Western Fiction


MERLE CONSTINER – Two Pistols South of Deadwood. Ace Double G-674, paperback original, 1967. Published back-to-back with No Man’s Brand, by William Vance.

   While writing for the pulps in the 1940s, Merle Constiner’s stories appeared primarily in the detective magazines. He had two long-running series about PIs, the first being the semi-scurrilous Dean Wardlow Rock, aka “The Dean,” whose many adventures were recorded in the pages of Dime Detective. The second was Memphis-based Luther McGavock, stories about whom showed up in Black Mask magazine on a regular basis.

   When the pulps started dying out, Constiner was one of the writers who successfully managed the transition over to novel-length fiction. As he did so, however, he made a sudden change of direction and decided to make his mark instead with westerns. In his entire career he wrote but one detective novel, that being Hearse of a Different Color, for the second- or third-rate and hardly prestigious Phoenix Press.

   Even so, many of his western novels had elements of detective fiction in them, some more than others. In Two Pistols South of Deadwood, for example, they show up only in a very minor way. When a bank is robbed in Hartsburg (somewhere south of Deadwood), all of trapper Kinney Lampson’s accumulated savings go with it, giving him no choice but to after the leader of the gang, a notorious outlaw named Lucas Gambrell, on his own.

   Along the trail he picks up a companion, a man who’s fast with a gun named Gatling. As it turns out, Gatling works for Gambrell, but a friendship between the two develops, eventually leading to a partnership of sorts, and they have several boisterous adventures on their way to the lawless town of Merriman, where Gambrell makes his headquarters.

   Kinney is one of those larger-than-life characters that populate western folklore, and Constiner’s sly understated sense of humor makes this book stand out from many other westerns of the era, all of which took themselves a lot more seriously.

   From page 25, Gatling happens to ask, hypothetically speaking:

   “They have beer [at a way station called Stop Seven]. What would happen if I drank a hundred dollars’ worth of beer?”

   “I’d hate to guess,” said Kinney.

   “Well, let’s see,” said Gatling.

   “I could use a glass myself, unless it has too many wasps and bluebottle flies and dead spiders in it,” said Kinney.

   “They won’t hurt you,” said Gatling.

   “I know,” said Kinney. “It’s just that I hate the idea of having to buy them when I don’t really care for them.”

   And what happened to Kinney’s money, and does he ever get it back? There are many stumbling blocks to overcome, and some intricate bits of misdirection by Gambrell, of all people, but yes, Kinney Lampson and his new comrade in arms are definitely up to the task.

D. B. NEWTON “The Claim Jumpers.” Novella. First published in Best Western, September 1952 as “Who’ll Take the Cowgirl?” First collected in Range of No Return (Five Star, hardcover, 2005; Leisure, paperback, December 2006).

   In his long foreword to the two-story book collection, Jon Tuska makes the case for his theory that D(wight) B(ennett) Newton would be a lot more known today if he hadn’t been pushed by his agent to have much of his work published under pseudonyms. Names other than his own that he used over the years were Dwight Bennett, Clement Hardin, Ford Logan, Dan Temple and Hank Mitchum (eight of the long-running “Stagecoach” series in the 1980s).

   There’s a lot of truth in that statement. I’ve enjoyed all of the novels I’ve read by the above “authors,” and going back to the later years of his pulp-writing days, both of the two stories in Range of No Return are very well done. (His first published pulp western was in 1938, and over the years he wrote 150 or so more of them.)

   “The Claim Jumpers” takes place at an actual event, the Cherokee Strip Land Run (Oklahoma, 1893), as have many other stories and dramatic films over the years. Newton’s story does not rely on its historical significance, however. Rather it’s one told on a personal basis, which to me makes it all the more effective. When three cowpoke partners lose their fourth in the plan they’ve come up with, one of them succumbs to the charms of a woman he happens to meet, and he asks her to help them out.

