Thursday, December 1, 2011

Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith (1911)

Smith and the schoolmarm
Smith, the title character of this unusual cowboy western is no damn good. He’s not just a good bad guy, who wins your sympathy even while he breaks the law. He’s rotten to the core. And he shows his true colors from the opening chapter, as he shoots an Indian in the back, for his blanket.

Born in Illinois, author Caroline Lockhart (1871-1962) grew up there on a family ranch. Working as a journalist, she settled in Wyoming, where she began a career as a writer of western fiction. An opponent of Prohibition, she acquired a weekly newspaper in Cody and actively promoted the preservation of western culture.

Me—Smith was her first published novel. It is a wry, anti-romantic portrayal of cowboys and Indians. The setting is a ranch in Wyoming owned by the Indian widow of a Scots rancher. Lacking even an ounce of conscience or generosity, Smith hatches a scheme to get the widow’s money. Pretending to fall in love with her, he promises marriage, all the while putting the moves on a pretty schoolmarm who boards at the ranch.

A small cast of other characters takes up residence there: several grub-line cowpunchers, a paleontologist from an Eastern college, his field assistant, a deputy sheriff looking for rustlers, and the Indian woman’s half-breed daughter, Susie. There’s also a Chinese cook.

Smith watching Susie at work
Plot. Susie is naïve but sensible for her 16 years. She pegs Smith as no good from the start and is alarmed when her mother falls for him. Plotting against him, she allows Smith to involve her in the theft of horses from the local Indian reservation. But he foils her attempt to get him arrested.

Blowing all the money he gets for the stolen horses at a gambling saloon, Smith persuades Susie’s lovesick mother, Prairie Flower, to give him her savings. Returning by night from the bank, she is held up by road agents who make off with a flour sack stuffed with all her cash.

Meanwhile, as the deputy Ralston discovers an occasional fresh cowhide with the brand cut from it, he suspects the local Indians of thieving from a nearby white rancher. When no evidence of that turns up, suspicion is thrown to the paleontologist, McArthur, who spends long days wandering the hills alone. Only we know that Smith is the real culprit.

A romantic thread emerges amid all this as Smith and Ralston get into a competition for the affections of the young schoolmarm, Dora. Inexperienced at judging the depth of mendacity in others, she gladly agrees to offer Smith nightly grammar lessons. He is a poor student, but she is undaunted in her efforts.

Ralston courts her more winningly on an excursion into the hills to catch grasshoppers for fish bait. Seized with jealousy, Smith presses his advantage as Dora’s pupil. Misinterpreting the attention she gives to Smith, Ralston figures Smith is her favorite.

As contrived as this may sound, Lockhart makes it work by holding the romance at a comic distance. Her young lovers are a bit too polite and too principled for their own good. Utterly unscrupulous, Smith is able to outmaneuver them at almost every step. When he can’t win, he gets even.

Convinced that all he needs is a stash of cash to make Dora his bride, Smith rustles a herd of the Indians’ cattle and enlists the help of McArthur’s slow-witted assistant, Tubbs. Finally onto Smith, Ralston catches the two men red-handed, and justice is eventually served.

Prairie Flower dies, in a sequence of events too complicated to go into here, including being shot in the arm by Smith and the careless processing of some rattlesnake venom. The paleontologist helps Susie locate her father’s family back East. Ralston and Dora profess their love and kiss. And the Indians arrange a special fate for Smith.

Smith makes an escape
Villainy. Unlike almost any other western writer at the time, Lockhart gives us a thorough character study of a hateful man. Smith is not so much malevolent as supremely self-centered and indifferent to the welfare of others. With him, it’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.

She doesn’t argue that he was born this way. Dora sees in him at times a boyish innocence when he’s pleased by something. And we learn later that he was abused by his father and left home at the age of thirteen.

In some ways, he invites comparison with Trampas in The Virginian. His may well be the thoughts of a villain Wister never makes us privy to. Smith’s contempt for Ralston parallels Trampas’ jealousy and his motiveless dislike for the Virginian. There’s the same distaste for honest labor when thievery pays more, the same easy manipulation of weaker men, and the same indifference to their fate.

Lockhart goes a step farther by giving Smith designs on two women: Prairie Flower, whose bankroll he’s after, and the pretty schoolmarm Dora, whom he desires and hopes to corral like a fat heifer.

An added dimension to his inner life is his magical thinking. Lacking guilt or remorse, he is also untroubled by worry. He has a boundless confidence in his own good luck. No matter how unpromising the situation he’s gotten himself into, he trusts that things will break his way.

Smith taken captive by Indians
Inflated with a sense of his own superiority, he also lacks a cowboy’s proper humility. He constantly punctuates his claims and pronouncements with the words “me—Smith.” And lest any reader be tempted to catch a glimmer of outlaw glamour in Smith’s character, Lockhart reminds us that he has a short upper lip and protruding teeth. He’s no Sam Elliott.

Wrapping up. Caroline Lockhart is a real find among early western writers. Her novel is well structured, with a good number of unexpected turns. Its story is rich with cowboy-style lingo and nicely observed detail. Her bunkhouse is so thick with tobacco smoke you can't see from one end to the other. While there are dark elements that can be startling in their suddenness, Lockhart is mostly having fun.

As for romance, the story has its young lovers, but theirs is a minor subplot. If the story provokes a misty eye, it comes when Susie learns the whereabouts of her father’s family. After her mother’s death has left her alone in the world, this news is a dream come true.

Lockhart went on to write more novels set in the West, as well as numerous short stories for the magazines. If they’re as good as this one, they’re all worth reading. Me—Smith is currently available at google books and for kindle and the nook. Friday's Forgotten books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Further reading: Bio of Caroline Lockhart

Illustrations: From first edition by Gayle Hoskins

Coming up: Frederick Niven, Hands Up! (1913)


  1. Ms. Lockhart's biography reminds me of Josie Bassett, the woman rancher near Vernal, Utah, another interesting female, but not a writer, who died in 1963.

  2. Fascinating. There is growing interest in Lockhart in these parts.

  3. Great info! Thanks for posting this. I'm all fired up to read Me--Smith, now.