Forgotten Books: The Iron Trail - Jackson Cole (Peter Germano)
Warning: Nostalgia ahead.
When I was in high school, my favorite class was . . . study hall. We weren’t required to take study hall, you understand, but I always did, and for one simple reason. Most of my teachers would give us time in class to work on our homework, and I’d finish it there, leaving me with nothing to do in study hall but sit and read some library book or paperback. Yep, 55 minutes in the middle of an otherwise boring school day when I could spend some time with John Carter or Simon Templar or Shell Scott or Donald Lam and Bertha Cool.
The teacher in charge of study hall (which was located in an old converted World War II army barracks) was Coach Gilmore, one of the assistant football coaches. The coach, as you might expect, was a large, rather intimidating man who didn’t seem to care for the fact that I always sat there reading. One day he got up from his desk, walked over to where I was sitting, and loomed over me with a frown on his face.
“Reasoner, don’t you have any homework to do?”
“Already did it, Coach.”
“What kind of grades do you make, Reasoner?”
“All A’s, Coach.”
He looked at me for a second longer, then sighed, shook his head, and walked away.
(That was a slight exaggeration on my part. I usually made all A’s, but occasionally I made a B in P.E.)
All of which is my long-winded lead-in to the fact that I remember very well the first Jim Hatfield novel I read. It was a Popular Library paperback called GUNSLINGER’S RANGE, and I read it during study hall in that old barracks building (which is long gone, by the way, and the high school I attended then is now a junior high). I wasn’t a big fan of Westerns at the time – most of my reading consisted of mysteries and science fiction – but I read quite a few of them here and there. GUNSLINGER’S RANGE was great fun. I recall racing right through it, flipping the pages as fast as I could to get to the big showdown at the end between Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield and the three outlaws who had escaped from prison to hunt him down. That made me a Hatfield fan, and so I immediately started looking for more Jackson Cole paperbacks and discovered that there were a lot of them. Even then I checked copyright pages and such and noticed that GUNSLINGER’S RANGE was copyright in the Forties by Standard Magazines, or possibly by Better Publications (it doesn’t matter, it was the same outfit). I was already familiar with pulps, so it didn’t take me long to figure out that the Hatfield novels were reprints from some Western pulp.
Well, that pulp was TEXAS RANGERS, of course, which ran from 1936 to 1958, making it one of the last true pulps. Over the years I read all the Hatfield paperbacks I could find, learned more about the actual authors behind the Jackson Cole house-name, and even amassed a sizable collection of the original pulps (although it didn’t rival the collection of my friend Jim Griffin, who had the entire run before he donated it to the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco). Through the generosity of several people after the fire destroyed my original collection, I once again have quite a few issues of TEXAS RANGERS.
But what about “The Iron Trail”, you ask? It’s the lead novel in the January 1953 issue, which I read recently. In this case, the actual author is Peter Germano, who wrote quite a few of the Hatfield novels during the Fifties but is better known as the Western novelist Barry Cord. Germano was one of the best of the Hatfield authors, and “The Iron Trail” is a fine yarn that opens with a great scene in which outlaws attack a medicine show wagon that’s pulling a cage with a huge tiger in it. The medicine show is called Doc Pinkle’s Jungle Caravan, and Doc Pinkle sells a potent potion known as Tigereye Tonic, the Wonder Remedy. Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield, also known as the Lone Wolf, who is riding into the area because a railroad baron building a spur line has been plagued by payroll holdups, interrupts the attack and from there is drawn into a fast-paced adventure featuring gunfights, double-crosses, and a hidden mastermind (and if you don’t spot said mastermind right away, you’ve never read a pulp Western or watched a B-Western movie, but that’s okay).
While the plot of “The Iron Trail” is pretty predictable, it has several things going for it that make it well worth reading. First is Germano’s usual lean, hardboiled prose, which makes for some fine action scenes. Then you’ve got off-beat elements like the presence of that tiger, and a great fight that takes place on top of a moving train. If you’ve read many of my Westerns, you know I like that sort of stuff, and the fact that this battle takes place while the train is racing over a high trestle makes it even better.
“The Iron Trail” probably isn’t in the top rank of Jim Hatfield novels, but it’s a solidly entertaining yarn. It hasn’t been reprinted since its original appearance, so it’s not like you can run out and grab a copy. But the paperback reprints of many other Hatfield novels are still fairly easy to find in used bookstores and on the Internet and usually aren’t very expensive. The quality of the stories varies, of course, as with any house-name series, but I’ve enjoyed nearly all the ones I’ve read, both in the pulps and in paperback. If you’re a Western fan and you run across one, I recommend that you give it a try.
By the way, as I said last week in my comment about reading Shadow novels while I was in college, Coach Gilmore didn’t know it, and I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but I really was studying when I was reading all those paperbacks in study hall, especially the Jim Hatfield novels, which years later had a definite impact on my career . . .