Villa and Varmints

Jane Coleman's characters ride the line.

Talk about culture shock. Ten years ago, my then-wife Becky and I moved from the wilds of suburban New Jersey, where we had grown up, to Apache, Ariz., population eight. We had signed on as teachers at the Apache School, a two-room schoolhouse with a dozen students. Before the move, a 30-minute drive placed us in the middle of Times Square. Now, getting groceries took a 40-minute drive into Douglas; getting beer or the mail required a 15-minute drive into Rodeo, N.M.

The locals, if you can call them that (only two other occupied buildings were close enough to be seen from the school), were friendly and supportive. But the shock of displacement was jarring nonetheless. One afternoon, a pickup raced by on the rutted ranch road in front of our house. When the driver waved, as all country people do, I asked Becky who it was. "Just some jerk waving," she said. Clearly, we were out of our element.

One of the few local people we knew before arriving was Jane Candia Coleman. We had met her about a year before our move, at Scotty and Alice Anderson's Price Canyon Ranch. Jane, tall and thin, with brown hair, glasses and a cigarette, was a great dinner companion--witty, wry and wonderfully salty. Like us, Coleman had emigrated from the East, leaving her home near Pittsburgh to eventually settle on a ranch near Rodeo. We liked her immediately.

The country where we all lived--between the Chiricahua and Peloncillo mountain ranges--is stunning: peaceful and inspiring. Nevertheless, after two years in Apache, Becky and I'd had our fill of ropin' and ridin' and talking about the weather. We needed a return to civilization, and got halfway there by moving to Tucson. Jane Candia Coleman, of course, stayed.

And that country is at the heart of her writing. Through two collections of poetry, a couple of novels and four short-story collections, Coleman's writing is charged with an intense sense of place, and with characters shaped and reshaped by their surroundings. Her most recent collection of short fiction, Borderlands, shines with the same spare prose and character insight that has earned her two Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America and three Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

In the opener, "Sandhill Cranes," a ranch woman who was orphaned and adopted into a loving home at five, in turn adopts another orphan who has run away from an abusive home. The women share similarities, including a way with animals that pays off nicely at a rural horse race. The characters in "Loner" share similarities, too: Brought together in a Montana snowstorm, they're two lonely people holding a grudge against the Indians that made him an orphan and her a widow.

In "Wild Flower," Coleman takes the historic letters of Louisa Earp, wife of Wyatt's brother Morgan, and adds her own, written in Louisa's style, to fill in gaps in the narrative. It's an engrossing progression of correspondence, beginning in 1876 in Deadwood, S.D., and passing through such locales as Butte and Tombstone before ending with Louisa's death in 1894.

"Fiddle Case," subtitled "A True Story," is set on the Santa Fe Trail in 1858. Not wanting to bury her child in the wilderness, a mother keeps its death secret, only to discover later that the baby is indeed alive. Tall tale or true, it's a good story.

In the title piece, a lunger from back east meets two journalists on their way to the border to cover the Mexican revolution. They meet Pancho Villa in a Mesilla cantina, and again later, during the raid on Columbus.

In my favorite, "A Pair to Draw To," outlaw wives grow tired of their luxurious hideout in Paraguay, and return to New Mexico to set up a rest home for rich old men. Theirs is a capitalist success story with a nice little piece of foreshadowing: when they visit New York for a week, the girls fall asleep at the opera and drool over Wall Street.

Borderlands makes it easy to see why Coleman's so respected by fans of Western writing. Her characters, settings and style are perfectly suited to her audience. Jaded city slickers, too, will find lots to like here, especially if, like me, they enjoy words that rile the purveyors of PC. Here, the hero and heroine of "Loner" commiserate on Native Americans:

"The Indians in Canada come down here, get drunk, rob and kill, and then go back ..."

"What about our Indians? Seems to me they can be kept in line."

She snorted. "They're worse than anybody ... stealing, going on drunk rampages ..."

Take that, Sherman Alexie.

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