I can’t remember how I came to learn about Melville Davisson Post, but something I read somewhere intrigued me (is that vague or what?). A writer from the early twentieth century, Post is known for preserving the culture of West Virginia at the turn of the last century in his mystery novels.
His writing has a definite archaic style to it and at first I wasn’t sure I was going to bother finish reading the story. He is of the “only show never tell” school, which can make it hard at times to figure out what is going on. Also, I’m really not a fan of writers who think that have to paint every detail of a picture for me. At one point the first person narrator describes his descent from a mountain on the back of a horse at break neck speed. I really could not care less how fast the trees whizzed by or how each blade of grass looked, how your horse frothed, or how you felt. Just tell me that you rode a horse as it galloped down the mountain. That’s good enough for me. I can imagine the rest for myself.
But, at one point near the beginning of the story (I believe it was after the narrator arrived at his destination from the mountain) the characters and the plot provoked my interest.
Quiller, the younger brother of Ward, a cattleman, arrives home to discover that Woodford, a rival of his brother’s is there to claim some cattle that his brother had agreed in a contract to sell to him. Prices had dropped and Woodford, was demanding the cattle immediately.
With Woodford is Cynthia, a woman who possessed beauty and charm enough to have almost magical powers over Quiller simply because his brother, whom he idolized, adored her. But here she was, sitting and laughing with his brother’s rival. Feeling his brother betrayed, Quiller’s admiration for Cynthia is instantly turned to hatred.
Ward is laid up from being thrown from his horse so he is unable to round up the cattle, which are a day’s journey away. This leaves the job up to Quiller and two ranch hands: Jud, a giant of a man, and Ump, an old bewizened man with a hunch back.
Quiller speaks often of his youth and inexperience and at first I imagined him to be a youth of no more than ten or eleven. As the story progressed I began to gather that he must be a teenager. This confusion is a result of aforementioned “showing only” strategy. Since the entire story is told from Quiller’s point of view, the reader has to figure out as best he can what’s really going on from different comments he makes.
Yet, it is not an entirely ineffective strategy because Post does not make Quiller omniscient or objective. The reader becomes persuaded to believe certain things due to Quiller’s personal prejudices and limited understanding of the bigger picture. This allows the reader to become as shocked or surprised as the narrator when certain truths are discovered.
After this initial set up begins the story, which is basically a race to get one hundred head of cattle back home in order to sell them before the prices drop, which is why Woodford wants the cattle now.
As challenging as rounding up a hundred cows would be, it is made even harder when Quiller, Jud, and Ump realize that two of Woodford’s men, Lem Marks and Parson Peppers, are ahead of them sabatoging their efforts. This is the basic outline of the story. On the way to the cattle and on bringing them back, Quiller, Jud, and Ump have to overcome the hurdles Marks and Peppers throw in their way.
Even though the formula is transparent, it creates a level of suspense in wanting to know just how the three men are going to get to their cattle and back. As the story transpires, the reader discovers, through Quiller, that Ward’s accident was due to someone shooting at his horse while he was riding it. Then the black smith purposely nails corrupt nails into the shoes of their horses to impede their ride and finally, the ferry boat, which is cut loose overnight requires Quiller and the others to force the cattle to swim across a rough river and risk their drowning.
It doesn’t sound very interesting the way I write it, but Post’s descriptive powers do help create a vicarious experience that allows the reader to enter into the story.
The ending is a little strange in that Post seems to randomly throw in the fact that the Civil War is going on, something not revealed until the last paragraph of the book. But then again maybe it wasn’t random. Maybe it’s supposed to pack a punch and throw the whole story in a new context. It certainly left me wondering what was really going on after all.
Another aspect of the book is the insertion of old Celtic mythology. Quiller informs the reader of the lore of the dwarfs, the “dwellers in the hills.” They made the bridge that the ranch men have to cross at one point. He gives a little history as to the relationship these hill dwellers had with the people who settled the land. I’m not sure how the dwarfs fit into the story. It made me wonder if I was mistaken about the location of the story and if it was not in fact in Scotland. I suppose the dwarfs made it across the ocean with the Scots who colonized the Appalachian mountains. Perhaps this was a part of Southern culture that I am not familiar with. I know Southern culture has its roots in English and Celtic traditions from singing to story telling to art. I just had never heard stories about dwarves.
Considering the time period Post wrote his stories I believe that there was more to Southern culture than I realized and can learn a lot from reading his stories.
Melville Davisson Post
Further information on Melville Davisson Post:
America's Greatest Mystery Writer