Sheriff of Tombstone! (selected stories)

Review of selected stories from SHERIFF OF TOMBSTONE, a Charlton Comics publication that ran 17 issues from 1958-61.  Pat Masulli was credited as Executive Editor on the indicia, and all the stories reviewed here were drawn and signed by Jack Keller, otherwise best remembered as the longtime artist of KID COLT OUTLAW over at Atlas/Marvel. (The drawing here seems a little bit cruder than the KID COLT issues I've seen by Keller.  This could be explained by Keller putting less effort into the pages since Charlton paid less for them.  It's still pleasing enough artistic storytelling, though.)   There are no writer credits and the Grand Comicbook Database doesn't identify the writer, though it seems likely enough to be Charlton mainstay Joe Gill; at least, the stories carry his authorial trademark of captions written in past tense rather than present tense.

Review by Bill Henley

I picked up somewhere, years ago, a few issues of this obscure Charlton Western title, and have had in mind for a while reviewing one of them,  But on looking over the issues I have, I decided to review one story each from three of them, rather than any one complete issue.  In this series, the Sheriff of Tombstone is named Luke Spade.(Over at Marvel, the sheriff of Tombstone was a guy named Brett, but most of the lawman stuff was done by the masked and costumed Two-Gun Kid.)   Back-story references indicate Luke Spade is the son of a previous sheriff, now deceased.  Like the original Atom-- or the Rawhide Kid, in the early Lee/Kirby stories-- Luke Spade is kind of a runt, and often has to prove with his guns and fists his ability to handle rough tough Westerners that are bigger than he is.  (The baby-blue colored vest and jeans he wears in these stories may not help in maintaining an image of manhood.)

"No Law in Tombstone" is the lead story in SHERIFF OF TOMBSTONE #3, and the first SOT story drawn by Jack Keller (the GCD indicates the first two issues were drawn by Rocco Mastroserio).  As the story begins, the Sheriff faces down a gang of three "owlhooters", led by Taos Smith and bent on bank robbery.  Like apparently all Code-approved Western good guys, Luke Spade never shoots to kill, but in this case he does deal a serious wound to one of the gang members named Macready.  Luke brushes aside the congratulations of an onlooker as he rushes to provide first aid to the wounded badman, but the man growls, "Lemme alone, Sheriff! You did enough to me-- don't make it worse!"  "I tried not to hurt yuh too bad, Macready!"  Later, after Macready's wound is treated and all three are locked in jail, gang leader Taos Smith charges, "You LIKE hurtin' hombres like us!  Yuh ENJOY doin' it, Spade!  Don't go sayin' how sorry yuh feel after the gunsmoke clears!"  Doc Hartley, the local medic, is startled to observe that Sheriff Spade seems to be taking this accusation to heart.  "He COULD be right about why I wear this badge!  I think it's to protect the decent folks in this town... but I might be foolin' myself!"  The Doc urges the Sheriff to take a few days off, and Luke does, but instead of relaxing, he stews about his job.  "If I keep wearin' this badge, I'll get careless!  But will it be an accident when it happens? Will I miss when I shoot to hit the gun or will I really want to hurt a man?"  (Not that I have any personal experience, but to my understanding, NOBODY in real life "shoots to hit the gun".  Anyone being trained to use a gun in self-defense or line of duty, is told to shoot to kill or else don't shoot at all.  But the Comics Code, apparently, had different ideas.) 

As Luke Spade wrestles with his qualms, the word somehow starts to get out among the townspeople of Tombstone that he has "lost his nerve"!  This seems to be confirmed when he emerges from his dwelling without wearing his guns!  Meeting the town mayor, he announces his intent to quit as sheriff.  The mayor urges Luke to at least stay on until another man can be found for the job, but, "I just can't do any more shootin' here in the street!  I've got a right to live in peace!  My dad gave his life to the job... it's not gonna get me like it got him!"  Soon, Luke Spade, Private Citizen of Tombstone,  is sitting on a porch relaxing with "no fears, no worries"-- at least until a local bully named Boots Doyle, with a grudge against the ex-sheriff, kicks him and knocks him down!  Luke rises, prepared to defend himself with his fists, but then "started to swing-- and lost heart for the fight before it landed!"   Left defeatd on the ground, Luke reflects that the city fathers had better find a new sheriff soon, or "gunnies like Boots Doyle will take over!"  Soon, indeed, "the town was a dangerous place to live.  Without Luke Spade to keep them in line, the owlhooters and gunslicks ran wild!"  When he observes a mother and young boy caught in the line of fire between two rival gunslingers, Luke rouses himself to dodge bullets and knock one of the shooters down with a punch!  But the boy keeps on crying, not out of fear for himself, but because of the fall of his idol, Sheriff Spade!  Luke admits that maybe he's lost his nerve, but the mother has other ideas; "You're as good a man as you ever were!  You just turned lazy, that's all!" 

