Son Of A Gun
Western Fiction Writer Fred Grove Still Has A Few Rounds Left In His Pistol.
By Johnny D. Boggs
MAY 17, 1999:
Into the Far Mountains, by Fred Grove (Five Star). Cloth, $19.95.
TUCSON'S octogenarian westerner proves again that the traditional cowboy story is alive and well as he concludes his four-book series about troubled frontiersman Jesse Wilder in Into the Far Mountains. The 85-year-old Grove has been honored for his fiction on the Apache frontier, earned five Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America, and received two Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. His latest novel continues that legacy of fine prose.
Set a few years after the Civil War around Tucson, Fort Bowie and New Mexico, Into the Far Mountains brings Wilder together with Susan Andrews Lattimore, an unlikely heroine who braves the West to hire Wilder to rescue her kidnapped son from Juh's Apaches.
That's a traditional plot you'll probably recognize from plenty of movies, Gunsmoke episodes and other Western novels. And for the most part, Into the Far Mountains is a traditional action-romance reminiscent of the old Burt Kennedy-written, Budd Boetticher-directed, Randolph Scott B-Westerns of the late 1950s. But Grove's main characters are anything but traditional.
Jesse Wilder, introduced in Grove's 1989 novel Bitter Trumpet (Doubleday), is an ex-Confederate captain wounded and captured during the 1864 battle at Franklin, Tennessee. He reluctantly joins the Union Army to fight Indians on the plains rather than rot and die in a wretched POW camp. Wilder's choice is costly, however; he's shunned by his bride-to-be and disowned by his family, forcing him to drift west with no future and a haunting past. Nightmares from the Civil War and his campaigns with the Juáristas in Mexico plague him. He can't forget his dead wife, murdered by Maximilian's forces.
Enter Susan Lattimore. The strong-willed daughter of a Union cavalry officer, she arrives in Tucson from back East (with her attorney instead of her wealthy husband, no less). She seeks out Wilder, convinced that his military record and post-war reputation are her best hope for rescuing young Jimmy. She knows horses, is more than a fair shot with a revolver, and is determined to find her son and bring him back home alive.
Will Jesse fall in love with Mrs. Lattimore? Is Tucson hot in the summer? The plot and romance may be old hat, but Grove manages to keep the suspense and interest building by giving us believable characters and a few unexpected twists to keep the pages turning.
Wilder refuses at first to help Lattimore, telling her it's near impossible to even locate the Apaches, who are still fighting a war against the U.S. Army. But he changes his mind after being introduced to a drunken Mexican, Miguel García, who was captured by Cochise's Apaches as a youth, and raised as an Indian. García would later leave the Apaches to return to his hometown of Bavispe, Sonora, only to be shunned by his neighbors. "(García and Wilder) were pariahs," Grove writes, "cast out by their people because of a senseless war."
García eventually agrees to help Wilder and Lattimore find Jimmy. For the two men, rescuing the captive might prove one last chance to quiet their inner demons.
Into the Far Mountains holds up well even if you haven't read Bitter Trumpet or the other Wilder novels, Trail of Rogues (1993) and Man on a Red Horse (1998). Grove weaves enough background for readers to feel Wilder's past torments.
The author's knowledge of horses and Apache culture is exceptional, and he shows it off realistically as García tries to trade, first with Cochise and later with Juh, a fine horse for the kidnapped boy, or information leading to him.
Likewise, Grove has a keen eye for detail that vividly captures the flavor of old Tucson, Fort Bowie and the Dragoon Mountains. He knows his period weapons, too, and avoids the irritating mistakes seemingly endemic to Western fiction. Most importantly, Grove knows Western people. His Arizona Territory is filled with hardcases, Indian haters, racists and fair-minded individuals, regular men and women, and more than a few less-than-honorable horse traders. Tucson is also populated with former Yankees and Confederates, and tempers still flare over a war officially over for years.
This continues to trouble Wilder. It seems he can never escape the war.
At 283 pages, Into the Far Mountains is an easy read, and perhaps even a tad overlong at that. Despite its strong points, it probably won't hold the interest of readers who turn their noses up at the gunslinger genre. It lacks the raw power of Bitter Trumpet.
But Western fans will have cause to rejoice: the Western ain't dead. Fred Grove says so; and his writing proves it.
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