Western Fiction



LUCAS WEBB – Eli’s Road. Doubleday, hardcover, 1971. Popular Library, paperback, no date stated.

   I recently went back to a used book store to buy the copy of Green Ice they’ve had there for years, and got distracted once again. This time by a novel called Eli’s Road,  by Lucas Webb.

   Considering the quality of this thing, I’m surprised Webb and his novel aren’t better-known. It starts off a bit awkward, but soon gets the reader involved in a first person narrative spanning ante-bellum Kansas to 1880s Wyoming.

   Webb does a remarkable job of keeping his narrator believable from the time he writes as a callow teen-ager till he ends up in stoic middle-age, quite a feat of style, and the story: Bloody Kansas, rogue mountain men, orphan girls, pro-slavers, store-keepers, abolitionists, border ruffians, emigrants, freed slaves… and the mysterious Brother Frank.

   Seek it out.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #34, September 2004.
Reviewed by TONY BAER:


RUDOLPH WURLITZER – The Drop Edge of Yonder. Two Dollar Radio, softcover, 2008, 2017.

      “Elk’s elk and meat’s meat, son, and nothin’ matters, and to hell with the rest of it.”

   Wurlitzer, descendant of the jukebox maven, wrote a screenplay about Zebulon, a mountain man stuck between this life and the underworld, to be filmed by Sam Peckinpah. The screenplay can be found here: https://thescriptsavant.com/movies/Zebulon.pdf

E. BAKER QUINN One Man's Muddle

   Unfortunately, Peckinpah died before filming it. Then Hal Ashby was going to direct it. And died. Then Jim Jarmusch was going to direct it — but couldn’t agree with Wurlitzer on the script. So, instead, Jarmusch filmed Dead Man, lifting many of the same themes without crediting Wurlitzer. (For an interview discussing this stuff, see https://arthurmag.com/2008/05/21/on-the-drift-rudy-wurlitzer-and-the-road-to-nowhere/).

   Giving up on the film, Wurlitzer reworked the screenplay into a novel: Drop Edge of Yonder.

   Zebulon, mountain man, fur trader, outlaw, shootist, gold digger, horse thief, and gambler, gets shot in the heart during a card game gone wrong. But he doesn’t die. He should be dead. But he ain’t. At least not hardly. Maybe a little bit — but with one foot in this world and one foot in the other.

   So he wanders. “Quien es,” he keeps asking. Going from town to town, from card game to card game, always losing to a royal flush with the queen of hearts pulled off the bottom of the deck.

   He hooks up with Delilah, African courtesan to a Russian Count. But she’s just like him, cursed to meander this earth, neither of this world nor the other. Condemned to wander til they fathom this, that:

      “All trails are dreams and there was never anything to try for or do; only to be.”

JANE LINDSKOLD “The Drifter.” First appeared in A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters, edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Kerrie Hughes (Daw, paperback original, 2010). Collected in Curiosities (CreateSoace, trade paperback, 2015).

   To begin with, here’s the first paragraph:

   Prudence Bledsoe rode into town on a big buckskin stallion. She was on the trail of trouble, and it didn’t take much to see that she’d found it.


   Jane Lindskold is an author known for her stories of mythological fantasy – werewolves, shape-shifters, satyrs, merfolk, and unicorns, according to her Wikipedia page – but she wisely holds off on telling the reader was exactly the “trouble” is that she is on the trail of, but you can take it from me that that Wikipedia description is right on the mark.

   I will tell you this. Prudence Bledsoe is the kind of woman that when she rides into town, people notice. Not many women ride into town, you see, a drifter, you might say, on horseback, not one of the usual arrivals on the train or by stagecoach. That first sentence also lets us know that she is a woman on a mission, and I think the townsfolk know that, too.

   Jane Lindskold is a very good writer. Besides setting up the story as she does in the very first sentence, she also conveys the dustiness and the on-the-edge of nowhere feeling of the town and the townspeople. Cattle and sheep have been gruesomely killed, she learns, and young children have gone missing. And at length, Prudence Bledsoe’s own personal secret is revealed.

   This is not a classic unforgettable story, but any means, but it’s an effective one, and it’s a fine choice for the leading one in a collection entitled A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters.

Reviewed by TONY BAER:


GLENDON SWARTHOUT – The Shootist. Doubleday, hardcover, 1975. Bantam, paperback, 1976. Signet, paperback, 1986. Berkley Books, paperback, 1998. University of Nebraska Press, softcover, 2011. Film: 1976. Directed by Don Siegel; starring John Wayne (his last movie) and Lauren Bacall.

