Okay, close your eyes for a moment. Picture yourself in the Old West, Arizona to be more precise. Now picture W.C. Fields as a county sheriff. Wow! You shouldn’t snap your eyes open so fast. You could hurt yourself doing that.
You’re thinking it has to be some kind of joke, right? Well, it is. Henry Harrison Conroy, a W.C. Fields clone if ever there was one, was elected sheriff of Wild Horse Valley as a joke by the residents. Henry appreciated a good joke, so he accepted the job and appointed an educated derelict kindred soul as his deputy. Dubbed “The Shame of Arizona” by their local newspaper, the inebriatedly intrepid pair foil all sorts of criminal schemes in a series of stories written by W.C. Tuttle. Let’s peek at just a couple, both from Short Stories.
“The Misbeliever,” in the May 10, 1946 issue posed some weighty questions. Where did the sack of money found by two ranch hands come from? Who fatally shot a stagecoach driver? How did the bank get so much counterfeit money in its safe? Why is Chiquita Monte wasting her incredible talent singing in a Tonto City saloon? When will Henry’s liquor jug be refilled?
“The Deception Trail” in the September 1949 issue posed only two mysteries: Why is a newcomer buying up old abandoned mines, and who robbed the Mary Ellen Mine of its gold ore? (Henry’s liquor jug was well filled for this one.) Henry and Company solve these mysteries in their own hilarious style. If this bunch doesn’t make you laugh, then nothing will. Seek professional help from your undertaker!
:: Dee Jarvis
Isn’t there some sort of irony in the fact that the most highly regarded of all the detective pulps is Black Mask? After all, Black Mask described itself as “A Magazine of Western, Detective & Adventure Stories” right there on the cover—at least in its heyday when it was edited by Cap Shaw and featured the work of writers like Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, Raoul Whitfield and Erle Stanley Gardner. Fact is, Gardner wrote some of those cowboy yarns for Black Mask. Other contributors who let their heroes travel on horseback rather than in one of those new-fangled flivvers included S. Omar Barker, Edward Ware Parrish and Eugene Cunningham.
The December 1928 issue features a western cover presumably illustrating a story by Cunningham, called “Over the River.” Texas Ranger “Twistaway Smith” goes after a pair of killers who have brutally murdered a judge and his wife, in revenge for the judge sentencing them. Smith determines two things about them: they’ve teamed up with some ambitious crooks in a small Texas border town; and they’re themselves hiding across the border in Mexico. He sets out to foil the plans that have brought the bad guys together, and to bring in the fugitives—even if he has to violate Mexican sovereignty to do it.
This isn’t the only “Twistaway Smith” yarn, and Black Mask isn’t the only magazine to feature the character. The October 1927 issue of Brief Stories, for example, features a Cunningham yarn called “When Twistaway Went Ridin’,” and presumably there are others.
If there was one thing Cap Shaw wanted in Black Mask, it was a feeling of authenticity. That’s what appealed to him in the fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner. Shaw calls this story, “A Ranger yarn by one who knows them.” Indeed, this story has the feel and texture of conviction running through it.
Cunningham wrote a lot of western fiction in his day but the only work of his still in print, so far as I know, is Trigernometry, a non-fiction book on gunfighters. He did his research and it shows in his writing. This issue also features novelettes about two of Black Mask’s best-loved heroes: Hammett’s “Continental Op” and Gardner’s “Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook.” Twistaway keeps them good company.
Twistaway’s pretty much of a good guy even if he does bend the law a little. Do you think the beauteous Dee Jarvis could find us a good guy with even more bad guy in the mixture?
:: Jerry Page
If it’s a fun western you want, you can’t go wrong with Dan Cushman’s “Comanche John.” The old Comanche is a gunslinging highwayman who retired from his freebooting life of crime when he found religion courtesy of Reverend Jeremiah Parker. He has completely reformed, you understand, even though he can’t quite decide whether his surname is Smith or Jones.
Some might say that “Smoke Talk” in the Winter, 1948 issue of Frontier Stories is rather tame by Comanche John standards, but it still makes a fine introduction to the character. It made a fine introduction for me, at any rate.
