The first big series I did here at Black Gate was Discovering Robert E. Howard. And I was excited to get one of my favorite Westerns writers, the beyond-prolific, James Reasoner, to talk about REH’s Westerns. Continuing on with our recent Westerns theme, here’s James’ essay on trail towns in REH’s traditional Westerns. Saddle up and hit the trail!
When Robert E. Howard was growing up in Cross Plains in the 1920s, it was entirely possible that some of the older men in town might have gone on cattle drives in their youth, as the great trails from Texas to the railheads in Kansas opened up after the Civil War and changed the focus of the Lone Star State’s economy. Whether a young Bob Howard ever listened to these old cowboys spin yarns about those days, we don’t know, but he certainly might have.
J. Marvin Hunter’s classic book Trail Drivers of Texas appeared in 1927, and this volume might well have caught Howard’s interest, too, although we have no record of him ever reading it.
What we do know, however, is that Howard wrote several Western stories in which the trail towns which served as destination points for those great herds of Longhorns play an important part, beginning with “Gunman’s Debt”, which went unpublished during Howard’s lifetime but is one of his best Westerns. It’s set in the small Kansas settlement of San Juan, and although Howard tells us that the rails and the trail herds haven’t reached it yet, it’s clear that they’re on the way. San Juan is new and raw and more than a little squalid:
Three saloons, one of which included a dance hall and another a gambling dive, stables, a jail, a store or so, a double row of unpainted board houses, a livery stable, corrals, that made up the village men now called San Juan.
Howard’s protagonist finds an old enemy there, and before the story is over he’s accused of murder and finds almost every hand against him, so that he has to battle his way free even if it means wreaking total destruction on the town. This is an example of the trouble that waits for Texas men in these Kansas settlements, and that animosity is a theme Howard will return to in later stories.
It plays a large part in “Knife, Bullet, and Noose”, a compact gem of action featuring Howard’s early character Steve Allison, also known as the Sonora Kid. After working as the trail boss of a cattle drive to Abilene, Allison is stuck in town waiting for the money a cattle buyer has promised him, but he also has some vengeful enemies there who are out to kill him. His sense of duty to the herd’s owner won’t allow him to leave until he collects the money, so he has to stay alive until then with would-be killers all around him.
“Law-Shooters of Cowtown” puts the trail town setting right in the title, and Howard gives us a vivid picture of the place in the opening lines:
Clamor of cowtown nights… boot-heels stamping on sawdust-strewn floors… thunder of flying hoofs down the dusty street… yipping of the lean trail drivers, reeling in the saddle, hilarious after the thousand-mile trek… cracking of pistols, smash of glasses, flutter of cards on the tables… oaths, songs, laughter in all the teeming saloons and dance halls, louder yet in the plank-barred Silver Boot.
The protagonist of “Law-Shooters of Cowtown” is buffalo hunter Grizzly Elkins, who played a supporting role in “Gunman’s Debt”. Howard must have had mixed feelings about buffalo hunters, since they serve as villains in some stories and heroes in others. Or maybe he just made use of a variety of Western characters however he needed them for a particular story.
Grizzly Elkins (related to Breckinridge, surely) finds himself having to get out of town while a multitude of enemies want to do him in. He succeeds, of course, but not without a lot of brawling first.
“The Dead Remember,” the last of Howard’s stories in which a trail town plays a significant part, isn’t really a traditional Western, although it’s set in Dodge City and involves a cattle drive. But its supernatural aspects nudge it over into the realm of the Weird Western. It’s also non-traditional in the manner in which Howard spins his tale, using a letter and several statements from a coroner’s inquest to tell the story, which is one of Howard’s last and in my opinion also one of his best.
The theme that runs through all these stories is that the trail towns of the 1860s and ’70s were dangerous places. Dens of iniquity, even. In fact, they remind me very much of the cities into which Conan frequently ventures, hotbeds of wickedness in which a lone man often finds himself surrounded by enemies who want to end his life. The same thing applies to the Middle Eastern cities full of intrigue and menace that threaten the lives of Francis X. Gordon, Kirby O’Donnell, and other Howard heroes. You can even find some resemblance to the urban jungles in which two-fisted detective Steve Harrison batters his way through his cases.
All of which, to me, fits right in to the theory that part of Howard’s genius lay in fusing elements of fantasy and history with the hardboiled and frequently noirish sensibilities of much of the crime fiction during the pulp era. Howard claimed not to care much for detective stories, but their hard-nosed attitude permeates his writing anyway.
As Raymond Chandler said, “Down these mean streets a man must go,” and that’s true for Robert E. Howard’s heroes as well, whether the setting is Abilene or Shadizar the Wicked.
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A lifelong Texan, Reasoner has been a professional writer for more than thirty years. In that time, he has authored several hundred novels and short stories in numerous genres. For several years early in his career, he wrote the Mike Shayne novellas in MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE under the famous pseudonym Brett Halliday. Under his own name in recent years he has written a ten-book series of historical novels set during the Civil War and several historical novels about World War II. He lives in a small town in Texas with his wife, award-winning fellow author Livia J. Washburn. Check out his blog.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE DEFINITIVE guide to Conan. He also organized 2023’s ‘Talking Tolkien.’
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI, XXI, and XXXIII.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.