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showdown at hole-in-the-wall

26 march 2009

266 pages into Ralph Cotton's Showdown at Hole-in-the-Wall, I was beginning to worry. We were still nowhere near Hole-in-the-Wall, and no showdown was imminent. Then, as if the characters were reading my mind, came this exchange:

Zackarow took one of the other two horses, climbed onto its back and slapped bits of leather and wood from its mane. "Let's get after that son of a bitch," he growled.

"He'll head straight for the hole," said Sabott.

"Then so will we," said Zackarow. (267)
The son of a bitch is Memphis Warren Beck, robber of trains, payroll offices, and other sources of movables. At least that's his name on page 4; on page 198 he appears as "Warren Memphis Beck," in a book beset with strange spellings and usages, and occasional lapses in who is talking to whom.

Sabott and Zackarow are not lawmen. They are robbers of an even worse vintage than Memphis Beck. Beck, as train robbers go, is a honest soul. He has even pledged to take care of Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack's favorite stallion, Black Pot. Taking care of another man's horse, in the pulp Western world, is analogous to asking another guy to help you move in the world of Seinfeld.

When Sabott steals Black Pot, violating the most intimate possible male bond of the Western, he incites the events of the novel. Ranger Burrack and Robber Beck ride up towards the Hole-in-the-Wall, the fabled valley of thieves, with an eye to reclaiming the stallion. They don't exactly ride together, but rather in a sort of parallel play. One is a lawman and the other is a thief, after all. But given the rather appalling moral dimensions of everyone else in the story, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Even worse than Sabott is Conning Glick, a hairless hired assassin who nonchalantly kills about a dozen of the novel's expendables. Glick's favorite technique is elk jerky seasoned with exotic poison, but he is not averse to sawing off the heads of his victims while they're still alive, whipping knives into their throats, or alternatively the tried-and-true method of just shooting them in the back.

Glick spends most of the novel riding with Stanley and Shala Lowden, a couple who would seem happier in a suburban subdivision, but who have somehow gotten themselves attached to this deranged bounty hunter over a debt of eight dollars. The Stanley/Shala/Glick subplot contains most of the novel's more preposterous energies, as we are asked to believe that Shala would try to pseudo-seduce the odious Glick in order to mollify his murderousness. (Why she doesn't simply shoot him in one of her many opportunities is unexplained.) My favorite scene has Glick attaching Stanley to the top of a tall, flexible tree and catapulting him, Wile E. Coyote style, over a nearby ridgeline.

And all this for $5.99 at my local Kroger! The pulp Western is alive and very well in the hands of Ralph Cotton, a storyteller who opens his narrative at a high rate of speed and never decelerates.

Cotton, Ralph. Showdown at Hole-in-the-Wall. New York: Signet, 2009.