“Smoke Talk” begins with Rev. Parker and John Smith taking a trip together. Inclement weather forces them to seek shelter at a cabin owned by a brother and sister. Unfortunately, a posse also shows up to lynch the brother for bank robbery. John, however, believes the brother is innocent and sets out to prove it with astute detective work. In fact, John’s such a clever detective he knows details of the robbery before he’s told, but I’ll let John explain himself to you—and to Rev. Parker. Suffice it to say that his explanation alone is worth the price of the story.
:: Dee Jarvis
Bennett Foster was surely one of the most reliable cowboy writers, wasn’t he? If you don’t know the answer to that question, then you haven’t read him. A good place to start might be “Two Tall Man” in Argosy for April 1, 1939. No fooling!
Ben Sorrell is an outlaw, wanted for horse theft, smuggling and murder in several of the American states along the U.S.-Mexican border, which has prompted him to move into old Mexico where they have a somewhat more tolerant view of gunfighting and such like. Hi (for Hiram) Downer is a sheriff and a good one up in the Panhandle. What these men have in common is that they both used to work for the same spread. And they both knew and liked Pete Cloud. When they each get word that Pete’s been tossed in the hoosegow on a charge of murder.
Well, that’s just ridiculous, and both men take off to see what can be done about it. They run into each other and agree on a truce—Hi makes real sure Ben Sorrell understands it’s just till their friend’s out of trouble—and decide to work together. Seems simple to Hi. They’ll just bail out old Pete and straighten the mess out.
Well, Pete’s been locked in a proper frame by the sheriff who arrested him. It was that sheriff—man named Pryne—who killed the man Pete’s suspected of killing. Pryne thought he was going for a gun and shot him—but the man was clearly unarmed. So Pete’s lying drunk nearby and the sheriff frames him for the shooting.
This plays into the hands of the other villain of this piece, the town banker. Seems he wants to foreclose the mortgage on the dead man’s ranch, and if the owner is dead and Pete’s in jail for it, there’s no one to stand in his way except the dead man’s son, who’s pretty wet behind the old ears. So there isn’t any chance of Pete getting bailed out.
To Ben Sorrell, it’s still simple. He gets himself thrown in jail and, once alone with Pete, tells him his plan. Pete knows Sorrell’s an outlaw and refuses to have any part of breaking out of jail. Besides, Pete’s figured out this has something to do with foreclosing that mortgage and if he breaks out of jail and cuts across the border, how’s he gonna help that kid?
So Ben and Hi have to figure out some way to get to the bottom of all this frame-up business.
How they do that’s pretty exciting reading. It’s not Foster’s best, maybe, but it’s pretty doggoned good and if you like a good western, I’ll bet you’ll get a kick out of reading it, even in an April fist issue. No fooling!
:: Ralph Casson
I think Comanche John, up there in Dee’s review, would be a mite less conspicuous if he settled on Jones as a surname. “Smith” is too common. Take “Halfaday Creek” up in the Yukon territory, for example. There sure are a lot of John Smiths on Halfaday Creek. There’s One Armed John Smith and Pot Gutted John Smith and Long Nosed John Smith. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a Comanche John Smith, though I never heard him mentioned. Oh, and Black John Smith. He’s the most important. Halfaday’s a place where men come when they’ve done things that make them wanted in other parts of the country. Halfaday’s Black John’s idea and he’s the man to run it. Once you’re there, even the law won’t bother you,—so long as you behave and don’t go killing people. Do that and you’ll be bothered plenty. Mostly by Black John, himself.
Of course not everybody there likes the name “John Smith” so there’s a can in the local saloon, Cushman’s Fort (that wouldn’t be Dan Cushman’s Fort, would it? Nah), with a lot of slips in it. You can draw a name out of that can and use it while you’re there. If you don’t like “John Smith.” New man in town picked the name “Daniel Hayne,” for example. The other new man in town neither picked a new name nor settled for John Smith. That’s because when One Armed John found him, he was dead.
In comes “Corporal Downey” of the Mounties a few days later looking for a thief and murderer. Corporal Downey’s the familiar hero of another series of stories written by James B. Hendryx, and, like the Halfaday stories, showing up in Short Stories. It’s not unusual for Corporal Downey to show up at Halfaday Creek, however, so that’s why this one is called “Corporal Downey: ‘Suicide.’ Black John: ‘Maybe.’”
