Books, Books, Books

Internal Action of the Old West

. 9 min read . Written by Russell Smith
Internal Action of the Old West

More fascinating than the gunfights

Several years ago, I went on a huge kick reading Western novels. I read Lonesome Dove – and the other books in the series, and continued on with almost every novel and book of essays by Larry McMurtry. I read Owen Wister’s The Virginian and Michael McGarrity’s Hard Country trilogy. I read Wallace Stegner, Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. That Christmas, my uncle, sharing my affection for Westerns, gave me an unheralded Western by an unknown Australian author, Greg Matthews. My uncle said, “It’s about a hunchback, orphan, half-Indian in Kansas, in the second half of the 19th century. You know, hunchback, orphan, half-Indians didn’t make many friends back then. The book doesn’t have lots of action like Lonesome Dove. But it’ll draw you in and you’ll love it.” He was right. In the intervening years, I’ve re-read Lonesome Dove once. I’ve re-read Heart of the Country seven times.

Most of the book focuses on this hunchback, orphan, half-Indian, Joe Cobden, and his life in fictional Valley Forge, Kansas, before and after the Civil War. That life starts inauspiciously, with Joe being born to the settler-founder and self-proclaimed mayor of the seedling Valley Forge and his Indian companion, Millie, who dies giving birth to Joe. The never-named mayor did not know of Millie’s pregnancy, due to the language barrier and his general breezy ineptitude. Faced with his inadvertent neglect of her, he departs his town in disgrace.

Heading back to Indiana to restart his life, he deposits the newborn baby in a cemetery next to a church in St Louis. Dr. William Cobden discovers the bundle of joy and brings him home, expecting his wife, Emilia, to feel joy at this unexpected gift and end to their childlessness.

Dr. Cobden, of Boston, has hired a free African-American as a housemaid, in pre-Civil War, pro-slavery Missouri, so his circle in St. Louis already believed him curious, even eccentric and possibly dangerously out of step with custom. In a scene repeated throughout the book, Emilia does not react well. Seizing on his straight, black hair, she revolts:

“I will not have an Indian child in my home. This is madness.”

Madness. This theme swirls around Joe and the entirety of the book. It starts soon after Dr. Cobden takes Joe into their home. Emilia has nothing to do with Joe. Over time, fueled by hatred of her adopted son’s infernal Indian blood, her mind and body perform a strange dance, retreating into ever-shrinking inner circles. Her retreat sparks madness in Dr. Cobden, who shockingly and sadly abuses her one night. Her retreat continues literally and figuratively. She never leaves her bedroom again, except to steal the doctor’s drugs, filled with despair at the doctor’s attack and the insensibility of what her life has become. She dies while Dr. Cobden attends to wounded Confederate soldiers far from home.

By now, Joe’s hunchback has grown enormous. His few interactions with his adopted mother and the outside world quickly inform him that his physical appearance will not make life easy for him. For a time, he and the doctor inhabit an uneasy truce. Eventually, the tension grows unbearable and Joe steals money from the doctor to depart St. Louis.

Joe sets out to make his way in post-war Kansas, successively becoming a woodcutter, a buffalo hunter, a bouncer at a brothel, a buffalo skinner, a buffalo hunter again and a buffalo bone seller.  He finds surprising success in each trade, carving out for himself an unexpected and begrudgingly respected place in the world. Joe muses on his life often, with the following a typical reflection:

“He ruminated thus whenever there was nothing to distract him, but it seemed that the harder he tried to assimilate the lessons to be learned from his life and build a concrete picture of himself, a sense of exactly where he stood in relation to the world, the more evanescent became his awareness of self. He knew he was unique, yet felt at the same time he was … nothing. Left undisturbed, Joe lost all sense of time and place. He would stare at the sky or the horizon and feel all conscious thought and emotion drain away like a retreating tide, taking with it the flotsam of ambition, pride, frustration, rage, the tangled kelp of determinant factors accumulated over seventeen years of living. Memory itself seemed to escape through sieve-like holes in his consciousness, consciousness, left him an intangible phantom inside a shell of flesh astride a horse, a mere wisp, two staring eyes relaying nothing to the dormant brain behind. He saw nothing, felt nothing, heard nothing….”

