Tuesday 21 May 2024



By Peter Field
Cover art by John Duillo
Pocket Books, February 1976
Originally published by Jefferson House, 1962 

Crusty, outspoken Ma Russell was in deep trouble. Killer Cagle had shot down her foreman in a saloon brawl. Her husband was up north with a busted leg, and Ma wanted to drive a herd of cattle across a thousand miles of wild, strange mountains. Without proper help she’d never make it, so Pat Stevens and his sidekicks Sam and Ezra decided to ride along. But Cagle and his desperadoes had other ideas. They menaced the cattle drive all the rugged way until – in a final action-packed showdown – one of Peter Field’s best Westerns comes to a roaring climax.

This book is part of the long running Powder Valley western series that began in 1934 and finished in 1967 and saw 80+ books published. Originally put out by Morrow before Jefferson House took over, all the books were published as hardbacks. They were later republished as paperbacks.

Peter Field is a pseudonym shared by a number of authors, the first of which was Francis Thayer Hobson. Other authors include Harry S. Drago, Davis Dresser, Fred East, and Robert J. Hogan. From the 35th book all the titles were written by Lucien W. Emerson. Emerson wrote The Outlaw Herd and it was the 76th entry into the series. It is the first Powder Valley western I’ve read.

I’ve never been a massive fan of cattle drive stories, but it had been a while since I’d read one so I decided to give The Outlaw Herd a chance. I needn’t have worried, as the cattle drive takes place over just a few pages with most of the book covering why the cattle drive was needed and where the cattle would come from. Also, there was the added complication of Cagle and his gang. These owlhoots also provided a mystery element to the tale as to the reason they were so interested in the Russell’s Spider ranch.

I got the impression that Stevens, Sam and Ezra are the main characters of the series, although there was little backstory revealed about them, or Powder Valley for that matter. I also noticed that Emerson rarely shares his characters thoughts – I only learned what they were thinking when they decided to explain something to other characters. This allowed the author to spring a couple of surprises without me having any idea they were coming. 

None of the characters really stood out to me. I’m still not sure what to make of Stevens as he seems too good to be true. He certainly never seems to doubt himself. Some of the plot stretched my belief somewhat, such as the acquisition of the outlaw herd. I’m not sure a rustler would hand over a herd on a promise of payment once the cattle had been sold to someone he didn’t know. This did add an extra element to the end of the story where Stevens came over as wearing a whiter than white hat. The story did move forward at a fair clip. It contains lots of dialogue, mainly threats and bluster. There’s not a lot of gunplay or other action. The blurb promised ‘a final action-packed showdown’ but that didn’t seem to happen. Yes, there was a shootout involving rustlers and a posse, but it was over fairly quickly and didn’t bring the story to an end as there were more plot threads to tie up before the close of the tale.

I realize I’ve said quite a few negative things about this book, but none of them put me off reading it. The main plotline was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages, as were a couple of subplots, such as how the relationship between the constantly bickering young cowboy and the Russell’s daughter would turn out, even though it was easy enough to work out. Steven’s plan to sneak off under the noses of Cagle and his gang was well done too.

Would I read another Powder Valley western on the strength of this one? Yes, probably, but maybe not for a while. I do think it would be interesting to read how some of the other authors behind the pseudonym tell their stories about Stevens, Sam and Ezra, especially those written by Robert J. Hogan and Fred East as I’ve always enjoyed their work.

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