Hellion by Gloria Dale Skinner
(Pocket, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-671-01139-1
****
Rosellen Lattimer is a tomboy of the highest order. Growing up with three older brothers, she did everything in her power to be as rough and tough as any of them. Comfortable in the small, secure Colorado mining town where she's lived all her life, she's confident that she can "outride, outshoot, and outsmart any man." And she wants to be sheriff.

Rosellen's late father was the former sheriff of Poppy, Colorado, and Rosellen wants nothing more than to follow in the honorable footsteps of a man she's always idolized. Naturally, she faces resistance from the town and from her own family, but she's determined. She loves Poppy, and she knows she can be a competent and respectable sheriff.

But her world and her plans are tossed to the winds when Cason Murdock comes to town, or rather, comes back to town. Everyone remembers Cason, the son of a murdering bank robber who was apprehended and killed by Rosellen's father years ago.

Cason has come back to Poppy on a mission. After his father was killed, the town shunned Cason and his mother, refusing to even sell them food or the medicine his mother needed. As a result, his mother died, leaving Cason orphaned at the age of thirteen. From that point on, he dealt with his grief and anger by nursing the half-hearted hope that someday he'd have enough money to return to Poppy, buy out the mine that supports the majority of the townspeople, and shut it down, thus effectively destroying the town. And now that day has come.

So there we have the initial conflict between the hero and heroine: Rosellen loves Poppy, Cason wants to destroy it. But that's only the beginning of the problems for these two. As the book opens, the dying madam of the local whorehouse has summoned both Rosellen and Cason to her bedside, where she tells a wild tale. According to her, Rosellen's father had once confessed that he, not Frank Murdock, had robbed the local bank. What's more, upon being discovered by Murdock, the good sheriff had killed him and framed him for the robbery.

This tale is the catalyst that sets the story in motion. For one thing, it gives Cason hope, for the first time in his life, of clearing his father's name. He's always believed his father was innocent, but he never felt he'd be able to prove it. But the madam claimed that Rosellen's father had an accomplice in his crimes a man named Dodge who managed to escape to Denver. If Cason could somehow find this man, he might be able to clear his father's name once and for all.

Rosellen, of course, is infuriated by this ridiculous story. She knows her father was a man of highest honor, and she won't allow anyone to cast aspersions on his character. Initially determined to stop Cason from closing the mine, she now has a more important goal she has to put an end to any doubt that her father was a good man. Fearing Cason will go to Denver and create some false evidence, she decides to follow him and watch his every move.

As the story continues and these two good people spend time together, they uncover a surprising fact they like each other. They're even honest enough to admit this uncomfortable truth, which was quite refreshing, I must say. It's clear to the reader that they're perfect for each other it's even fairly clear to them but all the while the ghosts of their fathers stand between them, keeping them apart.

This is the kind of strong conflict that makes a great book, and these are the kinds of characters that make a great book. Rosellen is particularly appealing. By nature, she's given to temper fits, but she's mature enough to know that she has to grow up, learn to control her temper, and deal rationally with the world. Her struggle for growth and maturity is very real, very human, and completely endearing. Cason is a good hero, as well he's wounded, but not to the point of being surly or cruel, and he truly appreciates Rosellen's unique charm. These are well-formed, consistent, and believable characters.

And so for me, this book had all the elements, all the potential to be great, but somehow it didn't quite reach that level, at least for this reader. There's a sort of distant feel to it. I liked the characters and cared about what happened to them, but I just didn't feel emotionally invested, even in the most emotional scenes. It's as if the author pulled back, held back, avoiding the risk of melodrama but sacrificing a truly moving story. In the end, while my brain enjoyed this book a great deal, my heart just wasn't involved.

But it's still quite an entertaining read, and it held my interest throughout. Whether you're a fan of Westerns or not, I can recommend this book if nothing else, for the chance to meet two refreshing, well-crafted, and unique characters.

-- Ellen Hestand


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