I don’t normally read Westerns, however, given that Clark Aiken was the alias of Frederick C. Davis, and I have already read a few published by Sharman Ellis, why commit myself solely to crime tales by this author? To be even more frank, I’ve never actually read a western by Davis.
Gunman’s Bluff appears here as by Clark Aiken, and the story spans pages 1 through 55. The remaining pages of this 64-page thin stapled digest-sized paperback is filled with an uncredited short story (“Beef Stung”) which turns out to be by Frederick C. Davis.
Apparently, this title appears twice by Davis. The second time was in 1935, and the lead character is registered as “Duke Buckland.” No such character appears in my copy. So, we can scratch that one. The earlier title appears for the November 1929 issue of North-West Stories. No further details are noted, however, it is likely that this is the correct story (it ran under his own name in the pulp, rather than under his alias).
The tale opens with “Kid” Corbin riding home to his father’s ranch, which is a destroyed bit of history. Burned out and left to die, his father suffered a horrible fate at the hands of a band of killers led by the vicious El Zorra, a masked bandit that nobody apparently has ever seen, save for various heads of the organization of murderers and pillagers.
Having arrived, Corbin is greeted by a neighboring rancher’s daughter (Derry Murchison) whom Corbin is in love with. Hardly has she ridden across the hill when someone with a long-range rifle attempts to annihilate Corbin. Hearing the echo of the shot, she rides back to investigate. Combining their limited information, she again departs and he rides to town, to meet with the local sheriff.
Sheriff Kinsburn was the person who initially wrote to Kid Corbin to apprise the young man of his father’s death. While in town, Corbin finds the horse belonging to the sniper, and the rifle in the scabbard. Calling the killer out, he guns him down. Much to his chagrin, when the sheriff comes to investigate, someone has made off with the dead man’s rifle. With zero evidence present, the sheriff is forced to arrest Corbin.
Corbin is forced to escape. He can’t solve the mystery in jail, and does not expect a fair trial. The town is loaded with the crooked element, and they want to lynch him.
Breaking free, someone in the dark hands him a gun. The mysterious party is a man, and that is all that Corbin discerns. Nabbing his horse, he takes off and is pursued by the sheriff and posse.
Shot and wounded, he rides into dense foliage and finds himself cornered. Inexplicably, someone from the party assists in his rescue. Turns out to be the girl’s father, from the neighboring ranch. Tricking the posse to chase Corbin in the opposite direction, the pair sneak off to his home. Quickly imparting information and questions, Corbin learns that this man was NOT the person that handed him a six-shooter. The mystery continues….
The girl’s father hides Corbin in another room just as the sheriff rides up and confronts Mr. Murchison. The latter isn’t interested in assisting the sheriff in corralling the young man, and insists that the sheriff is inept and that Corbin is innocent. Annoyed, the sheriff departs.
The story goes all over the place, before settling down to Corbin sneaking into the enemies lair in a cave, disguising himself as one of the marked bandits. All goes awry, he is captured, and while taken away by two men to be murdered, one of the masked men inexplicably shoots the other and shoots a sniper. Effecting their escape, Corbin is nonplussed to learn that this person was not only the man that gave him a six-shooter earlier in the novella, but, he is also his very own dead father!
We later learn that while he was indeed home when the ranch-house was set aflame, someone else was also in the home with him at the time. It was that person’s body they found charred to a crisp. Delirious, and near death, the senior Corbin dragged himself out the back door, wounded, and passed out far away from the burning home. The killers believed him dead the whole time. (Wait a minute! In what world does a gang of killers set fire to a house, after emptying their guns into it, and not cover all exits?)
Realizing he was better off playing the part of a dead man, he infiltrated the gang by wearing a mask and following the gang to their hideout. As thus he remained, the entire time, until his son goofed and blundered into their hands.
The pair pull off a few tricks and in the end rope the leader, whom turns out to be the sheriff, the only logical person left that could be the villain, unless it was someone else yet to be introduced to the reader.
Naturally, the story ends on good terms: the father lives; Mr. Murchison, wounded, also lives, and they go into partnership. And the young lovers? They will inherit everything….