Wednesday, April 25, 2018

'He thought I was too young to be among such men as most rebels are.'

Arthur O. Friel's "The Hawk of Zaguamon" (Adventure, December 1936) reminded me of a later story of Friel's that I read earlier, in which his series hero Dugan, an American adventurer in South America, tentatively befriends a young aristocrat turned rebel. As usual, the setting in "Zaguamon" is Venezuela, specifically during the regime of President Juan Vicente Gomez, who died a year before Friel's story was published. The American hero this time, Rod Steele, is the sidekick/adviser of Ricardo Torre, the U.S.-educated hawk of the title ("El Halcon") and a rebel against one of Gomez's abusive and potentially rebellious governors. The Hawk's small army intervenes in a skirmish between the governor's forces and another rebel force whose leader ends up mortally wounded. The dying man entrusts his heir, a slender youth, to the American's stewardship, while his army readily joins forces with Torre's. This proves a decisive encounter in more ways than one. Torre and Steele discover that Governor Boves, their true enemy, has been importing Germany military advisers for some can't-be-good purpose. His now-augmented force inspires Torre to provoke Boves into a decisive battle. The two factions get along well enough, except that the Guerra forces are very protective toward Ricardo, their beardless new leader.Ricardo's father hadn't wanted them to join with any other rebel force because "He thought I was too young to be among such men as most rebels are." This makes sense to Steele, since "the average gang of self-styled rebels in these wilds comprised human beasts of prey, vicious in every word and deed." But there's more to it than that, as Steele finds out after young Guerra has to kill a soldier who's less protective than possessive, telling the young commander, "No man -- have you!"

Steele's amazed eyes, lifting sooner than the furious gaze of the slayer, stared anew. The loose army-shirt was torn wide open; and, scratched by clawing nails now dead, out swelled firm young breasts never those of a boy. The gray eyes flashed up, met the wide brown ones. Quick hands yanked the shirt together. Burning red arose to the dark hair, gradually receded. Then, with a sigh, Carlota Guerra holstered her pistol and stood mute, head still high but gaze avoiding Steele's astonished regard.

I must confess that the twist took me by surprise, though in hindsight I should have been tipped off by "Carlos" deciding to wear an oversized uniform confiscated from one of the dead Germans. Certain things become inevitable from here, of course. Carlota convinces Stelle to let her continue her imposture, reminding him, "Have there not been fighting women before now?...Have I not fought for years like a man? Do not be stupid!" Friel makes a point, however, of having Carlota thrown from a horse and taken out of the action for the final battle against Boves, so she can live to become, at age seventeen, our American hero's bride. In Steele's defense, he offers to send her to a "high-class girls' school up North" first, but she's not having that. "I know men!" she protests, "Men that are men, not schoolboys! And damn, hell, if you not want me --" No, damn, hell, he does want her, and "right over yonder in Trinidad are English clergymen waiting for us." Such is romance south of the border, and it doesn't really feel out of place in this entertaining mini-epic of pulp South America.

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