Saturday, April 4, 2015

Twin Sombreros by Zane Grey

This the first Zane Grey I have read. I picked it up on a whim at my library’s annual used book sale, and it’s safe to say I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out it is a sequel to a more famous Grey novel, Knights of the Range, where the hero of Twin Sombreros, Brazos Keene, has already had one adventure, something that in the end has left him heartsick and wandering away from the folks he knows and loves.

He quickly finds himself embroiled in another family’s drama--the Neeces, a father (Abe), a murdered son (Allen), and two bewitchingly beautiful twin daughters (June and Janis)--whose beloved Twin Sombreros Ranch has been stolen from them by the open range’s biggest villain: a powerful cattleman (Surface) who can bend both the law and the world of business to his will.

Swept up both by the pathos and the beauty of the daughters, Brazos makes a sudden decision.

“Allen swore he’d never rest until he’d got our--our Twin Sombreros Ranch back again,” answered Janis, with tears brimming in her eyes.

Brazos succumbed to the moment, realizing its inevitableness, and that perhaps he was swearing away his life. But the bewitching nearness of these girls, the sense of a great part he had been destined to play in their lives, magnified all his old spirit to do, his reckless disregard of self. He drew the girls closer over the counter, while he flashed a wary look around.

“Listen,” he whispered. “An’ keep this secret in yore pretty haids. … I’m gonna track down the murderers of yore brother--an’ kill them! An’ what’s more, I’m gonne run Surface oot of the ranch he stole from yore Dad an’ put you back there!”

Brazos, inspired by what he felt and much he could not understand, had exaggerated hope, daring, resolve. Once spoken aloud, the pledge seemed outrageous. But the girls gave him no reprieve, no chance to make provisions. They took him intensely, with deadly earnest, their faces paling to pearl hue and their eyes dilating. He might have been looking at just one girl, so incredibly similar were they. Neece’s daughters were new to the West, but they were part of it. They had been east long enough to share the tenderfoot’s glamorous regard for a cowboy desperado, but were Western enough not to doubt or fear it.

And there, in the span of those short paragraphs, the scope and action of the rest of the novel is set forth. Brazos will be as good as his word, but in doing so he will get twisted into knots over June and Janis, who he is never able to keep separate, although claiming (falsely) throughout that he only feels love for one of them.

In some ways, it was hard for me to read this Western morality play without reading into it aspects of Cooper’s romantic vision of the ever-expanding West and the pathfinder-like hero that can only exist on its leading edge. In the end, I have to admit that Brazos Keene is not Natty Bumpoo, but there are times that Grey seems to be flirting with the idea.

Southwest from where Brazos sat astride his saddle, gazing raptly at old familiar landmarks, yawned the gap in the range, where the Old Trail led up and over into New Mexico. It had a tremendous fascination for Brazos, not all of which came from the fact that he had ridden it and fought on it all they way from Dodge to Lincoln. Three hundred years before, the French fur traders had walked that trail, and the Spanish padres and explorers after them, and then the American fur men, down to the time of Kit Carson, and then the freighters in their covered wagons with their guards of soldiers, and the tide of gold hunters and pioneers, and lastly those other empire builders of whom Brazos counted himself one--the cowboys with their herds of longhorn cattle from Texas. It was a grand scene to Brazos, knowing as he did know so well what has taken place there down the long years. He had a melancholy feeling that he was a part of the West which had vanished. The noble wilderness appeared the same, despite the iron track he could see curving between the hills; the sun rose as always to gild those unassailable ramparts, and to shine on the rugged red walls, the black belts, the canyons of white, and the beckoning dim range. But the glory and the dream--that was to say the wildness and the romance--seemed to be passing away.

There’s The Prairie, beckoning and urging Brazos onward, but he, like Cooper’s Pathfinder, must stay and shepherd others towards not it, but through the narrow channels of morality and justice that he has been bred to perceive.

But there are things here that one won’t find in Cooper. There’s 1950s melodrama, almost as if written for the Technicolor screen. Here’s how Grey describes the climactic scene in which Keene confronts Allen Neece’s killers.

“You hombres murdered Allen Neece an’ blamed thet job on me,” went on Brazos relentlessly. “Yu murdered him because Surface wanted it done. An’ yu schemed to put me oot of the way because Surface was afraid I’d take Allen Neece’s trail. Wal, yu bet yore life I took it an’ it ends right heah. … Surface beat Abe Neece oot of Twin Sombreros Ranch. Yu men held up Neece thet night an’ robbed him of the money he had to pay Surface for his cattle. An’ yu-all sicked this girl on me ‘cause none of yu had the nerve to meet me face to face. … Wal, that’s my say. An’ after all yu’re meetin’ me face to face!”