   Things don’t go well, however. Someone seems to have leaked their plans to some Sooners who have settled into the land the partners had planned on settling, and they’re well equipped with guns. Did the girl betray them? All signs point to it.

   This is a story that combines a historical background with both action and characters that have some character to them, and at 70 pages, there’s plenty of time for Newton to develop both.

***

— “Range of No Return.” Short novel. First appeared in Complete Western Book Magazine, June 1949. Also first collected in Range of No Return (see above).

   And if anything, “Range of No Return” is even better. At almost twice the length of “The Claim Jumpers,” the action is nearly non-stop, but more than that, it fits in naturally with the story Newton has to tell. No gunfire for the sake of gunfire.

   Which is that of a young rancher who was framed for rustling cattle in his home town five years ago. With the sheriff’s assistance, who believed him innocent, he made tracks for Mexico, but now that his notoriety has died down, or so he hopes, he’s back, trying to pick up where he left off before his troubles began.

   But he’s wrong. The local ranchers have not forgotten, including the female owner of the ranch next to his. There are a couple of small twists in the tale from this point on, but they’re, I admit, only minor ones. But Newton has a good eye for describing his characters, as well as the area of Arizona hills and grasslands he places them in. Even though the basic story line is a familiar one, this is a solid piece of writing.

   If you’re a fan of western yarns, you could do a lot worse than to check out more of Newton’s stories, even his early purely pulp fiction. It’s better than most.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:         


R. S. BELCHER – The Shotgun Arcana. Golgotha #2. Tor, hardcover, 2014; trade paperback, 2015.

   The moon was a bullet hole in the sable night, bleeding ghostlight across the wasteland of the 40-Mile Desert.

   That’s not an opening to a Western you are likely to forget, and as you might expect one you will long remember in the case of this ghastly Gothic tale of the small town of Golgotha, Nevada in 1870 where the population includes a fallen angel (Malachi Bick) and his daughter Emily, mad scientist Clay Turlough (“Soul wouldn’t need protecting if the transportation for it was designed a bit more steadily.”) who practices reanimating heads, and Maud, grand-daughter of Anne Bonny ( who disclosed to her the secret history of the world — the story of Lilith, the first human to rebel agains the tyranny of heaven…) and herself a retired pirate queen and practitioner of Lilith magic who lives with her psychic daughter Constance.

   Despite that, Golgotha is a fairly peaceful town watched over by Sheriff John Highfather and his deputies young Jim and Mutt and Mayor Harry Pratt and his lover, gunfighter Ringo, but forty years earlier Malachi Bick was part of a rescue party that found the Donners and retrieved a cursed skull that is about to release hell on Earth — literally

   Lead by the demonic fallen angel Raziel Zeal (“… the Keeper of Secrets, the vessel of divine knowledge, one of the Princes of the Second Heaven …”) an army is riding toward Golgotha, an army of lunatics, murderers, cannibals, thugee, and worse all drawn to the skull and Zeal’s ambitious plans to destroy mankind before killing God.

    “…cities will become slaughterhouses, civilizations will burn, and in time, slowly, painfully, the human race will die screaming, at its own hand.”

   The Gothic Western has never been a prolific genre. Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s Track of the Cat is likely the best known, though a few ghosts, spirits, werewolves, and the like appear in the pulps, and on screen there are films like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider hinting at demons and devils. Stephen King’s Dark Tower borrows many elements from the Western, notably in it’s central figure Roland, the Gunfighter, but outright Gothic Western horror, aside from the likes of the Wild Wild West is rare.

   Which is why this beautifully written rollicking novel is such a delight, from the imagery (The noonday sky was dark with screaming crows …) to an apocalyptic battle between good and evil fought by mortal men and fallen angels in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s a Gothic, stream-punk, splatter punk, high adventure, horror, dark fantasy, Western coming of age story.