   J. B. Books, 51 years old, of Creede, Colorado, is the last of the legendary gunfighters. It’s 1901. John Wesley Hardin? Dead. Billy the Kidd? Dead. The James brothers? Dead. Wild Bill Hickok? Same. The time of the gunfighters is gone. But Books remains, a dinosaur that survived the asteroid.

   He’s been feeling pretty run down lately, so he sees a doctor. The doctor tells him he’s dying of prostate cancer. But he doesn’t believe him.

   There’s only one doctor he’ll believe: Dr. Hostetler of El Paso, Texas, who saved Books’s life 11 years prior, expertly extracting a bullet from his liver and sewing him up before he could bleed out.

   So he rides horseback 10 days straight to El Paso on his bloated, contorted underside, comforted only by “a soft pillow of crimson velvet trimmed with golden tassels” he’d stolen from a whorehouse.

   Dr. Hostetler confirms the worst. He’s got about 6 weeks to live — if he wants to die in bed, screeching in pain, unable to move, soiled in filth and wretched incapacity. But, Dr. Hostetler suggests, perhaps that’s not the way he’d prefer to go out.

   The e.e. cummings epigraph is the best summary of the story:

            We doctors know
            a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell
            of a good universe next door: let’s go

   So Books decides to go. But go his own way.

   Books asks the town Marshall for the names of the baddest gunmen in town. The Marshall gives him 3:

   1: Jack Pulford: “Runs the faro layout at Keating’s….straightest shot I’ve ever seen, and cool as a cucumber. Couple years back he got off one round here, under fire, through the heart, and they measured. Eighty-four feet. Through the heart.”

   2: Serrano: “El Tuerto they call him, ‘Cross-eye.’ He’ll rustle a bunch of cattle over the river, sell ’em on this side, then rustle ’em back and sell ’em to the same outfit he rustled ’em from in the first place. A real cutthroat. I wouldn’t turn my back on him in church.”

   3: Jay Cobb: “Cobb’s only twenty or so, but I’ll hang him before he’s thirty, or somebody will. Gun crazy–been toting one since he was big enough to lift it.”

   Books invites all three to meet him at 4:00 p.m. at the nicest tavern in town. May the best man win.

   “They were like actors on an empty stage….The curtain had risen, the hour come. But they had no audience, save for one another, and even more bewildering, they had no play. They were assembled to take roles for which no lines had yet been written, to participate in a tragedy behind which there was no clear creative intent, to impose upon senselessness some sort of deadly order.”

   The deadly order comes, but comes too pat for my tastes. It’ll smack you right between your thousand-yard stare.

   It’s a good concept for a story. But at the end of the day, it didn’t do anything for me. You can tell by the last line that Swarthout thinks he’s written a freaking masterpiece. A tour de force of the first magnitude. Self-congratulations are clearly in order. Just no congratulations from me.

DANIEL BOYD – Aesop’s Travels: A Crackerjack Tale of the Old West. Montag Press, trade paperback, July 2023.

   Let me say right here at the start that in your eyes, you may not consider this an unbiased review. I know the author personally, and if you stop by this blog even only every so often, so do you. Under his own name, he goes by Dan Stumpf, and his book and movie reviews that are posted here are even better than mine, if that were at all possible, not to mention all of the most cogent comments he leaves on posts of others here.

   But since I believe that this is the book I most enjoyed reading all year, I thought I’d at least tell you some more about it, and you can make your own decision from there.

   It is a western, of the traditional variety, but I cannot give you another author to whose work you might compare it to. It is very nearly unique in many ways, and hopefully what I say here will explain further. It takes place in the 1880s, perhaps, in Dakota Territory, and the small town of Greenfield, where Beefy Beaumont, the narrator of the tale, now owns the Queen of Egypt saloon.

   And as the story opens, a good friend of his, Charlie Greenfield, a gambler who holds down a table in the saloon nearly every night of the week, is in jail and is destined to be hanged by the end of the week. There is more to the story than that, but it comes out only gradually and you’re be better off reading it on your own anyway.

   I hope I will not spoil things too much by saying the hanging does not happen, and when it doesn’t, Part Two of the book takes off from there. What I do need to tell you is something about Little Aesop, the young waif Beefy finds hunkered down in the saloon when he takes over. Little Aesop, by the way, is the new name Beefy gives him (from Billy Boogers, as I recall, based on the snot that continually flows from his nose, and whom Beefy teaches how to clean himself up.)

