Monday, October 12, 2009

Guns of the Border Region - Chapter Four

[I'm back at last with a new chapter of "Guns of the Border Region." New readers can scroll down for previous installments. In this chapter, some new characters are introduced, and there is some more exposition giving details about my fictional world of the future. Actually, this is not a bad place for newcomers to start, since it gives the flavor of "Guns of the Border Region" and "Twilight's Last Gleaming."]


As they passed ever deeper into the wooded hill country, it seemed to Christian as though they had entered a haunted world of fog and ghosts. It had been only a few days, but sunny skies seemed like a vague, distant memory that required an effort to grasp. Indian summer had fled like a thief in the night, leaving no trace of its passing. Fall had come at last. Leaves drifted down from half-bare trees to carpet the forest floor. Dark walls of lofty solemn pines surrounded them, eclipsing further view. Upon reaching a summit, Christian was finally able to discern the lay of the land. The Alleghenies were wholly unlike the Rocky Mountains of the far west. There were no jagged peaks or bare cliffs. He saw only tree-covered slope beyond tree-covered slope, stretching from horizon to horizon. Over all arched the ominous grey sky.

Christian was walking his bike along a narrow woodland path. Shadow rode on ahead in silent gloomy majesty. He made no attempt at banter or small talk. The setting killed any such notion, and he knew that her keen ears were alert for any sound that hinted danger. He was seeing a different side of her. No longer did she seem the lively, vivacious girl who had swaggered through the boom towns. Here she was quiet and reserved, with a touch of sadness about her. Yet Christian knew that this, too, was the real Shadow. All along he had sensed the somber core within her. Christian was the child of a warm, breezy, tolerant land. Shadow was the child of a grim one.

Although Christian was cheerful and optimistic by nature, the eternal twilight gloom of the forest was beginning to depress him. The eerie wind that sighed through the black boughs, the fog that hung in the ravines and gullies, the tiny streams that trickled silently over the rocks; all were taking their toll on his spirits and causing him to grow uncharacteristically moody. It would only get worse after dark.
Last night they had camped in these woods. Shadow had used some rat traps from her saddle bags to catch some squirrels. She had deftly skinned and cleaned them with her bowie, then roasted them over a campfire. “A little whiskey would make this an old-time Westsylvania supper,” she had told Christian.

After they had eaten, they had rolled out their sleeping bags. Christian had volunteered to take first watch. He wanted to do his part even though he knew that Shadow was a light sleeper, and any unusual sound would instantly rouse her and Incitatus. Christian sat alone by the fire while she slept. The overcast sky shut out the light of the moon and stars. Beyond the glare of the campfire, all was utter blackness. The silence of the night woods was relieved only by the far-off hooting of owls.

Sitting there by the fire, Christian had felt himself growing nervous and actually fearful of the dark. He began to understand the mindset of the ancient Celts and other such people who had imagined the black forests around them to be the haunt of werewolves, witches and wandering spirits. How easy to scoff at such things within the security of one’s cozy home, where one controlled light and warmth with the flick of a switch, and where food and all manner of comforts were within easy reach. But alone in the darkness of the night woods, the old atavistic fears were astonishingly quick to return.

Shadow had relieved Christian around midnight. After turning in he had fallen asleep quickly, only to be troubled by disturbing dreams he could not recall upon awakening. Then he had felt Shadow’s booted foot nudging him awake shortly after the chill grey dawn began to lighten the forest. Soon they were on their way again, moving ever further into the woods.

Christian was relieved when Shadow informed him that they were almost within reach of their destination, and would not be spending another night outdoors. “Pops’ cabin isn’t too far from here,” she said.

“Pops? Who’s Pops? Your father?”

Shadow actually grinned upon hearing the question. “Nah,” she replied with a hint of a laugh, “Just some lovable old coot I know.”

The news that Shadow had one or more friends nearby did much to lift Christian’s spirits. He looked forward to being among people again. The shades of early evening were already closing about them. He was eager to get a move on.

They had not proceeded much further when Shadow abruptly halted the pinto. She raised a hand as a signal for Christian to stop and remain still. A few seconds passed before he too heard the sounds that had roused her attention. Some large animal was moving through the brush, very near by.

A tense moment passed. Then the beast emerged from the forest to stand before them in the middle of the trail mere yards away, barring their path. Christian’s eyes widened as though it were an actual monster that confronted them. It was an enormous dog. The huge black canine shape was short-haired and not unlike a Great Dane, but with the heavier, more massive build of a mastiff. It looked to weigh a good two hundred pounds. Its fangs were bared in a snarl, but it did not bark. The beast’s eyes seemed to glow redly. Surely such a hound as this guarded the gates of Hell!

Christian began to fumble for the gun in his pocket when Shadow snapped, “Stand down, Church-boy. That’ll only get you killed.”

Christian obeyed, freezing stock-still to avoid provoking the beast. Shadow swung down from Incitatus, tossing Christian the reins to hold. “Besides,” she told him, “This is a friend.”

The appearance of the monster dog in the road had been startling enough. Now Christian was astonished to hear Shadow call out to the great hound; “Pain! Come to Mommy!”

At the sound of her voice the dog’s tail began to wag excitedly, whipping back and forth. The brute trotted over to the woman. Abruptly rising to its hind legs, the huge dog placed its forepaws on Shadow’s shoulders and began to lick her face. She grimaced as the big wet tongue lapped her nose and cheeks. Shadow shoved the dog’s massive head aside. “Enough, you big goof. I don’t need a bath.”

The dog shuffled forward on its hind legs, forcing Shadow back in a kind of dance-walk. Catching the playful spirit, Shadow wrestled the beast to the ground. The dog rolled over onto its back, tongue lolling between its jaws. Kneeling beside it, Shadow scratched and tickled its belly.

“Who’s a good boy?” she cooed, “Pain’s a good boy! Such a good little puppy! Yes you is! Yes you is!”

After finishing this sport, Shadow rose and walked back over to Christian with the dog at her side. Christian made a tentative gesture to pet the animal. The dog lifted its lip to bare its fangs, a low growl rumbling in its throat.

“Pain, be good,” Shadow admonished, “Churchy is our friend.”

Christian forced himself to remain motionless as the dog circled about him, sniffing here and there. When the dog sniffed his crotch, Christian clenched his teeth as he fought down the panic that arose at the thought of those massive steel-trap jaws closing about his privates. After agonizing minutes that seemed an eternity, the dog went away and seated itself beside Shadow.

“I think he’s accepted you,” she told Christian.

“Well, that’s a relief,” he replied, “I sure hope you’re right about that. How do you know this dog anyway?”

“Pain is Pops’ dog. I told you he lived close by.”

Christian nodded. He remained fretful of the beast, but thought it a good thing that an old man out here should have the dog for protection.

Shadow remounted Incitatus and they were on their way once more. The dog, still wary of the newcomer, kept close to Christian. Presently Shadow led them down a fork in the trail. Through gaps in the trees, Christian could discern a clearing and a large cabin within it. As they approached it, the dog broke from his side to race on ahead. They entered the clearing.

A tall man stood before them. He had been splitting wood and gripped a large axe with both powerful hands. At the sound of their approach, he had ceased his task. He awaited their coming motionless as a bronze statue, senses alert to identify friend or foe.

The man standing in front of the cabin was perhaps seventy years old, but age had neither stooped nor withered him. He stood erect, well over six feet in height, and was seemingly carved from solid oak. His physique was that of a titan. He wore black jeans supported by a wide leather belt drawn tight about his trim waist. His calves were sheathed by knee-high brown leather moccasins topped with six inches of fringe. The man had stripped to a grey tank top for his labors, exposing his broad shoulders, deep chest, bull neck, and corded sinewy arms. His pate was bald, but the hair on the sides and back of his head had grown long, flowing onto his heavily muscled back and shoulders. A thick walrus mustache masked his upper lip. Both hair and mustache were white as hoar-frost.

All this Christian took in at a glance as his party entered the clearing. As Pain gamboled in ahead of them without barking a warning, the man relaxed. When Shadow rode in on Incitatus, he dropped the axe and strode forward to greet her.

“Shadow-girl!” he called out in a deep booming voice.

“Hi, Pops,” Shadow said demurely as she dismounted.

Pops? Christian was taken aback. This was the “lovable old coot” Shadow had spoken of? Christian had pictured a kindly, doting elfin figure. This man looked to him more like Odin, the chief Viking god of ancient pagan mythology.

The old man and the girl grasped each other in warm embrace. Shadow rested her head on Pop’s deep chest as his massive arms enfolded her. Then, with a hearty laugh, he gripped her about the waist and lifted her high. Shadow was no light-weight, but Pops whirled her about as though she were a child.

By the warmth of this greeting, and just by the way they looked at each other, Christian could tell that the old man and the girl were extremely close. When they were all done with their hugs and kisses, Pops asked Shadow, “So who’s the new boyfriend?”

Shadow made the introductions. “Pops, this is Christian Foster. He’s from the Confederacy.”

“Confederacy?” asked Pops, addressing Christian, “Whereabouts?”

“North Carolina.”

“Mighty pretty country.” The two men shook hands. “Name’s Connor O’Rourke. Shadow and some of the young folks get a kick out of calling me Pops.”

“I won’t,” Christian promised, “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. O’Rourke.”

“Likewise, son. Let me show you around a bit before we lose the light. Then we’ll head inside for some supper.”

While Shadow corralled Incitatus in a small barn and stowed her gear in the cabin, Pops gave Christian a tour of his property. Pops’ cabin was a fairly spacious log home. A smaller cabin it had presumably replaced was used as an outbuilding. There were fields for crops, now harvested, and areas for livestock. Christian was duly impressed when shown a bathhouse with its own water heater and a cold storage unit for perishables.

“I use solar panels to power these,” Pops explained, “Of course we get so few sunny days that I also have `em connected to a windmill over on that hill.”

The tour complete, they adjourned to the cabin where Shadow and Pain awaited them. The cabin was divided into a large front room that included areas for cooking and dining and a smaller bedroom in the rear. The main room was dominated by a large stone fireplace. The comfortable furnishings included a large number of bookcases crammed full of tomes.

Christian commented on the oil lamps on some of the tables; “No electricity in here?”

“Don’t really need it,” replied Pops, “But have a seat at the table and I’ll fix us all some supper.”

Pops fried up some venison sausage and served it with some potatoes and greens. It made for a hearty repast. Afterwards Christian, who had never previously eaten venison, remarked on how much he enjoyed it.

“That was delicious, Mr. O’Rourke. I don’t think I’ve ever had sausage quite so tasty.”

“Well, better than that foodpaste shit, anyway,” Pops admitted.

After supper they relaxed before the fire while Pops played his guitar for awhile. Shadow listened as though enchanted. She had always loved to listen to Pops sing and play; it never failed to bring her comfort. Stretched out on the floor alongside Pain, she gazed up at him like some adoring teenage fan. She was captivated by the music and the faraway mystic look in Pops’ strange blue eyes. They were that bright shade of blue that appears white in black-and-white photographs. Set in Pops’ dark, scarred face, they seemed to blaze forth with some inner fire. Shadow had long ago dubbed that particular hue “volcanic blue” in a poem she had written.

After playing an old folk ballad called “For the Love of Barbara Allen,” Pops set his guitar aside. He turned his volcanic gaze towards Christian.

“So,” he said abruptly, “What is your story? How came you to cast your lot with our Shadow-girl?”

