Like many a good, traditional Western, Lee Leighton’s 1953 novel, “Law Man,” focuses on the ongoing battle between ranchers and farmers. The ranchers got there first, and they feel it’s “their” land and won’t give it up, the law be damned, even if they have to kill to keep it. But the times are changing, and the farmers are insisting that some of the good land should be theirs.
Three farmers are killed. Ed Lake is convicted of being the hired gun who did it and is scheduled to hang in the morning. The ranchers want him freed, even though they know he did it, and the farmers want to string him up now to ensure he doesn’t escape.
Caught in the middle is Bill Worden, who has served as sheriff of Grant County for 11 years, with unquestioned honesty, integrity and skill. But now, Worden is not sure he and his deputy will live through the last night before the hanging. It could be the ranchers, the farmers, or maybe even a surprise from a young woman or a misguided man of the cloth, but seeing Ed Lake properly hung will be the toughest job of Worden’s life. His pride won’t let the town leaders call in help, so it’s up to Worden and his deputy to see justice done — on justice’s terms.
At one point, Sheriff Worden rejects an offer for the governor to send in the National Guard to help him and his deputy protect Ed Lake, answering with:
“You know the story about the riots in Texas. Somebody hollered for help, and one ranger showed up. When they asked him why a whole bunch of rangers weren’t sent, he said, ‘Only one riot isn’t there?’ Well, we’ve got one man to hang, and we’ve got one sheriff.”
It’s a powerful sense of duty that doesn’t allow a man to accept what would appear to be reasonable and even necessary help. It can be argued that everyone would be safer if the National Guard showed up and both the ranchers and the farmers stood down. I admire the character’s character, as does the author, but I wrestle with whether or not it might be a misplaced sense of duty that doesn’t allow him to accept the help.
Lee Leighton was a pseudonym used by Wayne D. Overholser. Overholser used a number of pseudonyms, including Dan J. Stevens, Joseph Wayne and John S. Daniels — all of which were based on his three sons’ names. “Law Man” won the very first (1953) Spur Award for Best Novel issued by the Western Writers of America. Under his own name, he also won the second award (1954) for Best Novel for “The Violent Land,” and 15 years later in 1969, he won again for a book he co-authored with Lewis B. Patten, “The Meeker Massacre.” In 1989, Overholser was awarded the Saddleman Award for “outstanding contributions to the American West,” joining such well-known winners as John Wayne, John Ford and Clint Eastwood.
In his sixty-plus years of writing, which started with Western pulp magazines, Overholser wrote more than 100 Western novels and published more than 400 short stories.
A fun fact: Stephen King honored Overholser by highlighting him, by name, in his novel “Wolves of the Calla,” which is part of King’s wildly popular Dark Tower series. King also named one of the characters in the same book (a character based in the town Calla Bryn Sturgis) Overholser. An obscure fun fact, but a fun fact nonetheless, and I wonder how many people catch it.