The local leading citzens argue over which famous gunfighter the town should send for to become the new sheriff-- Bat Masterson or Tom Smith, or Wyatt Earp!  (In real life, of course, Wyatt Earp fought the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, but he wasn't the sheriff-- in fact, the sheriff, Johnny Behan, was one of his enemies.)  The Mayor refuses to send for any of them, saying, "Luke Spade is as good as any of them, or better!  He's still the Sheriff of Tombstone, even if he doesn't know it right now! He'll be around when real trouble hits-- wait and see!"  That time of trouble may come when gang boss Taos Smith, still in jail, comes to trial!  He's guarded by Luke Spade's deputies. They're still on the job, but are described as "the type that needed a leader..."  Taos' henchmen hatch a plan to break him out of jail while they set off explosives at the bank to create a diversion.  While his deputies rush to the bank, Luke Spade deduces what is really going on-- and the little boy Jimmy is playing near the jail, which is about to become the scene of violence!  Luke seizes a gun from a bystander, and, after pushing the boy out of the way to safety, he shoots the guns out of the gang members' hands!  As Luke dons his sheriff's badge once again, Taos complains that "Yuh said yuh were tired of shootin' people, causin' trouble and pain!"  But Luke now understands who is really at fault; "I'm not the cause of the trouble or pain!  It's a job someone has to do... if I didn't, yuh'd hurt innocent people, women an' kids!  I still won't like some things that go with wearin' a badge-- but I'll do 'em anyhow!"

"Texas Guns" is the lead story in SOT #7, Jan. 1960.  As the story begins, Luke Spade is calming a "ruckus" in a barroom, started by a group of cowboys from Texas.  He lays one of them out with a punch, and when two other Texans go for their guns, Luke shoots them out of their hands!  He orders the remaining cowpokes to leave their guns with the barkeeper and have a good time without causing trouble.  The headman of the Texas crew, Bat Evans, is outraged and warns, "I'll spead the word to steer clear of this rotten town!"  Soon, however, Sheriff Spade receives a visit from the town council, led by Banker Wheeling.  They order Luke to stand down and leave the rowdy cowboys alone!  If Bat Evans carries out his threat to warn other cattle-drive crews away from Tombstone, the town may go bankrupt!  "The money they spend is our life's blood!"  Spade replies, "You don't know what blood is until you turn those tough gunnies loose on an unprotected town!"  But as sheriff he is under the authority of the council, and Luke has to agree to their demands, "until you realize your mistake!"

(In another Western locale, this plot line would make sense.  At least, from things I've read about the real-life West, there were "cow towns" like Abilene and Dodge City where the local economy depended on cattle drives passing through, and local officials had to strike a balance between encouraging visiting cowboys to run wild with their money, and restraining them from violence.  However, Tombstone, Arizona was primarily a mining town, with ranches in the surrounding area, but wasn't on any major cattle drive routes.  Also, normally, a sheriff is an elected county official and wouldn't be under the direct orders of a city council.  As I alluded to, the real-life "OK Corral gunfight" was driven by conflicts between town officials, including deputy marshal Wyatt Earp, and the county sheriff, representing opposing political factions.) 

Soon (in the story), the streets of Tombstone are the scene of cowboys wildly stampeding their horses and engaging in violent fistfights!  And Sheriff Luke Spade is forbidden to do anything about it!  His only hope is that, once they see the results of their orders, the councilmen will learn their lesson and "never interfere with my duties again!"  One of them already seems to be repenting; he is Boswell, a businessman, who wants the Sheriff to provide an armed escort as he makes a deposit of new cash at the bank.  The cowboys fire shots close to the sheriff and Boswell as they walk the chaotic streets, but Luke refuses to take any action against them, citing the council's orders.  Soon, however, the councilmen are singing a different tune!  One of them reports that his child has been wounded by stray gunfire!  Another announces that the bank has been robbed!  Now they want the Sheriff to restore law and order by any means necessary!  Luke thinks about the gun-happy cowboys, "They've got the bit in their teeth!  It would have been easy to stop before it started... now it's going to be tough..."  Luke figures the way to do it is to start with the boss of the cowboys, Bat Evans.  On the way to confront him,  the sheriff is threatened by another cowboy, but lays him out with a mighty punch.  Entering the saloon where Bat Evans is presiding, Luke orders him to be jailed until it is learned who robbed the bank and did other damage in town.  Laughing that he will shoot the Sheriff and then tar and feather him, Evans goes for his gun, as does one of the other cowboys!  But Luke Spade shoots the guns from both of them. He drags the three violent cowboys off to jail and orders the rest of the cowhands to go quietly back to their camp.

