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Wednesday, 07 March 2007 00:00

A debut reminiscent of other stirring westerns

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Back in the 15th century, when Europe underwent a remarkable surge in creativity, the word “Renaissance” (meaning “rebirth”) was frequently applied to England, Germany, Italy and France where music, art, literature and the sciences were suddenly thriving.

In time, the word was also applied to remarkably talented individuals such as Shakespeare, Raleigh, Sidney and Bacon who could not only write a sonnet and speak a diversity of languages, but could also excel in the arts of war, politics and science. In other words, they were “Renaissance men.”

Well, dear readers, it appears that nestled in a peaceful vale of the Smokies, the town of Sylva has its own unique version of a Renaissance man: R. L. Bunn. In addition to being a scholar, teacher and popular retired minister, Bunn is also active as a community leader (he is a former mayor). Now in his 80’s, this venerable gentleman has launched yet another career: In the tradition of Brand, Grey and L’Amour, he has written “a western.”

Shannon depicts the “rites-of-passage” exploits of Shannon Murphy as he makes a near-mythical odyssey from Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies to a fanciful cattle ranch (the Bar J) in the land of the Cheyenne. The son of a legendary Irish frontiersman, Shaun Murphy, and a Nordic mother named Aenid, Shannon has inherited a daunting pedigree: Irish courage and Germanic battle-lust — a combination that flares into life on the night that the 13-year-old boy witnesses the ruthless murder of his parents. Urged to flee by his dying father, Shannon vows to one day avenge the murder of his parents.

Aided only by the survival skills he has acquired from his Cherokee playmates, Shannon decides to leave the fog-shrouded mountains. In doing so, the orphaned boy is responding to his father, Shaun Murphy’s tales of his own exploits in the land of the Cheyenne — the place where he once found the mystical “white buffalo.” Listening to his father’s tales, Shannon has come to believe that his own destiny lies somewhere beyond the Mississippi. In addition, Shannon carries another legacy — a cache of gold coins that his father has left hidden for him.

Shannon makes his way west in the tumultuous years following the Civil War. The boy quickly learns that the frontier towns are filled with predators — opportunists and killers who victimize the innocent. Seizing the first practical opportunity, he leaves his gold coins with a reputable bank, thereby creating a fund that will become a significant nest egg in the future. Then, armed only with a quick mind and the willingness to learn, Shannon begin his perilous journey into a vast and lawless country,

Working on riverboats on the Mississippi the boy gradually acquires an assortment of skills that prove invaluable: the art of knife-fighting, gun-slinging and hand-to hand combat. Each new job invariably presents a dangerous encounter; however, the personable Shannon also attracts a series of mentors, each willing to instruct him in yet another useful art, including deportment, business law and horse-trading.

Gradually, Shannon Murphy evolves from an innocent youth into a battle-scarred adult who (if sufficiently provoked) can kill with deadly efficiency (his weapon of choice is a Colt .44/40). He also dresses appropriately, speaks eloquently and embodies those qualities that other men hold in high regard — courage, leadership, loyalty the ability to hold his whiskey. He also pays his debts.

In writing Shannon, Bunn utilizes a provocative metaphor. Shannon’s admirable qualities, like his invested gold coins, accrue in value. In other words, qualities such as courage, honor and steadfastness can grow or accumulate much like a sound financial investment. Shannon’s heroic qualities combine to make the sum of his total character greater than its parts. By the time that Shannon is ready to accomplish his dream of building and operating the Bar J, a majestic cattle ranch maintained by a host of dedicated, disciplined employees (cowpokes); he has evolved into a somewhat daunting figure. His nest egg has made him wealthy and the Cheyenne have acknowledged him as the successor of the man who brought them “the white buffalo.” In fact, in full maturity, Shannon is a bit intimidating... a kind of Samurai warrior, bedecked in sailcloth Levis and armed with a Colt .44/40 — a gun that seems to magically rise to his hand when needed.

In keeping with an honored western tradition, Shannon builds to a stirring climax. Shannon and his loyal supporters are aligned against his arch-enemy, the psychotic Colonel Hall, who is the power-mad owner of the Slash L — the same man who has not only repeatedly attacked Shannon, but has ravished and murdered his bride-to-be, Rachael Southerland (a newly-arrived schoolteacher). Like Alan Ladd’s Shane and Gary Cooper’s beleaguered marshal in “High Noon,” Shannon’s fateful gunfight is against disheartening odds — a shadowy saloon and a host of merciless killers, and among them ...yes, the men who murdered his parents!

I only have a minor quibble with R. L. Bunn’s venture into “blood-on-the-saddle” westerns. I am distressed by Rachael Southerland’s quick demise. Shannon has barely claimed his first rapt kiss from the schoolmistress when the next paragraph brings death and defilement. Surely, a hero (and heroine) of such noble proportions deserves more. American folk heroes (and real ones), from Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan to Davy Crockett and Sam Houston have stirring encounters with their true loves... Surely, Shannon and Rachael deserved a few campfires and moonlit nights surrounded by crooning wolves and bouncing tumbleweeds before sweet Rachel shakes off her mortal coil.

I could be wrong. I did note that Shannon ends with another femme fatale waiting in the wings... a nubile Cheyenne lady named Water Song who appears to be a bit of a flirt. Maybe the moonlit nights in the high lonesome are reserved for the Shannon sequel.

Shannon by J. T. Bunn. Xlibris Corporation, 2007. $16 – 164 pages

(Gary Carden is a writer, storyteller and lecturer whose book, Mason Jars in the Flood, was named Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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