An occasional look at the West, wild and otherwise, in fiction and nonfiction, comics, moving pictures, radio, music, and in ways yet determined or created. Caveat lector: Irregular postings from The Woodstove Whittlers and Wrangling Association may include a tall tale whose veracity may be difficult to ascertain, but whose sincerity should never be doubted. This blog may go on unexpected hiatus due to natural disasters, stampedes, seasonal roundups, or spontaneous potluck suppers. (Oh, and everything here is copyright Duane Spurlock unless otherwise noted.)
As I began reading this novel, I thought, “Wow, this has all the makings of a great spaghetti Western.” Remarkably, this Patten novel wasn’t written in the violent-western boom following the popularity of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name films: it was first published in 1957 by Fawcett Publications as Gold Medal # 706. (Now it’s newly available as a Large Print book from Center Point Publishing.)
As you read the opening paragraphs, can’t you just see the cinematography Sergio Leone would apply to a film version?
“At the end of the day, the desert lay flat and shimmering behind them and they began the long climb toward the high-piled, rocky mountains ahead.
“The brilliant hues of the setting sun dyed the thin clouds gold and rose, yet of all the passengers in the stagecoach, only one noticed the radiant beauty in the sky.”
In Massacre at San Pablo, Patten tells the story of Mark Atkins, first seen as a twelve-year-old traveling west with his parents. He’s orphaned when Apaches attack the stage on which the family is traveling; and he’s taken in by Jaime and Rosa Maria Ortega, who happen across the attack site as they head home from taking on their nine-year-old nephew, Leon, whose mother had died just a month ago.
So the Ortegas raise both boys as their own in the village of San Pablo. But their home also is victimized by seasonal Apache attacks, prompting the Mexican government to establish a bounty for Indian scalps.
After brutal scalpers determine the government agents can’t tell the difference between Indian and Mexican scalps, they raid San Pablo. During the attack, Jaime and Rosa Maria are killed. And Mark Atkins, orphaned again, leaves the village to track down and kill the raiders.
Patten does a great job showing Mark as he grows up and learns to handle a gun, learns ranch work, encounters some of the band he seeks, finds love, and learns to live without vengeance. Once Mark finds love, Patten’s novel veers off the track of the typical spaghetti Western, but not everything is sweetness and light: the woman to whom Mark loses his heart has already given her word to marry a man Mark is hunting -- a man named Healy, the leader of the San Pablo raiders.
At that point, Mark adjusts his moral compass as he learns about justice, injustice, and denied desires. He matures, but his struggles don’t fade away -- they intensify as he learns Healy is a rustler, and Healy’s wife discovers her husband is just the brute Mark had warned her about.
Patten’s pacing, his characterizations, his way with settings and descriptions of ranch work are excellent. He doesn’t waste a word, and the storytelling is just dandy from start to finish. Massacre at San Pablo is available from Amazon, and it's one of the items on the Lewis B. Patten category of the Spur & Lock Spinner Rack.