Friday, June 04, 2021

Forgotten Books: South of the Law Line - Walt Coburn

I’m glad that over the past couple of decades, quite a few of Walt Coburn’s pulp stories have become available again. Inconsistent he might be, but at his best, he’s one of my all-time favorite Western writers. SOUTH OF THE LAW LINE, published by Five Star in 2006, is a collection of three Coburn novellas from the great Fiction House pulps LARIAT STORY MAGAZINE and ACTION STORIES, all of them published while he was still being billed as Walter J. Coburn.

“Riders of the Purple” appeared in the very first issue of LARIAT STORY MAGAZINE, published in August 1925. It’s about a couple of old ranchers in Montana, long-time friends who have a bitter falling-out over a trivial argument. One of the smaller ranchers in the area tries to take advantage of that and drive an even bigger wedge between the old pards, hoping to goad them into wiping each other out so that he can take over. That’s a pretty basic plot, and Coburn doesn’t bring to it any of his usual hidden identities, complicated back-stories, and out-of-left-field plot twists. Don’t get me wrong. I love that stuff. It just doesn’t come up in this story.

Instead we get a yarn that fairly reeks of authenticity, as well as powdersmoke and horse sweat. Coburn’s boyhood spent growing up on the Circle C ranch in Montana gives his stories a feeling that isn’t present in every Western pulpster’s work. Sure, the plots may not be all that realistic, but when you’re reading one of Coburn’s better stories, you can’t help but feel that, yep, this is the way it really was, and if it isn’t the way things really happened, well, it should have been. “Riders of the Purple” is a prime example of that.

Coburn wrote a number of what were, for him, contemporary Westerns, often featuring veterans of the First World War, as Coburn himself was. One such is the title story of this volume, “South of the Law Line”, which originally appeared in the August 1924 issue of ACTION STORIES. It features Texas Ranger Bill Douglas and roguish bandit Eduardo Martinez Chávez, who were comrades-in-arms in a machine gun company that fought in France during the war. They’re reunited because of Douglas’s efforts to break up a drug smuggling ring operating along the Mexican border. A quack doctor, a young man who believes he’s dying, and the man’s beautiful fiancée also figure in the plot, which moves along with plenty of action and a really nice pace. This one is a little more pulpish and melodramatic than “Riders of the Purple”, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Bill Douglas and Eduardo Martinez Chávez return in “High Jack and Low”, from the March 1925 issue of ACTION STORIES. The Texas Ranger is trying to nab the mastermind of yet another drug smuggling ring, and Chávez has gotten himself involved with a group of Mexican revolutionaries and has risen to the leadership of them, which makes him a man who the Rurales would very much like to stand in front of a wall and introduce him to a firing squad. Not surprisingly, Bill’s and Chávez’s troubles wind up intersecting, and once again Coburn provides a breakneck yarn with plenty of gunplay and suspense. The highlight is a harrowing journey along a narrow mountain trail that follows a ledge hundreds of feet in the air, with the added danger of a condor that attacks anyone who travels along that perilous path.

Coburn’s Golden Age as a writer runs from the mid-Twenties up until about 1945, so he was just entering his prime when he wrote these three novellas. They’re all very good, and I really enjoyed them. They don’t have the complex plots and emotional depth of some of his later stories, but they’re still great entertainment. SOUTH OF THE LAW LINE gets a solid recommendation from me.

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