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Underground Reading: A Western Round-Up

Four vintage Westerns that kept me company on a trip to Texas. Two by Clifton Adams, two by Frank Castle (sadly, not the Punisher). MBHR3PABVPVJ

Colonels LadyThe Colonel's Lady (1952) was the first book by Clifton Adams, who went on to have a career of four decades and over three dozen books (under a few different names, as well). Based on this debut effort, that's more than justified. Although the plot is a little contrived at times, The Colonel's Lady is an outstanding look into one of the genre's most frequently scrutinized topics: weakness.

Reardon is an ex-Confederate officer. The war is over, and, at the start of the book, he's on his way out west to join the US Army. Joining the cavalry out west isn't much different to a prison sentence. It is a remote post, surrounded by hostile Indians, with extremely limited food, drink and access to the ladyfolk. It is normally the last respite of desperate men. Reardon's reason is also his weakness - he spotted his ex-love, Caroline, on the arm of an army colonel. Keen to see her again her, he joins the regiment. The book follows his training and his first few missions as a scout.

Reardon is surrounded by other fascinating characters, all with their own secrets. Caroline is also the soft spot for more than one man in the regiment. Reardon, her colonel husband and a love-lorn captain are all completely obsessed with her. In turn, her weakness is a selfish, ignoble need for survival. Caroline will do anything to survive, often clawing her way out of dark places through even darker methods. Even the minor characters are brought to life through their flaws. Reardon's drill sergeant, for example, is a bear of a man and a tyrant of the training ground, but the thought of poison brings him trembling to his knees. He can't stand the idea of an enemy that he can't face. Although the book's major conflict is between the cavalry and their Apache neighbours, the real battles take place within each of the characters' hearts. To Mr. Adams' credit, the end of the book is never a forgone conclusion. Whether or not Reardon, Caroline or the colonel ever overcome their own devils is left to the final pages. 

Gambling ManGambling Man (1955) is a slightly later novel from the same author. Set in a small Western town, the story focuses around young Jefferson Blaine. In the first half of the book, Jeff is a boy of 12. He's a "barefoot cowboy" - too poor for shoes but rich in ambition. Jeff spends his days doing chores, attending the town's small classroom and mindin' his aunt and uncle. His life changes abruptly when his absent father, Nathan, rides into town. While Uncle Wirt and Aunt Beulah are conservative pillars of the community, Nathan is a gambler with a fierce reputation. He's got fancy boots, a well-used gun and (if rumor is right) a price on his head in New Mexico.

What Nathan doesn't have is a bond with his son, but he does his best to make up for lost time. For lack of "proper" social skills, Nathan teaches Jeff how to shoot, how to ride and how to gamble. Needless to say, Beulah and Wirt are less than pleased. But with his new boots and new pony, Jeff's the happiest boy in town. 

Things go sour, however, when the town's bank is robbed. Nathan is identified as the culprit - with Beulah the key eyewitness. He's forced to leave town, and Jeff returns to his old life. He's ashamed of his dad and, however much he longs to see the rest of the world, he feels more tied than ever to his aunt and uncle. 

Skip forward six years. Jeff, age 18, is a wild one in the community. He's never broken the law, but gives the impression of being right on its edge. Gambling Man follows Jeff as he makes every key decision in his life (most of them wrong). When Nathan Blaine returns, everything explodes. Gambling Man is a much less subtle morality play than The Colonel's Wife. The "right" and the "wrong" are far more clear, leaving the only open question when Jeff will come around. Given the small town setting, the book is also low on action - although a few surprisingly tense moments in the 12-year old's life more than make up for it (imagine Tom Sawyer in a duel). Overall, I was less impressed with this book, although both of the Adams novels refuted the genre's reputation a a home for needless action or senseless violence.

Move AlongMove Along, Stranger (1953) was written by Frank Castle, another prolific writer and jack-of-all-genres. I hadn't realized that I was already familiar with him through one his mysteries, The Violent Hours, but that's part of the fun of diving into the early Gold Medals.

Move Along, Stranger is the story of Scott Corbin, freshly released from a Texas jail. The former head of the Corbin gang, Scott was lucky to only get a few years in prison. Now, he's spat out of the system and off to a fresh start in Arizona. An old friend of his has a general store in a teeny mining village. Scott welcomes the anonymity, as well as the chance to make an honest dollar.

