Thursday, July 21, 2016
Hauling Freight Down a Narrow Mountain Trail
I reviewed the novel Ambush, by Luke Short, a few months ago. Short has a great reputation as a writer of Westerns. That’s a genre I enjoy, but I just never happened to get around to reading his stuff. But I enjoyed Ambush so much that it wasn’t long before I dug up a copy of another of Short's novels.
Dead Freight for Piute was serialized in Western Story Magazine in November & December of 1939. It has a nifty premise. Rather than dealing with cattle drives, outlaws or Indians, it deals with freighting companies.
Hauling freight was, of course, an important part of building the West, but it doesn’t quite have the romantic flair of driving cattle over the Chisum trail, forming a posse to chase outlaws, or a last stand against Apache warriors. But Short demonstrates in this novel that the freight business is a rich source of drama and adventure when placed in the hands of a good writer.
Cole Armin shows up in the mining boom town of Piute, looking for a job with his Uncle Craig’s freight business. His trip to Piute was not without incident, though. The stage he rode in on was robbed and a pretty lady passenger named Celia Wallace is robbed of the $10,000 in cash she was carrying. She was bringing this money to her brother Ted, who is running his own freight company in competition with the Monarch—Craig Armin’s company.
Celia knows who Cole is and assumes he’s in on the robbery, which was engineered by Craig to wipeout the competition. But Cole finds out his uncle is a crook, wins a fight against a teamster he recognized as the stage robber, then blackmails Craig into returning the cash. Soon, Cole is working for Ted and Celia with the Western Freight company.
Craig is determined to be the one-and-only freight company, though. What follows is a convoluted but well-told story in which Craig, his top thug Wade Billings and dishonest sheriff Ed Linton plot to destroy the Western company while also plotting and counter-plotting to double-cross each other
Cole is a great protagonist. He’s unfamiliar with the freighting business (something that’s used as an effective plot point several times), but he’s smart and intensely loyal to anyone he befriends. He has a temper, though, which is directed at the bad guys but can sometimes rise to a frightening level. That’s also an effective plot point on a few occasions.
So Short writes a Western that—like many Westerns—mirrors the hard-boiled fiction that the Western genre helped spawn. And he keeps the action moving with some superbly written action set pieces. Cole’s fist fight with Wade Billings, involving a bull whip (which is why one edition of the book was titled Bull-Whip) is truly exciting. A sequence in which the Cole, still inexperienced as a teamster as he navigates a large wagon full of ore down a mountain trail, turns equally exciting when he discovers someone sawed through the brake lever.
The final gunfight, with Cole carrying an injured Ted Wallace over his shoulders while Ted shoots at the bad guys and fumbles in Cole’s belt for more bullets, is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Dead Freight for Piute was made into a movie in 1948 and re-titled Albuquerque. Starring Randolph Scott as Cole, it’s a pretty good Western, though the plot was streamlined and more straightforward, making it less interesting that Short’s more complex novel. Still, it’s got Lon Chaney , Jr. as one of the bad guys and Gabby Hayes as Scott’s sidekick, so it’s still fun to watch.