Friday, June 24, 2016

Adventure classics -- What if Conan walked in with a gun?

“The Vultures of Whapeton”
by Robert E. Howard
***
I’ve spent this June talking about the Western stories of Robert E. Howard. Strange though it may seem, in this 80th anniversary year of Howard’s death, it wasn’t his fantasy characters such as Conan the Cimmerian and King Kull who he expected to make his reputation. It was his Westerns. As this month’s stories show, Howard was adept at mixing Westerns with his other story genres – fantasy, horror, even his comic boxing tales. Still, I did a double take when Steve Corcoran, the antihero of today’s Adventure classic story, “The Vultures of Whapeton” proved to be a physical twin to Conan, “tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, lean-hipped … (whose) unruly black hair matched a face burned dark by the sun, but his eyes were a burning blue.”

Corcoran matches not only Howard’s usual physical descriptions of Conan, but his psyche as well, “too direct by nature, or too proud of (his) skill to resort to trickery when it was possible to meet (his) enemies in the open …”

(It’s also interesting to note the similarity between Corcoran’s name and the name of two-fisted sailor Steve Costigan of some of the fight stories for which Howard was also famous during his life.)

Like Conan (and Costigan), Corcoran is peacefully minding his own business – at least in as peaceful a way as he can manage, considering that he’s just shot another gunfighter – when John Middleton, sheriff of the embattled mining town of Whapeton Gulch, happens upon him. Strangely, Middleton is not in the least nonplussed to find Corcoran’s opponent, who he had hired as a deputy to help tame the lawless elements of his town, lying shot through the heart, and promptly offers the not yet cold deceased employee’s job to his killer. Not that either Corcoran or the sheriff have any illusions about the character of the dead man, whose Colt’s stock is nicked with the record of those he had killed.

The thing is, the sheriff says, Whapeton is overrun with a gang of outlaws who call themselves the Vultures. What sheriff Middleton wants is not good character but “. . . a man who can handle a gun like a streak of forked lightning . . . I’ll offer you the same terms I meant to offer him. . . You know what to do with the really bad men. We’re not bringing any more murderers into court to be acquitted through their friends’ lies!”

And before readers can say, gee, sheriff, that offer smells downright fishy, Corcoran is installed as the newest deputy of Whapeton. The Vulture gang, he soon learns, has spies all over the little town, giving them word of any shipment of gold or goods in or out of town. And the town’s newest lawman also begins to have serious doubts about the law-abiding nature of his fellow deputies.

He manages however, to gain the friendship of some of Whapeton’s citizens, including golden-haired Glory Bland, when he prevents her from braining one of her fellow bar girls in a saloon brawl that has left Glory’s dress suggestively torn and her bosom suggestively heaving. No matter what the other woman’s offenses, Corcoran tells Glory, “(t)hat wasn’t no excuse for makin’ a public show of yourself. . . If ladies have got to fight, they ought to do it in private.”

In spite of his sententious words, readers have to believe it’s Glory’s fighting nature as much as her disheveled clothing that have caught Corcoran’s eye and heart. And if you’re wondering whether Glory’s friendship will be enough to ensure Corcoran’s survival in the rattlers’ nest of deceit and betrayal that is Whapeton Gulch, read it for yourself here.

(And note that although the story’s original publication in Smashing Novels spelled the town’s name “Whapeton,” the notes of Howard and his agent use the spelling Wahpeton. You’ll find it listed both ways in the REH canon.)

(Next Friday, Adventure classics moves from the Old West to outer space with Robert Heinlein’s Time for the Stars.)