Sunday, March 12, 2017
'Only the people to whom he lent a helping hand knew this side of his job, and they would not remember it.'
It's most likely that I've read stuff by Joseph Chadwick in pulps I've already read, but I never really took notice of him until I read his "Girl For No Man's Land" from Ranch Romances. That made me curious to try more of his work, and it just so happened that Chadwick has a short story in the June 1950 Fifteen Western Tales I've been working through gradually this winter. "Dead Man's Star" takes what strikes me as an unorthodox approach to the typical "day of the showdown story." Ed Bassett is the marshal tasked with riding herd on Jake Pardee's cowboys, and Pardee resents it. The rancher warns Bassett that after one Saturday night of good behavior his men will "cut loose their wolf" the following weekend, and he means to make sure the marshal does nothing about it. In effect, Pardee says the town isn't big enough for him and Bassett, and next Saturday night will bring the showdown. In Chadwick's telling, next Saturday night plays out like a relatively uneventful Old West edition of COPS. Hyper-attentive to the sounds of ordinary life, the anxious Bassett is distracted by various public-servant errands. He checks on a family whose mother is about to go into labor. He helps a newcomer in town who can't find her boyfriend. He comforts an old drunk dying in a barn, then comforts the dead man's friend. These mundane encounters remind him of how much of his job both he and his constituents had taken for granted. He regrets not choosing a commercial life that could have earned him his girl's consent to a wedding. Even now, he tells the despairing girl that he can't refuse Pardee's challenge. Finally, however, the clammy-palmed marshal refuses the mythic faceoff in the street, instead tackling Pardee from behind in an effort to talk/bully him out of the fight. Pardee happily proves tractable, confessing that he had been just as terrified as Bassett, if not more so as the man whose big mouth had forced the issue. Chadwick's isn't the only story this issue -- I need to circle back soon to a Steve Frazee novelette -- that opts for anticlimax as a sign of genre maturity, a recognition that not every western tale needed to end with a gunfight. Chadwick's social-realist approach to his subject made it fresh, and while the finish might not be as dark as adult westerns could get, it still seems like the right way to finish the story. Score another one for Chadwick.