Authors: To the Last Man
It was inevitable that in my efforts to write romantic history of the
great West I should at length come to the story of a feud. For long I
have steered clear of this rock. But at last I have reached it and
must go over it, driven by my desire to chronicle the stirring events
of pioneer days.
Even to-day it is not possible to travel into the remote corners of the
West without seeing the lives of people still affected by a fighting
past. How can the truth be told about the pioneering of the West if
the struggle, the fight, the blood be left out? It cannot be done.
How can a novel be stirring and thrilling, as were those times, unless
it be full of sensation? My long labors have been devoted to making
stories resemble the times they depict. I have loved the West for its
vastness, its contrast, its beauty and color and life, for its wildness
and violence, and for the fact that I have seen how it developed great
men and women who died unknown and unsung.
In this materialistic age, this hard, practical, swift, greedy age of
realism, it seems there is no place for writers of romance, no place
for romance itself. For many years all the events leading up to the
great war were realistic, and the war itself was horribly realistic,
and the aftermath is likewise. Romance is only another name for
idealism; and I contend that life without ideals is not worth living.
Never in the history of the world were ideals needed so terribly as
now. Walter Scott wrote romance; so did Victor Hugo; and likewise
Kipling, Hawthorne, Stevenson. It was Stevenson, particularly, who
wielded a bludgeon against the realists. People live for the dream in
their hearts. And I have yet to know anyone who has not some secret
dream, some hope, however dim, some storied wall to look at in the
dusk, some painted window leading to the soul. How strange indeed to
find that the realists have ideals and dreams! To read them one would
think their lives held nothing significant. But they love, they hope,
they dream, they sacrifice, they struggle on with that dream in their
hearts just the same as others. We all are dreamers, if not in the
heavy-lidded wasting of time, then in the meaning of life that makes us
It was Wordsworth who wrote, "The world is too much with us"; and if I
could give the secret of my ambition as a novelist in a few words it
would be contained in that quotation. My inspiration to write has
always come from nature. Character and action are subordinated to
setting. In all that I have done I have tried to make people see how
the world is too much with them. Getting and spending they lay waste
their powers, with never a breath of the free and wonderful life of the
So I come back to the main point of this foreword, in which I am trying
to tell why and how I came to write the story of a feud notorious in
Arizona as the Pleasant Valley War.
Some years ago Mr. Harry Adams, a cattleman of Vermajo Park, New
Mexico, told me he had been in the Tonto Basin of Arizona and thought I
might find interesting material there concerning this Pleasant Valley
War. His version of the war between cattlemen and sheepmen certainly
determined me to look over the ground. My old guide, Al Doyle of
Flagstaff, had led me over half of Arizona, but never down into that
wonderful wild and rugged basin between the Mogollon Mesa and the
Mazatzal Mountains. Doyle had long lived on the frontier and his
version of the Pleasant Valley War differed markedly from that of Mr.
Adams. I asked other old timers about it, and their remarks further
excited my curiosity.
Once down there, Doyle and I found the wildest, most rugged, roughest,
and most remarkable country either of us had visited; and the few
inhabitants were like the country. I went in ostensibly to hunt bear
and lion and turkey, but what I really was hunting for was the story of
that Pleasant Valley War. I engaged the services of a bear hunter who
had three strapping sons as reserved and strange and aloof as he was.
No wheel tracks of any kind had ever come within miles of their cabin.
I spent two wonderful months hunting game and reveling in the beauty
and grandeur of that Rim Rock country, but I came out knowing no more
about the Pleasant Valley War. These Texans and their few neighbors,
likewise from Texas, did not talk. But all I saw and felt only
inspired me the more. This trip was in the fall of 1918.
The next year I went again with the best horses, outfit, and men the
Doyles could provide. And this time I did not ask any questions. But I
rode horses—some of them too wild for me—and packed a rifle many a
hundred miles, riding sometimes thirty and forty miles a day, and I
climbed in and out of the deep canyons, desperately staying at the
heels of one of those long-legged Texans. I learned the life of those
backwoodsmen, but I did not get the story of the Pleasant Valley War.
I had, however, won the friendship of that hardy people.
In 1920 I went back with a still larger outfit, equipped to stay as
long as I liked. And this time, without my asking it, different
natives of the Tonto came to tell me about the Pleasant Valley War. No
two of them agreed on anything concerning it, except that only one of
the active participants survived the fighting. Whence comes my title,
TO THE LAST MAN. Thus I was swamped in a mass of material out of which
I could only flounder to my own conclusion. Some of the stories told
me are singularly tempting to a novelist. But, though I believe them
myself, I cannot risk their improbability to those who have no idea of
the wildness of wild men at a wild time. There really was a terrible
and bloody feud, perhaps the most deadly and least known in all the
annals of the West. I saw the ground, the cabins, the graves, all so
darkly suggestive of what must have happened.
