Where Have You Gone, Conn Conagher?
William Norman Grigg
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who gave you that shiner?"
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
delivered in Sam Elliott's sandpaper-on-leather drawl.
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."
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
nobody but a fool goes into the rocks after a wounded Comanche,"
Conagher replies, his voice quietly contemptuous.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.)
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
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.
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
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.
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
Norman Grigg [send him mail]
publishes the Pro
Libertate blog and hosts the Pro
Libertate radio program.
© 2011 William Norman Grigg
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