Sunday, January 6, 2019

'You had a continent to choose from and you tried to steal what was mine.'

Based on my limited reading I think of J. D. Newsom is of a Foreign Legion story specialist, but his novella "Lord of the Stony Rises" (Adventure, July 30, 1924) finds him in Australia telling a meandering tale of one man's vengeance giving way to another's. The common foe is John Burdette, a mighty land baron on somewhat unscrupulous origins, first shown firing, in humiliating fashion, an even less scrupulous underling, Mitcham. This Mitcham dreams of taking revenge and has an inkling of how to do so, having become aware of the legal uncertainty of much of Burdette's property. He's such a loser, however, that he can do nothing about it and is reduced to a paranoiac fear of Burdette ever lurking near him until he happens to run into just the person to help him. A chance encounter begins a mismatched partnership between the thuggish, weaselly Mitcham and the dandified "shrimp" called Rushton, who has the means and the apparently whimsical temperament to take on Burdette by running cattle on his supposed land. Rushton is a constant infuriating surprise to Mitcham, from his unlikely competence with a bullwhip to his ability to hold his own with Mitcham in a fight. He also has more stick-to-it-ness than Mitcham, who's willing to sell out immediately when Burdette suggests a price that strikes Mitcham as lordly but seems pathetic to Rushton, who has hinted at reasons of his own to stick it to Burdette. Burdette himself recognizes Rushton as the real threat and strives to flip Mitcham back to his side. Mitcham had seemed to be the protagonist of the story, but as his craven nature becomes undeniable Rushton becomes our hero as rough outdoor life rips away his veneer of refinement to reveal the real character beneath. This change gives the story more of an episodic quality than it probably should have, especially once it moves into endgame mode with Burdette tasking Mitcham to provoke a native uprising in order to destroy Rushton. Newsom is blunt about the fate of the continent's aborigines, making plain that relegating them to reservations is more or less a death sentence, but shows them little sympathy. The tribe Mitcham deals with is especially awful, their adoration of the man as a god (for providing them with booze, among other reasons) going horrifically overboard in a kind of parody of the Catholic Mass as the people become convinced that partaking of the divine flesh will give them magical powers. With Mitcham thus disposed of the stage is cleared for the showdown with Burdette in which Rushton finally reveals his grudge with the land baron. It proves to be typical melodramatic stuff: Rushton's grandfather once owned most of the land Burdette now holds, but was driven out after refusing to let Burdette marry his daughter, Rushton's mother. In the ultimate melodramatic moment, Burdette has a vision of the long-lost girl and promises not to harm her boy before dropping dead from a heart attack. It's a bit of a mess but still an entertaining story, and in any event this was still early in Newsom's career. He'd been publishing in Adventure since 1922, and his best work was still ahead of him.

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