Shoot-Out at the Viral Corral

by cowboylands

If I’m going to battle a cold, I would want Ernest Haycox to write the story. 

The Whispering Range, by Ernest Haycox. Wherever the hell that mountain chain is, it also exists in my throat, which is as raw as the dark borderlands and filled with rustlers herding my healthy cells through secret byways.  

Night time: Coughs explode like the pound of six-guns. Sneezes erupt like the hiss and pop of whips cracking over mule teams. Sighs rise as mournful as a woman’s, left behind for a horse. 

Whispering Range, by Ernest Haycox
cover illustrator unknown but Robert Stanley-ish
Popular Library/ Eagle Books 1953
from the collection of ES

I was dry-gulched by some varmint bug, before I could even draw my Airborne from my holster. I just wasn’t fast enough. I’d like to think, paraphrasing the back cover of Whispering Range, that after the first surprise my battle cry shattered the tense silence and my men burst from hiding to follow their fighting leader in a desperate but courageous charge against the outlaws. A lifetime feud would be settled at long last–settled by thundering six-guns! Alas, I’d be the one left behind to on a pioneer wagon train, or forced to chop wood for Cookie on a cattle drive. I can’t even cross the narrow straits of my railroad apartment without complaining bitterly. 

It’s the Haycox mood that settles over me when the phlegm is high. Moody, dark, and full of people feeling sorry for themselves and getting over it, Ernest “Erny” Haycox’s stories still rock my world, a full seventy years after they were first published. He crafted the ambience in his stories meticulously, rising each morning to don business attire, and sitting at his desk to write in the morning, and to revise and edit in the afternoon. About 300,000 words per year arose from his diligence, including the short story that became Stagecoach, an epic-in-a-handbasket, 

Haycox’s characters hold sorrow in their eyes, old hurts in their stoop, ferocity in their stance, and–I have to admit–the only time they get sick is when there is a beautiful woman to lay a cool hand on a forehead, silently offering more. 

Wish I could say I deserved to be a protagonist in one of his novels. I’ll dream about it, though, if the coughing lets me sleep. 

For my reading pleasure, and yours, an excerpt from “Stage to Lordsburg,” which originally appeared in the April 10, 1937 issue of Collier’s. The rest is here, with thanks to Bob Gay. 

This was one of those years in the Territory when Apache smoke signals spiraled up from the stony mountain summits and many a ranch cabin lay as a square of blackened ashes on the ground and the departure of a stage from Tonto was the beginning of an adventure that had no certain happy ending….

The stage and its six horses wafted in front of Weilner’s store on the north side of Tonto’s square. Happy Stuart was on the box, the ribbons between his fingers and one foot teetering on the brake. John Strang rode shotgun guard and an escort of ten cavalrymen waited behind the coach, half asleep in their saddles.

At four-thirty in the morning this high air was quite cold, though the sun had begun to flush the sky eastward. A small crowd stood in the square, presenting their final messages to the passengers now entering the coach. There was a girl going down to marry an infantry officer, a whisky drummer from St. Louis, an Englishman all length and bony corners and bearing with him an enormous sporting rifle, a gambler, a solid-shouldered cattleman on his way to New Mexico and a blond young man upon whom both Happy Stuart and the shotgun guard placed a narrow-eyed interest.

This seemed all until the blond man drew back from the coach door; and then a girl known commonly throughout the Territory as Henriette came quietly from the crowd. She was small and quiet, with a touch of paleness in her cheeks and her quite dark eyes lifted at the blond man’s unexpected courtesy, showing surprise. There was this moment of delay and then the girl caught up her dress and stepped into the coach.

Men in the crowd were smiling but the blond one turned, his motion like the swift cut of a knife, and his attention covered that group until the smiling quit. He was tail, hollow-flanked, and definitely stamped by the guns slung low on his hips. But it wasn’t the guns alone; something in his face, so watchful and so smooth, also showed his trade. Afterwards he got into the coach and slammed the door.

Happy Stuart kicked off the brakes and yelled, “Hi!” Tonto’s people were calling out -their last farewells and the six horses broke into a trot and the stage lunged on its fore and aft springs and rolled from town with dust dripping off its wheels like water the cavalrymen trotting briskly behind. So they tipped down the long grade, bound on a journey no stage had attempted during the last forty-five days. Out below in the desert’s distance stood the relay stations they hoped to reach and pass. Between lay a country swept empty by the quick raids of Geronimo’s men.



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