Friday, June 10, 2016

Adventure classics – Will heart of gold win the girl?

“Gents on the Lynch”
by Robert E. Howard
It’s tempting to speculate that if only Robert E. Howard hadn't had such an interfering mother, and if only he'd married that pretty young schoolteacher Novalyne Price (later Price Ellis) when she sashayed into his life in the small Texas town of Cross Plains, he might have led a long and happy life. Not to mention – he might have written a lot more stories!

Personally, I have my doubts that Howard would have ever married, even if his mother hadn’t been alarmingly possessive of her only son. That’s pure speculation, of course, although it’s interesting to note that his friendship with Price Ellis, despite its apparent emotional intimacy, never caught fire. Neither was there any real sexual feeling between his male protagonists and the women who sometimes wandered through his stories, women, it seems, added more to appeal to his male readers than to Howard himself.

Although there’s something to be said for Hannah Sprague, derringer-toting belle of the gold mining town of Blue Lizard, as Howard relates in one of the last of his Western stories, “Gents on the Lynch.”

“(The editor) at Argosy is asking for more westerns,” Price Ellis reports Howard saying in her memoir, One Who Walked Alone. “. . . but, damn, I can’t get anything written anymore. Damn it to hell, my time is so goddamn taken up with housework and caring for my mother, I can’t write. I don’t have time to write.”

Despite his worries, even his deepening depression, Howard finally found time to write one of his most humorous and enchanting Westerns, “Gents on the Lynch,” featuring Pike Bearfield, a brawler with a heart of gold. Pike is, in fact, an alter ego of fighting sailor Steve Costigan of Howard’s boxing stories.

“I ain’t one of these here fellers which wastes their time trying to figger out why things is like they is, and why people does things like they does,” Pike declares. “I got better employment for my spare time, sech as sleeping.”

In some respects, Pike is a near contemporary of Lennie Small, the mentally-limited giant of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, published in 1937. (“Gents on the Lynch” was first published in the October 17, 1936, issue of Argosy magazine – four months after Howard’s death.)

But unlike Lenny, Pike, despite losing first his boots and then his pack mule trying to help a fast-talking stranger -- and nearly getting lynched in the process by a posse of vigilantes -- always comes out on top. Almost always, at least, thanks as much to the “holy fool” quality of his innocence and the aid of his pugnacious horse Satanta (named for a great Kiowa war chief) as to his own fighting abilities.

When told by the purported beau of the lovely Hannah that her father will give her hand in marriage to the man who can guard his gold, Pike offers himself as guardian. No sooner has the strangely jubilant beau relinquished the chore than another stranger offers his aid (and a plentiful supply of whisky) to help Pike with his duty. None of these, of course, has the welfare of Pike in mind, although with the male chauvinism typical of the period, he will proclaim himself the victim only of “female perfidy.”

I found this story in Grim Lands: The Best of Robert E. Howard. But you can read it free online at Project Gutenberg . . . and drop a tear at the realization that if Howard had lived to a ripe old age, this might still be protected by copyright.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a June of Westerns by Robert E. Howard)

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