The Woods Colt, by Thames Williamson

The Woods Colt was first published in 1933. It’s a simple, fast-moving tale about a stubborn young hillbilly, Clint Morgan, a “woods colt.” Woods colt is a hill term for bastard, and the status more or less dooms Clint from the outset. He is without much schooling and has no prospects. He has one friend, a colorful story-teller named Windy Gifford, and Windy is true to the end, hiring on with the sheriff’s posse and deliberately throwing it off Clint’s trail. Clint’s tough-as-nails mother and his errant father stand by him as much as they can, but his mother is alone and poverty-stricken, while his father has a vicious, tattling wife.

Clint’s troubles begin with a two-timing girl, pretty Tillie Starbuck. She likes Clint but Ed Prather, the postmaster, would surely offer her a better life. Rapidly, callow Clint fills up with jealousy and attacks Ed in the Hokeville post office. Clint wins, but Ed successfully claims that because the fight occurred in a post office, it’s a federal crime. Clint is thrown in jail and awaits arraignment in federal court.

“He is in the littlest room you ever seen, no bigger’n some folks’ smokehouse, the hull wall made of cement, an’ bars for a door.”

Because Clint is a kind of wild animal, he reacts like one. He knows what happens to moonshiners—they rot at Leavenworth. On the way to the federal court, he grabs the marshall’s pistol, and would kill him if he were sophisticated enough to figure out the safety. Only a few days later, he does kill a federal man, and then the posses descend in a breathless, you’ll-never-take-me-alive sort of chase. Remarkably, a fourteen-year-old girl, Nance Darby, comes to Clint’s aid, and Nance proves true.

Remarkably, also, Tillie and her uppity father get their come-uppance in a vivid, terrible scene that is barely short of a lynching. Subtly, Williamson shows that Tillie is probably innocent, while Clint, thirsting for revenge and unquestionably a victim, is in the wrong.

Williams wrote his story in dialect you’d have a hard time encountering anymore. He explains his method in his dedication: “For Vance Randolph, because he is the acknowledged authority on Ozark dialect, because we traveled them thar hills together, and because he twice went over this story in the painstaking effort to make it regionally perfect.”

I spent a lot of my childhood in Texas and Wright counties, and back then you could still encounter the “Ozark dialect.” Williams is masterful with it but perhaps not “perfect.” Certainly, if there is an unimpeachable authority, it’s the famous folklorist, Vance Randolph, but I was slightly thrown off by “always.” Randolph renders it “allus,” which is how many Ozarkers pronounce always even today. Guy Howard, in Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks (1944), renders always as “allers.” Williams stays with “always.”

A quibble. The Woods Colt is a marvelous rendering of hill life in the 1930s, and a crackerjack story that ends excitingly, if ruthlessly. Unlike Harold Bell Wright in The Shepherd of the Hills, Williamson is never sentimental. In fact, in its exposition, The Woods Colt is quite modern, while The Shepherd of the Hills is stilted and overwrought. Yet Wright’s novel lives on, while Williamson’s has sunk into obscurity. Go figure.

Note: The Woods Colt was illustrated by the extraordinary woodcuts of Raymond Bishop, one of which appeared on the cover.

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