A debut historical novel follows an enterprising young man as he makes his way across the Santa Fe Trail in the 1840s.
Horses play a huge role in many a Western and they were instrumental in the settlement of the frontier, but it’s rarely discussed how so many of the animals actually got there. Hickman aims to fill in this gap with his tale, which focuses on Ross Greenup and his cousin Tim as they set out west from Tennessee. The ostensible goal of the trip is to set up outposts along the Western route to supply horses and mules to travelers. But they are also young men, and they must go West. Things get off to a less than auspicious start; as Ross attempts to meet up with Tim, he comes upon two men trying to rob him, and he shoots one and captures the other. The two friends find on the dead man a bundle of gold, which they decide to keep a secret as they head out West. News of this incident spreads, making them the target of some unsavory folks. Ross and Tim link up with family as well as friendly caravans as they make their way through the new land, including the Clarks, a family settling down in the bluegrass of Kentucky. While helping the Clarks set up their home, Ross meets his distant cousin Sammie, a spunky young woman who tags along with the two partners as they continue to Santa Fe and back to trading, catching their glimpse of the future America, surviving bad storms, and eluding bandits. Hickman has Ross narrate in a present-tense, folksy voice, which, while entertaining, sometimes saps the tension from his more perilous encounters. The plot takes Ross into intriguing territories—and Hickman is adept at evocative landscape descriptions, such as the prairie grass that “rolls in waves like I would picture ocean waves.” But the structure can become repetitive, relying on raids and attacks when the odyssey gets slack. Ross’ character is well-drawn and exhibits growth over the course of the story. The other players, however, do not have as much depth and the villains in the tale are particularly thin.
This tried-and-true Western yarn delivers a strong hero but hits mostly familiar notes along its journey.