Saturday, March 18, 2023

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Range Riders Western, January 1948

This is a pulp that I own and read recently. My copy has a big chunk out of the front cover, so I’ve used the image from the Fictionmags Index. I think that cover is by George Rozen, but I wouldn’t swear to that. RANGE RIDERS (title later changed to RANGE RIDERS WESTERN) was one of the Thrilling Group’s Western pulps, published officially by Better Publications. It ran for 75 issues from December 1938 through April 1953. The lead novel in each issue featured Steve Reese, Hank Ball, and Dusty Trail, a trio of range detectives who work for the Cattlemen’s Protective Association. Reese, who is actually the hero of the series with Hank and Dusty providing support and occasional comic relief, also has a commission as a U.S. Marshal, so he has jurisdiction wherever he goes.

“The Bloody Bull Trail” in the January 1948 issue is by Oscar J. Friend, probably best remembered as an editor and literary agent, but he wrote a good number of Western and science fiction novels, too. He probably created the Steve Reese series since he was the main author of those novels during the pulp’s early years, then returned late in its run to contribute two more stories, of which this is the first. As the story opens, Reese is on the trail of a missing prize bull which was stolen from an Arizona rancher. Reese is also looking for another range detective who was assigned to the case first but has disappeared. Another rancher in the area, a Mexican don whose spread is an old Spanish land grant, also wanted that bull, so he’s the prime suspect in its theft, not to mention the disappearance of the other detective.

What Reese finds is that he and Hank and Dusty (who show up not long after he does) are in the middle of a complex plot involving water rights, gun smuggling, and a Mexican bandit known as El Gato. Murder ups the stakes as our heroes do a lot of riding and fighting and shooting to untangle all those threads.

Friend was an excellent writer whose work has more humor and literary touches than that of many Western pulpsters. At the same time, he never neglects the action and keeps this story moving along at a brisk, very satisfying pace. By this time, most Western writers, Friend included, had abandoned the “yuh mangy polecat” dialogue, making “The Bloody Bull Trail” read more like a yarn that could have been written in the Fifties, Sixties, or Seventies. It’s smooth and well-done and very entertaining. I liked it a lot.

I’ve always found it a little odd that none of these novels from RANGE RIDERS were reprinted in paperback during the Sixties and Seventies, like the other characters from the Thrilling Group’s Western hero pulps, Jim Hatfield, the Rio Kid, and the Masked Rider. Seems like they would have been prime material for reprinting by Popular Library or Curtis Books. “The Long Noose”, also by Friend and from the first issue of the pulp, was reprinted in hardback by Gateway Press in 1942 and in paperback by Handi-Books in 1947. The main characters’ names were changed in these reprints. I used to have a copy of the Gateway Press edition. Steve Reese became Simon Carter. I don’t remember what Hank Ball and Dusty Trail were changed to. All of Friend’s early novels from the series were also reprinted in England but apparently THE LONG NOOSE is the only American reprint from the series.

Moving on from the lead novel, the next story is a short-short, “Walk Out and Die”, published under the house-name Sam Brant. The Brant name has been connected to Frank Gruber, Louis L’Amour, and Syl McDowell. I think I remember reading somewhere that some of the Sam Brant stories may be by L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t think any of those authors wrote “Walk Out and Die”. It’s a tense little story about a sheriff with a prisoner who’s the target of a vengeful family of owlhoots. To me, it reads like the work of Bennie Gardner, better known under his pseudonym Gunnison Steele, and since there’s a Gunnison Steele novelette next up in this very issue, I suspect that Gardner wrote “Walk Out and Die” as well. He turned out a lot of short-shorts like this. Unfortunately, although “Walk Out and Die” starts out well, the ending is pretty weak and leaves a lot unresolved.

That Gunnison Steele novelette I mentioned is “Heir to Boothill Range”. It uses the very common plot of a young man returning to his hometown to find out who framed his father for rustling and then lynched him seven years earlier. While there’s nothing new about this one, plot-wise, Gardner does a good job with it, giving us a well-paced yarn with a likable protagonist, some fine action scenes, and a nicely handled romantic element. I nearly always like Bennie Gardner’s work and this is no exception.

Since this is a January issue, that means it was on the newsstands during December, so fittingly enough there’s a Christmas story, “A Happy Christmas” by C.V. Tench. This is a Northern, a suspenseful yarn about a trapper/prospector who has a sinister visitor on Christmas Eve. I guessed the late twist in this one, but it’s still an enjoyable, effective tale.

“Killer’s Cue” by William O’Sullivan has an unusual protagonist, an elderly Chinese cook who works in a saloon and hotel in a mining camp. He turns detective in order to find out who killed his best friend, an old codger prospector. The murderer’s identity is really obvious, but that doesn’t keep this from being a good story.

Harold F. Cruickshank wrote a bunch of aviation stories for the pulps, but from the mid-Forties through the early Fifties, he wrote a Western short story series called the Pioneer Folk (sometimes listed as the Sun Bear Valley series) that ran in RANGE RIDERS WESTERN. These stories feature a young married couple, Dal and Mary Baldwin, and their friends and neighbors in Sun Bear Valley. The one in this issue is called “Good Neighbor Gunfire”. To be honest, I skipped it, because I’ve forced myself to read some of this series in the past and never liked any of them. At this point, there aren’t many things I’m going to force myself to read.

The issue wraps up with “Trail Drive” by A. Kenneth Brant, a pseudonym for Brent Ashabranner. This generically-titled yarn about a trail boss trying to get a herd across a waterless stretch is well-written. Not much to it, but I enjoyed it.

Overall, I think this is a good issue of RANGE RIDERS WESTERN. The lead novel is excellent, one of the best in the series I’ve read, the Gunnison Steele novelette is very good, and all the stories are entertaining (except for the one I skipped, which may be good, too, just not to my taste). It’s been a while since I read an issue of this pulp. I think I may need to see if I can rustle up some more of them. (No pun intended.)

1 comment:

Anders Nilsson said...

Reading your informative review really made my day. Thanks!