Recently by William Norman Grigg: The Persecution of Jeremy Hill
“Hey mister, who gave you that shiner?"
"Nobody gave it to me, son — I fought for it."
To get the full effect of that exchange between young Laban Teale and the rangy, rough-hewn cowhand Conn Conagher, it’s best to imagine the wry reply being delivered in Sam Elliott’s sandpaper-on-leather drawl.
Like nearly all the heroes brought to life by the pen of the incomparable Louis L’Amour, Conagher was an unpretentious man who fought when he had to, but only to defend the innocent and vindicate the claims of honor — never to gratify his ego or in search of illicit gain. He had better things to do with his time than fighting, particularly when killing was involved.
The man who “gave” Conagher that shiner — and got much worse in the transaction — was a turbulent criminal named Kiowa Staples. (The fight, not seen in the film, is described in the novel in detail and involves a whip.) Asked by a prospective employer about his "bust-up" with Staples, Conagher offers the most subtle of grins and explains: "We had a difficulty."
He displays similar laconic restraint when asked at a trading post about two rifles he obtained while fighting off a Comanche ambush. After Conagher explained that one of the assailants had escaped, one of the cowhands at the post — who had listened to Conn’s account with envious skepticism — sarcastically asked why he hadn’t pursued the Indian and killed him.
"Mister, nobody but a fool goes into the rocks after a wounded Comanche," Conagher replies, his voice quietly contemptuous.
Conagher signs on to work with rancher Seaborn Tay, and discovers that the owner of the rival Ladder Five ranch has paid off several of the other hands — including a combustible bully named Chris Mahler — have been stealing Tay’s livestock.
After Conagher thwarts a group of rustlers working for the Ladder Five, he is confronted at dinnertime in the bunkhouse by Mahler, who is angry and frustrated by the stalwart cowhand’s stubborn honesty. Mahler knows that it’s pointless to invite Conagher to join in the larceny, but he tries to browbeat him into "doing his job" — meaning look the other way. Neither impressed nor intimidated by Mahler, Conagher drives him out of the outfit.
Thrust into a conflict with the rustlers, Conagher deals out his share of lead, and eventually takes a couple of rounds himself. "A man who kills when he doesn’t have to is a damned fool," he explains to a younger hand during a lull in one battle.
L’Amour’s heroes could be described as fictional only in biographical details. A self-educated man who lived a life much more interesting than any of the stories he told, L’Amour knew scores of men like Conagher, Chick Bowdrie, and the others who populate his writing: Stoic, honorable men with great capacity for violence but the character to avoid it unless it was justified and necessary.
Authentic cowboys aren’t braggarts or blatherskites. This is one of countless reasons I’m nauseated every time someone refers to some soft-handed specimen of the political class as a "cowboy."
"My heroes have always been cowboys," proclaims a bumpersticker popular with the GOP’s Kool-Aid drinkers; the phrase was used as caption to photos of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, neither of whom is a legitimate specimen of the breed. (It should be pointed out that Reagan — his other shortcomings notwithstanding — actually worked for a living before going into politics and climbed from poverty to success on the strength of his own talents and labor.)
The image-manipulators responsible for wreathing Reagan and Bush in a cowboy mystique are attempting to do the same thing for the artfully coiffed cheerleader named Rick Perry. In terms of Cowboy archetypes, Perry isn’t Conn Conagher, the lonely paladin of principle; he’s Chris Mahler — the viscous sell-out.
Mahler mistakenly believed that his bullying bluster would make Conagher back down. Instead, Conagher rose from his chair, kicked the table aside, and told Mahler he could either clear out immediately — or go for his gun. Mahler chose the first option.
In the September 7 Republican presidential “debate,” Rick Perry suffered a Chris Mahler moment. During a commercial break following a relatively blunt exchange with Ron Paul, Perry strode over to Paul, seized his wrist, jabbed a finger in his face, and did his pitiful best to appear terrifying.
Neither candidate has disclosed the substance of the argument, but photos of the moment make it clear that Dr. Paul, a skinny septuagenarian, was neither impressed nor intimidated by the preening poseur.
Perry, it should be noted, didn’t jab a digit into the face of Mitt Romney, with whom he also had a few testy exchanges. This may have something to do with the fact that Romney is a larger and younger man. I suspect, however, that Perry focused his ire on Ron Paul for the same reason Mahler singled out Conn Conagher: He is an independent man of principle whose character is a silent but eloquent rebuke to the thieves who surround him.
Chris Mahler re-appeared toward the end of Louis L’Amour’s story, seeking to avenge the death of a rustler who had finished second in a gunfight with Conagher. Angry over the death of his saddle partner, and infuriated by Conagher’s success in winning the coveted affections of the widow Eve Teale, Mahler finally succeeded in goading Conagher into short but brutal fist-fight that left both men battered and bloody — and Mahler taking an unexpected nap.
“I think he’s hurt,” exclaimed Eve Teale as Conagher stumbled away from the fracas.
“Him? You couldn’t hurt him with an ax,” snorted stage driver Charlie McCloud.
Rick Perry isn’t the first self-adoring bully who has tried, and failed, to intimidate Ron Paul, who possesses the imperturbable security that comes with moral consistency. Besides, Dr. Paul — despite having two artificial knees and a mortal coil that has made 76 solar circuits — is a wiry and athletic man who could probably put Perry on his back if things got real.