Timber Line is not, however, particularly focused. (This is clear from the first chapter, a tenuously thematic seven-page anecdote about a mischievous burro Fowler owned as a child.) As the Post was not a particularly focused newspaper, these digressions seem fitting. But they also can be confusing, and at times it seems that Fowler let his wild, wooly subject get away from him. He devotes three long chapters to individuals who lived in Colorado but were wholly unaffiliated with the Post: Margaret “Molly” Brown, a wealthy miner’s wife who was famously dubbed “unsinkable” after surviving the Titanic; Tom Horn, an Indian fighter and hired killer; and Alferd Packer, a trail guide and cannibal who survived a vicious mountain winter by killing and eating his traveling companions. The stories are entertaining—particularly the Tom Horn chapter, which might be the best thing in the book—but they have little to do with the Post, besides a vague “look at these things that also happened in the West.”
But subsequent reads suggest the digressions are there for a reason. Timber Line is nominally about the Post, but it’s mostly about the Post as a product and reflection of its time and place, about how it embodied and reflected the flaws and virtues of the frontier. The American West of popular myth is a land of the defiant. Its great figures share a reckless, near-delusional intransigence that seemed to lead them in equal measure to glory or the gallows. Back East, men like Horn would have been ostracized, or declared insane. In the West, insanity was a survival tactic.
The Post’s near-lunatic defiance of accepted norms and standards is what made it great, Fowler argues. He presents Bonfils and Tammen as Western antiheroes in the same legendary vein as Horn, Packer, and the rest. The Post and its owners were cut from the same material, Fowler is saying, and ought to be remembered right alongside the other entities whose antics defined the West; the Post deserves to be mythologized as a newspaper that, for better or for worse, defined its time.
But times change, and legends fade. In Voice of Empire, William Hornby suggests the Post succeeded by appealing to the “populist tastes of a growing mass reading public that was then unentertained by any broadcast sirens.” As movies and radio emerged, the ordinary people found other means of titillation. Today, Timber Line is out of print, Fowler is forgotten, and The Denver Post survives as a competent, professional daily newspaper with a coherent typographical scheme, carrying no trace of its lurid past.
In 1932, Bonfils was brought to trial again, this time for contempt of court. Tammen had died some years earlier, and Bonfils, left alone, had stumbled. He sued the Rocky Mountain News for libel, and when called to give a deposition, he refused to answer several personal questions, thus earning the contempt charge. This time around, the News sent Bonfils sprawling. The paper filed a petition listing Bonfils’ crimes: contract fraud, political bribery, stock manipulation, unsportsmanlike behavior on fishing trips. It was extensively documented, and it was too much for Bonfils to handle. He died unexpectedly in February 1933, of an ear infection, having never answered the charges brought against him. COLORADO HAS LOST ITS GREATEST CITIZEN was the Post headline.
Timber Line came out later that year. By then, Fowler, who had left Denver in 1918 for newspaper work in New York, had moved to California. Some say that he wrote the book hoping it would be turned into a movie, but that never happened; perhaps Tammen and Bonfils were too outlandish even for Hollywood.