It's 1876 and seventeen-year old Joey is traveling with a wagon train across Arizona Territory. Along with his older brothers Saul and Dave, Joey's destination is the fabled golden land of California. While the perilous trek is long and dusty, the most dangerous aspect of the trip is found within. Both Saul and Dave become embroiled in a bitter rivalry concerning Saul's young wife Eda. Confined in a hostile territory ripe with Apache attacks and savagery, Dave and Eda depart to city life in Tucson, leaving Saul enraged. He decides to forego the trip to California and instead begins to carve out a homestead in Apache Wells.
Steelman's plotting is superb when Joey is forced to choose sides between his warring brothers. After an argument with Saul, Joey heads to Tucson where he is robbed by a prostitute and her pimp. Left penniless, he heads back to Saul to help him defend his newly built homestead against the raids of Apache attacks. This propulsive plot device delivers a frantic pace as readers are thrust into these violent encounters. Saul is forced to protect his young brother while also attempting to build a fortified defense against the raiders. There is an exceptional amount of detail spent on planning and defending the attacks, which I found added a tremendous sense of realism.
However, the other plot point that Steelman cleverly balances is a familiar one – the inevitable traditional western story of land grabbing. In this case, it's a land baron that is controlling the town's businesses and assets. He needs Saul's newly acquired land to host his new shipment of cattle. When Dave agrees to side with the land baron, Joey finds himself in a fight to either protect Saul from Dave and other hired guns or from negotiating with Saul to leave the land and homestead he's fairly earned.
Apache Wells is a terrific tale that highlights the importance of family, responsibility, and commitment. Steelman's prose is written in cowboy dialect that is similar to Zane Grey or Walt Coburn. While that rich cowboy-speak may be off-putting to some, I thoroughly enjoyed the authenticity. Additionally, I liked the minor hints of Biblical components and theology as well as the various humorous bits sprinkled in courtesy of a cagey old mountain man. Thanks to Cutting Edge Books for re-introducing this great western to newer generations.
Collector's Note – Ballantine published a second printing in 1965. My version is the 1972 paperback by Ballantine with a cover by Frank McCarthy. The most admired version of the book is probably the 1975 Ballantine paperback with a painted cover by Boris Vallejo (Conan, Red Sonja).
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