“The Man on the Ground,” by Robert E. Howard
with commentary from One Who Walked Alone, by Novalyne Price Ellis
What a wonderful story this was about Bob Howard and his dog Patch, Novalyne Price Ellis writes in her memoir of Robert E. Howard, One Who Walked Alone. “I should make a story out of it.”
As Howard’s father, Dr. Isaac Howard, told her, “Wherever Bob went, Patch went. Patch even shared Bob’s food at the table and was a real companion … But there was something about Dr. Howard’s story that bothered me. As soon as the dog got sick and they knew it was going to die, Bob went to (the nearby town of) Brownwood, so that he wouldn’t see his dog in his last few days on earth…”
And Novalyne wondered how Bob Howard “could write about horrible deaths and dying, yet be so afraid of a dog’s death he could not even stay near? It didn’t make sense somehow. But if Bob made sense, I probably wouldn’t like the big ox.”
Perhaps it was through wrestling with such contradictions within himself that Howard wrote today’s Adventure classics story, “The Man on the Ground.” Set in 19th century West Texas, it tells the tale of the feud between Cal Reynolds and his deadly enemy, Esau Brill.
In some ways, Reynolds is a literary blood brother of the brawny and brawling Pike Bearfield, sometimes as slow of brain as he is fast with fists and guns. But where Bearfield is pure innocence, fighting for the love of the fight, too trusting for his own good and seldom troubled by vengefulness, Reynolds is a man whose “instincts rose sheer from the naked primitive. And from them crystallized an almost tangible abstraction – a hate too strong for even death to destroy; a hate powerful enough to embody itself in itself, without the aid or the necessity of material substance.”
Driven by this deadly hatred, Reynolds and Brill fire at each other almost simultaneously. Brill’s bullet apparently misses Reynolds, who suffers a scalp wound. After a momentary unconsciousness realizes, Reynolds realizes that Brill’s bullet must have ricocheted off a stone, striking him only a passing blow.
However, it was a strong enough blow to knock Reynolds from behind the rocks where he had taken cover, striking his rifle from his hands and leaving him in full view of Brill. As Reynolds leaps for his dropped gun, he is amazed to see that Brill has stood and instead of firing, is walking directly toward him.
True to Howard’s assessment of him, Reynolds doesn’t stop to question either Brill’s strange behavior or his own feelings. “Men who live by their hands have little time for self-analysis,” unlike Howard himself, whose story of the two feuding to their deaths is reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s earlier tale of another near-death experience, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
I can’t remember ever seeing any mention of Bierce’s influence on Howard, although the older Bierce’s eerie stories would have surely resonated with Howard’s own sensibility. Maybe that was because Bierce had been a Union officer during the Civil War, while Howard, whose parents, born in a former Confederate state in the aftermath of the war, may have been among those who considered “damn Yankee” a single word, as Novalyne Price Ellis wryly quotes one of her sources.
Consider reading both Howard’s and Bierce’s stories and deciding for yourself. Bierce’s is available here, Howard’s at Gutenberg. While you’re reading, laugh over the cover of the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales magazine in which “The Man on the Ground” appeared and notice one of the other featured authors: Jack Williamson. A contemporary of Howard, Williamson lived to the age of 98, writing almost to the end and dying in 2006. By then, Howard had been dead for 70 years.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a June of Western stories by Robert E. Howard)