Having been welcomed with such hospitality, Christian thought it only fair to “sing for his supper,” so to speak. It occurred to him that people in isolated regions passed many an evening swapping stories. Moreover, he had quickly taken a liking to Pops. And so he felt no qualms as he narrated his odyssey in search of his runaway sweetheart.

When the tale was told, Shadow added her commentary; “I told him it was nuts to begin with, and ten times more nuts to come with me all the way to the New Settlements.”

“Well,” Pops mused, “Men in love do foolish things. Or perhaps the wanderlust has taken hold of him. Or maybe he just can’t get enough of you, Shadow-girl.”

Christian visibly blushed. Pops and Shadow shared a little laugh at his expense.

“It’s getting late,” Pops declared, “You kids take the bedroom. I’ll just doze here in the comfy chair, right by the fire.”

“Oh, but we couldn’t…” Christian objected.

“No, no, I insist. I’ll be more than fine right here with Pain.”

“Well, thank you for all your hospitality, Mr. O’Rourke. I look forward to talking with you some more. You must have seen a lot of history.”

“Indeed,” the white-haired man muttered, “Indeed I have. Now off to bed with you.”


The bedroom was cozy and had its own fireplace. The large bed looked to be the most comfortable in the world. Shadow was surprised, yet not surprised, to see Christian unfolding his sleeping bag next to it.

“Why the hell don’t you just get in here with me?” Shadow demanded as she slipped beneath the covers. She was clad in a simple nightshirt she had obtained from one of the drawers. “I promise not to try to have my way with you. Of course, if you like we could cuddle a little bit maybe. Nothing wrong with that.”

“No,” Christian said flatly, “It is better this way.”

“Suit yourself, Church-boy. Most guys would…aw, forget it.” Pulling the covers close about her, Shadow rolled over to face the wall. She was asleep before he had finished his prayers.


In the main room, Pops tossed some more wood on the fire. Wrapping himself in warm woolen blankets, he sank back into the comfy chair. Pain was curled at his feet.

Pops looked to the fire, taking comfort from the warm bright crackle of the flames. It’s hell getting old, he thought. Yeah, sure, you can still twist the head off the average young buck. But that won’t bring anything back.

Physically, Pops was in remarkable shape. It was his mind that had grown weary.
What was it the kid had said? That he’d seen a lot of history? Oh, hell yes. Too damn much history.

The worst thing about getting old, he mused, was that the world that one was born into receded further and further into history, never to be retrieved. It’s during one’s formative years that one’s standards for what’s right and normal are conceived. Since the beginning of modern times, virtually every generation had grown up in a different historical era from its predecessor. Changes in societal norms, technological innovations, shifts in international alliances, economic fluctuations; all had come at an increasingly accelerated pace since the Industrial Revolution. The pace of this change often exceeded people’s capacity to cope with it. Many came to feel overwhelmed by it. A sociologist had referred to this phenomenon as “future shock.” How much more disorienting, then, was it to live through a truly tumultuous era?

What must it have been like to first see the light in the days of imperial Rome and breathe one’s last during the Dark Ages? Connor O’Rourke and his generation had a pretty good idea. O’Rourke had been born seventy-two years earlier in what had then been the western part of Pennsylvania. His father had been a Black Irish immigrant who had married a local woman of old Scots-Irish pioneer stock. He had grown up in Evans City, Pennsylvania, USA. The USA had stood for United States of America.
During his boyhood, he had often heard that America wasn’t what it used to be. It was a frequent lament of men who were as old then as he was now. Even then Europe was arguably more powerful than the US, China definitely so. But militarily, economically and culturally, the United States was still a force to be reckoned with. The trouble was that the nation seemed to be running solely on momentum. The country’s mentors were lax when it came to new initiatives aimed at assuring America’s continued preeminence.

At that time, Europe was the up-and-coming power. But it was not the Europe of old. For generations, Muslim immigrants and their descendents had been supplanting the indigenous European races. European Christian civilization was on the wane. Indeed, O’Rourke’s father had emigrated from Ireland lest he find himself inundated by that rising tide. Germany was already an Islamic Republic before O’Rourke himself had been born. When he was in his early teens, the European Union formally reorganized as the Islamic Federation of Europe.

While Europe was melding into the new superpower, America was fragmenting along ethnic, class and cultural lines. The middle decades of the 21st Century saw the nation torn by social strife. The country’s 300th birthday in 2076 was widely greeted with cynical indifference.

The War had come but a few years later. A coalition of Mid-Eastern nations, with Iran at its center, finally moved to wipe out their mutually-despised foe, Israel. America was obliged to come to Israel’s defense. No sooner had it done so than the Islamic Federation of Europe issued a formal declaration of war against the United States of America. The American military, gutted by decades of neglect, proved no match for that of Islamic Europe. The eastern US came under relentless attack. Within weeks, America was fighting wholly on the defensive. The nation took a pounding that left it wrecked and ruined. The coup de grace was the invasion and occupation of New York City. O’Rourke had been in New York when it fell. He had been lucky to make it out alive.

The War ended soon after that. European intelligence got wind of nuclear options being considered by rogue elements of the US military. Moreover, the logistics of invading, subduing and occupying the vast American continent were costly and problematic. The original root cause of the conflict, Israel, was by this point moot. The United States would never again pose a threat. The IFE stood to gain much in the way of concessions from a chastened America should hostilities cease at this juncture. An armistice was conveniently proffered by Europe. The Third World War had come and gone with the appalling swiftness and destruction of a hurricane.

Early the following year, the World Peace Conference convened in Paris. The treaty that resulted from it was commonly referred to in America as “Versailles II.” The Conference had not been conducted in the Versailles palace. Rather, the allusion was to the treaty that had further humbled a defeated Germany in the aftermath of World War I.

Among the provisions of the treaty was the mandate that American states with large Muslim populations be allowed to hold a special election to determine if Islamic law should be adopted as the supreme legal authority. As of the late 21st Century, this pertained to most of the Northeastern and Midwestern states. The Special Election was held in 2081. The measure passed in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. This did not go down easy in the non-Muslim areas of Muslim-majority states. In western Pennsylvania, there was considerable resentment over a vote that had been tipped by populous Muslim strongholds to the east such as Philadelphia. The western counties erupted in revolt. The Pennsylvania Uprising was underway.

The rebellion had quickly spread to neighboring states affected by the Special Election. In the meantime, activists in western Pennsylvania issued the Westsylvania Manifesto. The Manifesto declared that, by virtue of having adopted a higher legal authority than the United States Constitution, the states in question had for all intents and purposes seceded from the Union. That being the case, the framers of the Manifesto deemed it only right and proper that the western counties secede from Pennsylvania.

The Westsylvania Manifesto sparked secession movements in neighboring states. In Pennsylvania, the movement culminated in the Freedom March that took place in the spring of `82. Thousands of western Pennsylvanians trekked across the Alleghenies towards the state capital of Harrisburg. Many were armed with deer rifles and other weapons. Some carried the blue flag of the long-ago Whiskey Rebellion. Connor O’Rourke had been among the marchers.

The governor of Pennsylvania attempted to quash the Uprising by turning out the National Guard --a move that backfired spectacularly. The Pennsylvania Guard mutinied en masse and threw in with the Freedom Marchers. A calamity was averted when the western counties of Pennsylvania separated peaceably from the eastern portion of the state.

Other states followed suit, with southern Ohio, south Indiana and south Illinois separating from their parent states. The precise legal status of the sundered portions of these states was unclear. Local districts still retained their Congressional representatives, but no new senators or governors were selected. Government in those areas was now conducted at the local level. The seeds of the Border Region had been sown.

The adoption of Islamic law in the Northeast and Midwest, and the subsequent division of some states, was overshadowed just a few years later by an even more momentous turn of events. In 2085, in a move that had long been anticipated, the southwestern states seceded from the Union to join Mexico. Nor did the balkanization of the US end there. In 2089, the northern New England states, separated from the rest of the country by the Islamic states, also seceded and joined Canada. The trend continued into the `90s, with the Pacific Northwest also joining Canada and the Florida peninsula seceding from the state and the nation to form half of what became known as Greater Cuba.

Shadow had been born at the beginning of the last decade of the old century. At that time this part of the country was already Westsylvania, already Border Region. The War was a decade in the past by then. The Southwest and northern New England were already out of the Union. Shadow was only a baby when the Pacific Northwest and Cuban Florida broke away. She was not yet a teen when the Islamic States of America finally declared full independence. The United States of America, as it had existed before the War, when it had been whole and unsundered, was something she had never known.

To the younger generations, those who had come of age during and after the War, the old flag was no more than a symbol of ignominious defeat. For many decades, even well before the War, the political, commercial and cultural life of the nation had been shifting to the South. In the `90s it became common to refer to the downsized nation as “the New American Confederacy.” The term carried a note of irony, owing to the fact that it had not seceded from the Union; rather, sections of the Union had seceded from it. During the New Constitutional Convention of 2104, the name “New American Confederacy,” in common usage for over a decade, was formally adopted. The New Constitution mandated that only Christians could be full-fledged citizens of the new nation, a measure aimed in part at stemming further balkanization. The new flag retained the red and white stripes, but the blue field now contained a cross instead of stars. When the old flag was lowered for the last time, only old-timers were seen to shed any tears.


Pops started awake, rubbing his eyes. The fire in the hearth was burning low. He had dozed off while watching the flames, letting them conjure visions as he thought about the past. He had relived the last forty years first in his thoughts, then in the visions in the fire, and finally in his dreams. Now it was daylight.

Pops rose and went outside. He followed a winding narrow path that led to a small forest glade. Within the glade was a single grave marked by a Celtic cross chiseled from stone. Pops had carved it himself and set it there in place of the rude wooden cross that had been there. As though suddenly pressed by some great weight, he sank to his knees before the grave.

“Oh, Steffy,” he groaned, “I miss you, girl. I miss you so much.”


Shadow and Christian awoke to the smell of breakfast cooking. Pops had prepared another hearty repast. There was more venison sausage, fresh eggs, coffee and biscuits.

Over breakfast Christian asked Pops, “Have you known Shadow a long time?”

“Long enough to teach her most of what she knows about the fighting arts, not to mention cards and a lot of other things.”

“I’ve learned a lot from Pops,” Shadow admitted, “And we’re also business partners. Did he show you the still?”

“Still?” Christian echoed, “Uh, no. He showed me the solar panel and windmill set-up, but no still. And you have a still for…?”

“Making moonshine, what else? We get a lot of trade from our neighbors on the other side of the line,” Shadow explained, “See, we’re right on the very fringe of the Border Region here. Cross the county line headed east, and you’re in Pennsylvania--as in the Islamic States of America. The Pennsylvanians in these parts are rural, pretty friendly. Some of them come over here to visit and do a little bartering and some business. Being Muslim, they’re not supposed to drink. But a lot of them aren’t all that devout, so there’s good money to be made selling them moonshine. So that’s basically my whole racket. In the spring and summer I sell reefer to the Christians down south, and in the fall I sell moonshine to the Muslims up north. Pretty sweet, huh?”

When Christian made no reply, she added, “You need to check out the still. Come on!”
So saying, Shadow took Christian by the hand and led him out the door. The still was located some distance from the other areas he had been shown. It was encircled by chain-link fence and stood beneath a metal awning to protect it from the elements. Christian had expected to see some crude ramshackle affair, in keeping with the pictures he had seen of moonshine stills from olden times. But the apparatus he saw before him was a fairly modern, sophisticated-looking piece of equipment. It would not have looked out of place in a laboratory.

