|First edition cover, a tad worn|
Product of hardscrabble farm life in Kansas, Ogden left home at 17 and never looked back. Yet his experience surely haunts the mood and action of this early and aptly titled novel. Set in Oklahoma, it follows for most of its 297 pages the misfortunes and setbacks of a young man trying to tap into the oil boom.
Plot. Young Ared Heiskell learns the well-drilling business from his father, whose every attempt to find oil on his property ends in failure. Ared then agrees to partner with a young woman, Jo Ryan, to drill an oil-producing well on her dead father’s leasehold. They have two months to accomplish this or she loses the lease.
|Gusher, Oklahoma, 1901|
Character. The downbeat tone of this novel is its most striking difference from other early westerns. Chapter after chapter is marked by betrayal, failed hopes, and the contempt of the powerful for the weak. The long-suffering Ared, decent and honest, is the constant underdog, unappreciated by his father and thwarted by Fleming.
After considering the options, Ared concludes that to be his own man, he must be self-employed. He won’t work for wages in the service of someone else. And he will not be bought or intimidated. Win or lose, he will work by his own rules and never be less than honest and responsible. What’s at stake is the quality of his character, to be proved by fulfilling his agreement with Jo to dig her well.
In one way, however, he fails to come across as a complete and full-grown man. He never realizes, until it’s far too late, that besides being his reliable business partner, Jo has also fallen in love with him. Drawn by the very qualities that make an honorable man of him, she is unable to find a way into his heart.
|Andarko, Oklahoma Territory, 1901|
Triggerheel is an enjoyable presence in the novel. It’s obvious from his first appearance that he is a cowboy, “long, lean, dry; sharp-eyed, grey-moustached, brown as the bacon in his pan.” A drover from Texas to Montana in his time, he can also blacksmith, sharpen oil-drilling tools, and haul coal and water for the boiler.
With a central character so wounded by life that love and laughter are foreign to him, Triggerheel is an entertaining foil. He takes adversity lightly and cares little about material gain. His old-school frontier values make him a welcome exception to the rest of the populace slavishly intent on finding fortune in the oil fields.
|Hoy oil field near Enid, Oklahoma, 1917 [click to enlarge]|
Villainy. Fleming is a man driven by greed. Corrupt and heartless, he can still make a good appearance and charm the ladies. When charm is not required, he is brutal and blunt, his language offensive.
In fact, he has a powerful hold on the entire community. As a company town, it relies on his continued patronage. Even the sheriff and town officials do his bidding. It’s significant in the imaginative world of the novel that men like Fleming and his nephew go unchallenged and unpunished. One way or another, they take what they want. This, Ogden seems to be saying, is the way of the world.
|Ogden novel in The Argosy, March 1915|
In such a world, Ogden seems to be saying, a man’s true worth is not in the wealth he is able to grub for himself. As long as he belongs to nobody else, he is still his own master. And that is enough.
Ogden went on to write a total of 30+ novels and scores of stories and serials for the pulps, most of them set in the West. His memoir There Were No Heroes was published in 1940. The Long Fight is available free online at google books
Tuska and Piekarski, Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction
Review of Ogden’s memoir, There Were No Heroes
The FictionMags Index
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Gusher photo, Beryl Ford Collection, Tulsa City-County Library
Coming up: Crime in western fiction, part 2