by Harvey Fergusson (1890-1971)
206 pgs. Gregg Press, 1978.
Orig. pub. 1927.
Sam Lash is a mountain man who is first encountered traveling with two companions – rough and rowdy Gullion, and the wizened crank Old Rube. Their various adventures are recounted in a punchy, rhythmic way that suits the rugged image of their demanding lifestyle, including the spinning of tall tales and drunken braggadocio. It’s a rough life, and inevitably deadly, but the draw of the wild outdoors is irresistible. The mountain men are known to complain – saying they’d better leave the mountains and settle down before they get “rubbed out” – but each new trapping season finds them back in the woods.
But Wolf Song doesn’t simply romanticize the individualism of the old west; it is equally concerned with what draws people together and how different cultures struggle to preserve their own values in changing times. Three cultural groups are in conflict here – Anglo (or gringo, to use Fergusson’s term), Native American and Mexican. Episodic chapters allow Fergusson to introduce characters in their cultural context, setting spirit quests and supernatural prophecy alongside high society and quasi-barbarism.
Lash falls in love with Lola Salazar the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Mexican family in Taos, New Mexico, but his wild, mountain man ways are incompatible with their Catholic standards. Though Lash is unlikely to win the favor of the family patriarch in the wooing of his daughter, he is dependent on Taos for trading his furs, so he cannot get too far on the wrong side of Don Salazar. Outside its economic importance, Taos also offers the returning mountain men much needed social interaction, loose women, and whiskey.
Lash is being split down the middle by his love for Lola and his competing need to be working a trapline. As he travels through a distant canyon, his distracted state of mind puts him in danger when Black Wolf, a Cheyenne Indian, sees an opportunity to improve his standing within his tribe and, particularly, to win the hand of the woman he loves. You’ll have to read it yourself to discover who gets rubbed out.
William Pilkington, in the Introduction, says “Harvey Fergusson’s Wolf Song is, it seems to me, the most neglected “classic” in the canon of Western American fiction.” He puts it in the same class as A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky and Frederick Manfred’s Lord Grizzly. If you like mountain man stories, you might want to give this one a try.