Rancher's Law by Dusty Richards is a classic Western that follows Luther Haskell, who must make his way through the good, the bad, and the damned in pursuit of a cold-blooded killer with a plan of his own (Available June 28, 2016).
For unethical ranchers like Matt McKean, the high prevalence of land and cattle disputes makes the Arizona Territory’s Christopher Basin ripe for the pickings; he’ll go beyond his power to take advantage of a situation that might bolster his own wealth. And, when the opportunity arises to accuse three men of cattle rustling on evidence that amounts to less than nothing, he whips other simple-minded ranchers into a fever and then stands in as judge and executioner at the hanging.
Matt moved back. Each rancher held a coiled lariat in his hand. At his nod, they busted the horses on their butts. The mounts charged away. The unmistakable snap of spines cracked like gun shots. Two of them. Burtle’s noose failed, and he danced in midair gurgling and strangling. The rustler fouled his pants and the stench filled the air.
The trouble is, one of the men swinging from the end of Matt’s rope is Teddy Dikes—son of a wealthy New York political contributor and friend to President Hayes. Recognizing Dikes’s death could cause a political uproar, Governor John Sterling and his consultant, retired Major Gerald Bowen, turn to their covert Territorial Marshal Task Force—a group that specializes in solving crimes that have the potential to impact the political arena. But, this job will require someone outside their stable of talent to search out the truth and bring the executioners to justice.
Bowen travels to Arizona to enlist an undercover operative, encountering a chatty soiled dove along the way who sings the praises of one Luther Haskell—who is not only a deputy marshal out of Fort Smith, but also an experienced drover (a person who drives livestock to market). Bowen does additional research on Haskell, interviewing (my favorite) real-life lawman Bass Reeves, who is working on his farm in between marshal assignments. Nice touch.
Haskell is hired by Bowen based on these two referrals—a prostitute and a black man—which Haskell finds amusing. Bowen explains he has put a great deal of faith in their opinions because, “They both had nothing to gain by telling me the truth.” Besides knowing cattle, Haskell is a former Johnny Reb who will fit like a glove within the community. He has the rough edge coupled with the diplomatic approach needed to wedge his way into a closed-off sect that is well aware of who the killers are but too afraid to speak.
I admire the way Mr. Richards presented the complexity of sending a spy into harm’s way: the diligent, methodical preparation of locating, selecting, and prepping that was performed before retaining Haskell’s services. In lesser hands, these behind the scenes would be as dry as all get out, but here, they enhance the plot, offering a broader bird’s eye view of what Luther is up against. Not only do we see the time-honored knight errant in the form of Luther Haskell, but also Gerald Bowen’s equally dangerous high-wire act of keeping the impatient governor hanging fire, supporting Haskell from afar, while investigating other compelling matters associated with his job. For anyone still thinking Westerns can’t be as layered as a crime novel, think again, and read Rancher’s Law.
Mr. Richards handles different dialects, including African American and Asian American. Though, personally, no matter how gifted the wordsmith, I find word choices like “suh,” “if’n,” and “you needs,” when overused, become unnecessarily diverting, and I would prefer to have seen a greater range in these characterizations.
Dusty Richards won the coveted Spur Award twice, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a traditional storyteller with a dependable cadence, free of formulaic narrative. A Zane Grey disciple, who has exceeded his original source of inspiration, with richer characters and smarter plots than the Riders of the Purple Sage author could have aspired. If you like Westerns, you should appreciate Rancher’s Law.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.