In Lopez’s novel, a father’s search for his abducted daughter toggles back to his own past and the larger picture of the exploitation of New Mexico in the mid-19th century.
Antonio Jose Baca wishes only to raise his family in peace on his ranchito near the Pecos River in New Mexico. A ragtag detachment of Texas Rangers shows up, hungry and lost, and in the space of an hour, they have roughed up his wife, shot their young son (he survives), kidnapped their daughter, Elena, and high-tailed it back to Texas. Antonio, of course, sets out after them. He does have an advantage. In his youth, he was a cibolero, a buffalo hunter, on those forbidding plains still called the Llano Estacado. He is an expert tracker, and his blood is up. In a series of flashbacks, we learn the geography of the area and its history that goes back centuries. We learn how the Civil War would affect things and how the rise of Texas threatened the nuevomexicanos from the beginning (“So far from God…and so close to Texas”). After 1848, the U.S. claims New Mexico, and immigrants—gringos—come pouring in. Suddenly, the nuevomexicanos and Indigenous people are second-class citizens and displaced on their own land, and the arrogant gringo soldiers are deservedly hated. Revolts are mounted but inevitably and brutally put down. We follow Antonio until the end of his quest.
Lopez is an authority on New Mexican history and topography, and his novel rings true throughout. He is also a very talented writer with nary a false step (“To the Tejanos the llano is a useless desert, Antonio thought. To the Indians and Ciboleros, it is a world filled with life”). Antonio is well drawn, and Lopez is even better with his villains. Those Texas Rangers differ from an outlaw gang only because their leader, Capt. Travis Russell, has a conscience. The others range from simpletons to the truly psychopathic, especially one J.D. Calhoun, scion of Texas money. Again one thinks of arrogance, a defining and infuriating trait of these interlopers—the Texas gang, Gen. Stephen Kearny who rubbed the nuevomexicanos’ noses in the American takeover, the drunken, murderous troopers, the condescension of Kit Carson and Charles Bent. (One can’t help but cheer when Bent’s head is paraded around Taos on a pikestaff.) Especially satisfying is the way the Ranger contingent is thoroughly spooked when two of the young troopers run into serious trouble. They assume the feared Comanche are to blame. Antonio is the relentless avenger, particularly deadly, and one feels the noose tightening. There are all sorts of side stories here, too, each a little nugget, and small episodes, like the murder of Nathan, a Black man, and Antonio’s efforts to rescue his orphaned children. And keep your eye on Josiah Smith, “the preacher.” There are nasty surprises and, oddly, some sweet interludes.
Well-written historical fiction stuffed with action and adventure.