Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, February 16, 2023


 Tragg's Choice by Clifton Adams (1969)

Owen Tragg was a lawman -- no one special.  Then ten years ago, he became a hero, the man who killed outlaw Jody Barker.  Barker had been good with a gun and had killed a number of people.  Even the folks of Boser's Grove, where Barker was from and where the personable outlaw was well-liked, agreed that Barker needed killing.  The reader never does find out what happened on that fateful day -- how Tragg managed to kill Barker. or what Barker had told Tragg before he died, but there is a guilt that has been nhanging over Tragg ever since.  And for ten years, Tragg has been on the lecture circuit, exploited by a showman who had dressed him up in fringed and beaded buckskins, feeding am audience eager to hear about the "true" and dangerous west -- a land of gunfights and deadly outlaws.  But after ten years, the nation's appetite  for a dead outlaw and a hero lawman has paled, and the demand for Tragg on the lecture circuit has died.  Abandoned by his manager and having lost his current income, tragg journeys back to Boser's Grove and to a task he has been dreading for the past decade.

The journey from Dodge City to Boser's Grove and beyond is an arduous one and Tragg found himself on a stage with three unique passengers,  Jessie Ross was Coly Brown's woman; Brown was an outlaw who was wanted for robbing an express coaxh and kiling the driver and one passenger.  The passenger he killed was the son of a powerful rancher ouside of Boser's Grove, and the rancher had posted a $10,000 reward for his whereabouts.  Now Coly Brown is dying , or perhaps dead, from a bullet in the lung; he told Jessie to go to the rancher and claim the reward because by the timw the rancher got to him, he would be dead.  Also on the stage was an opportunist named Brian Callahan.  Callahn's luck had seemingly run out until he recognized Jessie Ross.  He knew she was on her way to claim the reward and is threatening her,  forcing her to split the money with him.  The fourth passenger is a young and naive cowboy named Ernie Nash; he had just finished his first cattle drive -- three hard month's that ended when he blew all his savings on gambling and iquor in Dodge City.  Now, with only his saddle, he is on his way back to the Double T ranch.  Nash is young enough to not regret his spree in the big city of Dodge, but smart enought to know his boss, Hank Barstow, was wise in taking his money and not blowing it, but heading back to Texas to his newly-wed wife.

At a stopover, they are joined by Morrisay, a dirt-poor sodbuster who was headed back to  his pitiful farm and hard scrabble wife.  Tragg was surprised that Morrisay could afford to ride a stage; the land was poor and could not support a farm, and what land that had enough water for a farmer to eke out a living was controlled by cattle ranchers.  At that place and at that time, there was a true antipathy between the ranchers and sodbusters.  Morrisay, in fact, had been walking for days trying to find some work so he could bring back some money to his wife Dellie, but work was impossible to find, so Morrisay spent tha time festering his hatred for his lot and for all cattle men.  Thenn he came across Hank Barstow, whose horse had been frightened by a snake and had thrown him.  Barstow had broken his leg in the fall and now, two days later, gangrene had set in and he was near death from thirst.  Barstow has offered Morrisay money to go and fetch ehlp but Morrisay kn ew it was uselkess.  So Morrisay just sat for some hours while Barstow died, then he took Barstow's cash from his money belt -- nearly two hundred dollars! -- and robbed him of all i his pockets.  Morrisay felt this was his due -- payback for all the times cattlemen had belittled him and held him down; it was the cattlemen's greed that was the root of all Morrisay's problems. With the money he had taken from the corpse, Morrisay could make a new life for Dellie and himself.

The final leg of the journey to Boser's Grove had to be taken by buckboard, buut on the way an axle broke and left the passengers stranded.  With no way to repair the buckboar, the driver decided to take one of his mules and go to Baoser's Grove to get help.  The driver had two extra mules so Mirrisay and young Ernie Nash decide to ride with him.  Along the way, Nash noticed that Morrisay has a small silver concho and a   penknife that belonged to his boss, Hank Barstow.  When  confronted about it, Morrisay shoots both Nash and the buckskin driver and heads off to Boser's Grove on his own.  When help does not arrive as promised, Tragg, Jessie, and Callahan begin the long walk to Boser's Grove, dicovering the two bodies along the way.

Meanwhile, Morrisay has returned to his sod hut, expecting to find his wife.  The hut is empty and abandoned.  Confused and half-mad, Morrisay sits by a tree and stares off injto space.  Eventually a rider approached.  He is a hand at Omar Jessup's near-by cattle ranch and has bad news.  He and a friend came across Morrisay's wife's body about a week ago.  It appeard the defeated woman had just gone outside and sat down and died.  They buried her respectfully ansd then kept checking back on the place, nowing that Morrisay would return sooner of later.  Jessup had been the cattleman who had forced Morrisay away from the semi-fertile land he had begun to farm and sent him to the dry arid spot where nothing would grow for Morrisay.  In his pain and anger, the crazed Morrisay now blamed Jessup for killing Dellie.  Morrisay sets a trap and kills Jessup in an ambush.

Tragg, Callahan, and Jessie make it to Boser's Grove and Tragg reports the two murders to the local sheriff, who is laid up with a broken leg.  The sheriff's one deputy is out of town and may or may not be coming back.  He tells Tagg that Morrisay has also killed Jessup and th Jessup's men are looking for Morrisey to hang him.  If they do, the sheriff will the  have to arrest them -- many of them his frineds -- for murder.  He want to deputize Tragg and have Tragg bring Morrisay back for trial.  Against his better judgment, Tragg agrees.

But tragg has one errand first -- the one he has been dreading all along.  He goes to meet 

jody barker's widow.  For the past ten years, tragg has been sending money to her.  Now that he lecturing career is over, the money has dried up, but he wants to assure that he will contue to send her money as soon as he finds work.  The widow, it seems, has not touched any of the funds tragg has sent.  She ahtes Tragg and tells him to go away.  Later, she meet with Callahan and hires him to kill Tragg, using the money Tragg has sent her to pay Callahan.  Jessie overhears this deal and rushes to warn Tragg.

Tragg's first encounter with Jessup's men does not go well.  In fact, they beat him and go off in search for Morrisay.  One of them has gone to get hunting dogs to trakc the killer down.  Morrisay vows the land well and can avoid the posse for a while, but with nearly two dozen men after hjim, he knows that it is hopeless.  His one desire is now to kill as many of the hated cattlemen as possible before they kill him.  Trag has not given up.  He accidently stumbles across Morrisay, but Morrisay gets the drop on him.  Meanwhile, Jessie finds the two of them and warns Tragg about Callahan.  Morrisay also pulls his gun on Jessie and now has two hostages for his suicidal standoff.  Things continue to get bleaker for Tragg and Jessie.  They are cornered by Jessup's men, who are only waiting for dawn to begin their attack.

Tragg may not have been the best lawman going, but he is determined to get Morrisay back safely to stand matter how great the odds.

A strong story, heavy on character and setting.  Clifton Adams (1919-1975) wrote 50 novels and 125 short stories, mainly in the western field.  He pubished books under his own name and as "Clay Randall," "Jonathan Gant," and "Matt Kinkaid."   He won the coveted Spur Award twice.  His westerns were mainly centered on his home state of Oklahoma and were powerfully written.  He also wrote noir crime novels, some of which have recntly been reprinted by Stark House press, but the majority of his work were paperback orginals, now long out of print -- an absolute shame.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a pretty complicated story for a western. Although I have read few.