Harry Whittington (1915-1989) is the king of the paperbacks. He wrote over 200 novels and utilized nearly 20 pseudonyms throughout his career. While immersing himself in the crime genre, the author also penned around 20 westerns including this 1961 Fawcett Gold Medal novel, “Desert State-Out”. It was reprinted in May of 1989 with alternate artwork for Avon Books.
Whittington introduces readers to Blade Merrick, a former Confederate soldier who's contracting with the U.S. Army to haul valuable medical supplies to the town of San Carlos. Beginning at Fort Ambush, Blade must venture through the hot California desert amidst the dreaded Apache...solo. Why Blade has been chosen for this mission remains a mystery until the closing chapters. The mystery, intrigue and suspense is a solid wind-up through the middle portions of the narrative.
After a few days on the journey, Blade stops at a rocky watering hole called Patchee Wells. It's there that he stumbles on three outlaws – elderly Charley Clinton, his son Billy and the gunfighter Perch Fisher. They in turn have stumbled up on the gutshot Jeff Butler and his wife Valerie. When Blade joins the group to assist, he learns they were attacked by the Apache with a second round of attacks coming. While Blade digs the bullet out of Butler, the table is densely set for alliances and betrayals.
The outlaws want to steal Blade's horses and supplies to head north away from the Army and Apache. Blade thinks they are the three guys that robbed a bank in Tucson. Butler's wife wants Blade's help to return to Fort Ambush where her husband can receive proper care. She fears that the outlaws will kill Blade, rape her and make off with all of the supplies. Blade is stuck in a hard place knowing that San Carlos is experiencing a plague that desperately needs his supplies. But ultimately none of them will survive another Apache assault outnumbered and outgunned.
First, if you are looking for the rip-roaring “Cowboys and Indians” western shootout I'm here to tell you “Desert Stake-Out” isn't it. Instead, this is a balance beam of thriller and suspense with the reader navigating the emotional states of these desperate characters. It increases tension and dread in all the right places, emphasizing how precarious the situation is for these six individuals. Just when you think you've figured it out, Whittington throws in a wild card; a grave that's been dug right there in Patchee Wells by Blade himself. Who's buried? Did Blade know these outlaws prior to meeting them at the watering hole? Little puzzle pieces are revealed as the reader sits in the rocks and dust waiting for everything to come full circle. The ending was extremely satisfying and painted a detailed portrait of this mysterious protagonist. I can't say enough good things about this one.