Friday, March 25, 2016

Forgotten Books: Rawhide Range - Ernest Haycox

The cover of this paperback, published by Popular Library in 1952, makes it look like a novel, but it’s not. It’s a collection of ten stories that first appeared in the slick magazine COLLIER’S between 1939 and 1948. After writing prolifically for the pulps for a decade, by the mid-Thirties Ernest Haycox had “graduated” to the slicks, and COLLIER’S was his primary market for the rest of his life.

“Rawhide Range”, originally published as “The Quarrel” (October 1, 1941), is about a casual insult between two ranchers, in town for a dance and celebration, that turns into a deadly shootout. (The editors at Popular Library changed the title on this one, as they did on several others.)

In “End of the Trail”, originally published as “A Young Man’s Fancy” (July 18, 1942), two cowboys are riding south for the winter when they come to a small settlement and one of them has a dangerous idea about how to make some extra money.

“On Bakeoven Grade”, from the July 17, 1948 issue of COLLIER’S, is a domestic drama set at a small, isolated ranch that also serves as a stagecoach way station.

“Dark Land Waiting” (July 27, 1940) is about a young widow with a small child trying to make a life for the two of them on a homestead on the Great Plains.

“Prairie Town”, originally published as “Faithfully, Judith” (April 11, 1942), is a direct sequel to “Dark Land Waiting” even though it was published nearly two years later. This one is about the arrival of the new schoolteacher in the settlement founded in the previous story.

“Snow in the Canyon” (January 17, 1948) is a wagon train story in which a group of immigrants tries to make it through a dangerous canyon before they’re trapped there by a sudden snowfall.

The protagonist of “The Long Years” (July 15, 1939) is the wife of a cavalry officer who has to deal with the emotional hardships of a life spent in frontier forts.

“Skirmish at Dry Fork” (July 25, 1942) is another cavalry story, this time about a clash between troopers and cowboys in a small settlement next to a fort.

“Martinet” (October 11, 1941) is my favorite story in this collection. A hard-as-nails, by-the-book cavalry officer returns to active duty at the fort where his former lover is married to another officer. This one’s got enough action and romance to have made a fine film in the 1940s.

The collection wraps up with “From the Tuality” (November 6, 1943). I admit, I didn’t know what the Tuality is and never came across it in my years of reading Westerns. Turns out it’s an area in Oregon, and that’s where the protagonist in the story comes from. He’s a farmer, bringing a load of apples to frontier Portland to sell, and he encounters danger and surprises there.

Several of these stories are hardly the action-packed Western yarns you’d expect from the cover, but they’re still enjoyable. It took me a while to warm up to Ernest Haycox’s work, but I’ve become a fan. He was a fine writer, and these are all top-notch stories with well-drawn characters. Haycox was never a great action writer, but he could really turn up the heat on his characters. As a sampler of Haycox’s best work in the short story format, you can’t beat RAWHIDE RANGE.


Walker Martin said...

Haycox is one of my favorite western writers. During the late 1920's and early 1930's he was one of the most popular authors in SHORT STORIES and WEST. Then he broke into the slicks with sales to COLLIERS. Unfortunately he died an early death in 1950 at age 51.

Keith West said...

James, is this one available in an inexpensive reprint edition, or would I have to hunt down the original printing?

James Reasoner said...

I still prefer Haycox's earlier, pulpier stuff, but those later stories are awfully well written.

As far as I know, this one has never been reprinted.

S. Craig Zahler said...

Of the handful of Haycox I've read, I think he is great with dialogue, pretty good with character, and really sloppy with plotting. Tons of coincidences in simple, otherwise natural set-ups that feel very contrived. I've mixed feelings on him overall. Mavericks was the one novel of his I read, and the shorts were in Dime and Star Western and some other places, but all are characterized by what I write above. Maybe his Collier's stuff (which I don't know) was more thoughtfully wrought?

James Reasoner said...

From what I've read of his work, I don't think Haycox was fond of writing action. He's great at setting up situations that you think are going to explode in gunplay, then finds some less than compelling reason for everybody to stand around and talk some more. Some of his books are incredibly frustrating in this respect, while others aren't that bad. And when he can't avoid action, he has a habit of having a lot of it happen off-screen. Although it's a movie, the ending of STAGECOACH, based on Haycox's story "Stage to Lordsburg", is a perfect example of this. The whole movie has been building up to the Ringo Kid's showdown with his enemies, but when the time comes we see a split-second of John Wayne diving to the street as he fires his Winchester, and that's it. That sums up Haycox's approach to action, especially in his later work. But I've come to enjoy his strengths -- dialogue, character, and setting -- enough to overlook the weakness of his action.

Charles Gramlich said...

the stuff I've read by him, I've liked. I do like to have collections of stories around. I find them better to take with me to Dr's offices and that sort of thing.

Walker Martin said...

I think Craig and James have pinpointed what I like about Haycox and maybe why he was such a success despite his short life. He did not see plot and action as the main point of a story. He stressed characterization, dialogue, and atmosphere. I believe this is why he stood out as a quality western writer. Action is ok but after reading so many plot driven stories, I'm glad to see something a little different.

James Reasoner said...

I lean toward the action-packed, plot-driven sort of stories myself, as both a reader and a writer, but I enjoy the other sort, too, just not as often.

When Western Writers of America was formed in the early Fifties, mostly by pulp authors, they discussed calling the organization's awards the Ernies, after Ernest Haycox. Probably wise that they went with the Spurs instead, but the fact that the idea came up shows in what high regard they held Haycox.

Shay said...

Many of Haycox's short stories from Collier's can be found on the Unz site... which is a little quirky, so be warned.