Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer in the Old West

This was one of those years in the Territory when Apache smoke signals spiraled up from the stony mountain summits and many a ranch cabin lay as a square of blackened ashes on the ground and the departure of a stage from Tonto was the beginning of an adventure that had no certain happy ending…

“Stage to Lordsburg” (1937) by Ernest Haycox has a well-paced opening sentence. The images are the commonplaces of a Western tale, and their accumulation is unexpectedly calming. I sense I can sit back, seated once more in the darkened movie theatres of my childhood. The black-and-white landscape before me and the characters who ride across it or walk in its moonlight will make only familiar demands.

All this while the coach went rushing down the ceaseless turns of the mountain road, rocking on its fore and aft springs, its heavy wheels slamming through the road ruts and whining on the curves.

Since the story is the basis of the 1939 movie Stagecoach, I obviously expect to read about the movement of a coach. I am not surprised that the author writes about the sounds of the wheels along the mountain roads. With nothing but the written word the author creates sounds that I seem almost to hear. With nothing but the written word the author plausibly re-creates for this armchair reader the discomforts and sudden motions of a kind of carriage in which I have never actually traveled.

When he came back to the yard night lay wild and deep across the desert and the moonlight was a frozen silver that touched but could not dissolve the world’s incredible blackness. The girl Henriette walked along the Tonto road, swaying gently in the vague shadows.

I am taken by surprise. This writer knows where he is taking his reader. The short story that first appeared in a 1937 issue of Collier’s Weekly would claim an hour at most of a reader’s time. To claim the full hour, a writer like Ernest Haycox had to know what he was doing. Haycox is not a name that has entered any literary canon that affected my reading lists in college or graduate school. There are other reasons to write then? Well, yes, says the history of American cinema.

Henriette sat with her eyes pinned to the gloved tips of her fingers, remembering the tall shape of Malpais Bill cut against the moonlight of Gap Station.

Ernest Haycox had created a quiet, composed character travelling in a “dove-colored dress” and named her Henriette. Dudley Nichols, writing the screenplay for John Ford’s Stagecoach, recast the complex Henriette as rough-and-tumble Dallas, played by Claire Trevor opposite John Wayne’s Ringo Kid. No one wants John Ford’s masterpiece different, but Henriette is worth meeting.

There was this wisdom in her, this knowledge of the fears that men concealed behind their manners, the deep hungers that rode them so savagely, and the loneliness that drove them to women of her kind.

The writer who created Henriette seventy years ago is good reading, I reckon, on a summer morning of vacation.

Excerpts from “Stage to Lordsburg” (1937) by Ernest Haycox collected in Stephanie Harrison’s Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen (2005)

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