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guns at broken bow

4 december 2022

Reading ephemeral old Westerns is something of a serendipitous endeavor. An excellent blog post by James Reasoner recommended some authors, but where to find, let's say, William Heuman's 1950 novel Guns at Broken Bow? Few libraries archive old paperbacks, most of which are reaching their lifespans as artifacts anyway. Reasoner notes, however, that Center Point recently re-issued some of Heuman's books in library-edition large-print format, and I was able to get Guns via InterLibrary from the St. Louis County system.

I knew William Heuman's name from such children's baseball fiction as Horace Higby and the Scientific Pitch. Heuman was an above-average crafter of baseball stories, but his real métier was the Western. Guns at Broken Bow turned out to be exactly the kind of thing I was looking for, an action-first intriguer full of insidious city slickers, honest cowmen, and one plucky cowgirl for balance.

Our hero is Merritt Kane. As sheriff and marshal, Merritt has been the scourge of many a villain, all across the Wild West. He is now looking to take his savings and settle down to ranching in a pleasant airy community – such as Broken Bow, a spot he remembers favorably from his travels.

As Merritt comes riding into Broken Bow, somebody takes potshots at him from behind a rock. That someone is a young woman ranch-owner named Sabine Bell, who is intent on keeping dubious railroad men from spoiling her homestead with their bubbles and panics. She takes Merritt for a railroad surveyor. But he's not; he had just had words with the railroad surveyors, who are acting mighty unlike railroad surveyors, mostly just wasting their time in remote canyons and such.

There is clearly some mysterious unrest in Broken Bow, and Merritt resolves to get out of town as quickly as he rode in, a resolve that he reverses the next morning when he buys the ranch next to Sabine's from an old codger. Merritt can't stop thinking about Sabine, despite the fact that she is engaged to marry the specious real-estate speculator Stephen West. Merritt is intrigued by Sabine's business acumen, her way with a rifle, and her general style:

She rode like a boy, lithe body swaying with the movements of the horse (18)
Basically he develops a crush on Sabine because she's fairly masculine. One would be tempted to see this as a gesture toward unconventional romantic tastes, except that the heroine who can pass for male is a Western convention, as in Zane Grey's West of the Pecos. You can't win a gunfighter's heart by playing piano sonatas or embroidering samplers.

Somebody doesn't want Merritt Kane to stick around Broken Bow, as witness a gunman sniping at him from a dark alley, a team of desperadoes burning down the ranch house he's just bought, a gang stealing his cattle and driving them off a precipice, etc. etc. These deterrents, of course, perversely encourage Merritt to stay and gun down his tormenters.

Guns at Broken Bow has numerous narrative merits. It identifies its sharply-distinct characters clearly and names them consistently. It wastes no time on backstory or descriptive detail. It supplies definite motives, dramatic conflict, and plenty of action directly related to that conflict. Some of the fistfights and gunfights go on too long; I guess if you paid for a Western paperback in 1950 you got your money's worth of punishment and gore.

The novel is also not explicitly racist, by virtue of having almost no non-white characters (except a cowboy with some Indian ancestry who is stereotypically good at tracking, though he is barely invoked and I don't think even named). "Not explicitly racist" seems a low bar but many a popular fiction of the mid-20th century couldn't clear it.

In other words, if you are looking for pure diversion, or alternatively for a model of how to tell a basic story, you could do a lot worse than Guns at Broken Bow. I need to read books like this from time to time in order to get some quota of Big-Idea-poor storytelling. I suspect most readers crave that kind of experience, which accounts for the persistence of genre fiction, though individual genres wax and wane in popularity.

Heuman, William. Guns at Broken Bow. 1950. Thorndike, ME: Center Point Large Print, 2019.