Locating a complete bibliography of Ralph Hayes work is eclipsed only by the maze of riddles and investigations into the storied treasure on Oak Island. In other words, it's an absolute mess. None of his series' could be as convoluted as 'Buffalo Hunter'. The Leisure first edition version from 1973 lists “Hellhole” as 'Buffalo Hunter' #1 (note Belmont Tower also released the book with a different cover in 1973). It's in bold black ink on page three as #1. Big as Ike.
We know from front cover images floating on used online sellers that 1973's “Four Ugly Guns” has a clear “#2” printed with the series logo on the cover. However, there's evidence that states the first printing was in 1970. It would seem as if it was released first, yet later the publishers deemed it as second in the series. The same can be said for 1973's “Gunslammer” (aka “Secret of Sulphur Creek”) boasting a “#3” on it's cover and evidence of an original printing in 1970. I'm not sure why the publishers would have flipped the series order, but they did and that's our burden to carry as genre enthusiasts and fans. Our shelfie-selfies will show the wrong order, but we'll know the truth.
In a letter from author Ralph Hayes in February of 2018, he provided a chronological order of his westerns and 'Secret of Sulphur Creek' is the first. Later, Leisure (and maybe Belmont) stamped the title of “Buffalo Hunter #3: Gun Slammer”. I'm calling this the first book and it introduces us to the series protagonist, O'Brien. While none of the books provide much background on the character, the series follows the familiar serialized formula of just placing one heroic badass in the midst of a firestorm of corruption and evil. That is the series' strength, thus “Gunslammer” or “Secret of Sulphur Creek” is absolutely perfect.
The novel has three ruthless outlaws riding into Sulphur Creek. Eli, Crazy Jake and Hotshot Lacy immediately kill every living thing that backtalks. The barbaric carnage originates from the town's nearby gold mine, now hidden away due to the number of deaths related to digging and blasting. The town, thinking death was the curse of greed, swore to secrecy and stoutly refuse revealing the location of the mine. Eli systematically kills until someone will provide the location. The town is stubborn as a mule and soon the streets are running red.
Meanwhile, O'Brien is on a nearby buffalo hunt and runs out of water. Dying in the desert, a deputy stumbles upon O'Brien and nurses him back to makeshift health. In a hilarious scene, O'Brien takes the man's water, then jerks his gun, empties it and hands it back to him. Then he takes his horse and asks the deputy if he wants a ride back to town. The deputy - in utter shock - stupidly asks, “You want me to ride into town on the back of my own horse?”. Hilarity continues to ensue as O'Brien, never caring for the human population, just ignores the outlaws and the killing. He wants to fetch liquor and get sloshed while waiting for his supplies to arrive. He walks into the bar, past the outlaws, steps around a dead woman and man (the horror!) and grabs two bottles of whiskey off the back shelf. He asks the three hardmen where the bartender is and Eli – mystified - responds, “We killed him”. O'Brien, ignoring utter chaos, just says “Nobody to pay then” and walks out.
Eventually, he gets caught up in the entanglement of the secret mine, outlaws and a crooked horse trader that becomes an ally. The narrative has the young deputy facing the three killers alone. There's some backstory on O'Brien's hunting partner Shanghai Smith, who shows up to face O'Brien/align with the baddies. Often, O'Brien is just on the cusp of goodness, debating on killing the outlaws or just staying drunk in bed. It's the Buffalo Hunter charm, or lack thereof, that just makes this series incredibly enjoyable. It's wicked, violent, hilarious and one of the best westerns I have read. I was tempted to flip the last page to the first and read it all over again. Get this one.