Shadow explained the workings. “It can make liquor from corn, wheat or barley. Most of the equipment was originally designed to make ethanol for flex-fuel hybrids. But it’s been many a year since any cars have been seen in these parts, so we adapted it for other use.”

“Did Pops build this?” Christian asked.

“Pops and I worked on it together. He provided a lot of the technical know-how. But it’s my baby. I purchased the equipment with money I made selling pot. The whole moonshine thing was my idea. There are other moonshiners further up in the mountains, but most of what they make is just cheap rotgut compared to what we’re doing. There’s always a demand for a superior quality product.”

Shadow was explaining the workings of the still when Pops emerged from the cabin. He was clad in jeans and moccasins, as before, and had donned a green hunting shirt. The latter was a long tunic-like garment that fell to his mid-thighs. It was belted at the waist. The belt supported Pop’s sidearm, a Glock 21 chambered for .45 caliber ammo, and an Alaskan bowie with a coffin-shaped wooden handle and a massive twelve inch blade.

“Ready to head up to see Leon?” He asked Shadow, “I know he’ll be happy to see you.”

“Leon’s my other partner,” she informed Christian. “He looks after another one of my stills.”

Presently they set out for Leon’s cabin, located some distance to the north. Shadow rode Incitatus, Pops rode a huge black stallion he called Balor, and Christian peddled his bike. They left Pain behind to guard the cabin.

They reached Leon’s cabin by midday. As they entered the clearing, they were greeted by two men, one black and one white. The black man was medium height and strongly built. The white man was tall, lanky and youngish looking. Both were armed. The white man carried a twelve-gauge pump shotgun. The black man bore an M-16 assault rifle.

At the sight of the weapons, Shadow’s alertness kicked into high gear. This did not bode well. The white man she did not know, but the black man was an old friend.
She called out to him.

“Leon! What goes on here? Has there been any trouble?”

“Trouble? Yeah, you could say that,” Leon replied grimly, “When we heard you ride up we thought there might be more on the way. We grabbed our guns and headed out to see what’s what.”

Pops and Shadow instantly drew their own weapons and scanned the surrounding woods for any who might be skulking about.

“It’s cool,” Leon assured them, “Wasn’t really expecting anything in broad daylight, but it pays to be on the safe side.”

The old man and the young woman dismounted and led their horses to Leon’s corral. Once the animals were squared away, Pops said, “Suppose you tell us what this is all about.”

“Better to show you.” Leon led the party around back to the other side of the cabin. Shadow cursed long and loud at what she saw there.
They were looking at what had been a still as sophisticated as the one at Pops’ place. Now it was a wreck, shot full of holes.

Shadow’s face was a bone-white mask of rage. She was looking at the ruin of considerable work and investment. “So what the hell happened?” she grated.

“Last night around ten we heard the animals acting up. I thought a bear or something had come around. I grabbed my deer rifle and headed out. I hadn’t taken two steps off the doorstep when I came under fire. Well, I dived back in here. Thank God these cabin walls are thick. I handed the rifle over to Arthur here, got the M-16, and we tried to return fire from the windows.

“Well, it’s a good thing these cabin wall are so thick. See those chips and holes? That wasn’t from woodpeckers. Anyway, we traded shots with whoever was out there, when the other side of the house came under attack. We split up, with Arthur defending the rear window.

“After awhile the shooting subsided. We waited out the night. This morning we went out to scout around. If we hit any of them, the others took them away. Didn’t find blood or anything, just a lot of spent shell casings.”

“Any idea who did it?” asked Shadow.

“Not really. But I think the object was to wreck the still. The initial attack was just to keep us penned in the cabin. Looks like a move by someone to run us out of the moonshine business. By the way, who’s the new guy?”

“I was about to ask you the same question.”

It was Pops who made the introductions. He started with Leon’s companion.
“Shadow, this is Arthur Gretch. He came to us while you were away.”

Shadow clasped Arthur’s hand warmly and said, “Nice to meet you. We don’t have enough handsome men around here.”

This brought a smile to Arthur’s normally sad countenance. He was quick to return the compliment, “I feel like I’m meeting a legend. Leon has told me so much about you.”

“Charming, too. Not many guys these days know how to talk to a lady.”

While Arthur and Shadow were getting acquainted, Pops introduced Christian to Leon. “Leon Jackson, meet Christian Foster. Chris is from the Confederacy.”
Christian shook hands with Leon, pleased at not having been called “Church-boy” or “Churchy.”

“So what brings you all the way out here?” asked Leon.

“It’s a long story.”

“Arthur’s from the Confederacy too,” Leon said, indicating his tall companion.

“Hi,” said Arthur, and that was the extent of his greeting. He took a step back as if to indicate that he did not wish to shake hands.

They all sensed the sudden chill. And they all knew the reason for it. One look at Arthur’s clothes told the tale. He wore moccasins and a leather belt he had acquired recently, but the rest of his garments were those he had worn since leaving the Confederacy. Shirt, jacket and pants were of the cheap, loose-fitting, pajama-like variety typically worn by the working classes in the Christian South. Such garments were commonly referred to as “peon jammies.” They stood in stark contrast to the well-tailored travel garments worn by Christian. Christian was a member of the professional classes. Arthur was one of the working class peons. Except when the latter served the former, the twain did not intermingle.

Shadow sought to ease the tension, “Well, whatever brought you guys to the Border Region, this is where you are now. And it looks like we could use all the help we can get.”

“So it would seem,” Pops added.

Then Shadow thought of something else. “Pops, if someone’s looking to bust up our moonshine business and get the racket for themselves, your place is likely to get hit next. We should get back there.”

“We’ll come too,” Leon told her, “We can help defend the place. And besides, I wouldn’t mind a little payback. It‘s good to see you again, Shadow. We were expecting you back maybe a week or so ago. Funny knack you have for showing up just as a brawl is about to go down.”

“Funny? Oh yeah, it’s hilarious.”


Pops, Shadow and Christian helped Leon and Arthur load a wagon with gear, weapons and provisions. Leon hitched a horse to it, and he and Arthur followed the others back to Pops’ cabin. They arrived just before dusk and managed to get everything unloaded before darkness, which came quickly in the mountains, had fallen.

After supper, Pops rode out to patrol the various roads and by-ways that formed the vast perimeter surrounding his property. Christian accompanied him. When Christian informed the older man that he knew how to ride, Pops saddled one of his mares. They rode out together. Both men wore lightweight night vision goggles, no more cumbersome than glasses. Pops had even devised apparatus for the horses, using old 21st Century night vision hardware. In this manner they could traverse the dark roads without an obvious source of illumination that would draw the attention of other night riders.

Back in the cabin, Shadow tried to get a conversation going with Arthur. It wasn’t easy. He wasn’t exactly shy, just unaccustomed to other people taking an interest in what he had to say. She felt that was too bad. He had a full head of thick tousled brown hair, and his eyes were a nice shade of green. She thought he would be very good-looking if she could get him to smile more.

“You don’t like Church-boy, do you?” she asked in an effort to draw him out.

“Uh, no, that’s not true,” he replied slowly, after taking a moment to choose his words, “He actually seems like a decent enough sort. It’s just that…” a pause here before committing himself, “…the fucking suits can’t be trusted.” And so saying he summed up the prevailing attitude held by the workers towards the professionals in the New American Confederacy.

Arthur Gretch had been born thirty-one years ago in the shadow of Atlanta, the Confederacy’s greatest metropolis. His parents had been in early middle life when they married. At that time his father’s resources finally seemed sufficiently adequate to enable him to merge his life successfully with that of another. His mother had been the eldest of seven children, and had spent the better part of her life helping to care for her siblings until all were grown.

Arthur’s father had died of overwork and exhaustion while Arthur was still a toddler. Arthur and his mother were left to survive on public assistance. His mother was a sorrowful woman who always seemed frightened of everything. He remembered her crying frequently.

When he was old enough, Arthur was shoehorned into an inferior public school. The curriculum seemed designed mainly to teach students how to tell time, follow a schedule, remain stationary where posted, and enable them to follow instructions. The reading program, for example, aimed at making students functionally literate, but not at fostering any real enjoyment of reading.

Upon “graduation,” Arthur entered the workforce. He lived with his mother well into adulthood. He was pleased to be able to furnish her with some small simple comforts. When she died, he was forced to move out of public housing. Even a tiny one-room apartment proved to be a strain on his budget. He opted to move into the “peon barracks.” There he had a bed and a locker. Such spare time as he had was spent mingling in the common areas. The “peon barracks,” like the public housing he had grown up in and the apartment house he resided in briefly, was an unadorned cinder block structure. Members of the working class were housed far from those they served. They were shuttled on special bullet trains to the more fashionable areas to perform their tasks.

In church, the virtues of family life were extolled. However, Arthur had no desire to start a family. He couldn’t see siring children who would grow up with the same disadvantages he had known. Nor could he see sharing a wretched existence with some stooped, pinch-faced woman of the working class --so many prematurely grey, wearing their hair in buns while still in their thirties. How unlike the belles of the middle and upper classes.

Arthur had served their kind while working as a waiter in a coffee shop. They had been resplendent in their finely tailored clothes. He had served them in silence, with a name tag affixed to the apron he wore over his peon jammies. How haughty they had been, so self-assured, while the men and women of his class lived in constant dread of the next horrible thing to go wrong. The professional and upper class women thought nothing of treating him as their personal flunky, when they deigned to notice him at all. When not needed he was invisible to them, part of the background like the wallpaper. It doubtless never occurred to any of them that a male of Arthur’s station would look upon them with lustful thoughts. He was less than a man to them.

But Arthur was a man, with a man’s cravings. He lived in the peon barracks, subsisted on foodpaste, and put money aside all year so that he might enjoy a steak and a woman on his birthday. The steak had been tough, but the hooker had been nice. She had really tried to help, and made a sincere effort to make him feel better.

How livid he had been, then, just a few Sundays later, as he sat rigid in his pew listening to his minister disparage “loose women” from the pulpit. The preacher had railed against “harlots” as a disgrace to “good upstanding women,” and warned that any man who trafficked with them was destined to share their fate in Hell. Arthur had glared back at the man as though his eyes could shoot laser beams of concentrated hatred. He decided then and there to flee the Confederacy and strike out for the Border Region.

He had moved from town to town, gradually working his way northward. In the cities and towns of the Border Region he had found rich and poor, but no aristocrats and peasants. He could have settled in one of the city-states, but they were not his goal. His objective was identical to that of young men of bygone centuries whose options had been limited --to go to the frontier.

In the New Settlements he had met Leon Jackson, who was working to expand his farm and needed assistance. Leon was Border Region born and bred, the descendent of Pittsburgh steel workers. He had treated Arthur as a peer from the beginning, and Arthur was proud to call him friend. It was here that he had met a man such as Pops O’Rourke…and now a woman such as Shadow.

Shadow. God, what a woman! Never had he seen her like. She was beautiful, bold, dynamic, and sensuous beyond all belief. And she treated him like a man. Arthur felt a fierce glow of pride awakening at the thought of this, for Shadow made the women who had treated him with such disdain look like a bad joke.

This is where I belong, he thought. In the Confederacy, he had walked hunched over. His skin had looked pale and pasty. Now he walked with head held high. He looked healthy and invigorated. His frame had filled out. Here he breathed clean mountain air. He performed meaningful productive labor instead of inane tasks. He realized he mattered and thought, I’m home.

