Friday, February 10, 2017

Forgotten Books: Sixgun Duo - Ernest Haycox

As I've mentioned before, I've become an Ernest Haycox fan over the past few years. I especially enjoy the novellas he published in the pulps during the early years of his career. This 1990 paperback from Pinnacle reprints two such novellas.

The protagonist of "The Gun Singer" is drifting gunfighter Bill Keogh, who rides into a settlement and finds himself in the middle of a war. He's hired by an embattled rancher to deliver a letter to the man's partner. The rancher sacrifices his own life to help Keogh break free of a trap. As it turns out, the rancher has a beautiful daughter, and her father's arch-enemy wants to take the ranch away from her, so of course Keogh sticks around to give her a hand, even though he's greatly outnumbered.

It would hard to find a more standard plot than this in a Western pulp, but Haycox elevates it well above the more run-of-the-mill fare with his usual fine writing and characterization. In the past I've complained about the lack of action in his work, but that's certainly not the case here. "The Gun Singer" features several brutal fistfights and shootouts, and the lengthy action scene that forms the story's climax is top-notch.

According to Haycox's papers archived at the University of Oregon, "The Gun Singer" was published in the June 5, 1931 issue of ACE-HIGH. However, that doesn't agree with the listing in the Fictionmags Index for that issue. In fact, there's not a listing for a Haycox story with this title in the FMI. So I don't know who's wrong in this case or where the story originally appeared. Luckily, that bibliographic mystery has no bearing whatsoever on how enjoyable a yarn it is.

We know that "Night Raid" appeared in the April 1929 issue of FRONTIER STORIES. It's on the cover and everything. This novella features Haycox's most prominent series characters, drifting cowboys Joe Breedlove and Indigo Bowers. Many Western authors have used a pair of drifting cowboys as protagonists, such as W.C. Tuttle's Hashknife and Sleepy, Marshall Grover's Larry and Stretch, and William W. Johnstone's Bo Creel and Scratch Morton. Haycox does a good job with his version. Joe Breedlove is big, blond, slow to action and slow to anger, but a lot smarter than he appears to be at first glance. Indigo Bowers is small, cantankerous, and a deadly gunman. In "Night Raid", they find themselves mistaken for new recruits in a gang of rustlers, so they play along with it in order to foil the rustlers' plans and keep a rancher's herd from being looted. It probably won't come as any surprise that this rancher has a beautiful daughter, too.

The writing in this story isn't quite as good as in "The Gun Singer", but "Night Raid" is a good, solid pulp yarn with very appealing protagonists. The story races right along, with effective action scenes all through it, and finally comes to a rather low-key but satisfying ending.

There's an Ace paperback edition from the Sixties called SIXGUN DUO, which according to listings I've seen also features "The Gun Singer", but instead of "Night Raid" it includes a story called "The Killers". I don't know if that's actually the case because I don't have a copy of that edition. I'd certainly pick it up if I came across it, though, especially if one of the stories is different. I'm not going to pass up the chance to read more of Haycox's pulp novellas, even if I never get around to all of his novels.


Walker Martin said...

I recently reread Haycox's BUGLES IN THE AFTERNOON and THE BORDER TRUMPET. Both novels give a good portrait of life in the cavalry and are two of the best western novels I've ever read.

Richard Heft said...

I have the Ace edition, and "The Killers" is an Indigo & Joe story. The first sentence is "One long, thin spiral of breakfast smoke rose from the cabin chimney and dissolved into the overcast sky of a November morning." Just in case they simply retitled it.

James Reasoner said...

Nope, "Night Raid" has a different opening, so "The Killers" isn't a retitling of it. However, knowing that it's an Indigo and Joe story makes me want to read it even more. I'll see if I can find a copy of the Ace edition in the reasonably near future.

George said...

Since you've been blogging about Ernest Haycox I've started buying his books whenever I run across them. Thanks for the heads-up!

S. Craig Zahler said...

The Night Raid is enjoyable, though the Wirt/Cordie and Greene/Dynamite stories in that issue of Frontier are quite a bit better.