Character-revealing and written with a stripped, rich immediacy that flows from feeling rather than description, this may well be the champion western of the year--and bear longer-lasting qualities as well. The Homesteaders is a serious, nonhack, but nonarty minor classic whose plot arises somewhere between Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The OxBow Incident and Carl Foreman's High Noon, with every thought-out scene crisp and purposeful and, occasionally, high-humored. It has three main triumphs, a solidly imagined mature heroine, a believable love story, and a nearly paralyzed hero (he's shot through the hip) who spends most of the novel flat on his back in the dirt or flat in bed fighting villains, with his deputies bearing him on a stretcher to the final shoot-out, his heroine marching ten feet behind with a shotgun. Elizabeth, an orphan in her late 20s, marries Henry Bartlett and follows him with a high heart to Peralta, New Mexico, where they make a stake as homesteaders. Little do they know how they'll be hated by the cattlemen. Elizabeth is 35 when Henry is fatally stricken with lung fever. She cares for him alone. A neighboring range rider, returning a crippled horse to the Bartletts, comes upon Elizabeth unawares while she sits exhausted at a spring. The cowboy says it's the last time he'll return this wandering horse and gives it a hard whip with his lariat. Elizabeth's so struck by this brutality that she throws a rock at the cowboy and brains him dead. The range rider's buddies blame the almost-dead Henry and mistakenly shoot visiting Sheriff Walt Cutler (30 and unmarried) thinking he's Henry. The rest of the novel plays with Walt immobilized in the dust while the Widow Bartlett cares for him, and the vengeful range riders return. After they're eventually captured, Walt has a second hot problem when the townsfolk want to lynch the villains, who are known rustlers, and attack the jail. Every character is nicely carved, the two-bit town is whittled out beautifully, and the hard-boned villains have hearts cast in lead, with contempt their only decent facial expression. With Elizabeth the lone woman available for marriage among some 60 brawny men with souls parched for love, the invisible brush fire that lights up between her and the younger sheriff has a special heat. Authenticity-plus.