Western Fiction

L. P. HOLMES – Destiny Range. Leisure, paperback, March 2009. First book publication: Greenberg, hardcover, 1936. First appeared in Five-Novels Monthly, May 1932; reprinted in Popular Western, October 1951.

   Dex Sublette, foreman of the Pinon Ranch, and all of the cowhands working for him are surprised to learn that the retired owner has sold the spread to a woman — and a Russian princess, to boot. They do not take the news with delight:

    “I thought I had hard luck when a bronc kicked in two ribs for me,” Shorty groaned. “But I didn’t know what hard luck was. A Russian Princess for a boss! Holy cow! If that ain’t awful! I’ll bet she’ll be a string-necked old battle-axe, soured on the world — and the male sex in particular. I’ll bet she’ll take an unholy delight in raw-hiding us to a fare-ye-well. I’ll bet–”

   Shorty couldn’t be more wrong. The young lady is Sonia Stephanovich, or at least it used to be. She now wishes to be called Sonia Stephens. Having fled the Russian Revolution with only a maid and a few belongings, she now hopes to build a new life in this section of the American West she once visited as a child.

   As for being a string-necked old battle-axe:

    Her face was a delicate oval, slightly high of cheekbone. Her skin was a dusky, smooth ivory. Her lips were bewitching. The lower one was particularly full and rich and crimson, and it gave to her expression an elfin impudence which was a delight. Here and there, from beneath the edges of her hat, a few threads of black, silken haur showed. She made an absorbing, stirring picture as she stood there, half defiantly, half appealingly.

   And of course all of the men on the ranch who now call her boss are smitten, but no more than Dex Sublette himself. The story that follows is as much a romance as it is a western novel, with all of the ups and downs and pitfalls that are bound to arise when two human beings of opposite sexes and opposite ways of life meet and are attracted to each other.

   Until, that is, page 150 or so, of a 240 page story, when Dex learns that Sonia has been kidnapped and all hell breaks loose. Not everyone survives the battle between good guys and bad, but does true love prevail? I’ll bet you already know the answer to that.

   To be honest, though, in spite of all the heroics, flying bullets and tragic deaths that occur in the last third of the book, I enjoyed the on again, off again romance in the first part of the book quite a lot more, as contrived and as (dare I say it?) corny as it reads to a modern reader today.


WILL JENKINS / MURRAY LEINSTER – Mexican Trail. Alfred H. King, hardcover, 1933. A. L. Burt, hardcover reprint.

   Several years ago on this site I reviewed — panned, rather — a film called Border Devils (Supreme, 1932) and was richly rewarded when Steve unearthed the fact that the Murray Leinster story it was based on was in fact a serial in West magazine “Dead Man’s Shoes,” and was eventually published under his Will Jenkins by-line (given the plot, it’s interesting that this appeared under both names — read on!) as Mexican Trail. It wasn’t hard to unearth a copy and I was soon enjoying a fine read, thanks mostly to Steve.

   The story is a bit rushed at first, with Ranger Pete Gray in search of an elusive Mexican drug-smuggler known only as The General, abruptly drugged, framed for murder, jailed and quickly sprung by his friends Neil Denham and Neil’s wife Ethel. Scant pages later, en route to a rendezvous with his friend to sort all this out, Pete finds Neil’s body trailside, his personal effects replaced by those of a wanted criminal — dry-gulched no doubt by the same ornery varmints what framed Pete.

   Pete decides to ride Neil’s horse into town and look around for anyone trying to pass as Neil, and here the Leinster style kicks in as Pete himself is mistaken for Neil and has to assume his murdered friend’s identity. Just as quickly, he’s launched into the midst of a roiling range war fomented (as usual in westerns of this ilk) by persons unknown trying to create confusion and profit from chaos.

   From this point on, Mexican Trail becomes very enjoyable indeed as Pete/Neil does some canny sleuthing, hard riding and tricky gun-fighting, pitted against a clever and unseen foe, surrounded by cowboys who distrust Neil and suspect Pete — and, as you might expect, by a doughty young range-heiress who loves him no matter who he is.

   Leinster does his usual slick job of juggling identities (the plot teems with characters pretending to be other characters) getting Pete in and out of trouble, and wrapping things up with an epic gun-battle in approved Western Fashion.

