After enjoying a trio of crime-fiction novels by Clifton Adams (1919-1971), my first look at the author’s prolific western sagas was the 1969 novel “Tragg's Choice”, winner of a coveted Spur award. Appreciating his unorthodox approach to traditional western storytelling, I was excited to test another of his genre works, 1962's “Day of the Gun”.
Sam Engels is an elderly, widowed man and a former Field Marshal in and around the boomtowns of the Oklahoma Territory. I could immediately sense that Engels had a few hills he chose to die on, but miraculously survived all of those battles. Through brief backstories it's conveyed that his wounds and age, combined with the approach of the 20th Century, has led Engels to the twilight of his career. Now unemployed, Engels has arrived in the small town of Guthrie, Oklahoma in hopes of obtaining a U.S. Marshal job.
After departing the stagecoach, Engels has a brief, violent encounter with three young cattlemen after they push the “old-timer” into the dust. Afterwards, Engels meets the local Marshal and learns that his application was denied due to age. Later that night, the dejected Engels is once again attacked by the three cattlemen. After three broken ribs and a vast array of bruises and cuts, Engels is left in the dirt to die. He awakens to find a woman named Kit tending to his wounds in a makeshift doctor's office. After talking with the young woman, he learns that Kit is actually an orphan that he saved years ago.
Kit explains to Engels that a deranged killer named Elsey has victimized her for a number of years by murdering her husband and anyone else who attempts to befriend her. Fearing that Elsey will now target Engels, she urges him to heal up and leave town. But in an odd twist of fate, the man who won the U.S. Marshal job asks Engels if he can ride as a posse-man (the lowest tier of 1800s law enforcement) to capture Elsey. Engels must then decide to either swallow his pride and accept the lowly servitude or simply leave town and pursue his next career choice as a cattleman.
Once again, Clifton Adams approaches the western genre with an abstract method of storytelling. In the same way that “Tragg's Choice” was so compelling, Adams creates an aging, experienced character who has reached the end of his career. It's a familiar formula, the elderly striving to stay relevant in an age dominated by youth and change, but Adams is able to incorporate outside elements to distance himself from just an average retelling. The narrative focuses on a number of conflicts, primarily Engels contending with a younger, more resilient partner while tracking a killer. Engels' mysterious past is purposefully left unexplored, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions on his murky history. These are just small nuances that help create a unique reading experience even for seasoned western fans.
Like Clair Huffaker and Lewis B. Patten, Clifton Adams isn't a mainstream name within western fiction. While fans flock to talents like Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, Luke Short and Max Brand, it is perhaps this second tier of talent makes up some of the genre's best literary works. “Day of the Gun” is another excellent western tale from an author that mastered the genre. At some point I would like to sample his “Amos Flagg” series, but with so many excellent stand-alone titles, it may take some time to properly evaluate that series.
Purchase your copy of “Day of the Gun” HERE.