Wednesday, October 12, 2011


This is the beginning of a Western story.  I got this far and stopped.  For inspiration this evening I watched “The Shadow Riders,” an archetypal Western (based on Louis L’Amour for TV) with THREE archetypal actors:  Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, and Ben Johnson.  Yeah, I know Katharine Ross is in it, but she’s an actRESS.  This is an old-fashioned movie.  Actually, it’s a relatively contemporary interpretation of the old-fashioned.  So let’s see what we’ve got here in MY story.
The single man wanted no encumbrances.  That’s the way he thought of other people or even pets.  He felt he was walking that line on a planet where the light of the sun ends and the dark of the night begins.  There was a name for that line, which he would look up some day if he thought of it in the right circumstances.  What he knew about it most was that on a planet with air, that line was blurred.  On a planet or asteroid with no air, it was a crisp and abrupt line.  At one moment one was in the dark, then the light came -- the sun coming up -- and it was bright.  Or vice versa.  And it was a line that moved all the time.  It might be possible to stay on that line, more or less, if one kept moving.
This was all fantasy, of course, science-based as it might be, and out here on the open prairie frontier, it was a little too easy to indulge in such fantasies.  Still, there was truth in it.  He kept moving.  He was solitary so he could.  He moved from his house to his workshop and from his workshop to the house.  There’s no sense in trying to figure out which was bright and which was dark because that was a metaphor.  His house and workshop were realities.  All he really cared about was his hands on wood, working it, persuading it, polishing it into fine furniture.
I don’t know how much of of this solar system stuff I can get away with, but this is going to be the 19th century and it was new information then.  A curious and educated man would know about it.  Maybe one of my themes will turn out to be the pressure of new scientific knowledge.  As for the wood part, my great-grandfather was a finish carpenter and cabinet maker.  He’s famous for paneling a house in Faulkton, South Dakota.
Don’t worry.  This is not going to be one of those stories where the statues come alive, because though he was working on wood, he was not making statues.  He was making furniture.  Very fine furniture for these days, though he hadn’t started out that way.  Originally he made chuckwagon and sheepwagon boxes that had compartments and drawers for specific things: the flour, the bacon, the pots and pans -- though they could just as easily hang from hooks and swing along jangling when the driver moved the wagon.  The sheepherders weren’t so particular, but cookies were inclined to ask for special caches for the sugar so it could be locked up or maybe a little place for spices.  Even a ventilated basket for things that needed to stay dry with circulating air.  A place to hide money.  Fittings for men who lived solitary lives, traveling.  

He got a little better at the work all the time, both in terms of designing it and executing it.  Then people living in homestead shacks asked for chairs.  At first he made them out of peeled pine with snowshoe-woven rawhide seats, but rawhide is slippery, slimy, stinking stuff -- not his taste.  He liked the dry scent and feel of wood.
So which of three styles from the movie?  Sam is whiplash slim, sits erect in the saddle, looks at you slyly out of the side, and is generally honorable.  Tom is burly, kinda sits down low, and grins straight into your eyes.  Ben is older (he’s supposed to be an uncle) and he’s as authentic as they come, an old rodeo hand and stunt man before he took on acting.  He doesn’t ride a horse, he sort of becomes continuous.  And he’s always got a racket goin’.  He wears his neck rag the old way: up tight to keep the dust out.  I don’t know where that “knotted at the nape” pretty bib stuff comes from.  I’m goin’ with Ben’s style.

Then there’s women.  A lot of talk about sex and drinking, but you never really catch them in the reality of it.  A lot of joking, no poking.  

He was happily working alone, making dovetail corners on a drawer and pleased that they were fitting together so slick and tight, when he heard a lot of giggling and rustling behind him.  When he looked, there were three Blackfeet girls, not quite adolescent, wearing mission dresses, old men’s suit jackets for coats, and cowboy hats that appeared to have been sat on as much as worn.  They were more than a little rumpled, but when he turned they became very grave and formal.  “We’ve come to take care of you.” 
He was terrified.
So now we’ve got the main problem: what to do with these girls without getting into major trouble.  One of the characteristics of the John Wayne and remake school of thought is a certain amount of slapstick and horseplay.  Three girls ought to be able to manage that.   But what about the booze?  It’s easy to make him an evening drinker, but what does he drink?  And why?  And why does he drink alone? 

Since he couldn’t think of what to do with the girls, he just ignored them.  They went into the house and began turning it upside down, scrubbing and rearranging and dragging things out to the clothesline until he dreaded the thought of going into his own house.  They were washing things that had never been washed in their entire existence.  Since his dovetails refused to fit properly now, he went off up one of the many foothills “game trails” that led into a deeper draw than the others.  His still appeared to be safe, the copper coil dripping a little.  
He collected enough pure alcohol for a good comforting hit and sat on a rock to sip while he tried to think of a way to get rid of the girls, whom he considered a kind of cooties.  An affliction, even if they were Indian.  Maybe their daddy would come for them soon.
I don’t know what will happen next.  Over the next few days I’ll think about it and finish up.  What would Ben Johnson do about three determined Blackfeet girls, no longer children, not yet women?  And I suppose a dog is going to show up.  They do that around Blackfeet kids.  Then an Indian papa -- or are these mixed blood girls?


Rebecca Clayton said...

This is a marginal point, and probably not of much interest for your story, but by the 19th century, the "solar system stuff" was accepted and old hat--John Donne and Alexander Pope worked with those ideas when they were "current," and conservatives worried about its conflict with the Biblical account of the battle of Jericho, when the sun stood still in the sky.

By the 19th century, the science controversy was about geology and biology--gradual change over unimaginably long eras, which causes problems for the creation and Garden of Eden stories. (We're still doing that one--nobody fusses anymore about the battle of Jericho, or the Flat Earth Society.)

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Rebecca. What interests me about writing these small stories is what they bring up from my mind and others' minds. I begin with only a character and by the end of the story that has developed into some kind of insight. The American frontier seems to me to be deeply linked to the industrial revolution (railroads, steamboats) which rapidly destroyed it. I think I will peel off two girls and keep the third as a relentless thinker. Would it be an anachronism to say her mind was like a small motor? Or maybe I ought to say it was a little pinwheel in there?

It's fun to develop stories as a group exercise, which I used to do with kids in class.

Prairie Mary

Rebecca Clayton said...

How about a watch?

To me, when I think "motor," I first see an electric one, although, Wikipedia tells me that "engine" and "motor" are synonyms for a machine that converts energy into useful work. (I know it's not a favorite resource of yours, but the physics and chemistry articles are usually excellent.)

So, a watch would be a motor or engine, as would a railroad engine. Could you compare a girl's busy mind to a ticking, tight-wound railroad watch?