These thoughts passed through Arthur’s mind as he listened to Shadow narrate some of her adventures for his entertainment. The conversation took a more serious turn when she told him, “There could be more trouble on the way. Will you stay and fight?”

“Fight? You bet I’ll fight.”


It wasn’t long after that when Pops and Christian returned from their vigil. They had nothing to report.

“That doesn’t mean they won’t show up,” Pops told the rest, “Since they hit your place early on, they might hold off until the wee hours before dawn. Or they might not come at all.”

Shadow and Arthur took the next patrol. Arthur had never been on horseback before coming to the Settlements, but he’d been in the saddle a number of times since. In any case, the mare was gentle enough for a novice rider. Christian didn’t care to see the two of them ride off together, but refused to admit to himself that he was feeling any sort of jealousy.

After the pair had departed, Christian asked Pops if there was much money in moonshine. In answer, Pops conducted Christian to a small safe in the back room and opened it. Within it were stacks of bills, fastened by rubber bands, of various denominations.

“Islamic States currency is good for personal transactions in most of this end of the Border Region,” Pops explained, “Come spring Shadow exchanges some it at her bank in Pittsburgh at the current rate. But take a look at this.”

Pops withdrew a single small stack of a different kind of currency. “Fuckin’ Euros,” he stated bluntly, “And the ISA insists they’re not a colony of Muslim Europe. Pah!” He tossed the wad of bills back into the safe, slammed the door and spun the lock.

Back in the living room, Pops and Leon filled Christian in concerning the history of the New Settlements.

After the War, the eastern part of the Old Union lay in ruins. The infrastructure was so badly wrecked that food and other essentials could not be transported any great distance. Relief efforts were spotty at best. Once things became better organized, people in blighted areas took to tilling what they cynically referred to as “defeat gardens.”

In the eastern rural regions, the Amish were instrumental in mentoring residents in the ways of self-sufficiency. Those residents in turn tutored others. After the Special Election and the subsequent Westsylvania secession, the Amish who had long dwelt in the northern and eastern parts of Pennsylvania chose to migrate rather than live under Islamic law. They resettled in what became the northeastern fringe of the Border Region.

In the meantime, adventurous Westsylvanians who felt they had sufficiently mastered the necessary skills opted to embrace the rugged frontier existence their ancestors had known. The New Settlements gradually formed in areas between Amish enclaves. As in the frontier days of old, there were brawls, feuds and other outbreaks of violence. But none raised a hand against the peaceful Amish, who were revered as mentors. Like frontier physicians, the couriers who regularly brought news of the outside world, and roaming troupes of entertainers, the Amish were considered untouchable.

By way of holding up his end of the conversation, Christian told of growing up in North Carolina and of life in the cities of the Confederacy.

“`The New American Confederacy,’” Leon sighed, “I can’t get over that. You have to understand that as a black man, the term `Confederacy’ has certain unpleasant connotations.”

“No one down there has a problem with it,” Christian informed him, “The name actually got started with the notion that it didn’t secede from the Old Union…”

“…The Union seceded from it. Yeah, I know. I heard it.”

Ignoring the interruption, Christian continued, “When they finally had the New Constitutional Convention, that became the name almost by default. That’s because everyone had already been using it for over ten years. So rather than call it something else, they just went with the name commonly used. By the way, black and white contributed equally to the new society. In fact, it was a couple of black clergymen who helped popularize the term `New American Confederacy’ during the previous decade. So race isn’t really an issue.”

“Maybe not. But class is.”

Christian didn’t have a rebuttal for that. For working class citizens of the Confederacy, opportunities for upward mobility were disgracefully few. But that state of affairs had hardly come about overnight. For well over half a century before the War and the breakup of the Old Union, American society had been polarizing along economic lines.

“I take it you don’t think much of the Confederacy,” Christian said at length, “But parts of it are beautiful, like where I grew up. And there are exciting things being done there these days.”

“Oh, I’ve been there,” Leon told him, “And a lot of the people are nice. But the government and business leaders give me a pain. They carry on like the Confederacy is this younger, leaner successor to the Old Union. But the sad fact is that on the world stage the New American Confederacy is a third-rate weenie power. Mexico has more clout internationally.”

As well it might, Christian thought, with California and the other former southwestern US states now part of it. But he didn’t argue the point because he didn’t feel all that passionately about it. The truth was that he felt little in the way of patriotic sentiment regarding the New American Confederacy as a political entity. Christian had been in his early teens when the New Constitution had been adopted, too old to feel any sense of nationhood regarding the Confederacy. Likewise, he had little regard for the defeated and broken Union he had been born into. But for all of that he had fond memories of growing up in North Carolina. He did hope that the new country would one day wax strong and prosperous.

Christian didn’t feel like talking much after that. It was getting on towards morning and Shadow and Arthur had not returned. He wondered about the delay. And then a thought occurred to him.

What if they had come across some cozy spot and were getting better acquainted? Were they even now enjoying a lover’s tryst? As the notion crossed his mind, lurid images came to him unbidden: Shadow and Arthur nude, locked in passionate embrace. He imagined them writhing, coupling.

Christian muttered a prayer between clenched teeth, calling on God to help him banish the obscene images. With an effort, he forced himself to think about other things, like baseball and the dog he had had as a kid. After a few tense minutes, the devil let go of him.

The internal battle had left him shaken and sweating. He took a few deep breaths and grew calmer. Panic gave way to reason. Shadow wasn’t that kind of girl. She might not be a proper Christian woman, but it wasn’t her way to copulate with some man she had met only hours earlier. Probably. And even if she had done it once or thrice, she certainly didn’t do it with every guy she met. That much he knew. Then another thought occurred to him.

Why did he care so much? What was it to him anyway? He was forced to take a cold, sober look at the situation. Did he actually have feelings for this woman? Angel was lost to him. He had to accept that. Why was he now interested in Shadow? Was he indeed interested in Shadow?

A month earlier he would not have thought such a thing possible. Here was a woman who danced naked in front of men, sold drugs, sold moonshine, killed men in gunfights, danced naked in front of men… She was bold, savage, wanton, an outlaw. She was the sort of woman men dreamed of in those dreams they did not confess. He knew that many a man longed to possess such a woman. And if he had a woman such as Shadow, he would be the envy of many men. And that, he realized, would wipe away the shame and humiliation of Angel having left him. Was that the root of his growing infatuation with Shadow? Was that all there was to it? How was he any better than the leering patrons in a Wheeling strip club?

But there was more to it than that. He genuinely cared about Shadow. He had seen her warm, thoughtful side. She was, in his view, a decent person who had adapted to tough circumstances. He had taken a real liking to her as a person. That, combined with her undeniable sexual allure, made for a potent cocktail that could go straight to a man’s head. He could end up falling hard for her, if he hadn’t already.
This raised another question for Christian to ponder. If he had fallen for her and decided he wanted to be with her, what next? Could he really “make an honest woman out of her?” The man wasn’t born who could tame that hellcat. If he wanted to remain with her, it would have to be on her terms. That meant starting a new life in the Border Region. He had a good life in the Confederacy, and a fine profession. Once he completed the business at hand, could he really chuck it all and leave home, friends and family?

Christian knew that he must decide these matters soon. Shadow would not remain available forever. He knew that Arthur was interested in her. He could tell by the way he looked at her. In the Border Region, especially here in the New Settlements, they were equally eligible as suitors. If Christian wanted Shadow, he needed to make his move soon. If it wasn’t already too late, that is. Shadow and Arthur still were not back.

Christian found himself wondering once again if they were somewhere making love. Then, for the first time in the course of all this morbid brooding, he considered the possibility that they might have come to harm. A fine friend he was, not to have thought of that before this. He felt himself growing really anxious when he heard them ride up.

Shadow and Arthur‘s patrol had been uneventful. While they were out they detected no sign that any intruders had ventured into the area. The group bedded down after that, sleeping through part of the daylight hours. At any given time one person remained awake and on watch. The following evening they repeated the vigil. Shadow took the first patrol. Christian volunteered to accompany her before anyone else had a chance to speak up.

Out on the trails, they rode together in silence. Shadow remained alert for anything out of the ordinary. As for Christian, it was as though he had been struck mute. When he tried to break the ice with an innocuous comment about the possibility of rain, his tongue felt swollen and his mouth had gone dry. A swig from his canteen relieved the parched feeling. He now felt he could talk without his voice cracking, but was actually glad he had been unable to speak a moment earlier. He didn’t want to embarrass himself by saying something that made his sound like a blithering idiot. He knew he had to frame his words carefully before he spoke.

It was not the first time this paralyzing awkwardness around women had afflicted him. It had always been so. There had been times when he tried too hard and made the worst sort of fool of himself. On other occasions he had attempted to play it cool and let golden opportunities slip through his fingers. So what to do now? After much deliberation, he decided to err on the side of boldness.

When the moment seemed right he told her, “I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you.” This evoked a quizzical look, a raised eyebrow, and an odd little half-smile.

Christian groaned inwardly. Way to go, Casanova, he told himself, How can you miss with a line like that? But at least he’d made an opening move. If he followed it up subtly and discreetly, he felt that a smart girl like Shadow was sure to take the hint.

After they returned, Pops and Leon went out on patrol. That left Christian, Arthur and Shadow alone in the cabin. The situation made for some awkward moments. In addition to class resentment, she could sense the jealousy simmering between the two men and their sexual tension regarding her. Shadow worked at smoothing things over. It wasn’t easy. She managed to steer their conversation onto innocuous topics, and gradually felt the mood in the room lighten.


Following the second night on alert, with still no trouble materializing, the group assembled the next day to discuss future strategy.

“We can’t keep doing this,” Shadow told the others, “They’ve tipped their hand, so they know we’ll be ready for them if they strike again soon. The smart move for them would be to lie low, bide their time, and lull us off guard before they hit us again. We can’t wait around for them to do that. We need to take the initiative, take the ball away from them, take the fight to them somehow.”

“That could be a tall order, considering that we don’t even know who ‘they’ are,” Leon reminded her.

“Well, somebody knows,” Shadow replied after a moment’s reflection, “Assholes like to brag. People hear things. Nobody in some shit pile like Eden can keep his mouth shut.”

“Eden?” Christian asked abruptly, “What’s Eden?” His curiosity had been piqued as much by the Biblical name itself as by the context.

Pops filled him in. “Eden is one of these little hamlets in the Settlements where people gather to mingle. You have your trading post, taverns, gambling joints, whorehouses; all made of logs mostly. Eden’s the nearest one.”

“I’d like to go right up there and find out what the hell’s going on,” Shadow announced.

“Except everyone will clam up when they see you,” Pops gently reminded her, “They’ll know it was your still that got hit, and nobody is going risk getting caught in the crossfire if there’s a feud brewing. They wouldn’t tell me anything for the same reason. Everyone knows we’re in business together.”

“Same goes for me,” Leon added, “Arthur would be better, but plenty of people have seen us together by now. I even took him up to Eden a couple of times.”

“So that leaves me.” It was Christian who had spoken, to the surprise of the rest. Their heads all turned his way. He had their attention. “Nobody knows me,” he continued, “I’m a total stranger. I could act like I got sick of my life and set out for the New Settlements. I could talk to people about all sorts of things, the way a person who didn’t know his way around naturally would. That way maybe I could find out what really happened.”

