Circa 1972, this western-themed pulp delivers all the gay cowboy imagery a boy could want, but also explores intriguing literary topics such as the disconnect between external and internal masculinity, the basic human need for love, and what amounts to a critique of polyamory.
Set in Sacramento Valley during the 1849 gold rush, we learn that Holt Dykes is on the run. He’s a blue-eyed desperado who’s more sensitive than his rough exterior reveals. He’s thirsty, dirty, and trying to outpace the man who wants him dead.
You see, Holt recently killed his lover, Troy, over a three-way poker dispute. An argument arose when the third wheel, and Troy’s occasional side-piece, Mike Blade accused Holt of having a small pecker and cheating. Tired of their bickering, an exhausted Troy points his gun. Holt’s self-defense instinct was triggered and before he realized what he’d done, he shot his lover dead.
Now Mike, who also loved Troy—yes, there’s an intentional Helen of Troy allusion—is furious and vows revenge.
So Holt flees across the desert while Mike follows, until he stumbles upon the little mining town of Grand Toros. The town has an all-male population of 500 and is so gay that the only female is riding out just as Holt rides in. She was a prostitute and is leaving for lack of business.
Holt grabs some grub and soon finds himself romantically involved with a few of the town’s finer specimens. It’s all thrust and no intimacy, however, and he longs for a committed relationship like he almost had with Troy.
Enter Hammer Collins—gotta love these brutish names!—a vigilante who’s oath is to maintain justice in the wild west. Holt and Hammer fall madly in love, but Holt fears that will change once Hammer finds out he killed a man.
Hammer sides with his lover, however, and vows to keep him safe from Mike Blade.
New romance complexities, intense jealousy, greedy lust, and other factors ultimately lead to a four-way High Noon stylized stand-off, only with two of the cowboys fully nude.
There’s a campy undercurrent like this throughout, a tongue-in-cheek (and elsewhere) queering of classic western tropes, but never so zany that it feels like a farce. A surprising amount of energy is devoted to being historically accurate, all the way down to the unpleasant odors of unbathed masculinity and the absence of a proper sewage system.
Attention is given to the psychological challenges of an environment that requires constant bravado, making this a fully-realized gay western and not merely erotic fantasy. Behind the rough facades are troubled souls desperate for tenderness and fighting for normalcy in a tumultuous period of American history. “Hold me,” begs Holt of Hammer, amid “tears and pain and shivering.” “Empty your hate and sickness into me,” says another man in a side couple, acknowledging that their passions fulfill psychological needs as much as physical. “You make men feel like men,” is his lover’s reply.
Indeed what is masculine and what is feminine is often at the top of these characters’ minds. Holt becomes obsessed with being the receptive partner in his new relationship. He requires Hammer to swear he will never ask him to be otherwise. This stems from his desire to shed all aspects of his previous life where he felt required to be dominant. When he goes on to become the homemaker in the relationship, it is a deliberate, conscious decision which brings him fulfillment.
Hammer doesn’t see things in such clear contrasts, but is eager to satisfy his partner. He does, however, compare their relationship to Adam and Eve. He imagines his homestead as its own Eden, “built by God as surely as the original, and it belongs to two modern Adams who committed no sin, for love could not possibly be a sin.”
The “western” is not commonly known for romantic monologues, and certainly there are few literary attempts which imagine a gay wild west experience. All this fresh perspective results in many such highlight moments which are unique and compelling. Furthermore, I find the book exemplary of why pulp fiction is a necessary and illuminating genre, despite its reputation as mere sleaze. Some of it is trash, but then there are authors like Frederick Raborg (a pseudonym I’m sure) who write sex from a human condition perspective and not merely for erotic delight.
The temporary nature of youth is another, somewhat surprising, recurring topic. Fitting, of course, since long lives are rare among desperados. If you don’t get killed in a gunfight, you might die from snakebite, heatstroke, a mining accident, or any number of other everyday occurrences.
In a grim flashback, Hammer recalls watching a young man being hanged. As life leaves the man’s body, Hammer feels personal anguish, knowing how much life he had left to live. He even imagines making love to the dead man. Not in a necrophiliac way, but out of pity for his not receiving more love in his short life. It’s too late for love, however, and the dead man is left to the buzzards.
Issues of aging are often on Hammer’s mind. Shortly after meeting Holt, he woos him with this argument: “I’m human. I’m past thirty. I’m tired. I’ve never really had anyone to care for, much less care for me.” Maybe not the most romantic speech by today’s standards, but Holt finds these words are stirring with truth and something akin to poetry.
Finally there is a theme bluntly stated that “three is a crowd.” In an attempt to avoid more bloodshed, Hammer makes a deal that, with Holt’s permission, Mike can be his sometime lover—a repeat of the situation which caused so much drama in the first place. When a side character shoots Mike instead, Hammer and Holt are spared this polyamorous conundrum and the narrator implies that is what allows the two lovers to actually live happily ever after.
Other characters likewise learn this lesson, choosing to dispel their multiple partners and settle down with the one who matters most. Thus love becomes an antidote to the relentless brutality of wild west living.
Overall: Entertaining, sexy, unique, occasionally profound, and all crammed into a mere 150 pages. If publishers ever decide to reprint these impossible-to-find pulps, I hope Gay Vigilante makes the list.
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