Thursday, March 3, 2016

"The troop was beat into utter stillness by the savage heat of the afternoon."

This Saturday Evening Post cover doesn't exactly scream "Western!", does it? But that's okay. The Post was an anthology magazine that covered a lot of ground and a Norman Rockwell cover is never a bad thing.

This is the December 25, 1948 issue and it contained the first of eight parts of a new Luke Short Western, which would run through the Feb. 12, 1949 issue. Short's real name was Frederick Dilley Glidden, who sold his first Western to the pulps in 1935. His pen name, by the way, is the same as the name of a real-life Western gunfighter--but, according to his Wikipedia entry, it's not clear if the writer knew that when he picked the name.

Short's Westerns are excellent, combining tense, slam-bang action with sharp characterizations. His popularity allowed him to eventually graduate from the pulps to the better-paying slicks such as the Post. This particular serial, titled Ambush, was republished as a novel in 1949.

Among Short's fans, this is considered one of his best. The protagonist is a scout named Ward Kinsman, an intelligent and capable man who likes the solitude of the Southwestern desert. When the novel opens, he's mining for gold in a lonely spot. A fellow scout finds him, telling him that the brutal Apache leader Diablito has left the reservation with a band of warriors. Unfortunately, this scout has also inadvertently led some of Diablito's men to Ward's location. Ward and the Apache are old enemies.

This allows Short to construct an action sequence right at the novel's beginning that serves two purposes--it provides excitement and it gives us insight into Ward's personality as he improvises an escape plan that depends on his detailed knowledge of the terrain. He never loses his head and he is constantly analyzing the overall situation.

The two scouts do reach the local fort, where Ward is told a woman named Mary Carlyle has been captured by the Apaches. We also meet Mary's sister Ann and several Calvary officers who will be key supporting characters. Short begins several sub-plots at this point: an officer is in love with the abused wife of an enlisted man; while Ward and another officer both develop a thing for Ann.

A less skilled writer might have allowed the story to dip into melodrama, but Short ties it all together
through his fast pacing (it's never too long before we get to another action scene) and his strong characterizations. The conflict between Ward and Captain Loring (his rival for Ann) is particularly good. Both men have admirable qualities. At first it seems as if Ward (and even Short as the writer) is being overly critical of Loring. The initial impression is that maybe Short is trying a little too hard to make sure the right person ends up with the girl. But as the climatic battle approaches, we realize that Loring has a flaw in his character (something that had been subtly foreshadowed) that justifies the criticism.

That climatic battle is a doozy--a fight in the early morning light as a small detachment of troopers is used to lure Diablito's band into an ambush.

As you can tell from the quote I use in the post title, Short is also skilled at creating vivid ways to describe the desert setting, using sentences such as that one to quickly pound into our heads just how hot, desolate and savage the area can be.

I actually haven't read a lot of Short's stuff. Picking up Ambush pretty much at random at the public library was a real find and a reminder that--no matter how much you read--there will always be another writer out there you have yet to really discover.

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