Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Sheriff and His Partner by Frank Harris, 1891

This is the third review in my self-styled 'First Novels' challenge. I understand this novella was the first creative work by Frank Harris.

“I swear you in as a Deputy-Sheriff of the United States, and of this State of Kansas; and I charge you to bring in and deliver at the Sheriff's house, in this county of Elwood, Tom Williams, alive or dead, and—there's your fee, five dollars and twenty-five cents!" and he laid the money on the table.”

That’s what Samuel Johnson, the brave and popular Sheriff of Elwood County in the town of Kiota, Kansas, tells the narrator of The Sheriff and his Partner to do. Irish-born American author Frank Harris doesn’t tell us the narrator’s name or what he looks like. We know he is young and employed as a clerk in a law office in Kiota and that he is bored of his desk job. However, all that is about to change.

One afternoon, when ex-Judge Shannon is riding from his law office to his home about four miles out of town, he is waylaid by an armed stranger who robs him of his watch, his money, and his horse. Before leaving, the man instructs the judge to tell Sheriff Johnson that he was robbed by Tom Williams and that he could be found at the saloon in the neighbouring town of Osawotamie.

The incident, not unusual on the frontier, puts our narrator in an unexpected predicament, one entirely of his own making.

Following the robbery, the saloon in Kiota is agog with rumour and gossip. Both the sheriff and the narrator are there. When the talk among the high-spirited bunch of cowboys and farmers veers to a posse—to go to Osawotamie and arrest Williams—our unsuspecting narrator is annoyed. He realises that Johnson and Williams go back some way and that the robber has thrown the sheriff an open challenge. Our hero tells the sheriff that only one man is sufficient to bring the offender in, inviting a sharp and angry look from the lawman.


In a sudden turn of events, Johnson swears the narrator in as Deputy-Sheriff and tells him to go to Osawotamie and bring back Tom Williams. The narrator realises, too late, that he has been set up by the “boys” in the saloon. And for a reason: the narrator will remain a “stranger” and a “tenderfoot” in town till he gives proof of his courage. The sheriff presents him with an opportunity to do just that.

Does he bite the bullet? Or does he decline the sheriff's offer? The narrator has his pride and decides to do Johnson's bidding. With a pistol tucked in his right jacket pocket, he sets out to confront the robber and bring him in. He wants to prove to the town that he is no tenderfoot. The end is dramatic though I confess I didn’t see it coming. If I say more I’d be giving it away.

The Sheriff and his Partner, said to be the author’s first shot at creative writing, is a mild western and set in the early days of the frontier. The description of the town of Kiota and its inhabitants is sparse although we are told Sheriff Johnson is a man of medium height and sturdy build, a broad forehead, clear, grey-blue eyes, and a thick brown moustache and beard. The once lawless town has been transformed by emigrants into a habitable place free of violence. They do so with the help of a man named Johnson. Many a lone ranger like Johnson has walked into frontier towns and cleaned it up.

I particularly liked the author’s description of Kiota told through the voice of the narrator. It would probably apply to most early frontier towns. He writes:


“An outpost of civilization, it was situated on the border of the great plains, which were still looked upon as the natural possession of the nomadic Indian tribes. It owed its importance to the fact that it lay on the cattle-trail which led from the prairies of Texas through this no man's land to the railway system, and that it was the first place where the cowboys coming north could find a bed to sleep in, a bar to drink at, and a table to gamble on. For some years they had made of Kiota a hell upon earth. But gradually the land in the neighbourhood was taken up by farmers, emigrants chiefly from New England, who were determined to put an end to the reign of violence.”

© Wikimedia Commons
The author
Frank Harris (1856-1931), an editor, journalist and publisher, was a friend of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and was associated with H.G. Wells, Max Beerbohm, Winston Churchill, and Arnold Bennett among others. He wrote biographies of Shaw and Wilde. Harris was also known for his erotic book My Life and Loves, which was banned in several countries for its sexual explicitness. Harris was considered to be a fine writer of his era. This story proves that he was.

14 comments:

  1. Sounds like an interesting book, Prashant. Sounds like the author lived an exciting life.

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    1. Tracy, I had not heard of Frank Harris till I came across this novella online. Given his association with famous people, he must have lived an exciting life.

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    1. Charles, he certainly did. I wonder what he had to say about Shaw and Wilde.

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  3. Prashant glad you enjoyed it, but I don't think I will be adding it to my list of want to reads. Keep them coming though!

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    1. Col, this is not the conventional western that I usually read. This short fiction gives the reader a glimpse into the making of frontier towns.

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  4. Nice review of a book I wouldn't normally read. Can I fit it in my TBR list, I wonder?

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    1. Tracy, thank you. It'd be alright if you didn't add it to your TBR pile. It's not exactly a must-read.

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  5. I've heard of Frank Harris and his rather risqué memoirs - I would totally not have been expecting this book to come from him! Thanks for the lost byway, Prashant.

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    1. Moira, you're welcome. One of these days I plan to read his memoirs of George Bernard Shaw and/or Oscar Wilde.

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  6. This one missed inclusion in my book, HOW THE WEST WAS WRITTEN. As a 14- or 15-year-old, Harris travelled to America and spent time on the frontier. Later in life, he wrote up these adventures in books titled REMINISCENCES AS A COWBOY and ON THE TRAIL.Historians doubt the accuracy of them.

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    1. Ron, I didn't know that bit about Frank Harris. He seemed to have a good understanding of life on the frontier. Finding REMINISCENCES AS A COWBOY and ON THE TRAIL online shouldn't be difficult.

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  7. You got me to find a copy of this novella and read it. You have given it an excellent summary in your review. As you say, it is a perfectly enjoyable story in the vein of practical jokes played on tenderfeet, but which takes a couple of unexpected turns. I love the scene where he finds Williams in the saloon.

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    1. Ron, thanks for your appreciation. I liked the saloon scene too but I didn't mention it for fearing of giving away too much. I usually have that problem while reviewing short stories. I haven't read a lot of westerns with humour and this was an "enjoyable" read.

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