Friday, February 12, 2021

Forgotten Books: El Hombre - Walt Coburn

Walt Coburn is one of my favorite Western writers, but I hadn’t read anything by him in a while and was in the mood to, so I picked up his short novel EL HOMBRE. That's my copy in the scan. Where this yarn came from is something of a mystery. At approximately 30,000 words, it’s half of a paperback volume published by Belmont in 1967, along with E.B. Mann’s RUSTLERS’ WARNING. I suspected both of these are reprints of pulp stories, but no stories by those titles, by those authors, appear in the Fictionmags Index.

However, having read EL HOMBRE now, I know that neither the protagonist nor anyone else is referred to that way in the story. But the hero is known part of the time as El Caballero, and what do we find in the pages of the June 1, 1928 issue of ADVENTURE? You guessed it, a Walt Coburn yarn called “El Caballero” that runs 46 pages in the magazine, easily long enough to be the same story as in this Belmont paperback. I don’t have that issue of ADVENTURE, so I can’t confirm my hunch, but I’m pretty convinced that’s where it came from.

No matter what its origin, EL HOMBRE is a mighty good traditional Western. Coburn makes use of a plot that he used in other stories: the son of an outlaw sets out on the vengeance trail to track down the men who killed his pa. In this case, the button is young Clay Saunders, son of the notorious Zeke Saunders, who used to ride with Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brocious. Contrary to what you might expect, though, Coburn disposes of that plotline pretty quickly and has Clay embark on a journey to manhood that’s pretty epic in scope despite the novel’s short length. Clay goes on a trail drive to Montana, rescues a pretty girl, battles Indians and rustlers, outwits a crooked gambler at his own game, makes amends for his father’s misdeeds, and finds himself in Tombstone, smack-dab in the middle of the Earp-Clanton feud. And that’s before he sets off on a five-year-long quest into Mexico to find the murderer of a rancher’s young brother and clear his father’s name of that crime. Of course, the rancher also has a beautiful daughter who falls for Clay. Coburn really knew how to pack a great deal of story into his yarns. There’s enough in this short novel that it could have easily been a book three times as long.

I’ve also referred to Coburn as the Ross Macdonald of Westerns, because even though his protagonists don’t solve murders like Lew Archer, I’ve never encountered another Western author who makes such extensive use of the past rising up to impact the present, for both good and evil. In a Coburn story there are almost always old crimes that come to light, hidden identities, dark secrets that threaten the protagonist and everything he holds dear. The past almost becomes a character as it looms over the present. Sometimes Coburn got carried away with this, piling revelation upon revelation until the stories don’t make much sense. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with El HOMBRE, where everything holds together all the way to the gun-blazing, emotionally satisfying end.

There’s also a sense of gritty realism in a Coburn tale, no matter how far-fetched and pulpish the plot may be, since he was an authentic cowboy himself as a young man. Maybe things weren’t really that way, as the old saying goes, but they should’ve been.

I’m glad I read EL HOMBRE. It’s great fun, and if E.B. Mann’s RUSTLERS’ WARNING is as entertaining, then this Belmont Double Western is a real find. I’ll report back on that once I’ve read Mann’s story. Maybe I’ll figure out where it was published originally, too, but I make no guarantees.


Jerry House said...

James, that issue of ADVENTURE is available on Internet Archive. The blurb to the story reads, "Here is a stirring and authenitc story of the early days of Tombstone; in it walk and live some of the most famous of the powerful characters whose adventures, within and without the Law, colored the bright pages of old Southwest history." And the first line of the story: "Zeke Saunders was a thief, a blackguard and a killer."

James Reasoner said...

Jerry, that's it! I didn't think to check the Internet Archive. Thanks for letting me know. I looked at the first few pages of the story, and it looks like it wasn't expanded, just reprinted verbatim. I wonder if Belmont even paid Coburn anything or just pirated it.

Sai S said...

Does the E.B. Mann story feature a character called The Whistler? If it does, they might have reprinted The Whistler’s Gun-Warning, Dime Western Magazine May 1934

James Reasoner said...

I don't think it's a Whistler story, but I'll be reading it later this week and ought to be able to tell for sure.