Friday, January 15, 2021

Forgotten Books: Shootout at Sioux Wells - Cliff Farrell

Cliff Farrell was a prolific pulpster who wrote hundreds of stories, mostly Westerns but a good number of sports stories, too, for a variety of Western and general fiction pulps. His career began in the mid-Twenties and lasted until the end of the pulp era. But he wasn’t done then. In the Fifties, he began selling Western novels to hardback publishers and was still at it in the Seventies, writing new books for Doubleday’s Double D line until his death in 1977. Over the years, I’ve read quite a few of Farrell’s pulp stories and enjoyed them all. I’ve found that he was more inconsistent as a novelist but still produced some excellent work, including SHOOTOUT AT SIOUX WELLS, published by Doubleday in 1973. It’s a top-notch traditional Western novel.

The protagonist of this one is Zach Keech, a Texas cowboy from the Brazos country who’s part of a cattle drive heading for Montana. The herd belongs to Zach’s father (a rather Gabby Hayes-like character), and while they’re in Kansas, the engineer of a passing train blows the locomotive’s whistle and deliberately stampedes the herd, resulting in the loss of some of the cattle.

Angry over this, Zach leaves the drive and heads for the nearest town, Sioux Wells, where the railroad’s headquarters are, determined to settle the score and make the railroad pay for the lost cattle. That could have been a book in itself, but instead, Zach hasn’t been in town long before the local marshal ropes him into becoming an undercover agent and infiltrating a gang of train robbers. That will be the best way for Zach to collect what he thinks the railroad owes to his father, the lawman argues. And that marshal’s name? Why, Wild Bill Hickok. The fact that a couple of beautiful young women are mixed up somehow in the affair helps Zach make up his mind to help Hickok bust up the gang.

The big twist in this plot will be pretty obvious to most readers, and I don’t think anybody will be surprised by the identity of the mastermind behind the gang, either. But man, Farrell has a lot of fun spinning this yarn. Everything perks along nicely, and there’s some good hardboiled action along the way, especially the epic shootout at the end. There’s even some “yuh mangy polecat” dialogue, a nod to Farrell’s pulp origins, perhaps. That kind of stuff never bothers me. All in all, despite being published in the Seventies, SHOOTOUT AT SIOUX WELLS reads like it could have been written in the Forties or Fifties.

I read the Double D hardback, an ex-library edition I picked up somewhere, but this book was reprinted in paperback a couple of times by Signet, too. I really enjoyed it, and if you’re looking for a solid traditional Western, I give SHOOTOUT AT SIOUX WELLS a high recommendation.


Todd Mason said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed all the pulp and digest fiction I've read by Farrell (I first read his work in the Dell ZANE GRAY magazine), and I should definitely seek more of his later work out.

How attentively or indifferently would you say Doubleday's western line was edited? Their sf line was certainly all over the map...and while I've been pretty consistently happy with Evans and (unsurprisingly) Five Star books, I haven't read enough to know how often there might've undistinguished or worse Counterbalances to, say, Joe Lansdale's anthologies...

James Reasoner said...

Most of the Double D Westerns from the Sixties and early Seventies I've read have been pretty good. Some of the ones I've read from the later Seventies weren't well edited, though, with typos, continuity errors, plot holes, etc. A lot of the authors during that time period were older, such as Ferrell, Lewis B. Patten, and Ray Hogan. Still doing good work, but not as consistently as they once did. Pat LoBrutto took over as editor sometime in the Eighties, I think, and the quality control improved after that. The Sixties was probably the Double D line's peak decade, though.