   Little Aesop, being only one step up from being the village idiot, so to speak, also needs to learn how to handle life, and to that end, Beefy tells him stories every evening from Aesop’s Fables.

   Now I admit that this may not seem like much to base a 300 page novel on, but it is the starting point that you may be wondering about as to the what and wherefore of the title, at least, and Part Two of the tale is a rip-roaring tale of retribution and revenge. You will read the last two chapters in perhaps thirty seconds or less.

   Participating in this second-half journey are: the Bartender, the Old Scout, the Outlaw, and Gambler, and of course, Little Aesop. They do not all come back alive, but while you, the reader, have no idea all along where the story is headed, it does come to an end in due course to the spot where it was headed all along.

   Daniel Boyd has a voice all his own, consistently humorous and folksy and real. If you like westerns which go off the beaten path as much as I do, then I think you’ll enjoy this one as much as I did.

Reviewed by TONY BAER:


ELMORE LEONARD – Valdez Is Coming. Fawcett R2328, paperback original, October 1970. Library of America #308, hardcover: Elmore Leonard: Westerns: Last Stand at Saber River / Hombre / Valdez Is Coming / Forty Lashes Less One / Stories. Film: United Artists, 1971, starring Burt Lancaster & Susan Clark; director: Edwin Sherin.

   Bob Valdez is a local constable in some bullshit Arizona corporation town, late 1800’s. There’s some trouble down at a barn.

   Frank Tanner is the big man in town. He ain’t a big man physically. Tough and wiry as the expired slim jim between the seat folds of your rental car. But he’s got maybe 20 gunmen working for him, and he makes a lot of coin running guns down to Mexico to sell to the revolutionaries and running cattle thru the frontier.

   Tanner says the man in the house is a black deserter of the cavalry who murdered Tanner’s friend. And this deserter has got to die. So he and his gunmen have cornered the man inside a barn, and have been shooting the thing up, indiscriminately.

   Valdez, being the law, figures he’d better come around and see what the ruckus is. None of your business, he’s told. Brusquely. The law is expected to serve the Man.

   Well I’m still gonna go in and talk to the guy, says Valdez.

   So Valdez walks to the barn. Knocks on the door. And talks to the guy and his wife, a Native American woman. Very pregnant. The man has proof he’s not the guy they’re looking for. He was honorably discharged, and his papers are in his wagon.

   They go to retrieve the papers, Valdez yells for Tanner to hold his fire. But Tanner has used Valdez as a diversion to set his rifle sights on his prey. At close range. The man now thinks Valdez has betrayed him. And draws his pistol.

   Valdez, having no choice, pulls his double barreled sawed off scattershot first, and blows the man away.

   Tanner walks up to the man and says: He’s not the guy. Black guys all look the same anyway. But this ain’t him. You killed the wrong guy.

   Valdez says: It was you that made the mistake. You took the woman’s husband. You should pay her five hundred bucks for the loss of her husband, the baby’s father.

   â€˜If I wanted you to talk, I’d tell you,’ says Tanner. Learn your place. And tells his men to kick Valdez’s ass. Strap a cross to his back. In the desert. So he can die.

   Valdez doesn’t die, though. He kidnaps Tanner’s woman. A beautiful blonde. He’ll give her back, he says. Soon as Tanner pays the widow her $500.

   Tanner’s woman “had come from Prescott with her nightgowns and linens to marry James C. Erin, and five years and six months later she fired three bullets into him from a service revolver and left him dead.”

   Once kidnapped by Valdez, turns out she’s not too fond of Tanner either. She likes Valdez better:

   â€œSlowly her hands came up in front of her and she began unbuttoning her shirt, her hands working down gradually from her throat to her waist. She said, ‘I told you I killed my husband. I told you I don’t want to marry Frank Tanner. I told you I have nothing. You decide what I want.”

   Tanner tells his men kill Valdez and bring his woman back.

   But when she tells his men she prefers Valdez, they turn on Tanner. “A man holds his woman or he doesn’t. It’s up to him, a personal thing between him and the man who took the woman.”

   Tanner took the Native woman’s man. So Valdez took Tanner’s woman.



   It’s a good, tough Western. Some atypical stuff happens for a Western — not the least of which is the woman’s free will. She’s not your average damsel in distress. And this seems to take all sides by surprise. The ending, too, is atypical. At first I was a bit disappointed by a lack of fireworks. There’s a great buildup to a showdown that never happens.

