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A Note Man and Animals in “ The Indian Well” Since most western fiction and films have been produced primarily as commercial entertainment, a writer of serious fiction who uses western materials runs the risk of not being read carefully. Walter Van Tilburg Clark has always been willing to take that risk. In “The Indian Well” he takes that risk and still another: he not only uses a western character in a western setting, but he attributes to this westerner a fierce love for an animal. The risk Clark takes here is that even fairly careful readers of fiction may see the story only as another sentimental presentation of a sterotype long familiar in western fiction and films, the grizzled old prospector behind whose rough exterior beats a soft heart. That "The Indian Well” may long have been so read may account for the fact that critics have completely ignored the story in favor of Clark’s more anthologized and obviously “significant” shorter pieces such as “The Buck in the Hills” and “The Portable Phono­ graph.” Actually, “The Indian Well” is rigorously tough-minded and realistic rather than sentimental, fundamental rather than simple. Jim Suttler is drawn to a remote canyon at the edge of the desert by the presence of a spring. He decides to remain for a while at this “Indian well,” the life-sustaining waters of which he shares with many varieties of living things. Far from civilization and with his needs reduced to a minimum, Suttler settles into a quiet routine. Despite the outward simplicity of his existence, however, and despite his affection for his burro Jenny, which seems to suggest a close tie between man and animal, every incident in the story, every description of Suttler’s activities in the vicinity of the well em­ phasizes the differences rather than the similarities between man and all other living things on earth. Clark’s purpose in this story seems to be to underscore the truth that even in the most primitive of circumstances man is still man, a creature far removed in kind from all other animals. Clark further implies that some of the differences between man and animal ac­ count for man’s disruptive influence on what is referred to in the story as nature’s “cycle.” The spring supports a rich variety of animal life. Insects and birds, snakes, lizards, rabbits, mice, deer, coyotes, all depend directly or indirectly upon the Indian well for survival. The animals feed, drink, and mate in a 216 Western American Literature state of fearful alertness since the balance of nature is maintained by one form of life preying upon the other: “In the night the jackrabbits multiplied spontaneously out of the brush of the valley, drank in the rivulet, their noses and great ears continuously searching the dark, electrical air, and played in fits and starts on the meadow, and many young hopping like rubber, or made thumping love among the aspens and the willows. . . . A coyote came down canyon on his belly and lay in the brush with his nose between his paws. He took a young rabbit in a quiet spring and snap, and went into the brush again to eat it.”1 Even without the complications introduced by man, the struggle to survive at the well is at best Darwinian and brutal; but at the same time the animals know instinctively what to expect. Nature has made, it appears, a fairly equitable distribution of inherited means with which to cope with the situation. When Suttler arrives at the well, the animals sense his strangeness and adjust their life patterns slightly to avoid confronting this strange creature with his unfamiliar odors. But since Suttler does nothing more unusual or threatening than to kill a few rabbits for food, life in the canyon goes on much the same as before. On the surface at least it would appear that man can fit into nature’s cycle with a minimum of disruption. This is, of course, an illusion. However quietly Suttler goes about his affairs in the canyon, his every activity marks his difference from the other species he is ostensibly living with so harmoniously. While by human standards...


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pp. 215-218
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