   The sky was deepest indigo. Ribbons of dying umber, crimson and gold wavered at the jagged teeth of the horizon. The stars, bright and burning and ancient, unfurled before them from behind a gauze curtain of clouds.

   The Shotgun Arcana is a wild ride easily one of the most enjoyable extravaganzas in years, Quentin Tarantino crossed with Sergio Leone by way of Stephen King.


Bibliographic Notes:   The Shotgun Arcana was preceded by The Six-Gun Tarot (2013) and followed by The Queen of Swords (2017)

PETER DAWSON – Dead Man Pass. Dodd Mead, hardcover, November 1954. Bantam #1396, paperback, December 1955. Reprinted by Bantam several times. Serialized before book publication in The Saturday Evening Post from June 26 through August 7, 1954.

   As is well known now, but perhaps not when his book was first published, western writer Peter Dawson was the pen name of Jonathan Glidden, who was the brother of Frederick Glidden, who also wrote westerns, but under the pen name of Luke Short. Between them they must have written a good percentage of the western fiction produced in the country in the 30s through the 60s.

   And not all of it was about the usual cowboys and Indians, cattle drives, grasslands and gunfighters. In Dead Man Pass, Dawson changes the setting to mountain country, in the winter no less, in which the struggle to build a train tunnel through a mountain is the focus.

   Stiffed on the price of his horses by the managing head of the company charged with completing the task, a young fellow named Bill Tenn decides to make an offer to owner of the company: to make the work go faster, bring an engine over the mountain through Dead Man Pass by a huge sled pulled by his horses.

   The owner takes him up on it, but before he can begin, Tenn is convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. There are other complications, including a thwarted romance and a lode of silver that’s been found in the tunnel but being kept a secret.

   There are plenty of plot lines to this well-constructed story, in other words, and it’s told in a comfortable and relaxed fashion. For me, though, there weren’t enough real twists to the tale, perhaps only one that I partially did not see coming. Maybe I’ve read too many westerns over the years for there to be many twists left!

RAY HOGAN – The Vengeance Gun. Ace Double 67580, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1973. Published back-to-back with Powdersmoke Partners, by L. L. Foreman. Thorndike Press, hardcover, 1993.

   Take another look at the title. As you may or may not recall, I reviewed a western movie with much the same basic story line as this one. The movie was entitled Panhandle, and you can read my comments here. In both cases the leading protagonist has a mission, that of avenging the shooting death of his brother.

   Rod Cameron played John Sands in the movie. In the book at hand, the hero is a young fellow named Tom Rademacher. He’s been on the trail of his brother’s killer for five years, riding from town to town for all that time, but never quite finding him.

   But when hits the range where a gent named Joe Keck wants to take over, he finds himself siding with a girl and her brother who are the last holdouts against Keck and his gang. If this sounds familiar, it is.

   One difference between the book and the movie, is that after five years on the trail, Tom is starting to have doubts. In the movie, the death of John Sands’ brother has just happened. It is no wonder that he can’t be distracted from his mission, as was pointed out in the review and the comments that followed.

   I liked the book more, though. I identify with heroes who have doubts. I find that there’s more to the story if they do. It’s not to say that The Vengeance Gun is great literature. It isn’t. It ends far too quickly and abruptly, for example. At only 111 pages log, it’s over before you know it. You expect happy endings in westerns, but this one’s far too easy.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


STEWART EDWARD WHITE – The Killer. Doubleday, hardcover, 1920. Previously serialized in The Red Book Magazine, December 1919 through March 1920. Many reprint and Print on Demand editions available.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox, 1932. With George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens and Noble Johnson. Screenplay by Alfred A. Cahn, from the novella “The Killer” by Stewart Edward White.

   I picked up Stewart Edward White’s The Killer on a whim and found it an interesting hybrid of a book: the first third is a longish novelette from which the tome draws its title — about which more later — while the rest of the near-350 pages is a series of lengthy stories and true anecdotes (true-sounding, anyway) about working life on the plains in in the early 1900s: some quite amusing while others read like Hemingway before there was Hemingway.

