Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hangtree Range by William Hopson

Hangtree Range by William Hopson
Lion Books LB156, Copyright 1952

During the 40s/50s, William Hopson wrote short stories for all the leading Western pulps. Many were dark with an edge to them, which made them stand out from the other "average" fare Western short stories. "Hangtree Range" is the first novel of his that I've read, It's about the struggles of iron-hard men caught in the human soul destruction of a feuding range war.

He had been a hard, callous, brutal man, spawned in the backwash of a generation that killed for four years and then come home to kill again. He had picked up where they had let off, hiring his guns for a price in a ruthless war where many men would be doomed to die.

With the Civil War long over and the Apaches defeated, life in the Arizona Territory was expected to be safe and prosperous. But powerful organized sheep herders have moved in, threatening the free gazing land that the cattle barons have thought of as their own. The blood feud has spread throughout the territory and it becomes difficult to define where on the fence some individuals sit. The western code is "an eye for an eye" vengeance, and each side settles the score by hanging the opposition. When Ed Allen's younger brother is mistaken as a killer for the sheep barons and strung up, Ed reins his mount loaded with his Winchester and .44 Smith & Wesson. You see, Ed Allen is one of those western men with a past. He was an ex-cavalry scout during the Apache wars and going after men like those who killed his brother, is bored in his marrow.

But this turns a bit different, when the reader expects Allen to settle up with bloody revenge, he uses his learned talent to bring law abiding justice to the men responsible . He plans to corner them and bring the cattle gunmen to the town of Wilcox for trial. On his way a posse of sheep baron gunmen force a change in his plans, which results in one of the most efficacious endings I've read in a western story in a while.

I was so impressed with this William Hopson novel, that I will definitely read another. No fooling the reader here, an atmosphere rich in abode cantinas, haunting cottonwood trees, desert arroyos, and a taste of "Ox-Bow" in your throat. This is no "good guy vs. bad guy, good guy gets girl" western. Hopson carefully plots out the chain of events, including the backgrounds of the characters (which is important to the story) to create a dark western noir novel. You're left thinking there are no good guys in the story, just a few with a small puddle of humanity left in their gut. Even that seems not to be enough.

"Hangtree Range" is a Western winner....


David Cranmer said...

Based on your review this sounds very good. I appreciate yarns where it's difficult to tell the good from the bad and motives seem a little murky. I just finished Border Guns by Eugene Cunningham and it has similar complex themes.

August West said...

Yeah David, I got lucky on this one. Yesterday I was in the mood for a western and this Robert Schulz cover knocked me out. Started reading and before I looked up I was on page 75. Finished it after dinner, couldn't put the damn thing down. Very impressive yarn.

Thanks for the comment. A.W.

Chris said...

"Dark western noir..." Love that description! This one sounds good--definitely different from the L'Amour fare I've been wading through. The cover is awesome, too. I love how the guy has a noose around his neck and is still smoking a cigarette. Now that's tough!

Lee Goldberg said...

I've just ordered it from ABEbooks based on your review. You haven't steering me wrong yet!

Lee Goldberg said...

er, that should have been "steered," not "steering." Sorry about that.

The plot of this book, by the way, sounds a lot like the first EDGE novel.


August West said...

Lee: I would categorize this as a snapshot of an episode during a violent range war. Effects on the innocents (morally) and the ruthlessness of the men on each side. You'll find neutral Ed Allen as a man of values and not cold-blooded. We have strong characters here, in fact there is a cattle man called Lem Cooley that reminds me of Ryker in "Shane." And like I said, there is a feel of "OX-Bow" in the air. If you read, it drop me a quick note, I'll be interested in what you think.

Thanks A.P.W

Lee Goldberg said...

I read HANGTREE RANGE yesterday and was underwhelmed. The biggest problem for me was the shifts backwards and sideways in time ...which often made the otherwise straight-forward plot hard to follow. To me, Cooley and Halliburton were one dimensional cliche bad guys and I got quickly bored with them. Bill Allen, the hero, was so bland and unemotional that he almost didn't exist at all. For me, I didn't find anything complex in the characters or the themes. On the other hand, I was listening to some old GUNSMOKE radio shows today on a long walk and they were terrific. Surprisingly tough stuff, in fact. In all three tales Marshal Matt Dillon was bitter, brutal, and hardly fair...but at least his intentions were more or less honorable. Great stuff.


Iesha said...

This is fantastic!