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Tom Chaney: From Where the Sun Now Stands

Of Writers And Their Books: "From Where the Sun Now Stands, I Will Fight No More Forever." The Bear Paw Horses tells the story of the flight of the Nez Perce and the theft of the stolen horses. This column first appeared 23 March 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Just Live With It

By Tom Chaney

"From Where the Sun Now Stands, I Will Fight No More Forever"

This quotation is the conclusion of what is perhaps the most famous speech in Native American History. Given on October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph was speaking to the other chiefs of the Nez Perce tribes. Winter was coming. He realized the hopelessness of their situation.

U. S. Generals Howard, Sturgis, and Miles had pursued more than 750 men, women, and children for 1170 miles as the Native Americans tried to escape to Canada to find what they saw as their last hope for peace -- joining their Crow allies on the Canadian Plains.

I cite this bit of western history to call up one of the better western writers in my reading experience. Henry Wilson Allen wrote about the complexities of life in the American West. His novels were published under the pen names Will Henry and Clay Fisher.

Allen began working as a contract screenwriter for Metro Golden Mayer (MGM) in its animation division in 1937. He began writing novels in 1952 with No Survivors. Afraid that the studio would not approve of his moonlighting, he adopted the pseudonyms. More than fifty novels flowed from his pen before his death in 1991.

I have been avoiding Henry for a number of years for no reason that I can explain beyond the fact that more western writers disappoint rather than please me. I regret the neglect in Henry's case.

In reading most westerns, I am reminded of the old black and white western movies at the Strand Theatre in the 1940's. Good guys wear white hats and ride white horses. Bad guys wear and ride black. They chase each other and the stagecoach down the same stretch of road, around the same rock, and under the same tree over and over again.

The results always favor the good guys. The hero narrowly escapes the dark night of the villain to emerge into the sunlight of truth, justice, and the American way. If he doesn't live happily ever after with the rancher's daughter, it's because he loves his horse and the open road the more. Even the better western writers such as Louis L'Amour and Ralph Compton fall into the trap of the neatly wrapped upbeat plot ending.

There is a darkness to Will Henry which rings true. In the couple of his books which I have read, he seems to hew close to his historical material with mighty little sugar coating.

The Bear Paw Horses [1973] tells the story of the flight of the Nez Perce and the theft of the stolen horses.

When the Oglala Sioux and Crazy Horse came into the reservation at the Red Cloud agency, outlaws stole 400 of their magnificent ponies and hid them in High Meadow, Wyoming.

A message was sent to the Oglalan medicine priest Kangi-siha, known as Crowfoot, from Crazy Horse: "Go and take back our horses from where they are hidden by that white man and those others who stole them from us.... Take the horses to meet our red brother Joseph and his Nez Perces at Cow Island as we promised them, to aid them in their hard fighting toward the Land of the Grandmother [Canada]."

The 397 horses are freed on "the night of the snowstorm" by the old man Crowfoot, the young squaw Twilight, and the ancient bell mare Speckledbird and driven out over Bad Face Pass September 13, 1877.

For nearly a month, Crowfoot, Twilight, and their helper Con Jenkins drive the horses in search of the band of the Nez Perce.

Misjudging the march of the soldiers, the Nez Perce dawdle as they approach the land of the grandmother to hunt buffalo to provide winter food and robes.

The drive ended on the fifth of October at the Bear Paws in Montana's Milk River country.

When 113 horses and 45 Nez Perce finally come together in a bedraggled remnant, both escape on a final push into Canada.

Henry's novel has the excitement and sweep of action of most of the westerns which I like. But it has about it the ring of historical authenticity as well. There is a darkness in the swirl of early winter snow; a hopelessness in the failure of most of the Nez Perce to escape; and a facility of style quite remarkable.

Henry died of pneumonia at the age of 79 October 16, 1991.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-03-24 08:09:01
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