   But the opening piece, The Killer, is a genuine blood-and-thunder Old Dark House chiller transplanted out west, and grown quite well, too. White sets the mood very capably and once he’s got the background fraught with palpable menace, he proceeds to build a simple but impressive little story filled with mad killers, drug addicts, distressed damsels and doughty do-gooders — all put through their pulp-paper paces with the kind of innocent gusto that typified thrillers of the time, a tale told with charm that writers since have never quite re-captured.

   As for the anecdotes that follow, perhaps they can be best exemplified by:

   “And I don’t need no gun to do it, neither,” he said, as though concluding a long conversation.

  “Shore not, Slim,” agreed one of the group, promptly annexing the artillery. “What is it?”

  “Kill that ____ ____ _____ Beck,” said Slim, owlishly. “I can do it; and I can do it with my bare hands, b’ God!”

   He walked sturdily enough in the direction of the General Store across the dusty square. No one paid any further attention to his movements. The man who had picked up the gun belt buckled it around his own waist. Ten minutes passed. Back across the square drifted a strange figure. With difficulty we recognized it as the erstwhile Slim. He had no hat. His hair stuck out in all directions. One eye was puffing shut, blood oozed from a cut in his forehead and dripped from his damaged nose. One shirt sleeve had been half torn from its parent at the shoulder. But, most curious of all, Slim’s face was evenly marked by a perpendicular series of long, red scratches as though he had been dragged from stem to stem along a particularly abrasive gravel walk. Slim seemed quite calm. His approach was made in a somewhat strained silence. At length there spoke a dry, sardonic voice.

   “Well,” said it, “did you kill Beck?”

   “Naw!” replied Slim’s remains disgustedly, “the son of a gun wouldn’t fight!”

   The Killer was made into a film in 1932, Mystery Ranch, and they did a nice job of it, with fast-paced direction, atmospheric photography by Joe August (Who cut his teeth on the early films of William S. Hart) and spirited playing from George O’Brien, Celia Parker, Noble Johnson and especially Charles “Ming” Middleton as the mad killer.

   And though Middleton gets all the best lines, I have to say he wouldn’t have been nearly so menacing without Charles Stevens (Who made a cottage industry out of playing “Indian Charrlie” in various films of the Wyatt Earp legend) and Noble Johnson skulking about in the background.

   Best of all, it seems everyone involved wisely decided to eschew typical B-movie complications and produced a film with the simplicity of a ballad, just under an hour of solid fun. Existing prints are a bit choppy, but they can’t obscure the streamlined beauty of a film like this.


SELECTED BY DAVID VINETARD:


B. M. BOWER “The Spook Hills Mystery.” Popular Magazine, November 7, 1914. Published in hardcover as The Haunted Hills, Little Brown, 1934, and in paperback by Popular Library, #306, 1951. Also available online here, among other websites.

   “The Spook Hills Mystery” begins rather tritely with the arrival of young Easterner Shelton C. Sherman with a typically cantankerous old hand named Spooky (Gabby Hayes before there was one, “He was not a bad sort, though he was an awful liar when the mood seized him…”) who leads him on about the “ghost” of Spook Hills, but then popular Western writer B(ertha) M(uzzy) Bower, creator of Chip of the Flying U and a long series about that outfit, throws us a curve.

   This, as a beginning, may sound a bit hackneyed. Since the first story was told of the West, innocent young males have arrived in first chapters and have been lied to by seasoned old reprobates of the range, and have attained sophistication by devious paths not always unmarked with violence. But when you stop to consider, life itself is a bit hackneyed.

   At least she noticed, and it is far from the only curve in this tale.

