Gunswift by T. V. Oslen, A Fawcett Gold Medal Books (k1700); published 1960; 139 pages.
Gunswift is another 60’s era paperback that packs tons of action and plot into a scant 139 pages. This novel touches on some bitter emotions left over from the Civil War and utilizes a very common plot line for westerns: outlaw mounted raiders kill the family of the hero in the late days of the civil war and hero heads west to exact revenge on the men who did it. This plot is similar to the current mini-series on AMC called “Hell on Wheels” as well as Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josie Wales”.
The protagonist is Owen Rutledge. The story begins in the mountain wilderness with him closing in on one of the remaining three men who killed his family (his mother, father and two sisters) several years ago in the closing days of the war in Kentucky. The raiders also killed the wife of Owen’s black friend (and former slave), Abner. It was Abner who actually got a close look at the killers and he has accompanied Owen throughout his quest for revenge. Garvey, who was out panning for gold alone, returns to his little camp as Owen and Abner watch him from behind their hiding spots in the trees. However, Garvey senses something and shortly there is shooting and a chase up a steep rocky hill where Owen finally grounds his quarry. The wounded Garvey tells him that the other two killers (Captain Tierney and Lieutenant Sikes) were last seen in nearby Blanco Basin. When Owen turns his back for a second he is suddenly pushed off the cliff by Garvey. Seeing what happened and with Owen barely hanging on to the rock ledge Abner shoots Garvey dead and then hurries to help Owen back up. Then off they go to Blanco Basin to look for the other two targets. Along the way they hook up with two strangers, “Ivy” North and the young Missou Holbrook, who offer them shelter during a storm and talk about possible work when they get to town.
Blanco Basin and the surrounding land was once owned by the Spanish and is a much coveted place for raising cattle. When they get to town, Owen and Missou discover what “work” Ivy had in mind. Ivy is quickly hired by the new saloon owner, former Confederate Colonel, Matthew (Bloody Matt) Claiborne. Ivy’s first job is to kill an old man who is occupying land that Claiborne insists is his by rights of an old deed that he has. The old man is another former Confederate officer known as Amos M’Kandless who just happens to have ridden into town that very morning. So Ivy heads off down the street to do his dirty work–much to the disgust of Owen and Missou. Owen leaves the saloon and challenges Ivy before he could get to Amos. Ivy turns on Owen and draws down on him but he is shot and killed. Missou pulls his gun on Claiborne to show him who’s side he is on and to prevent him from shooting Owen. The smoke clears and Owen, Missou (and Abner) realize they now have a new enemy to contend with. Missou heads out of town somewhat startled with what he did and what just happened to his partner.
After shooting Ivy, Own is approached by Virginia Gilchrist. Virginia is also new to the town and she has an older (more authentic) claim to the Spanish holdings in Blanco Basin. The old parchment deed is all she has left from her family after her father passed away. She tells Owen that now it has gone missing and she suspects Amos M’Kandless and wants Owen to see what he can find out and if possible recover the document. She offers him $50.00. Owen also meets the town lawyer, Charles McVey, who seems to be courting the unattached Ms. Gilchrist.
Owen and Abner figure that they can also discreetly check out the ranch hands at M’Kandless’s ranch, known as Lionclaw, to see if any of them turn out to be Tierney or Sikes. When they visit Lionclaw, they are quickly hired on when the old man recognizes Owen as the capable son of one of his good friends from before the war in Kentucky. They are just as quickly fired the same day when Owen violates the old man’s Southern honor by asking him about the missing Spanish deed. Owen comes back to town to tell Viginia that he is sure that M’Kandless does not have her document but while he is in Viginia’s home Abner bumps into Lieutenant Sikes at the livery stable–the man who killed his wife and left him for dead with three bullet holes in him. It turns out that Sikes is also McVey who pulls out a pocket pistol and shoots Abner to death. He then heads out of town but the stable hand saw everything that happened and tells Owen who it was that killed his closest friend. So Owen rides off tracking McVey/Sikes and kills him in a small town known for harboring criminals called Sunfire. Also, it turns out that it was McVey who stole the Spanish deed from Virginia and before he bumped into Abner he had it authenticated by an old member of the Rivera family. Owen recovers the document from McVey and heads back to Blanco Basin.
Back at Lionsclaw we also learn that the man thought to be M’Kandless’s brother, Reed McKandless, is actually Cushing Tierney. He is actually the brother-in-law to the old man. Tierney has turned soft and fat over the years and was unrecognizable to Owen though he is still wanted by the Federal authorities. Also Claiborne and his men finally make their move under the cover of darkness and take over Lionsclaw, killing Amos M’Kandless in the process. They also kidnap his daugher–young Cissie, who witnessed her father’s murder. Claiborne and Cushing Tierney (Reed) join together in a conspiracy to make it look like M’Kandless died of a bad heart. They send away all of the hired hands and work to consolidate their plans but they did not count on Owen Rutledge showing up looking to kill remaining murderer of his family. When Owen confronts both of the men, for some reason he could not bring himself to kill either one of them. He tries to goad Tierney into using a gun in a fair fight but he refuses. Frustrated, Own smacks down both men and leaves the ranch–realizing they will come looking for him and soon he is being pursued into the mountains by Claiborne and four other men. Tierney meanwhile sends Cissie off to town with a hot headed ranch hand (paying handsomely to have her killed along the way).
Up in the mountains Owen knows he is going to get caught by his pursuers. He is riding a winded horse and then inadvertently finds himself heading into a dead end canyon. He then finds Missou Holbrooke who has been living in the wild by himself (needing time to think his life over). They join forces just as Claiborne and his men seal off canyon. In a daring nighttime bid they put rags on their horse’s feet and just about sneak past Claiborne’s gang before being spotted. Owen is shot in the shoulder. Missou takes the unconscious Owen to Virginia’s house and she hides him when Claiborne’s men come looking for him. Missou rides off as a decoy into the hills and in so doing also rescues Cissie from the murderous ranch hand. Virginia also gets the doctor to fix Owen up a bit and ultimately he confronts both Claiborne, his men and Tierney in a shootout. He kills Claiborne and wounds another and then Missou appears to drive off the other Claiborne men. Tierney takes a shot at Owen but misses and tries to run off. Owen corners him but does not kill him because again Tierney is not putting up a fight but also because of his feelings for Virginia who had warned him about what he was turning into. Tierney is sent to prison and Owen, Virginia, Cissie (now hooked up with Missou) agree to share in ownership of Lionsclaw.
Some good role playing plot material here:
- Old Spanish land with various deeds and claims on old documents. Who will claim the land and will the locals and the government recognize the claims?
- Old Union/Confederate soldiers hiding under assumed names in plain sight (like modern day Bosnian war criminals).
- Back story for a player character–seeking revenge on the men who killed their unarmed and defenseless family/kin during the war.
- Another town for outlaws (Sunfire) just down the road from the “good” town.
- A dogged manhunt that lasts several years (going from town to town, asking discrete question, looking for a clue).