Although Ben Haas wrote a lot of books under a lot of
different names (including some well-regarded mainstream novels under his real
name), he’s probably best remembered these days as the author of two Western
series from the Seventies, Fargo and Sundance, both of which he wrote under the
pseudonym John Benteen. I’ve been a fan of his work for many years and have
read most of the Fargo novels, but for some reason I read only a few books in
the Sundance series. I intend to remedy that, starting with the fifth entry,
TAPS AT LITTLE BIG HORN. (I read the first four years ago, plus another book or
two from later in the series.)
Jim Sundance is the son of a Cheyenne mother and a British remittance man
father. He’s a professional fighting man and is equally at home in either
world, Indian or white . . . although if he had to choose, he’d probably stick
with the Cheyenne. He’s a staunch defender of the Indians and uses the money he
makes as a mercenary to fund efforts to combat the schemes of the Indian Ring,
a notorious cartel of ruthless businessmen and corrupt politicians. This much
is based on history, and actual events crop up in the novels from time to time.
TAPS AT LITTLE BIG HORN, as you’d expect, is a prime example of that. In an
earlier book, Sundance met and fell in love with Barbara Colfax, the beautiful
daughter of the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Barbara now lives
with the Cheyenne and has adopted the name Two Roads Woman. But her father
still wants her to come home, and he persuades Sundance to bring her to a
meeting with him. The bait he dangles is a promise to use his influence to keep
the army from trying to move the Cheyenne and the Sioux out of their hunting
grounds in Montana.
Well, I think any reader of Westerns and men’s adventure fiction will know that
things don’t work out as Sundance hoped. He winds up putting the white part of
his heritage aside and throwing in with the Cheyenne as Colonel George
Armstrong Custer leads the Seventh Cavalry on its fateful mission to force them
out of their hunting grounds.
One of the problems with a book like this that’s so tied in with actual history
is that the reader already knows a lot of what’s going to happen. The challenge
to the novelist is to blend the fictional characters and events in with the
real ones skillfully enough to create an interesting story that holds the
attention. Ben Haas is more than up to this challenge. Sundance is a strong,
likable protagonist, and even though we know things aren’t really going to work
out for him in this book, we root for him anyway. And as always, Haas provides
plenty of great, gritty action scenes.
Personally, I wouldn’t put TAPS AT LITTLE BIG HORN in the top rank of Ben
Haas’s books, because while it’s as well-written as always and compelling
enough that it kept me up later than usual reading, I’m just not as fond of
books set during the Indian Wars, especially ones that focus on actual battles.
It’s a good solid novel and I’m glad I read it, but I’m looking forward to some
of Sundance’s more fictional adventures. Which I plan to be reading soon.
That's my copy in the scan above, by the way, complete with tape on the cover and price sticker from the Used Book Warehouse in Rockport, Texas.