A Sheriff Rides Alone
One of the impressive things about this show is the photography, especially of the landscape scenes. Despite all being filmed on miniature sets, probably utilizing forced perspective, there is a real depth and three dimensional look to the backdrops. It’s been pointed out to me how many of the later shows will use back projection behind travelling shots, which ends up looking flat and artificial, but here a lot more effort seems to have gone into it, with puppet horses being ridden across real-looking prairies. This episode opens with a terrific travelling sequence as Tex returns to town, and we actually see the first fences and buildings impinge onto the landscape as he arrives at the edge of town.
Tex finds a new wanted poster waiting for him, for the bandits Blackie and Whitey Strutt who’ve robbed the Wells Fargo office in Laredo, in company with an unidentified third person. Don’t worry, says Tex, they’re not likely to show their faces here. So who’s that Twink is saying “Howdy stranger” to outside the saloon? Only Blackie Strutt, that’s who! Tex soon has the villain under lock and key, but it’s not long before his brother turns up at Big Ben’s shack outside town. It turns out that Ben was the third man on the Laredo robbery, but he’s fallen out with the Strutts big time. He thinks they double crossed him, they think he ran out on them. Nevertheless, Ben agrees to help Whitey to get his brother out of jail. Tex refuses to hand Blackie over, and it’s pretty clear that a showdown is coming.
Tex warns the inhabitants of Four Feather Falls to stay off the streets, and there are some pretty tense scenes as they wait for the inevitable, watching through the windows as a gunfight breaks out at the jail. When Tex tries to take Blackie into the city to stand trial, he’s waylaid by Whitey and Ben – only for Ben to turn his gun on Whitey. It seems he hasn’t forgiven the Strutts for their double cross, and is going to turn them over to Tex. He’s also not keen on facing the magic guns (seems he knows about them now…) and indeed they prove to be the Strutts’ undoing. This is quite a hard-edged episode, a “High Noon” sort of tale of a sheriff facing down some villains despite the odds against him. It’s interesting that the show continues to play with its format, and seems to have no set style.
Fifteen episodes into the series, and I’m beginning to realize that Tex only knows four songs – so whichever song he chooses to sing each week is going to be extremely familiar by now. Now, this isn’t actually a bad thing for a children’s show: kids love repetition and familiarity, so they’ll come to know the songs and be able to sing along with them. There’s another terrific bit of photography this week, as Tex sings the Phantom Rider song by candlelight in the stable – lots of moody shadows – and ending in a terrific crane shot looking down through the stable rafters. Well, I say crane shot – since the sets were only a few feet high, it was probably done on a tripod, but it looks really impressive, and head and shoulders above what you’d normally get in a kid’s puppet show of this period. Gerry Anderson has said how, if he had to do puppet shows, then he was going to make the most technically accomplished puppet shows imaginable. That’s certainly true here.
This week’s episode is completely bonkers. Several horses have been stolen in the area, and the only clue are buffalo hoofprints on the ground. Tex doesn’t believe that a buffalo can actually be stealing horses, and initially thinks the ranchers are winding him up. But in actuality, it’s a villain called Pete Carson wearing long planks of wood on his feet to which are fixed fake buffalo hooves. Tex investigates the latest theft, and takes a leaf out of Sherlock Holmes’s book by deducing that the hoofprints are not deep enough and too close together to have really been made by a buffalo. He decides to leave Rocky with a group of horses as bait for the thief – so that Rocky can report back on what he sees. I do worry about the show’s continuity – here, Tex discusses his investigation with Dusty and Rocky while Abe the rancher is present – but since the animals can only speak to Tex, what does Abe think Tex is doing? Does he know about the magic that lets the animals speak – (after all, people know about the magic guns) – or is he just humouring the wacky sheriff?
Once Rocky’s been snatched by Carson, he waits until the thief is asleep before trying to get back to Tex. Unfortunately, he’ll need to splash through a stream to get away, and is afraid the noise will wake Carson up. Rocky’s solution is to steal the buffalo hoof planks and strap them to his own feet, and use them to float across the water. (Quite how a horse manages to strap two planks of wood to his hooves without the ability to tie knots is rather glossed over.) The stream turns out to be faster-flowing that Rocky anticipated, leading to his effectively waterskiing – and even having to jump over rocks – until he finally reaches Tex and brings the sheriff to arrest Carson.
