Western Fiction

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

RICHARD MATHESON – The Gun Fight. M. Evans, hardcover, April 1993. Forge, paperback, November 2009.

   It’s a nail-biter.

   A lean, taut tale of three days in a small Texas town when a rumor gets out of control and a deadly ex-lawman finds himself called out to kill an impulsive youngster in “an affair of honor” based on nothing but gossip.

   Now I have to say here that I don’t know much about Gossip because I never engage in it; when I hear a second-hand story that reflects discredit on someone (usually Steve) I just discuss it with ten or twelve people and see what they think. But I have to say that Richard Matheson paints a vivid word-picture of a false report taking on a life of its own as it grows and feeds on itself and human nature.

   Along the way he also generates a whole lot of tension as we see the various characters move away from tragedy and lurch back toward it again, the effect enriched by Matheson’s skill at sketching out characters quickly, vividly and believably. There’s not a whole lot of action here, but I think you’ll find The Gun Fight impossible to put down.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

PAUL DURST – Die, Damn You! Lion #75, paperback original, 1952.

   I just can’t resist a book with a title like Die, Damn You!, so I’d have bought this in any event, but to my pleasant surprise. it proved to be well worth reading, a noirish, hard-boiled Western, with a moody, idiosyncratic Loner spurred on by vengeance, running into gangsters, goons, femmes fatales, false faces, double-crosses, some very stylish violence (At one point a man sets fire to his own bed to get a rattlesnake off his chest! and a complex storyline the results in lines like:

   “One thing you boys forgot,” Clint said as calmly as he could, “Those papers that were in that safe. I left them with instructions to be opened in case anything happened to me…. Writing all that down was a good way to keep Ring from crossing you up. But when this other business started they could do you as much harm as they could him…. How else could I know all I just told you? And how do you think Miller was so sure of where he stood with Cober? He stole the papers out of Sadie McGowan’s safe. When we caught up with him, his widow gave us the papers. Ring must’ve figured we’d get the papers from Miller. That’s why he sent Lobo….”

   The author even adds a Mask of Dimitrios touch by keeping the bad guy central to the plot but off-stage till the very end. I have no idea who author Paul Durst is — or was — but he writes a lightly enjoyable, fast-moving mystery/western that’s easy to take.


Some Bibliographic Notes [Steve]: One online bookseller says: “Paul Durst is the author of thirty-one books under his own name and various pseudonyms.”

   From Crime Fiction IV, the following:

DURST, PAUL (1921-1990); see pseudonyms Peter Bannon & John Chelton.
Backlash (Cassell, 1967, hc) [Michael Carmichael; U.S.]
Badge of Infamy (Cassell, 1968, hc) [Michael Carmichael; Israel]
Die, Damn You! (Lion, 1952, pb) [Texas; Past] Mills, 1955.
The Florentine Table (Scribner, 1980, hc) [London]
Paradiso County (Hale, 1986, hc)

BANNON, PETER; pseudonym of Paul Durst, (1921-1990)
If I Should Die (Jenkins, 1958, hc)
They Want Me Dead (Jenkins, 1958, hc) [Missouri]
Whisper Murder Softly (Jenkins, 1963, hc) [Missouri]

CHELTON, JOHN; pseudonym of Paul Durst, (1921-1990)
My Deadly Angel (Gold Medal #524, 1955, pb) [Florida]

   From bookfinder.com, the following appear to be westerns under his own name:

Ambush at North Platte (John Long, 1957)
Bloody River (Lion, 1953)
Dead Man’s Range (Robert Hale, 2009; previous printing?)
Gun Doctor (Avalon, 1959)
Johnny Nation (Mills & Boon Diamond W Western, 1960)
Kansas Guns (Avalon, 1958)
Kid from Canadian [??] (World’s Work, 1956)
Prairie Reckoning (Gold Medal #619, 1956)

   Plus: A Roomful of Shadows, Dobson, 1975. “… his childhood autobiography – from four to twelve – in the American Middle West during the 1920s and ’30s. This era comes alive through the eyes of a small boy who is ‘half-orphan’, introspective, and full of wonder at the unpredictability of life.”