“No way.” It was Shadow who vetoed the notion. She had no intention of letting Church-boy blunder into a potentially lethal situation. It was one thing to ask him to carry his weight in a fight with her there to watch his back. But this was different.

“No,” she repeated emphatically, “What do you think you are, anyway? Some sort of secret agent?”

Christian took that with a smile. “I might surprise you,” he said.

“No, no, and no!”

“Enough,” rumbled Pops, “We can’t just stumble around swinging blind. We need to figure this out better.”

“So who’s the competition?” It was Arthur’s turn to speak up. “I mean, who else is making moonshine on a big enough scale that he might want the market to himself?”

Pops knew the Settlements better than most. “Well, let’s see,” he said, “There’s the Wayne brothers, Bruce and John. There’s Peter Gonzales, Babs Kowalsky, Chuck Newman…oh, and Sailor Clanton. I believe you have a history with him, Shadow.”

“Don’t remind me!” Shadow groaned, her face reddening with both anger and embarrassment. It had been a few years back. She’d been a kid then, dumb enough to almost fall for someone like Sailor Clanton. Lots of girls already had. He was a swaggering young rogue, devilishly handsome. There was no denying that he was a hunk, with his trim muscular body, black hair, blue eyes and killer smile. None knew how he came to be called Sailor; if he had actually been to sea or even seen it. It was just something that added to his mystique.

At least that’s one youthful indiscretion I managed to avoid, Shadow thought. She had almost succumbed to his considerable charms. But even then she had been nobody’s fool. She knew damn good and well that Sailor was incapable of taking her or any other woman seriously. To him, she would be just another notch on the bedpost, another conquest to brag about to his doltish pals. While she certainly didn’t mind a romp in the hay with a handsome, muscular stud, she wasn’t having any of that shit.

Unfortunately, Sailor Clanton was not the sort who handled rejection well. When Shadow spurned his advances, he tried forcing himself on her. She didn’t go for the ball shot, which he would surely be expecting, as her opening move. Instead she snaked a vertical-fist punch to the center of the face, breaking his nose and blinding him with tears. Then she kicked him in the balls and left.

Looking back on the episode, Shadow now felt certain of one thing. “It’s Clanton,” she announced to Pops and the others.

“How do you know that?” Leon asked sensibly.

“Because no one else in the Settlements is that big an anus,” she told him, “He’s had it in for me since I shot him down when he tried to make it with me.”

Shadow felt certain she was right. During their acquaintance, she had found Clanton to be petty and vindictive. He was just the sort to nurse a life-long grudge. In rejecting him, she had hurt his ego. The broken nose she had given him marred his good looks ever so slightly. That did not endear her to him either. Clanton was vain as well as proud.

“Honey,” Pops said sympathetically, “You may well be right. But we need a little more to go on than your woman’s intuition before we start a feud with Sailor Clanton, his family, and his cohorts.”

“You’re right, Pops,” Shadow admitted, “We’ll have to make sure he’s involved. If he is, well, maybe he’ll listen to reason. Maybe I can sweet-talk him, or we can cut some sort of deal. Or maybe we’ll have to fight it out after all. But whatever the case, I have to confront Sailor Clanton.”

Sunday, July 19, 2009

BLOOD LUST: Robert E. Howard's Spicy Adventures

[Recent blogs have consisted of excerpts from my original fiction, in the interests of self-promotion. This time I am offering another of my essays on Robert E. Howard. "Blood Lust" was originally published in The Cimmerian in 2005, and was very well received. It went on to win The Cimmerian's Hyrkanian Award. The version here is slightly longer than the one that appeared in print, so worth reading even if you're already familiar with the printed version. This version Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman.]

“The girl looked up at him, her face like a dim white rose in the dark…
“`Tell me.’ His voice was soft, soothing, as one speaks to a babe.
“`Le Loup,” she gasped, her voice swiftly growing weaker. ‘He and his men --descended upon our village-- a mile up the valley. They robbed --slew-- burned…I ran. He, the Wolf, pursued me --and-- caught me--’ The words died away in a shuddering silence.
“`I understand, child. Then--?’
“`Then --he --he --stabbed me--with his dagger--oh, blessed saints! --mercy--’
“Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.
“`Dead!’ he muttered.
“Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.
“`Men shall die for this,’ he said coldly.”

--“Red Shadows” Weird Tales, August 1928

“…He laughed at her struggles as his arms savored each intimate charm. ‘I’m no tell-tale, nor blackmailer! I’m not threatenin’ you. I don’t have to!’
“His mouth crushing hers thirstily --the way his muscular arms defeated her frenzied struggles-- was enough to convince her. But, jerking her mouth free, she stormed defiantly: ‘Damn you, let me go! I’ll kill you…you can’t--’
“Her defiance broke in a despairing shriek as she realized the futility of her resistance.
“Presently, as he looked down at her where she lay weeping in rage, shame and humiliation, he started to speak; then he changed his mind, shrugged his shoulders and headed for the door.
“There was no mercy in the game she played, and she had no reason to expect any.”

--“Murderer’s Grog” Spicy-Adventure Stories, January 1937

What a difference eight years make!

The first quotation is from one of Robert E. Howard’s best-known stories, “Red Shadows.” It served to introduce readers to one of Howard’s most memorable heroes, the dour Puritan swordsman, Solomon Kane, a religious fanatic so morally upright that he takes it upon himself to protect all in peril and stamp out evil wherever he finds it. In “Red Shadows,” he seeks to avenge a girl ravaged by a vicious bandit called Le Loup, Kane’s opposite, an amoral thrill-seeker who lives to gratify his lustful appetites at the expense of those weaker than himself.

The second quotation is from the denouement of “Murderer’s Grog” by “Sam Walser.” This story features a very different sort of protagonist, one Wild Bill Clanton, described by the author as a “sailor, gun-runner, blackbirder, pearl-poacher, and fighting man deluxe.” One might also add “serial rapist” to Clanton’s resume-- “Murderer’s Grog” is not the only story in which Clanton forces himself on a woman.

The irony of the contrast between Solomon Kane and Wild Bill Clanton would have been lost on any who chanced to read both these stories upon their original publications in the pulp fiction magazines of the 1920s and `30s --such readers would have had no way of knowing that Robert E. Howard and Sam Walser were one and the same. Walser was a pseudonym --an ancestor’s name-- that Howard used for the Wild Bill Clanton series written in the final phase of his career. Debuting in Weird Tales back in 1928, Solomon Kane had been the first of Howard’s heroes to appear in print. Premiering in Spicy-Adventure Stories in April 1936, a mere two months before Howard’s death, Wild Bill Clanton was most likely the last of Howard’s heroes the author saw introduced. (He may or may not have lived to see his western hero Buckner J. Grimes debut in the June 1936 issue of Cowboy Stories.)

So how was it that the creator of Solomon Kane came at the last to write a series of tales in which, essentially, Le Loup is the hero? In the beginning, it was solely for the money. Weird Tales was never a financially secure publication; it teetered on the verge of bankruptcy throughout its thirty-year history. Payment to authors was often late, and this considerably worsened during the Depression. Early in 1935, Howard was burdened by medical expenses for his aging mother, including a serious operation. At the time of his greatest need, payment from Weird Tales continued to grow ever more unreliable. Weird Tales had been paying Howard in a series of monthly installments, but these were cut off just as his need was greatest. On May 6, 1935, Howard sent “an urgent plea for money” to editor Farnsworth Wright that concluded, “A monthly check from Weird Tales may well mean for me the difference between a life that is at least endurable --and God alone knows what.” Wright responded with part of the money, but Weird Tales owed Howard over a thousand dollars at the time of his death.

Desperate for more dependable sources of income, Howard looked about for fresh markets to tap. To that end he had previously engaged fellow pulp writer Otis Adelbert Kline as his literary agent. Now, in 1935, he followed the lead of his friend and colleague, E. Hoffmann Price. Price was a star contributor to the lucrative “spicy stories” market. The so-called “spicy” pulps were a line of magazines that featured fairly standard genre stories, but with the added ingredient of sex. Of course, for the most part the sex in the spicy magazines was tame, even quaint, by today’s standards. Erotic titillation was furnished mostly by the trappings of sex; the heroine’s scanty undergarments, her inviting boudoir, passionate attitude and so forth. Any actual sexual activity was left to the reader’s imagination. Sexual episodes were indicated by a sentence trailing off in ellipses… followed by a discreet line drop before the story resumed in the next paragraph. Both the cover paintings and the interior illustrations hinted that the magazine’s contents were hot stuff, but the actual stories always seemed to promise more than they delivered. Even so, they were condemned by prudish critics as an affront to decency.

The company that published the spicy line was, as a business tactic for avoiding official censure, known variously as the Trojan Publishing Company or Culture Publications. The first spicy title was Spicy Detective Stories, its premiere issue dated April 1934. It was joined in July by Spicy Mystery Stories and Spicy-Adventure Stories. The last of the primary spicy magazines was Spicy Western Stories, which did not appear until 1936. Companion magazines from the same publisher included Snappy Adventure Stories, Snappy Detective Stories, and Snappy Mystery Stories. The “Snappy” titles were not appreciably different from those bearing the “Spicy” imprint.

Most pulp writers who submitted work to the spicy titles did so --like Howard-- under pseudonyms. E. Hoffmann Price was bold enough to allow his work for the spicy pulps to appear under his real name. In fact, the spicies were Price’s single biggest pulp market, with over a hundred and fifty stories published in them over the years. Price wrote for Spicy Western as well as for Spicy-Adventure. According to Glenn Lord, Price revealed that most of the stories published in the spicies were actually provided by a select inner circle of half a dozen writers utilizing a vast array of pseudonyms. Price asserted that for an outsider attempting to crack that inner circle, it was as difficult as for the proverbial rich man entering the gates of Heaven. Even so, Robert E. Howard did it handily.

Howard found in the spicy pulps just the sort of reliable revenue source that he so desperately needed. For one thing, the pay was good. Spicy-Adventure paid at the rate of one cent per word to its better authors, quite generous by the standards of the day. More important, however, was the promptness of payment. Authors were paid upon editorial acceptance of their material in contrast to Weird Tales’ editorial policy of payment upon publication. With Spicy-Adventure, Howard’s main complaint was that stories could be no longer than 5500 words. For the most part, however, he found the arrangement satisfactory enough to entertain plans to contribute to Spicy Mystery and Spicy Detective as well.

Altogether, Howard wrote eight spicy stories and a synopsis for an additional unwritten story. Of the eight completed stories, six feature the hot-blooded rogue, Wild Bill Clanton. Five of the Clanton stories appeared in Spicy-Adventure. The additional Clanton story, the two unrelated tales, and the synopsis remained unpublished for decades after Howard’s death, finally appearing in the `70s and `80s.

The first Clanton story, “The Girl on the Hell Ship” was received by the Otis Adelbert Kline literary agency on October 7, 1935, and duly forwarded to Frank Armer at the Trojan/Culture publishing group the next day. Otto Binder was at the time the Kline agency’s New York representative. Binder sold additional Clanton stories to Spicy-Adventure, including “The Purple Heart of Erlik” around December of 1935 and “The Dragon of Kao Tsu” in February 1936.

