ERNEST HAYCOX – Alder Gulch. Little Brown, hardcover, 1941. Paperback reprints include: Dell #317, mapback edition, 1949; Bantam A2287, 1961; Paperback Library, 1971; Pinnacle, 1992.

   A superior Western by a master of the form, Alder Gulch starts off in Jack London territory with Jeff Pierce, shanghaied by a brutal sea captain, jumping ship in Portland — or trying to. The captain pulls a gun, Pierce clubs him down and ends up wet and alone, fleeing for his life in a strange city… and wanted for murder.

   In the best pulp tradition, he’s rescued by a beautiful woman of mystery, and they end up making a difficult trek to Virginia City, Montana, then on to Alder Gulch, where Pierce intends to try his luck prospecting.

   About this time I wasn’t expecting much, but Haycox quickly abandons the Pulp traditions (most of them anyway) and sets about writing a genuine story, filled with real-seeming characters, tense situations, lots of action and even a moral dilemma or two.

   Haycox fashions a story that pits the hard-toiling miners of Alder Gulch against the well-entrenched outlaw bands of the area, led by Sheriff Henry Plummer (A real-life character of some controversy. And I should add here that although our hero is named Pierce and he’s been shanghaied, he bears no relation to the Shanghai Pierce of Texas fame.)

   A lot of this plot found its way (unaccredited) into Borden Chase’s screenplay for The Far Country (1954) from the outlaws’ habit of picking off miners trying to leave with their profits to the central character who’d rather go it alone than stand up for law and order with the community. And shame on Chase anyway for stealing so shamelessly. But Haycox blends the tale neatly with grungy details of a miner’s life and the progress-or-decline of characters who grow and change as we watch them, wrapping things up with a satisfying conclusion.

   Now I’m going to pick a fight with you. There’s a scene in Alder Gulch where the hero, having finally joined the vigilantes, finds his good friend mixed up with the outlaws and facing the wrong end of a rope. This is not a new thing in westerns; it goes back at least as far as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and there may even be ancient Icelandic sagas about former pardners turned owlhoots. It has appeared in a number of books since then (including Lonesome Dove) and it also shows up in A. B. Guthrie’s These Thosand Hills.

   Most of you read my review of Hills and said you never read Guthrie and didn’t think he was worth the trouble, but I’m here to tell you Guthrie took this meme and handled it with originality, tension, and a sure feel for the moral and emotional complexity of the thing. Haycox was good, but Guthrie was brilliant, and I’ll fight any man in the room (at a safe distance, of course) who will read the book and say different.

   And meanwhile, don’t forget Haycox’s Alder Gulch; it’s a winner.