Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch (1903)

Bow River Valley, Alberta
This definitely dark early western is set in Alberta, Canada, well beyond the reach of the civilized frontier. Residents of the settlement at Foss River are a handful of whites and a prairie ghetto of so-called “half-breeds.” All have a view of the Rockies to the West and, running along its foothills, a 40-mile-long muskeg, or bog. This natural feature plays naturally into the hands of cattle thieves, who know a way to drive stolen cattle across it without getting sucked permanently beneath its surface.

Plot. But accidents happen. Before the start of the story, a celebrated thief by the name of Peter Retief suddenly disappeared, an apparent victim of the muskeg. Two years later, his horse is discovered grazing on the far side of it, and Retief’s 22-year-old half-sister, Jacky, crosses over to investigate.

Muskeg, northern Alaska
Jacky is of one-quarter native parentage. Raised by her uncle, John Allandale, an unmarried white man, she gratefully looks after him in his declining years and runs his cattle ranch, while he drinks heavily and obsessively plays poker. Meanwhile, she keeps up her connections with the other “breeds.”

Allandale has, in fact, gambled away all he’s worth. The man who has won it from him is a storekeeper in the village, Lablache. A crafty Shylock of a moneylender, he’s waiting for the opportunity to forgive the debts in exchange for the hand of the lovely Jacky.

Meanwhile, Jacky and another rancher, Bill Bunning-Ford, are busy getting friendly. Bunning-Ford is another victim of poker debt, and when Lablache calls in his loan to get him out of the way, it means the sale of his ranch.

North West Mounted Police, c1885
Retief then reappears in a daring nighttime raid. He steals the entire herd of cattle Lablache has just acquired at Bunning-Ford’s auction. Only it’s not Retief, as the astute reader quickly figures out. It’s Bunning-Ford in disguise.

The North West Mounted Police take notice and send out a Sergeant Horrocks, who sets about capturing the renegade. Too confident in his abilities at detection, Horrocks gets kidnapped instead. While a captive, he is shown the way across the muskeg by his kidnappers.

Later, determined to cross it himself to capture the man he believes to be Retief, he makes a fatal misstep, and the muskeg claims another life. That leaves justice in the hands of the local authorities, which in this case means anybody who has a gun and is willing to use it.

In the climax of the story, Lablache makes his play for Jacky, in a final game of poker with Allandale. Guns are drawn before the game is over, and Allandale falls dead. The “half-breeds” take revenge, and as Jacky and Bunning-Ford watch in horror, they cruelly take Lablache to the muskeg and force him at gunpoint to find his own way across. Which he doesn’t.

Early settler, Calgary, Alberta, c1880
Character. In this grim story, there’s hardly a single man to admire for his character traits. Bunning-Ford comes close, for his daring and his decency, but he is first of all a gentleman and a man of his class. When he inadvertently discovers that Lablache has been cheating at cards, he says nothing about it, as if it were bad form to reveal misconduct he’s learned of by chance.

For someone with a hyphenate name, it also seems bad form to work very hard at anything. Cigarettes, drink, cards, and dressing well seem about the limit of his efforts. Only when disguised as Retief in greasepaint and a horsehair wig and riding a magnificent horse is he free to behave recklessly and with purpose. One is reminded of Zorro.

Romance. Bunning-Ford and Jacky exchange a couple of kisses during the novel, as they profess love for each other. But it is more like the bonding of partners in crime. The cool distance between them could owe something to the maybe delicate nature of romance between a white man and a mixed race girl at the time. Hard to say.

The “romance” in the novel has more to do with the unsavory presence of the “half-breeds” and their lawlessness. As they are portrayed, the vestiges of white civilization are a thin veneer over the swamp of human indecency and cruelty they embody. Out here, the darkness of savagery always threatens to assert itself, and Cullum gives his readers a real walk on the wild side.

Calgary, Alberta, c1875
Wrapping up. Ridgwell Cullum (1867-1943) was British born. He fought in the Boer War, lived in the Yukon, prospected for gold, and may have been involved in quelling the Sioux uprisings in South Dakota. By the time he published this his first novel, he’d taken up cattle ranching in Montana.

Novel writing was a big success for him. In a career that spanned over three decades, he published dozens of books. His seventh, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole (1909), was reviewed here a while ago. Six of his stories were made into films (1917-1923). In England, it’s said that he held his own in popularity against Zane Grey.

The Story of the Foss River Ranch is currently available at google books and Internet Archive and for kindle and the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, jump on over this week to Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Randolph Scott, The Man Behind the Gun (1953)


  1. I imagine a lot of amazing true stories took place in such settings during the settling of the Americas. most will never come to light.

    1. Truth of course being stranger than fiction.

  2. Your analysis and study of the early westerns is progressing apace. A great review and am looking forward to the book you are writing about all this old stuff.

    1. Thanks, Oscar. At present I have another 15 or so novels to go.

    2. I think you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  3. Don't know how many of his novels are set in Canada, but he gives an interesting spin to the western story.