Stretch Dawson (1950) is an early western from W.R. Burnett, writer, screenwriter and general jack of all (literary) trades. Although it is only the first Western from Gold Medal, Stretch Dawson represents all the wonderful things for which the imprint stands: slightly naughty cover art, brilliant writers and surprisingly thoughtful stories concealed by saucy marketing copy.
Stretch Dawson is largely a tale of dubious redemption - rewarding the worthy and punishing the unjust - but due to Burnett's own talent, it becomes a slightly more complex morality play.
The titular Dawson is the leader of a band of outlaws. From the start, the reader is immersed in moral ambiguity. Dawson's band are all outlaws, but they're not murderers. And, more importantly, they're all ex-soldiers (Union, at that!). The Civil War over, none of them are comfortable settling into a peaceful life, so they rove around, knocking over banks in towns with Southern loyalties.
The only exception is the Dude, Dawson's second in command. He's a gambler, not a soldier, and has a much more mercenary motivation than Dawson's masculine ennui.
The book begins with a robbery that starts well, but ends poorly. Dawson's gang loot the bank, but are then chased out into the badlands. They ride for days, growing increasingly closer to death - only to find respite in a forgotten ghost town. There, Dawson and his ragged crew run into a grumpy old prospector and his tomboyish granddaughter (18, blonde, curvy, etc.)
From here, the book coasts as an uneasy morality play. At stake? A mountain of gold, the virtue of the hottie and, most importantly, THE SOUL OF STRETCH DAWSON. The Dude is the voice of evil - encouraging the men to disobey Stretch, to break their words and to steal the gold by any means possible. Stretch himself is torn - he's increasingly drawn to the innocence of young whatshername, but he's lived so long as an outsider, he no longer trusts himself with the responsibility for her young beauty.
The lines are clearly drawn, but still flexible. The Dude, for example, is completely unconcerned about the virtue of whatshername. He's purely fixated on the gold (and, by proxy, attaining leadership of the motley crew). Her feminine wiles (or lack thereof) are a distraction. Mr Burnett also cuts the Dude a break late in the book as well - just when he's at his most sinister, the reader is given insight into his unfortunate past and, with it, a bit of sympathy.
The battle between Dawson and the Dude comes to a head (gunfire included), but is soon swept aside when another, greater evil comes in (think of it like the Orc army at the end of The Hobbit). What started as an intimate battle between two men escalates into a small war and a fiery cataclysm that sweeps the whole slate clean.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the entire book is the denouement. The ghost town thrives, Dawson is now the town's marshal with his surviving men all encamped as prominent townsfolk. In a style reminiscent of Mark Twain, Mr Burnett raises a few cheeky questions about the towns' optimistic whitewashing of its bloody past, but then quickly stamps them down. Dawson, tellingly, is now a reformed citizen with slightly puritanical leanings - once an annoyance to law-abiding folks, he now threatens to be a pest to civilisation yet again.
If the first 150 pages of this book are a battle between darkness and light, the final five show that Mr. Burnett, at least, is a fan of keeping things a murky gray.
[Editor's note: Stretch Dawson has an interesting publication history. In 1947, Burnett sold the rights to his (unpublished) story. It was rewritten by screenwriter Lamar Trotti, and filmed in 1948 as "Yellow Sky" (with Gregory Peck!). The ending is quite dramatically different - the morally superior Half Pint makes it through the final battle (not Lengthy) and the film concludes with the surviving gang members giving back the money from the original robbery. Burnett's 1950 denouement is either a late addition or something the studio judiciously ignored.]