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High Sierra [Secure eReader]
eBook by W. R. Burnett

eBook Category: True Crime
eBook Description: The tormented and exhausted man at the center of W.R. Burnett's High Sierra is a notorious criminal whom the newspapers call "Mad Dog" Roy Earle. Earle is every bit the criminal the newspapers depict, but he is a complicated soul who is the tragic hero of the novel--a horribly flawed man, a violent criminal who still retains a bit of a conscience but never gets a decent break. As in most of Burnett's novels, High Sierra ostensibly describes a carefully plotted crime that is undermined by human nature. More interesting and important, perhaps, is its study of Roy Earle, who hardly seems the "Mad Dog" he is made out to be in the press. Pardoned from prison, he idealizes his childhood as he wearily makes his way across the California desert to meet up with two hoods named Red and Babe. Earle is dismayed to find they have with them a tough and brazen woman named Marie, though he begins to warm to her crude charm. He has been moved by the plight of a physically impaired woman he meets, Velma Goodhue, and he resolves to help her--imagining, somehow, that she will be his. After a holdup he plans with Red, Babe and Marie (who has now fallen in love with him), Earle takes money to Velma for an operation to repair her clubfoot. But the holdup has disastrous results. Red and Babe are killed, and Roy goes on the lam with Marie. They have nowhere to turn and even Velma deserts him. Earle sends Marie away, to meet him eventually in a mountain pass in the High Sierras--a rendezvous high in the sky that will not take place as planned. Much happens plotwise in High Sierra but it is Roy Earle who holds our interest. As remorseless as the book is--the concluding chapter consists a few lacerating paragraphs of post-mortem chitchat from the police--it makes Earle a rich and deeply compelling man, without sentimentalizing him at all. Reading High Sierra is close to the experience of reading James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, a tough, bleak and unforgiving narrative that works a dark and elusive magic.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2002

Chapter 1

Early in the twentieth century, when Roy Earle was a happy boy on an Indiana farm, he had no idea that at thirty-seven he'd be a pardoned ex-convict driving alone through the Nevada-California desert toward an ambiguous destiny in the Far West.

Then he'd felt secure and the world had seemed like a simple place. Grandfather Earle, an old man, sat on the porch in the summer, swatting at the flies and telling long involved stories of his experiences as a Union Cavalryman fighting the Morgan Raiders. Grandfather Payson, another old man, would drive over from his son's farm and spend the long hot afternoons listening to Grandfather Earle, putting in a sardonic comment from time to time and guffawing in the wrong places. Uncle Wert and Roy's father, Charley, worked hard in the daytime, summer and winter, but in the evenings they played checkers or cribbage in the kitchen or sat on the porch, watching the lightning-bugs flashing under the big sycamore trees and repeating all the gossip heard in town on Saturday night. The womenfolks were always busy at something; but whatever their work was, it never kept them from talking. They talked, talked, by the hour, and the soothing sound of their subdued conversations would drift out to the men sitting on the porch or the lawn, giving them a sense of happiness and security.

When Roy thought of the past it was always summer. There were a few simple scenes he liked to recall, and the older he got, the more frequently he let his mind wander back to that far-off time, a generation ago, which seemed to a worried man heading downhill like the morning of the world, a true Golden Age.

There was the swimming-hole. It was deep and wide; a pool formed near the mouth of a creek where it swung round a bend on its way to the big river. The grassy banks were steep and lined with tall oak and sycamore trees, whose branches broke up the hot sunlight and cast cool blue shadows on the water. Screaming and yelling, the kids would rush along the bank, casting off their clothes as they ran, and the last one in was a dirty name. They flung themselves from the high bank violently, some of them taking "belly-smackers" which echoed up the quiet creek and scared the big kingfishers, which flew from the trees with a heavy beating of wings, scolded the swimmers, then veered off upstream. The water was warm and sluggish. Sometimes it was so clear you could see shafts of sunlight striking to the bottom, through which swam schools of tiny sunfish and an occasional crawdad, which scuttled backwards rapidly into its little cave in the bank. Fat Evans, known to the grownups as "that chuckle-headed, lazy good-for-nothing," would clash rocks under the water, and heads would bob up suddenly all over the pool. They swam and dove and fought and yelled till the light began to fade, then there'd be a wild scramble for the shore; and the last one out usually found his clothes tied in knots.