MAX BRAND – The Trail to San Triste. Warner Books; 1st paperback edition, February 1985. Chelsea House, hardcover, 1927. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1983. First serialized in six parts (8 March through 12 April 1924) in Western Story Magazine as “Four without Fear,” as by John Frederick.

   As it so happened I was halfway through this book when the a brief discussion came up in the comments following Dan Stumpf’s review of Milton Lott’s Backtrack; to wit: there is a big difference between Westerns in the traditional and romantic sense and novels about the West.

   You can put Max Brand firmly in the first category, and The Trail to San Triste is a fine example. It’s the story of a young dashing cowboy, nearly a legendary outlaw, who is recruited to go into Mexico and pose as the missing son of the now deceased beloved patron of San Triste. Object: a fortune in gold, silver and rare gems.

   Of course there are complications. First John Jones must convince the townspeople that he is the true heir, then the servants of the family, still living, contend with man (a cousin) running the estate now but not loved, and (without giving too much away) is he, by chance, the real heir and does not know it, or is the real heir still alive? And of course, there is a girl. The girl. The girl of John Jones’ dreams.

   All told with a flair for the romantic, with plenty of gallantry, bravery, and a sense of justice and what’s right in the world and what makes life worth living. Cowboys and Mexican peasants had a tough life, but you wouldn’t know it from reading this book. Even the deaths that occur toward the end of the book have some meaning, redemption being a solid part of it.

   A world such as this never existed, but I enjoyed every minute that I spent visiting it.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

MILTON LOTT – Backtrack. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover,, 1965. Berkley F1472, paperback, 1967.

   I mentioned Milton Lott before in these pages (he wrote The Last Hunt, 1954) but I’ve never been able to find out much about him except that he died in 1996 at age 80 after turning out only three books. I haven’t read Dance Back the Buffalo (1959) but based on The Last Hunt and this one, I wish he’d done a lot more.

   Backtrack is a woolly thing, set in Texas around 1879 but darting one way, then another, like a horse that won’t be saddled, never settling down to one theme, but never losing momentum or a sense of purpose either. The narrator is a cowboy (literally, he makes his living herding cattle) who meets up with a very strange and troubled youth in the course of a cattle drive. When the kid (now known as “the Kid”) kills 2 men and lights out, he goes after him to tell him he’s not in trouble with the law — and to sort of look after him, since the kid seems too weird to last long without a keeper.


   The narrator himself (called “Ringo” for a wound he suffered trying to take a dump on a hot pot) has hang-ups of his own. Though he seems gentle enough, he has a reputation as a killer, and suffers from what we now call Repressed Memories: odd flashbacks he can’t put together that warp his judgment at times. And as he follows the kid’s trail, it leads him back to his childhood home and confrontation with his past.

   This would have been enough for a fine Western all by itself, but Lott never loses sight of his narrative peg for very long, and as Ringo struggles with his identity, the Kid picks up a reputation of his own, two gunmen on his trail, and the idea that Ringo is after him to kill him.

   What could have been hopelessly over-complicated at a lesser typewriter flows with natural grace from Lott. Backtrack teems with energy and inventiveness that are a real pleasure to read, evoking the dusty trail, the grinding work of the cowboy, and hair-raising encounters with man & beast, including a medicine show huckster who seems to have stepped out of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

   There’s a really really clever confrontation between a gunfighter and a sleight-of-hand artist (“I couldn’t see any gun on him, but he didn’t look like he’d take long to find one.”) and a splendid moment when a cowboy dodging a night-stampede climbs a tree for safety and sees his saddle climb the tree too.

   To appreciate that last bit you’ll have to read the book. And I recommend you do.

WAYNE D. OVERHOLSER – Fabulous Gunman. Macmillan, hardcover, 1952. Dell #729, paperback, 1953; reprinted by Dell several times. Also: Leisure, paperback, 1991; Leisure Double, paperback, bound with Steel to the South, 1994.

   According to his Wikipedia page, Overholser wrote something close to a hundred western novels, under both his own name and several pseudonyms, including Lee Leighton, John S. Daniels, Dan J. Stevens and Joseph Wayne. His first novel was Buckaroo’s Code (1947), but well before then, he was a prolific writer for the westerns pulps, beginning with a story called “Wanted Man” (Popular Western, December 1936).

