Three years after the 1893 Panic (recession), times were still tough for the mercantile business in St. Louis, Missouri. Fourteen-year-old Caleb Hart, being another mouth to feed and having few prospects, was shipped out to his uncle's cattle ranch in Las Cruce, New Mexico Territory. Upon arrival, Cap't Hart, his uncle and a John Wayne type, made it clear what was expected of Caleb: '" You'll work, Caleb, work hard because I don't give jobs. I don't give nothing. You ride for the Hart brand, you do what I say, or I turn you loose." Sorry Caleb, no adventurous, summer vacation here!
Told in first person flashback, the greenhorn Caleb recounts his ranch-hand learning and coming-of-age as a cowboy. This is before the concept of adolescence existed. You went directly from a child to an adult with no time in between -- Caleb even carries a .32 caliber revolver. His uncle suffers from the chronic rancher problem: rustlers. Nearby ranchers are suspected, including a young woman whose husband was hanged by the uncle. Is she rustling out of revenge? Stock detectives were hired. Caleb became friends with a good one, Kim Harrigan. Unfortunately, there were also bad stock detectives like Slim Reed who used their job as a killing license.
However, besides the rustling tale, there is also a mystery. The hostile, young woman neighbor hates anyone named Hart. Why? Caleb's isn't sure what the basis of this tension and conflict is -- especially between her and his uncle. Everything comes to a head when a local judge and his boy disappear. Eventually, Caleb must possess the courage of defying his boss and uncle.
"Westerns" remind us how hard frontier life actually was (see my review of the author's award winning Hard Winter). In the West, jobs for teens were slightly more difficult than just showing up or flipping burgers. 244 pages.
Recommended by Robert L. Hicks, High School Librarian