Johnny Welker was 14 years old when he was drawn running back to his home by the sound of gunshots. The rifle shot was from one of four “hardcases” who decided to kill his father rather than pay $1.75 for them and their horses to ride the ferry. His mother got off a harmless shot from their shotgun before being thrown to the ground. At that point Johnny came running in, was seen and immediately shot, was left for dead, and listened as they shot and killed his mother. And that is how Frank Gruber’s 1954 “Johnny Vengeance” opens — fast, hard and sad.
Johnny is found, nursed back to health and taken in by a man who was passing by. He makes the decision to devote his life to tracking down the four men who murdered his parents and is soon consumed by the commitment. What is fascinating about Johnny Vengeance is that nothing deters him from his goal — not women, the passing of years or maturity. He trains himself to become the fastest draw in the West, and every waking hour is spent in his pursuit. Up until the very last page, he seems almost robotic in his efforts, somehow not quite human. I spent the last half of the book more interested in learning if his “human side” would ever overcome the lust for vengeance.
Gruber was a prolific author who sold his first story, “The Two Dollar Raise,” in 1927 and went on to write more than 50 books, including detective stories as well as Westerns. He wrote for many of the pulp fiction magazines and wrote scripts for both feature films and television. His pen names included John K. Vedder, Stephen Acre and Charles K. Boston.
Gruber told the story that at nine years old, Horatio Alger’s “Luke Walton or the Chicago Newsboy” was the first book he read. Gruber was a newsboy at the time and went on to read more than one hundred of Alger’s books, which he credits for inspiring him to become a writer — which he did at age 11, though that first effort is sadly lost to history.
For me, it is impossible to read stories about young men like Johnny Welker, who are thrust into horrific situations at such a young age and quickly do what used to be known as “manning up,” without wondering what I would have done in a similar situation. I think most men would like to flatter themselves and believe they would step up, but in truth, and we know it, most of us wouldn’t.
In my own series of Western books (“Coyote Courage,” “Coyote Creek,” “Coyote Canyon” and “Battle on the Plateau”) the protagonist is an early ’20s, fairly standard Western hero, Brock Clemons, but probably my favorite character is the teenage boy/man, Huck. I give him challenges well beyond his years and love exploring how he handles them, something I don’t know until I actually write it. I try and understand what it must feel like to be in those situations and what it takes to try and handle them. And again, I wonder what I would have done.