   But the more I think about it, the more I like it. Apparently the number of actual gunfights in the wild west were surprisingly few. Plenty of folks surely chickened out. But chickens are rarely the stuff of myth. And the western is nothing if not mythology. Elmore Leonard shows great courage in delivering a chicken shit denouement.

   I enjoyed it. If Valdez is coming, you should go ahead and let him in. He’s good company.



NOEL LOOMIS – Have Gun, Will Travel. Dell First Edition B-156, paperback original; 1at printing, 1960. Cover art by Robert Stanley.

   Not a real winner, but it inspired me to make a pipe.

   Noel Loomis was a well-regarded Western historian, and he wrote several scripts for the television show, so he was a natural for this paperback tie-in. And he gives it the dollop of polish one expects from a writer of his caliber, but that’s not always a good thing.

   The plot involves Paladin’s involvement with a notorious lady of the theatre, the search for a missing newspaper editor, Mexican revolutionaries and the near-legendary outlaw Three-Fingered Phil.

   Freed of the time and budget constraints of network television, Loomis lets his hero and himself ramble, from San Francisco to Santa Fe, down into Mexico and up into the mountains, with every leg and limb of the journey described in detail. Oh, it never gets monotonous, it just gets, well… long!

   And perhaps it’s no fault of Loomis’ that he never really evokes the forceful personality Richard Boone brought to his characterization, though he lards the dialogue with allusions to Shakespeare. He just misses the laconic personality and repressed rage essential to the character of Paladin, and it leaves a gaping whole in the book that Robert Stanley’s excellent cover can’t quite fill.

   That said, there are enough fist-fights, knife-fights and gun-fights to keep the reader awake, and Loomis puts the action across reasonably well. Maybe it’s me, I just couldn’t get excited over this.

   But it did prompt me to make a pipe out of a tree branch and trim from an old cap pistol!



HAL G. EVARTS – The Long Rope. Dell First Edition A172, paperback original, 1958. Pocket, paperback, 1973.

   Long Rope starts with the brutal massacre of a squatter family and the near-fatal wounding of luckless drifter Will Landry by persons unknown — but not for long. The scene quickly shifts to the modest cow town of Antelope, run by acting sheriff Roy Kell, who is holding Landry, with the narrative that he got shot while murdering the squatters and will be tried and quickly hanged as soon as he recovers.

   Enter Dan Croft, an old trail buddy of Landry’s, keeping his cards close to his vest, playing it cool and cagey while he surveys the situation, figures out who he can trust, who really killed the squatters and why Kell is so anxious for Landry not to stand trial—even to the point of hiring Croft to kill him!

   This first part of the book is confined to the town of Antelope, and I use the word “confined” advisedly because it reads more like a film noir than a western, as Croft walks mean streets knee-deep in double-crosses, trying to out-bluff adversaries who hold all the cards, and spring his buddy from Jail.

   At which point (and I’m not giving away anything that ain’t on the back cover) the tale moves out into open country, and The Long Rope becomes a tale of pursuit and survival in the wilderness as the fugitives cross forests, snow-capped mountains, and dusty plains to escape a lawman bent on murder.

   Evarts writes this just as vividly as he did the first part, with a keen appreciation of the rigors of the terrain and the vagaries of the chase, with Kell closing in, falling behind, and finally…

   Well I’ll just say that The Long Rope comes to a terse and satisfying conclusion, and I’ll be looking for more by Evarts!



H. A. DeROSSO – .44 .  Lion #129, paperback original, 1953; Lion # 145, paperback, 1956. Leisure Books, paperback, 1998.

   Harland is a reluctant gunfighter. He got sucked into it without wanting to. He beat a famous gunslinger in a drunken pique, and his reputation grew and followed him. He only wanted to be a hired hand. But anytime he got hired these days it was because the rancher wanted him to shoot somebody. They’d say he was just another hand. But they’d lie.

   Finally he figured he might as well accept his fate. If he’s gonna have to gunfight, he might as well get paid for it.

   His first hired kill is a man named Lancaster. He tracks down the man, out beyond the range in the middle of no man’s land. Betwixt some craggy straggly chasm. Lancaster stops and waits.

   What are you following me for, asks Lancaster. I mean to kill you, Harland responds. You mean you were hired to kill me. Well go ahead and draw.

   And they draw. And Lancaster has him beat. Handily. No doubt. But he sadly smirks and doesn’t fire. And Harland does, his finger jerks, the bullet flies, and Lancaster dies. Smiling.

