I WAS ONLY A LITTLE BOY in 1953 when the great Western movie Shane was released, so I didn’t see it until after it aired on television 15 years later. What I remember vividly is the tension building as good-guy gunfighter Shane (Alan Ladd) rides into town to face bad-man gunfighter Wilson (Jack Palance.)
“I’ve heard about you,” Shane tells Wilson when they square off in the saloon. “What have you heard, Shane?” Wilson says.
“I’ve heard you are a low-down Yankee liar.” A Yankee liar. I’m a native of Natchez, Mississippi, a town of antebellum mansions and moss-laden trees, a town that takes its Southern heritage seriously. Calling a man a liar is one thing, but you call him a Yankee and you are asking for trouble.
“Prove it,” Wilson says a hair-trigger second before the scene explodes with gunfire. Just another shoot-’em-up Western? Not hardly. Things happen in Shane that Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes never messed with. For me, as a young man coming to grips with how unfair and ugly the world can be, Shane boiled down to the story of a man with guts enough to stand up to oppression. Shane risked danger he could have avoided to protect a Wyoming homesteader family from a ruthless and greedy rancher.
Only after seeing the movie did I read the 1949 novel, also titled Shane, upon which the film is based. It was written by Jack Schaefer, an Easterner who developed Western roots here in New Mexico. I’ve read it several times now, always marveling at the way Schaefer develops his characters and storyline in a relatively brief book.
An even better book than Shane is Schaefer’s 1963 working-cowboy saga, Monte Walsh. In the final chapter, Schaefer squeezes more bite-your-lip suspense out of a mudslide than he got with the saloon shootout in Shane. Schaefer was the mas-ter of the well-researched, deftly written, deeply felt Western novel and story. When he died in Santa Fe in 1991 at the age of 83, I had been a newspaperman in Albuquerque for 15 years. One of my regrets is that I never got a chance to meet him. Never mind that he was a Yankee.
SCHAEFER WAS BORN IN Cleveland and earned an English degree at Oberlin College in Ohio, did graduate work in 18th-century English literature at New York City’s Columbia University, put in 16 years of work at newspapers like the New Haven Journal-Courier and Baltimore Sun, and wrote at least four books of Western fiction, including Shane, his first, before venturing west of the Mississippi. He was living in Connecticut in 1954 when, seduced by a train trip west on assignment for Holiday magazine, he pulled up stakes and moved to New Mexico with his second wife and three stepdaughters. They settled first on a 300-acre ranch near Cerrillos, about six or seven miles south of the old State Penitentiary. For the rest of his life, with the exception of a couple of years in Santa Barbara, California, Schaefer lived in New Mexico— on that ranch, in Albuquerque’s Country Club and North Valley neighborhoods, but mostly in Santa Fe.
Did the move West make Schaefer a different writer, a better writer? Better would have been a challenge. Members of the Western Writers of America, a national organization founded in 1953, have voted the novel Shane and the movie based on it the best in their respective categories. That Schaefer could turn out a Western so highly esteemed before he ever saw the West is a tribute to his dogged research, devotion to facts, and storytelling ability, all honed, I am sure, by his newspaper work.
But certainly living in New Mexico colored Schaefer’s writing and inspired his themes. Santa Fe’s Johnny D. Boggs, a former WWA president and one of that organization’s most honored writers, with seven Spur Awards for Western fiction, sees the New Mexico influence in Schaefer’s later works. Like me, Boggs is a Southerner who migrated west to do newspaper work.
“Schaefer’s journalism training definitely helped him as a novelist and short-story writer,” Boggs says. “But it is one thing to write about the West when you are in Connecticut. When you are here, when you listen to the people, when you see the sky, taste the green chile, watch the sunset, or get caught in a July monsoon or spring blizzard, your perspective changes. All that is evident in the works Schaefer completed after he arrived in Santa Fe.”
Jon Schaefer, also a Santa Fe resident and Jack Schaefer’s youngest child by his first marriage, sums it up this way: “My father was a bulldog of a researcher, but he couldn’t have written Monte Walsh if Archie West had not been his neighbor.”
IN THE PREFACE to a 1981 University of Nebraska edition of Monte Walsh, Schaefer writes that “among our nearest neighbors was a young man named Archie West who to my mind was (and still is) in many respects, certainly in appearance and temperament and cattle-country capability and simple human decency, precisely my Monte Walsh.”
West, now 79, was a teenager when he met the Schaefers. Jack Schaefer bought his ranch from West’s uncle. “It’s rolling, hilly country, lots of juniper,” West says of the Schaefer place. “They had horses, and Jack let me run my calves over on his place. It wasn’t a big piece of country.”
West’s silhouette is on the cover of the University of Nebraska’s edition of Monte Walsh, but he plays down his influence in the development of the novel, which was made into a 1970 feature film starring Lee Marvin and a 2003 TV movie starring Tom Selleck.
