Sunday, November 20, 2016
H.L. Davis is not a writer I'm familiar with, even by name. He's a native of Oregon and won a Pulitzer in 1935 for a novel (Honey in the Horn). "Open Winter" is a bit long, and somewhat obscure in its ending, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Set in the late winter in eastern Oregon, its two characters, "one past sixty and the other around sixteen," are taking a herd of work horses to a ranch for the spring, by previous arrangement. The old man, Pop Apling, has been caring for the horses all winter. But when they arrive at the ranch, no one is there. Beech Cartwright, the boy, is in favor of leaving the horses there. He argues they've done what they were contracted to do. But it's been a bad winter, dry with severe drought, and leaving them there untended is certain death for the horses. Pop favors taking them 90 miles over rough country to some grasslands he knows. Beech resists, he's sarcastic and jeering like a teenager, but Pop promises he will see something that will make it all worth the extra effort. The trail is dry and hard, and along the way they meet unscrupulous sheepherders, who want to kill the horses—and Pop and Beech if they have to—to protect the limited resources of water and grass. The story is told third-person and stays closest to the perceptions of Beech, though it rarely goes into anyone's head far. That's the obscure part in the ending. There's not anything that can easily be labeled an epiphany, and if there is a change in Beech, and I think there might be, it's subtle and ambiguous. Nonetheless, the story works very well for me just as a naturalistic story of the West. The work is hard, dangerous, and intricate. Pop and Beech simply accept that they have to do it and do it. The boy complains some but he is a boy. At the same time, it's easy to understand his annoyance with Pop, who won't take any shortcuts. There's a great scene involving the confrontation between Pop and Beech and the sheepherders. This story makes me realize that all Westerns (and some neo-Westerns too, such as Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian) are about or at least involve the physical landscape and traversing it—at least that's a theory worth trying for a while. "Open Winter" certainly has that at its core, and is at its best when that's what's happening. One memorable scene (of many) involves carting horses back and forth across a river at night in a purloined ferry boat. The ferry can only handle five or six horses at a time and it takes them all night and they still can't quite get it done, setting the stage for another complicated confrontation. Wonderful story.
Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine