Hold on there, pard! This western novel is pure dynamite! Now, whereas many British westerns are not worthy of note, however, boy was I impressed by this novel.
Brothers of the Purple Plains was written under the alias Steve Watts, and published by Muir-Watson (Scotland) by arrangement with the publisher Sydney Pemberton and distributed by World Distributors, Inc., 1949. The artwork is unsigned, and the artist is clearly the same as that of another Muir-Watson western in my possession, “Revenge Rides the Range,” which I will be reading and blogging in the near future.
The title recalls to mind Zane Grey’s classic “Riders of the Purple Sage.”
There are no plot similarities.
From the opening salvo of pages right to the end, I was hooked. It’s pretty damn good stuff, and I’d love to know true identity of the actual writer. Well-written and competent, the only weak point is the dialogue, which at times gets to be a bit cheesy with the heroes uttering “Gee” or exclaiming “Oh” or “Aw.” But hell, people do make such utterances in real life, so, why not here?
Three boys are orphaned after their wagon train is butchered by Indians and they are taken in by a preacher, who is often drunk and belligerent. Fast forward, the preacher is dead by the time the eldest boy is sixteen. They hit the trail and cover great extents of the West. Their current ages are not known.
The leader is Al Cummings. He’s described as “tall, well-built, fair-haired.”
His boyhood friends and lifetime mates include Mex Caliente, closest to Al in age, and “handsome in the dark fashion of his race, and the lightest hearted member of the trio.” Finally comes Jesse Hudson, “not as tall as the other two, but thick-set and strong as a stallion…quieter…than the others…a dour earnestness about him which seemed to come from his Scots ancestry.”
Having abandoned a prospective interest in a gold mine, they ride away from their fruitless earnings in search of work. In the horizon, Jesse, the more aloof member, spots what appears to be smoke rising in the distance. Riding closer, they find a house on fire.
Applying the horses to beat the trail north, they arrive in time to face a blazing inferno. Is anyone around? Inside? Alive? An accident, or…murder?
The trio hear something, and Al busts inside to rescue a woman and her baby. The latter is clearly dead, in the lady’s arms, a death-grip about it. Not bothering to remove the corpse from her arms, they find that the mother has been shot and left to die. And die, she does, but not before uttering the name BARTLETT.
Who is he? Her husband? A helper? A killer? All of the above?
Chapter two doesn’t drag things out either. Arriving eventually in an isolated town, the unimaginatively named Star City, the boys hit the local saloon, sidle up to the bar, and place their liquor orders. By the second page, we have another murder, a shooting out in the dark street, and the dying man staggers into the saloon, collapses, and utters BARTLETT before expiring.
The novel becomes mildly hectic when an awesome array of characters are introduced, including a saloon girl, whom Mex’s heart beats hard for (its beats hard for ANY girl, actually). While attempting to win her affections, she warns Mex to take his friends and leave town, quick, because they’re asking questions about Bartlett. Those questions aren’t healthy. Mex finds himself suddenly the focus and ire of her self-appointed boyfriend, who ambles in and decides to mix words and fists with Mex. The brute thinks he’s got Mex’s measure, but boy is he wrong. Fast with women he may be, but faster with fists and gun! After drenching his fist deep into the others gut, the brute makes for his hardware, only, Mex is pure lightning, wielding a pair of .38 revolvers.
While asking the brute his business, a gun is fired! Al and Jesse are behind the brute, facing Mex, Al with one of his guns smoking. One of the brute’s friends had tried to plug Mex from behind! Giving both men the boot, they ask the girl what the ruckus was all about, but she begs them to leave, flee for their own lives. But Mex is soft on the girl because he is soft in the head and assures her they aren’t going anywhere.
Rooming together in their hotel room, Al, the brains, is thinking over the death of the mother and baby, the murder at the saloon, the name BARTLETT, and the bruisers that caused a scene. Were they all connected? How? and, Why? Too many questions, no answers, he finally falls asleep…scarcely, only to hit the ground rolling, along with his friends, as a hail of bullets rip through the window. Taking turns, they maintain a guard on the room and window, all night, when a brick is hurtled through the window. A note is attached, with blocky words stating: GET OUT OF TOWN…QUICK, and signed “B.”
Talking with the sheriff the next morning, they are met by a local rancher, Vane Carson, who is frustrated by the sheriff’s inability to clean out the area of rustlers, led by Bartlett. Carson is the biggest rancher in the area, maintaining a huge spread, in the interests of the future owner, when she comes of age (not for about another year or so). Liking what he (Vane) sees, he asks the men to work for him, not as ranchers, but, as border-rangers, riding his borders, looking for clues as to the rustlers whereabouts, etc. Fresh faces that the rustlers won’t know.
The boys, short on cash, accept the generous offer. They ride out to the Bar Z ranch and meet Nance Greenley, future heir. All three boys take to mentally fawning and drooling over her beauty. Mex is the typical stud in asserting his affections. Jesse is perturbed to find himself attracted to her. Al, who previously shunned girls, is baffled by his own sudden interest in the young lady.
Brought to the bunk house, the trio are introduced to Carson’s foreman, Jeff Simpson. None of the boys like his looks. Desiring to make good fast work of their current occupations, Mex requests the locations of the other ranches and homesteads raided, but Carson refuses. He’s not interested in them, only his own ranch.
Splitting up, the boys cover ground fast and Mex wanders over to the corral, spotting Nance sitting on the posts, watching a ranch-hand trying to break in a horse, but he is constantly thrown. Mex laughs, and in an effort to impress Nance, saunters up to the dude and requests a try at the bucking monster. The horse is extremely intelligent and gives Mex the ride of his life, before eventually hauling off and hurtling him into space.
Out riding and inspecting the range the next day, the trio are taken by the wonderful country and beauty, only to return “home” and find the frowning foreman reprimanding them, and spit out that Carson is enraged. While they were off gallivanting, Bartlett’s crowd had stolen another fifty head that night.
All this action takes place in the first 35 pages, and the full book is 128 pages. I won’t ruin the rest of the plot, but I’ll spoil some of it now. One of the boys dies during a shootout at Bartlett’s secret lair, to be buried by the surviving member. We see a new side to this person, in mourning their friend’s death, and any past flaws are wiped out and replaced by the newly-molded character. The novel features a solid, credible plot with a mystery villain that any regular reader will see coming long before the conclusion, but how the whole fracas is wound up makes for damned good reading.