Honey in the Horn

by H. L. Davis
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1576

First published: 1935

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: 1906-1908

Locale: Oregon

Principal Characters:

Clay Calvert, a migrant worker

Wade Shiveley, his stepfather

Uncle Press Shiveley, Wade's father

Luce, Clay's woman

The Horse Trader, Luce's father

The Story

Wade Shiveley had killed his own brother in a fight over a squaw and had murdered and robbed old man Howell. Now he had been captured. The officers wanted Uncle Press Shiveley, Wade's father, to try to get Wade to say where he had hidden the money. Uncle Press, however, had threatened to shoot Wade if he ever laid eyes on him again, and so in his place, he sent Clay Calvert, the son of one of Wade's wives. Clay did not want to go because he also hated Wade. Uncle Press gave Clay a gun to slip to Wade in the jail. Having loaded the gun with blank cartridges, he hoped Wade would use the worthless gun to attempt an escape and thus be shot down by the officers.

On the way to the jail, Clay met a horse trader and his wife and daughter. When Clay slipped the gun to Wade in jail, Wade said that he had not killed Howell, that Howell was killed by a bullet that split when it was fired and that such a bullet did not fit his own gun. Wade had always been a liar, but Clay suspected that this time he might be telling the truth.

Clay left town to hide in Wade's abandoned shack until after Wade had been killed and buried. Later, Uncle Press sent a half-breed Indian to tell him that Wade had escaped and that the sheriff was looking for Clay as an accomplice. Clay left the shack with the Indian, taking with him Wade's rifle he had found there. After traveling awhile, they met the horse trader and his woman again. Clay learned that the girl was called Luce and that she traveled with her father and stepmother, trading horses, racing them, and picking hops in season. Since he wanted to get out of the immediate territory and because he was attracted to Luce, Clay decided to travel with the horse trader's family. The Indian stole Wade's rifle from Clay and ran away.

Clay and the horse trader's family worked for a time in the hop fields. The trader was a weak man who lost all he and his family earned by gambling, and Luce took the responsibility for the family on her shoulders. Clay and Luce liked each other very much, but they quarreled frequently, and one day, Clay moved away from the wagon. When the sheriff appeared at the field one day, Clay became frightened and left hurriedly, traveling toward the coast.

Luce and her folks found him after awhile, and Luce and Clay decided to stay together. There was no place for them to get married. They spent the winter in a little settlement on the coast, in a cabin apart from the horse trader's. Luce rescued some bags of flour that had floated to shore from a wrecked ship, and with money earned by selling the flour to the Indians, she and Clay were able to buy a wagon and start on their own.

Clay and Luce left for eastern Oregon, but Clay refused to let her father and stepmother go with them, for he could not stand the sight of the weak horse trader. They traveled across the mountains and into Looking Glass Valley, where they joined another group of settlers led by Clark Burdon. Burdon described to Clay a stranger who was looking for him, and Clay knew the man was Wade. Clay liked Burdon and told him the story of Wade and his killings and escape. Burdon promised to help him get rid of Wade. That night, Clay shot a man he thought was Wade, but the dead prowler turned out to be the son of one of the settlers. When Burdon and Clay declared that Wade had shot the boy, the men formed a posse and captured Wade. After Wade tried to kill Clay, the men believed that the outlaw was trying to keep Clay from testifying against him; and the posse vowed to hang Wade. Clay felt guilty, for he doubted that Wade had killed Howell and he knew that he himself had shot the prowler. It was his life or Wade's, however, and so he kept silent. He felt dirty and sick when he saw Wade hanged.

The settlers traveled eastward, Clay and Luce with them. Luce had a miscarriage. She would not let Clay go for a doctor, for she was terrified that he would leave her and never come back. The rest of the caravan had gone on, and they were alone. Clay finally left Luce, promising to return with help as soon as possible. He came back with an Indian midwife, to find that Luce had gone away in the wagon. There were two sets of wagon wheels, and Clay knew instinctively that her father had come by and that Luce had left with him. Angry and hurt by her desertion, Clay decided to go on alone.

He rode his horse into the threshing country and worked with a mowing crew. There he met the half-breed from the Shiveley ranch and told the Indian to be on the lookout for Luce and her father. The Indian did meet the horse trader and made a large wager on a race with him. The horse trader lost the race, and the Indian collected the money. The next day, the Indian was found with a bullet in the back of his head and no money in his clothing, and the horse trader and Luce had disappeared. Clay helped bury the Indian, but before the burial, he shot Wade's rifle, which the Indian had stolen. The bullet did not split. Clay knew then that Wade had been telling the truth about not killing Howell. He suspected that Luce's father had killed and robbed both Howell and the Indian.

Clay joined a party moving on to a railroad construction camp. On their way, there was an accident, and one of the horses had to be killed. When Clay saw the horse, he recognized it as one belonging to Luce's father, and he knew that she was in the group. He volunteered to shoot the horse, but first he found Luce and asked for her rifle. With it, he killed the animal, and later, examining the bullet, he saw that it was split. When he told her that the trader had murdered Howell and the Indian, she claimed she had done the killings. She said that her father, who was now dead, had lost a lot of money to Howell and that her stepmother and Howell had fought. Luce had shot the old man during the fight and had taken the money her father had lost to him. Later, she killed the Indian because he had won her father's money in the horse race.

Clay suspected that Luce was trying to protect her dead father. Besides, he still wanted her. He climbed into her wagon, and they joined the long line of settlers who were still seeking a place where they could make real homes. Whatever their past, they would always go on together.

Critical Evaluation:

Oregon in the homesteading days was colorful, raw, rollicking, and often brutal. West of the Great Plains meant west of civilization, but the frontier nevertheless profoundly influenced American culture. HONEY IN THE HORN is Harold Lenoir Davis' Pulitzer Prize-winning attempt to render the unique and captivating quality of that experience. In his introduction, the author states that he is neither criticizing social groups nor suggesting reforms; rather, he attempts to give an accurate picture of the migrants who were always seeking new homes in better lands. The story itself is excellent, however fast-moving and interestingly told.

The title, from a boisterous square dance lyric, introduces a tall-tale dimension popularized by local colorists such as Bret Harte and Artemus Ward. The story derives much of its power and inspiration from the poker-faced comic sketches of the rustic characters the young protagonist encounters. When Clay Calvert flees the ramshackle toll bridge station (under shady circumstances which eventually unfold and help relieve the rambling plot of its dependence on coincidence), his adventures encompass a spectrum of incidents infused with local color, including vivid scenic description and scenes involving random brutality, frontier lore, backwoods politics, human dignity and degradation, squalor, and sensibility.

Davis' story combines authentic frontier language with huge infusions of firsthand knowledge and backwoods lore, which is occasionally fabulous but which nevertheless rings true of human situations. Davis refuses to mythologize his material but rather allows the tension between the myth and the revealed reality, between the ideal of the Old West and fact, to impel its own conclusions. While his characters tend to be one-dimensional, subtleties of frontier character and nuances of commonplace personal interaction are rendered perceptively and deftly, though without deep probing.

Although his vivid and lovingly rendered descriptions of homesteading life and landscape ranging from Oregon's rain forest to its alkali desert occasionally threaten to overwhelm his story and characters, Davis may be considered a frontier Realist of sorts. His honest and authentic portrayal of the scene as it actually was helps to break the grip of the Romantic myth on the American imagination.

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