Big Ben is a bit of a wannabe bad guy – meaner and less comical than Pedro, but still pretty incompetent in his villainy – but he’s always trying to hook up with real nasty types, as if some of their reputation will rub off on him: the Strutts a couple of episodes ago, and here he’s in league with Johnny Pasto and the Nevada Kid, a couple of cattle rustlers who want to take their stolen herd through Four Feather Falls. Pasto tries to bribe Tex to look the other way, but the sheriff is having none of it. Despite Ben’s warnings about the magic guns, they decide to try and ambush Tex that night, but the sheriff drives them off with ease. Pasto then issues a challenge to Tex, posting a notice up in town for all to see. He calls Tex out to meet him at dawn, without his magic guns. This sends the town practically into mourning – everyone seems to believe that Tex will die and they’ll soon need a new sheriff. Tex though reassures Dusty that he was pretty quick on the draw even before he got his feathers – but even so, he has to prove that the law of which he is the embodiment means something in Four Feather Falls. Paraphrasing Shane, he says: “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” This episode is an absolutely tremendous statement of that great Western trope. Tex takes off his hat (and therefore his feathers) and goes out to face Johnny Pasto. He outdraws and defeats the outlaw – but it’s a trap: Ben and Nevada are waiting to ambush him. Luckily, Dusty sneaks in with Tex’s hat, allowing the lawman to use his magic once again and round up the double-crossing villains.
For whatever unspecified misdemeanour, Pedro and Fernando are currently languishing in the town jail. The thing is, they actually like it. It’s more comfortable than their shack, and there are regular meals. Looks like they’ve finally worked out the downside of being the West’s most incompetent bandits. But despite their protests, Tex tells them their sentence is over, and makes them leave. He’s got other things on his mind – most particularly a consignment of gold coming to the bank, for which he’s been asked to provide an escort. Overhearing this, Pedro comes up with a brilliant plan. He and Fernando will impersonate deputies and waylay Mr Huckenbacker, the man bringing the gold, and divert him to their shack. (Hang on! Didn’t they burn their shack down last time?) It all seems to be going to plan, despite Fernando’s inability to understand the concept of subterfuge – he manages to keep blurting out truthful answers to Huckenbacker’s questions, requiring Pedro to do some quick-thinking to maintain their cover. (You’ve got to wonder why he keeps company with Fernando – the man’s a complete liability…) Then suddenly they’re ambushed by Big Ben, out for the gold himself. A shootout ensues, during which Tex arrives and manages to get things under control. He’s slightly bemused when Huckenbacker tells him how well the deputies have protected both him and his gold. Still, Tex has the perfect reward for them – and the two bandits end up gratefully back in jail.
A Little Bit of Luck
Tex is away visiting his family. (That’s interesting. Perhaps we’ll find out why he was travelling alone across the wilderness all those years ago. Was he running away from some sort of bust-up at home? Sadly, we don’t find out – we only see Tex when he gets back, and he certainly seems keen to get back to Four Feather Falls. Maybe the reunion didn’t go well?) Anyway, while Tex is absent, the townsfolk hire a Marshal to keep the peace. The only trouble is: Marshal Ike Burns is a fake. He’s in league with a bandit called Johnny, who’s currently hanging out in Big Ben’s shack. Johnny and Ben keep riding into town and robbing the bank, while the Marshal makes only half-hearted and ineffectual attempts to stop them. A nice little scam they’ve got going. The townsfolk decide to form a vigilante group to try and protect themselves and their property, but Burns tells them he won’t allow it. The only law in this town is going to be his. Nevertheless, when Mr Jackson from the bank wants to move some gold, they decide to defy the Marshal and position a few well placed guns on the rooftops to guard the approaches to the town – meanwhile Mr Jackson and Grandpa Twink take the gold out with Marshal Burns riding shotgun. They get ambushed by Ben and Johnny, at which point Burns reveals his true colours and turns his gun on Jackson and Twink. It’s at this point that Ben realizes the sort of company he’s been keeping, and is horrified by the thought that Burns is about to shoot two unarmed men in the back. (Like before, he wants to ride with the bad boys, but he just isn’t really cut out for it!) Luckily, Tex turns up in the nick of time, and puts paid to the bandits. This is another pretty tough episode – they do seem to be alternating these with the more comical instalments.
