In 1972, Chet Cunningham was a young, struggling novelist collecting a pile of unwanted rejection slips. Hearing that westerns paid less than other genres, he figured there would be less competition in that field, so he began writing a western. He saw there were quite a few paperback series built around a particular character, so he conceived a hero who could go from one adventure to the next.
He sent the finished novel around, and got an acceptance letter from Pinnacle: “While this is not the best western I’ve ever read, we have decided to publish it.” “Gold Wagon” did get published that year, a story about a fortune in gold which may or may not be hidden in the wreckage of an old convoy of wagons. I’d have to agree that it’s not a world-beater. But it does have some excellent sequences, and I liked it overall.
The best thing about it is its hero, Jim Steel. Originally conceived as a secret agent out west, he’s actually more of an independent operator who goes around looking for lost or hidden caches of gold. He hops from one side of the law to the other, but for the most part he’s a reasonably good guy who just really loves gold, sort of a James Garner character with a relaxed charm and a fast draw.
Oddly, the Jim Steel series only ran for six books, published irregularly over a span of nine years. Yet they were successful enough to be reprinted; I’ve had three different editions of “Gold Wagon”, each under different imprints. Originally published under Cunningham’s name, at least a couple of the novels were also re-issued under the name Jess Cody.
Luckily for me, the first 'Jim Steel' I read was the outstanding ”Bloody Gold”, third in the series and first published in 1975. A highly suspenseful search for a fabled wall of pure gold, located somewhere deep in the homeland of extremely hostile Chiricahua Apaches, it’s a rollicking adventure story worthy of 'Indiana Jones'. I loved it.
“Bloody Gold” set the bar pretty high, and unfortunately the fifth book, “Gold Train” (1981) doesn’t quite get there. A mine owner hires Jim to protect a delivery of 152 gold bars from California to the U.S. Mint in Denver. You might be wondering why he’s hiring the gold-hungry Jim Steel of all people, but this time around Jim is more reformer than rogue. Besides, the paycheck is pretty good and he’s got his eye on the mine owner’s daughter, who’s headstrong enough to accompany him on the dangerous mission whether he likes it or not.
Inevitably, ambitious crooks will try to grab all that gold, even if it means destroying the train it’s traveling on. What follows is one peril after another, each on a bigger scale than the last. This was a satisfying story, but I think it would have played even better as an action movie than as a novel. There was just something lacking. A more colorful master villain, maybe? Better dialogue? I don’t know. These factors kept this good story from being a great one. Even so, I wish there were a lot more of these 'Jim Steel' adventures left to discover.