Remember those great, gritty 1950s Western movies starring James
Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann? Well, that’s what Dan Cushman’s 1964
novel NORTH FORK TO HELL reminds me of. As the book opens, protagonist Morgan
McCoy and his friend Doc Tiller are on the run from a gang of vigilantes after
helping steal back some gold from the vigilantes, who stole it in the first
place. They run afoul of some Indians and McCoy is wounded in the fight, but
they’re taken in by the members of a wagon train heading north for a new town
that’s supposed to be founded by their leader, the charismatic Major Garside.
There are several problems with this plan, starting with the fact that winter is coming on, and the wagons may not make it before they’re trapped by the snow. On top of that, Garside is a tyrant, driven half-crazy by ambition and lust, and he and McCoy are both interested in the same beautiful Mormon girl. Some of the pilgrims want to split off and head for the gold fields in Montana, but Garside is determined to keep the group together, even if it means killing those who want to leave. Throw in blizzards, starvation, and more Indian trouble, and it starts to look as if they’ll be lucky to have any of the bunch survive.
Cushman got his start writing Westerns, Northerns, and jungle yarns for the pulps, and he’s very good at handling setting and action. However, in this original paperback, he gets a little too long-winded and literary for his own good. Morgan McCoy isn’t a very likable protagonist, either. The irredeemably evil Major Garside is a pretty interesting character, though, and after meandering around for a while, NORTH FORK TO HELL does develop some nice momentum and suspense in its second half. Cushman has used the theme of the group wanting to split up but being held together by the villain in at least two earlier novels. That gives the book a moral complexity that you don’t find in all Westerns.
From what I’ve read of his work, I prefer Cushman’s pulp stories to his later novels, mostly because he concentrates on the action in them. But I’ve found that his books are always worth reading. He has a distinctive style that takes a little getting used to, but once you do, it’s very effective. Despite my criticisms above, NORTH FORK TO HELL is a pretty good book, especially if you enjoy traditional Westerns that are a little offbeat at the same time. I’ll certainly be reading more of Dan Cushman’s novels and stories.