   Now Harland is wracked with regret. Why didn’t Lancaster fire? What was that sad smile about. What the hell is going on? So Harland he can’t let it go. He has to find out what was behind Lancaster’s desire to die.

   Harland turns detective trying to figure out why he was hired to kill Lancaster. Turns out Lancaster and a couple of other men made off with $100,000 in a train robbery. Then Lancaster screwed his partners and made off with the plunder.

   But the partners don’t want Lancaster dead — at least not until they get their grubby hands on the loot. So who was it then? Who is it that wants Lancaster dead, that already has their hands on the money, that made a gunfighter give up the ghost?

   Harland can’t stop til he finds out, meanwhile falling in love with Lancaster’s widow. A woman who all the men fall for and long to protect.

   Til death do they part.


   If this were a straight urban crime novel, it’d be riddled with clichés. But as it is, it takes a typical noir and marries it seamlessly with the typical western. Perfectly, paradigmatically. It shows the way. Typical noir + typical western = atypical masterpiece. Like a bulgogi burrito.

   If anyone ever wondered if western noir was a thing, this is it.

   If it sounds like your bag, it surely is. And if it don’t, it ain’t.



CHARLES WILLEFORD – The Difference. Dennis McMillan, hardcover, 1999. Previously published as The Hombre from Sonora as by Will Charles (Lenox Hill Press. hardcover, 1971).

   Starts off as a typical western. Set up maybe a bit like Shane.

   Johnny Shaw is 19. Living in Phoenix. He gets a letter saying his father is dead, deep in Arizona Territory, 1880. The elder Shaw left his son no money, only a ranch. But a nice one, with six head of breeding cattle.

   Soon as he arrives, the local open range ranchers want him gone. This is their land. Has been forever. Legal land claims be damned.

   But hey, for your trouble, we’ll pay you well. Say twice its value in gold. You’ve got til tonight.

   I don’t need til tonight, says Johnny. I’ll tell you now. I don’t want your money. My dad left me this ranch and this ranch only. It’s all I’ve got. Now get out.

   My father’s land, my father’s honor. My inheritance, my honor. I’m here to stay.

   So now Johnny’s at war with the ranchers. And the shooting starts.

   But this is Willeford, so you know there’s gonna a twist on western tropes.

   Once Johnny starts a-killing, he starts to like it. Once he defends his honor and wins back his right to till his land, to get the girl, to start a homestead, to be his father’s son, he doesn’t want it anymore.

   Like Courtney Love says, ‘Once I get what I want, I never want it again.’ Well Johnny’ll lay double on that.

   He’d rather be a gunman. And be free.


   If you like Willeford, you’ll love this one as much as anything in the Willeford canon. It fits right in. Another psycho in Willeford’s psycho pantheon. If you aren’t into Willeford and just like westerns — dunno how you’ll feel. I’m not that into westerns except as an alternate setting for hardboiled crime. It seems to me that noir is hardboiled in the city and gunslinger westerns are hardboiled in the country. As writers like Willeford and Whittington and Elmore Leonard and Clifton Adams show, a writer adept at one may be equally adept at the other.

   Another point of interest to me, the protagonist only fully realizes his potential once he dies inside. I book I read awhile ago, of marginal interest here, is called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about cultural clashes between the Hmong and American medicine. It’s about how American doctors have a hard time dealing with the superstitions of other cultures and view them as impediments to scientific treatment methods. On the other hand, Hmong feel that to abandon their faith causes ‘soul death’.

   In any case, ‘soul death’ is exactly what allows Pretty Boy Floyd to become a successful, cool-handed bank robber and it’s exactly what allows Johnny Shaw to turn from a scared little boy to a stone cold killer. If you get treated like crap for long enough, you dissociate. You experience time-compression. You are outside your body and can watch things happen more slowly. Veteran NFL quarterbacks talk about time slowing down, watching the action unfold like Neo in The Matrix. In half-time, in quarter-time. While for everyone else everything is moving much too fast. Everyone else is scared.

   But for the dead man, the man who is dead inside already, like Johnny Shaw: “I knew that I would be faster [on the draw]…and deep down inside me I knew why, too. [They] wanted to live. They had everything to live for: a huge ranch, and two pretty girls anxious to marry them. Nobody had ever wanted to keep on living any more than those two men did at that moment. But I wanted to die, and knowing that I wanted to die meant that I would not be killed by either one of them. That was the difference between us”. That’s the Difference.

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