THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Back in 1973 Elmer Kelton published his most critically acclaimed novel, one that won both Spur and Western Heritage awards.  It is The Time It Never Rained, which one admiring critic conceded wasn't "the Great American Novel," but may very well be "the Great Texas Novel."

It was the story of Charlie Flagg, a tough-minded Texas rancher who in the 1950s was hanging on with all he had as he tried to survive the worse drought to hit that part of Texas since the Dust Bowl days of the '30s.

Wes Hendricks, the primary protagonist of The Man Who Rode Midnight is cut from the same cloth and could be viewed as the reincarnation of Charlie twenty years down the road.  In his seventies, Wes is not facing drought, though like Charlie he is forced to run sheep on his west Texas hill country ranch because they are profitable, which allows him to stay in the cattle business which isn't profitable.  It is a sacrifice that any self-respecting cattleman would regret, but a man has to do what a man has to do.

"I hated sheep at first, but they growed on me.  I decided they can't be all bad if they make you more money than cattle.  Besides, an old cow'll sometimes try to kill you.  So will a horse.  An old ewe may be dumber than dirt, but you don't find any malice in her."

But Wes does have to confront another problem, one even more relentless and intractable than prolonged drought; his foe is progress.  In his youth Wes had swung a wide loop as a cowboy, bronc buster, and rodeo rider.  He was one tough galoot.  After all, he was "the man who rode Midnight."  All he wanted now was to be left alone so that he could live out his days on his ranch.  But then progress intervened.

The little town of Big River is dying and on its last legs and its citizens are behind a proposal by developers to dam the river and create a lake that would attract tourists.  The only fly in the ointment is Wes; said lake would cover his ranch.

Pedernales River in Texas Hill Country

Wes is offered much more money than what his ranch is worth but that isn't the issue.  He doesn't want to sell for any price, not even when the local sheriff who has vested interests threatens him.

"Strange, the way life changes things on you.  That time I rode Ol' Midnight, they taken my picture.  My name was in the papers.  People went out of their way to shake my hand and talk to me.  I was a hero for a while, and people liked to brag that they knew me.  Now all that's gone; it don't mean a damned thing anymore.  I'm just an old man standin' in everybody's way."

Other characters in the story include Wes' grandson, Jim Ed, a city boy who grew up in Dallas, but comes to live with his grandfather after flunking out of college during his senior year.  He has been sent by his father to try to convince Wes to sell and to take up residence in a retirement home.  Jim Ed, nicknamed "Tater" by his grandfather, a name he detests, finds himself falling for a young woman from a neighboring ranch named Gloria Beth Dawson, nicknamed Glory B., a name she embraces.

Jim Ed shoved aside a coiled rope and a bridle to make room on the seat.  He had to move an assortment of stock medicine, wire pinchers and general working tools to make footroom on the floor.  He bumped his head on a rifle racked against the rear window.

"What's that for?" he asked.

His grandfather replied in a gravelly voice, "You never know when you may run into a son of a bitch that needs shootin'."

Like The Time It Never Rained, The Man Who Rode Midnight is not a "western novel," but a novel set in the West.  The winner of a Western Heritage Award, the themes of The Man Who Rode Midnight examine a generation gap, the conflict between old and new ways, love of land, uncompromising values, romance, and even aching despair over faded love.

Some evenings Wes takes his fiddle and moves away from the house in order not to disturb his grandson and each time plays the same haunting melody, one that his grandson does hear, and eventually recognizes.

As I look at the letters that you wrote to me
It's you that I am thinkin' of
As I read the lines that, to me, were so dear
I remember our faded love
I miss you darlin', more and more every day
As heaven would miss the stars up above
With every heartbeat, I still think of you
And remember our faded love
As I think of the past and all the pleasures we had
As I watched the mating of the dove
It was in the springtime that you said goodbye
I remember our faded love
I miss you darlin', more and more every day
As heaven would miss the stars up above
With every heartbeat, I still think of you
And remember our faded love

And remember our faded love
Written by Bob Wills, James Robert Wills, Johnnie Lee Wills. copyright Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

The world according to Wes Hendricks:

"There's somethin' way out of balance in the world.  People over in Africa are starvin' because they can't buy food.  People here are starvin' because you can't sell it."

"But that's the way with dreams: the bad ones just haunt you, and the good ones never come true."  

"People moved away from the country in them days; they didn't move to it .... Now it's in style for people to quit the city and move to the country, only they want to bring the city with them.  Time they get through changin' it into everything they come here to run away from, there won't be nothin' left of the country .... They'll pave over the last blade of grass someday, and drown the last tree in an artificial lake so some damnfool from town can race a motorboat.  You ought to at least remember what it used to be like."

"Things ain't like they used to be ... Times, I wonder if they ever were."

"There ain't no better cure for a socialist than a little dose of capital."

"There's no limit to what a man can do once he makes up his mind he ain't allergic to sweat."

Elmer Kelton (1926-2009)

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