Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hostile Is Friendly to Reader

The Hostile Land
by Wayne C. Lee
Leisure Books, 2009

Apparently offered in hardcover only in 1964, this February 2009 publication is the first paperback edition of The Hostile Land. To my mind this is one of the rare times that a book’s generic-sounding title perfectly fits the story. The book’s hero is literally surrounded in a hostile land. Too, while the beautifully pointed cover is generic enough to fit many kinds of stories, it is still perfectly suited to the deadly menace that endlessly threatens the characters within the volume.

Web Blaine is on the outs with his father, Eli Blaine, owner of the biggest ranching outfit in the Dutchman valley, the oddly-named Tree Ranch. The elder Blaine is trying to gather up the public land homesteads that have sprung up all over “his” free range ranch. Ostensibly used as farms, these 160 acre plots are withering during a prolonged dry spell. While Eli Blaine claims to be buying the homesteads legally his foreman, Sim Dalbow, is actively playing rough with the sod-busters. Men have been beaten, burned out, and killed.

The younger Blaine has his own plot of land and is trying to organize the small farmers to form a mutual protection compact. He’s a favorite of the sod-busters because of his stand against his father. He is well-liked in town, too. Valaree, a bookkeeper-cum-schoolmarm-cum-gold-digger cannot keep her eyes off him, and is thoroughly jealous of any other woman paying him attention. This sharp, icy, emotion plays into much of the trouble Web faces. She is the bookkeeper for general store owner Henry Farnsworth and his affairs, which include owning the mysterious Bell County Land Company. She finds out much about Farnsworth’s underhanded dealings – information that would help Web and the others fend off their attackers – but remains silent out of a false sense of integrity fueled by jealousy.

Web’s sister, Becky, is married to a semi-worthless man named Gil Harris who plays each side against the other in the hopes of maintaining neutrality. Early on he challenges Web when ramrod Sim Dlbow and his gunhands order Gil to keep Web from crossing his land. Gil has signed over his property to the land company with the promise that he won’t be kicked out of the territory. His land, with no public road available, lies directly between Web’s land and town, effectively landlocking the younger Blaine. Web refuses to be shut in and shows he is prepared to fight his way to town. Not only does Gil give in, but Dalbow’s gunmen back down, too.

Eli Blaine does not know he is being used by Dalbow. A ruthlessly stubborn man, Blaine has been run out of various territories in the past for his hard line against squatters. Moving the family to their current location in the Dutchmans meant never having to deal with squatters again, or so he thought. His stubbornness has opened the door to Dalbow’s murdering ways and the foreman’s secretive, double-dealing plans with storekeeper Farnsworth. He also steadfastly refuses to believe his estranged son when Web reports Dalbow’s underhanded dealings. He never sees – until the very end – that Dalbow schemes to oust Blaine and take over the ranch and all satellite homesteads.

One particular conceit that Lee uses is far fetched in the extreme. It removes almost all believability. But since it comes late in the story the reader can – if he closes one eye and winks with the other – ignore it. Lee asks us to believe that Dalbow, a known killer and thief from Texas, can hide out on the Tree Ranch, taking only $40 a month for more than a decade before he puts his plan in motion and without either being found out or reverting to type. Then Lee asks that you believe this clever criminal kept a briefcase full of incriminating documents, news stories, and photographs of his past and the pasts of his gunmen. This is quite ludicrous.

It is, however, necessary to the story’s resolution.

The rest of Lee’s story is quite well told, though. It builds one incident at a time until the pressure builds to bursting. Web is true to his nature, wanting to keep violence out of the land and hold together as many farmers as possible. The task, of course, is untenable and violence does erupt.

In Lee’s hands the characters – especially Web, Gil, and Valaree – are well-developed. Others serve the story in a plausible manner. The pace Lee maintains is a bit slow, but that tempo allows tension to build. The deck is truly stacked against Web, who stands nearly alone at the end. The finish, though, is never really in question, like most of these oaters. It is no less satisfying that Web is able to deal with Dalbow, convince his father of his stupidity, rescue a reformed Valaree, and oversee Farnsworth’s exile. We’re left with the knowledge that peace with reign, farmers will return, and that a good man and a good woman have a lifetime to spend with each other.

