Zane Grey’s writing career was in full stride when this novel was first published in 1929 as a serial in the pages of The American Magazine. That year saw two other serials, in The Country Gentleman and Ladies Home Journal, plus short fiction in Collier’s and McCall’s.
Not much has changed since he found his basic western formula in his first novel, Heritage of the Desert (1910), reviewed here a while ago. A tenderfoot arrives in the Southwest, learns the ways of the West, wins the heart of a western girl, does battle with a nasty villain and his gang, and wins the approval of his superiors.
Plot. It is 1889 in open rangeland of Arizona, where cattlemen are being preyed upon by rustlers. Jim Traft, a young Missourian arrives at the invitation of his uncle, who wants to build a 100-mile fence to keep his cattle from drifting into the wrong hands. To put up the fence, Jim is made foreman of his uncle’s toughest group of cowboys, the Diamond outfit.
His cowboys don’t take kindly to being bossed by a tenderfoot, and they haze him mercilessly. To show his grit, he challenges them one by one to a fistfight and, as he beats them, gradually wins their grudging respect. They are finally just devil-may-care cowboys, not mean-spirited. The most likable of the lot is Curly Prentiss, who is among the first to befriend Jim.
The one mean one of the lot is Hackamore Jocelyn. He schemes to join up with the rustlers, who are led by a young gunman, Arch Dunn, also known as Slinger Dunn. Jocelyn instigates a plot to kidnap Traft and hold him for ransom from his rich uncle, then kill him, cut the fence, and run off a bunch of cattle.
|Donkey rider, c1933
A young girl provides the story’s complications. Slinger Dunn has a sweet 16-year-old sister named Molly, who has won the heart of Jim Traft. He meets her at a fair and, before the day is over, gets a kiss from her and professes his undying love. From the start, they are star-crossed lovers.
Her brother, who has killed men before, attempts to put Jim out of the picture, and it’s something of a contest to see which of the two villains will be first to do the job. Molly defends her lover, throwing herself twice between Jim and a gun being drawn on him.
In the end, Jim wins her hand, and it is Jocelyn who dies, shot through the heart by Slinger Dunn. Molly’s brother is a good bad man after all, and in the closing chapter, Jim is offering him a job, to partner on a ranch he’s getting from his grateful uncle, and to go after yet another band of rustlers.
Character. Jim Traft is a man in the making. Decent and honorable but untested, he gladly assumes the responsibilities given to him, though the going is far from easy. In his favor is that he has both brains and brawn. He never loses a fistfight in the novel, even when one opponent attempts to “rooster” him, i.e. to kick him in the face with his spurs.
|Hospital, Gleeson, Arizona, 1925
Never mind that this is hard to believe. Any one of a tough bunch of cowboys should have been able to beat a tenderfoot to a pulp. Forget that a tenderfoot would not have been given a foreman’s job over them in the first place.
In a reflective moment near the end, we find Jim wishing he could be more like the tough Slinger Dunn, a leader of men who survives several bullet wounds in a shootout with two gang members. Softening Dunn’s cold resolve, Jim also aspires to be like Curly Prentiss, a loyal friend with a playful sense of humor.
Romance. Grey’s heroes fall hopelessly and head-over-heels in love. It almost undoes them they suffer so forlornly for the girls of their dreams. As in his first novel, Heritage of the Desert, the girl has to be rescued from the clutches of a darkly evil man. In this case, it is Hackamore Jocelyn, who has plans to leave the country with her, by force if necessary.
In part, it is also social class that comes between them. Nephew of a well-to-do cattleman, Jim seems far above Molly’s lowly station as the daughter of a poor settler. But Jim sees in her a natural simplicity, virtuousness and courage. Despite her “primitive” upbringing, she has the “instincts” of a lady. Later we discover that she is actually the granddaughter of Southern stock from Virginia. Her qualities are in the blood.
|Horseback riders, Arizona, 1930s
Grey’s Molly makes an interesting contrast with Owen Wister’s Molly in The Virginian. From an established New England family, she is educated and independent. The Virginian is the “primitive” with natural virtues and courage, which can be traced back to an upbringing in Virginia.
Wister’s Molly is also a woman, and not a 16-year-old girl. By comparison, Grey’s hero is practically robbing the cradle. Jim even sees her as an “adorable child.” In Wister’s Molly, we get the flinty reserve of a woman objecting to her hero’s lack of education and lapses into frontier violence. Grey gives us a simple, uneducated girl who worships his hero and considers herself unworthy of him. Big difference.
Storytelling. The parts of the novel that ring true are Grey’s descriptions of the western landscape. You know that he’s seen what he is talking about, and these brief passages approach the quality of travel writing. Where you’d like more clarity is in the geography of the story itself. It takes careful reading and rereading to get a mental picture that connects all the places mentioned, including the location of the drift fence.
In his physical descriptions of the young cowboys, he is more precise:
Lithe-bodied, long of limb and bow-legged, with small round hips and wide shoulders, lean and sharp of face, bronzed and sunburnt, with expressionless eyes like gimlets they certainly belonged to a striking and unique class.
Like other Grey novels, the plot is rambling and loosely connected. He relies over much on overheard conversations to advance plot points, and there is a great deal of needless repetition. The characters speak in a drawl that wearies after many pages. Besides the use of “aboot,” which makes them sound Canadian, there’s “heah,” “haid,” “daid,” “thet,” “shore,” “idee,” “cuss,” “wuss,” “shet,” “jest,” and so on. One result is that there’s little perceivable difference among the characters.
|Arizona gas pump, 1937
Most of the story is predictable and moves slowly. It takes a long time to set up the action that excites much of the second half of the novel. Then, in the last two chapters, with life-and-death conflicts resolved, Grey takes his characters turkey hunting of all things. The bride-to-be demonstrates her skill at turkey calling.
Grey’s narration leans toward melodrama, and humor is rare. One comic surprise in the novel is the discovery that the camp cook, assumed to be dumb, actually speaks when he wants to. But while Grey’s cowboys joke around, josh each other, and fall about laughing, none of that spirit enlivens the story itself. An exception is a wry remark made late in the novel when Slinger throws a punch at Jim.
Horses snorted and jumped. The crowd let out a whoop. Fights were mostly as common as meals in the Cibeque and infinitely more amusing.
Not exactly a knee-slapper of a wisecrack, it still shows Grey in a rare moment of levity.
Wrapping up. After its serialized appearance in The American Magazine in 1929, The Drift Fence and its sequel, The Hashknife Outfit, were published by Harper & Brothers in 1933. The novel was adapted to film in 1936 with Buster Crabbe and Katherine DeMille as Slinger Dunn and his sister, Molly.
The Drift Fence is currently available online at freeread.com.au and at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.
Magazine cover, FictionMags Index
Coming up: Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn (1912)