To get the full effect of that exchange between young Laban Teale and the
rangy, rough-hewn cowhand Conn Conagher, it’s best to imagine the wry reply being delivered in Sam Elliott’s sandpaper-on-leather drawl.
Like nearly all the heroes brought to life by the pen of
the incomparable Louis L’Amour, Conagher was an unpretentious
man who fought when he had to, but only to defend the innocent and vindicate
the claims of honor – never to gratify his ego or in search of illicit gain. He
had better things to do with his time than fighting, particularly when killing
The man who “gave” Conagher that shiner – and got much worse in the transaction –
was a turbulent criminal named Kiowa Staples. (The fight, not seen in the film,
is described in the novel in detail and involves a whip.) Asked by a
prospective employer about his “bust-up” with Staples, Conagher offers the most
subtle of grins and explains: “We had a difficulty.”
He displays similar laconic restraint when asked at a trading post about two
rifles he obtained while fighting off a Comanche ambush. After Conagher explained
that one of the assailants had escaped, one of the cowhands at the post – who
had listened to Conn’s account with envious skepticism – sarcastically asked
why he hadn’t pursued the Indian and killed him.
“Mister, nobody but a fool goes into the rocks after a wounded Comanche,”
Conagher replies, his voice quietly contemptuous.
Conagher signs on to work with rancher Seaborn Tay. Shortly thereafter he discovers that the owner of the rival Ladder Five ranch has paid off several of the other hands – including a combustible bully
named Chris Mahler – who have been stealing Tay’s livestock.
After Conagher thwarts a group of rustlers working for the Ladder Five, he is confronted at dinnertime in the
bunkhouse by Mahler, who is angry and frustrated by the stalwart cowhand’s stubborn honesty. Mahler knows that it’s
pointless to invite Conagher to join in the larceny, but he tries to browbeat
him into “doing his job” — meaning look the other way. Neither impressed nor
intimidated by Mahler, Conagher drives him out of the outfit.
Thrust into a conflict with the rustlers, Conagher deals out his share of lead,
and eventually takes a couple of rounds himself. “A man who kills when he
doesn’t have to is a damned fool,” he explains to a younger hand during a lull
in one battle.
Dum spiro, pugno!