   Sherman, soon to be known as Shep, is greener than the greenest greenhorn who ever lived, and about to join the Sunbeam Outfit (in “that part of Idaho which lies south of the Snake …”) to make a man out of him at the hands of Aleck Burney, who has a way of putting youngsters “on the fence” to make “men” out of them in the time-honored way of obnoxious bullies who are supposed to be makers of men in popular fiction from time immemorial. Never let it be said Ms Bower ever missed a cliché when one was at hand (enter Wallace Beery, or the older John Wayne, making men by breaking their spirit since time began).

   Shep’s parents have sent him West, all pretty 6’ 2” of him: “… to get some width to go with my length: Dad’s an architect. He said he’d have to use me for a straight edge if something wasn’t done pretty soon.”

   The Sunbeam Ranch itself is harbinger of “a keen sensation of disappointment,” otherwise little more than a dirt shack seen over by the giant Burney, who typically tries to establish dominance first thing by a crushing handgrip. Give old Shep this, it hardly bothers him.

   Soon he starts to get the hang of things, and they brighten a bit when he meets Vida, daughter of Sam Williams and niece of Uncle Jake and part of a sheep herding outfit, and that should tell you a bit about where this is going, though it is hardly enough, because that is another of Bower’s curves.

   Bower knew a great deal about life on a ranch, in fact too much for her readers’ own good, since some of her books spend more time on the drudgery and boredom of actually living on and running a ranch than any good Western can take. Realism combined with a certain Polyannaish view and too few doses of adventure and melodrama makes for an uncertain read for many. For all her beautifully described scenery and realistic views of frontier life you can find yourself wishing Max Brand would show up and kick a few doors down. You wish a few of those “Gosh Darn” moments were at least “Gol Dangs.”

   This one is made of sterner material than that though, and soon Shep has gotten a glimpse of Spooky’s Spook, a critter that leaves a footprint like a bear, if a bear was big as an elephant. Of course we all know he can’t leave that alone any more than he will the feud building between the Sunbeamers and the sheep herders.

   And he certainly doesn’t leave bad enough alone, tracking the “thing” to a tunnel where, “The terrible silence was split suddenly by a scream. Human, it sounded, and yet not human, but beastly — horrible. Shelton dropped the candle and clung to the rock beside him. His heart, he thought, stopped absolutely. His very knees buckled under him while he stood there. And then he heard something running, somewhere, even while the cave was playing horribly with the echoes of that scream. Running down that other passage with long leaps, it seemed to him, and the beat of four padded feet upon the rock floor.”

   Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him, or for that matter Allan Quatermain? From an Indian woman Shep learns Burney’s father was killed by a “big bear” in Montana, which might explain why Burney objects more to his hunt than his friendship and budding romance with Vida, it also makes it unlikely the sheep killer preying on the Williams herd is Burney. Shep has a mystery to solve.

   Then Uncle Jake is killed in the sheep camp while Burney is away in Pocatella, though the herders don’t believe it, and Vida wants his blood.

   “I find,” replied the coroner, “that the deceased undoubtedly came to his death by having his neck broken by twisting. Four ribs were broken also, evidently by crushing. There are no bullet wounds — the only other marks of violence on the body being some scratches on the scalp behind the ear. These, I judge, were made by finger nails, in gripping the head to twist it.”

   Burney is free. He never made the prints the jury viewed. When the wagon where Vida sleeps is attacked in the night and she hears: “a hoarse scream …. Human—and yet not human—mocking, maniacal, horrible. The most awful sound that Vida had ever heard in her life; a squall, a cry — a shriek she could not find a name for. Her memory flew back to the tales of ghosts and demons that an old Scotch woman had told her years ago. Warlock — that was it! A warlock, such as Maggie MacDonald had told about, that haunted the heath behind the village where strange deaths occurred periodically in the dark of the moon. When men and women were found strangled — and none knew how or why.” And then Vida sees the creature pursuing one of the herders, “the huge figure of a man who came on with
giant strides, leaping clean over what bushes came in his way.”