   And even so, while I’m not sure, this may be the first of his work that I’ve ever read. I am sure it is the first in the last 30 years, which is entirely too bad, as I enjoyed this one quite a bit.

   It occurred to me as I was reading it that it might even be considered a Private Eye novel, not quite, and certainty not in the traditional sense, but it comes close. Bill Womack is, in the traditional western sense, a gun for hire. Not a Paladin, by any means, for he’s quick on the gun and has killed many men with it, not caring who has hired him or the reason why.

   But age and notoriety is catching up with him, and when he’s hired by twin siblings, Rose and Ed Hovey, to protect their father from the mess he’s in — a range war is about to begin, and Grant Hovey is right in the middle, a victim of his own weaknesses — Womack starts to ponder the meaning of the word justice, and whether or not a man can ever retire from the business of hiring out his guns to anyone who can pay the price.

   As I say, a traditional western through and through, which also means a more than a little romance is involved as well. Not with the wife of the biggest rancher on the range, although Womack at first is attracted, but (as it turns out) the beautiful Nita Chapman has eyes for someone else.

   It’s a long book with a complicated plot, and a lot of men don’t live to see the end of it. Overholser handles the varied strands of the story very well, all of an adult nature, and by adult I do not mean anything rated more than PG. A kiss at the end is all Womack has been working for.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

CLARENCE E. MULFORD – The Coming of Cassidy. A. C. McClurg & Co., hardcover, 1913. Reprinted several times, including Tor, paperback, 1993. Also included in Wild Western Days: The Coming of Cassidy, Bar-20, Hopalong Cassidy, Forge hardcover, 2010. Also available online.

   When asked what he thought of the huge Hopalong Cassidy revival of the late forties and early fifties that made Bill Boyd a superstar and millionaire, Clarence E. Mulford, who created the character and made no little money from Boyd’s popularity was purported to say: “He has his Hopalong, and I have mine.”

   It’s an accurate statement because Bill Cassidy the top hand of the Bar 20 has little in common with Bill Boyd’s avuncular paragon of virtues. Mulford’s Cassidy can drink any man under the table, has — to say the least — a colorful vocabulary, is deadly fast and doesn’t bother to shoot guns out of anyone’s hand, smokes, gambles, brawls, and has an eye for the ladies. He’s a tall lanky cowboy that looks more like John Dierkes Rafe in Shane than Bill Boyd’s immaculate man on the white horse.

   He was more than twenty-five hundred feet above the ocean, on a great plateau broken by mesas that stretched away for miles in a vast sea of grass. There was just enough tang in the dry April air to make riding a pleasure and he did not mind the dryness of the season. Twice that day he detoured to ride around prairie-dog towns and the sight of buffalo skeletons lying in groups was not rare. Alert and contemptuous gray wolves gave him a passing glance, but the coyotes, slinking a little farther off, watched him with more interest. Occasionally he had a shot at antelope and once was successful.

   This is from The Coming of Cassidy, a collection of integrated short stories, some merely vignettes. telling how young Bill Cassidy came to Buck Peters’ Bar 20 and became the leader of the Bar-20 Three, with Red Connors and young Johnny Nelson.

   Bill Cassidy is a lanky young man who started riding north and arrives at Buck Peters’ ranch just as the ranchman is having trouble with a group of buffalo hunters. It’s not long before Cassidy is butting heads with one of them.

   Without a word they leaped together, fighting silently, both trying to gain the gun in the hunter’s holster and trying to keep the other from it. Bill, forcing the fighting in hopes that his youth would stand a hot pace better than the other’s years…

   Mulford’s stories may be dated by today’s standards, but in many ways his easy style and classic approach to the Western makes him a more modern read than Max Brand or Zane Gray. It’s not that you will find anything unsavory about Hoppy and his crew, but you get the impression they have skirted close to unsavory in their past. Mulford never says it, but he knows those knights of the saddle were actually homeless virtual bums who often owned nothing of their own but their boots and spurs — certainly not a horse, gun, and saddle.

