The Gila Wars by Larry D. Sweazy
Buddies in the Saddle --review by Ron Scheer
It takes a while to realize what this new Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger novel is truly about. Sweazy has a whole lot more on his mind than the unsuspecting reader is likely to first notice. Count me among the unsuspecting. I must have been almost three-fourths through it before the pieces began falling together for me. Josiah Wolfe (as mentioned here earlier) is a complex an interesting character. He fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and his battlefield experiences have left him somewhat troubled. Bloodshed and death haunt him. Peace time, such as it is in post-war Texas, has been no less harsh for him. He has lost his loving wife and three daughters, all dead from influenza, and his service with the Texas Rangers keeps him away from his young son. Earlier novels have told of difficulties that have left others unsure of him. His one partner is an unseasoned junior Ranger, Scrap Elliott, whose hair-trigger anger makes him explosive and unpredictable.
Plot. The “war” in this novel is a campaign to capture or kill a border lord, Juan Cortina, who has been raiding longhorns from the King ranch. The Rangers have word that a steamboat is to take a rustled herd on board and ship them from the Gulf coast of Texas to Cuba. Under the command of Captain Leander McNelly, they are sent out to intercept the shipment and put a stop to Cortina. The novel takes an abrupt turn as Wolfe and Elliott head off together toward the grassy, low-lying flatlands along the shore. Their job is to act as spies and learn what they can, but a shooting incident in a cantina suddenly sidelines Wolfe, and he nearly dies of gunshot wounds. During his convalescence there he becomes attached to a young woman, Francesca, who cares for him. Back in the saddle, he rejoins his company of Rangers, and there is a bloody battle with Cortina’s men as they attempt to rendezvous with the steamship. A death in that fight produces another abrupt turn, as Wolfe and Elliott escort the dead man all the way back to Austin. There he has some personal matters to attend to as he decides what to do with the rest of his life.
Themes. There is more than one “war” in the novel, as the title suggests. In addition to the one against Cortina, there is a deeply divided conflict in the very heart and soul of Sweazy’s central character. Killing and bloodshed have left Wolfe both physically and emotionally scarred. The traditional western hero is untouched by death. Killing serves a self-justifying purpose: to restore order and justice. But in reality, we know that for some men at least, it comes at a cost. It may haunt them for a lifetime. As this novel proceeds, Wolfe becomes increasingly burdened by regret, guilt, and shame. Not a weak or fearful man by any means, he is just a man. Brave and courageous, as we all hope we might be in his shoes, but a man all the same. There is a modern note of resignation in the novel’s attitude toward war. The Rangers’ battle against Cortina and his kind of thievery on the US-Mexican border calls to mind today’s unending “war on drugs” and the pervasive violence along that particular international boundary. The Rangers’ search and destroy mission on the alien coastal terrain easily recalls footage of troop movements in foreign lands on the evening news. Wolfe continues to remember the War Between the States with bitterness. The dead and injured in the battle against Cortina remind him of the depression that follows killing, how it haunts sleep with dreams of walking with the dead. The war has become a bad memory without meaning. So are the deaths of his wife and children. It is an unforgiving world, and these experiences have left Wolfe without belief in a God or an afterlife. There is a powerful scene between Wolfe and the camp doctor and mortician, Verlyn Tinker, a Yankee who served in the ambulance corps at Antietam. As a doctor, doing what he can to undo the damage done on the battlefield, he says he has learned to let the past go. Besides, he says, wars don’t end. New battles and new enemies come along to take the place of old ones. That is a belief not unfamiliar today.
Style. There are action, suspense, and excitement in the book, but it is also much of the time simply thoughtful, as Wolfe reflects on his life, the people he has known, and his situation. A large part of the story is devoted to the growing affection between Wolfe and Francesca and the dilemma this creates for him, especially as he starts the novel engaged to another woman back in Austin. Characters are sharply drawn. Scrap Elliott makes a good contrast with Wolfe. Too young to have fought in the War Between the States, he imagines the killing fields as a place to freely release his rage. He is almost unhinged by his hatred of Mexicans. Easily insulted, he is always ready to explode and make trouble for himself and Wolfe. His short fuse and immaturity make him a volatile presence in the narrative. Running out of his usual patience, Wolfe finally socks him in the face, then regrets it. The camp doctor, Tinker, comes across vividly, talking with Wolfe as he goes about his work. An older man, he has a worldly wisdom and a reassuring depth of character that calm Wolfe and the patients he’s treating. He also possesses a degree of moral stature that is reflected in his physical resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Western writers tend to be good about how things look and sound. Sweazy reminds us that the Old West had its characteristic smells, as well. Riding into the flat grassland along the Gulf shore, Wolfe and Elliott are ambushed, and “the putrid, rotting smell of the ground mixed with the metallic blood and the gunpowder.” Death is often referred to as having a smell. Baths being infrequent, a man might “smell like a dead possum that had been baking in the sun.” Longing evokes olfactory memories, as when Wolfe recalls the scent of a woman’s toilet soap. Hungry, he is pleased by wood smoke and the smell of meat cooking on a campfire. In the doctor’s tent, he notes the smell of whiskey being used to clean a wound.
Wrapping up. This is another fine western from the pen of Larry Sweazy. It’s #6 in the Josiah Wolfe series and reportedly the last. A review of the previous volume, The Coyote Tracker, can be found here.
For the rest of the review and interview go to the Buddies in the Saddle web site.