In a letter to Novalyne Price dated February 14, 1936 --Valentine’s Day-- Howard wrote at length about the spicy pulps, describing his work to date and detailing the editorial requirements:

“…A nice balance must be maintained --the stuff must be hot enough to make the readers bat their eyes, but not too hot to get the censors on them. They have some definite taboos. No degeneracy, for instance. No sadism or masochism. Though extremely fond of semi-nude ladies, they prefer her to retain some garment ordinarily --like a coyly revealing chemise. However this taboo isn’t iron-clad, for I’ve violated it in nearly every story I’ve sold to them. I’ve found a good formula is to strip the heroine gradually --she loses part of her clothes in one episode, some more in the next, and so on until the climax finds her in a state of tantalizing innocence. Certain words are taboo, also, although up to a certain point considerable frankness in discussing the female anatomy is allowed. The hero should be an American, and the action should take place in some exotic clime. I’ve laid my yarns in the South Seas, in Tebessa in Algeria, in Shanghai, and in Singapore…My character is Wild Bill Clanton, a pirate, gun-runner, smuggler, a pearl-thief and slaver, and carefully avoids all moral scruples in his dealings with the ladies.”

Novalyne had once chided Howard for making heroes of such disreputable figures as gunfighter John Wesley Hardin. In his unabashed description of Clanton as such a scoundrel, Howard may have been subtly needling Novalyne. Note that Howard bluntly calls Clanton a “slaver” rather than using the charming euphemism “blackbirder.” Moreover, this occupation appears at the end of Clanton’s resume, right before mention of his lack of moral scruples in regards to women.

The Wild Bill Clanton series began to appear in Spicy-Adventure Stories starting with the April 1936 issue. Howard was already dead by the time most of them saw print. Interestingly, the six Clanton stories can be divided into three pairs, grouped by location and plot devices. “The Girl on the Hell Ship” and “Ship in Mutiny” are set in the South Seas. Closely linked, these two episodes tell how Clanton seizes and retains command of the Saucy Wench, and feature the only recurring character apart from the hero, the beautiful and headstrong “Celtic-Latin” hellcat Raquel O’Shane, distinguished from paler Howard sex goddesses by a splash of Hispanic blood that presumably accounts for her stormy temper. The next two stories, “The Purple Heart of Erlik” and “The Dragon of Kao Tsu,” transpire in the Oriental port cities of Shanghai and Singapore, respectively. Each unfolds as a caper to acquire a priceless relic. The final pair of tales consists of “Desert Blood” and “Murderer’s Grog.” The former takes place in French Algeria, the latter in British India. Both involve gun-running and exotic femmes fatale.

“The Girl on the Hell Ship” was retitled “She Devil” by the editor of Spicy-Adventure Stories, and featured as the lead story in the April 1936 issue. The story was also chosen for the cover illustration. As was often the case in the pulps, the cover did not accurately reflect the contents of the story. In fact, the editor may have simply used a painting he had on hand, hence the need to change the story’s title. Instead of a ship in the South Pacific, the cover depicts a tavern in the Yukon or some such place. Gruff male patrons are clad in furs and other heavy clothing. A young brunette girl prances merrily through their midst, cheerfully raising a shot glass. Seemingly impervious to cold that make tough men huddle in furs, the cover girl is clad only in a red bra and microskirt, stockings and garters.

Readers familiar with Howard’s work will recognize plot elements in “She Devil” that the author employed previously in the Conan story, “The Pool of the Black One” (Weird Tales, October 1933). Like Clanton, Conan appears after swimming to a ship, having abandoned a leaky boat. Both protagonists were in that situation as the result of earlier predicaments. Aboard ship, Conan meets the pirate captain, Zaporavo, who has abandoned his usual trade to sail into unknown waters. Zaporavo, like the tyrannical Bully Harrigan encountered by Clanton, broods over maps and charts as he searches for some mysterious treasure kept secret from the crew. In both stories, the captain meets his fate after landfall on an island. Conan and Clanton assume command of their respective ships, which must take flight from the island’s dangers. Conan also appropriates Zaporavo’s sultry mistress, Sancha. Sancha is from Zingara, Howard’s Hyborian Age counterpart of seventeenth-century Spain. Like Raquel O’Shane, she is possessed of fiery Latin blood.

The other interesting aspect of “She Devil” is the manner in which Raquel O’Shane mentally compares Bill Clanton to Bully Harrigan; “He was a man at least, not a beast like Harrigan.” Harrigan is described as “a bellowing, red-eyed, hairy monstrosity,” broad as a door” with “a chest and arms muscled and hairy as an ape’s.” Not a pretty picture, but Clanton engages in the same shady enterprises as Harrigan, is just as ruthless, and more devious. But the author holds up Clanton as a superior type, reflected in his appearance. “Clean-waisted” is a term Howard sometimes uses to physically distinguish a brawny hero from a brawny villain. Raquel is immediately taken by Clanton’s rugged good looks. To be fair, however, she has also had to constantly avoid being pummeled and slapped around by Harrigan. “That’s no way to treat a lady!” Clanton asserts gallantly. He is not one to physically abuse women --yet. That aspect of his personality only emerges in the subsequent stories.

“Ship in Mutiny” is a direct sequel to “She Devil.” Notably, it’s the only Clanton story never to appear in the pages of Spicy-Adventure Stories. Commentators on this usually blame Raquel. Editorial policy dictated that the hero should remain footloose, savoring the charms of many women rather than staying more or less monogamous. In “Ship in Mutiny” Clanton does enjoy passionate sex with the island princess Lailu but, faithful in his fashion, returns to Raquel. The editorial mandate was clear; Raquel had to go. She does not reappear in any of the remaining episodes.

In considering the rejection of “Ship in Mutiny” by Spicy-Adventure, commentators tend to look no further. However, other factors may have contributed to its unsuitability. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft dated December 5, 1935, Howard complained that writing for the spicy pulps “requires a deft, jaunty style foreign to my natural style.” The first story, “She Devil,” was written in this jaunty style, with touches of playfulness and humor. “Ship in Mutiny,” on the other hand, is more typical of Howard’s prose, grimmer and more intense.

The sexual element is more pronounced than in the previous story. In most pulp fiction, the hero inevitably gets the girl; there is little in the way of sexual tension. But Howard recognized the potential of sexual tension to enhance the overall suspense. Thus the villain Tanoa lusts mightily after Raquel, even as Clanton is aroused by Lailu. Passages speak of eager hands itching to cup velvety breasts. Raquel is in danger of being lured away from Raquel by Lailu’s ample charms.

Of course, the pulp fiction double standard is in effect. Clanton actually bedding a woman of another race is perfectly understandable; boys will be boys. But when a nonwhite man even lusts after a white woman, his desire alone is usually a death sentence. In due course, Clanton fights and kills the island chief Tanoa. Clanton had previously rescued Raquel from a Kanaka native in “She Devil,” but that bout was just a warm-up for Tanoa. Tanoa is a half-breed whose European education includes “boxing in Oxford.” In several stories, Howard introduces a barbaric character who has had the benefit of some sort of civilized education or training; such a character is always presented as an especially dangerous foe. Most notable is a virtually identical character, Santos, for the Sailor Steve Costigan story, “Fist and Fang” (Fight Stories, May 1930). Other such characters could be said to include John De Albor from “Moon of Zembabwei” (Weird Tales, February 1935, as “The Grisly Horror”), or for that matter, Conan himself.

Perhaps it is this mingling of civilized and barbaric traits that accounts for Tanoa’s extreme viciousness. In addition to making the story a little too hot, Howard may have violated the publisher’s stricture against sadomasochistic elements. When Clanton is Tanoa’s captive, the half-breed villain declares, “We’ll find the girl and make her watch while I skin him alive! I’ll make a garment of his hide and force her to wear it always about her loins to remind her how her lover died!” It is a sadistic fantasy worthy of the Marquis himself.

The other two spicy stories written by Howard and unpublished in his lifetime do not feature Wild Bill Clanton. They are “Guns of Khartum” and “Daughters of Feud.” Both merit some comment. “Guns of Khartum” is perhaps most notable for its background. It is set in the Sudan in 1885, during the fall of the besieged city of Khartum. The ten-month siege of Khartum was the culmination of an uprising of Islamic militants led by a religious figure called the Mahdi. The famed British military hero Chinese Gordon perished when Khartum fell. In Howard’s story, an American ivory hunter named Emmett Corcoran is one of the defenders of Khartum. Corcoran battles the Islamic hordes, a French renegade in league with them, and even the Mahdi himself. In a calm during the storm, he finds time for heated sex with both a virtuous white woman and a sinister woman of color.

The tale is anything but “jaunty.” An editor may well have deemed it excessive. The physical and emotional violence is unrelenting, and the sexual content is very intense. Just offstage, white city-dwellers are being slaughtered by non-white invaders. In the aftermath of the siege, the blonde heroine is enslaved in a harem for five months. At one point, the hero beds a woman he finds sexually alluring but otherwise despises. This last incident is certainly a commonplace situation, but perhaps a little too real for the spicy pulps.

In his Valentine’s Day letter to Novalyne Price, Howard mentions setting spicy stories in the South Seas, Algeria, Shanghai, and Singapore. He then mentions yet another story, this one taking place in Kentucky. This last setting is a bet of a jarring note, coming after a string of exotic locales. Kentucky seems an unlikely backdrop for glamour and intrigue. Passion crosses all boundaries, however, as Howard sought to demonstrate in a story titled “Daughters of Feud.”

The subject of feuds between rival clans fascinated Howard to some extent, and he sometimes incorporated it into his fiction. One of the Breckinridge Elkins humorous westerns is entitled “The Feud Buster.” “The Valley of the Lost” and “The Man on the Ground” are horror stories with western setting, and a feud is part of the background in each. Most notably, a feud between factions in a lost city is the subject of “Red Nails,” Howard’s final Conan tale. A feud could even serve as a catalyst for the events of a spicy story.

In “Daughters of Feud,” Braxton Brent is the new schoolteacher in the rural backwater of Whiskey Run (which is not identified as specifically being in Kentucky in the actual story.) He presides over a one-room schoolhouse in which all ages are taught --from tots to nubile nineteen-year-old girls. Two of the latter, daughters of rival feuding families, erupt into a catfight in the middle of class. Dark-haired Ann and fair-haired Joan tear at each other, ripping garments, exposing breathtaking expanses of quivering young flesh, etc. Brent breaks them up and, to maintain discipline among the other unruly students, must administer corporal punishment. After class, he takes each girl in turn to the woodshed, which embroils him in trouble with both feuding families. Things are further complicated when he is overcome with passion for the untamed rustic beauty of Joan.

Howard told Novalyne that the editors said his Kentucky story was “too hot for them to handle.” They might well have added “too rough” and “too kinky.” The lovemaking between Brent and Joan is a tad more explicit than was commonplace in 1936. However, the more objectionable elements would have been the rough stuff. The hero is threatened with castration and the heroine is threatened with gang rape. Brent’s whipping of nineteen-year-old Ann’s naked buttocks with a leather strap is described in loving detail. To protect Brent from charges of partiality, Joan displays her own marked buttocks, which she had actually lashed herself with a switch.

The instances of whipping and self-flagellation in this story are no mere matter of happenstance. Howard’s personal library included such volumes as Experiences of Flagellation, A History of the Rod, and Curiosa of Flagellants and History of Flagellation. He also wrote poetry like “Limericks to Spank By” and “Good Mistress Brown,” the latter concerning the spanking of an adult woman. This does seem to indicate that Howard’s sexual interests extended beyond a simple taste for vanilla. These particular interests, however, are by no means rare. The spanking of a grown woman is often part of a “taming of the shrew” scenario in books and movies. Those who share the interest ate titillated, with the rest of the audience none the wiser. In the movie McLintock! John Wayne spanks Maureen O’Hara --clad in soaking wet undergarments-- in front of the whole town. The film is considered wholesome family entertainment.

