Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Trust Doesn't Come Easy

cover art by Sam Savitt

A couple of weeks ago, we paid a visit to Lee Hunter, a former Union Calvary officer who is now an army scout, and Reb Stuart, a former Confederate now reluctantly working for the Yankees by caring for army horses. The first story in Four Color #779 (May 1957) was a strong one, introducing us to the main characters and showing us that the two can work together despite a strong dislike for each other.

The second story in that issue is "Ambushed," which also features very effective art work by Mike Roy* and another solid script by an uncredited writer.  In this story, Lee and Reb are still often trading insults with one another, but seem less openly disdainful of one another as they come to respect each other's abilities (and consistently save each other's lives).

This is, I think, a necessarily bit of character evolution. As would have been the case for most if not all original characters introduced in Four Color, the editors at Dell would have been hoping that sales and reader reaction would be strong enough to spin them off into their own series. Open hatred between the two protagonists would have gotten tiresome before long. But the two men rubbing each other the wrong way from time to time, but still able to work effectively together--well, that would be a lot of fun if their stories were well-written.

"Ambushed" begins with Reb having to make a getaway from some Cheyenne who have left the reservation. He joins Lee and the troops from Fort Defiance as they track down the wayward Indians. Lee forces the chief--named "Red Bird"--to surrender by cutting him off from the tribe's women and children.

It turns out, though, that Red Bird had good reason from leaving the reservation. White hunters are poaching the game and his tribe simply doesn't have enough food for the upcoming winter.

There is a plan to move the Cheyenne to a bigger reservation with ample game, but doing so would require Red Bird to show a lot of trust. His men have to agree to give up their arms during the journey and allow the army to protect them.

The bulk of the story follows the Cheyenne and their much-too-small escort on the journey to the new reservation. It is a remarkably effective piece of storytelling. The Indians nearly rebel when Red Bird asks them to disarm. The soldiers don't trust the Cheyenne and the Cheyenne don't trust the soldiers. And, to top it all off, a band of Pawnees are tailing the Cheyenne, planning to attack while their old enemies are disarmed and helpless.

All this allows the story to build up an extraoridinary level of tension. In the end, Lee overrules the sergeant who commands the escort and arms the Cheyenne, but even up to the last moment, it seems like any number of things can go horribly wrong.

In the end, though, Red Bird and Lee trust one another and strong leadership forces everyone else to go along with them. Lee improvises some tactics that allow the Cheyenne and the troopers to work together to fight off the Pawnees.

"Ambushed" is a fine example of the sort of expert and entertaining storytelling for which Dell Comics is so fondly remembered.

Lee and Reb would return in 1958 for one more issue of Four Color, which also has two stories in it. We'll look at the first of those stories in two weeks. Next week, though, we'll jump a few centuries forward in time to join Captain Kirk as he once again gets involved in some time travel shenanigans.

*{NOTE: The Grand Comics Database lists Ray Bailey as the artist, but a very knowledgeable member of a Facebook group about Dell & Gold Key comics makes a very compelling case that the artist is Mike Roy, with inks by Mike Peppe}

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