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Tom Chaney: Western Trails and Ralph Compton

Of Writers And Their Books: Western Trails and Ralph Compton. Tom says Ralph Compton's novels are not great literature but the action is great and they are cracking good stories. This column first appeared 12 February 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Carl Hiaasen Strikes Again

By Tom Chaney

Western Trails and Ralph Compton

I have said before that I like Western novels. The fondness goes back to Friday nights at the Strand Theater and the cap pistols and fake western duds that my friends and I donned in the western plains of Yancy Avenue at Main Street in the early 1940's. In those days the cattle trail led across Main Street, through Mrs. Poynter's yard to the alfalfa field at what is now the end of Woodlawn Avenue. Woodlawn, in those days, ended at a gate just beyond Mr. Poynter's duplex where my western-movie-loving grandmother lived.

Wild western outlaws and sometimes evil Nazi spies lurked by the fence and amidst the alfalfa. But mostly they were outlaws.

In the last few years I have turned from Louis L'Amour to a few western writers. One of those is Ralph Compton.

Compton grew up in the late depression era in Alabama where a high school teacher struck a spark in him for avid reading and writing. He and a brother played country music on a series of small stations across the south, eventually fetching up in Nashville.

By 1989 he despaired of becoming a song writer and turned to the novel. He took an autobiographical first attempt to a Nashville agent who liked it, couldn't sell it, and asked Compton whether he could write a western. After his first attempt he and the agent decided that he needed a trilogy and a 'hook' upon which to build a series.

They settled on the 'Western Trail Series' because, as he put it in an autobiographical note, "[I]t seemed to combine all the elements of a good western: the cattle drives, the trail town, the Indians, the outlaws, and the gun fights."

The Goodnight Trail was published in 1991. By then three more were written. Under contract with St. Martin's Press, another eleven had been published or were in various stages of composition at the time of Comptonís death in 1999. Since then his estate has engaged a number of writers to write westerns under Compton's name.

I just finished The Green River Trail (1999).

Four young Texans, having made a major stake in the California gold fields, search for land to settle on the northern plains. They meet up with Jim Bridger who tells them of the land available along the Green River valley of northeastern Utah. The Texans purchase eight sections on either side of the Green, and return to Texas to gather a herd of Texas longhorns -- and a wife apiece.

The novel is full of action in Texas and along the trail. They fend off outlaws, escape from jail, defeat Indians with the help of a friendly Shoshone, and manage to reach the Green before the snow flies in 1853.

Upon arrival they discover that their claim has been jumped by a group of Mormons who are discouraging non-Mormon settlement in their territory.

The Green River Trail is not great literature. Critics praise Compton for his "rich characterization." But it is pretty hard to come by. Looking back, I have difficulty telling the difference between Lonnie Kilgore, Dallas Weaver, Dirk McNelly, or Kirby Lowe.

Nonetheless the action is great. The plot is well designed for an interesting diversion. However, the trail motif is so predominant that, when the end of the trail is reached, the reader is left wanting to know more about just how the Texans finally deal with the Mormon opposition to settlement. We know that the friendly Shoshone has gathered a war party of his fellow tribesmen to help them claim the land, but the last page arrives before the final confrontation.

But Compton, and/or his posthumous penmen, gives us a cracking good story. It was fine for a cool evening threatening snow on the plains of Yancy Avenue.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

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