The Best Laid Plans
It’s Pedro and Fernando again, and they’re obviously missing being in jail – once again, they’re hungry and they’ve got no gold. However, Pedro has made an arrangement with a conman called Hank Frisby. Hank turns up in Four Feather Falls posing as a businessman. He deposits a strongbox with Mr Jackson’s bank, and manages to persuade Jackson to let him stay in his spare room until he can get himself fixed up. (Obviously, Jackson wants his business, so he agrees to this. Mr Jackson’s rooms are over the bank of course – it’s a Trojan horse operation!) Hank leaves his window open, and goes to the saloon where he keeps the locals occupied and distracted. Meanwhile, Pedro and Fernando climb in through the open window – once inside the building, they start to cut through the floor to get into the bank below. Or rather, Fernando does the cutting – Pedro lounges on the bed “supervising”. Meanwhile, Hank Frisby tries to cover up the noise of the banging from the bank by keeping the saloon noisy, encouraging the locals to sing and play the piano. He even plays on Tex’s vanity by getting the singing sheriff to croon one of his (small) repertoire. As you’d probably expect by now, Pedro and Fernando make a mess of breaking into the bank – Fernando’s hole is too small for Pedro to get through, and he ends up stuck halfway. After much shoving from Fernando, Pedro finally crashes down into the bank below. They make so much noise that Frisby’s increasingly desperate attempts to cover up fail, and he has to pull a gun to stop Tex from going to investigate. He doesn’t reckon on the magic guns however, and Tex is able to disarm him. (Why didn’t Pedro warn Hank about the feathers? It’s not like he doesn’t know about them. They just don’t think these things through.) Realizing that something has gone wrong, Pedro and Fernando grab the first thing they can find and scarper – unfortunately, what they’ve stolen is Hank Frisby’s strongbox – which doesn’t contain gold, just a load of broken junk, anything to make it feel heavy enough. Suddenly, the thought of letting Tex capture them – and those regular meals in the jailhouse – seems more appealing.
The Ma Jones Story
(As a Doctor Who fan, it’s quite amusing to realize that Ma Jones’s full name is Martha! – I wonder if Russell T Davies was a fan of Four Feather Falls.) This week, two strangers arrive in town. They’re actually a couple of conmen. It works like this: Jeff Ward is the young, personable front man. He approaches Ma Jones and sells her a load of luxury goods on really good credit terms. She only has to pay a dollar a week. It seems a good deal, so she signs the credit agreement without really looking at it. Next week, Ward comes back for the first instalment. Unfortunately, the goods haven’t sold very well – perhaps Martha should have bought stuff that the people in a frontier town might have wanted to buy. Still, she only needs to find a dollar for the moment. But then the other guy comes in. He introduces himself as Brad Martin, Ward’s boss, and says he’s revoking the dollar-a-week arrangement, and Martha has to pay the full cost right now. Since she can’t afford it, she forfeits ownership of the store. It’s all in the smallprint. (With this atrocious head for business, you’ve got to wonder how this woman could have been trading for so long!) So they take the store and tell her to get out of town. Tex finds out that Martin and Ward have done this in several towns, and goes to confront them. They won’t hand over the credit document, and guns are drawn – magic guns to the rescue again! It’s not really made clear whether the document is legally watertight or if they’ve just bamboozled a foolish old woman, but since Tex must think he has a case he can make stick, I presume the latter. Tex then goes after Martha, and finds her camped out in the wilderness – just in time to save her from a mountain cat – and takes her back to Four Feather Falls and her old store. There’s a fantastic joke here that Rocky has had new horseshoes fitted, and now his hooves are aching – because as everyone knows, you shouldn’t go for a long walk when you’re trying to break in new shoes! Fortunately, Rocky and Dusty are able to ride back to town with Tex and Martha – giving us the somewhat surreal sight of a horse sitting in the back of a cart as a passenger!