nohow."

"Good God. What you done?" the old man asks.

"What I done? Nothing. Unless you can say I made the mistake of being born black. I walked, maybe fifteen hundred, maybe two thousand miles to get here and there wasn't a week passed when I didn't come up against the mistake of being born black."

"You never killed no one?" the old man asks. "You ain't on the dodge like they say out here?"

"I came close," Nat Love says. "Who knows. Maybe I did. But I don't have no hate in my heart. All I want is to live like a man."

"Sonny, your skin is black," the old man tells him.

IV

EXT. ON THE TRAIL.

Rustim rides his horse up alongside of the chuckwagon. He tells Sam to get rid of this nigger. They don't need two to do the cooking and nobody eats who doesn't work.

Nat Love pleads his case. He can work. He can ride.

If they would just give him a chance. They have already lost one man on the drive so they could use another.

The cattle boss listens in silence and rides off.

V

EXT. CATTLE CAMP. THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON.

The cowboys are riding in, unsaddling their horses. Nat Love is helping Sam. Rustim rides up and is asked about this new nigger they have. He replies that Love wants to be a rider. One of the cowboys, Soames by name, suggests that they could use a rider. Let him ride Blackie.

Blackie, a part of the remuda, is the horse that killed the cowboy who tried to ride him. He is unbroken and a killer. No one has been able to ride him or break him. Sam hears this and pleads with Rustim not to do it, but the joke has caught fire. Nat Love is not fazed, is perfectly willing to make the attempt.

VI

EXT. EARLY MORNING. THE FOLLOWING DAY. THE CAMPSITE.

The old black man, Sam, awakens Nat Love who is sleeping next to the chuckwagon. Sam tells him it is time to get up and attempts to talk him out of trying to ride Blackie. Love is going through with it. Sam makes a point of the fact that Love does not even have shoes.

Love helps Sam serve the coffee and the beans for breakfast. The cowboys are watching him curiously now, grinning.

We cut to where the horses are staked out, the remuda horses -- extra mounts that the trail group uses for the herding. We spot on a magnificent bronco, almost all black except for a white splash on his head. Two cowboys are bringing him out, hanging onto the ropes as the horse bucks and rears. The other cowboys are watching. One of them comes up with a saddle which he drops. Rustim points to the saddle and tells Love to saddle him. Love makes several attempts and each time the horse bucks and rears away making it plain that any attempt to saddle him is impossible.

Now Love has the rope around the horse's neck. Suddenly he lets go of the saddle, grabs the horse by the mane and vaults onto his back. The horse bucks fiercely for about thirty seconds and then throws Love. Love lands on his feet, races to the horse and again vaults onto his back clinging to his mane.

Again the bucking and rearing, and this time -- unable to unseat Love -- the horse breaks loose and races away.

We follow the horse through an incredible ride. Running, rearing, bucking and then racing mile after mile with all his strength and speed. At one point, he rolls over to unseat Love. Love leaps from the horse's back and then swings onto him again as the horse gains his feet.

Then again, the horse is off running. He runs to exhaustion with Love clinging to his back, and then suddenly he comes to a stop, totally spent, covered with lather. The horse stands there trembling and shivering.

Now Love slips off the horse's back. He, too, is covered with sweat, trembling and near the point of exhaustion. Holding onto the rope, he comes up to the horse and gently begins to stroke him. The horse responds with the realization that he has been mastered. Love rests his sweat-covered head against the horse's neck.

VII

EXT. THE CATTLE ON THE MOVE. THE OPEN RANGE.

The cattle are being herded north. Cowboys riding the outlying points of the herd. We pick up Rustim, and then his POV. And, from his POV, we see Nat Love slowly riding in, bareback, on the broken horse. He rides up alongside Rustim and for a few beats they ride along in silence. Rustim is impressed -- enor-mously impressed. Love asks him about the job.

Rustim tells him that he's got a horse now and when they get back to camp he'll find a saddle for him.

VIII

EXT. THE CAMP. THAT NIGHT.

Love is helping Sam clean the tin plates and mugs. Rustim joins them and tells Sam to find Nat Love some boots, a shirt and a pair of jeans. Rustim goes to the back of the wagon and gets a lariat. He asks Love if he can use the lariat. Love replies that he walked half across the United States practicing with a piece of rope.

The cowboys are sitting around the fire. Rustim points to one of them and tells Love to rope him. Love hesitates. Rustim insists. Love ropes the cowboy, Soames. Soames leaps to his feet, throwing off the rope, and half draws his gun from his holster. Rustim tells him to forget it. Soames is not too ready to forget it. He lashes out at Nat Love with a string of foul epithets. Rustim tells him he told Love to do it and if Soames doesn't like it, he can draw his pay and get out. Soames backs down.

IX

EXT. THE OPEN RANGE. DAYLIGHT.

The cattle are on the move. Nat Love, at work among the cowboys, some are friendly, others antagonistic. One of them gives him some help and advice.

Nat Love rides his black horse, saddled this time.


* That cowboy "autobiography" has been discredited by serious Western historians, including Frank Dobie, Ramon Adams and Kenneth Wiggins Porter, author of "The Negro on the American Frontier" (New York, 1972) and perhaps the greatest historian of blacks in the American West.

from a Letter to the Editor, NY Times, 10/11/92

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