Follow the New Grass By Cliff Farrell. 167 pages. Copy Right 1953 & 1954 by Cliff Ferrell. Bantam Edition published Jan 1957
This book was a real page turner. Cliff Farrell deftly puts the reader right smack in the middle of an exciting story of ranching in the high-country of Wyoming. He liberally uses cowboy jargon cattle ranching lingo throughout this story. Farrell also has a gift for setting the atmospherics of each scene just right. You can almost smell the rain and the fresh spring grass or feel the bitter cold of a sudden mountain snowstorm on your nose. His characterizations were also right on. Jess Steele and his gang come across as lean boned desperate men driven to the outlaw trail by the relentless transgressions of a corporate cattle ranch. The lady owner of The Pitchfork brand, Lily Benton, is a very well developed character who will do just about anything necessary to get her way until her little plot gets out of control and people start getting killed.
The story begins in Spring with rancher Jay Webb riding a trail near his small ranch just outside of the small cow town of Spearhead. In the next twenty pages he quickly encounters several individuals who get this tale really moving fast. The first man is Frank Spain–a local friend who is being hotly pursued by three men for his womanizing transgressions. Frank’s horse has been rode to near exhaustion so Jay trades him his own horse to allow him to make good his escape. Hot on the trail of Frank is Hodge McCall and his strong arm Sam Leathers and a young cowhand. On behalf of McCall, Leathers gives Jay a quick smack down for allowing Frank Spain to get away. It took all of Jay’s self control to take the punches and not fight back. He did this in order to keep his identity as low profile as possible because Jay is actually a wanted outlaw called Jess Steele. When Jay starts heading back to town he then encounters Lily Benton. She gets right to business and lets him know that she has discovered his true identity and promptly blackmails him into hiring on to work for her as a “hired gun”. Her ranch, one of the oldest and largest in the area, is at odds with the upstart Chainlink ranch headed by Hodge McCall. She is now desperate enough to hire gunmen in order to send a strong message to Chainlink to stay off her graze and keep their hands off her cattle. Giving Jess no option she expects him at her ranch promptly that evening. So Jay heads back home with his mind made up to abandon his land and his ranch of 300 head and flee immediately. He does not want to be a gunman anymore for anybody especially under the threat of blackmail. Once home he discovers that Lily had somehow gotten word to his old gang and finds them all assembled inside his house. There is Ben Tracy and his younger brother Steve, Tom Faye, Mario Rodriguez and his Jay’s brother Ward who lies in his bed with a festering gunshot wound.
Jay Webb (Jess Steele) was a one time member of the “Fence Cutters” gang in the west Texas town of Concho. These small time ranchers battled against the encroaching but inevitable barbed wire fences of the Double Arrow Ranch that were slowly strangling their livelihood. Both sides in the range war resorted to guns and intimidation and Jess Steele became very good with his guns. When the head of the Double Arrow and his son (Mason and Vince Lomack) are killed one evening in Concho everyone fingered Jess and a price was put on his head for double murder. Jess then fled the area along with several other members of the Fence Cutters including his brother Ward Steele. For the last five years Jay has lived alone on his small ranch in northern Wyoming under the name of Jay Webb. The only man in the area who knew his true identity was Frank Spain, also a one-time Fence Cutter but not implicated in the Lomack murders.
Now, his past has finally caught up to him. With his brother needing immediate medical care Jay postpones his departure. He and his gang move onto Lily’s ranch and begin the task of protecting her stock and keeping McColl at bay. Blood is spilled almost immediately when Jay gets bushwhacked and then when the new Pitchfork riders discover what McColl has really been up to out in the back country. Of course there are plenty of romantic sub-plots and the build up to the big climax is when the government finally opens up the Cheyenne Reserve to open grazing of cattle. This opportunity and the chance to kill Jess Steele also attracts Wyatt Lomack and his hired assassin Sid Ferris all the way from Concho, Texas. Will Lily and Jess outwit McCall and get to the open range first? Will Jess ever clear his name and win over Lily?
I won’t blather on about the plot. I just scratched the surface–there is a whole heck of a lot happening in these 167 pages. I’m definitely going to keep my eye out for more of Cliff Farrell’s work. This story initially appeared in Zane Grey’s Western Magazine in August of 1953 and was titled “The Pitchfork Boss”.
Role playing plot hooks:
- Create an ambitious Cattle Baroness NPC as a nemesis for the PC’s.
- Research the term sleepering calves. This is a method used by some rustlers to claim newborn calves of another ranch. Often requires a secure area to hold, wean and brand the young stock.
- Range War practices of fence cutting and night riding are often the origins of certain outlaw gangs. Both sides engaged in trying to intimidate each other and often this involved hiring of thugs and gunmen to do the intimidating.
- Line camps are places (small shacks, shelters) where cowboys live in while out with the herd. These are usually along the outer edges of the ranch. They could be good locations for game interactions.
This was Cliff Ferrell’s first Western novel though he was published as early as 1926. He went on to have many more of his stories appear in paperback. See this link for more information.
Admin Note: I redid the appearance of this blog. I got rid of the Twenty-Eleven theme and activated Twenty-Ten. I had some issues with aligning text with images and figured it might be the theme giving me problems.