   And then, and then … Shep drops entirely out of the picture. One of the cowhands, Spider, takes up with Vida, they solve the mystery, and all Shep gets is a letter home, while Spider gets the girl.

   Uh, wow.

   The action is everything you could hope for and Bower handles the atmosphere and building sense of danger and threat with the skill of a pro. Some of the passages describing the country and the setting border on beautiful, and for all the Western lingo, it’s not too trying, to this reader at least. If the rather juvenile saga of the Flying U is all you know of Bower’s Westerns, this one will clear your sinuses, it’s a humdinger.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HARRY BROWN – The Stars in Their Courses. Knopf, hardcover, 1960; Bantam, paperback, 19??

EL DORADO. Paramount, 1967. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Ed Asner, Michele Carey, Christopher George and Olaf Wieghorst. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses, by Harry Brown. Directed by Howard Hawks.

   The other day I re-read The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown, which I hadn’t touched in 30 years, and it spurred me to re-watch a film I haven’t seen in almost as long, El Dorado.

   Stars tells the Trojan War legend reframed as a Western: Arch Eastmere (think Achilles) is a skillful gunfighter with a bad heart and worse luck, who returns to his home town to find that the small ranchers (to whom he owes money) are getting fed up with the local Big Rancher, Percy Randal. When Percy’s younger son rides off with the abused wife of one of the small ranchers, they’re ready to fight. Arch likes the Randals, and was a close friend of Percy’s tough older son Hallock (think Hector) but he owes a debt to the opposition….

   It’s all a bit contrived and pretentious, but somehow fitting. The ancient heroes were to the Greeks as cowboys were to us when I was a kid, and it’s fascinating to see Brown set these leathery westerners to reenacting a legend, with splendid prose, fast action, and characters at once larger than life and all too human.

   This was almost filmed by Howard Hawks as El Dorado — Hawks lost faith in the script half-way through and decided to just re-make Rio Bravo. If you watch Dorado you may notice the earlier scenes shot outdoors tend toward the grim side, but the later parts (done in the studio to save time & money) just earnestly copy Rio Bravo.

   The wonder is that it all works so splendidly. Hawks’ gift for vivid action and his knack of making his actors look like they’re actually talking to each other were never displayed to better effect.

   He’s helped considerably by a remarkable cast. Charlene Holt plays the local shady lady with a tender toughness that becomes really moving at times, and Michele Carey projects an untamed sexuality that smacks up agreeably against James Caan’s virile neophyte. Paul Fix and R.G. Armstrong lend their typecast western authority to the proceedings, and Christopher George recalls the amiable lethality of John Ireland in Red River, as a man who will share drink with someone or gun him down just as easily. Best of all, Arthur Hunnicutt positively shines as the Ultimate Comical Sidekick, a character so funny and bizarre that only he could do it justice.

   And then there are the top-liners: John Wayne and Robert Mitchum playing the heroes of the piece with rueful maturity. Mitchum gets a showy part as the sheriff-turned-drunk, by turns comic and harrowing, and he makes it one of the best performances of a remarkable career. Wayne’s role as Mitchum’s gunfighter-buddy plagued by a debilitating wound is just as fine, his toughness crumbling with startling poignancy that somehow reveals the inner strength.

   Hawks’ skill as a director has been duly celebrated in classics like To Have and Have Not, The Thing from Another World and Bringing Up Baby, but he was never better than in this broken-backed western.

   By the way, El Dorado opens with the title credits over some fine Western paintings. They are the work of artist Olaf Wieghorst, who also plays the Swedish gunsmith with the great line, “He shoot the piano player, and they hang him.”

      

  HARRY WHITTINGTON – Trouble Rides Tall. Abelard-Schuman, hardcover, 1958. Crest #357, paperback, 1960. Reprinted by Stark House Press, softcover, 2016, in a 3-in-1 edition also containing Cross the Red Creek (Avon, 1964) and Desert Stake-Out (Gold Medal, 1961).

