Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Charles King, Dunraven Ranch (1890)

Here’s another early-early western by Charles King, whose Two Soldiers (1888) was reviewed here last week. Both novels were published under one cover in 1891. (BTW, these dates are my best guess; there’s some disagreement in the references.) This novel takes place in west Texas, at a U.S. garrison post. The central characters are cavalrymen and the wives of the officers.

The Dunraven Ranch of the title is a huge cattle ranch a few miles from the fort, owned by an ailing Englishman. Surrounded by barbed wire, its gates locked, there’s a degree of mystery about the place. Friendly relations have broken off between ranch and fort sometime in the past. The mystery deepens as the novel’s hero Lt. Ned Perry attempts to pay a call and is sent away by an unfriendly employee.

A return visit, with a small backup of troopers, develops into a donnybrook between the Irish soldiers and English ranch hands. This dispute escalates as a sergeant, who is English, gets roughed up, and a band of Irish troopers sneaks off at night to settle scores at the ranch.

Parade ground, Ft. Richardson, Texas
Meanwhile, Perry has met the ranch owner’s beautiful daughter, Gladys (what’s a novel like this without a romance?). He falls so hopelessly in love with her that his life becomes almost a misery of longing. His dismay is worsened by suspicions that she is the object of the post surgeon’s interest.

Suspicions are complicated by the gossip of the officers’ wives, who easily dwell on the more lurid aspects of any mystery. One of the wives, Mrs. Belknap, confounds matters further by trying to carry on a flirtation with Perry. Events take a sudden turn when Perry dramatically rescues Gladys on a runaway horse.

The crisis point comes as Perry is shot and badly wounded attempting to stop a showdown between troopers and ranch hands. Recovering, he learns that he has no rivals for Gladys’ hand, and the English sergeant turns out to be the long-lost son of the ranch owner. Flash forward in the final chapter to happy days on Dunraven Ranch as friendly relations have been restored with the post, and Perry and Gladys are now united.

Officers quarters, Ft. Martin Scott, TX. (CC) Larry D. Moo
Structure. A King plot isn’t easy to sum up because there are so many threads, and they are so tightly woven together. To use another metaphor, the interplay between characters and action is like a complex military maneuver. There is discipline, and there are orders, but there are also uncertainties, and much depends on chance. King is masterful in his deployment of all these elements.

He’s especially gifted at pacing. He can tantalize with withheld information. One of the most gripping scenes in the novel takes place during end-of-day parade, when all the troops appear for review by the post commander. King takes us step by step through the entire ritual.

And it proceeds without interruption though a commotion is heard outside the gates and a riderless horse suddenly gallops in to circle among the assembled troops standing at attention. No one breaks rank until parade is completed, and only then does King reveal what the men saw when the horse arrived—that its flank was covered with blood.  

Gen. Charles King
Character. A large part of King’s appeal is his drawing of personalities and the testing of their strength of character. In this novel, the focus is on Lt. Perry, a good-hearted young man whom everybody likes. There’s not a dishonest bone in his body. He cleaves closely to a gentleman’s code of honor and carries himself with well-earned pride. Trusting and unguarded, he expects to be treated the same way by others.

When others have designs on him, he remains unaware of their intentions. A soldier to the core, he gladly gives respect that’s due to his superiors, and they are almost fatherly in their attention to him. Maybe most of all, for King, Perry is gloriously handsome. He embodies the kind of grace in feature and manner that Wister found again in the Virginian.

Is it a western? Though its title suggests otherwise, there’s little in the novel about ranching or ranch life. While the entire action takes place at an isolated spot along the vast Llano Estacado of west Texas, there’s scarce reference to the look and feel of this environment.

Maybe most significant is that we meet no westerners. There’s not a single cowboy. Only a brief mention is made of a distant trail where “the great Texas ‘drive’ of ‘long-horns,’ year after year, passed up across the valley of the Washita.” All the characters are from somewhere else. Many still have close ties to their roots, as far off as England and Ireland. So as westerns go, this novel almost doesn’t qualify. 

Fort Davis, Texas, (CC) Daniel Schwen

Wrapping up. Still there’s an enjoyable social aspect to King's stories that makes them come alive. The large cast of characters is arranged and accounted for like the ranks of the military. We know the colonel, the captains, their wives, and some lesser officers, lieutenants, sergeants, a few of the troops—all the way to the bottom of the social order.

There we’ll find brief reference to Perry’s nameless “darky servant.” Out on the fringes are a few Cheyenne scouts, whom we never meet. The action of the novel doesn’t venture far from this order of things. It’s not an egalitarian world where social classes intermingle on the page as they will in the later western. All the same, it offers an interesting fictional view of the West before Wister.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim (1883)

1 comment:

  1. I never heard of King and after your terrific post got caught up reading more about this forgotten writer.