Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox
A great Western
Last time we were looking at the career of the fine Western writer Ernest Haycox (click the link for that). Probably Haycox’s most famous Western story was Stage to Lordsburg, first published in the April 10, 1937 edition of Collier's. Largely this was because it was read by John Ford, and in 1939 Ford’s friend Dudley Nichols (with additions by Ben Hecht) changed it a lot, turning it into the screenplay for one of the most famous Western movies ever, Stagecoach (click for our review).
The story, which is easily available (even free from the University of Arizona – a rather amateurish photocopy but at that price, who’s complaining?) is short, a few pages, and those who have viewed Ford’s Stagecoach or later incarnations like the 1966 remake or the pretty dire 1980s country-singer version for TV, will have some difficulty recognizing the Haycox story as the source for those movies.
In Stage to Lordsburg there is no drunken doc, no pregnant Army wife, no crooked banker, no wild chase with Yak Canutt stunts across Monument Valley pursued by Indians; there’s not even the Ringo Kid.
Furthermore, several of the characters remain shadowy and do not emerge as people; some are not even named. ‘The Englishman’, for example, is hardly described and never speaks, and we are left with the vaguest of impressions of him. Of course, you can do a lot with a visual, dialogue-filled 96 minutes of film, especially if well written and directed, whereas your canvas in a 5787-word short story is necessarily smaller. Haycox was a master – a master of subtlety and the implied rather than the stated. He could even give Jane Austen a run for her money in that regard (a race I for one would pay to see).
For example, Henriette (the Claire Trevor part of Dallas) is clearly what might these days be called a sex worker but Haycox would never use any word as crude as whore or prostitute. He implies her profession and social status in a number of clever ways: by using her first name, for instance in contrast to the proper ‘Army girl’, who, when she is finally named at all, is accorded the title of Miss (first Robinson, then Robertson). Henriette, with her French name, is closer to Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif than she is to Trevor’s Dallas. When first introduced, Henriette is described as “a girl known commonly throughout the Territory as Henriette”, and the weight placed on that word commonly is enormous. Later, Haycox refers to “the loneliness that drove [men] to women of her kind.”
As with the films, however, Henriette and her gunman admirer are the most sympathetic characters aboard the stage. The John Wayne/Alex Cord part of the Ringo Kid is based on Haycox’s Malpais Bill, and once again there is great subtlety in the way he is portrayed. There is little backstory provided but we don’t need it. With his diamond-in-the-rough gentlemanly ways and his care and concern for Henriette’s welfare (he punches a lecherous cattleman who gets too friendly with her; the blow isn’t described but its after-effects on the cattleman’s face are), blond Bill rapidly becomes a most endearing character. To Henriette he is “unobtrusively gallant, unexpectedly gentle.”
Up on the box, instead of Andy Devine’s Buck and George Bancroft’s Curley, in the ’39 movie, or Slim Pickens/Van Heflin in '66, we have profane Happy Stuart at the ribbons of the six-up and John Strang wielding the shotgun. Strang will become one of the victims of the Apache attack, though once again his death is not described, only Happy’s grim face and the empty place beside him. Similarly, Happy’s profanity is never actually put into dialogue, beyond an occasional damn or hell, but rather referred to.
Inside, we have a central, backless bench between the seats, as was often the case in reality. The passengers change places a fair bit, and do not ‘own’ a particular space. At first, seated with their backs to the driver are the Englishman, an unnamed gambler (the John Carradine part) and ‘the blond’, later identified as Malpais Bill. Opposite them, facing the direction of travel, are ‘the Army girl’ and Henriette. So a very proper segregation of the sexes. On the middle bench between these characters are the anonymous whiskey drummer and a ‘solid-shouldered’ cattleman. Later, the Army girl is invited to change places with the gambler (another reference to Henriette’s outcast status) and when the drummer is taken unwell, he stretches out on Henriette’s seat and is nursed by her. Bill takes the cattleman’s place on the center bench to avoid the leering man’s proximity to Henriette.
At one point the stage crashes but they right it and carry on. As in the film(s), they stop at way stations along the trail, and Henriette finally bonds with the Army girl, bridging the gulf between them, but at one, Al Schrieber’s (which sounds very like Al Sieber, doesn’t it) they find only charred remains and bodies. They finally run into ‘Geronimo’s men’ and the attack is short but fierce. Inside, the gambler is a casualty. Once at Lordsburg, Bill has his run-in with Plummer but there is no Fordian action climax: it happens offstage, as it were, when Henriette hears four shots and then Bill comes back to her. This is in keeping with the understated and allusive style of the whole piece.
The best stagecoach stories are probably Boule de Suif, Ford’s Stagecoach, Fox’s 1967 picture Hombre and, of course, Jeff Arnold’s brilliant short story Concord, which obviously you have read and marveled at. But the best of them all, really, even better than Concord, is Ernest Haycox’s Stage to Lordsburg. Short, sensitive, subtle, it is like the pencil sketch of a fine artist. And a great Western.