Pretty Miss Jane (a pleasingly demure Marion Shockley) is about to embark for Cactus City. She’s been visiting genial old cattleman Dan Cather, a friend of her father’s. But now dad’s ailing and she’s heading back home to look after him. The stage pulls up right to Cather’s door. Now that’s service. And she’s off.
Now to Bob. But first we see his sidekick, Texas (the invaluable Si Jenks, scruffy, scrawny and lovable). Just out of sight, someone’s singing “A Cowboy’s Life is a Lonely One”. The camera pans to reveal it’s Bob, busy polishing his gun. And that smiling face of his, beaming with health and happiness, gives the lie to those song lyrics. Texas, in time-honored side-kick style, is craving flapjacks. But Bob says there’s no time for that. They’ve got to trail the stagecoach ‘cause he’s been tipped off that there’s gonna be trouble.
He’s right too. Because elsewhere three bad dudes are lying in wait as said stagecoach rounds the bend.The armed trio stops the coach and hollers for the strong box. Unhappy with its paltry contents, one of them spots Miss Jane inside and figures her for a Grade A consolation prize. He hauls the girl out, ordering the driver to move on and leave her behind. This is the first instance of what’s to become the film’s leading motif. That, in spite of blameless intentions, Miss Jane’s a regular Circe- in- spite-of- herself. Almost every development that follows somehow hinges on her irresistibility to the men around her. Plots are laid, advances made, rivalries declared, love pledged and gunshots fired - all over this sagebrush Helen of Troy.
Bob and Texas show up just in time to disarm the miscreants. Ever the gentlemen, Bob (Johnny Dade’s his character name), doffs his hat to reassure grateful Miss Jane she can continue on. Which she does. And though we seem to be in the middle of nowhere a happy looking dog suddenly appears to run alongside the stagecoach. A canine ham seizing his one opportunity for stardom? Well – lucky him – he dodged the cutting room floor. And seventy-some years later, viewers can still watch him whiz by. Bob gazes after Jane, wistfully dazed – then suddenly takes off in pursuit of the stage. He catches up and yells out to her.
“Where you goin’, ma’m?”
“Cactus “, she calls back.
Another heart bites the dust. Guess where Bob’s soon gonna be heading.
Next shot zooms in on a tombstone inscribed with the words:
“Here lies the body of Al Wiser 1878-1906
The End Came Sudden
To Poor Al
He Tried to Take
Bart Morgan’s Gal “
This monument’s parked just outside Cactus City. People just seem to call it Cactus for short, probably not from affection; more likely they just don’t want to waste much breath referring to the damned place. Because Cactus City’s a lawless pest-hole, unofficially presided over by Bart Morgan, the guy who sent Al Wiser to his final reward. There’s even a banner at the entrance to the place trumpeting its status as “a wide open town”.
Cactus City does have a nominal mayor. But he’s not much of an advertisement for civic virtue. The first we see of him he’s reeling out of the saloon, pie-eyed.
Says one passerby: “The mayor’s drunk again”
Replies another: “No, it’s the same old jag”
A couple of months have apparently passed and Miss Jane’s father seems to have succumbed to his ailment. So she’s earning her daily bread working at the town diner. Although locals refer to it rather inelegantly as ‘the eatin’ place”, coffee’s the only thing that seems to be on the menu. So – with her cooking duties light – Jane has plenty of time to wipe the counter, which she does incessantly. Of course, in her capacity as unintentional Venus Fly Trap, she’s also forced to deal with an endless stream of would be suitors. First one we see, seated nursing his cup of the only thing they serve, is our old friend Perry Murdock. He’s a stranger in town and - inevitably smitten – is loitering with intent, murmuring pointedly about how lonesome he is. Jane tries to discourage him. But more serious discouragement walks through the door in the person of town boss Bart Morgan. As embodied by moustachioed Hooper Atchley, this guy’s a full-on Oil Can Harry - a stranger to smiles, twirling his watch chain malevolently, coveting control over everything he sees. High on the list of items coveted, of course, is Jane. He’s been – as she delicately puts it – “annoying" her since she arrived in Cactus. Trying to wear her down with a joyless courtship by intimidation; part of his strategy involves giving any other men who buzz around her two choices- get out of town or wind up in Boot Hill. Perry chooses the lesser of two evils and exits pronto.
Having restated his affections/threats to Jane, Bart repairs to his headquarters down the street, the Lucky Star Gambling Hall. This joint, dominated by a huge wheel of fortune (that’s no doubt fixed) is where Bart spends most of his time hanging out with burly second-in-command Red Thompson and quietly tyrannizing assorted hangers-on. The tippling mayor announces to an unimpressed Bart that a newly appointed marshal’s headed to Cactus and he’s “fire and brimstone on wheels”. The lawman’s name just happens to be Johnny Dade. So now we know how Bob’s contrived to follow Miss Jane to her habitat. We can also guess that Bart Morgan’s about to meet his match.