   After reading this, I went back and watched Border Devils again, and now that I understood the plot, it seemed like a much better film to me. There’s some clever by-play between Harry Carey and Gabby Hayes, and the whole thing is fast-moving and fairly faithful to Leinster/Jenkins’ book.

LOU CAMERON – Guns of Durango. Dell #4694, paperback original; 1st printing, April 1976.

   Doc Travis, a native of Texas, went to Harvard Medical School, as it so happened, but before he was able to make his way home, the War Between the States broke out. Drafted by the Union army, he managed to escape and join up with Colonel Nichols’ Irregular Cavalry.

   Unfortunately, when the war ended Travis never received his official discharge papers, and not having them, he can’t go home to Texas without them.

   Unfortunately, Colonel Nichols is both a scoundrel and a criminal, with perhaps more emphasis on the latter, and he is somewhere now down in Mexico, where another civil war is going on, this one between the troops of Maximilian and the men still loyal to ousted President Benito Juárez. Nichols, as Travis soon discovers, is holed up in Durango with Maximilian and his forces.

   And so, reluctantly, that is where Travis, who tells his story himself, must head as well. Once on his way, though, he bounces like a pinball between various encampments of the two opposing sides, with a band of hostile Apaches as a noninterested but still deadly third party. Luckily, for a medical man, Travis is fast with a gun, but even more than that, he has a glib tongue and a fast-thinking mind, all three finely tuned aspects of his being that he’ll need in abundance if he’s going to survive.

   Travis leaves a lot of death and destruction in his wake, but it’s his brain-work and cleverness that makes this book a lot of fun to read. It’s also, albeit briefly, a work of detective fiction, too, a fact worth mentioning, even though the relevant passage comes and goes within a page or two.

   All I’m saying is that you will need all your wits about you as you’re reading, or you may miss something. Some concentration is needed, more than you can say for the occasional other western you may have recently read. The ending, while satisfactory in most regards, is also left open, suggesting that more adventures of Doc Travis might be in the offing. If so, I don’t know if it ever happened, but it would be welcome news if it did.

[UPDATE] Later the same day. I have discovered that there was an earlier book in the series: Doc Travis (Dell, Sept 1975).

WILL ERMINE – My Gun Is My Law. Pocket 911; paperback reprint; 1st printing, November 1952. Hardcover editions: William Morrow, October 1942; Grosset & Dunlap, 1946; Jefferson House “Triple-A Western Classic,” March 1950. Also published in Double-Action Western, May 1943 (perhaps abridged). Introduction to Jefferson House and Pocket editions by Erle Stanley Gardner.

   I didn’t know this before doing some research on the subject, but as it so happens, Will Ermine is one of several pen names that Harry Sinclair Drago (1888-1979) used to write westerns, including his own.

   Another of Drago’s assumed aliases is Bliss Lomax, which I knew, and a quick dive into the Internet produced some other information. Not all of his books were westerns, for example. One of his books, Playthings of Desire (Macaulay, 1924), as by J. Wesley Putnam, is about the illicit affairs of a Broadway actress, and was the basis for a silent film of the same name. Starring were Estelle Taylor, Mahlon Hamilton, Dagmar Godowsky and Mary Thurman. When the movie was produced again in 1933, the featured players were Linda Watkins, James Kirkwood, Reed Howes and Josephine Dunn.

   None of these people were previously known to me. Perhaps they were household names at the time. Fame is sometimes a fleeting thing.

   Getting back to western fiction, though, here’s an interesting look into the effort that Drago did to make his western fiction as authentic as possible. The paragraph below is taken from Richard Patterson’s introduction to a book that Drago did on the history of the west, Outlaws on Horseback: The History of the Organized Bands of Bank and Train Robbers Who Terrorized the Prairie Towns of Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma for Half a Century, reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press in 1998:

    “Although Harry Sinclair Drago did most of his writing within a cab ride of New York’s Hudson River, he probably knew parts of the American West better than some who spent their lives there. A committed researcher, Drago once memorized the names of over a thousand counties in the western states and territories. To avoid mistakes, he kept pages of an 1890 atlas pinned to the wall of his office.”

