Monday, March 07, 2005

McGuire's Gold a bit Tarnished

Texas Gold
by Tim McGuire
Berkeley – August 2004

There’s an old standard device popularized by Zane Grey in westerns. It’s the one where a girl – for a variety of reasons – pretends to be a boy and joins up with a trail herd. Grey used several variations on this theme. Of course, there was precedent in the old west. In the 1850s Charley Parkhurst began working as a stagecoach driver and became known as a reliable and tough customer. With one eye covered by a patch, Charley handled a team, smoked cigars, did a little drinking, played cards and dice, and even voted for Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. It wasn’t until Charley’s death that he was revealed to be a she. Such happenings were, though, incredibly rare. Even Annie Oakley and Bell Starr, homely as they were, could never have been mistaken for anything but women.

McGuire uses this device earnestly and, to his credit, lets us in on it very early. Young Leslie Turnbow – an orphan living with a kind but cloistering guardian – has big dreams which are fueled by the musings of a man set to hang. Leslie, who goes by the name Les, is told that there is a cache of Confederate gold hidden in Texas, and the condemned man kindly tells Les how to find it. Of course, being a young girl, heading out on the 500-mile trip from Kansas to Texas is not something she can undertake alone. But with the convenient help of the town whores Les is given a disguise and teamed up with a couple of drovers taking a cavvy of cow ponies back to the home ranch.

Along the way, Les is beset by all manner of problems and conflicts – the standard fare in a trail story. Throughout, though, she is constantly faced with exposure as opportunities to strip bare seem to grow on trees. Eventually she is unmasked and the travelers discover the gold’s hiding place. But to their disappointment they find only gold certificates issued in Confederate currency, all of it worthless.

Because this is ultimately a journey story, Les is made to learn many things. You need to buy into the fact that she’s a complete idiot and wouldn’t even know to bring dry, seasoned wood for a fire or how to cook up a plate of beans. This is a little hard to believe, frankly. While Les lived in Abilene, Kansas is still part of the frontier. The time is 1870, or thereabouts, so people are using wood stoves. Les would have had ample opportunity to learn about firewood and cooking. That she doesn’t know some trail practices, however, is perfectly reasonable and McGuire exploits these fairly well.

Being a journey story, Les meets many people along the way. There is a spiraling mix of characters, in fact, that all seem to meet around Les’s campfire. There is the itinerant gambler/lady’s man, the rustlers, the angry husband chasing the gambler, and the lone wayward family heading west in a covered wagon. There is, in fact, a whole mess of free travel through what would have been some of the deadliest territory in the west. In 1870 the place was swarming with warring Indians and it wasn’t very safe to travel alone. McGuire’s characters move with little thought to Indians except when they have to pay tribute – in horses or cattle – to some very cultured braves collecting a toll.

The biggest problem is that Texas Gold is an unfulfilled promise. The first chapter tells us that we’re going to have a search for gold. That kind of the story suggests a different set of struggles than McGuire used and a concentration on the gold. Instead, we get the journey/coming of age story and the gold is used as a Hitchcockian McGuffin. By the end we get a TV-style epilogue where everyone has a laugh over finding worthless paper and they decide to head off into another adventure.

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