The action moves out onto the nearby prairie, where the Bar Circle ranch team is taking a break while moving their cattle to a shipping depot. Boss of the outfit’s Jane’s former host, Dan Cather. The old-timer gives a bunch of his boys a semi-reluctant OK when they decide to go into Cactus to “wet their tonsils”. “ Be back by sundown”, he calls after them. No sooner are they gone than Bob turns up on the horizon. Turns out he and Cather are good friends. When Bob tells Mr. C about his upcoming assignment in Cactus, the old guy begins to mutter grim denunciations of the place (they must be of biblical heft because one of the few words I can make out is “purgatory”). But ever-cheerful Bob’s unfazed. He only announces he’s starved - at which point the Chinese cook starts banging on a beat-up old tin plate that serves as noisily vibrating dinner bell. The camera neatly segues to hands pounding furiously on the piano keys at the Lucky Star. The wet their tonsils bunch from the Bar Circle is there and seem well on the way to abandoning their jobs and switching allegiance to Morgan, who promises easy money. Continuing his campaign to soften them up, he also authorizes drinks on the house. At which offer, the souse mayor instantly materializes, doing an impressive high-speed totter to the bar.
In quieter surroundings, Miss Jane, decked out in bonnet, cape and prim little dress, is sneaking out the back door of the eatin’ place. She quickly mounts a waiting pinto (an impressive feat considering her none too ready for riding apparel) and hightails it out of town. She’s making a break for it, in a bid to escape Morgan’s clutches (plus save the lives of all those inevitable suitors he’ll want to eradicate).
Unfortunately for Jane, she’s spotted by Red Thompson and the boys, riding nearby. “There goes Bart Morgan’s gal! She’s trying to make a getaway!”. This is not the soft-hearted bunch to let that happen.
Plus Red has (of course) designs on man magnet Jane himself. The men take off in pursuit of her. She sees and tries to outrun them. Suddenly, Bob makes a nick-of-time appearance riding over the hill. Instantly spotting a lady in distress, he catches up to her.
“What’s wrong, ma’m?”
“Those men are chasing me”, comes the frantic, if obvious, reply.
Instantly Bob’s at her service. As he races beside her, the stunt people earn their oats. Just out of sight of the pursuers, Bob and Jane switch horses in full gallop. In a flash Bob dons the girl’s bonnet and cape and sends her down a side trail. When the bad guys catch up, they follow bonnet, cape and pinto, thinking it’s Jane. Racing too close to the edge of a steep cliff, the pinto stumbles over, sending horse and rider to what looks like their doom. For the horse, that’s apparently the truth because we see him no more. But cat-like Bob’s got at least nine lives, so he’s only playing dead at the bottom of the gulch. The bad guys look way down and make the natural assumption that Miss Jane’s a goner. Then head back to break the news to Morgan.
Meanwhile, Jane and Bob reconnect and find refuge at Cather’s encampment. Romantic sparks fly but Jane’s planning to hop a train and get as far from Cactus as she can while Bob’s just heading there (for his marshaling duties). It’s shaping up as a never the twain shall meet situation. When Bob’s out reconnoitering, Red and the boys turn up to make trouble for Cather. Jane’s hidden in a wagon but Red notices her telltale bonnet lying in plain sight and puts two and two together. His boys force the girl out – and to avert further killings (they’ve got guns trained on Cather), she lets them carry her back to Helltown.
When next we visit Cactus, Jane’s neither bound nor gagged but rather primly re-installed at her all-important lunch counter duties. So we’re back to square one. Except this time, Bob comes riding into town (with sidekick Texas) and drops in for a cup of Java, cheerful as if the last time they saw each other was at a church social.
Romance is still in the air.
“Don’t call me ma’m. My name is Jane”.
But, kind soul that she is, Jane’s worried any continued attentions might have dangerous consequences for him. Right on cue, in walks Bart Morgan, conveying his usual menacing phrases as if it were the daily mail delivery. A still smiling Bob does leave – but not before he’s pointed out Texas, on horseback outside, gun firmly pointed in Morgan’s direction. Left alone with Jane at the lunch counter, Bart aims a few more conversational jabs at the girl.
“A stranger has a lot to learn when he comes to Cactus. The first thing is to move out when I move in”
“You’re making me hate you, Bart”.
“If I let him go will it make any difference ... with us?”
“It might”, Jane blurts out a little too quickly.
“Just as I thought”, says tricky Bart, suspicions confirmed.
