The elements of a rousing Western romance are present in Leigh Greenwood’s Pete, the latest in his series, “The Cowboys.” Given that, I asked myself, Why is reading this book uphill work? I concluded that several factors combined to drag down a story with an interesting setting and plenty of plot.
Set in Wyoming in the second half of the 19th century, 29-year-old Pete Jernigan is making his way south from the Montana gold fields with $70,000 sewn into the linings of his saddlebags. At his first camp in the Wyoming Territory, he is bushwhacked, robbed, and left naked to die. His assailants, whom he never sees, take his horse, Sawbones, but Pete’s life is saved when the horse makes his way back to Pete.
Half dead and drifting in and out of consciousness, Pete manages to stay on his horse through the night, and ends up finding a deserted wagon, in the middle of the open plain. He collapses into the wagon and does not discover, until 24 hours later, that the owner of the wagon has been killed and the body left lying next to the wagon.
Pete finds the whole situation strange. The wagon has not been looted; only the horses have been stolen. Nor was any attempt made to hide the body. From letters in the wagon, Pete is able to identify the body as that of Peter Warren, a greenhorn from Springfield, Illinois, on his way to the Tumbling T, a ranch he had inherited from his uncle. Pete is sure that the men who killed Peter Warren are the same two men who bushwhacked him.
Anne Thompson, the 17-year-old daughter of the late foreman of the Tumbling T, married Peter Warren by proxy before he left Illinois. She remembers him as a gentle 14-year-old, the only friend she ever had, and she hopes that, with her help, Peter will be able to hold on to the ranch. By the time Pete Jernigan reaches the Tumbling T in search of the men who robbed him, Anne is within minutes of being forcibly married off to a hard, mean neighboring rancher twice her age.
Pete intervenes. He announces that he is Peter Warren and that he has come to claim his inheritance…and his wife. Much to the surprise and consternation of the neighboring ranchers arranging the marriage, he drives them all off the ranch. None of them expected “soft, weaselly” Peter Warren to mature into a tough, decisive cowhand.
Even though his deception troubles him, Pete continues the masquerade because it gives him an opportunity to search for the men who robbed him and because he realizes that Anne needs protection if she is not to be driven out of the only home she has ever known. He vows to himself not to take advantage of the situation and consummate the marriage.
Anne, on the other hand, while generally delighted with Peter’s transformation, has difficulty reconciling this Peter with the Peter she knew when she was seven. Furthermore, she interprets Pete’s decision not to live as man and wife as a rejection of her feminine charms.
From this promising beginning, Leigh Greenwood should have been able to craft an entertaining yarn. Several elements interfered with my enjoyment.
First of all, “Pete” is sixth book in Greenwood’s series, “The Cowboys.” Any author writing a series about related characters should tread warily. Readers of earlier books in the series may enjoy references to the characters they know while new readers find such references annoying. Greenwood interpolates frequent references to Pete’s foster parents and adoptive brothers into the story. Considering that none of them make an appearance until the final chapter, I found this tiresome.
Greenwood’s writing style also irritated me. He is overly fond of short, declarative sentences. There is nothing wrong with a short, declarative sentence. Even a series of short declarative sentences can be effective. However, when they occur so often that you find yourself counting them (seven in a row in two cases, nine in a row another time), they detract from the content of the story.
Finally, Anne exhibited an exasperating trait: she dithered for far too long. Could Peter have really matured into Pete? Maybe, maybe not. Other characters accuse him of being an imposter, and Pete himself throws doubt on his own masquerade by incautious comments on a past far different from Peter’s, but Anne seems unwilling to ask a direct question. This story had so many plot elements -- including a continuing mystery -- that I wondered why Greenwood dragged in…and dragged out . . . this particular complication.
Die-hard Western fans and readers already familiar with the series may enjoy this novel, but a reader with less enthusiasm for the period should approach it with caution.
--Nancy J. Silberstein