As alluded to in my review of Son of a Wanted Man, Iâ€™ve lately been revisiting my first childhood and getting a head start on the second while I can still enjoy it by watching a lot of B-western films, mostly rented from Netflix but occasionally showing up on Turner Classic Movies. (If youâ€™re similarly nostalgic, the outstanding Old Corral website is a must.) Among the rentals have been entries in the long-lived Republic Pictures series â€œThe Three Mesquiteers,â€ which depicted the adventures ofÂ Tucson Smith, Stony Brooke, and Lullaby Joslin.
As I learned from the credits, the Mesquiteers were created by the prolific western writer William Colt MacDonald. According to a Wikipedia article, two of them originally appeared in the 1929 novel Restless Guns. But it was the 1933 Law of the Forty-Fives, later renamed The Sunrise Guns, that â€œofficiallyâ€ began the series, which consists of six titles.
The movies tended to emphasize Stony Brooke as the lead character, but The Sunrise Guns features Tucson Smith. The book opens when he and Stony are in the town of Juarez in Mexico, having come there seeking a change of scenery and some excitement. Theyâ€™re disappointed at not having found any of the latterâ€”until they observe a Mexican approach another man who has just emerged from Big Timâ€™s Palace. They recognize the other man as Hugo Hayden, wealthy owner of the Double-H cattle ranch. The Mexican tries to pull a gun on Hayden, but the latter knocks him down. The Mexican hurries away, and Hayden hails a passing carriage and rides off into the night.
Tucson and Stony wander along until they come to a disreputable neighborhood and enter a cantina. There they spot Hayden among the seedy clientele, and Tucson notices a man gazing intently at Hayden while he slowly removes a gun from its holster. Tucson draws and fires his own gun, downing the would-be assassin.
Chaos ensues, and the trio bolts from the cantina, initially pursued by the Mexican police. Once things settle down a bit, Hayden explains that he was lured to Juarez by someone wanting to sell a valuable bull. â€œLookinâ€™ for a chance to start an argument and plug you,â€ Stony says. Haydenâ€™s ranch is near the town of Yavapai, where there has been trouble of late. A group of unknown raiders have killed a number of men, settlements have been attacked, and cattle have been rustled. Hayden says he wants Tucson and Stony to join his crewâ€”not as cow-punchers, but rather as bodyguards and investigators.
They agree and have barely entered Yavapai when Hayden is gunned down in an ambush. Tucson and Stony determine to stay on and find out who is behind it, knowing that when they do, theyâ€™ll also learn the identity of the raidersâ€™ boss. Theyâ€™re aided in their investigations by the sheriff and his deputy, Lullaby Joslin.
Iâ€™ve barely described some of the events in the first four chapters in a book of twenty-two chapters, a book that is pure pulpy delight for fans of western fiction, especially B-western films. As far as Iâ€™m aware, The Sunrise Guns was never filmed as one of the Mesquiteers movies. Thatâ€™s a shame because it would have been a wild movie. It even has a nefarious super-villain type, a man named Roantell who has allegedly come to the region to study snakes, but whose machinations have more sinister goals. If I point out that he has a pit of poisonous snakes beneath a trap door in his home, that Tucson eventually confronts him in said homeâ€¦well, you can probably guess that their meeting isnâ€™t a polite tea party.
This is not a book for someone who wants in-depth character studies or brilliant insights into the human condition. This is the literary equivalent of the westerns kids watched in the 1930s, â€™40s, and â€™50s at Saturday matinees, and on early 1950s television. There is, quite literally, action in every chapter: fists flying, guns spurting flame and smoke, bullets cutting the air. Reading it, one has the feeling that William Colt MacDonald loved every minute of the writing.
I couldnâ€™t put it down, hope to find other Mesquiteers novels, and wholeheartedly recommend that fans of this sort of adventure find copies of The Sunrise Guns.
That said, let me end with the caveat that MacDonald employed some racial stereotyping and epithets modern readers should find offensive, but which they should put into the context of the time he was writing about and the times in which he wrote.
Former Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and current First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, Barry Ergang‘s fiction, poetry and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic.Â He is the 2007 winner of the Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society in the Flash Fiction category.