The Bowdrie Stories by Louis L'Amour

Chick Bowdrie is a lawman. Before there were private dicks in trench coats or squads of diligent policemen solving crimes, before the silly Miss Marples and other amateur detectives, there were Texas Rangers. Even Sherlock Holmes follows twenty years after the real exploits of the Texas Rangers. The Rangers were a group of lawmen created after the Civil War to bring law to Texas. Chick Bowdrie, with his dark Apache-like face and his hammer-headed roan horse, is Mystery fiction’s member of this select party of law-bringers and crime-solvers.

Bowdrie is the creation of Louis L’Amour, a man who knows something about writing Westerns and Mysteries. He wrote for the Western pulps, of course, but also fight stories, adventure yarns as well as detective stories. Some of these private eye tales have been collected in The Hills Of Homicide. In the introduction of that book, L’Amour says this:

In detective stories, the characters come to fear the people they have to associate with in the city. Of course, the character strengths that the men and women in these detective stories draw upon to resolve their conflicts would stand them in good stead in the struggles of survival that I write about in my frontier stories in previous collections like Bowdrie… For that matter, Chick Bowdrie, the Texas Ranger featured in all the stories in Bowdrie and Bowdrie’s Law would have the skills to solve many of the cases in this book with surprisingly few adjustments for the difference in period …

This quote points out two differences about the Bowdrie stories compared to other L’Amour tales. The wilderness and harsh conditions often present challenges in ‘frontier stories’ (as Louis preferred to ‘Western’). This is usually not the case in a Bowdrie story. Bowdrie’s opponents are always evil men and women, just as they would be in a detective story. The other element is the degree to which Chick must apply his abilities as a detective. The Ranger must reconstruct murder scenes, read people and out-bluff them. Many of L’Amour characters can read a track or find a lost gold mine but few, with the exception of Borden Chantry (the sheriff of L’Amour’s novel-length murder mystery/Western), need to play detective.

Chick Bowdrie’s personal history reads like the history of Texas. His family came to Texas when he was young, starting a ranch near D’Hanis. He helped defend their home from Comanches by loading rifles. In one of these skirmishes his family was killed and Chick went to live with the Indians for five years. He escaped but found his return hard, living with a Swiss family in San Antonio. “Most youngsters learn to live with people by playin’ with other youngsters. I never had any of that. I never really belonged anywhere. I was a stranger among the Comanches an’ a stranger among my own people when I got back.” His real name is Charles Bowdrie. He got his nickname on the school playground. “Most times Chuck is a nickname for Charles, but there was another boy in school who was called Chuck. He was bigger than I was, so they called me Chick…I never minded.” After school he became a top cow hand, learning the art of gun fighting on the range. He killed his first man, a rustler taking his employer’s cattle. Being good with a gun it was only a matter of time before he’d kill the wrong man and end up on the Outlaw Trail. It was at this point in his life, not much older than sixteen that Captain L. H. McNelly recruited him for the Rangers. McNelly says of Bowdrie: “He’s instinctively a good shot, he’s very cool, and he’s been born with remarkable coordination and eyesight. He’s got the makings of a Ranger if I ever saw one, and frankly, I’d rather have him on our side.”

Bowdrie has McNelly's rangers on his side but he usually works alone. He meets Rip Coker in "A Job For a Ranger", a "…lantern-jawed puncher with straw-colored hair". After Coker helps him out of one of the best shoot-outs in the series, Bowdrie says "…you should be a Ranger. If ever a man was built for the job, you are." Coker just smiles and confesses he is a Ranger, from a different company. The two work together in"A Trail to the West" and "Case Closed – No Prisoners".

Bowdrie's constant companion is his strawberry hammer-headed roan called "Hammerhead" and "Crowbait' by his owner. In "Too Tough to Brand" Bowdrie compares himself to his horse:

"He'll bite too, given the chance. Just look at him! He's ugly as sin! Ugly inside and out, but you know something? He can outrun a jackrabbit, and once started, he'll go all day an' all night. He can get fat on grass burs an' prickly pear, an' some other cowhand's saddle is frosted cake to him. He'd climb a tree if he wanted to or if you aimed him at it, and he could swim the Pacific if he was of a mind to. He doesn't like anybody, but he's game, an' nothin' this side of hell could whip him. He's my kind of horse."

