Frank Gruber (1904-1969) authored 18 crime-fiction novels starring the clumsy and destitute New Yorker Johnny Fletcher. Along with writing 300 short-stories, Gruber also brought the world over 30 westerns written under his own name and pseudonyms like John K. Vedder and Charles K. Boston. Looking for a solid western this week, I sought out another of Gruber's frontier westerns, Bugles West. It was originally published in 1954 and has been reprinted numerous times, most notably by Bantam in 1982 with a cover painting by Lou Feck (known for his men's magazine artwork in Argosy and Adventure).
Tom Logan and Jim Dressen grew up as friends in Michigan. While serving as officers in the Union Army during the American Civil War, the two were captured by the Confederacy. They were placed in Andersonville, a notorious prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia. While there, the two collaborated with 28-other prisoners to escape. The prisoners were quickly caught and most were executed. It was Logan's belief that Dressen was a traitor and he was directly responsible for the soldiers' deaths. After the war, Dressen rose in the ranks to Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Logan became an accessory in bank robbery, and at one point rode with the famed James-Younger gang consisting of the outlaws Jesse James and Cole Younger.
The book opens with a furious gunfight in Montana as a stagecoach is assaulted by the Sioux. Logan, who's on his way to Fort Abraham Lincoln to enlist, comes to the aid of the coach and helps repel the Sioux. This opening scene is a whirlwind of action that Gruber would later re-imagine in his 1967 novel This Gun is Still. When the Army arrives, Logan learns that one of the passengers is a beautiful woman named Alice. After a few early sparks, the two strike up a bond and follow each other to the fort. But once Logan arrives, he learns that Alice's sister is married to....Jim Dressen!
Gruber injects a plethora of story ideas into this short, 120-page western novel. American history buffs can probably gather that Logan and Dressen are both serving in the area that hosted Andrew Custer's Last Stand, otherwise known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In fact, through the book's exciting middle pages the events leading to the epic confrontation between Native Americans and the U.S. Army is brought to life through Andrew's younger brother Thomas and his efforts to arrest a tribal chief named Rain-in-the-Face.
Logan's efforts to avoid his involvement in the James-Younger gang led to his enlistment in the U.S. Army. But once there, the narrative explores his meeting with Dressen and the fallout – Dressen attempting to kill Logan to silence their history and Logan appealing to ranking officers to trial Dressen for treason. There's a number of subplots involving Logan's confrontation with another officer as well as his romantic attraction to Alice. Gruber envelopes the narrative with sympathetic nods to the Native American struggles and their resistance to the “enemy” U.S. troops while showcasing Captian Thomas Custer as an arrogant, bumbling senior officer.
Bugles West is a rip-roaring tour de force. Frank Gruber, while tragically underrated, remains as one of history's best western storytellers. I can't say enough good things about his action-oriented writing style and the literary legacy he created. Bugles West is highly recommended.
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