Meanwhile out on the range, Old Man Cather, tired of waiting for his boys to come back from town, decides to go to Cactus and bring ‘em back. Bad idea. Because, when he strides into the Lucky Chance, his boys, emboldened by those drinks on the house, give him nothing but lip. One thing leads to another and bullets fly, leaving old Cather stretched out dead on the bar-room floor. Bob rushes in – but a little too late. Setting up one of those classic Steele moments, him kneeling emotionally over the body of yet another father figure. Most B-westerns are perfunctory in their approach to scenes like this. But Bob never gives them less than his all and, invariably, makes them matter.
Next, in a whiplash-inducing change of tone, it’s time for a bit of French farce. Built around the unlikely person of grizzled Si Jenks, looking, as usual, like a prospector who’s lost his mule. Marshal in residence Bob is sharing a hotel room with Si. And as often happens in 30’s B westerns, when cowpokes end up in a hotel together, they usually have to share a bed. One gets the impression that sleeping next to Jenks would be tantamount to bedding down with a flea circus. He’s peeling down to his long-johns when there’s a knock on the door.
“Who is it?’ calls Bob
“Jane”. comes the answer.
Yipes. Granted, Jenks in long-johns is no mood enhancer for a romantic tryst. But frantic Bob acts as if he’s got Belle Watling and all her girls stashed in the room. He manhandles the stumbling Jenks across the room and into a wardrobe, then races to open the door. Jane’s there to warn him that Bart and his henchman are out for Bob’s blood. Didn’t we already know that? I think she just wanted some bill and coo time with him. No complaints from Bob. She leaves; Bob’s swimming in afterglow. At which point, a momentarily forgotten Jenks comes tumbling and squawking out of the closet, trousers around his ankles. Take that, Feydeau!
Meanwhile developments are simmering all around. At the Lucky Star, while loyal to his face, Red and bartender Gus are plotting to double-cross boss Morgan. Among other things, Red thinks once Morgan’s out of the way he’ll have a clear path to Miss Jane. Considering that attraction to her’s been spreading like a pandemic, maybe Gus has similar ideas. That counter-wiping technique of hers is probably just the kind of thing to turn him on. Out on the range, Cather’s loyal cowpunchers, apparently uninformed of the old boy’s death, have gotten tired of waiting for him to come back. They’re gonna head for Cactus and clean it out once and for all. Even the Chinese cook gets into the act, given his own slapstick solo when the mule he’s trying to mount goes all bucking bronco on him.
Back in Cactus, Morgan has challenged Bob to a gunfight. Normally, that wouldn’t be wise. But Morgan has Gus stationed at an open second storey window, ready to flash a mirror in Bob’s eyes, momentarily blinding him just before he draws. The gunfight’s neatly set up on the main street set and tension mounts. But at the critical moment, double-crossing Gus carries out that secret plan he and Red had been hatching and flashes the mirror in Morgan’s eyes instead. Bob, a stickler for Queensberry rules in all things, is briefly puzzled. Texas spots Gus and shoots the mirror out of his hand. Morgan catches on, looks at Bob and says “thanks”. But the gratitude’s short-lived. And he seizes the moment to draw first. But, remember, our boy’s “fire and brimstone on wheels”. He responds in a flash and instantly Morgan’s flat on his back, a bullet-hole in his chest.
Gus, Red and the no accounts they’ve got with them (I think it’s the ex-Cather boys the ones who got all those free drinks) launch a gun battle royale against Bob, forcing him, Texas and Jane into the Lucky Chance for cover. They’re outnumbered, guns blaze and things looks bad for them. In the midst of the mayhem, Red spots Jane in a window on the saloon’s second floor and starts climbing up to get at her. This guy’s got it bad. What he doesn’t see is that, below, Morgan still has a spark of life in him. And spotting Red’s frantic Janeward clamber, uses his last bit of strength to shoot the guy dead.
“You dirty yella double-crosser, now you can’t have her”, murmurs Bart as he expires.
That’s the cue for Cather’s loyal bunch to turn up and carry through on their threat to clean out Cactus once and for all. They overpower the remaining bad guys and save the day. Inside the Lucky Star, our trio is safe and sound. Bob puts his arm around Jane, who’s finally ready to give one of her suitors the green light.
“Miss Jane, I came to this town for one reason – and that’s settled. But I’m stayin’ for another”
Suddenly the booze-hound mayor pops up from under the bar, where he’s apparently been all along, sampling the stock. The guy weaves his way toward the door but Bob calls out to Texas,
“Grab that mayor!” He’s the only one in this town who can tie a weddin’ knot!”
Law, order and happy smiles have been restored to Cactus City.