Old-West Tale Sets Off a Relentless Stampede of Cowboy Cliches


"Code of the West" is heap big silly novel. Me no like um. But make heap big silly movie.

Aaron Latham, a New York screenwriter and novelist with "Urban Cowboy" to his credit, has ranged through the real and imagined history of 19th century Texas cattlemen, plucking characters, incidents and plots to stuff into this grab bag of well-worn cliches. The characters are cardboard Western, and they talk like it:

"Ain't this the purdiest sight you ever see in your life?" cries the leading character, Jimmy Goodnight, as he and his fellow cowboys stand on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. It's always "purdy" and "nowheres" and "that there" and "kilt" in Latham's Texas talk. There are never any g's on progressive verbs or gerunds, except when he forgets, and a "pretty" or a "nowhere" slips by.

Jimmy Goodnight was kidnapped as a young boy and raised by a band of Comanches. Latham's Comanche talk is a wonder to behold. Here is young Jimmy speaking, in Comanche, to a thick cluster of bees on a horehound plant whose leaves he needs to cure a Comanche woman's barrenness:

"You no hurt, I no hurt--I no take all leaves. No hurt. I no kill plants. No hurt. I leave much flowers. No hurt. They make much seeds. No hurt. Much friends of the childless woman next year. No hurt. We share. No hurt. No hurt. No hurt."

Needless to say, the bees let him pick the leaves.

Goodnight learns to talk with not only bees but animals of all sorts and even stones and other inanimate things. This talent comes in handy later. Goodnight is taken back by whites in a battle that the Comanches lose. Now a teenager, he goes to a county fair. There he encounters a contest. Who can pull from an anvil the ax embedded there by a tornado? The winner will get $1,000. The strongest men for miles around all try. All fail.

Then Jimmy steps up. He is not big and strong, but he has something else. He speaks to the anvil in Comanche:

"Excuse me, O Great Anvil, I've got something to say to you. Uh. Something important. Uh. I have great respect for your strength. Uh . . ." You guessed it. The anvil releases the ax, and he gets the money. You see, the anvil is really the sword Excalibur, and Jimmy is really King Arthur, and Revelie, the girl he meets, is really Guinevere, and Jack Loving, who becomes Jimmy's best friend, is really Lancelot du Lac, and so on. Or at least that's what the book jacket tells us. You wouldn't know it from the novel itself.

You wouldn't know it from the novel either, but Goodnight (his first name was Charles in real life) was a famous Texas cattleman who founded Home Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. He financed it with $2,500 loaned by a Scotsman for a share of the profits. Latham changes the backer to a Bostonian but keeps the terms the same.

Loving (his first name was really Oliver) was Goodnight's famous partner in cattle. And in real life there was plenty of violence on the Texas range in the late 19th century, the tales of which Latham lovingly pops into his bag of tricks.

There are murders and hangings and rapes and scalpings. (Latham changes his Comanches from noble savages into just plain savages and back again with breathtaking rapidity.) There is of course a buffalo stampede. There are violent but beautiful thunderstorms. There is lovemaking of the same character. There is even--and this must be a first--an attack of hundreds of tarantulas on the march.

And there are Noble Sentiments, solemnly delivered. This is, after all, the "Code of the West." Goodnight teaches it to his cowboys: Treat all people the same; be loyal; be trustworthy; always be "standin' on yore own two feet. . ."--It will make a helluva movie.


Anthony Day is the grandson, great-grandson and great-great-grandson of Texas cattlemen and Panhandle pioneers.

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