Heard: Montana Hitch by Richard S. Wheeler, 1990, download from Wisconsin Digital Library.
Want some character development? Read a Wheeler novel. I'm coming to the opinion that Wheeler belongs in the rarefied air of Lawrence Block and Bill Crider where he can do no literary wrong.
This is the first Wheeler western I have read that sticks more closely to the Western genre's characteristics. (That is just my limited view. Seeing as how Wheeler has written a ton of novels don't expect me to be writing an accurate bibliography of his work.)
Abner Dent is a hard working rancher who has been on his own since he was 12-years-old. A former Texan he now has squatter's rights in Montana along with several other ranchers who use the open range. Dent built a large, wooden house a few years ago to help woo a hurdy-gurdy girl into being his wife. Abner was struck by love and loneliness and his wife, Eve, turned to be a con woman. Her only desire is money and her life has been one of taking.
Abner's somewhat foolish decision to sell off much of his herd to afford the house and pay for the items that Eve "needs" has lowered his bank account and his reputation with local ranchers. Those ranchers think he is a fool for having a woman who cares so little for him and refuses to do any - any - work in the house or on the ranch. Abner and his cowhand Hungry work the ranch all day and Abner comes home to make the meals, clean the dishes, haul the firewood, heat the water, wash the clothes, etc.
One of the neighboring ranchers is Trump. The fictional Trump is just as much an asshole as the current Trump. Fictional Trump cannot cope with civil society and left his family behind to head west and ranch. He is a bully and busybody and a thief. He's been getting rid of his own bulls and been hiding away Abner's bulls to use with his cows.
Abner is an inherently decent fellow. He's been blindly optimistic that Even will come around to enjoy life on the ranch. He thinks his fellow ranchers are reliable and trustworthy. Things start to go bad when Abner and Hungry take a couple cows and a steer to a nearby butcher so Abner can pay some of the hefty household bills his wife has racked up. Abner and Hungry are stopped by Trump who declares Abner cannot sell his own steer, that the steer is for everyone on the range. Trump takes the steer and shoots Abner's horse dead. The reader's blood begins to boil at the injustice of it all.
Abner heads home for another horse and when he gets there he does not recognize what has been happening when he finds his dirtbag neighbor Dixie Lacy at Abner's house with shiftless Eve. We know what happened and we start to learn about what a scumbag Dixie Lacy is. The reader starts getting angry all over again.
More things happen as Abner has to fire Hungry because he has no money. The 230 pound Trump physically beats the 160 pound Abner at the Spring Roundup after mocking him about his ranching and Eve's rottenness. A couple days later Abner gets home to find Dixie and a group of gunmen have taken over Abner's ranch and Eve is in league with Dixie. The reader's reaction is to demand revenge.
Abner is left without a ranch or a horse and suffering from a beating. He starts to build himself back.
The novel's themes of manliness and work had me thinking of Jack Londopn's Sea Wolf. Sea Wolf had the ship's captain proclaiming the importance of physyical power and dominance and Dixie and Trump both follow that philosophy. Abner is no milquetoast like the protagonist in Sea Wolf because built his ranch with little help from anyone and no one works harder. But, Abner just wants to ranch and have Eve love him, he doesn't want to fight and argue or go to town and get drunk. Other ranchers will admit to Abner that Abner's reputation as a rancher and worker are second to none. But, those same other ranchers buckle under to the loudmouth bullying of Trump.
There is a second theme of love or grift concerning Eve and others. Eve admits to Abner that all she wants is money. She took up with Abner because the promised her the big house they have. Her life has been learning to take from others. Trump is about the same and wants to punish anyone he sees as weak. Dixie is the worse. He is a Civil War veteran who still burns at the war's loss and the U.S. Army's occupation of the South. This novel is set over 20 years since the war but Dixie and his PTSD ridden cohort are still shiftless, still angry, still striking out at anyone. Dixie wants chaos. Dixie wants to cause chaos and turmoil in other people's lives. He enjoys causing pain and rapes and beats Eve daily. His goal is to ruin the stock of all the ranchers by blotching the cow brands and leaving the cattle's ownership to no one.
Eve has lived a rough life and been dependent on men. She is at first enthralled by Dixie's rough and demanding manner. She learns too late what kind of person Dixie is. At the beginning she refers to Dixie as a "real man". She has hated the kindness of Abner and thinks of that kindness and love as weakness. She does not understand live because she has never had it.
Anyhoo. This was a very good novel.
1. Dixie defends his actions by saying he is no thief, he is a carpetbagger. He claims the Yankees who came South after the war imprisoned people and took land. It's 20 years after the war and Dixie is still burning over it. My take on that? "Tough shit, asshole. Injustice by the occupying Army may have allowed injustice but cry me a fucking river considering you started a war that delivered 750,000 dead (newer, revised estimate from 2012). Fuckwits. Get over it and start over."
2. Only one women character in the story with anything to do. Besides Eve the only others are three Cree women who take up with Hungry and a hurdy-gurdy girl who speaks to Abner.
3. The resolution does not involve a massive shootout or knife fight or train crash or stampede. There are a couple brief fistfights and the house burns down. Dixie does die but that is it.
4. There is a change of character by Eve that can make readers uncomfortable. Dixie beats her into cleaning the house, cooking for all the men, and punches who whenever she tells Dixie "no". It's as if Eve is beaten into having good manners. Well, no. It's that it took a while for her to recognize what a shit she had been to Abner and how wrong she was about him and Dixie both. She and Abner are both a bit dim about realizing their bad decisions.