Two collections of L’Amour’s hold eighteen stories of Chick Bowdrie: Bowdrie (1983) and Bowdrie’s Law (1984). In 2004 Beau L'Amour released The Collected Stories of Louis L'Amour with all the Bowdrie stories in order, making them much easier to locate.

"A Job For a Ranger" (Popular Western, December 1946) has Bowdrie investigate the death of a bank teller during a hold-up. Several witnesses saw the killer get away on a well-known paint pony belonging to a rough cattle herder. His suspicions are aroused by an obvious trick to frame the man and Bowdrie must flush out the real criminals.

"McNelly Knows a Ranger" (Popular Western, February 1947) is chronologically Bowdrie’s first case as a Ranger. When his friend, Noah Whipple is killed by bank robbers, the Ballard gang, Bowdrie sets out to kill or arrest them all. He tracks them to their camp and proves who is the fastest gun. L’Amour is ever about character. Even after Bowdrie arrests the robbers he isn’t above asking them for advice about what present to buy for a pretty girl.

"Bowdrie Rides A Coyote Trail" (Popular Western, April 1947) When Bowdrie finds a dead man he is plunged into the middle of a range war between Jack Darcy and the H&H Ranch. The dead man was a lawman from California coming to help Darcy before he was bushwhacked. Bowdrie finds the man he is hunting is also behind the sudden cattle feud.

"A Trail to the West" (Popular Western, June 1947) Bowdrie goes undercover to rescue the daughter of a judge trying Damon Queen. Queen’s brother and a gang of outlaws have her and only Bowdrie can be spared to bring her back alive.

"The Outlaws of Poplar Creek" (Popular Western, August 1947) Bowdrie comes to Poplar Creek to deal with Shad Tucker and his band of cutthroats. After one of the gang tries to kill him and Moby Fosdick, the Creek’s store owner, Bowdrie trails the dead man’s horse to the hideout. Bowdrie gets captured by young Jerry Fosdick, who has been hanging out with the thieves, comes to the rescue. Can the Ranger navigate the caves in time to save Fosdick’s daughter Lily from Shad’s evil plans?

"Bowdrie Hits a Cold Trail" (Popular Western, October 1947) Bowdrie comes upon a sixteen year old murder. He reconstructs the murder of the husband and the abduction of the wife and child then heads to town to see if he can find the killers. After weeks of getting to know the locals in Gabel’s Stop, he is onto the murderer and his evil plans for the surviving daughter of the slain couple.

"More Brains Than Bullets" (Popular Western, February 1948) A man young is framed for robbing the bank and killing his boss but Bowdrie sees through the frame to find a counterfeiter and a murderer.

"The Road to Casa Piedras" (Popular Western, April 1948) Bowdrie and a posse are tracking the man who murdered John Irwin and stole 12,000 dollars. They follow the killer to a camp where his partner killed him and took the money. Only Bowdrie’s keen tracking and detective skills can pin down the killer. This story features Bowdrie doing a Sherlock Holmes-style job of describing the unseen suspect.

"Where Buzzards Fly" (Popular Western, June 1948) After a band of Mexican bandits are slaughter, Bowdrie is on the trail of their missing loot. His snooping around riles the men of the K-Bar Ranch where he finds a ruthless criminal mastermind.

"Bowdrie Passes Through" (Popular Western, August 1948) Bowdrie takes up the case of Josh Pettibone, protecting his son and daughter from a ruthless cattle baron. Bowdrie gives a great show as defense lawyer, worthy of Perry Mason, before he must use his ability as a gunfighter to deliver justice.