   The original edition of this work was published by Bramall House in 1964. For another view of Drago’s attitude toward writing, I can’t tell you where the following quote first appeared, one I found on the Internet, but here it is anyway:

    When asked how he wrote over 100 books: “Four pages a day, that’s how you write 100 books. That’s how you write books.”

   My Gun Is My Law is a title that really doesn’t have anything much to do with the book of the same name. As Erle Stanley Gardner points out in his introduction, the central theme of this western novel is the family feud. Two of the men who originally settled the hundred-mile length of Spirit Valley, Jube (Stonewall) Gordon and Rusty Cameron soon began fighting each other, their hatred beginning a quarrel between the two that lasted for forty years, claiming the lives of most of both men’s sons, not to mention scores of men who worked for either side.

   For most of that time the feud was fought according to rules. From page 3:

   For one, you did not shoot an enemy in the back, or fire at him unless he was properly warned. Also, it was possible to meet him while he was on lawful business and unless he gave fresh offence you did not make war on him. It was a quixotic, even an absurd code; but it was a code, and in this Spirit Valley country there had always been black disgrace for the Cameron partisan or Gordon adherent who had dared violate it.

   As you see, this is very much in the vein of the traditional western, which also means, of course, there is also a romance involved, no matter how serious and how deadly the feud between the two families may be. Here’s a rather long quote from page 10, and you’re probably way ahead of me on this. At a local dance, with both sides in attendance, and on their “best” behavior toward each other:

    By now, every eye in the room was trained on Cape [Cameron] as he stood before Necia [Gordon], tall and straight, his blue eyes alive and reckless in his young face. With a grace few suspected he possessed, he bowed to her.

    “Miss Gordon,” he said so softly that many could not hear, “might I have the honor of this dance with you?”

    Men and women held their breath, stunned by his request and certain that Necia would say no and put him in his place. They were in no doubt as to what would follow. Guns would talk here tonight. They knew they should be thinking of their own safety, getting out of the way. For the moment, however, they were helpless to do anything about it. A spell had been put on them, and they could only stare at Cape and Necia.

    They saw him regard him with a curious interest, the color coming and going in her cheeks. She seemed calm enough, with Cape’s preposterous advance ringing in her ears and the eyes of everyone in the room on her. They knew she was alive to the significance of this moment and its inevitable consequences, and they told themselves that if she was slow to answer it was only because she wanted what she said to be adequate and final.

    But, to their surprise, something flowed into her dark eyes that was warm and friendly. A smile parted her lips.

    “I’d be most pleased to dance with you, Mr. Cameron,” she said simply and with a trace of her father’s familiar drawl.

   With well over 150 pages of small print to go in the paperback edition, this is of course only the first step toward a truce, and not all of the characters survive to the end. As a matter of fact, the local doctor, a young fellow somewhat acquainted with the new science of ballistics, does a fine job of detective work, finding a killer in a shooting where no one was even suspected. Microscopes do come in handy! – even in a land where guns make up 90% of the law.

   For a fellow that started early in the pulps (circa 1922), Drago/Ermine has a flair for the right word in the right place, albeit with a certain stiffness in the telling every so often. From this (admittedly) small sample of size one, I’d definitely say he’s worth seeking out and hunting down to read more of his work.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (slightly shortened and revised).



BILL GULICK – Bend of the Snake. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1950. Paperback reprints: Bantam #906, 1951; Paperback Library, 1968.

BEND OF THE RIVER. Universal, 1952. James Stewart, Julia Adams, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan Jack Lambert, Royal Dano, Frances Bavier. Screenplay by Borden Chase. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   Bill Gulick’s first novel, Bend of the Snake, doesn’t seem like anything special to me, but it got snatched up immediately by the movies, and then discarded — of which more later.

    Bend rides out slowly at first, with Scott Burton summoned to help out an old friend in a foundering business deal. Seems his buddy Emerson Cole is trying to break up a local monopoly in the Oregon territory and needs Burton’s help — understandable since Burton is that stock figure of Western Fiction: an honest man who can’t be beaten with guns or fists.


   Gulick never tells us just what the bond is that makes Burton so willing to come to Cole’s assistance, but it quickly becomes apparent that Cole has neither the spine nor the ethics of his good buddy, character traits which lead the story into murder and a fairly well-handled investigation when a bookish youngster turns amateur sleuth.

