The Muleskinner by Robert MacLeod
Way, way back when I was in Junior High, I remember seeing this novel in the school library on one of those rotating paperback racks. Alongside it was Pierre Boulle's "The Bridge over the River Kwai," Jack London's "Smoke Bellew," Audie Murphy's "To Hell and Back," and I recall Eric Williams' "The Wooden Horse"- all were in the form of hard cover paperbacks that school libraries stocked in those days. I read those four, but I never did get around to Robert MacLeod's "The Muleskinner." I've always enjoyed his Westerns and recently obtaining a copy of this one, I opened it up for two days and read it.
"They began to get the stench, sickly, almost tangible on the hot, still air. Up ahead, a dozen buzzards floundered into the air. A million flies were buzzing. Under the trees was a clumsy big carreta, four dead oxen and six dead Mexicans-two men, a women, a young boy, an older girl, and a naked girl child, all torn by the beaks, hideous and bloated. They had all been scalped."
Ben "Ox" Davis runs freight, and can handle mules better than any man in the Arizona territory. He's tough and gets downright brutal when he has to use his fists, but believes in living a honest life having regards for the needs and feelings of others. On one of his hauls he comes upon the aftermath of a stagecoach robbery where it seems all occupants have been shot down. But later he finds two who have survived, one being Gwen Goodfield who Ox falls hard for. At first it looks like renegade Apaches are on a murder spree, but we find out that this is the work of a gang of vicious robbers. Gwen takes up with Ox's rival, Lew Barnes. And now Lew is flashing new money around Tuscon, making town folk suspicious of Lew's nice guy nature. Things really heat up when Ox saves a Mexican kid who was raised by Apaches. The vindictive saloon crowds aren't convinced that the kid is not Apache and want his scalp. Ox has his hands full protecting the kid and making runs with his mule team, not to mention trying to convince Gwen that Lew Barnes is a bum. After Ox's swamper is killed, along with more murderous holdups, and then the kid goes missing - the root cause of all the trouble is discovered and Ox is determined to settle the score.
As always, you get a bit of western education when you read a Robert MacLeod novel. MacLeod captures the hard life of a muleskinner. The toil these men take driving mules to get their heavy loads from one location to another, the history of legally selling Apache scalps, the boom of prosperous growth in the West - it's all in this novel. I liked all that. As for the storyline, I'll call it an average Western. Ox may be vivid and broad, but he is too gaga around Gwen for my type of Western hero. Gwen is so naive that I wanted Ox to give her a good kick in the butt. But if you can overlook that, there is plenty of murder and fisticuffs to make it enjoyable. And the struggle of survival, the excellent descriptions of the dusty drives on the mule wagons, and the subplot revolving around the misidentified Apache kid, are expertly told.
Robert MacLeod is one of my favorite Western authors. Reading his novels you can sense his natural attraction to the West and it's clear that he has done a lot of research. "The Muleskinner" may not be his best work, but it is good and for me worth the read. (After all, I waited over 40 years to get to it)
This is the cover of an earlier paperback edition.
Fawcett Gold Medal D1786
Monday, February 1, 2010
The Muleskinner by Robert MacLeod