Western Fiction

GORDON D. SHIRREFFS – Rio Desperado [+] Voice of the Gun. Ace Double F-152, paperback originals, 1962. Both have been reprinted either separately or in combination with other novels.

   When a cowpoke heads out across the pass to a neighboring valley to avenge the hanging death of his half-brother, events quickly grow out of control, and the young gunfighter whose life he saves three times in two days causes him more problems than he could ever imagine.

   Only 102 pages in length, Rio Desperado feels cut off in its prime. Much of the anticipation that’s aroused by an interesting beginning is erased by an ending that’s far too rushed and confusing to be of any help. Who knows what evil the editor wrought?

   Longer, but again only 120 pages long, Voice of the Gun is a better book than its other half, but only by the smallest of margins. The theme is the same, that of one man facing down almost insurmountable odds, heading into enemy territory to regain or to hold onto what is rightfully his.

   And of course he succeeds, in spite of several subborn, boneheaded mistakes and miscalculations on his part. And in spite of some fast-changing and sometimes surprising alliances and allegiances, the high point occurs when Sloan Sutro gets some additional support from sources it seems he had no right to count one. (In other words, this is a good story, almost in spite of itself.)

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.

Comment:   At one time I was working on a complete bibliography for Gordon Shirreffs, and I thought it was complete enough that I’d put it online. But if I did, I can’t find it now. I’ll have to look into the status of that. Even though these two novels were what I considered minor efforts, Shirreffs was one of the better western writers of his time.

WADE EVERETT – Broken Gun. Ballantine, paperback original; 1st printing, May 1970. Center Point Pub., hardcover, May 2017.

   This is the story of two cowpokes, friends for years, one older and easy-going, the other younger, much wiser and anxious to make his mark in the world. Their trails split, however, after they stumble across a sheep ranch now owned and operated by a woman on her own, and deadly consequences follow.

   Most westerns, I’ve discovered, have just about the same pedestrian prose, some a bit flashier, some more wooden in nature, though never quite dull. Everett’s writing, on the other hand, sings, at least in comparison. It’s only after half the book had passed that I discovered I’d been caught by surprise with the tune he’d was playing.

   The perception, at least, of who one of the characters really is, deep inside, gets a sudden twist out of shape around Chapter 8, and after that the story is a little meaner and a little nastier than it was before. It’s tough to describe in just a few lines, but it’s something like getting smacked on the side of the head when you’re looking the other way, then being forced to like it.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.

Bibliographic Note: “Wade Everett” was the joint pseudonym of western writers Will Cook and Giles A. Lutz. (A statement that’s not quite correct. See Comment #1.)


A. B. GUTHRIE, JR. – These Thousand Hills. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1956. Pocket/Cardinal C-267, paperback, 1957. Bantam, paperback, 1976, 1982.

THESE THOUSAND HILLS. Fox, 1959. Don Murray, Lee Remick, Richard Egan, Patricia Owens, Stuart Whitman, Albert Dekker. Screenplay by Alfred Hayes, based on the book by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Directed by Richard Fleischer.

   The novels of A. B. Guthrie are intimate epics, encompassing a broad sweep of history and geography over the course of years, yet never losing the personal focus of characters who grow (and sometimes diminish) into complex individuals, at once larger than life and all too human.

    Perhaps that’s why they’ve never been successfully adapted to the screen — Oh, I’m not saying there haven’t been some good movies made from them, but none ever captured the sense of progress and loss so essential to Guthrie’s style, and These Thousand Hills shows why.

   As the story opens, Albert “Lat” Evans is a farm boy with ambitions who joins a cattle drive to Montana and becomes a cowboy with ambitions. After the drive he convinces his wastrel friend Tom Ping to spend the winter hunting wolf hides (a harrowing profession as Guthrie describes, not to be confused with hunting wolves) which leads to their capture and eventual release by a tribe of nomadic semi-outlaw Indians –an episode that will come to define Lat’s future.

