My sister and niece are horse people. I’ve recently been teasing them about horses, horse people, campgrounds for horse people, and horse trails. I even went so far as to post a horse joke on Facebook. Maybe I went too far. To make amends, I’ll write about two interesting relationships between human and horse that I’ve read about recently, in the novel Doc by Mary Doria Russell and in Malcolm Brooks’ novel Painted Horses.
Both books are westerns. Doc‘s story – especially the mythical version – is familiar; the Earp brothers, especially Wyatt, team up with the gambler and dentist John Henry (Doc) Holliday. They would later become infamous through their part in The Gunfight At the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Doc takes place in Dodge City, Kansas. Russell’s sequel novel, Epitaph, covers events after the Earps and Holliday leave Dodge City for Tombstone. Painted Horses is about a young archaeologist, Catherine Lemay, hired to explore for prehistoric artifacts in a Montana canyon scheduled to be flooded by a hydroelectric dam. This was in the 1950s when rivers in the West were being damned willy-nilly with not a lot of concern about what was being flooded. Not surprisingly, those with financial interests in the dam don’t want Catherine to find anything significant enough to slow down or stop work on the dam.
The two humans in the horse – human relationships are Wyatt Earp and another of the main characters in Painted Horses who coincidently has the same initials as Doc Holliday. He is referred to in the book only as John H.. Both men had difficult childhoods. Both left home early to escape. Both headed west. Both rescued their horses and formed strong bonds with them. Wyatt rescued an unprepossessing, black horse from an abusive owner. The black horse, strangely named Dick Naylor, blossoms under Wyatt’s care and becomes one of the region’s top quarter horses. John H. steals his horse from a group of mustangers who drove their captured horses
along with shouts and pops from the stock whips. The mustangs were a motley bunch, mean eyed and hammerheaded, every roaned and ticked and parti-colored combination imaginable, begrimed with dried mud and dried blood and tangled mats of mane and tail.
One young grulla [a horse with tan-gray or mouse-colored hairs on the body, often with shoulder and dorsal stripes and black barring on the lower legs] horse stood out. A better head and straighter back than the rest. John H. watched this horse drift in and around the others, watched it shy away from the drovers when they rode too close. He watched until the steady speed of the train [that he is on] left the horses behind.
The grulla mare under John H’s care becomes a smart and reliable mount and plays an heroic part in the book.
There is a lot more than horses in both books. They are solid, readable historical novels. I have placed Doc on my list of Best Westerns (books, not the motels) that now contains three books:
- Lonesome Dove (undoubtedly my number-one western)
- Monte Walsh (there is a great horse – human relationship in this book also)
I feel a bit uneasy about including Painted Horses in this list. Can a book actually be considered a western if it takes place in the 1950s and has a big chunk of plot that happens in Europe? It has guns, horses, cowboys, Indians, good guys, and bad guys, but also trucks, cars, machine guns, and tanks. It’s a good book, but not quite good enough for this list since I can’t even decide if it is a western.
One reason why I rate Doc so highly is that I like the well-wrought characters, not as literary creations but as good people who I’d like to know. Here is an excerpt about what happens when Doc Holliday and Morgan, Wyatt’s younger brother, surprise Wyatt with a wonderful gift.
It sounded like he was making fun, but Doc had that look on his face again: pleasure and satisfaction, all mixed. And Morgan himself felt just about as fine as he had ever felt in a lifetime of feeling pretty good about things. He was proud of his older brother’s [Wyatt’s] earnest, boneheaded, mulish honesty; tickled that he and Doc had surprised Wyatt so completely; grateful to Doc for seeing to it that Wyatt got his dream back, even after his money had gone to build a library full of books Wyatt couldn’t read if he gave each one a whole damn year.
Suddenly jubilant, Morgan couldn’t keep still any longer. Giggling like a six-year-old, he did a little dance, and threw an arm around John Holliday’s shoulders, and pulled him close. “Hot damn! We got him good, Doc! Look at that, will you? He’s . . . Yes! Here it comes! A smile! Wyatt Earp is smiling!
Read the book if you want to find out what the wonderful gift was.
John Henry Holliday
One more great quote before I stop writing. Another Earp brother, James, and his wife Bessie own and operate a brothel in Dodge City. Bessie’s mother used to say
politicians and judges and coppers are money-grubbing thieves. They’ll screw you, and rob you, and win elections for doing it, but there’s no way around them. Smile and pay the sonsabitches off.
Some things never change.