Continuing to read random selections from the February 1911 edition of Adventure magazine provides a couple of gems.
First up, "Dixie Pasha" by Thmas P. Byron, in which 400 French Zouaves come face to face with a new enemy - native troops well drilled by their leader, Sam Ames. The titular character is an American ex-pat, black man from south of the Mason-Dixon line, who leads a small 80 man force of Arabs through colonial Liberia. Viewed as raiders by the French Foreign Legion, they fight to secure safe passage for a Muslim holy man preaching 'jehad' to the local Liberians.
The holy man they escort is little more than a MacGuffin created as an excuse for adventure. The Dixie Pasha engages in daring escapes and leads his men in pitched battles in fine tradition. That the erstwhile protagonists are Arabs led by a black man is irrelevant - aside from a few fun vignettes such as one featuring head-scarf wearing Arabs singing a mangled version of "Dixie". Those coming to this story with a It's-The-Current-Year view of the early twentieth century may be surprised that the story features heroic black men leading an Arab force against evil white colonials. As is so often the case, the truth (that in many ways our modern attitudes on race are less progressive than those of our forebears) is stranger than fiction (that a former slave could be a noble and heroic figure in his own right).
Dixie Pasha is a throwback story in the best sense. What is missing from the story is as striking as what is in the story. Unlike so much of what is written today, this story doesn't serve a purpose beyond adventure. Sam Ames is a melancholy figure, and a tragic hero, whose fight isn't one against the powers that be. No one learns a very special lesson about tolerance and diversity. It's just a bunch of guys doing their best to make their way in a dangerous world. It's a refreshing change to read a story about adventure for its own sake.
For those who don't recognize the name, he was the inventor of the modern day machine gun which bore his name. (In an odd bit synchronicity, the modern day mens' magazine, Maxim, was named after the very same machine gun.)
Most of the stories involve near misses of one sort or another. Running from a dynamite building shortly before it detonates, a wayward rocket narrowly missing a nearby train, and the like. One story that seems like it must be apocryphal details a Chinese servant to a Russian nobleman who tells a friend of the nobleman's penchant for dismissing the servant with a kick in the pants. The friend, who was actually a Japanese spy, creates a special padding for the Chinese fellows pants. Unbeknownst to the servant, the padding consists of a hot water bottle filled with nitroglycerin and a couple of blasting caps, which has the desired effect when next the servant is dismissed. In fact, most of the stories detail the practical application of Maxim's deadly machines in the Russo-Japanese war.
The striking thing about this story is not the wild-west pre-OSHA tales of reckless industry, but what the use of an author like Maxim reveals about the cachet of mens' adventure magazines. Our modern world looks back at these things as low-brow entertainment for the masses, as though that were an insult. If this is what the average man read back then...do we really want to compare this to the sort of average fare is presented today?
Because we won't come out ahead in that game.