   For the most part though, this is pretty standard stuff, with Burton breaking the local robber baron by getting a load of goods to market past his hired guns, then beating down further attempts at ambush, arson and general mayhem.

   Gulick creates an effective cast of salt-of-the-earth settlers and a crusty riverboat captain to give the tale a fine, spirited background, but plot-wise this is no different than a hundred others.

   This was filmed, sort of, as Bend of the River, and when it came out Gulick ran an ad complaining that the only things they used from his book were the first three words of the title. Whereupon screenwriter Borden Chase observed wryly that he should have waited to see if the movie was a hit before distancing himself from it.


   In fact, Bend of the River (the second teaming of director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart) was a big hit, and deservedly so. It is in fact, probably the most enjoyable of Mann’s westerns and the most satisfying of Stewart’s.

   Just to be strictly accurate, I should note that Borden Chase did incorporate a few elements from Gulick’s book besides the first three words of the title: Emerson Cole is still a shifty character (though considerably more ballsy as played by Arthur Kennedy) and there’s still a helpful steamboat captain and something about getting a wagon load of goods past considerable obstacles, but the rest is pure Borden Chase, and it’s a theme he’d return to again: a man of principle (Jimmy Stewart, natch, the character re-named Glyn Mclyntock) allied with a helpful but not entirely trustworthy partner (Arthur Kennedy in a role he’d also return to again) involved in a deadly undertaking that is part thrill-a-minute adventure and part spiritual odyssey as Stewart/Mclyntock seeks to redeem himself from his past.


   Mann seemed particularly attuned to this sort of thing and he evokes it here with speed and energy but without the angst that intensifies his later films: The Naked Spur (’53) and Man of the West (’58) may be more profound, but Bend of the River is more fun, as Stewart and Kennedy brave marauding Indians, crooked speculators, hired guns and mutinous miners (Morgan, Lambert and Dano at their best/worst) on their way to a confrontation that seems all the more satisfying because we know it’s coming.

   I should also add that Universal had Chase write in a part for a rising young newcomer on the lot, Rock Hudson, who can be glimpsed in the Mann/Stewart Winchester ’73 (1950). Chase wrote him in but then apparently had no idea what to do with him as Hudson drops out of the action at a crucial moment and only reappears when it seems safe to do so.




DOROTHY M. JOHNSON – The Hanging Tree and Other Stories. University of Nebraska Press, softcover, 1995, with ten stories. Ballantine 274K, paperback original, 1957, with seven stories. Several later Ballantine printings.

   The Hanging Tree is a collection of ten tales by Dorothy M. Johnson written from 1942-57 and some of the best western fiction I’ve ever read. Johnson could pack movement, character and setting into a very few words without sounding packed, and she knew how to develop a tale with a feel for its implications as well as its actions.

   The result is ten memorable vignettes of which “The Hanging Tree” — a great story by itself — is perhaps the least. I got a lot of pleasure from “Lost Sister,” a cryptic tale of a “rescued” captive, and “The Last Boast,” in which a condemned cowboy looks back on the best-and-worst thing he ever did, and there’s some laugh-out-loud prose in “I Woke Up Wicked.”

   In all, a book to treasure and a writer to seek out again.

Editorial Comment:   For more on the author of this collection, Dorothy M. Johnson, her Wikipedia entry is a good place to start.

LEWIS B. PATTEN – Prodigal Gunfighter. Berkley F1241; paperback original, 1966. Signet, paperback , 1976; Leisure, paperback, packaged with The Law in Cottonwood, 1994.

LEWIS B. PATTEN Prodigal Gunfighter

   By sheer happenstance, this is the next western I picked up to read, and in a strong sense it picks up a thread I was working with in my review of W. C. Tuttle’s Straws in the Wind. If Tuttle’s career as a paperback writer ended in 1951 or so, Lewis B. Patten was there almost immediately to pick up the torch. His first book, Massacre at White River, came out from Ace in 1952.

   Patten’s writing career continued right up until he died in 1981, when Track of the Hunter came out, also as a paperback original, this time from Signet. He was incredibly prolific. In a thirty-year span he produced something like 90 novels, including books as by Lewis Ford, Len Leighton (with Wayne D. Overholser) and Joseph Wayne (also in collaboration with Overholser).