   Guthrie does an intelligent and strikingly original job of detailing Lat’s rise to prosperity and fame, distinctive enough to be worth mentioning. Most stories about the rise of the rich become Faustian parables of compromise and corruption, but Lat simply realizes that if he wants to get anyplace, he’ll have to estrange himself from his loyal but disreputable companions. He’s honest, even generous with everyone he deals with, but as Hills draws to a close, and his old friends come to the bad end that was always waiting for them, he realizes that the people he owes the most to won’t even turn to him when they need his help.

   It’s a delicate point to make dramatically, and Guthrie handles it splendidly, as Lat and his old buddy meet one final time in a saloon, both armed, and These Thousand Hills seems headed for Tragedy… but turns to Drama of a very high sort, and one I won’t forget.

   Well, when they made a film of this, they felt like they had to ditch the Delicate and keep the Drama, and they didn’t do a bad job of it. The film doesn’t measure up to the book by a long ways, but it ain’t bad at all. Don Murray plays Lat with just the right amount of strength and naiveté, Stuart Whitman as his ex-pardner gone bad projects the right mix of strength and instability, and Lee Remick is simply splendid as the vulnerable prostitute who loves him.

   In lesser parts, Richard Egan and Albert Dekker portray opposite sides of an unflinching moral code, and we even get some fine turns from Old Western stalwarts like Royal Dano, Fuzzy Knight and Douglas Fowley.

   Director Richard Fleischer handles all this quite capably, and if he and writer Alfred Hayes fumble the whole point of the thing…. Well they made a decent movie out of it anyway, and one that’s worth your time. But take a look at the book if you can.

CHARLES N. HECKLEMAN – Return to Arapahoe. Fawcett Popular Library, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1980.

   When Pace Barnes returns home from chasing Indians with the army, he finds his brother dead and their home in the hands of one Grady Chambers, a ruthless rancher responsible for a good deal of other trouble there in the foothills of the Rincons.

   Heckelman’s prose is reminiscent of the type found in the type found in the adventures of the Hardy Boys, the 1930s version, to pick an example that comes most easily to mind, but overcoming all — or most — hurdles, it’s a kind of prose that nevertheless seems to suffice.

   Here’s a tale that could easily be fashioned into an old-fashioned B-western movie, in other words, but (mercifully) without the usual comical sidekick.

PostScript:   My brief hesitation there in the second paragraph goes along very well with my observation in the third. It concerns the absolute worst Western cliché in western-adventure books and movies ever. When I was ten years old, I thought it was a stinker, and I still do. It happens when two bad guys have the good guy trapped in a room, both of them with guns on him, and one ornery owlhoot says to the other, “All right, Lumpy, shoot him and let’s get it over with.” And the other says, “Hey, boss, not yet. I’ve got a better idea.”

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.

Bibliographic Notes:   Charles N. Heckelman (1913-2005) is not a big name as far as well-known western writers are concerned. I found a total of nine western novels offered for sale under his name online, one (Lawless Range) published as early as 1946, and there may be others. This led me to check out whether he may have written for the pulp magazines, and yes, it turns out he did: over eighty stories in the Western Fiction index, ranging in years from 1937 to 1955.

WILLIAM COLT MacDONALD – Powder Smoke. Berkley Y814, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1953. Berkley Medallion X1718, paperback 1969. Five Star, hardcover, 2005. Leisure, paperback, 2006. (The latter two editions also include the short novel The Son of the Wolf.)

   There’s some justification for this book to be included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, but I’m sure Al knows best, and in spite of all the criminal activity in it, it’s not.

   Most of the tale is taken up with the attempt by “Powder Smoke” Peters, owner of the PSP ranch, to clear young Owen Thorpe from the charges that he killed his brother. The main evidence against Owen is the fact that his gun is found on the ground next to the body, so obviously the case is not that strong to begin with.

   The sheriff, Milton Lapps, is not so very bright, and this also helps keep the case alive. (At one point Powder Smoke nicknames him “Mental,” which tells you something about the book, but I’m not sure what.) I kept waiting for the big twist at the end, but even though I know it’s already come and gone, I feel as though I’m still waiting.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.

HOWARD RIGSBY – The Lone Gun. Gold Medal #542, paperback original; 1st printing, December 1955. Reprinted several times, including Gold Medal T2641, no date stated (1972).