There was the Saturday afternoon baseball game. Both Roy and his brother, Elmer, were born athletes and before they were twelve they were competing on an equal footing with the men of the community. Roy played the outfield and Elmer played second base. The family was proud of them and Grandfather Earle bragged about them so much that he made enemies. The sun beat down on the dusty baseball diamond; the crowds jammed along first and third base lines yelled and whistled and called insults to the opposing team and the sweating, bedeviled umpire; the pop-boys had a field day; and when it was all over, the people drove back to their farms or to their little houses in town exhausted but happy. Roy was a slugger. He took a long hold on his bat and when he swung he kicked up his left foot. When he missed, he whirled round and round and the catcher ducked his bat, cursing. When he landed fairly, there was a solid crash and the ball flew 'way out toward the big red barn in right center. Sometimes it was a home run and Roy would tip his cap as he crossed the plate, and the homefolks went wild. His father would pat him on the back and Grandfather Earle would caper and yell so violently that he'd get a twinge of "sciaticky" and have to dose himself with "medicine," which he drank from a pint bottle.

There was Aunt Minnie's. Roy liked her house even better than his own home. She was always cooking or baking something, and fine, sweet odors were always drifting out of the kitchen on those hot summer afternoons long ago. Roy sat in the dooryard waiting for the cakes or pies to be taken out of the oven; Aunt Minnie's troop of geese waddled past single file, irritable big fowl which hissed viciously at the slightest provocation and were always ready to attack; Sport, the mongrel farm dog, harried them half-heartedly, poised for flight; and bumblebees, as big as a boy's thumb, buzzed and blundered among the tall hollyhocks, adding a bass note to the drowsy humming of the other insects. Aunt Minnie's face was pinched and rather pale, but she had a sweet smile and was the gentlest person Roy had ever seen. She had a remedy for everything and Grandfather Earle said that the family didn't have to spend a dime for doctor bills with her around. On Sundays after church there was always a big freezer of home-made ice cream in the summer-house and every day there was lemonade and chocolate cookies. Roy even enjoyed doing chores at Aunt Minnie's. He'd water the stock, and feed the pigs and chickens, and milk Sarah, the big red cow. Aunt Minnie's was a haven of refuge for all the kids of the community; when they were hurt or put upon they ran to her. It was the nearest thing to heaven any of them knew.

And there were those long hot evenings when the moon was up over the countryside and all the sweet odors of a summer night hung in the air. Down by the river the bullfrogs plucked bass strings, the crickets strummed, the treetoads shook their rattles high overhead, and night birds, flying low, cheeped eerily under the trees. A distant freight train whistled at a far-off crossing, the melancholy sound carrying a long way in the still night. The farm dogs barked loudly, answering one another, and some of them, like wolves, bayed the moon. Bats blundered out from under the eaves of the barn and flew low, squeaking and chasing invisible insects and scaring the women, who put their hands over their hair and ran. And under the big sycamore trees of the dooryard the lightning-bugs began to appear, dotting the darkness with their tiny sulphur-green flares. Roma Stover, the yellow-haired girl from across the road, came sidling over shyly and she and Roy and Elmer swung on the big farm gate and laughed at nothing. Sometimes she'd catch a lightning-bug and put it in her hair. One night Roy caught a lot of them and put them in a bottle and the girl held it to her face so Roy and Elmer could see her features by this weird intermittent light. After a while Elmer would wander away into the darkness. He was no fool. He knew who she'd come to see. And Roy and the girl swung on the gate and whispered and sometimes kissed while the victrola on the porch played the latest tunes and the grown-ups called to them ironically from time to time and Grandfather Earle went into a long, loud discourse on the technique of "sparking."

To Roy a few simple scenes represented the "past." Everything else escaped him. He forgot that he'd been a problem to Ed Simpson, the schoolteacher, and that at one time Ed had told his father that he was a bad, rebellious boy, with an evil temper and a wide streak of meanness which would get him in trouble some day. He forgot that he'd stuck a penknife into a bully named Bub Cowalter, a big fat fellow who had been kicking Roy and some of the other younger boys around; he'd done worse than that: he'd gone on stabbing him, excited by Bub's calf-like cries of fear, till Elmer and another boy pulled him off. He'd forgotten that Elmer turned green with horror, and that some of the boys began to avoid him. He never knew that his mother and Aunt Minnie used to lie awake nights worrying about him and speculating on what his end would be. His father told the other relatives: "Roy's not like the rest of us. Damned if I know what it is. He's restless and won't settle down. He has to be running into town every night. He ain't a thing like Elmer or Anna or me. I swear I don't know where he gets his nature. Except maybe from Uncle Will. Remember? Ain't seen him for ten years. He may be dead. Nervous as a cat. Got so he couldn't stay in any one town over a day or so. He was a good workman, too; best lather in Brookfield. But just a bum and never was anything else. Last time I saw him he was dirty and stinking. I gave him a hat and a pair of shoes and two dollars. 'Charley,' he says, 'I've seen many towns and missed many meals'; then he laughed."

The relatives all shook their heads over Roy and nobody knew what to do with him.

Copyright © 1940 by W. R. Burnett

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