As Brazos ended he read the desperate intent in Orcutt’s eyes and beat him to a gun. Orcutt’s heart was split even as he pulled trigger and his bullet hissed hotly by Brazos’ ear. Syvertsen, slow to realize and act, scarcely had his gun free when Brazos shot him through. The ball thudded into the wall. Syvertsen’s vitality equaled his terrible fury. He did not fall. He did not lose sight or intent. But his muscular co-ordination had been destroyed. Fire and smoke belched from his wavering gun. His frown of immense surprise, his pale lighted eyes, his incoherent ejaculations of hate were all appalling to see.

Brazos had to end them all. though the man was mortally struck, by blowing out his brains. Syvertsen swayed from his lofty stature, to fall across a table, to slide from that into another, and to crash down.

The smoke cleared away, disclosing Bess, back against the wall, her arms wide spread, with her gaze fixed terribly upon the fallen men.

Bess. The girl Orcutt and Syvertsen sicked on Brazos. Surface’s daughter. A dark and sultry beauty who, rather than shoot Brazos in the back as she had been instructed, had, naturally, fallen madly in love with his rugged charm and curly locks.

“He--killed--them?” she panted, as if dazed. “Brazos Keene!”

Suddenly she sprang out from the wall, an incarnate fury, formidable as a tigress.

“Bess,” called Brazos, who had feared her reaction to the tragedy.

“You fooled me--to kill them!”

“Don’t draw, Bess. … Don’t!” warned Brazos, shrilly.

“I’ll kill you!”

As she whipped out her gun Brazos had to be quick to save his life. He took a shot at her arm, high up. The heavy bullet spun her around like a top and sent the little gun flying. Shrieking wildly she collided with the wall, bounced out to fall beyond the two dead men, where her boots pattered on the floor.

As Brazos sheathed his gun and knelt to lift her head she ceased the cry of agony. She gazed up at Brazos, fascinated, suddenly bereft of all hate and passion.

“Brazos--you shot me,” she whispered accusingly.

“My Gawd, I did, girl! But why did you draw on me? Why did yu, Bess?”

“You made a fool of me.”

“No. I swear I didn’t. At least I didn’t intend to. Yu did all the foolin’, Bess.”

“You’ve killed me--Brazos?”

“I’m terrible scared, Bess,” replied Brazos, and he did not lie. He saw that he had hit her in the breast or shoulder, instead of in the arm. Blood was pouring out. He was afraid to open her blouse.

“It’s better so. I deserve it. … But to be killed by you, Brazos Keene--for loving you! Oh, what irony! … Oh, my wasted life! … the pity of it!”

The pity of it, indeed. And what happens after this orgy of pulp violence and schmaltz? Something else the reader won’t find in Cooper--a downright Christian ritual of penance and purification, as Brazos goes off into the wilderness for a few days to purge the spirit of violence from his conscience.

Then he sought his bed in the darkness of the pines and stretched out on it as if he wished never to move again. The mountain air was cold and rare; the brook rushed murmuringly over the stones; the wind moaned through the pine tops; and the old familiar lonely wail of coyotes came thrillingly at long intervals.

He had it out then with the dark forces that had actuated him. This time Brazos did not have a drunken spree to bring oblivion and to dull memory. That ruthless side of him was only a part of his nature. Like a demon in the night it passed out, leaving him free to sleep.

Christian, of course, because the curative aspects of this sojourn are only temporary, and rather than be truly redeemed, Brazos is only forgiven and fated to fall again.

And then there is the comedy, almost Shakespearean in its bawdiness and exploitation of mistaken identities. Because, of course, Brazos Keene falls in love with both June and Janis Neece, and both fall in love with him, twin girls impossible to tell apart and with a habit of pretending to be each other at embarrassing and comedic times.

June and Janis Neece! They were twin sisters, nineteen years old. It had been the ambition of a proud and loving father to send them east to give them an education. They had come back unspoiled, still Western, beautiful as the dreams of cowboys beside lonely prairie campfires. They were amber-eyed, and no cowboy could look into those eyes and tell the twins apart, or ever have any peace of mind again. They were perfectly, absolutely, damnably alike. Their shapely forms, their pearly skin, their brown hair, their voices, looks, smiles, mannerisms, all were enhanced irresistibly by this marvelous likeness. They had an infernal habit, or coquetry, or some instinct of self-preservation, to dress precisely the same.

In the last third of the novel, Grey stretches the possibilities for all their worth, including several scenes in which the reader himself does not know which twin Brazos is interacting with at which times. The ending, inevitably, is a happy one, even if Grey can’t resist keeping the mystery alive to the very closing line. Brazos, alone with one of the twins he intends to marry, is looking for a tell-tale birthmark on her thigh while a crowd of well-wishers wait outside.

“Brazos, we’re heah, all ready to make yu the happiest cowboy in Texas,” called Wess, his voice ringing.

“Can we come in?” Doan’s booming voice attested to the joy he felt. “Parson, papers, witnesses, an’ all.”

“Just a minnit more, Tom,” Drawled Brazos. “The lady has consented to become Mrs. Keene. But, doggone it! she hasn’t proved yet which one of the Twin Sombreros twins she really is!”

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment