Top Ten Western Novels

(in my opinion)

Haunted Mesa1o. Haunted Mesa, by Louis L’Amour

One of Louis L’Amour’s longest and clearly most researched novels, Mesa  is equal parts contemporary mystery and historical thriller. While a detective working to solve a murder makes up the plot, the marrow of this novel is the mesmerizing history of the Anasazi that L’Amour weaves in so seamlessly.

The Man Who Killed the Deer9. The Man Who Killed the Deer, by Frank Waters

Frank Waters was a historian who was a poet who was a novelist. The story explores both the physical world and the metaphysical as Martiniano, a Pueblo Indian, struggles to find balance between the old, traditional ways of his family, and the new, inevitably commonplace ways of the white man.

jesse james hansen8. The Assassination of Jesse James, by Ron Hansen

With a few tiny tweaks of the narrative style, this could easily be a non-fiction book, and a great one at that. Even better though is Hansen’s ability to blend real history into a novel about idolization, despondency, and fame. This is as close as we will ever come to knowing Jesse James and his killer.

little big man berger7. Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger

A modern classic about a man who finds a place in both the frontier army and the Cheyenne Indians they’re pursuing. Told by a narrator who may or may not be reliable, Little Big Man is about an inconsequential man caught up in a lot of consequential events. Kind’ve like Forrest Gump set in the Old West

michener centennial western6. Centennial, by James Michener

Epic and informed – the signature style of its author – Centennial tells the story of eastern Colorado. The whole story. From the formation of the prairies and streams, to the dinosaurs, the horses, the Indians, the mountain men, the ranchers, all the way to the modern day country singer.

sea of grass richter5. Sea of Grass, by Conrad Richter

Slim yet expansive, poetic and powerful, Grass makes every word count. This is the kind of book you ingest slowly, purposefully, like a quality wine. The effect is a deep, somber understanding of what the west was, and why it changed.

ox-bow incident western4. The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Written when the Third Reich was at its peak, Ox-Bow is a harrowing story about mob-mentality and man’s thirst for vengeance even in the face of reason. When most western authors were writing pulp, Tilburg Clark was writing literature.

Lonesome Dove greatest western3. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

One review on the back cover says, “If you only read one western novel in your life, read Lonesome Dove.” Sound advice. For me, the soul of this immortal adventure/romance/historical novel is summed up when Augustus says, “I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country. It’s exactly what I was meant for.”

all the pretty horses western2. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

Set in the middle of the last century, the characters’ ability to simply mount their horses and begin (but not continue) simpler lives in northern Mexico is a solemn reminder of how far and how fast civilization has progressed. The romance behind John Grady’s escape is only pronounced by the tragedy of his return.

call of the wild western1. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

Set in what is perhaps the only remaining American frontier, Call of the Wild is the best of the western novel’s three main pillars: adventure, adaptation, and wilderness. Most of all, it is the story of the primitive, alive and wild self lying dormant but not dead within us.

Colorado’s Trial of the Century

Gertrude, Charles, Strouss

A.B. Shugart, witness for the prosecution, walked along the edging of a small, tree-lined park in Denver on the morning of May 5th, 1911. From within those trees there echoed a gunshot. On a patch of grass 300 feet away Shugart spotted two figures: A man, on his hands and knees; and standing over him a woman, pistol in hand. According to his testimony, Shugart cried out for the woman to stop, saw the gun fire again and the man drop to his stomach. The woman then knelt and tucked the murder weapon under her victim and fled into the door of a nearby house. Running over to the scene of the crime, Shugart lifted the head of the man, only to find him already dead. Shugart turned and ran to the home he had seen the woman disappear into where he found her slouched in a chair, dazed. Immediately he searched her for additional weapons and, finding none, asked who the man outside was.

“He is my husband,” the woman said. “He wronged me.”

The trial that followed would consume the entire nation, later becoming one of Colorado’s most bizarre and controversial true stories.

The defendant in the case was Gertrude Gibson Patterson. Newspapers called her “The most beautiful woman in America.” The district attorney called her “A vile vampire.”

Chicago, 1900

Born to a poor Illinois family in 1881 and expelled from school at 13, Gertrude eloped to Chicago with a saloonkeeper. When her father tracked her down and brought her home, Gertrude only ran back to the city, this time with the wealthy clothing manufacturer Emil W. Strouss.

Nearly forty years her senior, Strouss was smitten with the young and beautiful Ms. Gibson, and after appealing to her father was eventually allowed to be the girl’s benefactor – a formal title that assumedly granted Strouss other, more sensual privileges.

Still, Strouss saw to it that Gertrude was afforded the best in aristocratic society. She traveled the world with him, studying four years in Paris and becoming fluent in French.

Years later, upon returning to Chicago, Gertrude met and fell in love with a poor but handsome former football player named Charles A. Patterson. Although Strouss had for years wanted to marry her, Gertrude chose instead to abscond to California with Charles. Both the secret marriage and honeymoon were financed by Gertrude’s regular allowance from Strouss.

Only later did Gertrude admit to her patron her relationship with Charles. Strouss, now well along in years and apparently understanding, kept Gertrude under his wing with her now acting as his interpreter on his regular trips to Europe.

Gertrude’s young husband was meanwhile trying his own hand in entrepreneurship. But after one failed business after another decided simply to live off of Gertrude’s money from Strouss. After a severe bout of pneumonia however, Charles contracted tuberculosis and was forced to relocate to Denver in order to recover in a sanitarium under Colorado’s dryer climate.

Denver, 1898

Now apart, Gertrude’s and Charles’ marriage started to crumble. Charles became fiercely jealous of Gertrude’s relationship with Strouss. He began to demand increasingly more money from her. He grew abusive and, according to Gertrude, would regularly beat her during her trips to visit him in the sanitarium. It was only when she learned her husband had filed a $25,000 suit against Strouss for “alienation of the affections of his wife” that Gertrude decided upon a divorce.

She left for Denver, set on finalizing the divorce, and rented a small bungalow apartment not far from Charles’ sanitarium. What happened next sent newspaper reporters rushing in from around the country.

According to the prosecution, the morning of the murder Gertrude telephoned the sanitarium in hopes of arranging a meeting with her husband. But when Charles’ refused, Gertrude instead stalked to a park by the sanitarium and hunkered down near a pathway her husband was known to regularly walk.

“When Patterson finally appeared and saw his wife,” said prosecutor Horace Benson, “we expect to show that he started to run, but stood still when his wife called to him to stop; that a witness who heard the first shot saw Patterson on his hands and knees and heard him cry out; that this witness saw Mrs. Patterson standing over him; that the witness cried out to her not to shoot; that Mrs. Patterson shot her husband again in the back, and that a moment later the witness saw her shove the revolver under her husband’s body and flee into the E.B. Hendrie home.”

It appeared an open and shut case. The murder was pre-meditated, unprovoked. “It’s thirty of Gertie,” proclaimed one newspaper. “[She] used her beauty to enslave and destroy,” said the defense attorney, “and should be hanged by the neck until dead for the crime of shooting her lawfully wedded husband, the saintly and consumptive Charles Patterson.”

It was then, moments before closing arguments and a seemingly sealed fate for Gertrude that the defense introduced a last-minute, surprise witness. The prosecution was shocked. Sworn in, the man proceeded to inform the court how he, traveling through town on his way to Wyoming, had stayed in a local hotel the night before the murder. That morning, while walking to a late breakfast, he had overheard an intense argument in a nearby park. Following the noise, the man was stunned to see a man suddenly slap the defendant, then violently throw her to the ground. It was only then, in desperate self-defense, that said defendant revealed a gun and fired into the back of the assailant just as he was turning. He claimed that once the man had fallen that he had “wanted no part of this at the time, so walked quickly away…. But I saw enough. The woman’s life was in danger.”

This final account still resonating in their ears and almost certainly touching off all chivalrous instincts in the all-male jury, the jury deliberated, only to quickly return. The verdict: Not guilty.

The prosecution was in disbelief. “If we cannot convict a murderer on the evidence we presented, what is required in the way of truth and fact to convict?” one member said. Almost immediately a great speculation arose surrounding the court’s decision and this mysterious surprise witness. One reporter claimed seeing the man later leave his Denver hotel pocketing a large wad of cash. Another person claimed to having witnessed Gertrude receiving a bulky letter addressed from Strouss, a letter reportedly stuffed with cash. The prosecution would later hire a detective agency to investigate this last witness, but the man was never found.

According to a later article in the Denver Post, “more than the jurors chivalry may have been aroused. At least four of the male jurors visited Gertrude in her hotel room after the trial. One, who brought flowers, seemed especially eager to get into Gertrude’ s, good graces.”

Following her acquittal, Gertrude fled the attention of the press for Europe. Here accounts of her final years vary. Some claim that after lying low in Europe for a few years Gertrude returned to the U.S. and married a judge in Rockford, IL. But other articles from the time assert that the woman killer who had captivated the media never did see her home country again after having boarded a return ship with a destiny all its own: The Titanic.

Jim Reynolds: Confederate Guerilla

Ever since a Georgian by the name of Green Russell discovered a placer deposit along Cherry Creek and set off the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, prospectors from Russell’s home state and those surrounding swarmed the burgeoning mining camps of the Rocky Mountains. But in 1861, finding themselves suddenly in Union territory as their southern brothers headed to war, Colorado’s displaced rebels seethed under censorship and their own inaction. They were, as one newspaper put it, waiting for a finger to tap them on their gun-ready shoulders.

That tap, that flurry of instigation happened more than is widely known in the young Civil-War-era Territory of Colorado.

On the morning of April, 24 1861, the people of Denver looked above them to see the Confederate Stars and Bars flying over a Larimer street warehouse. A unionist by the name of Samuel Logan, promptly climbed up and tore the flag to the earth to much applause (despite the influx of southern sympathizers in the territory, the vast majority still paid allegiance to the Union). And so marked the only occasion in the history of the city where a Confederate flag ever flew over the streets of Denver.

In the days that followed the south did not give up on Colorado. Perhaps more accurately, the Texans did not give up on “winning the west.” When war did break out, those sympathizers that did not return home formed militia groups in ming camps around Colorado’s Rocky Mountain range, including Fairplay, Leadville, Canon City, and, most infamously Mace’s Hole near Pueblo, CO. In this hideout recruited southerners grouped, trained, and readied until by the time nearby Fort Garland learned of their presence and immediately shut it down Mace’s Hole boasted over 600 trained rebel soldiers.

Of course, the most conspicuous of the Confederate pursuit of Colorado was Sibley’s 1861-1862 invasion of New Mexico. In late 1861 nearly 3,000 Texans led by General H. Sibley departed El Paso and marched northward into New Mexico with the intent of capturing the pathway of the Santa Fe Trail, and, most importantly, the renowned mineral resources of Colorado and California. Along their quest Sibley and his three-thousand Texans found victory at Valverde, then Albuquerque, and then capitol, Santa Fe (although the latter two were handed over without incident). Just days after sacking Sante Fe however, a force of Colorado Volunteers surprised Sibley in what is called Glorieta Pass (about 15 miles NW of Santa Fe). It was a decided victory for the Coloradans, and the Texans retreated home never again to make an attempt at Confederate “Manifest Destiny.”

Early in 1864 however, with the war still very well anyone’s ball game, one Texan man by the name of Jim Reynolds decided to take his own personal attempt at manipulating Colorado for the good of the Confederacy. Some claimed him to be something of a Confederate Robin Hood, one who stole from the rich and the poor and then gave to the south. Others saw him a stalwart enemy of the Union out to hamper their cause in any way he could. And still others labeled him just another gun-pointing thief, his ruse of giving his booty to a “cause” somehow making him noble. Considering that none of Reynolds loot ever did make it back to Texas and the Confederacy, this latter description is probably the most accurate.

Jim Reynolds was born in Texas in the 1840s and arrived in Colorado’s South Park area around 1863. Here he was a poor worker and one with short dedication. He stumbled from one territorial job to the other – miner, rancher, farmer, bartender, rarely holding a position for more than a few days. And all money he ever made was said to go straight into the bottle.

Perhaps realizing this, Reynolds and his gang turned to robbing. It was more exciting, demanded less hours, and paid a whole lot better. The citizens of Fairplay soon began to notice how the pockets of Reynolds and his men were always fatter each time a wagon was seized up in the mountains.

During one botched robbery attempt, Reynolds was apprehended. But in those days of crude, cabin-style jail-houses, Reynolds promptly escaped, rejoined his gang, and fled the territory.

It was the height of the Civil War and the gang returned to their home state of Texas. Somehow escaping enlistment, Reynolds soon learned that the largest problem facing the southern states was a rapidly diminishing treasury, and so made a promise with some of the Rebel officers to return to Colorado where gold is pulled out of the streams every day and organized security is few and far. He urged them to send him and his posse (this time a larger one) back to this land of South Park he knew so well so that when he next returned it would be with enough stolen Union gold to help the southerners finance their war.

Purportedly commissioned by the Texas Confederate Forces, Jim led his guerillas northward through New Mexico on the long dry stretch back into the central Rocky Mountains. About halfway through the territory, the gang captured a wagon carrying over $60,000. Robbing throughout New Mexico had not been part of the original plan, but most men simply agreed not to allow the opportunity to slip by. And, needless to say, with so much money in so many hands, the gang’s leader Jim Reynolds (sensing a mutiny) immediately found himself re-preaching the virtue of their mission, how the Confederacy needed this money much more than themselves. The gang however, up to their bellies in gold and silver, did not listen and instead split the booty squarely and most of the gang took their loot and departed right there, leaving only nine of the original and most ardent posse members: John Bobbitt, John Andrews, Jack Robinson, Tom Knight, Jake Stowe, Tom Holliman, Owen Singleterry, Jim Reynolds, and his brother John.

The diminished posse reached South Park and convened at Adolph Guirand’s ranch between Hartsel and Fairplay. From there, the posse moved toward Fairplay and began their daily ambushes and pilgrimages. They began small: holding up individuals at knife-point, breaking and entering empty-looking homes, before graduating to wagons and large ranches.

At one such ranch, apparently upset for the lack of treasure found on a victim by the name of Major deMary, Reynolds took the passenger prisoner and forced him into humiliating clothes.

The gang worked their way to McLaughlin’s stage station which was rumored to always keep an abundance of currency on hand. Once there, the gang immediately captured the station, even going so far as to order the station cook to wine and dine them. By the time the passengers had emptied their pockets, all the horses were rounded, and the lockbox had been pried open, Jim Reynolds is said to have made away with upwards of $100,000 from McLaughlin’s station.

The gang did not delay in keeping their good luck rolling, robbing large South Park ranch estates out of thousands of coins, livestock, and collectibles, including the Omaha House, the Michigan House and the famous (but now gone) Kenosha House.

Fairplay, CO

Needless to say, by now a variety of posses existed in Fairplay, all combing South Park for the bandit Jim Reynolds. One such posse man by the name of Mr. Berry, was caught by the Reynolds Gang his first night out. Fortunate for Berry however, the gang was in good spirits that night and, after some teasing let him go.

Released into the night, Berry ran all the way to Junction House, located not far from Evergreen. From there Berry continued into Denver by train with his story.

Although they did not suspect it, several posses were now closing in on Jim Reynolds. As the gang slept unassumingly in the deserted Omaha House, several posses snuck their way – over one-hundred posse men in all.

But in the morning Reynolds sensed danger and, knowing the country around him well, ordered his men to carry all their loot up Handcart Gulch (near present-day Kenosha Pass) and hurriedly build a makeshift camp. A corral was built for the horses, a rockwall mounded for protection to shoot behind and, perhaps most telling of all, a large hole was dug and then inconspicuously covered.

Ultimately it was a posse out of Breckenridge led by one Jack Sparks that noticed the late-night campfires of Jim Reynold’s tree-surrounded hideout. A firefight broke out in the night and, as Sparks’ men pressed forward, Reynold’s men, in the dark confusion, mounted their horses and fled.

At daylight, Sparks’ posse surveyed Reynold’s hideout, discovering the body of Owen Singleterry – apparently the only fatality of last night’s blind bullets. Sparks and his men buried Singleterry, sticking a knife in a tree directly above the                                     gravesite then, failing to notice anything else suspicious at the site, departed.

