Trails Southwest: In the Southwest Trails Series
by Diane M. Cece
Westwood Books Publishing LLC

"The plains outside of Las Cruces had a fleet of toiling cowhands sailing on a sea of stampeding longhorns."

The Old West comes back to life in this adventure yarn set in and around Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico during the late 1800s. Divided into two parts, it tells the story of Tom, a young man who experiences a life-changing tragedy and is forced to make his own way in the world. As youth frequently do, he makes mistakes along the way, falls in with bad company, then tries to turn his life around before it’s too late to reverse course. This book puts one in mind of similar stories such as the 1972 film The Culpepper Cattle Company. There are even resemblances to Larry McMurtry’s classic 1985 novel Lonesome Dove—a tome that basically raised the standard for all western novels and has yet to be equaled.

Tom is the son of a farmer who hates farming. He feels stifled by the hardscrabble lifestyle and the chains that bind him to the land. When his family is violently murdered by marauders, he sells the farm, puts some of his money in the bank, then sets out on his own to simply take life as it comes. It comes riding past him one day in the form of Smokey, a sometime outlaw just a few steps ahead of a posse. Tom joins him in flight, and the two wind up in the hideout of the infamous Cole Younger gang. Before he knows it, Tom is learning to become a quick and deadly hand with a gun. He winds up taking part in a train robbery and even makes a name for himself as the notorious Nevada Kid.

When Tom grows disillusioned with the outlaw life, he convinces Smokey to break away from the gang and join him as he tries to go straight. The pair runs into trouble, however, and soon they’re on the run accused of jailbreak and maybe even murder. Tom is wounded but is nursed back to health via the ministrations of a kindly rancher and his wife. Tom and Smokey decide to sign on with the rancher for an upcoming cattle drive. It will be a time that tests their metal and their resolve to stay on the right side of the law—especially when Tom makes an enemy of the overbearing trail boss, Buck, and when he falls for the rancher’s beautiful niece, Polly.

Author Cece is an accomplished storyteller. She weaves an involving tale that never stretches credibility beyond the breaking point. The characters that she creates become readily visible on the page via descriptions that capture their inner core as well as their outer shell without the need for overindulgence. Here’s one example: “Blinky was of medium build. He loved to drink and could soak up liquid like a dry sponge.” Her verbal portraits of the various ranch hands quickly define both them and their roles as likely friends or potential foes. Cece also does a good job of pacing her story. No idylls linger too long, and no action is given short shrift. Her prose is straightforward, seemingly more concerned with narrative than style. Occasionally clichés slip into dialogue, but that is perhaps an occupational hazard of the genre.

There certainly aren’t as many western novels as there used to be, which is a pity. No such time and place, before or since, has proved such a fertile ground for stories that captured the essence of conflict, resilience, and various forms of honor. Hopefully, Cece’s books—there are seven as of this writing—will rekindle interest in the West that once was.

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