Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Hangman's Territory

Jack M. Bickham (1930-1997) wrote predominantly westerns during his career while also teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma. Hangman’s Territory was half of a 1961 Ace Double later reprinted as a stand-alone paperback.

Our hero is Eck Jackson and he’s on his way to Rimrock, Montana at the request of a friend. The town has been taken over by Ebeneezer Taunt, who is acting as a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner along with a phalanx of gunmen. Taunt has a hard-on for hanging and has erected a six-rope gallows in the center of town to kill a half-dozen men with one lever pull. To bolster the credibility of his fiefdom, Taunt is importing an Ohio lawyer named John Powers to be his public prosecutor.

When we meet Powers, he’s actually an honest and earnest lawyer who accepts the job remotely with a legitimate interest in bringing law and order to a western town. He packs up his wife and heads west to become a public servant to the people of Rimrock. Will he buy-into Taunt’s perverted version of justice or will he stand up for what is right?

Bubbling under the surface of the tensions is a conflict between sheep herders and cattle farmers. Both groups want to use the same public lands for grazing, but the valley upon which the town sits just isn’t big enough to accommodate both the cattle people and the sheep people. In the world of western fiction, this is what is known as a “range war” when things turn violent. For his part, Judge Taunt, his lawman, and his hangman are all siding with the cattlemen.

The comic relief of the novel lies in the character of Boom Boom O’Malley, a redheaded ruffian explosives man who dresses in crazy outfits and is always looking for a fight. The author renamed and rebranded the character later in his career for his Wildcat O’Shea successful series of westerns written under the name Jeff Clinton (Hat Tip to the Six-Gun Justice website for also noticing the same thing).

The author brings all the characters together for an actioned-packed conflict that’s both exciting and violent. Overall, this was a very satisfying, quick-read western and an easy recommendation to fans of the genre. Bickham was a pro whose books deserve to be reprinted and remembered.

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