By now the Reynolds Gang had dispersed all throughout the territory in hopes of evading their posses. Tom Holliman was found asleep in a hotel by Sparks’ Posse and captured. Jim’s brother, along with two other gang members, were given pursuit but ultimately made it back to the New Mexico Territory. It’s believed that Stowe was actually shot during the gunfight at Handcart Gulch and died shortly after, while Andrews met his maker via a saloon brawl in Texas.

As for Jim Reynolds, he and three others retreated into the hills and remained at large for a two days, for on the second day an either very bold or else very desperate Jim Reynolds reappeared in Fairplay, looking for food and water. The men were immediately apprehended, though no portion of the stolen loot was ever discovered.

At this point the story becomes shrouded in mystery. Because Colorado was not yet an official state in the Union at the time of Reynold’s arrest, his case was handed over to the local Union military. One story told is that the army held a secret trial for all the members of the Reynolds Gang and, finding them guilty of conspiring against the Union, sentenced them to hanging.

Fort Leavenworth, KS

Of course, questions immediately arose regarding the military overstepping its boundary. In response, it was decided that Jim and his fellow guerillas march all the way to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for a proper military tribune. Led by Captain Cree, the 3rd Colorado Cavalry escorted the gang members into the plains.

Amazingly, the very next day the Captain returned to Denver, claiming that he had had no choice but to shoot all five prisoners for they had escaped and were turning on their captors. A few weeks later a traveler on his way to Fort Leavenworth came upon the old ghost town of Russellville. There, strapped hand to hand around one thick elm tree was Jim Reynolds and his remaining posse men – all of them shot to death. Eventually Captain Cree would reveal that never had he actually been given orders to escort the five prisoners all the way to Fort Leavenworth, but instead his orders had been to fatally dispose of them at the first opportunity.

But the most enticing mystery of the legend of Jim Reynolds is still one that looms unanswered today: the yet-to-be-found whereabouts of Reynolds Confederate loot.

Kenosha Pass

Toward the beginning of the 20th Century a treasure hunter named Vernon Crow was out in search of the lost treasure of Jim Reynolds. He retraced the spots between Kenosha House and the other ranches until finally coming upon the infamous Handcart Gulch. There, after pushing for some ways through the thick of aspen and pine, Vernon came upon a large pile of rocks and, the biggest clue of all, a rusted knife handle sticking out of a tree directly above yet another piling of rocks. In one corner of the hideout were the remains of an old impromptu horse corral. Immediately Vernon began to unearth the stone piles, coming upon nothing except deep dirt in the case of the larger mound. Under the second mound under the knife handle Vernon found exactly what he was looking for. Or, that is, exactly what he should have been looking for if he had been familiar with the story. For under those stones lay a bullet-ridden skeleton many decades dead.

Hastily Vernon recovered the grave and departed the area. To this day wherever Jim Reynolds hid his Confederate loot remains a mystery: one waiting for some keen and very lucky hiker in the wilderness around Colorado’s Kenosha Pass.

Newspaper Headlines for Jim Reynolds


August 13, 1864: Lt. J. S. Maynard (AAAG of the District of Colorado) reports that during a skirmish several of Captain Reynolds men have been captured by Lt. Shoup near Black Squirrel Creek (in El Paso County) not far from Pueblo, Colorado;

August26,1864: Newspapers report Captain Reynolds was captured however his brother (John Reynolds) and several others escaped;

September 10, 1864: Newspapers print the “Black List” of approximately 100 suspected local “secessionists” in Colorado;

September 13, 1864: During a special election 75% of Coloradans voted against statehood (4,676 to 1,520);

For several weeks after the special election, many local newspapers reported that the failure of the statehood amendment was due to a very strong “anti-state party”, the majority of which were “Copperheads” (secessionists or Southern Sympathizers).

December 9, 1864: Newspapers report that James Reynolds and several of his men were shot and killed while attempting to escape while being transported from Denver to Fort Lyon by a detachment of Company A, 3rd Colorado Cavalry.