Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Thomas McNulty's Westerns: WIND RIDER and SHOWDOWN AT SNAKEBITE CREEK

Tom McNulty writes some great westerns. That's all you need to know. Period. They would make excellent films, the kind of films Burt Kennedy would have written and directed, the kind of films Budd Boetticher would have made, starring Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan, Gabby Hayes, Gail Russel. . . . Fast-paced, with plenty of action and colorful descriptions that magically conjure up the Old West without leaving a soft, warm veneer of romanticism to cover up the hardship, tragedy and brutality that were part and parcel of daily life back then. Nor does McNulty ignore the human drama, the relationships, the character-arcs, the humor that is the lifeblood of all fiction, for without those, you really don't have much of a story.

In WIND RIDER, McNulty opens with two simple sentences that sets tone as they introduce the main character, Hank Benteen. "The air was crisp and he smelled smoke when he rode into the valley. His name was Hank Benteen but the Sioux called him Wind Rider."  Simple, yet elegant. Hank is a great character, the loner, a man of heart and courage, a true sense of justice . . . a man of compassion and human frailty. Almost from the get-go he becomes embroiled in a war between homesteaders and cattlemen, and saves the lives of a man and his two daughters. By page 7, I had decided to thrown in with Benteen and ride with him. This character really got to me. McNulty doesn't neglect the romance, either, and this time out there are two wonderful women: Gloria Nash and Rebecca Deloney. Which one he hitches up with is something you'll have to find out for yourself. What I liked also was the subtext of the villain, who has some mommy issues. Villains in McNulty's westerns are always interesting, quirky, and more often than not, downright evil. The gunplay, the action, is also fast and brutal, and rings with honesty and realism. And yet, in the middle of a major gunfight, McNulty still has time to drop in a line that rings of pure poetry. Benteen has put a bullet in a man's forehead, and the next line reads: "The man's final thought, desperate thought was splattered across the sage and dry grass." I love that. It's pure Tom McNulty. I guarantee it, you will care about Benteen, Gloria, and Rebecca. You will discover how they characters are flesh and blood, with faults and virtues. They are real. The story will move you along and take your breath away as the plot thickens, the lead begins to fly, and gunsmoke clouds the air.
Now, in McNulty's SHOWDOWN AT SNAKEBITE CREEK, Cole Tibbs returns to his home town of Raven Flats seven years after his father was murdered by rancher Carleton Usher, who cheated his father and stole all his land. Tibbs, at the time, was a no-account drunk and gambler, and he was given a good beating and sent packing. But now he returns, a grown man, a different man---a man bent on revenge. Or is it justice? What I like about this one is that, once again, McNulty pulls you right into the story without allowing you to wet your whistle at the Fool's Gold Saloon, first. Pap Wingfoot, another great character, watches as two of the four Usher boys beat the dickens out of Michael Keith, the barman at the saloon. Well, in rides Cole, who quickly intervenes, knowing who the Ushers are, of course, having been beaten by them seven years prior. Words fly, and so does the lead. Before you know it, you're caught up in a massive war between Cole and Carleton Usher's entire gang of cowboys and gunhands. At first, Cole goes it alone, refusing the help of Pap Wingfoot, who is an old friend of his late father's. Cole does all right by himself, but it's all part of a plan he's laid out with his partner, Maxfield Knight. And that's all I'm going to say about that, lest I ruin the surprise. The fun really gets going when Pap Wingfoot sides with Cole and Knight as they take on Usher and his boys. The body count is high in this one as the plot speeds along at a breakneck pace, as the action heats up and hot lead starts flying in all directions. Usher is an interesting character: a former Confederate officer still fighting the Civil War and seeking revenge for the burning of Atlanta and his own plantation. He's one sick, twisted dued, too. And then there's Jamie Hart, an old friend and almost-lover of Cole Tibbs. She becomes embroiled in this war, too, and what she does and how she handles it all is quite refreshing.  Once again McNulty weaves a character-oriented, plot-driven tale that does not disappoint. It's the real deal. My only nit to pick on this one is that not enough time, for me anyway, was spent on Cole's relationship with Jamie. A little romance would have been good for my soul. But McNulty threw a change-up on this one!  What happens between Cole and Jamie at the end of the story is something that took me by surprise. I think the ending might be a set up for a sequel. I sure hope so. In fact, I'd like to see sequels to all McNulty's westerns. They're that good!  So do yourself a favor and read this one, too. Saddle up and ride with Tom McNulty and Cole Tibbs!