Unfortunately, the world is conspiring against him. Corbin almost immediately irritates the town gentry by being chivalrous to the lovely Martha Flanner. Her father (the judge) and her fiance (the prosperous rival store-owner) aren't overly pleased. Then it turns out that the local lawman is Billy Hayes, a bloody-minded sheriff with a grudge against Corbin. Finally, it seems that there's banditry about - the mines are being robbed blind by robbers.

Like Guns to Sonora (below), this small "nowhere" town is curiously overpopulated with people from Scott's past life. His brother is one of the bandits. His former lover runs the saloon. His enemy is the sheriff and his arch-rival is the region's criminal kingpin. All in all, for a place Corbin went to disappear, it is suspiciously close to a homecoming instead.

Despite the setup, Move Along, Stranger isn't as predictable as the reader might think. Corbin, Karate Kid-style, takes a lot of abuse until the moment he snaps and shows 'em all what a Real Man can do. However, none of it happens exactly as planned. Corbin's had eight years in prison and his draw - once lightning-fast - is gone. He's crafty, but he's slow. As soon as someone actually calls the dreaded Scott Corbin on his bluff, he'll lose. The tension really comes from seeing how far Scott can go on chutzpah alone. And, when the guns come out, how he makes it through his brains, not just his quick wrists. 

Guns to SonoraFrank Castle also wrote Guns to Sonora (1962). The story features Seth Murdock, an ex army man selling a (illegal) load of guns to Mexican rebels. The adventure is packed from start to finish - the supposedly lonely trail from Arizona to Mexico seems to be a highway for Murdock's enemies. Initially, Murdock saves a beautiful woman and her dodgy "uncle" from Indians. Then he's stuck fighting those same Indians. Then he's interrupted by cavalry - coincidentally his old cavalry unit, the one that betrayed him when his wife was caught shagging a superior officer. Then that same officer (now discharged) happens along. Then more Indians, some elite Rurales, a corrupt merchant and the inevitable betrayal by his fellow smugglers. All in all, Murdock would've been better off keeping those guns for himself. 

There's no question this book is over the top. Again, the continuous contrivance of the figures from Murdock's past life all showing up is ridiculously clunky. When set on top of the antics of the actual gun-dealing, Guns to Sonora comes across as B-grade heist movie with too many actors and a not enough budget. Murdock himself (the brooding loner with a dark past and a sense of honour) isn't a particularly appealing character. He's not quite skilled enough to be aspirational but he's too moody to be empathetic. As a result, he's merely the butterfly at the center of the storm, stupidly flapping away.

However, some of the secondary characters are proper scene-stealers. Lucretia Wayne, the "tarnished" young lady saved in the book's opening act, is actually surprisingly feisty. Murdock earns his stripes by pulling her out of the fire, but she gives as good as she gets, clonking more than one villain over the head with a gun barrel. By the end, Murdock gets confused over whether or not she's the one saving his life at midnight or whether or not a man is. He doesn't expect it of her, but he also won't put anything past her.

Colonel Sidmore (well, formerly colonel) is another of the fun ones. Murdock's former commanding officer and a notorious ladies' man, Sidmore's not had much to do with his life since his discharge. He's a West Point gentleman, unlike the scruffy Murdock and does everything with a slightly goofy sense of dignity and chivalry (this drives our hero nuts). Sidmore feels obligated to help out Murdock, but his efforts aren't always so useful. Finally, and most importantly, Murdock is shadowed by the captain of the local Rurales, Ybarra. Ybarra is absolutely lunatic, something he couples with a savage ambition and a great deal of dramatic flair. Sometimes on Murdock's side, sometimes against him, Ybarra marches to his own drum and is the one and only completely unpredictable part of Guns to Sonora. Ybarra's easily the redeeming virtue of the book with his introductory scene one of the finest moments I've read in the genre. He cocks his pistol, spins it around and around at dizzying speed, and then throws it straight up in the air. Everyone else runs from the room, Ybarra sips his drink. He's brilliant.

In contrast to the Adams' books, the two Castle books are both less introspective and more overtly exciting. However, the overly-packed plots left me a little cold. In each, the complicated backstories and conspicuous contrivance added up to the sensation of watching a series finale without ever seeing a previous episode. Mr. Castle was clearly able to produce intriguing characters and high-tension action scenes, but these were often drowned out by the unending (and unnecessary) plot twists.