“Top Man with a Gun” is a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback first released in 1959. It was re-released again in 1981 with alternative cover art. The author, western enthusiast Lewis B. Patten, wrote a tremendous amount of genre entries from 1952 through 1982 including four titles alone in 1959. While “Top Man with a Gun” isn't a standout western, it continues Patten's traditional western flair for violent and grim journeys by young protagonists.
The harrowing adventure begins with young Clay living in Lawrence, Kansas with his father and sister. Set in 1863, historians could probably guess what was about to unfold. Confederate militia, led by guerrilla fighter William Quantrill, descends on the city to root out the anti-slavery movement. The end result, known now as the Lawrence Massacre, left over 180 men dead and nearly 200 buildings burned. In the chaos, Clay is wounded and must watch his father's murder and his sister's subsequent suicide. He sees the face of the rider and vows to avenge their deaths.
As a classic Patten, the book is straight-laced with violence, vengeance and a good sense of western brutality. As the author plunges readers into the narrative, we learn more about the man Clay is becoming. Forced to ride with his sister's boyfriend Lance, the two are engaged in combat with Union officers, forcing deserter Lance to kill one of his own men. With both Clay and Lance on the run, the novel starts to find its own footing.
Soon, the duo rescue the beautiful Dolly from three armed criminals before heading across the frosty mid-west tundra to escape Indians, Union soldiers and law enforcement. While the first half ends with Clay and Dolly falling in love, the second half briskly moves the location to Texas and a robust cattle drive being handled by Clay and farmhands. Here the action heats up as Clay is forced to fight three men and a spoiled woman whom Clay rejected. This scorned lover's vengeance is about par for the course for a 1960s Gold Medal paperback – a fitting element that enhances this ordinary western tale.
This is my third Patten novel to date and I've really enjoyed all three. There's similarities in Patten's writing style – the weather elements, young heroes, revenge – but they are reminiscent of just about any good western story. Plus, Patten penned over 100 novels under his name and others. Being innovative and original could be challenging under these genre tropes. Regardless, at 133-pages, “Top Man with a Gun” is an entertaining, action-packed western that didn't disappoint.
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