Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gun-play Action and Mystery Satisfies

Guns at Q Cross
Ace Double M-118
by Merle Constiner

"He took a hand in a game whose only rule was fire first!"

As with all Ace doubles, Constiner’s Guns at Q Cross is a short, rapid-fire yarn that would be quite at home in Thrilling Westerns magazine if it hadn’t been a paperback original written in 1965.

According to material I found on the Internet, Constiner was happier with this length of story rather than novel length. In fact, he wrote very few full length novels. His modest pulp output tended to short stories and novellas. When the pulps died out he moved quickly and fairly easily into the original paperback market.

In Guns at Q Cross Stiles Gilmore is a man trying to mind his own business who is swept up into the middle of deadly schemes and cattle rustling. Gilmore arrives from Texas in the small town of Prentiss Creek, Idaho, to oversee the final sale of his horse herd, which is several days behind him on the trail, to a local rancher named Le Queux, the heavy-handed owner of the Q Cross. Gilmore is renowned for the quality of his horse stock, and the animals are much sought after.

As often happens in such stories, there is tension in the town that affects the newcomer. Gilmore tries to ignore it, but between having to dodge wild shots and trade punches with cowhands, he finds himself at the center of a pressure cooker getting ready to explode.

The valley is suffering badly from rustlers. The working theory is that the cow thieves are in cahoots with ranchers far to the north on the other side of a mountain range. It is also believed that the rustlers have an ally within the valley. This news concerns Gilmore, fearful that his herd might be stolen before they arrive and he can sell them. His concern increases when he stops receiving telegrams from his drive foreman.

Gilmore is befriended by a local wiseman who is outside the ruling circle, but is aware of all that is going on. The two men start to investigate, which stirs up more trouble. And then Le Queux does something that surprises both Gilmore and the reader: he offers to buy Gilmore’s horse herd sight unseen, even though it’s still on the trail and vulnerable to rustlers.

Reviews of Constiner’s work talk about his attention to detail and his ability to create unusual characters and situations. In Guns he effectively manages both. He also creates a fairly compelling mystery – another of his literary devices. In his lengthy discussion of Constiner on Pulprack.com, Peter Ruber says that most of Constiner’s works "– whether detective yarns, historical adventures or Westerns – were essentially mysteries of one kind or another." His mystery in Guns plays out well to the end.

Ruber also discusses the motivation of Constiner’s heroes. "No matter [the occupation of] his heroes – whether saloon owner, rancher, cattleman or drifter – all have a sense of justice in a land often without law. They track the killers and badmen with relentless determination." This is also true of the character Gilmore. While he’s concerned with the fate of his own herd, his sense of justice is strong. He’s compelled to end rustling in the valley and see that badmen are sent to jail. No matter how many bullets he has to dodge, Gilmore relentlessly pursues the truth.

The reason Le Queux wants to buy Gilmore's vulnerable herd of horses, the fate of the rustlers, and the identity of the criminal spy are all revealed by the end of this short but exciting tale. As with many of these Ace Doubles the writing seems a bit condensed, yet Guns is easier to read than other such stories having seemingly been fitted with a master tailor's skill specifically to the format. Guns of Q Cross is a fast-moving, engaging story that entertains and is well worth the read.

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