Saturday, March 16, 2013

Iron Men and Silver Stars: Donald Hamilton's western anthology

Iron Men and Silver Stars
Gold Medal, Greenwich, Conn. (Fawcett Publications: 1967)

Donald Hamilton is known among PBO readers and Gold Medal collectors as a writer of vigorous prose, dramatic situations, careful plotting, well-delineated characters with realistic, human personalities and reactions. He's best known as the creator of the Matt Helm series of thrillers. But he's also a writer of westerns.

Based on this last qualification -- and probably to capitalize on the popularity of the Helm novels -- Fawcett had Hamilton edit a western anthology, Iron Men and Silver Stars.

The collection opens with a slight piece by the editor about writing westerns, originally published in the Western Writers of America's April 1956 issue of The Roundup. But everything that follows that preface is a fine example of solid writing by masters of the short prose form. I'll share a few opening paragraphs to demonstrate the energetic, engaging qualities of the writing in this book:

"Green Wounds," Carter Travis Young
He was a big, easy man with a way of relaxing completely that was rare in Burt Haskins' experience. Strangers just didn't settle down on the other side of the sheriff's scarred oak desk and act like they'd come home! (p. 11)

"Epitaph," Tom W. Blackburn
The man in overalls could run like a rabbit. He was shifty on his feet and fast as hell, but he was a sitting duck, just the same. Like the shot Jack Dall had put through his hat inside the Pioneer Bar when the fellow had loudly claimed the marshal of Fort Sand was a saloon marshal, Dall's shots here on the street were precisely planted. A warning, a chastisement, stinging the man's heels, driving him to a more frantic retreat. There was only one way to rule a turbulent town.

"In the Line of Duty," Elmer Kelton
The two horsemen came west over the deep-rutted wagon road from Austin, their halterless Mexican packmule following like a dog, its busy ears pointing toward everything which aroused its active curiosity.

"Coward's Canyon," John Prescott
Jimmy Conroy's mouth was dry and sour in an acid-like way and the jogging of his horse intensified it in some way. The bullet-laden bandoliers, crossing at his breastbone, the big Frontier Colt, slapping at his thigh, and the buck-loaded double shotgun in his scabbard, all dragged their weight upon him in a nagging way, and failed to provide him with the assurance he thought he should expect of them. If he alone of the posse had felt this weight of fear he might have drawn sustenance from the others, but in three days they had lost two men from ambush, and he could tell they all felt the thing by now.

Each of these paragraphs sets a stage for a compact drama that will engage the reader in a narrative as compelling as a novel-length work, but with fewer words. To simply call these pieces short stories denies the energy and craft evident in each. They are all small but potent bursts of narrative magic.

Once upon a time, the western short story ruled the publishing market. Tons of ink and paper were devoted to satisfying the reading public's desire for more western fare.

Options for placing western short stories are far fewer now. But the examples in Iron Men and Silver Stars provide a picture of a time -- late in the heyday, to be sure, but still viable at the time -- when the western short story still commanded respect in the mainstream publishing industry.

Monday, March 4, 2013

High Country by Peter Dawson

Thorndike, Maine (Thorndike Press, 1992). Originally published 1947.
Many western readers know Peter Dawson is the nom de plume of Johnathan H. Glidden, brother to Frederick Glidden, better known as Luke Short. The latter may be the more-recognized name, because a number of his stories were adapted into well-remembered Hollywood movies, and Short had a strong career as a writer for the slicks.

Dawson had a long career of his own. I recently read a trio of his stories in Ghost Brand of the Wishbones, and as a result wanted to try out a novel-length work by him.
The stories in Ghost Brand were entertaining, but their artifice as stories was evident: the cause-and-effect of the action that moved the plot seemed a little forced, as did the romantic elements of the stories. Something organic was missing. I wondered if the limited lengths of the stories might have played a part in Dawson’s narratives seeming a bit stilted, and if a longer form -- the novel -- might allow him more room to build and develop his story and characters more naturally.

In reading High Country, I think my intuition was correct.
The novel features Jim Sherill’s plans to sell a herd of horses to prove his worth to the self-proclaimed Commodore Lovelace, a riverboat magnate, so he may take the hand of the Commodore’s daughter, Ruth, in marriage. Jim’s plans are thwarted when his herd is stolen. He tracks down the rustlers, insinuates his way into their camp with a story that they can throw in together and make money selling stolen horses from Canada to the Army in nearby Whitewater, and can also send horses rustled nearby from the region for sale up in Canada.

Along the way, he meets Jean Ruick, running her father’s ranch after the old man’s death with the help of a trusted old hand, Brick, and her uncle, Caleb Donovan, whom she doesn’t quite trust. Jim falls for Jean after he realizes how shallow Ruth actually is and how greedy and domineering the Commodore truly is -- infatuation had blinded Jim to the faults of both, and Jean’s integrity and honesty strike home at his heart.
In the course of the novel, Jim wins over one of the rustler’s lieutenants, and the two steal back Jim’s herd. Donovan’s involvement in the rustling is revealed, and Jim loses his herd again -- and Jean’s trusted hand, Brick, is murdered.

If this plot sounds convoluted, it’s so only because I’ve condensed the narrative so concisely. Peter Dawson pulls it all off very nicely. In the limited confines of a short story or novelette, this plot wouldn’t have worked at all. But in the more forgiving parameters of a novel, Dawson uses the larger narrative space to construct a world, a situation, with fully developed characters and with appropriate pacing to end up with a very enjoyable story.
By the end of the tale, we reach a very satisfactory wrap up. The bad guys get their deserved comeuppance, and the weary and hard-working good guys -- and gals -- end up in one another’s arms.

I’m pleased that my curiosity led me to try out Dawson’s efforts in the longer form. I’m also pleased to say that I’ll be looking for more Peter Dawson novels to read.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Greenhorn Stampede by Kit Prate

Kit Prate, New York (Tower Books: 1981)

Trace Belden is leading a trail drive from Nogadoches with his younger brother, Lon. Moving 900 spooky cattle to a new ranch in Texas is hard work enough. Trying to keep rein on Lon, who is immature and rebellious against his sibling's hard authority, ratchets up the stress exponentially.

Further conflict enters the plot when Trace pays a visit to his ex-wife. Her husband -- arrogant and powerful -- has no care for Trace, and preens before him with the cattleman's former spouse. But Lon throws oil on the fire smoldering between the men with an ill-timed, brash and foolish move. As a result, the rift between the brothers grows wider, and Cord Bishop -- the bullying husband -- has a bitter taste in his mouth and a strong desire to do in the Belden brothers.

Kit Prate sets up a tough task for an author, for none of the protagonists are particularly likeable or sympathetic, not even Trace, the titular hero of the story. But Prate's characters are very human, not mere stereotypes playing parts in a stereotypical traditional western plot. So the route the writer traces in this narrative holds the reader's interest to see just what will happen to these contentious folks.

Entertaining. I'll keep an eye out for more books by Kit Prate.