While not as sharp or as driving has his previously reviewed Blood on the Prairie, The Hostile Land is a good, solid entry; a satisfying read.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fast-Moving Pioneer Pleases as Campfire Yarn

Panhandle Pioneer
by Bradford Scott
Leisure Books, 2008

As mentioned in an earlier review, Bradford Scott is the author of pulp favorites Walt Slade and Jim Hatfield, Texas Ranger features from the ‘30s and ‘40s that appeared in magazines like Thrilling Western, Five Western Novels and, appropriately enough, Texas Rangers. A prolific writer, Scott penned many non-series books, too. Panhandle Pioneer is a 1950s-vintage example of a light, snappy oater.

Knock-about Cliff Hardy is a young man with little on his mind and seemingly little in his head. An idea strikes him one day that nets him a wad of cash with the opportunity to earn a great deal more. Everyone in town laughs at him, and soon he becomes the joke of the county. But he keeps making money, and expands his business.

Soon, he’s buying land cheap and grabs up some of the best grazing range with water. The town stops laughing. In fact, he gains the attention of the biggest man in the Texas panhandle, Basset Shaw. Shaw has some plans for that once-ignored land, a rolling plain filled with grass and buffalo bones, and he is unhappy that Hardy is buying up huge chunks of it cheap. He begins a campaign of terror against Hardy.

With his loyal sidekick, Tom Cameron, the wunderkind matches wits with Shaw as he defends himself and begins stocking his range. Men are sent to threaten, others to ambush, and still others to destroy Hardy’s businesses. All are turned away with lethal force. Shaw is outfoxed at every turn, but his deadly imagination never flags. The county sheriff, Frank Nance, is made aware of all the trouble. He likes Hardy and realizes the young man is only defending himself, but he cannot legally touch Shaw. The land baron is well insulated.

Panhandle Pioneer is an episodic story. Scott moves us from set piece to set piece with no real end in sight. You know there should be a showdown between Hardy and Shaw, but the kind of build up to that end which other writers use regularly is absent. Hardy seems resigned to deal with Shaw’s attacks for as long as they continue.

Part of this attitude is because Hardy has fallen in love with Rita Sostenes, granddaughter of a famous Texas bandit and niece to Basset Shaw. Hardy does not want to provoke a showdown that will endanger his relationship with Rita. Also, Rita believes that down deep her uncle is a good man.

Another reason for the lack of a showdown is because Hardy approached Shaw early in the story. While their meeting was tense, Hardy came away from it with a little respect for the man.

Reality is not the main focus of this story. Scott writes with an almost “once upon a time …” style that gives the reader a sense of disconnection to events. The emotions are tame and regulated. There isn’t a lot of tension. He also goes into short dissertations that read like history lessons on things like barbed wire, the correct way to arrange drovers on a cattle drive, and the types of cattle used for beef. While none of these are dry or lack in entertainment, the reader is pulled out of the story, however briefly, to digest the material.

Also, coincidence and luck play a large part in the events. Ambushers can only bounce .45 slugs off of Hardy’s and Cameron’s heads. Deadly accuracy, it seems, is the purview only of the good guys. Unlike many stories, the hero always seems to have the jump on the bad guy. At just the right time, Hardy comes up with an idea that expands his business, outwits Shaw, and saves his own skin. Shaw is always a step behind.

All of this gives the reader the feeling of listening to an old moss back tell a whopper of a yarn while sitting around a campfire. And despite the lack of emotion or real tension, it’s a darn fine yarn. It’s easy to like Hardy, Cameron, Rita, and Sheriff Nance, and, like Hardy, oddly difficult to hate Shaw.

The end rides up fast – as fast as the speeding prairie fire that may or may not have been set deliberately. Shaw redeems himself under his terms. Hardy and Rita finally marry. Things look pretty good for all of them, by the end. For the reader, too, who should have had some fun along the way in this quick read.