These are the years of exterior action in Joe’s life. He’s on the move, flitting in and out with different partners, groups and businesses. He finds madness in the world. During his time at the brothel, the prostitute Serena is killed one night and her husband, disguised as her brother for sake of her job, kills himself in his terrible, lonesome sadness. This madness strikes in awful moments, but does not permeate the very air of existence, an ever-present fact of life, as his adopted mother’s madness became in his earlier life. This madness has the same result – death, despondence, an unsolved mystery of human emotional toil.

Eventually, Joe comes to Valley Forge, his unknowing birthplace. There he meets the small Puckett family: Calvin, his wife Alma, and their two-year-old son, Noah. Years before, Joe had skinned buffalo with Calvin Puckett. Joe remembers Calvin, but Calvin’s dim mental faculties offer him only the faintest, shadowy clue of their past crossing. Joe accepts the hospitality of the Pucketts, stays with them and helps out around the home. A week later, Alma absconds with half of her husband Calvin’s money, leaving behind Noah too.

“Joe laughed a bitter laugh; for a week he had accepted hospitality without realising he was being groomed for a role, that of surrogate parent. It was clear now that this had been Alma’s intention from the beginning. She was a spider all right, and Joe had walked blithely into her parlour; her legacy was a comfortable web in which fluttered two helpless moths. Joe took stock of his situation; he could leave, in which case Calvin would presumably burn the house down by accident or design, possibly killing himself and the child, or he would run amok in some other lamentable fashion and be taken away to an asylum. Noah would probably be adopted; no, more than likely the locals would not want the son of a madman, and would send him to some distant orphanage, where the spirit would be crushed from him like juice from a grape. Joe could not let that happen.

“For two days Joe cared for the baby as best he could, even took some pride in the fact that it cried only three times, and never for very long. During those forty-eight hours of enforced obligation Joe discovered a part of himself he had never known to exist: the ability to forget himself completely while caring for another, totally dependent entity. So proud was he of his success, he even resented Calvin’s reappearance on the evening of the second day, tired and dirty and hungry. Joe prepared him a meal. Calvin would not talk, ate in silence, then slunk off to fall asleep. The white wolf would have known what to do, but the white wolf had ceased to pad through Calvin’s thoughts, had not visited for so long the tracks of his passing had been completely erased.

“He had been inveigled into these peculiar straits, had been offered no choice, but his dominant feeling was not one of resentment, but of acceptance. He surprised himself with his lack of indignation at having been manipulated so skilfully by the grey spider. He watched Noah kick his feet in the air, a creature as vulnerable and trusting as a chick straight from the egg. I stand between this child and the pit, thought Joe. I can’t leave. I won’t. I don’t even want to. Noah shat. Joe cleaned him off. It was a beginning.”

And so, finding his new domestic life surprisingly contenting, he becomes the father and indeed the mother in this small family on the lone wooded ridge on the outskirts of Valley Forge.

The external action in Heart of the Country essentially ends halfway through the book. Instead, it bares open the internal action of the men and women of the Old West. Matthews tells us what each character thinks, feels and sees; we witness and even experience their terrible conflicts, outrage, courage, disappointment and pettiness. Crime, sin and misfortune abound, shocking the reader – robbery, embezzlement, lust, incest, terrorizing slavery, masturbation with a corpse for inspiration, child abandonment and greed fill these pages.

It seems as if Calvin’s unsteady mental state up on the ridge – sometimes merely dim, other times veering into profound delusions and insanity – mirrors these disturbing happenings in town. Madness, indeed, roosts in this corner of Kansas.

