The Old Spanish Trail Hardcover – Large Print, Dec 2000
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About the Author
Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. His first novel in the Trail Drive series, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was also the author of the Sundown Rider series and the Border Empire series. A native of St. Clair County, Alabama, Compton worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist before turning to writing westerns. He died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1998.--This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
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Ralph Compton died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1998 at the age of 64.
The Old Spanish Trail begins in San Antonio, Texas, in early February, 1862. The Civil War is raging in the eastern U.S., and the price of beef in Texas has fallen to less than three dollars a head. Don Webb, a local rancher, has received a letter from a former Texan who, after moving to New Mexico five years earlier and acquiring a land grant near Santa Fe, and was interested in buying 5,000 cattle, delivered, for $30 a head. Webb and a group of nine fellow Texans decide to fulfill the contract.
In early May, after assembling a herd and driving it to Santa Fe, the Texans discover that their potential buyer and his wife were recently murdered by a gang of outlaws. A local livery stable owner informs them, however, that, if they could drive the herd all the way to Los Angeles, they might be able to sell the cattle for even an even higher price. Stubborn and unfazed, the Texans and their cattle depart forthwith, heading for Los Angeles, following the, by then, seldom-used Old Spanish Trail.
In fact, after the American acquisition of northern Mexico territory in 1848, travel over the Old Spanish Trail began to diminish. Roads designed for military use were surveyed and built. Americans moving westward, including the '49ers, found easier routes to California. For the Texans, the disused trail, no longer always obvious, seemed to be their best choice. Little did they know that a band of Utes in Utah, who had recently taken six young American women as captives, and a band of Piutes in Nevada, who were just downright mean, were poised to cause them serious troubles. In addition, the outlaws who had murdered the potential buyer in Santa Fe, decided to track the outfit at a distance and hijack their herd shortly before their arrival in Southern California. If that weren't enough, longhorn cattle, when they stampede in storms, manage to slash themselves, the cow punchers and the cowboys' horses. Several hair-raising escapades lay in ahead for the Texas ten.
So, you may wonder, considering the historic and geographic research required to write such a story, just how well did Compton succeed in his fact checking?
Well, in my opinion, while the author may have known Texas, Texans, and longhorn cattle, he assuredly wasn't too familiar with the Great Basin, the Mojave Deserts, or the Indians who lived on them.
First, a minor issue. By 1862, two hundred years after the Spanish first arrived on the scene, most western Indian tribes had acquired at least a few rifles. Compton, however, makes no mention of the Piutes or the Utes using anything but bow and arrows during their skirmishes with the cowboys.
There are several other inaccuracies as well, two of which are almost laughable. While the Texans are crossing the Mojave Desert, Don Webb, the trail boss, "wiped his sweating brow, it was gritty, and there was a smudge on the back of his hand. Somewhere, to the north, in the Great Basin, men had been riding in the darkness, so that there would be no dust against the blue of the morning sky." In the next paragraph, we discover that those men, the outlaws, were fifty miles away. Really? Webb felt dust raised fifty miles away?
Finally, with the cattle drive to Los Angeles a success, Webb is ready to board a ship bound for Texas, where his girl friend awaits him. His fellow Texans inquire if he would like to have them see him off. "'The landing is near enough for me to walk,' Don replied." Walking form central Los Angeles to San Pedro? I don't think so.
If you have nothing better to do, and you don't mind a few discrepancies, The Old Spanish Trail offers a reasonably exciting read.