Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.

Lone Star Book Reviews
of Texas books appear weekly
at LoneStarLiterary.com


Jeff Guinn

Buffalo Trail: A Novel of the American West

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Hardcover, 978-0-399-16542-9 (also available as ebook and audiobook), 432 pgs., $27.00

October 6, 2015

The follow-up to Glorious,New York Times best-seller, Buffalo Trail is author and investigative journalist Jeff Guinn’s second volume in his American West trilogy.

Cash McClendon has departed Arizona Territory in a hurry and washed up in Dodge City, keeping company with Bat Masterson and Billy Dixon, learning the trade of the “hidemen” who follow the great buffalo herds, trying to earn enough money to get back to Gabrielle, his lady-love, whom we’ve met in Glorious. The buffalo have been hunted out of existence in Kansas, so Dixon is putting together a large hunting party to follow the herds into Indian Territory. Simultaneously, Quanah Parker of the Comanche is attempting to put together a massive war party, including the Cheyenne and Kiowa, to convince the white men to stay on their side of the line. When these two groups collide in the Texas panhandle, it will be known historically as the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.

Guinn surrounds Cash McClendon with historical characters and inserts him into historical events. His characters are complex — no stereotypes, no romanticizing. As the narrative moves between the hidemen and Quanah Parker’s camp, I was struck by their similarities: each wanted respect, to be left alone, and to follow their trades and traditions. Billy Dixon and Quanah Parker are counterparts, both skilled politicians and gifted, persuasive leaders with the same idea: safety and success in numbers. They deal with the same issues: undisciplined members of their respective parties, boredom, and greed. But they failed to see their commonalities and refused to acknowledge each other’s humanity.

In another departure from the genre, Guinn’s West is funny. McClendon and Masterson hunting buffalo:

“Will you shut up and let me shoot?”

“Well, shoot, then,” Masterson urged. “We got to keep moving if we’re going to be in Dodge by dark.”

“I know. I’m just waiting for this cow to turn her side more toward me.”

“Piss on a buffalo that won’t cooperate with its own demise,” Masterson muttered.

His descriptive skill creates powerful images.

There, dark against the gold and green grass, was a vast brown cloud moving slowly but steadily west. It took a moment for McClendon to see that the heaving mass was composed of individual animals, all packed tightly together. The rumbling sound was a cacophony of mingled bleats, grunts, and bellows. There was seemingly no end to it — the great moving wave extended as far back toward the east as McClendon could see, over a dozen hills or more and still pouring over the horizon.

Guinn mercilessly stretches tension like piano wire the day before the battle. Then:

The early moments of dawn provided a pinkish tinge in the sky to the east. It was finally time. Quanah raised his arm and shook his lance above his head. He led the way as they splashed across the creek, and the first exultant war cries echoed across the valley.

McClendon hesitated, mesmerized by what was approaching so fast — what looked like an expanding line separating into tightly packed but individual parts, and, yes, those parts were Indians, many, many Indians, all of them painted and feather-bedecked and screaming and waving weapons, rifles of every variety as well as spears. McClendon would not have imagined that spears could look so menacing. He found himself trying to count the Indians – one, two, three, four – and then came the horrifying sense that he might not know a number high enough.

The battle stretches a full fifty chilling, riveting pages. Western historical fiction has rarely been as entertaining and satisfying, as well as smart and human.

* * * * *