Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"The Corpse Rides At Dawn"

I've talked about John D MacDonald's occasional forays into "sideline" genres, that while writing primarily mystery stories, he produced a credible amount of science fiction (55 stories) and sports-related stories (29 -- give or take). Even if you already knew that, the chances are that you would be surprised to learn he also wrote a few westerns, although his output in this field is negligible compared to the other two. In 1948 and 1949 he published three stories in three separate Western magazines: "The Corpse Rides at Dawn," in Ten-Story Western (April 1948), "Hang the Man High!" in 15 Western Tales (November 1949) and "Nine Coffins for Rocking H" in Dime Western Magazine (December 1949). It was as if he tried his hand at something new and then gave up. I've only read "The Corpse Rides at Dawn" and, if it's any indication of his talents as a writer of western fiction, it's a good thing he quit.

The story begins credibly enough, with Dave Austin riding into the little town of Oracle, a place he left four years earlier after an argument with his brother Pete. Pete is the reason for his return: after resisting the encroachment of would-be cattle baron Jud Hawson onto his land, he was shot in the back and killed by one of Hawson's cold-eyed men. Dave has returned to settle the score. He moves in with an old friend, his father's former foreman Ike Andres, now a semi-invalid and running a sadlery. When Dave, who is "lean and hard and too thin for his height," visits the local saloon, two of Hawson's men there provoke a fight and quickly best him in a brutal beating. Dave is taken back to Ike's, unable to feel anything below his waist.

At least that's what he wants everyone to believe. Dave has learned a bit about Hawson from Ike, including the fact that Hawson is prone to "seeing visions of people coming to him and telling him that he is the king wheel in this part of the country." Concluding that he's "maybe a little crazy," Dave concocts a wild scheme whereby he will drive Hawson insane by dressing up as Pete and riding Pete's horse around Hawson's ranch in order to scare him into thinking he's seeing a ghost. Yeah, I know...

Donning Pete's distinctive yellow shirt and distinctive white hat, and riding his distinctive roan (which Ike had hidden from Hawson), Dave sneaks out of his sickbed before dawn and manages to to be seen by Hawson -- and only Hawson -- who is duly frightened. Hawson tells two of his men about the "ghost" and orders them to put an end to it. The men, one of whom is the person who killed Pete, are dismissive and believe Hawson is off his rocker. Things go according to Dave's plan, until he takes things one step too far, with tragic results.

One gets the feeling reading "The Corpse Rides at Dawn" that MacDonald came up with a completely outlandish plot and felt it would only fit within the confines of a western. It's far less believable than some of his more incredible science fiction, and the nutty cattle baron is very poorly conceived. The plot depends on the most incredible coincidences and serendipity, and any semblance of a believable story is lost early in this 8,400 word "novella' (complete with titled chapters!) MacDonald was clearly out of his element.

The late Damon Knight, however, apparently liked the story and included it in an anthology he edited in 1977 called Westerns of the 40's: Classics From the Great Pulps. As far as I know, this is the only way to read the story, outside of locating a copy of the original Ten-Story Western. Used copies are available in hardback, and I don't believe it ever appeared in paperback.

There is an interesting bit of trivia connected to "The Corpse Rides at Dawn," one that every Travis McGee fan will recognize. Dave Austin has a special talent with knives, one he picked up in Mexico when he was laid up with a broken leg. In The Long Lavender Look, Travis reveals that his own skills with the blade were learned in Mexico, when he was "holed up with Miguel in the Sierras."

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