Monday, July 21, 2014

The Hell Raisers, or Saddle Pals, by Lee Floren, 1947

This review is my early contribution to Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase which will be compiled by Todd Mason at his blog Sweet Freedom this Friday.

They lived by their guns in a land where death was a way of life.

A replica of my book.
When I read The Hell Raisers (original title: Saddle Pals), the first thought that came into my head was that why can’t people leave each other alone and lead their own lives. There is enough to fill everyone’s need and greed. If that was indeed the case, Lee Floren, or most western writers for that matter, would not have many stories to tell. For, conflict between man and man, usually over a piece of land, has been the central theme of a lot of frontier fiction and that includes this 127-page novel.

In The Hell Raisers, Lee Floren casts a rich and powerful cattleman and his gunfighters and a bunch of poor farmers with no experience in gunplay on opposite sides of an open range. The bone of contention between the two warring sides is water and the vast tract of grassland through which it must flow.

The cowman is Hank Carter who owns a big ranch and a large number of cattle which he buys from rustlers. He is aided by Pinto Aggler, his foreman and sidekick who is handy with a gun. Aggler and the other cowhands, numbering no more than half a dozen, are loyal to Carter only to the extent he can pay them. Otherwise, they owe him nothing.

The thirty-odd farmers and their families are led by Ol’ Mack Orcon, a feisty old man with a goat’s beard. He was engaged in all kinds of loco schemes, from raising angora goats to starting a fish hatchery, before settling down on the grasslands near the town of Wishing Springs, Wyoming. 

Initially, all is well between Carter and the farmers. The cowman even welcomes their presence on the plains. Then, one day, Ol’ Mack digs water wells, erects derricks, and builds a reservoir for the purpose of irrigation, and starts a war between the cattleman and the farmers.

Carter and his henchmen intimidate and harass Ol’ Mack and the other farmers, with the intention of evicting them from their land. Word of the range war reaches Jess Roberts and War Dog Smith, two drifting cowboys who mean well but have a knack for getting into trouble. Jess and War Dog are old friends of Mack Orcon and lose no time in heading towards his ‘Circle in a Box’ farm and helping him fight Carter.

Matters come to a head when Carter and his gunmen blow up a derrick and the main reservoir with dynamite, resulting in loss of all the stored water and the death of a farmer. This act of violence, which is seen as a catastrophe by the peaceable but determined farmers, sets the stage for a final bloody showdown between the two groups.

The characters
The two main characters in the story are Jess, the little fearless cowboy with the brains, and his middle-aged friend, War Dog Smith, part Sioux and part French, who uses muscle to settle disputes. Jess owes Ol’ Mack a big debt for the wizened old farmer had taken him in when he was a hungry and homeless kid of twelve. War Dog had once been Mack’s range boss. Together, they form an unlikely pair as they help ‘Ol Mack take on the cunning and ruthless cattleman.

Other key characters include Matilda, an elderly spinster and Ol’ Mack’s sister who comes to live with her brother. Her domineering presence on the farm is initially resented by Mack until her housekeeping and cooking wins him over. There is a subtle romantic inclination between Matilda and the half-breed.

There is also Hammerburg, the cowardly deputy sheriff of the local town, and Parr Palm, a big as an ox but sly as a fox farmer, both of whom are in Hank Carter’s pay. They are easily dispensable.

And then there is Nellie Bly, a belligerent goat that has a lot in common with her devoted master, Ol’ Mack, who can’t stay without her. He prefers his goat to his sister.

Final word
The Hell Raisers is a tale of many parts—pride, loyalty, friendship, unity, courage, entrepreneurship, hard work, and the determination to extract peace and prosperity from a land in which the farmers have invested their sweat and money. Most of the men stay put on their homestead because they are proud to own it and, more importantly, because they owe it to their families and to their future. A future filled with nice farms, plenty of hay and good stock, and a good living. All they want is to be left in peace.

Lee Floren has a keen grasp of the frontier which is reflected in his description of the grasslands and the badlands, its old and new inhabitants, and their way of life. His writing style is reminiscent of early western fiction although Hank Carter’s and Pinto Aggler’s dialect is formal while that of Jess, War Dog, and the farmers is colloquial with many a turn of the phrase.

The novel is evenly-paced and has several lighter moments, thanks to Ol’ Mack, his sister, his goat, and his two friends. The humour does not undermine the seriousness of the plot and is, in fact, a welcome diversion from the hostilities that unfold from time to time.

The Hell Raisers is a well written novel and offers another interesting peek into frontier life. It is one of many examples in frontier fiction where new settlers run afoul of those who have already been there before them and look upon the newcomers as a threat where none may exist. I have not read many westerns with agri-based farmers as characters. They’re referred to as “sodmen” in the story. I couldn’t find the origin of the word on the internet.

The author
Lee Floren (1910-1995) was a prolific author who wrote well over fifty western novels as well as other fiction. He also wrote under a dozen pseudonyms including Wade Hamilton and Matt Harding. His stories have been published in several western periodicals of the mid-20th century.


  1. I've not read Floren under his own name. Read some Wade Hamilton, though.. "Saddle Pals" is a horrible title, though. Good thing they changed it.

    1. Charles, THE HELL RAISERS is a rather strong title for this novel which, in spite of the gunplay and violence, lacks the intensity. Of course, Hank Carter and his gunmen do raise hell when it suits them.

  2. I don't really like Westerns but I was fascinated by your review of Hemingway and his poems. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    1. Clarissa, you're welcome, and thank you for the kind words. I love reading westerns where I find elements of other genres like crime, mystery/detective, thriller, history, war, pulp, and humour.

  3. Another great review, thanks Prashant - I really will have to pick up some westerns - if you ever felt like obliging with a top 5 for us newbies to start with ...

    1. Sergio, thank you! I hope you do pick up some westerns and then read and review them as well. I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint you as I'm no authority on western fiction. My list of top 5 or top 10 will most likely exclude the ones that definitely ought to be there. I read westerns at random and there are many noted writers that I haven't read yet. I turn to various sources online to learn more about this fascinating genre. There are some great lists out there.

  4. Cracking review - tempted me, but I'll stick with what I have for now in this genre.

    1. Col, thank you! This was my first novel by Lee Floren and I really enjoyed his story and his style. He knew his subject well. The last time I felt this way about westerns was when I read A NOOSE FOR THE DESPERADO by Clifton Adams, HARD TEXAS WINTER by Preston Lewis, and BUCHANAN'S SIEGE by Jonas Ward (William Ard) all of which I recommend.

  5. I used to watch a lot of westerns as a kid. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry especially.

    1. Tracy, those are the ones I have only heard of but never seen. As you know I watched quite a few westerns over the past two months.