   I believe but I am not sure that Howard Rigsby wrote more mysteries and crime fiction than he did westerns, but many of each category were done for Gold Medal, including a number published as by Vechel Howard. This one’s a western, but with a slight change of authorial intent, it could be a detective novel as well. It’s certainly a work of crime fiction.

   Murdered by an unknown hand is Mr. Dave Tilton, wealthy but aging cattle rancher just returned from taking a herd to market. Since it’s Sunday when they get back, he refuses to pay off the cowboys working for him until the next day. During the night, however, he is shot and killed, and his money belt is gone.

   Blamed by a crooked sheriff is Brooks Cameron, the son of a man who fought for the Confederacy, a fact which still has enough stigma to make him a very convenient scapegoat. The only way to clear his name — and to win the hand of Mary Silk, the preacher’s daughter — is to escape from jail, go on the run, and find the real killer.

   Rigsby knew the West well, and he describes it in very fine fashion. But too much of the book consists of nothing more than Brooks riding through the hills alone (note the book’s title) dodging first a determined posse and then an even more determined bounty hunter. This is enjoyable for a while, but unfortunately, one begins to wish for something to happen.

   When it does, the conclusion is both (1) not surprising and (2) far too late.


STEVE FRAZEE – Desert Guns. Dell 1st Edition A135, paperback original, April 1957. Thorndike Press, hardcover, 1998.

GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS. Warner Brothers, 1961. Clint Walker, Roger Moore, Letícia Román, Robert Middleton, Chill Wills, Gene Evans. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Leonard Freeman, based on the novel Desert Guns by Steve Frazee. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Wind-sculptured into curving smoothness, the ridges of sand rose seven hundred feet toward the sky, Rainbolt saw the wind racing on the delicate spines, laying the sand before it like the manes of running horses.

   No tree or rock or permanency of any kind broke the flowing architecture. There was only sand that for a million years had been gathered here by wind currents sweeping across the great San Luis Valley.

   Steve Frazee is, perhaps, the most underappreciated Western writer to come out of the late pulp era and practice his considerable skills in hardcover and paperback. He had an early success with his novel Many Rivers to Cross, a rollicking story of the taming of a mountain man that became a MGM film with Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, and Hollywood would call on him more than once, but he never seemed to achieve the place he should have among writers like Louis L’Amour, Will Henry, Elmer Kelton, and the like.

   This despite the fact he also wrote non-Westerns like Sky Block (something of a minor collector’s item), Running Target, and High Cage (these last two both films, the latter as High Hell, with John Derek). He also wrote Whitman big books featuring the likes of Cheyenne, Maverick, and Zorro, often illustrated by renown comic book artist Alex Toth, and thus doubly collectable.

   Desert Guns opens in 1853 with its heroes, young Jim Rainbolt and his mentor and friend Shaun Weymouth, already on the run along the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico from the hideously disfigured but canny Green River and his constant companion, the sadistic brute Frank McCracken, both of whom are after the Spanish gold the two have found, and plunging us directly into the action at hand.

   Frazee is particularly adept here at capturing the otherworldly feel of the high desert and the haunted atmosphere of the Sangre de Cristos. I’ve spent a good deal of time there over the years, briefly living in Los Alamos, and I can attest to the “weird, whining sort of sound, low and mighty,” that you can hear in a hollow and the sand on “the steep sides of the hollow (that) was running like fine brown snow” the sand playing it’s “unearthly music.”

   In short order Rainbolt and Shaun encounter the Hudsons, father and daughter Gail building a life on a small ranchero, Hudson an arrogant Virginian with little hospitality and less time for a couple of ‘field hands.’”

   With scant help from the arrogant Hudson, the two decide to bury the gold and seek help from Diamasio Gondora the “one man on the Hueferano you can trust.” It’s there they meet the boy Chico, and Gondora’s half Indian daughter Paisano. By now you should be able to smell the triangle that develops between the blonde civilized Gail, the wild half Indian Paisano, and Rainbolt, a further complication to everything.