"South of Deadwood" (Popular Western, October 1948) Bowdrie goes to Arizona to collect a bank robber named Curly Starr. Bowdrie tries to convince him to clear a wrongly accused young man but Starr won’t. Starr’s gang chase the two men over the country until a final shoot-out in the Texas panhandle. Starr proves a decent fellow in the end and clears Billy Marsden with a dying statement. As in other stories, Bowdrie often can sympathize with outlaws and gunmen, having almost gone that way himself.

"Too Tough to Brand" (Popular Western, February 1949) When Bert Ramey, the ranch foreman of the O Bar O Ranch goes missing with $15,000 everybody figures he’s turned crooked. Bowdrie and Bert’s adopted daughter Karen follow a murderer’s trail to find Ramey’s body and solve two mysteries.

"Case Closed—No Prisoners" (Popular Western, October 1949) When a banker is tortured to death for $40,000 dollars, Bowdrie and Rip Croker delve into a town that has a secret. When the villains are discovered they barricade Bowdrie in the dead sheriff’s office. The shoot-out that follows is worthy of the film Rio Bravo ten year later.

"The Killer From the Pecos" (Popular Western, February 1950) Bowdrie is on the trail of a bank robber who murdered two men. His only clue is the man had a tattoo on his chest. To find him, Bowdrie takes on the job of sheriff in a rough cow town. Not only does he find his man but he also cleans up the town.

"A Ranger Rides to Town" (The Rio Kid Western, September 1950) Bowdri stops a group of bank robbers but can’t find the stolen money. He reconstructs the crime and realizes that a fifth man, the mastermind of the heist, was not arrested or killed. His investigation leads to murder and a final gun duel.

"Rain on the Mountain Fork" (The Rio Kid Western, March 1951) On a rainy night, in a sod hut on a lonely mountain, Bowdrie and a group of tough men get out of the rain. Only problem is one of them is a murderer and a thief. Can Bowdrie figure out who the killer is and save Nelly and her weakling Uncle from robbery and worse? This story is the closest L’Amour comes to a classic cozy mystery such as Agatha Christie might write.

"Down Sonora Way" (5 Western Novels Magazine, December 1951) begins with Bowdrie and an outlaw named Tensleep Mooney in a draw. They give up their feud when a family chased by Apaches joins them. They all escape after Bowdrie steals the Indians’ horses. Once they make it to El Paso Bowdries arrests Mooney, who is wanted on a false charge. Bowdrie lets Mooney escape but the outlaw returns to face trial, knowing he has Bowdrie’s word of protection and a fair trial.

"Strange Pursuit" (Texas Rangers, April 1952) is an aptly named story. Bowdrie hears the exploits of Charlie Venk from different people. How he robbed a bank, how he cleverly engineered a town sheriff to hang himself. Bowdrie pursues Venk to a town where the beautiful Lucy Taylor lives. Charlie falls for the girl but has to flee Bowdrie. In his desperation, he leads the ranger into Apache country and is captured. Bowdrie saves him, then has to shoot him in the arm when he tries a trick to kill the ranger. In the end, Bowdrie arrests the outlaw but there is hope he will one day return to Lucy Taylor. Oddly only this story appeared in the magazine Texas Rangers, where you might expect to find a home for Chick Bowdrie.

"Strawhouse Trail" was the last Bowdrie story. Probably written in 1952, it remained lost and unpublished until 1998 and the release of Monument Rock. Bowdrie finds a murdered old-timer who was returning to right a wrong. A rich treasure of gold has been stashed in the hills and Bowdrie must manipulate the children of the old bandits while dodging the bullets of the two remaining thieves.

And so the stories of Chick Bowdrie end. The ranger with the Apache-like face never settles down, just keeps riding. As he says at the end of "Bowdrie Rides a Coyote Trail": "I'm a Ranger…there's always work for a Ranger. Come to one trail's end, and there's always another. I kind of like it that way."

Louis L’Amour did not invent the cowboy detective story. The old pulps tried to cater to many different tastes, so along with spicy detective, ranch romance and a hundred other combinations, the Western/Mystery evolved as a natural combination of two genres. Despite this, many writers of one genre could not write in the other and few were as successful at the combination as Louis L’Amour.

Copyright G. W. Thomas