Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Black Tolts a Bright Star

The Black Tolts by William McLeod Raine
(Popular Library, 1986)

Having read Zane Grey, I was prepared for William MacLeod Raine’s rather stilted, old-fashioned style in The Black Tolts. While flowery in his language, Raine doesn’t waste a lot of time extolling the virtues of landscape, as does Grey. His purplish prose is reserved for expressing human emotion – albeit torridly. This practice seemed to be going out of style by the 1930s in favor of the terser language of the gangster.

Despite this, Raine is truer than Grey is his use of themes and characters. Grey is kind of like Shakespeare in that his people are idealized characters: good, bad, tormented, or whatever, they seem to be the very epitome of that single characteristic. Raine’s characters – at least in this novel – are rougher, less perfect in their foulness or virtue, regardless of the flowery language.

The Black Tolts was originally published in the September 1933 issue of Complete Western Book Magazine. For some of its later book printings it carried the title of Pistol Pardners. This is one of those rare times when a pulp proclaimed accurately that the story enclosed was "novel length." My copy is a 1986 Popular Library reprint with a rather bland cover.

The story inside, though, is quite enjoyable. Raine deals with three themes, one of them effectively, one fairly well done, and the other not so well. He wonders (through his heartbroken Ellen and bedeviled Dave) about the nature of free will and whether or not human beings can control their foul deeds. This comes rather late in the story, but at least there were thin suggestions of it from almost the beginning. There is also the discussion of celebrity and how people elevated robbers and even murderers to lofty status. While the Tolts are chased and every effort is made to perforate them, in the end the clan survivors escape without punishment. In fact, Dave goes with a blessing and a hope that the future will change him. The primary theme deals with loyalty, and just how long a friend should stay loyal even after one of the friends turns to crime.

Dave Tolt is the youngest of six brothers and feels left out of the loop. The family is called black because they stem from a less than savory branch of the good name of Tolt. The brothers run a ranch but have a side hobby of robbing stages and banks. Young Dave is kept away from the family recreation until he overhears plans to rob a train. He beats the brothers to the punch and is reluctantly taken into their confidence. After committing some more crimes, they decide to rob two banks in a town called Burke. It’s a foolish venture and three of them are killed. The other three, including Dave, are shot up and go into hiding.

In the middle of all of this is a love triangle between Dave, Ellen, and Dave’s best friend Allen, who is secretly in love with Ellen. Both Allen and Ellen realize that something is wrong with Dave from early on and begin to rely on each other and grow closer. Eventually Ellen ’s eyes open to the fact that it’s the stalwart Allen she loves and not the reckless and criminal Dave. Along the way, though, both she and Allen torture themselves over Dave’s fall from grace and their desire to help him avoid the hangman’s noose.

What makes this novel enjoyable is that the characters are not wholly one thing or another. They are conflicted, they make mistakes, they are foolish, and ultimately some of them regret the paths they’ve chosen. No one is truly happy at the end of the book. Ellen and Allen have found each other and are looking forward to a good life and the respect of the community. But there are echoes of sadness, too, reminders of the pain left behind in the wake of good men gone bad. Despite the language, this is a surprisingly modern story that is very true to human nature.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) – 8

Monday, October 11, 2004

Double Your Pleasure

Sixgun Duo by Ernest Haycox
Pinnacle Books, 1990

When I first experimented with reading westerns some years ago I started with Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey and Max Brand. These were all known names and promised to give the best opportunity for me to understand the genre. Eventually, I wanted to branch out. Ernest Haycox was the first author I tried beyond the ubiquitous triumvirate. His worked seemed more realistic, honest, and delved into gray areas that other authors did not use.

The two stories in Sixgun Duo are from his earlier days, and may have been run as short serials. In "The Gun Singer," a 1931 novelette of about 30,000 words, drifter Bill Keogh stumbles into a bad situation. A 20 year feud over a woman long dead and a ranch empty of cattle. While the motivation for enmity and the impetus for character and plot movement are similar to Coburn’s "Coffin Ranch," the set-up is cleaner and the characters seem more real, grittier.

The main combatants die early leaving Keogh and the daughter of one of the feuders, Helen, to carry on. Like most of Haycox’s women, Helen is no shrinking violet: "I was born into this trouble," she tells Keogh, holding a .44 on him. "Raised on it. What do you expect me to do now – faint, scream, be ladylike?" The prose and the dialog is as clean as the plot.

The rival, Shadders, a skunk if ever there was one, shoots up the town and Helen and Keogh retreat to her ranch. The foreman doesn’t like the newcomer and the few men he has left set out to drive Keogh away. The fail and scurry off, and ever watchful Shadders decides to make his move to take over the whole territory.

Keogh admits to Helen that he’s a "gun singer," a man meant to face trouble with a gun in his hand. He makes no apology for that – it’s something he’s long since accepted. For her part, Helen accepts it, too. A bold woman, she understands that some troubles have to be solved with lead. This is a far cry from Haycox’s contemporaries, especially, that often preached abstinence from drinking whiskey and a female disdain for gunplay. Haycox’s Helen is made of sterner stuff and is far more practical. In fact, most of Haycox’s women share not only that practicality but a strength borne of the frontier that other authors can’t always capture.

The story ends satisfactorily, if predictably. That really doesn’t matter, though. Our taciturn hero has proven – even in a short novelette – that he had the mettle and the moral fiber to face high odds and win out against the dirty dogs.

"Night Raid" is slightly short and written two years earlier, appearing in the April 1929 issue of Frontier Stories. (Pinnacle, like other publishers at the time, didn’t realize readers were interested in a story’s pedigree so, like "Gun Singer" they offer no publication history. The pulp community, though, responded to an online inquiry.) Reading the story I got the idea that the leads, Indigo Bowers and Joe Breedlove, were series characters or, at the very least, Haycox planned them to be.

Because it’s an earlier piece, it suffers (as did many of his earlier works) just a little from the same older style of writing that often marred Zane Grey’s work. (This is not a slight against Grey, but his language often was stilted and not very modern.) Yet the story moves and the dialog is not saddled with the hard-to-follow colloquialisms used by Grey, Clarence Mulford, and occasionally by Walt Coburn.

The plot relies on a simple conceit that, if you accept it, allows the rest of the story to develop in a fairly natural way. If it seems preposterous, or just downright stupid, then the rest of the yarn suffers somewhat. I say somewhat because Haycox writes great characters and action with plenty of excitement and tension no matter the plot.

The conceit is this (and, oddly enough, I recently saw it used on a Gunsmoke episode): the heroes Bowers and Breedlove are not men to go and inform on others. This comes into play early when their camp is invaded by rustlers expecting to meet up with two expert movers of stolen beef, unknown by sight. The boys con their way (for their own safety) into making the rustlers believe they are the experts sent for. Plans are made to meet up again the next day.
At this point most men would go to the sheriff and let him know of the criminal activities being planned. But not our men. They won’t inform. So they concoct a plan to receive the stolen cattle then sneak the beeves back onto their home range – then ride for the hills. Well, of course, things don’t go smoothly. The rustlers begin to suspect them, gunplay begins, and our heroes are captured. After their somewhat unlikely escape, the pals split: one to go for help (about time), the other to hold back the tide of rustlers angry at having their play busted by these interlopers.

Our heroes win out but it looks like a bust for the pals who just might split up over a gal. But, of course, saddle pards ride together forever and finally move on, one assumes, to new adventures beyond the sunset.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) – 8