The Phantom Roan
Stephen Holt, il. Pers Crowell
1949, David McKay Company
“Shucks,” he managed to whisper, “some horses have to die of colic. Harmon of the Double Anchor says so.” Moving easily, he walked to a little niche beside the feed box and getting a hammer started to nail the hasp back on. Working, he kept his eyes from roving out to the rolling Alberta hills that would remind him of the sleek bay horse. The hills over which he and Roy H had raced, but would never race again. For Roy H was gone.
Glenn Barnes, abandoned at a lonely ranch house as an infant, loves his adoptive parents Luce and Abbie, and their Shoestring Ranch but now he has to leave. Generous, impulsive Luce is an easy touch for every salesman and con artist wandering through their area of Canada, and a drought killed their last cows. Shrewd, unlikeable Uncle Walt has offered Glenn a job in his bank and Glenn, stunned by the loss of his horse, is dully resigned to taking it and leaving the land for a small city. Also left behind, his dreams of becoming a veterinarian.
This, of course, will not happen. On Glenn’s final night of freedom, camped out in a ravine on the outskirts of town, he encounters a horse, a rodeo castoff with cropped ears and a rage against humans. The horse, a blue roan, also has a stone in his foot and submits, after an initial furious attack, to having Glenn help him. Against his will, Glenn’s determination to never care about another fickle, fragile horse gives way.
He’d found himself now, and he knew that he had found his horse. A sense of belonging to each other and of being alike filled him. Hadn’t Luce found him on the doorstep? And hadn’t he found the roan down here in the river bottom? They’d both been foundlings.
Of course, it’s not that easy. First, Glenn has to convince curmudgeonly local vet Doc Crane to hire him, then nurse the angry roan (now named Sky) back to health. Crane’s a tough boss, his daughter Barbara is confusing (to readers as well, since she has the typical lack of depth of a female character in a western), and Crane’s African-American assistant Alan is all but hostile. And that doesn’t even get to the central battle of the book, which is the fight between Crane and the area’s largest rancher, Peters, over mange. The vet is determined to have all cattle dipped to prevent the disease, and the rancher is determined to avoid it. So far, Peters has been winning easily, to the point where Crane’s last assistant decamped to become Peters’ new ranch hand. Glenn, now, is caught in the middle. And at intervals, Sky’s former owner appears, whispers ominously to himself and vanishes again.
I’m a bit of a fan of hyperbole. I enjoy every overblown, action-packed moment of excess drama. But I think the random appearances of Sky’s former owner really just gilded the lily on this one. You already have a hero with four different father figures (plus one actual if non-present father), two haunting bonds to special horses, and no less than four men who we’re forced to understand – broody Alan and his painful racial past, Doc Crane and his fight to clear the range of disease, cowboy king Peters and his need to be proven right over a mouthy newcomer, and dreamy poet Luce’s desire to latch onto a lucky thing by investing in random inventions. There’s such a thing as demanding too much of a reader, and asking them to worry about Alan’s pride and Peters’ status while also wondering if the villain will manage to steal back the already troubled Sky – well, it’s overload. By the time we all end up in a rodeo, Glenn’s final dilemma seems less pressing than our own. Will we make it through to the final page before we begin to just hate all the characters?
Caveat: My opinion may have been influenced by reading this too soon after another Holt/Thompson title, Spook, The Mustang, and the similarities being slightly irritating. Like realizing that a favorite author has an unfortunate weakness for "azure eyes" or using inappropriate words as verbs (aka, "she startled at his touch.") Also, it's March, and this is not a month that brings out the sunny side. Literally, as it's been ungodly overcast for weeks.
Googling the place names mentioned in this book, I discovered that the two towns/cities mentioned were real places, with a couple of horsey tie-ins. George “The Iceman” Woolf, the jockey who rode Seabiscuit in many of his races and becomes famous again after the 2001 Laura Hillenbrand book, was born on a ranch near Cardston. And the Remington Carriage Museum is a local attraction.