Walter Ryerson Johnson was one of the Pulp giants, writing for sixty years in all genres. During the 1930-50s he wrote many Westerns and Northerns. He also was one of the men who was “Kenneth Robeson” and wrote three Doc Savage novels. Johnson wrote of the Canadian Barrens in his Northerns, a savage locale he visited in his youth when he traveled to many countries.
“Webs For One” appeared in Western Story, May 27, 1933. It tells the story of the diminutive Alf Newberry, gold miner headed for civilization after six years of hard work. Unfortunately for Alf, he’s packing out sixty pounds of gold and run out of food. Alf contemplates ditching the gold, as he already did with his gun, and then how he will finally die, frozen, starved but numb with the last few swallows of his rotgut whiskey.
As Alf is losing his pack, struggling with the straps with his frozen fingers, he spies coal smoke coming from a cave. He kicks off his “webs” or snowshoes and goes in, hoping for food as well as warmth. Inside, he finds another man, a very large man. The big man has his own ideas about Alf. The bully refuses to share his grub, takes Alf’s gold (adding thirty of his own) and finally his snowshoes. Alf is used to dealing with large men who can overwhelm him physically. He knows he has to out-think them. Alf tries to negotiate, giving him his whiskey. Alf tightens the man’s straps, and finally tries a desperate attempt to knife the man. The big man’s knife is thrown into a snow bank. He leaves without the blade.
Alf doesn’t panic. He retrieves’ the big man’s knife. He boils some bones for a small meal. He cuts up rawhide and makes another set of snowshoes. They are poor things but they will do for what he plans. Alf tracks the man, finding him dead. The whiskey has done its job, along with the tight straps. Alf caches half the gold and takes the old snowshoes and the food. The food bag has been knocked so tightly he will never untie it. He doesn’t care. That’s what the knife is for.
Ryerson shows the best qualities of a good Pulpster. The scene is well-established with solid detail but the action is key. The struggle between these two men is what the story is and Johnson knows it. It’s a fast read, not because it’s short, but because it moves along so well. A real treat.