Pulp Review: The Marshal of Tadpole Gulch
Johnston McCulley, creator of “Zorro,” never quit writing pulp—even 30 years after finding success. Rot Gut Pulp brings you this review of a minor work we still love.
The Marshal of Tadpole Gulch
By Johnston McCulley
Range Riders Western, September, 1948
Writer Johnston McCulley, who died in 1958 at age 75, had an oeuvre of hundreds of short stories and screenplays. His most famous character was Zorro, whom he invented and wrote almost thirty years before The Marshal of Tadpole Gulch appeared in Range Riders Western.
Why would a successful author with nearly a dozen series to his name write a middling 5,000-word short story pulp at age 65? Because fast writing meant fast money that was there for the taking. That’s one thing we love about pulps here at Rot Gut — they’re never perfect, but they’re never overthought or over-edited.
The Marshal of Tadpole Gulch is a simple revenge tale. Outlaws Jed Berge and Lou Simmons kill Marshal Dave Hewson’s friend, Bart Parker. Hewson rides into Tadpole Gulch without his badge and pins it on only after his personal business is over.
Like many a-western, there’s a lot of expository dialogue. In fact, most of the story consists of men sitting around talking about what happened and what it means. The third-act shootout takes place after — what else? Lots of talking.
Is it off-putting? Of course not. That’s what a western is. People either talk or shoot — and like any good western, when they’re talking, the dialogue is clever.
“From the way yore holster hangs, I’d say the gun yuh’re wearin’ ain’t just an ornament.”
“I like to shoot rattlesnakes along the trail.”
“There’s a lot of rattlers in the canyon beyond the Berge ranch up the Gulch,” Dexter hinted.
The story features a blacksmith, an old doctor, and a young woman who exists to cook and serve as a love interest.
Story Structure & Composition
As far as pulp story structure goes, The Marshal of Tadpole Gulch passes as a simple action-adventure story.
- Marshal Bart investigates Jed Berge
- Berge kills Bart (Act II split)
- Marshal Hewson rides into town
- Hewson meets the Damsel
- Hewson gathers information about the outlaws (Act III split)
- Hewson meets the outlaws at a bar
- There’s a shootout, and Hewson brings the outlaws to justice
- Hewson wins the damsel
To introduce all of the major characters in the first quarter, McCulley scrambles this a bit and makes it non-linear.
- Hewson rides into town
- Meets the damsel
- Gathers information about the outlaws and learns the circumstances surrounding Bart’s death.
- Meets the outlaws at a bar
- Has a shootout
- Wins the damsel
McCulley’s writing? He’s afraid of neither adverbs nor passive voice. There are over 20 instances of each. Think about that, writers and editors, the next time you beat yourself up over the details of your own work. Can you criticize the guy who brought us Zorro?
Find the downloadable text of The Marshal of Tadpole Gulch at PulpGen.
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