Spoil its power and break it, so they can’t trust anything

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

I hadn’t even heard of James Warner Bellah before I came across his short story “Spanish Man’s Grave” in There Will Be War.

“This story is not science fiction,” Jerry Pournelle explains, “but it has its place in this anthology, for this is one of the stories that inspired Robert Heinlein to write Starship Troopers.” The connection is not obvious, but Bellah and his writing are inspiring:

Bellah was the author of 19 novels, including The Valiant Virginians (the inspiration for the 1961 NBC television series The Americans), and Blood River. Some of his short stories were turned into films by John Ford, including Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. With Willis Goldbeck he wrote the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

In World War I, Bellah enlisted in the Canadian Army, and served as a pilot in the 117th Squadron of Great Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. These experiences formed the basis of his 1928 novel Gods of Yesterday.

In the 1930s he worked as a journalist for the New York Post.

During World War II, Bellah served in the United States Army, starting as a lieutenant in the 16th Infantry, was detailed to the General Staff Corps before Pearl Harbor, and was later assigned to Headquarters 1st Infantry Division, later with the 80th Infantry Division. Later he served on the staff of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in Southeast Asia. He was attached to General Wingate’s Chindits in combat in Burma, and to General Stillwell and to Colonel Cochran’s 1st Air Commando Group. He left the service with the rank of Colonel.

He was a member of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of California beginning in 1952.

His short story “Spanish Man’s Grave” is considered by some to be one of the finest American Western stories ever written. His last script was A Thunder of Drums. Bellah’s depiction of the Apache is protested by some and lauded as realistic by others.

In the early stages of his career, Elmore Leonard modelled his style closely after Bellah’s writing.

He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles during a visit to his friend James Francis, Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles.

None of his works appear to be in print.

I collected a number of interesting passages:

  • “The experience of war never quite leaves a young man or woman. A great many are utterly destroyed by it. All are indelibly and subtly marked by it, because, for good or evil, the memory never quite leaves any of us.”
  • The fears of man are many. He fears the shadow of death and the closed doors of the future. He is afraid for his friends and for his sons and of the specter of tomorrow. All his life’s journey he walks in the lonely corridors of his controlled fears, if he is a man. For only fools will strut, and only cowards dare cringe.
  • Never the same route, for fear of forming military habits hostiles could depend upon.
  • For there are no soft-handed girls on the lone plains; only the echo of their laughter in dreams.
  • And a plains uniform is a poor badge of glory. Worn leather, reeking of horse sweat and body sweat. Shirts bleached to the blue of distant rain, the armpits white with salt rime. Battered gray beaver felt, threadbare on the head, with the sweatband stinking when you ease up the brim.
  • And no violins. No flowers. No band music. Only the dreariness and the loneliness and the final knowledge that you have flung down your youth into this empty void and that there your youth will die, far from the lights of cities, wasted forevermore.
  • “Effen it’s a homestead,” Tyree said, “it’s burnin’ down.”
  • Brown acid smell of horses. Green acid smell of men.
  • His fleshless hands at fifty-six were gray talons, and there was not enough blood left in him, after the years of his service, to take the iridescent blue from his lips.
  • A worn-out man, old before his time, drained by the Colors, sitting his mount a thousand miles down the wastelands, staring at distant smoke with his eyes closed.
  • “Mr. Pennell, there are only three things to remember out here. Always make them think you are in force, or will be soon. Always frighten them until they stop thinking and take refuge in Medicine. Then turn it against them, spoil its power and break it, so they can’t trust anything. And always treat your luck with respect, so that it will never turn against you.
  • This far the gods will let a man go—to a cairned grave on a lonesome downslope where he may lie in sleep forever. But here another man takes over, for there is always smoke still ahead and the march goes on.
  • Your first man dead in violence is a sick thing in your mind for many suns and many moons, until the others fade its picture.
  • But you never forget the first white woman you see that the Apaches have worked over.
  • They saw the two halves of the dog first, and the dust and hair and clotted abomination of the ax, flung under the broken wagon. Flies were there, green and translucent, glutted lazy.
  • The man was roped and arched in final protest at the little field’s edge.
  • He had fought, like a panther. The ground was lacerated with his fight.
  • Corporal Bartenett found the woman—“Alice Downey Graeme, his Wife.” And there it was, and how can you say what it was?
  • Thirty Apaches, by the pony marks, blood-drunk and beast hot. Reeking to defile. Hair-tearing hands, grease slick. Fetid-breathed and shrieking with obscenity.
  • “A two-day start on us they got, and the girl they got, about ten, eleven years old. See there,” and he pointed. “Her go-to-meetin’ dress.” He shook his head at Pennell’s question. “No,” he said. “I don’t think the girl, yet. Only the mother. But I sure hope the girl ain’t big for her age, ‘cause we gotta long haul to catch up on ‘em, sir. I sure hope she ain’t—”
  • “Tyree,” he said, “you and Marcy fix Mrs. Graeme decently for burial. I want her to have something on. Unmarried men clear out of the area…
  • The book tells you how to force the march, but a good sergeant is better than the best of books, and deep anger is better than a sergeant. Space out to fifty-five paces and stagger the odd files twenty yards to the right. That keeps the dust down and gives the mounts air to breathe. Unbit to graze on all halts, even the shortest. Halt ten minutes in the hour, and forty minutes every sixth hour for watering. Trot twenty minutes every second hour, and lead for the full hour before watering call. And talk up the horses. Tell them what you want out of them, for you can always bring a horse in on your side with the right kind of talk.
  • On the day the first Apache fire spot was still warm when Ross Pennell put the palm of his hand on it, the night of that day he put in his own fires. Squad fires. Fifty paces apart along the skyline. Enough fires to indicate two companies and their escort train.
  • Crazy is like fever. On and off. But every time it comes, it stays a little longer, until you die of it or it breaks.
  • At first you can’t believe it when you come to plains’ end, for no painting can ever show it as it is. The frost blues and the silken yellows of the tablelands. The reds that are watered out to the color of broiled lobster claws. The purples that have distant church music in them. The greens that you can smell for sweet mown grass. All worked into one breathlessness and swept across the horizon. At dawn, there is a golden rim around it. At sundown, nothing contains its endlessness.
  • “For two days now, by daylight, they could have watched from the high ground and seen that there were no two companies behind us! If they had done so, they would have circled wide to try to hit us from behind. But they didn’t do that, so that means they still believe we are two companies, and they have run to Medicine to get away from us, they’ve run to Spanish Man’s Grave for sanctuary… and that’s what I’ve been trying to make ’em do!”
  • “The louder the band plays the worse the shooting! The less brain the more flags! Only a trained soldier looks right in a bright uniform! Listen, Tyree. If we get up high ourselves—” and he pointed up toward the mesa tops “—Spanish Man’s Grave will stand out to you and me like a cut thumb, for it’ll be a bottleneck on a route that no well-trained soldier would ever think of taking through the tablelands.”
  • “Those dead Spaniards,” Pennell said, “came through the easiest route. The fact that they were all killed means they must have laid themselves wide open to tactical murder. They’ve done it all through their history; that’s why they’ve got no history left to make.”
  • The Apaches sat about their fires, safe in the ancient power of Medicine. Sat on the robes of their long-dead warriors, robes that were sewn with the symbols of the massacre story. Robes that boasted and lied and gloated in their needle tracery. Robes that had been used so long that they were no longer thick enough to hold smells in them for long. They sat frozen in fear when they saw Pennell, their faces turned toward him, or rose in white, unbelieving panic as he called through cupped hands and his voice rang in the narrow defile like the voice of doom: “The little Graeme girl! Lie flat where you are!” Then he saw her… “She’s by the fire on our left, Tyree! Hand these bastards the bill!”
  • “And are you all right, Alice?” She curtsied again. “Yes, sir; I am now, sir.” She walked toward them slowly with the ancient and solemn dignity of all of womanhood. And she said, “But I’m awfully glad you came, for I was very frightened…” not to Pennell alone, but turning her head to all of them, looking at their red eyes and their scraggly beards, their haggard faces, but knowing them for her own, with silent gratefulness that seemed to reach out and touch them with warm hands, and soft. And the way of their own hard living was suddenly more worthwhile in that moment than all the emeralds of Hind and all the gold of Cathay.


  1. Graham says:

    Vivid imagery, solid pacing and sentences. Evocative.

    That it would never have been selected for the Oprah Book Club is only an added badge of glory.

  2. Sam J. says:

    Every single one of the “There Will Be War” series is worth reading.

    For those who haven’t heard of it, the three-part “Imperial Stars” series is good, too.

  3. Joe Warrant says:

    I have been fortunate enough to track down a used (yellowing) paperback of James Warner Bellah’s short stories in a used bookstore. Distinctly a one-time find. I am always surprised to encounter anyone familiar with his works, or Dr. Pournelle’s There Will Be War.

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