LEWIS B. PATTEN – Prodigal Gunfighter. Berkley F1241; paperback original, 1966. Signet, paperback , 1976; Leisure, paperback, packaged with The Law in Cottonwood, 1994.
By sheer happenstance, this is the next western I picked up to read, and in a strong sense it picks up a thread I was working with in my review of W. C. Tuttle’s Straws in the Wind. If Tuttle’s career as a paperback writer ended in 1951 or so, Lewis B. Patten was there almost immediately to pick up the torch. His first book, Massacre at White River, came out from Ace in 1952.
Patten’s writing career continued right up until he died in 1981, when Track of the Hunter came out, also as a paperback original, this time from Signet. He was incredibly prolific. In a thirty-year span he produced something like 90 novels, including books as by Lewis Ford, Len Leighton (with Wayne D. Overholser) and Joseph Wayne (also in collaboration with Overholser).
As one of the next generation of western writers, all of Patten’s novels appeared in the post-pulp era but (as far as I know) they were all still very much in the strong “code of the west” tradition. It’s certainly difficult to generalize on the basis of one book, and Prodigal Gunfighter is the only book of his that I’ve read in several years, and probably more than that.
Not that Patten didn’t write for the pulps. Starting in 1950 he had a score or more shorter works that appeared in magazines like Mammoth Western, Thrilling Western, Frontier Stories and so on. His name is certainly more identified with novels, however, and in his heyday, he was cranking them out like almost nobody else.
And he was published in hardcover as well. He may have begun in softcover only, but beginning with Guns at Gray Butte in 1963, more and more of books came out from Doubleday. Not all of them, but a high percentage of them, the easy explanation for why not all of them was that he probably wrote more books than Doubleday could publish.
Take 1966 for example. He wrote No God in Saguaro and Death Waited at Rialto Creek for Doubleday; The Odds Against Circle L for Ace; and Prodigal Gunfighter for Berkley. Not that year, but in the same time period, he also wrote for Lancer and Signet, the latter eventually becoming his primary publisher in paperback, both for originals and reprints of the Doubleday novels.
If you want a slim and lean western to read, one that you will pick up and not put down until you’re done, then the 128 page Prodigal Gunfighter is the book for you. Taking place in the space of only a day in the small town of Cottonwood Springs, Patten certainly doesn’t leave the reader much time to breathe.
The early morning finds the entire town down at the railroad station, waiting for the prodigal to return, in the person of the notorious home-grown gunfighter Slade Teplin. Included among them is a rather nervous deputy sheriff Johnny Yoder, who has been semi-courting Teplin’s wife, Molly, a school teacher who thought she could tame him, couldn’t, but who has not yet divorced him.
Is he the reason for Slade’s return? Slade has had no contact with Molly since he left town. His father still lives in Cottonwood Springs, but there’s hardly any love lost between the two of them. Does he want revenge of some sort against the entire town? It is pure hatred? No one seems to know, and the sense of fear in the town is everywhere.
And no one can do anything, including the law. In all but his first of many killings over the years, Slade has never drawn first. On page 91 Slade is briefly confronted by the sheriff:
… Arch said finally, “So that makes it murder doesn’t it? It’s just like a rigged poker game where you know you’re going to win because you’ve stacked the cards.”
“I always let the other guy draw first.”
“Sure. Sure you do. You can afford to. Besides, it’s smart. It gives you immunity from prosecution. But you know, every time who it is that’s going to die. Like with Cal Reeder earlier today.”
Cal Reeder was a kid, the son of a wealthy local rancher, who thought he’d make a name for himself and failed. His father is part of the story, and so are the four drifters that Johnny notices having come quietly into town.
Even at the short length the plot does not go exactly where it seems expected to do, and on pages 114-115 is one of the best choreographed fist-fights (not shoot-outs) I’ve read in quite a while, and it’s not even with Slade Teplin. He’s still on the loose, however – don’t worry about that – and with plans to cause even more havoc in Cottonwood Springs.
To show you want I mean, though, here’s at least how the end of the fight reads:
Johnny followed him over the desk-top and landed once more on top of him. The man was fighting with a silent desperation now, fighting for his life. Each blow he struck had a sodden, smacking sound both his fists and Johnny’s face were wet with blood. And he was tough. He was wiry and strong and no stranger to this kind of fight.
But he lacked one thing, one thing that Johnny had – anger, righteous indignation and outraged fury. Johnny had those things in quantity. For every blow the stranger struck, Johnny retaliated with another, harder one.
The man was weakening. They rolled against the glass-strewn floor to the window and back again. And at last Johnny felt the man go limp.
After a few seconds taken to recover, Johnny knows he needs to make the man talk. From page 116:
Johnny said softly, “You’re going to talk, you son-of-a-bitch, or I’m going to kick your head in. You understand what I said?”
He’s not bluffing. The west was a tough place to live, but Patten’s characters also seem to be tough enough themselves and equal to the challenge when they need to be. What’s more traditional than that?
PostScript: Written later in Patten’s career is a book called The Law in Cottonwood (Doubleday, 1978). While I’m curious, I do not know whether the later book has any of the same characters as this one.
— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
2005 (slightly revised).