Through it all, Joe remains untinged from this foul, prevailing air. He finds ways to keep his little family safe and afloat. At first, he chops down wood from the ridge to sell in town. When a bigoted city councilman forces through a law effectively ending that business, he looks around his home. He pauses to observe his life and surroundings, seeking an answer. Finding some small animal figures he had carved out of bits of wood, he takes them to Topeka to sell.

In Topeka, he despairs at the low prices the animals fetch.

“The manager led him to the window, pointed across the street to a splendid green awning emblazoned in gold with the legend TOBACCONIST. Beneath the awning, by the doorway, stood an imposing figure—a war bonneted wooden Indian clutching a handful of cigars, his free hand raised in stiff salute.

“There’s your answer, Mr. Cobden. If bulk is not for you, then tackle size. A cigar store Indian is traditionally wooden, never cast. Every tobacconist in the country wants a Hiawatha outside his store, and they can only be produced by hand. I happen to know that particular specimen cost two hundred dollars, paint and varnish included. Have I struck a spark, Mr. Cobden? I believe I have.”

So Joe takes up the trade of carving large wooden Indians to sell to cigar shops around Kansas. Joe’s adaptability in the face of life’s merciless vagaries seems to keep him sane.

“His mallet and chisels and paints were instruments of salvation; while he worked he thought of nothing but the wood before him, of its texture and grain and smell, of the figure trapped inside being granted tortuously slow release. Tap tap tapping, intent on his work, Joe forgot the various tribulations of his past, even forgot his warped spine, moved steadily towards a benign future. Why had he not done this before? Why had he become a buffalo-hunter and woodcutter when this ability to shape and reveal had been within him, awaiting the opportunity to flower? It was yet another example of the stupidity he knew himself capable of, but his self-chastisement was mild; since the past and its foolish choices were long behind him, why beat his breast over them? The present occupied him fully, and Joe was content to be who and what he was. He had been chiselled from the realm of possibility by the circumstances of his life as surely as the Buffalo chiefs were chiselled from elm by Joe. Creating cigar store Indians was balm to a flayed soul, and safe within the soothing arms of his art Joe allowed himself to be lulled by what was before his nose, ignored what was behind his back.”

Most of the men and women around him – Calvin notably, Noah as he ages, and the townsfolk we witness – fail to adapt to changes in life. That stiltedness, that calcification of mental outlook strangely erodes their mental firmament, spiraling them into depths of despair and lunacy.

Almost nobody is spared a horrid end by Matthews. One character who succumbs to a nasty end is Joshua Pike, the undertaker in Valley Forge. A gross sexual deviant, former embezzler, and enabler of his wife’s and daughter’s emotional abuse at the shrieking voice of his mother, he cannot let go of his past misdeeds or evolve with changing times.

“Pike’s monopoly lasted until 1892, when a rival enterprise (“Oswold Bros. Fine funerals—Bereavement Is Our Business”) was established on Shawnee Street. Oswold Bros. services included the installation of tasteful markers, crosses, monuments and funerary statues in marble or stone; actual tombs and vaults were available at a reasonable price for those with an eye to posterity. Pike’s profits were drastically truncated within six months. He sought comfort in drink, chimed away his professional life with every clink of bottle neck on tumbler rim. In 1894 he tasted the dregs, found them unpalatable, unseemly, unbearable. His last meal consisted of a brass nozzle and rubber hose; he filled his stomach with embalming fluid until it rebelled, died minutes later, suffocated by vomit and the hosepipe of his patent pump.”

Joe adapts to the times. After Calvin’s death and Noah’s departure from Valley Forge, he buys a car and travels again – now on a four-wheeled steed. He sees sights he cannot imagine, allowing them to enrich his remaining days.

By the end of the book, Matthews has offered a tour de force of these competing themes of motion and stability, adaptability and petrification, madness and sanity, and external action and internal reaction. By the end, I felt gripped by all of them. And I know I will soon return to this superb book for a vivid picture of the internal action of the Old West yet again.

Originally published on on January 8, 2012. Revised January 2023.

Thank you to my Foster friends for reviewing this essay: Jude Klinger and Theresa Murphy.

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