Thursday, December 29, 2016

Trumpets West

I believe the Western to be the father of the hard-boiled detective story--it was the Western that made the laconic and/or snarky loner a hero in so many stories. This template eventually became an important part of the hard-boiled P.I. That's why Robert Parker, who reinvigorated the hard-boiled P.I. story with his Spenser novels starting in the 1970s, was able to so smoothly add Westerns to his bibliography later in his career.

"Trumpets West," a novella by Luke Short that was originally published in the July 1945 issue of Argosy, is another good example of this. It's a Western--a story that centers around a conflict between the Cavalry and the Apache. But its also a crime story involving corruption and ruthless double-crosses.

The protagonist is Lt. Burke Hanna, who begins the story with good reason to be angry with his commanding officer. He had been out looking for Ponce, an Apache chief who had left the reservation with a large band of warriors. The local Indian agent had been shorting the Apaches on beef and pocketing what he saved. Ponce had left to raid surrounding settlements simply to get his people enough food.

Hanna, with a troop of soldiers, tracked Ponce down and gave the chief most of the troop's rations as part of an inducement to return to the reservation. But then he receives orders to remain on patrol despite a lack of food, with requests for more rations refused. By the time Hanna's men get back to the fort, they've had to eat most of their horses to survive.

The trouble is heightened by the fact that the C.O. is engaged to the daughter of the corrupt Indian agent, so blocks any efforts by Hanna to see that justice is done and the Indians get the beef they were promised.

The resultant shenanigans end with Hanna in the brig. But when Ponce breaks out of the reservation again, Hanna is the only person who has any real chance of running him down. He's released from the brig and allowed back in the field. But when Ponce is cornered and a pitched battle begins, the corrupt Indian agent has plans to make sure Hanna does not return alive. It's a plan that might get a lot of other soldiers killed as well. "Trumpets West" has a Film Noir-ish feel to it even while it also does its job as a traditional Western.

The climatic battle is fantastic, with Short doing a great job of explaining the tactical situation while still keeping his prose fast-moving and exciting. I've written about Luke Short several times this year, because I've only recently discovered how good a writer he was and I'm enjoying delving into his work. "Trumpets West" is perhaps my favorite so far. The characters are well-defined, with a strong protagonist and despicable but believable villains. I especially like Hanna's attitude towards Ponce--he respects the chief and will risk his career to see the Apaches are treated like human beings. But when Ponce breaks reservation, Hanna doesn't hesitate to do his duty as a soldier, even if it means fighting.

Dell's Four Color #875 (Feb. 1958) brought us a really good adaptation of "Trumpets West," written by Paul S. Newman and with interior art by Mike Roy. (Sam Savitt painted the wonderful cover you see to the left.) It's interesting to compare it to the original story.

The novella begins with Hanna bringing his hungry and exhausted patrol back into the fort. Short then gives us the background information we need through conversation and when Hanna reports to his C.O.  

This is all done smoothly and effectively, but Paul S. Newman realized that a comic book story
needed a more visual bang out of the starting gate. So he shows us Hanna's patrol, negotiations with Ponce and the brutal necessity of shooting horses to get meat for his men. When we do get to dialogue-heavy pages, it's handled well without slowing things down because not as much dialogue is necessary as was used in the original prose. It's a neat example of how different mediums can have different storytelling requirement to tell the same story.

The comic book also drops a character completely. Short gave Hanna a fiance named Calla. She's a strong character in her own right--intelligent and supportive of Hanna no matter what he is accused of over the course of the tale. But, as much as I like the story, it is true that Calla simply doesn't get to do anything that actually affects the plot. Her disappearance from the comic book is a wise decision--making more room for the actual story.

The final battle is slightly edited as well, with the action condensed to fit the entire story into the required page count. It means we lose a couple of really cool bits from the novella, but artist Mike Roy expertly lays out of the action that remains and it follows the same logical pattern as it did in the novella.

Roy's art is clean I really like his compositions. To my eye, his figure work can sometimes be a little bit stiff, but I do like his art here.

So "Trumpets West" is worth reading either as a prose story or a comic book tale.

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