“SHOOT HIM ON SIGHT!” - William Colt MacDonald. Ace F-389, paperback original; first printing, 1966. Ace ‘Tall Twin’ Western, 2nd printing, 1972; paired with The Troublemaker, by Edwin Booth.

SHOOT HIM ON SIGHT William Colt MacDonald

   Most westerns, it has been said before, and probably by me, are crime stories. They just happen to take place in the west, and mostly in the late 1800’s. Rustling, bank robberies, feuding between cattlemen and homesteaders and so on, all crime fiction, but unless there’s an element of detective work, Al Hubin does not include it in his bibliography of Crime Fiction, and rightly so. There’s a matter of intent, as well. Most western writers were (and are) writing westerns, and not crime fiction.

   And of that aforementioned element of detective work, there is, I have to admit, none in this book. Not that there isn’t a crime, and it’s fairly obvious who the villain is, to the reader that is, and not the narrator of this tale, which is told – and I think this is unusual for westerns, isn’t it? – in first person by John Cardinal, who is on the run from the law.

   It seems that to help out his foster parents, he extorted money from a mean, tight-fisted banker and then, knowing that he did wrong, lit out of town. What he doesn’t expect, though, is that his reputation as an outlaw would grow and grow, with WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE posters going up all across the west. Thinking that this is due to sheer laziness on the part of the law – blaming him when the local sheriffs cannot catch up with their own local desperadoes – the noose that John Cardinal has placed around his own neck grows tighter and tighter. He quickly learns to survive in wilder and wilder towns, trying his utmost to live up to his reputation.

   Until he reaches the crookedest town of them all, that is, which is to say Onyxton, a town that’s run by Shel Webster, and whose girl friend is a beautiful dance hall hostess named Topaz. And this is where John Cardinal stops and makes a stand, where he finds out who he is, who’s been behind the problems he’s had in life, and what on earth are guns and ammunition doing in boxes labeled sewing machines being sent to small villages just across the border in Mexico?

   A number of MacDonald’s other westerns are listed in Hubin, by the way, many of them featuring a rangeland detective named Gregory Quist, and if I have ever read any, it was so long ago that I do not remember. John Cardinal’s forte, on the other hand, seems merely to be being in the right place at the right time, once he’s decided that Topaz is the girl for him, that is.

   Here’s a long quote from pages 112-113, a picturesque scene from Webster’s dance hall:

   The noise was deafening: the music, the stamping of heavy feet on the dance floor, whirring of the wheel, click of poker chips and everyone talking at once. Cigar and cigarette stubs littered the floor, waves of tobacco smoke drifted through the room. I glanced through the room and finally spied Topaz, seated alone at a corner table. She was dressed about as I’d seen her yesterday, though the dress was of a different pattern, some sort of green and white figured material. Drooped loosely about her shoulders was a white, fringed Spanish shawl. God, she was beautiful, her shining red-gold hair looked as though every hair lay in place. Sleek, was the word for it. Then I thought of Shel Webster, and I scowled. I glanced around, but didn’t see anything of him; probably he was in the adjoining barroom. Not that it made any difference. He couldn’t have stopped me from going to her. I was like one of those big moths attracted to a shining flame.

   There’s not a great depth involved here, as you can plainly see, but this is a smoothly told tale that’s not only tasty but a whole lot of fun to read.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #5,
   July 2004 (slightly revised).