(LES SAVAGE JR.)
GOLD MEDAL (1951)Either under his own name or his Logan Stewart pseudonym, Les Savage Jr. penned seven full novels for Gold Medal in the early 50s. A further collaboration with Dudley Dean was published posthumously later in the decade. Unfortunately Savage died before he was 35.
I’d never read a word by him before and didn't know what to expect, but I found myself in good hands. A polished writer with a honed gift for tension and a good grasp of character and human nature, Stewart managed to bring even minor characters to life.
The Trail is centered upon Marrs, a talented cook who is haunted by something in his past, the truth of which we don’t learn immediately. Believing himself pursued by an old enemy, Marrs hires on as a trail cook for a troubled outfit run by Paul and Gail Butler and their angry ramrod, Bob Slaughter.
Paul Butler’s a weak and sickly man, leaving Gail the true manager of the outfit—a woman on whom Slaughter has designs. Gail, however, isn't interested in Slaughter, partly out of loyalty to her husband, and partly because she doesn't much care for Slaughter’s brutal leadership.
Marrs, of course, proves to be much more than a talented cook. His mastery of cattle driving skills begins to win over the other cowboys as well as Gail, which of course angers the surly Slaughter. Add to this tension a gambling syndicate that wants to make sure the cattle drive arrives at fading Abilene rather than Dodge, some Choctaw Indians, and some jayhawkers, and you get some great battle sequences, both gunfights and hand-to-hand.
Though a fairly standard story, Savage manages some surprises, and the sense of verisimilitude is overwhelming. In no other western have I ever found such a strong sense that the writer had actually ridden on a cattle drive. Savage brings every moment on the trail to life, from the way the chuck wagon is operated to how cattle behave, and down to the way some of the men argue about how to lasso and what equipment is best in which situation. The scenes featuring conversation with the Choctaw Indians also had a you are there quality.
A touch of old-fashioned melodrama in some of the scenes between Gail and Marrs brought the overall story down half a notch for me, but the realistic depiction of a cattle drive, the hazards, and everyday cowboy practices I've ever read counted in its favor. I'll definitely be seeking out more of Savage's work.
The Trail was later reprinted under Savage's own name with its title changed to The Last Ride.
CONTRIBUTOR—HOWARD ANDREW JONES