Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wednesday's Western: I, TOM HORN by Will Henry

There is an iconic scene in the 1969 movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Paul Newman and Robert Redford keep looking back over their shoulders at the posse they can't seem to shake.  They ask each other, "Who are those guys?"

The historical answer is, they were the enforcers hired by the rich and led by the man most renown for "reading sign," the scout Tom Horn.

In January, 1975, Will Henry's novelization of Tom Horn's life appeared in bookstores.  It followed the historical record but did so creatively, aiming for truth rather than fact, in the form of a long lost autobiography which Tom Horn wrote in jail.

It is not a conventional western, as the lines between right and wrong are blurred with moral and legal ambiguities.  What favors the rich wins out, as it usually does--in life if not in conventional westerns. 

On the flap of the first edition dustjacket (scanned below), Will Henry is called "the dean" of western novelists, having already won five Spur Awards, and it proclaims this as his most important novel.

 Listen to the riff of a few opening paragraphs:

"If Jesus himself had of come down and swore for me, they'd have got it struck from the record and bought him a free ticket out of town on the next train.'

"But that's all washed down the river now.  It can't be roped and towed back upstream again.  Yet a man has to try.  He has to set it right if he can.  He has to say how the times were that ended him in the Cheyenne jail.  What the laws were and what they wasn't.  How justice failed.  The way witnesses lied under vow.  How judges turned stone deaf and juries went blind.  And oh how different the rules read when twisted to convict the innocent.  It has to be remembered, always, what happened to the law out there."

"Out there, a man took the law to be as good as his own word.  Which he gave straight-out, with no tangles in the mane or tail of it.  He neither whined nor tucked his rump when lies and libels rode him down.  Nor did he burn over his brands once he put them into the hide of his testimony.  Whatever he done, or said he done, he stood by it.'

"But sometimes a man wouldn't get his entire herd to the railhead the first drive.  Sometimes there was trail going on  past where he believed he had all his cattle safe-loaded on the stock cars.  He didn't see it at the time.  It's afterwards that it comes to him.  Like when the drive crew's been paid off and the dust of their ponies has settled into the prairie twilight south toward Texas.  That's when a man would look the other way, north, to Wyoming, and his eyes would slit down and he would say to himself, and loud soft, "Damn."

"For what he saw up there, God help him, was the rest of his life's track, and it made him shiver hard in the gloom.  He knew that he must tell the truth about that last dark part of the trail...the part John C. Coble had not wanted into the book."

"Well, maybe that story would work for Mr. Coble, but it sounded wrong somewhere.  It had an off ring to it.  Like a horseshoe on a fouled anvil.  Coble's story would run only up to the edge of the real hell that Tom Horn rode into in Wyoming.  It would rear up short and shy off, where the dark part began."

The Steve McQueen movie adaptation was overly long and should have been edited better, yet it certainly had its good scenes and it presented the historical tragedy well.  It is a worthy parable turning on the evil done in the name of goodness.

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