   The basics of the plot are simple: gold makes men mad and greedy and there are more important things. Along the way there is graphic violence, torture, mayhem,treachery, and redemption. Rainbolt grows from youngster to man and Shaun achieves a sort of mythic status as the ideal man of the West, the last of a breed, more worried that the gold will change his wanderer’s life than about losing it.

   The shifting treacherous sands play a central role both in the plot and thematically. They represent not only shifting loyalties and fortunes, but also inconstant nature, that takes no sides, but sometimes favors one and not the other, and sometimes favors no one.

   Desert Guns is no Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it is an entertaining Western, superbly written, and with more to offer than the simple story it tells. It is Frazee at his best, which is very good indeed, involving you in the fortunes and fate of Rainbolt and Shaun at a much deeper level than most Westerns.

   The film, Gold of the Seven Saints, changes many of the elements of the book, Clint Walker is Rainbolt, but the older and more seasoned of the two, while Roger Moore as Shawn Garrett is an Irishman. Still, it has a fine script co-written by Leigh Brackett, solid direction by Gordon Douglas, and though it is unaccountably a black and white film, location settings capture much of the feel of the book, and fine character actors people it playing to the broader elements with some zest, despite the fact it often seems like an extended episode of a Warner Brothers fifties television Western with so many familiar faces from the small screen.

   I happen to like it much more than many others do, but whatever its virtues it doesn’t rise to the standard of the Frazee novel it is based on. But don’t let that stop you from seeking out Desert Guns. I found a hardcover copy on Amazon for $4, so it isn’t impossible to find.


  FRANK O’ROURKE – Legend in the Dust. Ballantine, hardcover/paperback (#211), 1957; paperback reprint, #421, 1960. Signet D3571, paperback, 1968; Pocket, paperback, 1989.

   An engaging work by an author I always meant to get around to.

   Legend opens in the classic mode: a lone rider enters the scene, as a thousand others did before him, riding into a terrain simmering with repressed tension and impending violence. And as simmering tensions go, the little town of Fort Ellis is on a slow boil; we quickly learn that the lone rider is ex-lawman Pat Glennon and the first man he meets is Buck Atherton, a likeable local boy with a reputation as a killer.

   In fact Buck makes his living mostly working for local capitalists who have exclusive contracts to supply beef to the nearby Army post…. and are getting product by rustling from the local cattle baron. Before many pages are past there’s a pitched battle between the factions with the merchants besieged in a store that gets burned down around them and Buck goes on the run as a wanted man with some scores to settle.

   Attentive readers, if any, will have gathered by now that Legend is loosely based on the saga of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, and that’s the way I like it: Loose. Dozens, maybe scores, of writers have written the tale as fact or fiction. And they all ultimately have to pick sides, discredit some accounts, endorse others and emerge with historical good guys and bad guys.

   Freed of these restrictions, O’Rourke can make what he wants of the characters, and they emerge as a vibrant, engaging cast. He can also make whatever history he feels like, and though the story stays fairly close to real-life events, it departs whenever dramatically convenient, which makes for better reading.

   I had never tried any O’Rourke before, but this will get me looking for more.


DALLAS. Warner Brothers, 1950. Gary Cooper, Ruth Roman, Raymond Massey, Leif Ericson, Steve Cochran, Barbara Payton. Written by John Twist. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

WILL F. JENKINS – Dallas. Gold Medal #126, paperback original, 1950. Adaptation of the motion picture of the same title.

   Okay: for starters, I know some of you out there will be tempted to reply with a smart-ass comment about “Who shot J.R.?” I’m not naming names; you know who you are. Please remember that the TV show in question was a long time ago and you may have to explain it to the younger readers who flock to this board. Now on to the review:

   Every so often Warner Brothers decided to try doing another old-fashioned big-scale Western along the lines of their big hit from 1939, Dodge City. But somehow the spirit just wasn’t there. Where Dodge City was helmed by the talented and prestigious Michael Curtiz, they gave Dallas to the erratic Stuart Heisler. The difference is palpable: where the earlier film crackles along at a lively pace, Dallas seems to lurch awkwardly from incident to incident. Some of them are competently done, but mostly they just seem a bit tired.

