The final version/draft of “The Devil’s Joker,” sent to Otis A. Kline in June 1933, has not survived. Glenn Lord named one of two untitled drafts found in Howard’s papers as “The Devil’s Joker.” The unpublished version is notably longer and has a darker tone than its published counterpart. The differences between the two drafts are substantial, making both versions valuable and justifying their inclusion in the current collection. See “The Devil’s Joker (alternate version)”
The story - spoiler alert
In “The Devil’s Joker,” Robert E. Howard weaves a gripping Western tale centered around Steve Allison, also known as The Sonora Kid. The story begins in a bar where Bill Harrigan plays a prank on Steve by using a harmless snake. Unaware of Steve’s intense fear of snakes, the joke takes a dark turn when Steve, in a moment of panic, shoots Bill in the stomach, thinking he’s defending himself from a deadly threat.
The incident spirals out of control when everyone in the bar accuses Steve of murder. With Marshal John MacFarlane present, Steve, desperate to avoid the noose, holds up the bar and makes a daring escape. As a fugitive, Steve crosses paths with notorious gunfighters Black Jim Buckley, Frank Reynolds, and Dick Brill. With his reputation for sharpshooting and now being on the wrong side of the law, Steve reluctantly joins their plan to rob a mine payroll in Rio Juan.
Tensions run high within the gang, leading Steve to isolate himself in a cabin. His solitude is interrupted when Marshal MacFarlane arrives, and in a tense moment, Steve accidentally shoots him, grazing his skull. Despite their adversarial relationship, Steve can’t bring himself to kill the marshal and instead tends to his wounds.
The story reaches its climax when the rest of the gang appears, resulting in a deadly shootout. Steve, with remarkable skill and a bit of luck, manages to eliminate the gang members but sustains severe injuries in the process.
In a twist of fate, Marshal MacFarlane reveals that Bill Harrigan survived the initial shooting. The bullet had hit Bill’s six-shooter, which was concealed under his shirt, sparing his life. This revelation highlights the tragic irony of the situation, as Steve’s life-altering decisions were based on a monumental misunderstanding.
- CROSS PLAINS #6, George Hamilton, February/March 1975
- REH: TWO GUN RACONTEUR #3, Black Coast Press, Winter, 1976
- THE LAST RIDE, Berkley, June 1978
- THE END OF THE TRAIL: WESTERN STORIES, Bison Books, April 2005
- WESTERN TALES, REH Foundation Press, December 2013
- SFIDA AL CANYON INFERNALE, Fratini Editore, May 2014 (Italian)