I never learned the truth of the cause of the Pleasant Valley War, or
if I did hear it I had no means of recognizing it. All the given
causes were plausible and convincing. Strange to state, there is still
secrecy and reticence all over the Tonto Basin as to the facts of this
feud. Many descendents of those killed are living there now. But no
one likes to talk about it. Assuredly many of the incidents told me
really occurred, as, for example, the terrible one of the two women, in
the face of relentless enemies, saving the bodies of their dead
husbands from being devoured by wild hogs. Suffice it to say that this
romance is true to my conception of the war, and I base it upon the
setting I learned to know and love so well, upon the strange passions
of primitive people, and upon my instinctive reaction to the facts and
rumors that I gathered.
At the end of a dry, uphill ride over barren country Jean Isbel
unpacked to camp at the edge of the cedars where a little rocky canyon
green with willow and cottonwood, promised water and grass.
His animals were tired, especially the pack mule that had carried a
heavy load; and with slow heave of relief they knelt and rolled in the
dust. Jean experienced something of relief himself as he threw off his
chaps. He had not been used to hot, dusty, glaring days on the barren
lands. Stretching his long length beside a tiny rill of clear water
that tinkled over the red stones, he drank thirstily. The water was
cool, but it had an acrid taste—an alkali bite that he did not like.
Not since he had left Oregon had he tasted clear, sweet, cold water;
and he missed it just as he longed for the stately shady forests he had
loved. This wild, endless Arizona land bade fair to earn his hatred.
By the time he had leisurely completed his tasks twilight had fallen
and coyotes had begun their barking. Jean listened to the yelps and to
the moan of the cool wind in the cedars with a sense of satisfaction
that these lonely sounds were familiar. This cedar wood burned into a
pretty fire and the smell of its smoke was newly pleasant.
"Reckon maybe I'll learn to like Arizona," he mused, half aloud. "But
I've a hankerin' for waterfalls an' dark-green forests. Must be the
Indian in me.... Anyway, dad needs me bad, an' I reckon I'm here for
Jean threw some cedar branches on the fire, in the light of which he
opened his father's letter, hoping by repeated reading to grasp more of
its strange portent. It had been two months in reaching him, coming by
traveler, by stage and train, and then by boat, and finally by stage
again. Written in lead pencil on a leaf torn from an old ledger, it
would have been hard to read even if the writing had been more legible.
"Dad's writin' was always bad, but I never saw it so shaky," said Jean,
GRASS VALLY, ARIZONA.
Son Jean,—Come home. Here is your home and here your needed.
When we left Oregon we all reckoned you would not be long behind.
But its years now. I am growing old, son, and you was always my
steadiest boy. Not that you ever was so dam steady. Only your
wildness seemed more for the woods. You take after mother, and
your brothers Bill and Guy take after me. That is the red and
white of it. Your part Indian, Jean, and that Indian I reckon
I am going to need bad. I am rich in cattle and horses. And my
range here is the best I ever seen. Lately we have been losing
stock. But that is not all nor so bad. Sheepmen have moved into
the Tonto and are grazing down on Grass Vally. Cattlemen and
sheepmen can never bide in this country. We have bad times ahead.
Reckon I have more reasons to worry and need you, but you must wait
to hear that by word of mouth. Whatever your doing, chuck it and
rustle for Grass Vally so to make here by spring. I am asking you
to take pains to pack in some guns and a lot of shells. And hide
them in your outfit. If you meet anyone when your coming down into
the Tonto, listen more than you talk. And last, son, dont let
anything keep you in Oregon. Reckon you have a sweetheart, and
if so fetch her along. With love from your dad,
Jean pondered over this letter. Judged by memory of his father, who
had always been self-sufficient, it had been a surprise and somewhat of
a shock. Weeks of travel and reflection had not helped him to grasp
the meaning between the lines.
"Yes, dad's growin' old," mused Jean, feeling a warmth and a sadness
stir in him. "He must be 'way over sixty. But he never looked old....
So he's rich now an' losin' stock, an' goin' to be sheeped off his
range. Dad could stand a lot of rustlin', but not much from sheepmen."
The softness that stirred in Jean merged into a cold, thoughtful
earnestness which had followed every perusal of his father's letter. A
dark, full current seemed flowing in his veins, and at times he felt it
swell and heat. It troubled him, making him conscious of a deeper,
stronger self, opposed to his careless, free, and dreamy nature. No
ties had bound him in Oregon, except love for the great, still forests
and the thundering rivers; and this love came from his softer side. It
had cost him a wrench to leave. And all the way by ship down the coast
to San Diego and across the Sierra Madres by stage, and so on to this
last overland travel by horseback, he had felt a retreating of the self
that was tranquil and happy and a dominating of this unknown somber
self, with its menacing possibilities. Yet despite a nameless regret
and a loyalty to Oregon, when he lay in his blankets he had to confess
a keen interest in his adventurous future, a keen enjoyment of this
stark, wild Arizona. It appeared to be a different sky stretching in
dark, star-spangled dome over him—closer, vaster, bluer. The strong
fragrance of sage and cedar floated over him with the camp-fire smoke,
and all seemed drowsily to subdue his thoughts.