After a stint as an assistant editor in the Time magazine Chicago bureau, Clair Huffaker began his book-writing career, publishing one novelization of a movie (Cowboy) and eight short western novels of his own between 1957 and 1959.
That’s a lot of writing or, at least, a lot of publishing in a short amount of time.
But then, Huffaker in his early 30s slowed down, producing just five more books between 1963 and 1976, none of them genre westerns. The best was his fun and funny book The Cowboy and the Cossack, a story of 15 Montana cowboys driving a herd of five hundred longhorns across a thousand miles of Siberian wilderness.
Even so, Huffaker was getting a lot of other writing done — screenplays for 13 movies between 1960 and 1973, six of them based on his novels.
Then, after 1976 when he turned 50, Huffaker doesn’t seem to have written any other book or scripted any other film. He died in 1990 at the age of 63.
A Huffaker story tends to have an unusual hook to it. In his Badman, filmed as a John Wayne movie The War Wagon, the story focuses on an effort to steal a shipment of half a million dollars in gold dust that’s being shipped in an armored stagecoach called the “war wagon.”
In Posse from Hell, filmed under the same title, the focus is on the posse trying to track down some very bad bad-guys. At first, it’s a cantankerous mix of townspeople who do more quarrelling among themselves than tracking, but, by the end, the posse has become two exhausted men chasing two exhausted criminals.
In The Guns of Rio Conchos, filmed as Rio Conchos, the hook has to do with an arrowhead that’s stuck in the chest of Riot Holiday.
Huffaker enjoyed playing with the titles of his books and with the name of his characters.
For instance, in Posse from Hell, the title referred to how difficult it was for the young sheriff to get the members of the initial posse to listen to him and how deadly the posse eventually was for the criminals — and also how the group had started out from a town that, in light of what the very bad bad-guys had done, had renamed itself as Hell.
In Seven Ways from Sundown, filmed under the same name, Huffaker had fun with both the title and the main character’s name Seven Smith.
Why Seven? Someone asks him that, and, in his answer, Smith not only tells why he had that name….but also why the book has its title:
“Pa didn’t wantta bother with fancy names. So he called us by the number of our comin’. There was One, and Two, and Three, and so on up to Thirteen. I was Seven. But Ma liked fancy names, so she always prettied ‘em up a little. Oldest boy was One for the Money. The next one was Two Hot to Handle. My honest-to-God name is Seven Ways from Sundown. But Seven is shorter.”
Not the arrowhead
In The Guns of Rio Conchos, no explanation is given for Riot’s name although, it might be argued, that he’s a pretty wild guy who’s able to beat up people who get in his way and dig his way out of a jail and swim a river to a raft with a load of repeating rifles about to be sold to the Comanches (hence, the book’s title) and drag his injured sidekick to safety whenever necessary — despite the arrowhead lodged near his heart — so the name’s pretty apt.
The opening 12 pages are a breathless chase in which Riot and another man are trying to elude Comanches armed with those new-fangled repeating rifles. The other guy doesn’t make it. Riot does, but with an arrow sticking out of his chest.
The arrow is removed by the McCallisters, a farming family, but not the arrowhead. And doctors tell Riot that, at best, he’s got six months to live until the arrowhead migrates to his aorta and kills him.
A gunman and gambler, Riot is planning to have a wild time of those final months, but the Comanches attack the McCallister place, killing everyone but one son, Thaddeus, and the only daughter, 19-year-old Roslyn. (The pages on the attack and aftermath are pretty gruesome.)
So Riot and Thaddeus start off to Mexico to take revenge on the Comanches who are going there for more rifles.
The resulting novel is episodic inasmuch as the story is broken into months — the First Month, the Second Month and so on.
Perhaps for that reason, The Guns of Rio Conchos moves slower than other Huffaker books.
Riot and Thaddeus, now called Tad, get in a fight in one town, track down the Mexican gun-dealer Vinaro in another, get thrown into jail, escape the jail and get vengeance on the Comanches who killed the McCallisters and on Vinaro who sold them their rifles.
Through it all, Riot doesn’t act like someone who’s been weakened by an arrow to the chest and an arrowhead near the heart. Too much of a superman for my taste.
Still, Huffaker writes good characters and good scenes, and The Guns of Rio Conchos is a fine read.
Patrick T. Reardon