   One day in the life of a trouble marshal, whose hold on his job is suddenly starting to slip through his fingers. Through no fault of his own. He’s done exactly what he was hired to do — clean up the town of Pony Wells just enough so the honest, clean living residents can go to sleep without a lot of ruckus and noise going on outside their windows, while the cowboys and drifters can have their fun, and the saloon keepers, the grifters and prostitutes can successfully ply their trades — as long as they keep it quiet and (hopefully) behind closed doors.

   That’s what he was hired to do, and now he’s though of as someone to be looked down upon by one half of the town and with side glances only from the other.

   The day begins with the discovery of a dead saloon girl in a shallow grave — making this a crime novel as well as a western — and ends with Bry Shafter having made a decision about himself, or perhaps having it made for him. No one but he seems to care about the dead girl. His deputy is young and very obviously wants Bry’s job, and a committee of citizens from another town is in town to offer Bry the same job he has in Pony Wells, but at twice the salary.

   Bry is good with both his guns and his fists, but what make this novel work as well as it does is what goes on in his mind. Shunned by snooty townsladies and a target for young gunslingers wanting to make names for themselves, Bry finds that the fine line he has been walking along has gotten finer and finer.

   A character study, then, and a damned good one. I dare say that because author Harry Whittington plays his cards close to his vest, and you (the reader) never quite know how it’s gong to turn out. Is this one of he better examples of western noir I’ve read recently? I think it is.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


GARY JENNINGS – The Terrible Teague Bunch. W. W. Norton & Co., hardcover, 1975; trade paperback, 1980. Avon, paperback, 1982.

   Drop what you’re doing and go out and get this. I mean it. Waste no time. Don’t read another word here, don’t touch that mouse, just put down the piano and get this book. I’ll wait here till you get back.

   Okay, while everyone else is gone, I’ll fill you in on the back-story of how I came to read this. It’s long and not very interesting, but I’ll tell it anyway.

   Back in 1975 when we were a young married couple, my wife worked at a public library (and aren’t you glad we already have public libraries? Can you imagine trying to get an idea like that through Congress now?). Whenever I picked her up for lunch or dinner, I used to browse through the books a bit. Or more than a bit, which is how I saw this book, 43 years ago, but for some reason I never checked it out.

   Okay, so fast-forward four decades and odd-change, to last week, when my favorite used-book store went out of business and I went in to scarf up some bargains. At one point I sat down to take a break on the only chair they had there for public use, tucked into the section on Railroad books. I have no interest in Railroad books, but as I sat there, my eyes lighted on the easy-to-read spine of The Terrible Teague Bunch. I didn’t recognize the title, but I figured I might as well look at it till my legs quit hurting, and as soon as I read the jacket-flap, I recognized it as that book from long ago I never got around to.

   “Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”                       — Detour, 1945

   So if everybody’s back now, I’ll go on to talk about The Terrible Teague Bunch. It’s a magnificent shaggy-dog-story of a Western about two cowboys, an oil well rigger and a Cajun swamp logger who decide to rob a train and spend most of the book just trying to get to the railroad with a meager herd of mangy cows.

   Along the way they have to deal with swindlers, swollen rivers, bellicose Baptists and a tornado, but that’s only part of the story. There’s also a thread about a woman who was captured by Comanches twenty years ago, trying to make her way in the world with a mixed-race daughter, and ….

    … and I’m not going to tell much about the rest, because it would spoil a good story. I will say that the tale is told with a wry, sharp sense of humor that had me laughing out loud in places, and it quickly becomes apparent that these guys are just too damn nice to rob a train. At which point I thought I could see the ending coming, but I was wrong.

   The last third of Teague turns grim, all the more so because the jokes keep coming, and from characters we really care about. This is writing of a high order, and more than that, it’s fun to read — a LOT of fun! Check it out now and thank me later.

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