   As far as the plot goes, Dallas starts out with notorious outlaw Blayde “Reb” Hollister (Gary Cooper) getting himself gunned down in the street by Wild Bill Hickok (an appropriately saturnine Red Hadley; probably the best thing in the movie) in front of the new greenhorn U.S. Marshall (Leif Erickson.)

   It’s all a put-up job of course, so that Reb can get close to Will Marlowe (Raymond Massey) a major businessman in Dallas with an unsavory reputation (not unlike Bruce Cabot in Dodge City) who murdered Reb’s family years ago in Georgia.

   Plot complications call for Reb to impersonate the Marshall, romance his fiancée (the alluring Ruth Roman) and generally muck about until a respectable running time is achieved and he gets his revenge. Raymond Massey does a solid job as the dress-heavy, but the script doesn’t give him much to do, and writer Twist throws in time-wasting complications, such as Erickson getting a pardon for Reb, then hiding it, then revealing it, Coop getting arrested and breaking jail, caught by bad guys, escaping from bad guys….. It could have been exciting, but it just ain’t.

   Warners promoted Dallas heavily, even working out a movie tie-in paperback with Gold Medal, who wisely gave it to Will F. Jenkins, who also wrote as Murray Leinster and did fine work in either persona.

   Jenkins/Leinster actually takes John Twist’s scenario and makes a better book out of it than it was a movie, starting with forty pages which ain’t even in the film, detailing how Colonel Blayde Hollister, late of the Confederate Army, was forced into outlawry to avenge the murder of his family. And when we get into the story that’s in the movie, he adds depth and complexity to the characters. The greenhorn Marshall becomes more introspective, minor townspeople acquire convincing character traits, and there’s a bit part, an outlaw’s trollop named Flo (played in the movie by the ill-fated Barbara Payton) whose resigned self-hatred suddenly becomes very real and poignant.

   Dallas the book is far from a western classic, but I found myself admiring it for what a competent pulpster could bring to a hackneyed project. I can’t recommend the movie, but the book is worth your time.

MAX BRAND – Valley Thieves. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1946. Reprinted many times, including Pocket #668, paperback, January 1950. First serialized in Western Story Magazine, Oct 28–Nov 25, 1933.

   Jim Silver, also known as Silvertip, so called for the small tufts of gray hair up above his temples, comes on the scene relatively late in this tale, but the story’s a doozie from page one on. A newcomer to the West, a bold braggadocio of a man, but likeable for all that, tells a woman who has quickly caught his fancy that he can bring her Jim Silver’s horse for her to ride, but not only that, but the wolf who is the man’s constant companion.

   No one, of course, believes him, but lo and behold, that is exactly what he does. But then disaster happens, as both horse and wolf are stolen from him. It seems that Barry Christian, Silver’s mortal enemy, recently escaped from prison, may have had a hand in it, but no matter who the thief may be, it is essential that both Parade and Frosty must be found and returned to their master.

   When it comes to the Silvertip series, Max Brand was not just writing westerns, he was writing legend. He was writing mythology. Jim Silver is the purest, the most honest man you could ever hope to know, and if he is on your trail, you had best never sleep at night.

   The result, the book at hand, is one with the substance of cotton candy, and as enjoyable. To allow the series to continue, or so my sense of the matter is, the tale ends both a little abruptly and predictably, but until then, it’s a mile a minute through some of well-designed Western prose you’ll ever read, bar none.

       The Silvertip series —

1. Silvertip, 1941.
2. The Man from Mustang, 1942.
3. Silvertip’s Strike, 1942.
4. Silvertip’s Roundup, 1943.
5. Silvertip’s Trap, 1943.
6. The Fighting Four, 1944.
7. Silvertip’s Chase, 1944.
8. Silvertip’s Search, 1945.
9. The Stolen Stallion, 1945.
10. Valley Thieves, 1946.
11. Mountain Riders, 1946.
12. The Valley of Vanishing Men, 1947.
13. The False Rider, 1947.

   This list is tentative and subject to verification. Publication dates are of those of the hardcover editions, not the prior magazine versions.

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