Thursday, October 4, 2018

This Gun is Still

Frank Gruber (1904-1969) was a popular and highly respectable author of over 300 stories for more than 40 pulp magazines. Sometimes writing as Stephen Acre, John K. Vedder or Charles K. Boston, Gruber completed a massive outpouring of paperback titles. While known for his detective and crime stories, the author's most popular genre was the western, a genre he was claimed to have described as only able to deliver seven distinct story types. Despite what he felt were its shortcomings, Gruber wrote over 30 western novels including “This Gun is Still”, published by powerhouse Bantam Books in 1967.

The book begins with what could be the best opening pages of any western I've personally read. It's a bold statement – but absolutely true. A Wells Fargo stagecoach is racing across the hot White Sands as Apache warriors descend from the hills. In a rapid-fire delivery, we read that the stagecoach driver is killed and the carriage is tipped onto its side. With at least a dozen warriors outside, the two passengers, Jim Forester and Lily Bender, prepare for death. Forester, with only six bullets and a Navy Colt, begins firing from the window, hitting warriors within 10 feet of the coach. He makes five shots deadly, but debates the final shot – kill the girl so he alone can be tortured and ravaged by the Apaches or fire one more deadly shot at the braves and await the grizzly inevitable. Thankfully, a lone cowboy rides in with a Winchester rifle and kills enough warriors to make the war party scatter. Jim Forester meets Wes Morgan. 

We learn that Forester works for a bank in Chicago called Davenport. He's come to the town of Stanton to collect on a default loan from one of two store owners. After the owner dismisses the delinquent $8K, Forester obtains a warrant to shut the store and owner down. The Justice of the Peace provides an interesting backstory on Stanton's rather odd situation. The town's wealth lies in two factions, Bender and Deever. Bender has a large and very profitable cattle ranch and is a passive man. Deever is a former Major who makes his living stealing from Bender and running his own cattle ranch off the theft. Bender has enough wealth and cattle and simply doesn't care. However, Deever, in a rather bold authority, hates Bender and only wants the town to support him. Deever asks that Forester and his company only conduct county business with him, starving and depleting the other businesses and ultimately “gifting” the town to Deever. Forester refuses and that's where the story thickens. 

In a wild chain of events, Forester quits his job and takes over the store as its new owner – partly for a change of scenery but also because he refuses to see Deever win. Complicating things is Wes Morgan, a wanted outlaw who saved Forester but who may be working with Deever. Discombobulating it further is the lovely Lily, Bender's daughter and former Morgan lover. She may or may not be falling for Forester, who has a number of decisions to make once Deever and his hired guns start threatening violence. Tuck tail and run, align with the law or fight Morgan and Deever. It's a western, so you know which way it will eventually go...but it is a thrilling journey to get there. 

Overall, Frank Gruber is fantastic here and expels just enough drama, romance and courtroom intrigue (yes, I said courtroom) to make this a really well-told western. If you are looking for something that isn't the traditional western fare, this one is a must-read. Recommended.