Summers' Horses, by Ralph Cotton

I mentioned the classic Western Shane a few weeks ago. Here's another Western I picked up in Greenfield, Massachusetts at the World Eye Bookshop. Although an author new to me, Ralph Cotton has written over 30 Westerns. Summers' Horses follows Will Summers, a horse-trader, as he chases the men who stole the seven animals, six horses and a mule, he was leading through the Colorado Territory. Will is accompanied by a big spotted dog that came as part of a trade. The two brothers who stole the horses and mule, Dow and Tom “Cat Tracker” Bendigo, are sons of the rich and powerful Warton Bendigo who pretty much does what he wants. The only law in the area, a sheriff in nearby Wakely, is on Bendigo's payroll or at least too intimidated to stand up to him.

I'm quite partial to Westerns, though I may be in the minority: they are easily the smallest genre section in any library or bookstore I've visited, in spite of the popularity of Country music and films about cowboys. Generally television shows about cowboys don't appeal to me, but I did enjoy Deadwood from a few years ago. Aside from the excellent acting and writing, the show appealed to me in the way it looked at how people behaved in the absence of the usual institutions that enforce society's rules, such as law officers and ministers. The show also examined, over the course of several seasons, how the rough frontier settlement evolved a set of rules for itself and worked out how to enforce them.

I think this theme makes up a large part of what I like about Westerns: in the unsettled territories where there is no commonly accepted authority to enforce a social structure, people have only their own personal code of honor to fall back on. And that code gets tested by running up against others with very different ideas of right and wrong, whether they be Native American tribes, outlaw gangs, or arrogant, greedy ranchers. Armchair theorizing won't get you very far.

This book held my attention. The action is fast-paced, not thriller-fast, but relentless if a bit heavier on shootouts and ambushes than I'd like. I tend to prefer more characterization and description. Cotton does a good job with the rare bits of description:

Evening shadows leaned long out of the west by the time he reached the turn toward the watering hole. The dog had gone on ahead of him and disappeared a half hour earlier. But now he saw the dog coming back through the wavering heat. He watched him lope along toward him at a much slower pace until he finally slowed to a walk, his head lowered, his tongue lolling.

More descriptive bits would give a better sense of the place and add to the texture of the story. More characterization would help too. I never really got a sense of the main character. It may be that Will Summers has been thoroughly introduced to readers already in some of those 30+ books, but there's not enough here for me to form an idea about him. The most intriguing character for me is Vera Dalton, an ex-prostitute who's been studying with the town doctor, learning how to treat injuries and illnesses. Only a minor character, but the space between her ambition and her experience quivers with possibility.

I might try one of the earlier books to see if I can fill in some of the gaps, but certainly if you're looking for an exciting Western with lots of action, give this one a try.

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