Andre Norton Goes West in:

Rebel Spurs

 

star guard 1955

(1962) Published by World, HC, WP862, LCCN 62013944, $3.50, 224pg ~ cover by Peter Burchard

 

Rebel Spurs Andre Norton’s 1962 sequel to Ride Proud, Rebel! is a tribute to the golden age of the Western in print, film, and television. I’m just old enough to remember my father and grandfather watching the many examples of the last. Bonanza. Gunsmoke. Rawhide. Maverick. Wagon Train. Have Gun, Will Travel. And later, when it all went to camp, The Wild Wild West and Kung Fu. Westerns were everywhere in the late Fifties and through the Sixties. They faded in the Seventies, and dribbled away to nothing as the millennium ended, with an occasional attempt to resurrect the form. Young Guns, for example.

Mostly they seem to have mutated into other genres. Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Star Wars plays numerous riffs on the familiar stories. And of course there’s Firefly.

When I read this novel, I came to it with a lifetime of resonances that nearly all postdate its publication. I grew up with its tropes. I may even have read it in the Sixties, but it’s more likely that what I think I remember are all the elements that define its genre.

The Civil War is over and Rebel cavalryman Drew Rennie turns up in Arizona, searching for his long-lost father. He comes riding a grey stallion and leading a mare in foal. These are the foundation stock of his hoped-for horse-breeding operation.

The town in which he lands is called Tubacca. It’s a dusty border town with a distinctly Spanish flair, filled with an eclectic mix of Anglos, Mexicans, Native Americans, US Cavalry, and assorted outlaws and questionable sorts. There is one Black man, who is, of course, a servant, and one Chinese man, who is, of course, a cook.

Drew is traveling under an alias. He has decided, for Plot Reasons, not to advertise who he is. Therefore he calls himself Drew Kirby, in honor of his presumed dead Army buddy, Anse Kirby, the twangy Texan. Drew still wears Anse’s fancy Mexican spurs.

In Tubacca Drew finally finds his father. Hunt Rennie is a big man thereabouts, a rancher, horse breeder and dealer, and local eminence. Hunt has an adopted son, Johnny Shannon, who is bad to the bone, and of course he and Drew immediately become enemies. The local Army commander hates “Rebs” with a passion, and, also of course, Drew attracts his attention, and not in a good way.

So does Anse, who is very much alive. He and Drew hook up immediately, and both go to work as horse wranglers for Hunt Rennie. Drew is still, for Plot Reasons, refusing to tell his father who he is, but Johnny has found out, thanks to Anse’s letting slip Drew’s real name.

And so it goes. There’s a band of outlaws led by a Confederate officer, whom everybody is hunting; a treasure hidden in a cave; a horse race in which Drew’s grey stud Shiloh defeats Hunt’s buckskin stud Oro by a nose; a wild Pinto stallion who makes a career of murdering other stallions, especially valuable domesticated ones; a nice little contest between Drew’s “eastern” horse-gentling methods and Western/Mexican slam-and-break-’em; and plenty of fistfights, gunfights, and ambushes. It all comes to a typically abrupt Norton-style end. Spoiler: In this one, the horse doesn’t die.

I was glad about that. Some of my misgivings about the book were borne out, as they’re built into the genre. Westerns of that era, and really most eras, are about settler colonialism. White people are entitled to take whatever they can, while Indians are savages—either murderous or noble depending on their level of submission to white people. The land is empty and open and free for the taking, never mind the people who have inhabited it for millennia.

Here, as in the prequel, Norton doesn’t apply the level of critical thinking that she did to her science fiction. She accepts the assumptions of the genre and the culture, and doesn’t question them.

With one exception, and it’s an interesting one. There’s an actual female human with an actual speaking role—rare in this period of Norton’s writing—and she’s smart, independent, and a hell of a good rider. This is a deliberate point: that she’s better at it than the men. Horsegirls for the win.

The horses in general, as in the prequel, are well done. Drew again is a convincing horseman, and he is honestly all about his horse. When Shiloh is in deadly danger, Drew drops every other thought and rushes to save him. He blows some carefully laid plans and nearly screws the whole operation in the process, but it’s a horseman’s choice. The other horsemen might thump him for it, but they understand.

It’s an interesting book for me, because as I write this, I’m sitting about 40 miles from the town of Tubac, on a farm full of grey horses, with my own grey stallion whom I would run through a battle to save, too. Tubac is an artists’ colony now, full of little shops, but its history isn’t too far from the surface. The Presidio still stands, with rooms in it very like the ones in the book, and the Mission at Tumacori, down the road a piece, still has the wall that was built around it to protect it from raiding Apaches. The canyon country where Drew hunts the horse thieves must be based on the Chiricahuas, where the Apache made their last stand. They don’t actually feature in the book, but their presence pervades it. They’re the dark undertone of the whole territory.

All of that (even with the problematical parts) gave it a resonance that made it just a little more rewarding to read. It’s a cracking adventure, and the characters are well drawn as Norton characters go, though the dialects most of them speak have not aged well. Still, that was the way such things were done in 1962, and Norton seems to have enjoyed the process. It certainly is an enjoyable read.

I’ll move on next time to her first published novel, which has finally arrived in the mail: The Prince Commands.