Tue 11 Sep 2012
TOM W. BLACKBURN – Short Grass. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1947. Paperback reprints include: Bantam 207, November 1948; Bantam 1164, September 1953, Dell 7980, April 1973; Dell 17980, June 1979.
For no good reason I can think of, Tom Blackburn (1913–1992) is not included in the second edition of 20th Century Western Writers, and he should be. I am surprised that he is not. He was a prolific writer of westerns for the pulps, hardcovers, paperbacks, movies and a number of 50s and 60s TV series. His career began perhaps with “Wagontongue’s Last Town-Tamer” which appears in Star Western, February 1940, his earliest entry in the online FictionMags Index.
His wikipedia entry appears here, where you will learn that he may be best remembered as the person who wrote the lyrics to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Among several other TV series he wrote for are Maverick, Bronco, and Daniel Boone. It’s quite a résumé.
And as a western, Short Grass is quite a novel, impressive in both its exposition and impact, with (in my opinion) as much emphasis on “novel” as “western,” and perhaps more. It starts out in flurry of action, and it barely ever lets up – perhaps only in the middle, with an ending that if properly filmed, would be a humdinger of a movie. (I’ll get back to this shortly.)
Steve Llewellyn is the primary protagonist, a wandering cowpoke – if not gunman, a drifter whose past we never learn much about – and an innocent bystander, if you will, who gets caught up in a shooting incident in a saloon between two other fellows. He’s wounded and – we’ve read this before – is soon found by a woman who takes him home to recover.
Things happen fast in this book. Other westerns may draw the next step out for any number of chapters, but Steve doesn’t wait nearly that long. He kisses Sharon Lynch on page 36, and in the Dell paperback I read, there still are almost 200 pages yet to come. The course of romance does not come easily, though. Steve believes in the use of his gun. Sharon does not. She does believe violence is the solution to anything. Not a good combination, and once she sees what Steve is capable of, she rejects him, and they part.
As a synopsis, this is too short and far too easy. The two are adults, and their behavior, their thoughts, their actions, their problems, are those of adults. When they meet later, in Kansas, not Texas, five years have passed, Steve has become a homesteader, Sharon has remarried (to a man too weak for her) and the local marshal (Ord Keown) has an eye on her.
Besides the complications a love triangle (well, yes, a quadrangle) can bring, the past that both Steve and Sharon have fled comes back to haunt them again in the form of rancher Hal Fenton. The latter is someone would not mind gaining some revenge as well as some open range for his cattle he and his men have brought up for market from Texas.
This is a tale with several twists and turns in it, surprisingly so, but it is the people involved that make the story so memorable. These are real people with real problems, and this being a western, only violence, sudden death and a fast and bloody shootout at the end can salvage any hope for them – the ones who survive, that is.
I suggested earlier that this movie would make a humdinger of a movie. I have not seen it yet, but I have it on order. The film that was made of this book is entitled Short Grass (Allied Artists, 1950), and the screenplay was written by none other than Mr. Blackburn himself. The names of the characters are the same, and the plot summary on IMDB suggests that very few changes were made. Rod Cameron stars as Llewellyn, Cathy Downs as Sharon Lynch, Johnny Mack Brown as Sheriff Ord Keown, with Morris Ankrum as Hal Fenton. I’ll report on my findings later. With stars like these, I’m hoping for the best.