Banker Wheeling apologizes for his and the other councilmen's foolishness, and invites Sheriff Luke to have a drink to show there are no hard feelings.  The banker pays for the drink with a crisp new bill.  Boswell points out that the Sheriff still needs to identify who robbed the bank and recover the stolen funds.  The Sheriff replies that he already knows who robbed the bank.  It was banker Wheeling himself!  "You talked the councilmen into leaving the Texans alone!  You knew anything could be blamed on them once they went wild!"  His proof is the new bills, out of Boswell's bank deposit, which Wheeling now has in his possession.  "The town is quiet as the new day begins!  It will stay quiet (well, at least until the next story, anyway) because a little man with two guns and a gleaming badge walks the streets... the Sheriff of Tombstone!'

Issue #11, Sept. 1960, leads off with "The Miner's Mutt!". in which the intrepid Sheriff of Tombstone proves that he is on the alert not only for bank robbery, gunplay in the streets and other crimes against people, but also for the crime of animal cruelty!  As the tale begins, we see a small, cute dog hanging around a bar-room, and the caption tells us, "The mongrel dog wouldn't eat-- he wouldn't go to anyone who tried to feed him in Ham Ogden's Palace Bar!  He just hung around staring at the stairs to the balcony and at Ham Ogden!"  Finally, one afternoon,Ogden gets tired of the growling mutt and aims a brutal kick at him!  The kick misses, so Ogden pulls a gun with the apparent intent of shooting the dog!  But Sheriff Luke Spade is on hand and knocks down Ogden with a punch.  The dog picks up Ogden's fallen gun in his mouth and brings it to the Sheriff. "You're a pretty useful pardner!"  Ogden warns that Luke had better get the dog out of his bar or he will be within his rights to shoot him (the dog, not the sheriff).  As Luke tries to coax the reluctant dog to leave the saloon, he hears Ogden muttering that the dog is just as crazy as its missing owner, a miner named Simon Benz.  Others in the saloon respond that if Benz was crazy, it was for selling Ogden a valuable mine for a tenth of its real value.  Then Benz vanished, and now the dog keeps hanging around Ogden's saloon.

Sheriff Luke carries the dog to a nearby restaurant and treats the mutt to "the best steak in the house!"  As the dog gnaws the steak down to the bone (he seems to have lost his reluctance to eat), Luke explains to the waiter that the dog is going to help him get the goods on Ham Ogden, which he has been trying to do for a long time!  Back at the saloon, Ogden's Hispanic henchman Pico asks why he is still keeping Simon Benz around instead of getting rid of him!  Ogden explains that "that tough little runt sheriff" has been watching his place too closely for him to risk doing away with Benz.  His plan was to have Pico sneak Benz away from Tombstone and down to Mexico where he can be safely disposed of.  But in the meantime, Ogden wants Pico to kill the dog, and the Mexican promises to do that.  That night, Pico reaches through the jail window bars to shoot at the dog, who is staying with the sleeping sheriff in his office, but the dog's barking awakens Luke and he shoots the gun out of Pico's hands.  Luke lets Pico flee for now, planning to get him later.  The next day, Luke does some investigative work at the bank and the mining assay office.  He confirms that the Benz mine contained valuable ore worth much more than the price Ogden reportedly paid, and that Ogden, who had been short on cash, didn't withdraw any money from the bank before supposedly buying the mine.

And so, the sheriff brings his doggy deputy back to Ogden's bar to complete his investigation.  Ogden protests, but Luke says, "The dog got homesick!  He's not MY animal-- he's got ideas of his own!  Go find 'im, boy!  Go find Simon!"  The dog darts up the stairs and barks before one of the upstairs rooms.  Luke kicks the door down and finds Simon Benz tied to a bed!  "I thought you'd never find me, Sheriff!"  "I didn't, Simon-- the dog did!"  Ogden appears in the doorway and pulls his gun, but Luke shoots the gun from his hand as the dog bites the miscreant's leg.  Dog and master have a rapturous reunion, and Benz comments, "Ogden wouldn't have been caught if he just fed my dog!  He was barking at my room up here because he wanted food!  That's how he always barks when he's hungry!"  (But wait... didn't that opening caption say the dog was refusing to eat even when people were trying to feed him?) 

These stories -- at least the first two-- seem a bit more like events that might have occurred in the real Old West, than most of the gimmicky DC Western stories of the 50's, or the melodramatic Marvel Westerns.  On the other hand, they also seem like they might have been plots for "Gunsmoke" or some other TV Western show of the period.  Maybe they originally were.