Thursday 30 January 2020

Fighting Men

By Ralph Cotton
Signet, May 2010

Civil War veteran and former schoolmaster Sherman Dahl rides the Southwest as a gun for hire. Known by both the law and the lawless as “The Teacher,” Dahl sells his services to those seeking justice, and he is relentless in his pursuit of wanted men.

Chester “Big Chicago” Goines and his band of outlaws have been raising hell across Arizona, thieving and killing everything in their path. When he learns that Dahl has been set on his trail, Goines welcomes the opportunity to settle an old score….

As expected from a story by Ralph Cotton, this book contains a large cast of colourful characters doing their best to kill one another. Mistrust, double-cross, revenge and the lust for money entwine in this very entertaining tale that includes the use of a bullet-proof vest – this later being something I can’t remember reading about in a western before. 

Dahl is an interesting and engaging lead character who first appeared in the book Webb’s Posse. He’s a man who doesn’t seem to care how much suffering he might have to endure or how many bullets he might have to take as long as he completes his mission. 

Like all the Ralph Cotton books I’ve read this one is divided into three sections. Dahl has a large part to play in the first and third sections whilst the second is pretty much given over to the exploits of Goines and a number of other bandit groups. We also meet a young, inexperienced deputy who is out to kill those who gunned down his sheriff and he causes complications for Dahl, as does the man who hired him to take out Goines. A dancing bear that seems to relish wrestling with humans also has a part to play. 

The book is packed with vicious bloody action and at no time was I sure of who would get to kill whom and who would be left alive by the end. 

Once again, Ralph Cotton provided me with a thoroughly gripping story where every page was a joy to read, leaving me eager to read another very soon. 

Available in paperback, hardback, audiobook and as an ebook.

Monday 27 January 2020

West of the Pecos

number 1 of 7
By James Calder Boone
Avon, June 1987

Judge Samuel Parkhurst Barnstall never makes Remington’s assignments easy. It’s hard enough to track down a trio of cutthroats who plundered a north Texas town, leaving a lawman strung up for the coyotes to finish. But bringing them back for trial – alive? That’ll take some sand.

Especially when their leader is the legendary Ramsey Clagg, 300 pounds of knife-wise buffalo skinner with a sweet tooth for torture. To even the odds, Remington must talk his way into Clagg’s Hell’s Door hideout. A door no lawman has ever seen swing open…and lived.

Judge Barnstall is a terrific character. His no-nonsense approach to law and order and his desire to hang outlaws to make an example of them to other would-be offenders is the reason he instructs Remington to bring back his prey alive. This, of course, leads to all kind of problems for the lawman.

Tracking down and capturing the first two cutthroats is easy enough and it seems like the lawman will be able to fulfil his task without killing anyone. But the leader of the trio of killers has a band of outlaws to back his play and Remington has no choice but to turn his guns on them in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, where the lawman is the hunted. 

The story moves swiftly forward and is well-written. The prose made me want to keep turning the pages to see if Remington could possibly bring back all those he was charged to find alive. One of the highlights of the book is when Remington enters Clagg’s Hell and plays the part of an outlaw. I had in my mind that surely there would be someone in the gang who would recognize such a well-known lawman and I wasn’t disappointed with my guess, and from that moment the book really picks up in the action stakes. 

James Calder Boone is a pseudonym and this first book in the series was written by Jack Zavada and his storytelling and plotting made this a fine read. So much so that I’m looking forward to reading the next one soon, although it isn’t written by Zavada. In fact Zavada only wrote book one. A couple of much more well-known western authors, Robert Vaughan and Jory Sherman, came on board for the rest of the series. 

Sunday 19 January 2020

Fortress Iron Eyes

number 24 of 30 to date
By Rory Black
The Crowood Press
Hardback, January 2016
Paperback, November 2018
Cover art by Salvador Faba

Tracking outlaws Dobie Miller and Waldo Schmitt into a deadly desert, the notorious bounty hunter Iron Eyes is closing the distance between them with every beat of his determined heart.

Yet the magnificent palomino stallion beneath his ornate saddle is starting to suffer. For years the deadly Iron Eyes has never been concerned about his horses, but since acquiring the powerful stallion, his attitude has changed.

Iron Eyes knows that the horse has saved his life many times, due to its remarkable strength, but now it needs water badly. Every instinct tells the bounty hunter to stop his relentless hunt for the wanted outlaws, but then his steely eyes spot something out in the sickening heat-haze. It is a towering fortress. Iron Eyes presses on.

Once again Rory Black has his hero up against far superior odds, for the abandoned fortress that lures Iron Eyes is already inhabited, not only by the two outlaws he is pursuing, but also by a band of men ready to trade with the Indians who inhabit the desert. These vicious men aren’t the only problems facing the bounty hunter for the two wanted men have gunned down some of the Indians and they want revenge and are planning an assault on the fortress. 

The author creates an air of tension well, his prose often dark in tone as Iron Eyes rides into more danger than expected. There is plenty of violent action before all the well-drawn characters come together for the bloody conclusion which sees Iron Eyes having to act fast to escape with his life.

Fans of this series will know that Iron Eyes is the object of unwanted affection from Squirrel Sally who follows him everywhere in her stagecoach. This time she arrives at the fortress ahead of the bounty hunter and her presence adds further complications to the deadly situation Iron Eyes finds himself in. Squirrel Sally also provides some moments of welcome humour to the otherwise vicious storyline.

