Cowboy For Hire

Cactus Flower by Alice Duncan
(Five Star, $26.95, G) ISBN 1-59414456-7
Eulalie Gibb has fled Chicago for tiny Rio Penasco in New Mexico Territory to start a new life. Her beloved, albeit wimpy, sister, Patsy almost died at the hands of a maniac, and Eulalie is desperate to move her sister out to Rio Penasco before the man gets out of prison – which would be any day now. Having come from a long line of theatrical folk, Eulalie quickly secures as a job as a singer at the local saloon. Yeah, that’s definitely a good way to not draw attention to yourself. How come these heroines never take jobs as laundress’ or maids?

Anyway, upon arriving into town, she quickly locks horns with Nick Taggart. Nick is one of the local blacksmiths, and runs a shop with his jolly Uncle Junius. Eulalie is apparently not happy that the minute she lands in town a drunken Junius accosts her and starts dancing the polka with her down Main Street. She raises such a stink that Nick soon pegs her as a “typical female.” You know, manipulative harpies just like his stepmother and stepsisters are.

Let’s say we beat the Christmas rush and shoot this guy now?

Light on conflict, and long on schizophrenic characters, Duncan’s latest is a trying read more often than not. Eulalie starts off on extremely shaky ground, her attitude reminiscent of a dried up spinster with her nose up in the air and out of joint. Frankly, I began to wonder how she could walk around, what with the stick shoved up her butt.

Nick isn’t much better. He spends the whole book tarring and feathering women with the same brush. They’re harpies. They’re manipulative. Their sole purpose in life is to beat down men and make them miserable. He even goes so far at one point as to speculate if Patsy’s scars (from her encounter with the villain) are actually an elaborate ploy to manipulate. Eulalie proves over the course of the story that she knows how to use a gun – why she never turns it on Nick is the big mystery.

Basically the reader drifts around aimlessly in the story, with no real conflict to give it anchor for a large portion of the book. One minute Nick and Eulalie like each other, in fact need each other, the next they’re bickering. One minute Nick muses on how awful women are, the next he’s helping a local widow with her children and building Eulalie a house. Seriously, is this guy bipolar or what?

The story picks up a bit towards the end when Patsy arrives in town (although she’s so simpering it’s hard to feel sorry for her), and the villain naturally discovers where the ladies are now residing. The ending has a touch of excitement; although rather abrupt it is resolved in a reasonable manner. Not so reasonable is the romance – sure Nick and Eulalie exchange “I love yous,” but since they never share a meaningful conversation over the course of the story, I question the longevity of their relationship.

Duncan has built her career on writing lighthearted romances, and this one might have worked if not for the mood swings of the characters. It also didn’t help matters that every time the hero mused on his opinion of the evil, female gender visions of long, drawn-out, medieval torture involving castration danced through my head. There’s a reason guys like Nick lived in the isolated western territories – civilized folk would have shot them long ago otherwise.

--Wendy Crutcher

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