Returning to the saga of Wild Bill Clanton, we come to the second pair of stories, “The Purple Heart of Erlik” and “The Dragon of Kao Tsu.” These twin tales unfold in exotic Far Eastern ports teeming with danger and intrigue. Rare artifacts of great value are sought by an assortment of colorful characters. Sinister, inscrutable Oriental villains add a dash of mystery and menace. Such is the very essence of pulp fiction. It is also the sort of thing a master like Howard could write in his sleep.

“The Purple Heart of Erlik” (Spicy-Adventure Stories, November 1936) takes place in Shanghai. Wild Bill Clanton has become a darker character since we saw him last. He does not actually rape the story’s heroine, Arline Ellis, but not for want of trying. When Clanton meets Arline in Shanghai, he tells her, “I’ve made a point to run into you in a dozen ports, and you always act like I had the plague…I came to Shanghai just because I heard you were here…” In contemporary parlance, he has been stalking her. Now comes the moment of truth, “If I didn’t think you were so good-looking, I’d smack your ears back!…Now are you going to be nice or do I have to get rough?…Nobody interferes with anything that goes on in alleys behind dumps like the
Bordeaux…Any woman caught here’s fair prey.”

Arline escapes thanks to the handy pitcher she breaks over Clanton’s head. For some reason, this scene was chosen for an illustration in the pages of Spicy-Adventure. The quote from the story that accompanies the picture reads, “Not even Wild Bill Clanton could stand up under a clout like that.” Clanton has an unfortunate tendency to get hit over the head in these stories. He is stunned by a pitcher and a gun barrel, both wielded by women. On other occasions, he is knocked cold by a belaying pin and a rifle butt that hits him hard enough to break the stock. Clanton will be lucky indeed not to suffer from some form of brain damage later in life.

One can only speculate as to why Howard portrayed Clanton as such a bastard. At the time he was writing the Clanton series, Howard was also writing the humorous western adventures of the powerful but good-natured Breckinridge Elkins. Nearly a score of these stories appeared in Action Stories during the final phases of Howard’s career. After writing so many stories about a character who is constantly being lied to and taken advantage of, the author may have indulged the urge to create a character who was nobody’s fool. Invisible behind the Sam Walser pseudonym, Howard was free to give reign to his darker impulses.

“The Dragon of Kao Tsu” (Spicy-Adventure Stories, September 1936) finds Wild Bill in Singapore. Not surprisingly, he lusts after the wealthy heiress Marianne Allison throughout the story. This time, however, his lust is further fueled by class resentment: “Probably it had never occurred to Old Man Allison’s pampered daughter Marianne that a man on Clanton’s social plane would even think of making a pass at her, but he had to clench his hands to keep them off her.” Remarkably, Clanton is on his best behavior: “[T]here was a limit to even his audacity, and he didn’t dare try any rough stuff on the daughter of Old Man Allison, millionaire and wooly wolf of finance that the old devil was.” Marianne enjoys being in charge: “Feeling perfectly safe from him, she took a feminine delight in tantalizing him. She was aware of her effect on him, and she enjoyed seeing the veins in his forehead swell with frustrated emotion.”

Eventually though, Clanton gains the upper hand. Marianne becomes indebted to him, and has a scandal to avoid. Clanton suggests that, instead of money, she pay her debt with her body. Marianne feigns agreement, then reneges --by striking Clanton on the head with a gun barrel. Though momentarily stunned, Clanton is able to prevent Marianne from fleeing. Swearing that she’ll keep at least one bargain, he then takes her by force. “`You don’t dare!’ she gasped, as he drew her roughly to him. ‘You don’t dare--’ …Bill Clanton didn’t even bother to reply to her ridiculous assertion.” Afterwards, he teases her about associating with men like himself. “Her reply was unprintable, but the look in her eyes contradicted her words as she took his arm and together they went out to the street.” The End.

So it’s really all okay. Or is it? Nowadays, of course, glib rationalizations like the one Howard uses ---her lips said, “No,” but her eyes said, “Yes” -- are deemed unacceptable. No means no. Another such rationalization is “he knew her better than she knew herself.” This one is applicable to James Bond in the movie Goldfinger, in which Bond forces himself on Pussy Galore and saves the American economy by doing so. This scene occurs in one of the most popular movies ever made, a film produced decades after Howard’s death. It was not condemned when the movie was released nor, as far as I know, since. Also, the romance of the popular characters Luke and Laura on the soap opera General Hospital began with a rape, and other sympathetic rapists have been featured on daytime dramas aimed at a primarily female audience. Lest we judge Howard too harshly, we must take this into consideration.

This is not to suggest that Howard just sort of unknowingly blundered into the rape scenes that occur in the Clanton series. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the synopsis for his unwritten spicy story, the hero is held up by a girl and Howard bluntly states “he knocked the pistol out of her hand and raped her.” Interestingly, the girl falls in love with the hero. As in “The Dragon of Kao Tsu,” all’s well that ends well.

In his Valentine’s Day letter, Howard informs Novalyne Price that in the spicies, a favorite formula is for the hero to accomplish what only the villain attempts in conventional yarns. This indicates that not only were rapes by the protagonist tolerated by the editors, but also that such scenes may have been fairly commonplace. Considerable scrutiny is required to adequately account for shifts in attitudes from one era to another. At one time topless women were taboo in motion pictures; now they are a familiar fixture. Conversely, nude baby photos, once so sweet and innocent, are now regarded with suspicion. The sexual attitudes of times gone by can seem odd, ironic or mystifying to people of later eras. As an example, consider these editorial guidelines from Frank Armer, publisher of the Trojan/Culture line of Spicy magazines (reproduced in the Cryptic Publications chapbook Risqué Stories #5):

1. In describing breasts of a female character, avoid anatomical descriptions.
2. If it is necessary for the story to have a girl give herself to a man, or be taken by him, do not go too carefully into details.
3. Whenever possible, avoid complete nudity of the female characters. You can have a girl strip down to her underwear, or transparent negligee or nightgown, or the thin, torn shreds of her garments. But while the girl is alive and in contact with a man, we do not want complete nudity.
4. A nude female corpse is allowable, of course.

It is therefore difficult to gauge Howard’s personal attitudes concerning rape based on the fiction he wrote for the spicy pulps. He may have been following a common magazine format for commercial reasons, or he may have simply been in a bad mood. To be fair, one should look at how he handles the subject in his other fiction. We have previously noted that a rape/murder became the catalyst of Solomon Kane’s quest for vengeance in “Red Shadows.” The matter of rape is also touched on in a pair of stories featuring Howard’s best-known creation. Between Solomon Kane and Wild Bill Clanton, there was Conan. Howard began writing the Conan series in 1932, roughly four years after the appearance of Kane in print and four years before the appearance of Clanton. The two stories of interest at present are “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” and “The Vale of Lost Women.” Neither saw print during Howard’s lifetime. Perhaps they were a bit too hot for the pages of Weird Tales.

“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is set in the far North, where Conan encounters Atlai, the daughter of the god Ymir. The siren-like Atali lures men to their doom. Conan escapes Atali’s trap, but Atali barely escapes subsequent rape by Conan. In this story, Howard suggests that Conan was under a spell, and the author allows no actual rape to take place. In “The Vale of Lost Women,” Conan agrees to aid the virgin Livia, who offers her body as an inducement. He ultimately releases her from her agreement, stating that he has never taken a woman against her will and that holding Livia to such a bargain would be no different that forcing her. For the most part, rape or abuse of women, even by villains, is not a prominent fixture in the fiction of Robert E. Howard.

The third and final pair of Wild Bill Clanton adventures is comprised of “Desert Blood” and “Murderer’s Grog.” In both, Clanton is a “fish out of water” in the sense that these exploits find him, not at sea or in port, but further inland. Both plots involve gun-running. In both we meet exotic femme fatales who seem to spend much of their time lolling about on couches, cushions and divans while wearing revealing costumes.

“Murderer’s Grog” is much darker than “Desert Blood,” however. It appears to have been written a good deal later, when time was running out for Howard. In the Valentine’s Day letter, Howard remarks, “I’ve laid my yarns in the South Seas, in Tebessa in Algeria, in Shanghai and in Singapore.” If the order Howard mentions these locales reflects the order that their respective stories were composed (and in the case of the other episodes, it does), then “Desert Blood” was the third Clanton story to be written, after “She Devil” and “Ship in Mutiny” but before “The Purple Heart of Erlik” and “The Dragon of Kao Tsu.” The fact that Clanton displays better character in “Desert Blood” than in either “Erlik” or “Kao Tsu” also suggests earlier composition. Moreover, the Valentine’s Day letter does not mention the setting for “Murderer’s Grog.” That story only arrived at the Kline literary agency two and a half months later, on April 27, 1936. Otto Binder subsequently sold it to Spicy-Adventure in May. Therefore it does seem likely that it was written after a hiatus of weeks or months following the composition of the rest of the Clanton series. This makes “Murderer’s Grog” one of the last stories Robert E. Howard ever wrote.

The earlier story, “Desert Blood,” was actually the second Clanton story to be published. It appeared in Spicy-Adventure Stories for June 1936. Howard may or may not have lived to see it in print.

Set in Algeria, “Desert Blood” opens in the chambers of the local temptress Zouza. There Zouza successfully rebuffs the advances of Clanton, her feminine wiles enabling her to manipulate him. Preying on his vanity, she is able to convince him that only by killing a lion can he prove his manhood and win her. One would think that Wild Bill Clanton, famed as a brawler and womanizer, would possess greater self-esteem, but he submits to her terms. Leaving Zouza’s chambers, Clanton immediately runs into a woman he has met in his travels. She is Augusta Evans, an American schoolteacher (like Novalyne Price) vacationing abroad. Attractive but prim and aloof, she too rebuffs Clanton. Having gotten the cold shoulder twice in less than an hour, Clanton heads for a seedy dive to drink away his frustrations.

After a bout of hard drinking, Clanton comes to his senses on the back of a mule taking him into the desert to meet his guide for the lion-hunting safari. He does not recall setting out. The safari turns out to be a ruse to get rid of Clanton, who ends up captured by the desert sheik Ahmed. Ahmed, Zouza, and another seductress, Zulaykha, are part of a plot to appropriate Clanton’s cargo of guns. Clanton is rescued by the Bedouin beauty Aicha, disguised in western garb. In the epilog, Clanton learns that Aicha appropriated her garments from Augusta Evans, last seen riding naked on a runaway donkey back towards town.

It is admittedly possible that Howard had a certain schoolteacher ex-girlfriend in mind when he created Augusta Evans. Augusta’s embarrassing predicament at the end of the story could even be viewed as a sadistic humiliation fantasy. On the other hand, taking a pompous character down a peg has long been a staple of slapstick comedy. I tend to favor the latter notion.

“Desert Blood” is fairly upbeat in tone, even “jaunty.” For once, Clanton is given an unselfish motive for his undertakings. Regarding his current gun-running, we are told “there was more than money involved. He had a genuine sympathy for these mountain tribesmen, fighting for their lives against a ruthless European power.” Sympathy for the underdog is a redeeming trait shared by a number of Howard’s more roguish protagonists. Moreover, in both his El Borak adventures and in his correspondence with Lovecraft, REH expresses anti-imperialist sentiments. In “Desert Blood,” the rakish Clanton also displays uncharacteristic warmth towards Aicha.

