CUTLER: THE HUNTER WHO NEVER FOUND HIS PREY
Ben Haas created two popular series characters in the men's adventure paperback market of the sixties and seventies, under the name John Benteen. Fargo, a former Rough Rider, prize fighter, cowboy, and practically any other macho job you could have in his time, operated as a soldier of fortune in the early twentieth century, hiring out for jobs that took him to Alaska, South America, and the last wild parts of the American West. Sundance, son of an English trapper and Cheyenne woman, plied his violent trade on the wild west to raise money for the Indian cause.
"With the success of Fargo and Sundance there came a request from Ben Haas's publisher for a third series," says western writer, Ben Bridges, the editor at Piccadilly Publishing, who has helped bring back the writer's work, explains. "Ben came up with John Cutler and in my opinion the first two books were just fabulous. "
With the first book, The Wolf Pack (sometimes simply titled Cutler in some versions), Haas introduces the man riding into the town of Buffalo Springs Like many Benteen heroes, Cutler is partially defined by his hardware and weapons. Before we meet him, the book describes his wagon. two black mules pull it, with a bay gelding trailing beside, as well as an airedale named Red for his coloring. The wagon jangles from all the traps inside. Cutler works as a wolfer or hunter for hire, often paid to take out a specific animal who poses a threat, but it's not just about the money.
The towering man in the black brim sombrero tracked down men before tracked down animals. He started out as a famed marshal in The Indian Territory before he found a good woman to settle down with. Then tragedy struck when up in the mountains, a silver backed, snake head grizzly went mad after gnawing off a foot caught in a trap, mauled and killed Cutler's wife. For the past five years, he has been in search of the creature, taking on these specialized jobs to finance his quest along the way.
Bridges compares him to a particular movie character. "It's no secret that Ben's Fargo character was based on 'Fardan', the character Lee Marvin played in The Professionals. I see great similarities between Cutler and Leo Gordon's character 'Cass Dowdy' from Night Of The Grizzly, a 1966 movie starring Clint Walker I can well imagine that this character, a wandering animal-hunter in a wagon full of swaying traps, served as the inspiration for Cutler."
The job in Buffalo Springs involves the Victorio Wolf who is taking down cattle from ranchers. The Cattlemen's Association decides to hire Cutler to take on the creature instead of Strick Gilbert, a hunter who uses a scorched earth approach with poisons instead of Cutler's more environmentally friendly approach with traps. He takes up residence on a ranch owned by a pretty widow he develops feeling for. While on the hunt, he crosses the most powerful rancher who has hired on Gilbert, giving him three antagonists to contend with,
Cutler shares the trait with other Benteen heroes where professionalism is prided most. Ability expresses personality. We follow Cutler's process as he tracks and sets traps for The Victorio Wolf, learning how it travels and hunts.He basically profiles the animal. Cutler's bay and the airedale grow into characters themselves in the parts they play in the hunt.
However Haas places some cracks in that stoic professionalism that he didn't with Fargo and Sundance. Cutler goes on a month long bender before a hunt as self medication to block the tragic thoughts of his past. His mind's eye flashes on them occasionally as he plies his trade.
Bridges sees that the Haas take on Cutler may have affected the character's popularity. "Cutler is a haunted man, consumed by the need to hunt down and destroy the killer grizzly that killed his wife. To an extent, Cutler is a far more single-minded, obsessed character than either Fargo or Sundance, and maybe that's one reason why he didn't catch on with readers."
Cutler's relationship with widow, is deeper than the other Benteen heroes had with another women, giving him a choice to move on. There is a sense of longing and loss at the end of The Wolf Pack than any of the Fargo or Sundance books I have read.
The second Cutler went by The Gun Hawks. Cutler comes down from hunting in the mountains to a Wyoming town.Before he can start his ritual bender, he runs afoul of the Calhouns, the family who runs the town. He also gets a letter from a friend who needs help down in Mexico. He heads out with the youngest Calhoon sent by the patriarch to go after him. When he gets to Mexico he finds his friend is missing and his home burnt to the ground. A gang of gunmen have taken over the local town, accusing Cutler's pal to be a brujah witch who can take on the form of the jaguar attacking the citizens. Once again, Cutler has a gang of anatagonists, an individual one, and an animal one that he has the most respect for.
Both under two hundred pages, these books make for wonderful weekend reads. Haas always proved to be a storyteller of strong craftsmanship. He weaved historical fact with male fantasy to deliver some of the most engaging adventure tales, Ben Bridge confirms this. "Ben Haas was simply a wonderful writer. He spared no effort to get his stories, settings and characters just right, and his style was tough, hardboiled and authoritative. When you read a Ben Haas western it's usually set firmly in a real historical period and involves characters you can really believe in. His dialog is great, his action pieces snappy and realistic, and the stories tend to come from real life historical facts or events and always build to thrilling and original climaxes. Short answer - he was and in my opinion remains the best in the business."
The result in his Cutler books was Moby Dick with a paperback punch.
So it was a shame the haunted hunter never caught up to the silverback griz. Some readers found the character too morose. I can't help but wonder if some people had a problem with a hero who killed an animal in every book instead of just mowing down dozens of men.
Ben has some simpler theories. "My own view is that Cutler wasn't really given the chance to find a readership. In those days, as with now, it was very much sink-or-swim. If you couldn't sell a required number of copies, you were cancelled and something else took your place."
Ben did inform me that he character was later brought back for four further books, this time by Vernon Hinkle writing as H.V. Elkin. "I don't know what prompted Belmont Tower to continue the series, but by the time they reached that decision, Ben Haas had passed away and Vern, who was visiting BT's offices, was invited to continue the series. As Vern soon discovered, the series came with a built-in limitation. John Cutler tracked rogue animals, and after rogue wolves, horses, tigers and bears, there was nowhere really for the series to go. This is a shame, because especially in the hands of a writer like Ben Haas, I think the series could have gone for several more volumes and really built a readership."
Just with those two books, I found Cutler to be one of the most compelling heroes in the men's adventure paperback era. He represented Ben Haas' craft and ambition. In just two stories, he demonstrated his ability to create a world through his hero.
"I think Cutler was very close to being the equal of Fargo and Sundance, but the character was never given the chance to establish himself in only two books," Ben concludes "However, both books are exceptional westerns and fabulous entertainment. Read them and then you find yourself speculating on just where the series might have gone, and what Cutler himself would have done in all those adventures that never saw the light of day."
You can order the first two Cutler books from Piccadilly HERE
There is also Ben Haas' memoir, A Hack's Notebook