Rory Black is one of the pseudonyms used by Michael D. George, an author who never fails to entertain and Iron Eyes is probably his best-known character. If you’ve never tried any of his work, then this could be the perfect place to start.

Black Horse Westerns are usually only available as hardbacks, now The Crowood Press are putting some out as paperbacks of similar size. The paperback versions are virtually half the price of the hardbacks. A lot of Black Horse Westerns have also been released in ebook format. 

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Murphy's Herd

By Gary Paulsen
Pocket Books, January 1992
Cover art by Garin Baker
Originally published by Walker and Company, 1989

After Al Murphy resigned his sheriff’s badge and swore off the violent, dusty streets of Cincherville, Colorado, he followed the directions of an old Indian to Wyoming’s land of wide green valleys. There under the broad sky, with a good woman by his side, he would ranch with a few dozen horses – far from the knives and guns of his lawman’s past.

But his enemies, deadly gunslingers, follow him. Returning from Casper with provisions for his new home, Murphy rides into the wrecked scene of their most savage attack…at the heart of his homestead. The blood and charred wood shatter his peaceful life and drive him back – to the hard kick of his heavy gun, the rip of outlaw bullets, the agony of manhunting in a lawless land – and the determination to die for what is right.

If anyone has the first four Murphy paperbacks put out by Pocket Books then please take note that this publisher put out books three and four in the wrong order. The book they’ve numbered as four is really the third book and vice-versa. To get the most enjoyment from this series you need to read Murphy’s Herd after Murphy’s Gold as there are strong continuation plot lines from book to book.

The first two books in this series were tough and brutal so it came as a surprise when the first half or so of this book was almost light in tone, dealing with Murphy’s joy of embracing a new life away from violence and being with the lady he loves, Midge. There are a couple of fights to be had during their journey but nothing Murphy isn’t capable of dealing with quickly and efficiently, incidents soon to be forgotten.

Paulsen’s writing is so good that I soon found myself swept up in this time of happiness, sharing the wonder at discovering the valley in which Murphy and Midge set up home. Their easy-going attitude and simple life can’t fail to appeal to anyone. Then comes that trip to Casper and the return to horrors that Murphy will blame himself for and it’s at this point that the book switches in mood, the dark tones of the previous books rise up as Murphy is consumed with hate, the need for vengeance and after that there is only the welcome desire to blow his own brains out to escape the nightmare, after all he will have nothing else to live for.

Paulsen’s hard hitting prose is beautifully paced, moving at times such as when tranquil life is ripped away by brutal violence. Murphy’s anguish will have you feeling for him, hoping he will succeed in his intense need for revenge. Paulsen doesn’t let Murphy’s suffering end there though, the final savage showdown leads to more self-doubt, more agonizing questions as he rides back to the destroyed homestead to end his own life but what he finds there may just change his mind.

The more I read of Gary Paulsen’s work the more I enjoy his writing and I’m sure it won’t be long before I read another of his books.

Sunday 5 January 2020

Trail of Blood

number 8 of 15
By J.A. Johnstone
Pinnacle, February 2011 

The son of legendary gunman Frank Morgan, Conrad Browning goes by the name of the Loner – and forged a growing reputation of his own. But in the midst of a fight for his life, the Loner discovered that he too was a father: of twins he’d never met. Now, the Loner heads back east to pierce a mystery guarded by murderous criminals for hire. Why is his ex-fiancĂ©e hiding his children from him? And why is this secret worth killing to keep? The answers lead the Loner back to a small Kansas town and a tale of cruelty, greed and power – the kind of story his father always knew how to end: with courage and a gun… 

This story closely follows the previous entry in this excellent series. The ending of book 7 introduced the possibility of The Loner being a father and Conrad’s desire to discover whether that is true forms the main thread of this tale. 

After an exciting, bloody train robbery attempt, the story shifts to Boston as Conrad tries to hunt for truths that his children really do exist. Even in the domain of millionaires’ death lurks, and there are attempts on his life that lead to more questions. Eventually Conrad becomes the Loner again and heads West, following every lead he can. Each town he finds himself in seems to have its own problems and The Loner finds himself caught up in them, fighting for his and others lives before moving on.

Well read western fans will recognize one of the lawmen the Loner finds himself fighting alongside in Abilene, and will know another who only gets mentioned by name. This was a neat inclusion for me as I’ve long been a fan of the series these two characters star in and I’ve always liked it when different series characters appear in another series. 

As the body count mounts and trail goes from hot to cold and back again, you’ll soon be left wondering if the Loner will ever find out the truth. Maybe the answers lie in an orphanage near the town of Powderhorn but a lot of blood will have to be spilled before the Loner can find out.

This is another terrific entry in The Loner series. It’s a story that is episodic in a way, all the separate troubles being linked by the Loner’s search to discover if his children exist. The tale is peopled with many memorable characters and descriptions put me right there in the midst of the action. Like the previous book, this one finishes in such a way that I’m going to have to read the next one very soon. 

The opening blurb mentions the Loner’s father, Frank Morgan. For those who don’t know Morgan starred in his own twenty-three book series called The Last Gunfighter put out under the author name of William W. Johnstone and the latter editions also carry the name J.A. Johnstone. Both series ended in 2012 but in 2018 a new Johnstone series was launched called The Morgans that features both father and son.