The story begins
Back in February I reviewed an entertaining Western novel, The Valles Caldera, by Gary L Stuart. It was the sequel to Ten Shoes Up (Cadence, 2015), which I have just read. Ten Shoes Up is good; in fact I think it’s better than the second one.
Structurally, it isn’t really a novel; it’s two equal-length novellas tacked together, separate but similar stories about tracking down a train robber. The hero is Angus. He has another name but rarely uses it. At first, in the opening story, we are led to believe that he might be a train robber himself but (no spoiler here, I think) it soon transpires that he ain’t. The rather well-drawn and larger-than-life character in this first story is railroad detective Captain Standard H Plumb, who, unlike Angus, likes his full moniker to be used. Plumb is implacable and ruthless, and he is out to get Angus whatever the cost (a cost preferably to be paid by his men). I rather liked Capt. Plumb. But he is no match for the wily and tough Angus, who is skilled in the arts of the trail and riding the high country.
The second part has a quite charismatic villain too, Tom Emmett, outlaw boss, though, in the best Western tradition, Emmett was forced into outlawry by a corrupt and incompetent legal system. Emmett is a pal of Butch Cassidy, and shelters the Wild Bunch at his lair, which is a little odd as Ten Shoes Up is set in the early 1880s and Butch didn’t even start his criminal career until 1884 and then it was petty crime. The Wild Bunch didn’t maraud the West until the 1890s. Still, since when have we allowed a mere inconvenience such as history to get in the way of a good Western?
We get a good idea of what Angus looks like because the author opts for a serial first-person approach, with the tale told by various participants, and one describes our hero. He has dark red curls reaching his coat collar, a ruddy face to match, bushy eyebrows and gray-green eyes, and, natch, “a sculpted jaw made of wrought iron.”
Gary L Stuart
Each tale has a sympathetic woman who is attracted to Angus, and he reciprocates a bit (though you get the impression he isn’t going to give up his vagabonding for either). Banker’s sister Addie, 22, is the first and Flora, hotelier, a touch older, is the second.
Another sympathetic character is Angus’s pal Bo String, liveryman and deputy, who is like Angus in many ways (he talks to his horse for one thing) and helps our hero get out of scrapes in both stories.
Some of the second story takes place in Cimarron, at the St James Hotel, which you can still visit today, and you will see the bullet holes in the tin ceiling, the origin of which Mr. Stuart describes. Or you could see them when I was there in the mid-1990s.
Some of the English is stylistically dodgy with dangling modifiers aplenty and Mr. Stuart’s curious habit of starting sentences with conjunctions but bringing them immediately to a halt with a comma. But, you get used to it. Common nouns are occasionally capitalized, there are misprints and confusions (breech and breach, its and it’s, the verbs lay and lie) and you get the feeling that a better editor was required. Some sentences are plain ugly: “A big, oversized light spun off light flashes off in every direction as the train wobbled from side to side.” Still, I am notoriously picky and will try to be less judgmental in future, although it is true that I never make mistakes myself.
Ten Shoes Up (which is the name of a New Mexico mountain beloved by Angus) is a straight-down-the-trail traditional Western and as such is enjoyable reading. Recommended.