“We were just neighbors,” he says. “I’d sit and listen to him and talk. He would smoke his pipe. I was a little flattered and honored that Jack treated me like an adult.”
In Monte Walsh, which spans the years 1872 to 1913, Schaefer follows the title character’s cowboy life from age 16 until his death 41 years later. West thinks Schaefer might have modeled the young Monte on things West did as a kid, “just feeling-good things like springing onto a horse.” But what’s amazing is that West turned out to be so much like the aging Monte, a horseback man who resisted change. West still rides, still raises cattle, and still has no running water at his house near Cerrillos. He totes water from a cistern and uses an outhouse. “I’ve been here since 1943, and it hasn’t changed a lot,” he says.
JACK SCHAEFER CHANGED in his later years. He soured on humanity and encroaching civilization. He stopped writing fiction, stopped writing about men, and turned to books about natural history, such as 1975’s An American Bestiary, portions of which appeared in New Mexico Magazine (see Legacy).
Albuquerque’s Max Evans, author of Western novels such as The Rounders and The Hi Lo Country, became acquainted with Schaefer during the latter’s Albuquerque years. Evans went to writers’ parties at Schaefer’s home, and the two authors shared time at an East Central lounge popular in the 1970s.
“I liked old Jack, really admired the hell out of him,” says Evans, who turns 93 this month. “But he was enormously contradictory, totally unpredictable. He would be perfectly charming and then take your head off. He had a secret smile, one most people wouldn’t notice. You couldn’t tell if he was pleased or if he was ridiculing you.”
Toward the end, Schaefer even turned against Shane, coming to believe the character was the real villain in the novel. In a May 1984 Albuquerque Tribune article, Schaefer is quoted as saying, “Shane was helping civilization, and civilization is a blight.”
IT HAS BEEN surprisingly difficult to find Schaefer’s books in recent years, especially the lesser-known titles. Only a few of his works are available on the general circulation shelves of the Albuquerque Public Library. So it was good news when the University of New Mexico Press announced plans to republish 12 Schaefer titles—some of which are already in bookstores.
The body of work includes the short-story collections First Blood and Other Stories, The Big Range, The Pioneers, and The Kean Land and Other Stories, and a collection of nonfiction pieces called Heroes Without Glory—Some Good Men of the Old West. Also seeing new print are the novels Old Ramon, The Canyon, Company of Cowards, Mavericks, Monte Walsh, Stubby Pringle’s Christmas, and, of course, Shane.
If not for Shane the novel, Schaefer’s writing career might have been limited to newspapers back East. And there would have been no movie to kick up the pulse and stir the admiration of a young Mississippi man who knew a hero when he saw one.
SCHAEFER ON THE SHELF
Of the 12 Jack Schaefer books being republished by the University of New Mexico Press, Ollie Reed Jr. recommends starting with these:
Monte Walsh (1963): Schaefer’s longest novel (some contend it’s really a collection of stories connected by a recurring character). I like cowboys the most among Old West characters, and this tells the whole wild, difficult, joyous, stubborn life of one of them. In the end, Monte Walsh is just like Shane, putting his life on the line for others. The difference is that Shane did it with a gun and Monte does it with nothing more than guts and a good horse.
Shane (1949): A fine book by any measure. The movie screenplay by A.B. Guthrie Jr. stayed remarkably faithful to the novel. In both, the story is told through the homesteader’s son and focuses on the underlying sexual tension between Shane and the homesteader’s wife. But there are differences, too. In the novel, Shane doesn’t call Wilson a Yankee liar. Instead, he says, “I’m waiting, Wilson. Do I have to crowd you into slapping leather?” (An Old West term for a quick-draw duel.)
Mavericks (1967): A cowboy novel aimed at a young audience. Jake Hanlon lives longer than Monte Walsh, long enough to realize that, like the wild mustangs, old cowboys are a dying breed. Worse yet, Jake realizes that by the very nature of their work, cowboys have helped kill the free life they love. Jake makes amends as best he can with the little time he has left.
Old Ramon (1960): Another YA novel. This beautifully crafted tale about an old shepherd, a young boy, a flock of sheep, and two dogs shows the growing influence of the landscape, weather, and culture of his adopted state on Schaefer.
The Canyon (1953): Said to be one of Schaefer’s personal favorites, this short novel tells the moving story of Little Bear, a young Cheyenne man so opposed to the warring culture of his tribe that he secludes himself, and later the woman he takes as his wife, in a canyon. But tragedy tracks them there, shaking Little Bear into the realization that abandoning his tribe meant giving up good things as well.
Company of Cowards (1957): Jared Heath and fellow Union soldiers, all busted for cowardice in Civil War battles, are sent to Fort Union in New Mexico Territory to redeem themselves. Schaefer wrote this after moving to New Mexico, but his descriptions of the land and the era still ring more of research than observation and a sense of place. The story itself, though, is solid and satisfying. I love the ending: “He had the clothes he wore and a horse and a rifle. Only those. And something more. An enduring quietness within.”