An unaccountably indolent weekend led me to my "Books I Done Stole" shelf of interesting and quaint-looking, presumably long-unread books that I've liberated from various businesses, most of whom were using them for decoration, and most of which liberation I accomplished last summer while writing Travels With Ritalin.
This weekend, I picked up Charles Ballew's Bushwhacker Bullet
, a western published in Britain in 1963. Its chief virtue is that it's a slim 155 pages. That may be where its virtues end. I've read a lot of crappy literature---and I even like a lot of it, the same way you might like independent films, not because they're so well done but because they reflect the human striving to accomplish successful expression of even a lousy idea. There's something charming about even a bad, well-intentioned film or book.
But someone seems to have accidentally published Charles Ballew without letting him know a few little niceties of writing, like the fact aht you're not supposed to repeat the same words in a short space of time. The novel begins with Jim Morley getting off a train, and we read that "one of the first things he noiced was a brushy sugarloaf mountain to the north-east. It was his first view of the west side of this mountain. Many times, as a boy, he had seen the east side of this mountain, and now that he had seen many parts of the world, the mountain seemed to have shrunken." (And yes, that last word probably should be shrunk
Jim Morley has two purposes in returning to his town after twenty-five years: to lay a wreath on his mother and father's grave, and "to find the man who had---in the parlance of the mountains---bushwhacked his father." Morley is rich, traveling incognito, and he has both leisure and opportunity for revenge. The book starts on page 5, and we get the vengeance theme in page 6. He spends the chapter preparing to go on a stagecoach ride. ("As he puffed on a good cigar he was that four passengers were already in the coach. One was apparently a squaw, another a Chinaman.") And as he boards--he's riding up with the driver, foul-mouthed Ike white--the driver says, "Don't guess you'd mind if a lady of middlin' age set between us two, would you?" That's page nine---end Chapter One. And this is, by the way, a sample of the kind of soporific lines that end this book's chapters. (Other classics: "Mr. White, will you please stop in front of my father's livery stable and let me off? I do hope he is there, and not at the county seat." and "'I ain't going to talk about such things,' she retorted. 'Pass the biscuits to Tobias.'")
But wait! Back at the stagecoach, sitting next to this woman, Jim Morley is obliged to think back on days gone by, including a young girl he loved more than anything, but whom he was obliged to leave after his father was described by the parlance of the mountains. Alta Newbarth was her name. She was lithe and lovely. How the years have flown! Whatever happened to her? The the woman beside him asks the driver, "How is everybody in Lake Vista, Mr. White?" And the driver replies, "Why, middlin' fair, Alta."
What were the odds? Or, to put it in the parlance of Jim Morley, "'Alta!', Jim Morley said silently to himself. 'Can it be ... Is the voice the same as it was that day so long ago when I went up to her parents' big house to tell her we might never see each other again and she cried and wrapped her arms about my neck and told me she would wait forever for me and would never love another man? No, it is not the same voice, but after all a voice can change in eleven years, and he did call her Alta." I guess that's supposed to leaven your wonderment with a bit of realistic doubt, so let me just add a spoiler: It's her. Page 12, and we've got our first miracle.
But the author has forgotten to repeat himself, so let's move on to page 13, where Jim Morley---referred by his full name throughout the entire story so far---looks her full in the face: "Then he saw a twinkle in her brown eyes, and as she smiled he saw the whiteness of her even teeth. Jim exerted all his strong will to maintain his 'poker face,' for he must not betray the emotion he was feeling. Her smile, the twinkle in her eyes had been mute assurance that she had recognized him. Would she, or would she not reveal his identity? If she did, then maybe he would get a Benson bullet, as his father had got one." In a single paragraph, this woman twinkles twice. How did he ever leave her?
So far Jim Morley has demonstrated the most pathetic series of heroic behaviors I've ever seen. (When two cowpokes are looking to shoot each other over a right-of-way question, Jim Morley steps in and solves the problem by...asking nicely. And it works!) Bu there's been no bushwhacking to speak of. I'll let you know how it turns out. In case anyone was wondering.
Labels: Dave Update