But it might just be that these two are together in this story because this is a very special issue of Short Stories. It’s the March 25, 1940 issue—which marked Short Stories’ Fiftieth anniversary. In its 176 pages you’ll not only find Hendryx’s fugitives and Mounties but A.A. Caffrey’s aviators, Georges Surdez’s French Legionaires, Caddo Cameron’s ‘”Them Damned Twins,” and, represented with a reprint, Clarence E. Mulford’s “Hopalong Cassidy.” Plus part 2 of a Bedford-Jones serial, a sea story by Albert Wetjen, a short non-fiction piece by William MacLeod Raine, and even a story of the then-current war by Charles Gilson. It all leads off with a two-page editorial, presumably by Dorothy McIlwraith (who was also the editor of Weird Tales at the time) in which she discusses the history of the magazine.
Downey is satisfied this is a straightforward suicide but Black John has reservations. So he lets the Mountie go back to Dawson with the evidence and sets out to prove his theory in the most direct manner he can: he takes the new man, Daniel Hayne out moose hunting.
Black John Smith is more of a con man than a detective, but like a number of other tricky detectives—Simon Templar for example, or Nero Wolfe—he’s good at thinking straight while he bends the law. As a mystery writer, Hendryx often cheats—this time he withholds a clue that would be important if there were ever any question who the culprit was. Oh, and no, the missing money is never recovered, and Hendryx never tells us straight out where it ended up. But I bet you won’t have the slightest problem figuring out where that was.
:: Jerry Page
It starts with a bank robbery—Two men hold up the bank at Sheffield, Montana. A third man with the horses outside—But something goes wrong—One of the tellers shoots one of the bandits. The other two escape with the money. A posse pursues—The second is shot. Wounded, the third gets away—
Hunted by the law!
Thus opens “Big Noise at Silent River” by H. Bedford-Jones. It’s the story of “Sudden” Hampton, who comes to the community of Silent River looking for a ranch to invest in. He finds it and he finds trouble, too. You can find his story in the March, 1954 issue of Short Stories, where it’s reprinted from 1928.
Hampton is about to give up when he runs into a professor and his daughter who’ve just inherited a local ranch. They need help. They don’t know anything about ranching. The biggest rancher in the valley is after their spread because it has water, which he needs. The three hands working there now are apparently on his payroll because they’re not doing their jobs. Sudden fires them, finds a local hand named Phelps who’d make a good foreman and sets himself against the odds.
The only thing is, Hampton’s a wanted man. For that bank robbery—Did he do it? What do you think? The real thief was his kid brother but Sudden’s not going to betray him. Even when it all comes down to a posse surrounding the ranch, trying to arrest him—and hang him, too! Who’s leading the posse? The man who wants to steal the water rights. Don’t think he’d protect Sudden from a lynching, do you?
Bedford-Jones, one of my Blue Book favorites, was one of the top writers of pulp stories though I don’t usually associate him with horses and six-guns. He wrote historicals and sea stories. You think of him telling all about swordplay and warships. “Big Noise at Silent River” shows he can handle gunplay between the good guys and the bad guys with the best of them!
:: Hugh Clooney
Ralph spoke about a story by Bennett Foster in the April 1, 1939 issue of Argosy. Just three weeks before, Argosy published my favorite of his stories, “Rifles at the River,” in its March 11 issue. 1939 was so good a year for Foster, I think we can sneak in discussions of two of his stories.
Cole Favor is the trail boss on a cattle drive delivering a herd to an Indian agency. Not far from their destination, and ahead of schedule, Favor allows his men to go into town. While most of them are gone he’s visited by a man identifying himself as an Indian agent, who offers to accept the herd then and there. Favor is suspicious of the offer and turns him down.
The agent’s excuse for the offer is that the previous trail drive to try delivering to the agency never got their herd there. It would be a shame if the same thing happened to Favor’s herd. But Favor suspects if he turns the herd over to this man, it will never reach the agency, and he’ll never see any money for his troubles.
Pressure is brought to bear. One of Favor’s cowboys is killed. His men want to take the town apart in revenge but Favor realizes that’s part of the plan. He orders his men to push the herd on toward the river and the Indian agency beyond. He rides ahead to scout the territory and finds himself looking at a perfect spot for an ambush—unless he takes steps to prevent it.
Foster’s strengths were a straightforward writing style and the same sort of reliable background knowledge that marks the works of other western stars such as Les Savage Jr. and Ernest Haycox. This story is tautly plotted and the characters are deftly drawn without too much fuss about it. How Favor and his men meet the challenge of the attempt to steal their herd and how they get their revenge for the murder of their compadre is a whale of a story, certainly the best by Foster that I’ve ever read. And he’s one of those writers I make a point of reading every chance I get.
