In this first novel by one of the western’s most published
writers, mistaken identities bring together a schoolmarm from the East with a
sheep man believed to be an outlaw. While menace endangers its central characters
on the plains of Wyoming, love overtakes the hearts of not one but two young
Plot. Helen Messiter
comes West from Michigan as the new owner of the Lazy D cattle ranch. She makes
a spectacular entrance, arriving in an automobile just as the Lazy D cowboys,
guns blazing, have cornered a fugitive in the sagebrush. She decides to even
the odds and drives at full speed between them to carry out a daring rescue.
After ducking bullets, she and the man trade bantering
comments as they disappear together in a cloud of dust. She is full of high
spirits, and he is playfully gallant. A later generation would call it a cute
|Helen and Ned under fire|
She learns, alas, that his name is Ned Bannister and has a
reputation as a villainous outlaw, who has robbed banks and trains and killed
men. Helen can’t square such heinous deeds with the well-mannered gentleman
whose capture she has prevented. Puzzled, she shelves her initial attraction to
him and goes about the business of running her ranch.
But the astute reader begins to gather that the real villain
is yet another man, who also goes by the name of Ned Bannister. This “bad” Ned
kidnaps Helen and takes her to his Robbers Roost. There she finds herself the
prisoner of a man whose mercurial moods shift between gentlemanly refinement
and vicious savageness.
Rescued and returned to the Lazy D, she learns that the two
Neds are cousins. The “good” Ned has spent his life trying unsuccessfully to
persuade “bad” Ned to mend his ways. The long unhappy history of the two
cousins comes to an end as Bad Ned gets belligerent with one of his men, who
draws on him and they kill each other. Good riddance.
But the excitement is not yet over. As Good Ned returns to
the Lazy D, where Helen is supervising the autumn roundup, he finds her about
to be trampled in a cattle stampede. In a reverse of the novel’s opening, he
rescues her, lifting her onto his horse as he rides by. In the final pages,
they declare their love and intention to marry.
|Helen and the two Neds|
Character. Both Ned
Bannisters come from good Virginia stock, their grandfather a Confederate
officer during the Civil War. But each grandson has inherited the temperament
of his father, one self-disciplined and moral, the other a ne’er-do-well.
Bad Ned’s presence in Wyoming puts Good Ned’s character to the
test. As he continues to cover up for his outlaw cousin, in hopes of reforming
him, he allows people to believe that he’s guilty of Bad Ned’s crimes.
Villainy. A college
education has not altered the dispositions of either cousin. Good Ned was a
student athlete who gained both fame and physical dexterity on the football
field. Bad Ned has developed a taste for the arts and can sing operatic arias
in a way that stuns hearers into ecstasies. Like Good Ned, he’s also expert in
rodeo events. He has the skill and the daring that make him a crowd-pleasing
champion in the arena.
But, as Helen surmises, he’s an example of “good blood gone
wrong.” Good Ned believes that his cousin was “handicapped” in his fight
against the “depraved instincts and tastes” he inherited from his father. This
genetic weakness in him prevented the building of good character.
|Ned's horse falls at the rodeo|
Romance. For a novel
about dealing with a menacing villain, it is dominated by scenes related to
romance and its discontents. After that cute meet, obstacles in the path of
true love multiply and keep the characters separated or continually at odds
with each other.
The chief obstacle for a long while is Helen’s belief that
Good Ned is really an outlaw, and the Puritan in her keeps her love for him
unspoken. Instead, there are many scenes of playful and ironic bantering as she
makes a pretense of being offended by his advances. Or she grows more bitter
and angry as she willfully misunderstands him. The course of true romance is similarly rocky for Helen's foreman, Mac, and her housemaid, Nora.
The scenes between Helen and Bad Ned are a dark burlesque by
comparison, as Bad Ned lays on the charm and she attempts to keep him at bay
with withering wit. When he’s on his best behavior, she is surprised that she
rather enjoys his company. Despite his
“colossal egotism,” she is touched by his Byronic despair.