Black Horse Western writer "Dave Armstrong" was born William David Mills, in Windsor, Melbourne, on 3 April, 1919. After education at Mentone Grammar School, he went to work as a market gardener. Other jobs followed -- several of them. Most prominently, he owned and managed public tennis courts in Dandenong, and later worked as a freelance reporter for the Australia Post. He didn't marry until relatively late in life, and was 44 when he and Mary Craig finally tied the knot in 1963. The couple, who had no children, retired to Culcairn, in New South Wales, in 1985.
I first met Bill through our mutual acquaintance, Len Meares. Len had just begun his own stint as a Black Horse Western writer, but certainly wasn't new to the game. As "Marshall Grover", he had already penned hundreds of westerns, the great majority of them featuring his two fiddle-footed Texans, Larry and Stretch.
Bill's first western, Blade of Vengeance (1991), was the story of a convict named Slash Harmon, who swears revenge upon the elderly judge who put him away. Although there was also an interesting subplot, in which the hero's Indian father-in-law, Grey Wolf, believed his daughter died as punishment for marrying a white man, the book was not without its faults.
The style was simplistic and occasionally repetitive; there wasn't much in the way of historical detail; and the hero overcame each obstacle in turn just a little too easily. But Blade of Vengeance -- which ends with an amazingly vicious knife-fight -- was only meant to be a light and undemanding read, and in that respect it succeeded admirably.
In those early days, Bill's style was rather similar to Len's, but by the time he came to write his second "Dave Armstrong" yarn, Gambler's Luck (1991), he had found his own voice in no uncertain terms. Although it was an otherwise pretty standard power-struggle story, the book was distinguished by strong characterization, good dialogue and credible, suitably perverse villains. In fact, Bill's talent for drawing memorable villains would eventually become something of a trademark for him. He was also particularly good at creating female characters.
With God's Gunslinger (1992), Bill introduced his only continuing character, a one-eyed, one-armed sheriff named Hezekiah Horn. With the help of his friend, Apache Joe, Horn here finds himself defending his town from a band of Mexicans determined to win back former Mexican territory ceded to the United States.
Hezekiah turned up again in Hezekiah and the Pecos Kid, a revenge story published in 1992, and Hezekiah and Hell's Belle (1992), a satisfying conundrum of a yarn in which numerous plot-threads -- including arson, blackmail and rustling -- were skilfully woven together.
Bill re-examined the power-struggle theme in Careful McKane (1992), which he wrote under the pseudonym "Ted Richardson". Here, a rancher plots to take over land contiguous to his own, and isn't too fussy about how he does it. The issue is complicated, however, by the unexpected arrival in the territory of a bandit gang.
Fort Calamity (1993), written as "Price Porter", is a somewhat hit-and-miss cavalry-under-siege story that conforms in every way to the dictates of this sub-genre. A pompous, glory-hunting officer; a shavetail second lieutenant who had to take charge when the Comanches attack; the usual tensions and rivalries between the officers' wives; and a stock mixture of newly arrived, raw recruits. Still, the book is held together nicely by a series of short, telling scenes, occasional bursts of action and some highly successful stabs at humour.
Bill later re-used the "Price Porter" pseudonym for his 1994 western, Hell-Fire Marshal, and lawmen with a difference tended to recur in his stories. Second-Shot Sullivan (1993), for which he assumed the name "Jack McKenzie", was no exception. In this cattle-rustling tale, the titular hero has a potentially fatal habit of always allowing the other man to shoot first.
The Wolf and the Cougar (1993), as by "Ted Richardson", is an interesting manhunt story set at the time of the Ghost Dance movement. And religion -- be it that of white man or red -- was certainly something Bill was qualified to write about. In his private life, he eventually became an elder of the Presbyterian Church, led Bible studies, preached and conducted funerals. He also wrote more than 1700 messages for the Christian telephone ministry, "Dial for New Hope". And by his own admission, he also tried to introduce a Christian emphasis into his westerns whenever he felt it appropriate.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the frankly preachy Clan of Doom (1993), another "Jack McKenzie" novel which revolves around the way in which two men interpret the Scriptures, one to further his own ends, the other to bring about a fairer and altogether more peaceful conclusion to their problems.
Bill hoped that his next book, the longer and more complex Return to Hell's Acre, would help him crack the American market, but when this failed to happen, he submitted it to John Hale, who was happy to publish it. The only problem was its length.
Rather than send the manuscript all the way back to Australia, I suggested that Bill have it sent to me. I would then edit it down to the required 45,000 words and return it to Hale. And that is precisely what happened. Return to Hell's Acre, published under the pseudonym "Damon Mills", was published in 1995.
Thinking back on it, however, it seems odd Bill should even consider trying to break into the American market. He was always his own sternest critic, and I don't believe I ever received a letter from him in which he didn't, at one point or another, take a dig at himself. He enjoyed writing westerns, but felt he was a bit of a fraud because he wasn't American. He never seemed to have much confidence in his ability to write fiction either.
But the truth was very different. Tight plotting, adequate if not inspired characterization, the ability to tell a good story in a compelling style and with a strong moral thread were the hallmarks of a Bill Mills Black Horse Western.
In any case, Return to Hell's Acre proved to be the author's final western, and after a long battle with cancer -- which, incidentally, he faced with great strength and stoicism -- he died on 7 March, 1995. His widow, Mary, passed away five years later.
This article first appeared in the pages of www.blackhorsewesterns.org