Similarly, Clanton is atypically circumspect in dealing with the local temptress of the tale, Zouza. When Zouza rejects him, we are told that “it was easy to seen that she was not prompted by a coquettish whim, rising from a desire to be deliciously mastered after a mock resistance.” This indicates that Clanton is somehow able to discern the difference, and is possibly intended to mitigate the sort of behavior he exhibits towards the likes of Arline Ellis and Marianne Allison. Clanton makes no move to coerce Zouza. On the contrary, he caves in to her silly demands.

For some reason, I was given to wonder about the possible inspiration for this sequence. Much has been made of Howard’s advice to H. P. Lovecraft concerning writing for the spicies; “Just write up one of your own sex adventures altered to fit the plot.” This comment has been viewed as bluster, or a playful attempt to tweak the puritanical Lovecraft, but most often dismissed with a baffled shrug. One can only offer conjecture as to what Howard actually meant by this remark.

Conceivably, he was simply describing, in admittedly grandiose terms, a process by which he took a mundane incident and inflated it to heroic proportions for fictional purposes. Perhaps the Zouza episode, for example, was inspired by some instance in which Howard went out of his way to appease a female, to the point of doing something he would normally never consider. In the more colorful world of Wild Bill Clanton, the same sort of appeasement might entail killing a lion to impress an exotic mystery woman.

Whatever the case, “Desert Blood” is one of the spicier Clanton adventures. Wild Bill encounters no less than four alluring females, and those are just among the principle characters. In the background there are also “half a dozen dancing girls who had just enough Sudanese blood in them to impart an untamed voluptuousness found only in mixed breeds.” This talk of blood imparting untamed voluptuousness is part of a motif that runs through the story and indeed the entire series. The title “Desert Blood” has less to do with actual blood spilt in the fight scenes than with blood as a metaphor for the libido. Clanton’s first sight of Aicha sets “his already hot blood a-riot.” When Zulaykha offers herself, “not even the realization that only a miracle could keep his severed head from rolling in the sand within the next hour could cool the customary ardor of his reckless blood.” Just as in the South Seas, when the “magnificent figure” of Lailu “drove a pulse of passion through his blood in spite of his plight.” In Singapore, the mere sight of Marianne Allison crossing her legs “made the blood boil to his head.” There was no place in the pages of Spicy-Adventure Stories for either crude talk of “blue balls” or timid, clinical references to “raging hormones.” “Blood” was by far a more apt metaphor for passion. “Blood” alone could denote either sex or violence. It was a strong word Robert E. Howard made frequent, skillful use of.

“Murderer’s Grog” did not appear in Spicy-Adventure until the January 1937 issue. By that time, Howard had been moldering in his grave for half a year, the feast over, the lamps expired. “Murderer’s Grog” lingered like a bad aftertaste. Befitting its title, the last of Wild Bill Clanton’s exploits is a bitter hangover of a story. The bare bones of the plot are stark: Clanton attempts to rape a woman and is thwarted, but after a night at the bottle he resolves to try again and is successful. Fleshed out, the story is like a dark shadow of “Desert Blood.” The plot and location are similar, but the tone is redolent of bitterness and pain.

“Murderer’s Grog” takes place in British India, recalling the French Algeria setting of “Desert Blood.” Clanton is on another gun-running mission. Once again the story opens with Clanton’s visit to a local femme fatale. Sonya Ormanoff is a mysterious adventuress involved in secret dealings. Like Zouza, she enjoys lounging around in a revealing costume. Also like Zouza, Sonya attempts to brush Clanton off though she had previously displayed an interest in him. This time, however, Clanton is not to be distracted by a snipe-hunting trip. He carries her roughly to the couch and begins to undo her clothes, but gets no further. Sonya has burly male henchmen at her beck and call. Though Clanton fights ferociously, he is overwhelmed by their numbers. He is thrown out of Sonya’s apartment and down a flight of stairs. Sonya’s maid follows him into the courtyard “to indulge in the age-old feminine sport of taunting the fallen.”

As in the previous story, Clanton seeks to drown his troubles at this point. Once again, he heads for a vice den to brood, ogle dancing girls, and drink. Wild Bill’s hard drinking has been duly noted throughout the series. In “She Devil,” we are told that “liquor was to him what moonlight and perfume are to some men.” Indeed, the very sight of bottles of booze make Clanton’s eyes glisten. In “The Dragon of Kao Tsu,” Clanton is drinking in a bar when first seen. Eyeing Marianne Allison’s figure as she walks away from him causes Clanton to "moan with despair and grab the whiskey bottle.” In “Desert Blood,” Clanton retires to a hideaway where he “sat and drank and drank and drank…” As a result of that particular binge, he experiences a lapse of memory symptomatic of a problem drinker. Now Clanton’s career as a drinking man reaches a culmination in a story whose very title speaks of strong drink.

Swaggering into a local dive, Clanton demands “'something liquid with a kick.'” When he repeats his demand for “'liquid dynamite,'” he is offered brandy and even opium. Unknown to Clanton, he has enemies nearby, rival gun dealers. They bribe the bartender to serve him a concoction called bhang. Bhang is known as the drink of murder, capable of inducing homicidal madness. Clanton’s foes hope it will cause him to attack a British official he had a run-in with earlier. His subsequent arrest would get him out of the way.

Clanton drinks the bhang and calls for more. Soon he flies into a rage, abusing a dancer and challenging any man in the house to a fight. When no one takes up the challenge, he storms out. But instead of seeking out the British official, he heads back to Sonya Ormanoff. He fights his way through the henchmen. At the end of the tale, Clanton rapes Sonya and leaves her in tears before heading off to complete his gun deal. Here ends the saga of Wild Bill Clanton.

This time there is no question of the woman’s eyes belying her protests, or of Clanton intuitively discerning here repressed desire. Instead, Clanton simply dismisses her sobbing and abject humiliation with a shrug of his shoulders. No excuse is offered for his behavior, other than the revelation that Sonya was a Communist and plotted his downfall. But Clanton knew neither of these things the first time he attempted to take her. Neither was the bhang, the rage-inducing “murderer’s grog,” a factor by the end. Howard goes out of his way to mention that the fight with Sonya’s henchmen cleared Clanton’s head, and that he is in full command of his faculties when he rapes Sonya. The one truly extenuating circumstance, the malign influence of the murderer’s grog, is discarded by the author like an empty beer can.

Sonya Ormanoff is a character who deserved better treatment, by Howard as well as Clanton. We are told that she is a white woman who lives among the natives. “She was blond, with a glorious wealth of light gold hair, and her flesh was a purely white as unstained Northern snow.” Using terms like “purely white” and “unstained” serve to make Clanton’s defilement of Sonya seem all the more heinous. Sonya is comfortable in a foreign milieu and at ease wearing Eastern garb. Sonya had the potential to be the most interesting of all the Clanton women, a female counterpart to Howard adventurers like El Borak and Kirby O’Donnell. Instead, she is treated like a cheap throwaway.

After raping Sonya, Clanton muses, “There was no mercy in the game she played, and she had no reason to expect any.” And in the real world, that is the plain truth of the matter. A man who traffics with dangerous individuals runs the risk of being beaten up and/or killed. A woman who does so runs the risk of rape in addition to being beaten up and/or killed. But in the “jaunty” pages of Spicy-Adventure Stories, it is an extremely harsh lesson for a female character to learn at the hands of the story’s hero.

The bold adventuress Sonya Ormanoff is humbled in “Murderer’s Grog,” but Clanton himself seems little better off. As introduced in “She Devil,” Wild Bill Clanton is a self-assured winner. He starts out with nothing but a pair of pants and within twenty-four hours acquires an alluring lover and his own ship. In “Murderer’s Grog,” he is beleaguered and at bay. “Smoldering rage at the world in general, smarting vanity, and thwarted desire combined to make Bill Clanton a raging demon.” He give in to brooding and bitterly cursing his fate. “‘The British!’ raged Clanton, clenching his huge fists. ‘Always the damned British--’” This from a man who, in “Ship in Mutiny,” had nary a worry at all about escaping a British warship that was hunting him down.

Emblematic of Clanton’s desperation is his isolation from his natural element --the sea. The first pair of Clanton tales takes place in the South Seas, the second pair in Oriental port cities. “Desert Blood” takes place further inland, but only a hundred miles or so. “Murderer’s Grog,” on the other hand, is set far from any ocean. We are told that Clanton came to India from Russia, bringing his guns by camel train all the way through landlocked Afghanistan. “Desert Blood” contains a number of references to his identity as a seafarer. Clanton is “a man of the sea” whose face is “browned by the sun of the Seven Seas.” In “Murderer’s Grog,” however, there is but a lone fleeting mention of him walking with “the lurching roll of a seaman” as he heads off in search of liquor to drown his misery.

Clanton begins the series as a rogue and ends as a scoundrel. His later behavior is certain to be regarded as reprehensible by many modern readers, especially if they’re women. Naturally enough, he receives no comeuppance in stories written for the spicy pulps of yesteryear. Still, in “Murderer’s Grog,” he seems a man without a future. Given his drinking binges and repeated head injuries, he may well end up the toughest mug in the nursing home.

Howard began writing spicy stories as Sam Walser late in his career for purely commercial reasons. At the same time, he was busy with other projects as well. His humorous western tales of Breckinridge Elkins were popular with readers of Action Stories, and he created similar westerns for other magazines. Shortly before his death he sold the first installments in a new western series that had been commissioned by the editor of the prestigious and high-paying Argosy. Ultimately he was successful in recouping his finances. June 1936 saw Howard stories published in no less than five different magazines --Action Stories, Cowboy Stories, Spicy-Adventure Stories, Thrilling Mystery, and Weird Tales. In “Lone Star Fictioneer,” an essay recounting Howard’s writing career published in The Last Celt, Glenn Lord notes, “By the spring of 1936, he was enjoying an all-time high in sales.” David Drake echoes this fact in his introduction to the Howard paperback collection Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, observing, “By 1936, Howard was selling regularly to Argosy, one of the top three pulp markets of the day. Robert E. Howard was thirty years old, and his career was about to take off.”

By most accounts, then, Howard’s career was back on track. But how did Howard himself feel about it? In another letter to Novalyne Price, written in late February 1936, he speaks of “my mother’s life ebbing away before my eyes, with my father breaking up and aging before me with the worry and strain we both labor under, and I myself faced with the wreckage of all my life’s plans and labors, and the utter ruin of my career.” (emphasis added) The fact that he went on to take his life a few months later indicates that Howard’s mood did not improve along with his finances. Perhaps money was not everything. Tales of heroic fantasy Howard written a year or more before were still appearing in Weird Tales. Now, these only served to remind him of his glory days.

The fiction of Robert E. Howard is for the most part lacking in misogynistic elements. Not so the fiction of Sam Walser. In the vast range of fiction Howard wrote under his own name, whenever a woman suffers, we are most often meant to feel empathy. This holds true whether in the case of the sadistic abuse of Joan in the horror story “Pigeons from Hell,” or in regards to the terror experienced by Yasmina at the hands of the Master of Yimsha in the Conan adventure, “The People of the Black Circle.” But in one of Howard’s final stories, “Murderer’s Grog,” we find the author in a bitter mood indeed. In the spring of 1936, Robert E. Howard saw the world becoming a very dark place. On June 11, he turned out the last light as he left it.