Friday, April 28, 2017

Comanche Vengeance by Richard Jessup

Before becoming a writer Richard Jessup was a merchant marine for 11 years. He taught himself how to write while at sea by copying War & Peace on a typewriter, correcting errors, then throwing all of the pages into the water. His most popular book was The Cincinnati Kid, published in 1963, and made into a movie in 1965 starring Steve McQueen.

In the 50's and 60's he wrote some westerns under his own name and the name "Richard Telfair" and in 1957 he published Comanche Vengeance. The 50's were a period of strong growth for the genre with a lot of the heavyweights of the genre getting their start or coming into their own. What makes Comanche Vengeance interesting is that it has a strong, competent, female protagonist in a role and a genre typically dominated by male protagonists, especially at that time.

After her family is murdered by Indians, Sara Phelps sets out, seeking revenge. She meets up with Gibson Duke who insists on helping her out because he doesn't think a woman is up to the task. Sara asserts her independence and capability.

-“And I told you I didn’t want, or need a man.” Her voice was cold, but not biting. “Why did you follow me?”
-“I don’t want no man—and the first time you make a move toward me that isn’t proper..."

Even buried among the Indian hating typical, and in some cases necessary, for publication in the genre at the time, there are a some small moments where, likely, the author's true feelings assert themselves.

"This is a hard country, and there ain’t no getting around it, regardless of how you look at it, the Injuns were here first.”
Like I said, it's the the protagonist (at her best) and the relationship that she has with Duke that are the highlights here. The relationship is mature, without traditionally defined gender roles, and is mutual. They are equals, in every way.

They knew each other well enough and had been on the trail long enough now to do their camp chores and ride trail for days without speaking.
This extends past domestic roles at camp. Sarah is the better shot of the two, and is often the one to rush into battle, sometimes without a plan. One of my personal pet peeves in fiction is what I call "wait in the car syndrome", where the male character tells a female character to wait while he checks the safety or danger levels of a situation. In the fight and battle scenes in Comanche Vengeance, both characters are equal.

“Shut up!” Sarah hissed. “I think I heard something.”
“Over to your right,” Duke replied. “Circle around, and come up in back. Shoot first and don’t worry about hitting me!”

Comanche Vengeance is an imperfect and sometimes formulary western, that has moments and characters and relationships that help to elevate it from other westerns of the time. It is not an forgotten classic of the genre but deserves to be remembered for it's early, fair treatment of an adult, mature, female character. At her best, Sarah is a character that doesn't deserve to be forgotten. It can be had for a buck on the Kindle.

Here are some other passages from the book.

“If I’m right, that hardtail on the calico pony is a friend from the other side.” Sarah’s eyes studied the figure. “Other side of what?”
Duke hesitated. “The law, Miss Sarah.”
“Have you ever been on the other side, Mr. Duke?” she asked carefully.
“I reckon some people might care to call it that. It was only a case of gettin’ or being got by a no-account.”
At the instant Duke yelled for Sarah to gain cover, he slipped his saddle and fell flat and hard into the dust, the carbine up and ready. “Drop your iron, Red,” he called. “I got witnesses to prove you threatened me—and I got the drop on you. Now drop your iron!” The crowd around the young gunfighter faded into the sunbaked street and found refuge in buildings and behind wagons. Suddenly there was silence—dead, baking, fly-buzzing silence and the redhead was alone. Duke pulled down on the young man’s head. “I’m giving you a count of three, Red—drop your iron and walk away or I’ll kill you.” A fly landed on Duke’s nose and crawled around leisurely in the sweat-grimed creases of the cow man’s face. “One!” Red did not move. “Two!” Red’s hands began to inch for his gun. Duke did not count three. The young man drew and Duke shot him neatly between the eyes. The bright new pearl-handled Colt had not even cleared leather. Duke got up slowly and walked toward the figure in the dust. Slowly the others began to edge out and walk toward the dead gunfighter. Duke stared at the first of the arrivals. “I shot him in a fair fight. You all saw me try and walk away from him, and then I gave him a chance to drop his gun—”

1 comment:

  1. I reviewed this one a few years ago and agree with you.