Ripped from the 10 August 1922 edition of Short Stories magazine, “The Hen Herder” actually exceeded my expectations. Fearing for yet another dreary western novelette, I was impressed to find a solidly constructed plot crafted around a seemingly boring title.
Our protagonist arrives at the ranch at the behest of the owner, Stephen Foster, presumably to raise the best damn chickens in the county so that he (Foster) can win the Blue Ribbon. He’s tired of losing to some other outfit.
The hired hands hear of this gentleman’s arrival and are put-off by the fact that the boss has even gone so far as to share his best cigar with him, something none of the hands have had the privilege.
Stocky and of an average height, they are further amused to see that his face is bloated, raw and peeling from the Arizona elements. Sniffed out immediately as a city-slicker, they harass him behind his back and soon thereafter to his face, over dinner.
Stephen Foster’s daughter, Mary, instantly takes a hard dislike to Homer Higgins, the “Hen Herder.” Aside from simply not liking his looks, she’s annoyed that her father failed to take her into confidence over Homer’s being hired. Further, tending to chickens, in her mind, and the others, is not a man’s task. So, he has already fallen well from grace in their minds.
Matters worsen when a ruthless gang escapes the penitentiary, led by Ober. The leader had been, years ago, arrested and captured by Stephen Foster, and now Ober and his gang are seeking retribution.
Homer seems to take a strange interest in Ober’s prior and current activities, even to the point of learning how to ride a tame horse and explore the mountainous surroundings for the mythically cached bank loot. Exploring Owl Canyon, he decides that nobody would hide loot in any of the caves as there are simply too many rattlers present.
Furthermore, upon hearing the full bank hold-up story, he’s certain that two people who were never caught were likely locals. Certain that they are Thayer and Pedro, two of Foster’s most recent hires, he incites a brawl with Thayer only to confirm whether Thayer has a scar or not, upon his shoulder. The crowd are bemused to no end that the Hen Herder actually ends up beating Thayer to a pulp, despite himself receiving the same treatment.
Ober and his gang are nearing the ranch, and word gets back to them of the impending hit. Homer comes clean that he is actually a banker’s detective, looking to protect Foster’s interest and regain the lost loot.
Certain that the gang are intending on kidnapping Mary and holding her for ransom, Homer remains at the ranch with some of the hired hands, while the rest of the detail fan out for the mountains and abroad, to cut off the gang.
But, when Mary’s lover rides in partially shot-up, and announces where he was ambushed, all hands ride hard and away in pursuit, leaving Homer and the girl alone. Homer quickly confides in Mary that he is a detective (she didn’t know, only the hands and boss knew) and his real name is John Boyd. Just then, the door is kicked in and Ober and Thayer storm in. Thayer wants redemption for losing to the Hen Herder, and goes to beat him senseless, when Boyd pops out a hideaway up his sleeve and wounds Thayer, takes out Ober and then Pedro.
Boyd doesn’t escape uninjured. He’s been shot three or four times, and, outside, the barn was set ablaze. This thankfully alerts the hands to return and they find Mary nursing what she thinks is a dead man.
Fearing that Mary may be falling in love with Boyd, her father informs her that he told Slim (Mary’s erstwhile suitor) to contact Boyd’s wife and children, to let them know he was alive. She blanches, to think that she was falling for a married man, and Stephen Foster chuckles at his own deceit…… THE END.