   Many a real cowboy worked for a horse and a saddle and little pay.

   This collection includes the story “How Hopalong Got His Hop” that explains how he got his famous name and the limp that dogs him throughout the books. Ironically Bill Boyd and the production company of the first Hopalong Cassidy film had no intention to utilize Hoppy’s limp, but Bill Boyd broke his leg early in the production.

    “Th’ bone is plumb smashed. I reckon I’ll hop along through life. It’ll be hop along, for me, all right. That’s my name, all right. Huh! Hopalong Cassidy! But I didn’t hop into hell, did I, Harris?” he grinned bravely.

   And thus was born a nickname that found honor and fame in the cow-country a name that stood for loyalty, courage and most amazing gun-play. I have Red’s word for this, and the endorsement of those who knew him at the time. And from this on, up to the time he died, and after, we will forsake “Bill” and speak of him as Hopalong Cassidy, a cowpuncher who lived and worked in the days when the West was wild and rough and lawless; and who, like others, through the medium of the only court at hand, Judge Colt, enforced justice as he believed it should be enforced.

   Reading these stories and the other books in the series it’s easy to see why the first choice to play Hoppy on screen was grizzled character actor James Gleason and not handsome Bill Boyd. Over the course of the films Hoppy changes partners a few times but remains the same kindly tough respectable man about the ranch, but Mulford’s Hoppy ages, drinks too much, gambles, and even gets married. At times he almost becomes respectable, much to his chagrin.

   In one story he even gets shanghaied, and he and the boys have to start a mutiny.

   Mulford stayed true to his creation even when his readers wanted the Bill Boyd version. It may have been Boyd on the book covers later, but the man inside was Bill Cassidy. Louis L’Amour, who wrote the Hopalong Cassidy short lived pulp magazine as Tex Burns, was caught between the two, but reading his books you can see it was Mulford’s Hoppy he preferred. His Hoppy looked more like Bill Boyd but it only went skin deep. (*)

   Hearing the beating of hoofs he glanced around and saw a trim, pretty young lady astride a trim, high-spirited pony; and both were thoroughbreds if he was any judge. They bore down upon him at a smart lope and stopped at the edge of the walk. The rider leaped from the saddle and ran toward him with her hand outstretched and her face aglow with a delighted surprise. Her eyes fairly danced with welcome and relief and her cheeks, reddened by the thrust of the wind for more than twenty miles, flamed a deeper red, through which streaks of creamy white played fascinatingly. “Dick Ellsworth!” she cried. “When did you get here?” Mr. Cassidy stumbled to his feet, one hand instinctively going out to the one held out to him, the other fiercely gripping his sombrero.

    Somehow I can’t see Bill Boyd’s Hoppy leading the pretty girl on without telling her she has the wrong man, but Mulford’s Hoppy does without turning a hair.

   The books move quickly. Hoppy and his pals can’t stay out of trouble for more than a few paragraphs, if that. Gunsmoke curls in the air; keen eyed men stare across tables at each other and glance anxiously at five cards in their hand that could mean fortune, or death; cowboy’s slump in the saddle eyes staring into the darkness as they listen to the lowering cattle; horses throw them; rough humor dogs them; hand-mades hang from lean dry lips lighted by a lucifer; chaws of tobacco are spit with terrifying accuracy; men die; women weep; outlaws, Indians, gun men, crooked towns people, lynch mobs, buffalo hunters, skinners, stage coach drivers, whisky drummers, renegades, school marms, saloon girls, diamond-backs, mustangs, and longhorns, all the pantheon of the old west cross their path.

   This is Ur-text, cowboy style. The age of Remington is not that far in the past. Charles Russell is still writing and painting. It has not been that long since Owen Wister’s The Virginian or Emerson Hough’s The Covered Wagon. Names like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill, Butch Cassidy, are not that distant a memories. Zane Gray, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, and Max Brand are his contemporaries. Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Bronco Billy Anderson, Buck Jones, Colonel Tim McCoy, and a young unknown named Gary Cooper ride across the for now silent screen waiting for him to join him even he is unrecognizable when he does.

