In 2010, while vacationing in and around San Diego, I happened into a used book, as I am wont to do. I found a book called Death on Treasure Trail. It had a nice, bright yellow cover, the kind that nearly every western novel had back in the day. Erle Stanley Gardner even wrote an introduction. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the setting of the novel was in Texas’s Big Bend region.
Yet I never read the book. Cut to July 2016 and our trip out to Big Bend. I’m a fan of reading books on vacations that are set around the places I’m visiting so Death on Treasure Trail was tops on my list. But the book is pretty beat up, so I took to the internet to find an electronic copy for my Kindle. Imagine my surprise when I discovered not only Treasure Trail, but the other two Rio Kid books all available as ebooks. Well, seeing as how Treasure Trail was third of three, I went ahead and got Return of the Rio Kid, the first book in the trilogy.
The author on my physical book is listed as “Don Davis” but, in reality, the man behind the typewriter was none other than Brett Halliday, the writer who created the Michael Shayne private eye series. However, “Halliday” is merely the most famous pen name for the actual man, Davis Dresser, but that name won’t sell many ebooks, so the good folks at Open Road Media made sure Brett Halliday supersedes the title on the new covers.
When the book opens, the Rio Kid has been hiding out in Mexico after fleeing Arizona on a false murder charge three years before. Sure, the Rio Kid has killed men before, but the one that got his visage on a wanted poster was falsified. Having grown into manhood in a foreign land, the Kid wants to return to Arizona and clear his name. He chooses the Big Bend region as his crossing point, but not before trouble starts.
On the Mexican side of the border sits a small town under the thumb of ruthless hombre, Pedro. He rules the town in much the same way Gene Hackman’s character does in Unforgiven. Being a western paperback of the 1940s, the Kid gets himself in a fight when he refuses to remove his twin .45s strapped to each leg. He hightails it out of town, leaving one mess behind. He crosses the Rio Grande and finds himself in another mess, this one partly of his own making. You see, there’s a small town on the Texas side. A poker game is being played and a young man is betting when he should be folding. The Kid gets himself mixed up in the game and ends up winning the young man’s ranch. A ranch that, not coincidentally, is one of two parcels of land a ruthless (is there any other kind?) cattle rancher wants to own. Well, you can imagine what happens from here.
But you’d be partially wrong. Sure, the Kid—whose real name isn’t given—does what all flawed heroes with prices on their heads do: the right thing. Mostly. But the folks he’s trying to help and those he’s trying to stay away from, have other ideas. It makes for entertaining reading, that’s for sure. I especially liked the secret the Rio Kid uncovered and how he turned his attention to putting it to good use.
Halliday chose a curious method to get across how folks talked to each other. He spelled out the Rio Kid’s drawl phonetically. Granted, when I read the first few passages, I assumed Halliday was going to provide this kind of dialogue as an example and then revert back to standard spelling, letting the reader fill in the blanks. Nope. The Kid mutters through the entire book. Others, too. Here are a couple of examples.
“I’ll just keep my guns on, I reckon,” he drawled, “’less yo’re of uh mind tuh take’em offa me.”
“Say, yo’re jes spoilin’ fer uh six-foot hole, ain’t yuh? Yuh cain’t buck Pedro, I’m tellin’ yuh.”
Yes, it leaves the reader with absolutely zero leeway in hearing the voice in the mind, but it’s a pain to type. I understand one or two words consistently spelled like they sound, but almost all of them? Aw, shucks. Who am I kiddin’? I liked ’em all.
Oh, and all that joy I experienced when I realized I was going to read a western set in Big Bend while actually being in Big Bend? That excitement held all the way until Halliday namedropped a mountain range that, upon consultation with the internet, was actually located in Arizona. No big deal. All I had to do was look out the window of my hotel and get my bearings straight.
But don’t let that dissuade you from reading this enjoyable first book in the Rio Kid Trilogy.