   As one of the next generation of western writers, all of Patten’s novels appeared in the post-pulp era but (as far as I know) they were all still very much in the strong “code of the west” tradition. It’s certainly difficult to generalize on the basis of one book, and Prodigal Gunfighter is the only book of his that I’ve read in several years, and probably more than that.

   Not that Patten didn’t write for the pulps. Starting in 1950 he had a score or more shorter works that appeared in magazines like Mammoth Western, Thrilling Western, Frontier Stories and so on. His name is certainly more identified with novels, however, and in his heyday, he was cranking them out like almost nobody else.

   And he was published in hardcover as well. He may have begun in softcover only, but beginning with Guns at Gray Butte in 1963, more and more of books came out from Doubleday. Not all of them, but a high percentage of them, the easy explanation for why not all of them was that he probably wrote more books than Doubleday could publish.

   Take 1966 for example. He wrote No God in Saguaro and Death Waited at Rialto Creek for Doubleday; The Odds Against Circle L for Ace; and Prodigal Gunfighter for Berkley. Not that year, but in the same time period, he also wrote for Lancer and Signet, the latter eventually becoming his primary publisher in paperback, both for originals and reprints of the Doubleday novels.

   If you want a slim and lean western to read, one that you will pick up and not put down until you’re done, then the 128 page Prodigal Gunfighter is the book for you. Taking place in the space of only a day in the small town of Cottonwood Springs, Patten certainly doesn’t leave the reader much time to breathe.

   The early morning finds the entire town down at the railroad station, waiting for the prodigal to return, in the person of the notorious home-grown gunfighter Slade Teplin. Included among them is a rather nervous deputy sheriff Johnny Yoder, who has been semi-courting Teplin’s wife, Molly, a school teacher who thought she could tame him, couldn’t, but who has not yet divorced him.

   Is he the reason for Slade’s return? Slade has had no contact with Molly since he left town. His father still lives in Cottonwood Springs, but there’s hardly any love lost between the two of them. Does he want revenge of some sort against the entire town? It is pure hatred? No one seems to know, and the sense of fear in the town is everywhere.

   And no one can do anything, including the law. In all but his first of many killings over the years, Slade has never drawn first. On page 91 Slade is briefly confronted by the sheriff:

   … Arch said finally, “So that makes it murder doesn’t it? It’s just like a rigged poker game where you know you’re going to win because you’ve stacked the cards.”

   “I always let the other guy draw first.”

   “Sure. Sure you do. You can afford to. Besides, it’s smart. It gives you immunity from prosecution. But you know, every time who it is that’s going to die. Like with Cal Reeder earlier today.”

   Cal Reeder was a kid, the son of a wealthy local rancher, who thought he’d make a name for himself and failed. His father is part of the story, and so are the four drifters that Johnny notices having come quietly into town.

   Even at the short length the plot does not go exactly where it seems expected to do, and on pages 114-115 is one of the best choreographed fist-fights (not shoot-outs) I’ve read in quite a while, and it’s not even with Slade Teplin. He’s still on the loose, however – don’t worry about that – and with plans to cause even more havoc in Cottonwood Springs.

   To show you want I mean, though, here’s at least how the end of the fight reads:

   Johnny followed him over the desk-top and landed once more on top of him. The man was fighting with a silent desperation now, fighting for his life. Each blow he struck had a sodden, smacking sound both his fists and Johnny’s face were wet with blood. And he was tough. He was wiry and strong and no stranger to this kind of fight.

   But he lacked one thing, one thing that Johnny had – anger, righteous indignation and outraged fury. Johnny had those things in quantity. For every blow the stranger struck, Johnny retaliated with another, harder one.

   The man was weakening. They rolled against the glass-strewn floor to the window and back again. And at last Johnny felt the man go limp.

   After a few seconds taken to recover, Johnny knows he needs to make the man talk. From page 116:

   Johnny said softly, “You’re going to talk, you son-of-a-bitch, or I’m going to kick your head in. You understand what I said?”

   He’s not bluffing. The west was a tough place to live, but Patten’s characters also seem to be tough enough themselves and equal to the challenge when they need to be. What’s more traditional than that?

PostScript:   Written later in Patten’s career is a book called The Law in Cottonwood (Doubleday, 1978). While I’m curious, I do not know whether the later book has any of the same characters as this one.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (slightly revised).

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