   It is to his credit that Mulford’s Hoppy has survived and not just Bill Boyd’s. His books can still be found on paperback racks and not so many years back a film, The Gunfighter, featured Martin Sheen as the older Hoppy, and one much closer to Mulford than Boyd.

   Bill Boyd’s Hoppy will always have a hold on my heart, but in a real way Mulford’s creation is timeless as the film Hoppy is not. Boyd’s Hoppy seems a bit quaint now, not quite real, a little too perfect, he rides and lives in a West that never was, but Mulford’s Hoppy, swearing, spitting, guns blazing, cards held close to the vest, eyes squinted beneath his sombrero, a top his horse Ring-Eye, has a feel of authenticity. We know the West wasn’t like Boyd’s, but if it wasn’t like Mulford’s (and it wasn’t really) it should have been.

    (*) It was the revival of L’Amour’s Hoppy novels, especially The Rustlers of West Fork, that inspired Tor Forge to revive Mulford’s Hoppy in modern paperback form. As for the true face of Hoppy, you’ll find it among the illustrations the giant of modern American illustration N.C. Wyeth did for Hoppy’s magazine appearances, but I warn you, Bill Boyd it is not.

   On a similar note, while Bill Boyd is known for dressing in black that is an illusion of black and white film. Boyd is actually wearing a red shirt, yellow kerchief, and blue jeans in the early films. Only the hat and the boots were black. You just can’t tell on film. Later on the outfit conformed to the image and the comic book version, but early on he’s dressed almost as colorfully as Mulford’s Hoppy.

WILLIAM HEUMAN – The Range Buster. Gold Medal 429. Paperback original; 1st printing, 1954; 2nd printing, Gold Medal 944, 1959.

   Sometimes it is difficult to find a hook with which to start a review, and this is one of those times. The Range Buster is a totally average western, but one that starts with a bang — Cole Faraday, fresh up from Texas to claim his dead brother’s ranch, is shot at from the house by someone inside with a rifle — and never really lets up until it’s over, with Cole having just prevailed over the bad guys — at great physical damage to himself — and getting the girl he never knew he was dreaming of all those years he was making a living alone.

   What he finds that he’s walking into is a situation that always seems to arise when two big ranchers are competing for a smaller piece of land that has steady source of water — his brother’s — and starting a feud that threatens all of the other smaller ranchers at their mercy down the valley.

   Cole Faraday, skilled with a gun as well as mightily laconic with words, could be played by Clint Eastwood. The owner of one of the big ranches could be played by Lee J. Cobb, while the boss of the Pine Tree, Thalia Mulvane — a tough-minded but outwardly honest woman — well, if Ava Gardner ever was a blonde, she’d fit the part perfectly.

   Playing the gunhand who seems to have a grudge against Cole from the start, none other than Lee Marvin. The other girl, young and wholesome, whom Cole is attracted to, perhaps Gloria Talbot, while Stub McKay, the only remaining cowboy on Cole’s brother’s ranch, well why not Stubby Kaye

   Besides a western, and a solid one at that, William Heuman’s story is also both a romance (see above) and a detective story. Who killed Cole’s brother, or rather, perhaps, who was he working for? The result is not spectacular in any sense, but as you can tell, it might make for a fairly good movie.

Bibliographic Notes:   William Heuman’s career in writing westerns began with the pulp magazines, circa 1944, but when the pulps began to die out and Gold Medal came along, offering writers a new option, the paperback original, Heuman jumped on board almost immediately.

   Here’s tentative list of his work for Gold Medal:

Guns at Broken Bow, 1950.
Hunt the Man Down, 1951.
Roll the Wagons, 1951.
Red Runs the River, 1951.
Secret of Death Valley, 1952.
Keelboats North, 1953.
On to Santa Fe, 1953.
The Range Buster, 1954.
Ride for Texas, 1954.
Wagon Train West, 1955.
Stagecoach West, 1957.
Violence Valley, 1957.
Heller from Texas, 1957.

   Soon after he started writing for Gold Medal, Heuman also began writing westerns for Ace and Avon. Eventually his westerns started coming out in hardcover for Avalon, with many of those ending up in paperback as well.

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