This was also reprinted back in the ‘60s in one of Doc Lowndes’ magazines, Thrilling Western # 1.
:: Jerry Page
Even as a kid – age nine to twelve or so – my Scottish thrift was a dominant trait. If I had a dime a week for a movie, obviously it was most efficient to spend that dime on the Saturday double feature: two movies for the price of one was a compelling bargain. The downside was that about half of those movies were westerns, a type that I was not in love with. There were some enjoyable ones, though: Roy Rogers, whose movies were not really westerns, Wild Bill Elliott as a likeable “Wild Bill Hickock,” and of course, the charismatic William Boyd as “Hopalong Cassidy.”
Hopalong Cassidy and his two sidekicks – a rookie cowpoke and an old timer – apparently rode about the west looking for bad guys to subdue and bring to justice. A dead shot with a pistol, "Hoppy” almost invariably overcame the villain in the end by shooting the gun out of his hand.
I didn’t set out to read Hopalong Cassidy story expecting to find William Boyd – Jerry Page had told me how Boyd had taken over the role in the first Hopalong Cassidy movie and changed the character. Still, it was almost as big a shock as my first ERB Tarzan story.
The first Hopalong Cassidy story was “The Fight at Buckskin” by Clarence Edward Mulford in The Outing Magazine for December 1905. It was reprinted in Tales of the West – Castle, 1984 – which is where I read it. (A slightly rewritten version of the story comprises the first three chapters of Bar-20, the first Hopalong Cassidy book.)
Buckskin is a small town located between two huge ranches, the Bar-20 and the Three Triangle. About twenty miles distant, Perry’s Bend is similarly located between another two huge ranches, the C-80 and the Double Arrow. There is a feud going on between the cowboys of the first two ranches and those of the second two ranches dating to the time when Buck of the Bar-20 shot his way out of an ambush at Perry’s Bend . This and much more is explained in a page or so of exposition. But this is not your college writing course exposition: this is action exposition; in fact this is exposition filled with mayhem and death. Six men are killed in the second paragraph.
The story opens with a range encounter between Skinny of Bar-20 and Shorty of C-80. Words lead to gunfire and Shorty’s horse is downed. Continuing the battle would probably amount to murder, so Skinny backs off and heads back toward the Bar-20 ranch. After about a mile, he discovers that he is pursued by two C-80 cowboys, who begin firing at him. He drops one of them with his rifle and the other breaks off the pursuit.
Back at the ranch, amid the general hilarity of the Bar-20 hands (including Hopalong Cassidy), Skinny modestly explains how he “ventilated C-80.” When he mentions that Shorty had threatened to “salt” Bar-20 cattle, the conversation becomes serious. Ventilating cowboys is clean fun; but interfering with cattle – that’s a business matter and not tolerable.
Having completed their roundup, the Bar-20 men ride into Buckskin for drinks and recreation. They crowd into the saloon to rinse the dust from dry mouths and play poker. A little horseplay leads to one of the younger men being carried outside and left in the road. A C-80 cowboy happens by and insults lead to gunplay and the boy is shot. The Bar-20 men soon discover that a crowd of C-80 and Double Arrow men are waiting for them in the hotel, and they immediately prepare for battle.
Hopalong Cassidy takes up a position in the window of a barn, next to the hotel and methodically shoots his enemies' horses (a job he dislikes intensely, but thinks necessary). He then climbs up into the window, feet dangling, and proceeds to shoot his initials in the hotel door. Personal safety is of small concern to these cowboys. One of them risks his life twice to bum tobacco and bullets from Cassidy. For the most part they treat the killing spree as a lark; exchanging quips and mild insults among themselves, celebrating the downing of an opponent, feeling brief sorrow at the wounding of a buddy.
There is a ring of truth about this story that is too commonly missing in recent fiction, which all too often appears to be based on second-hand knowledge of human character and psychology. This reminds me again that pulp writers often wrote more realistically than other writers even when they were engaged in the wildest fantasy, probably because they were not embarassed by what critics or literary folk might think.
I won’t describe the ending except to say that it is in keeping with the character of these men. Alas, this is not William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy. It’s really a lot of fun to read, though.
:: Jerry Burge
Illustration by Kevin Duncan