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The Valles Caldera
Photo courtesy of The Cadence Group

Book Review: The Valles Caldera by Gary L. Stuart

In spite of the foreboding name, the Valles Caldera is not a hazardous place.

Comprising mountains and grassy valleys, the caldera is today a place beloved by peace-seeking outdoors enthusiasts. But a little over a century ago, in author Gary L. Stuart’s world, it was the site of an epic shootout.

The Valles Caldera is the second book in the Angus series, which started with Ten Shoes Up. Narrated by Angus Esparazza, Valles centers on Angus’ experiences as a U.S. Marshal in the New Mexico territory.

It’s not strictly necessary to read Ten Shoes Up beforehand, as you get the bones of the story from Angus in The Valles Caldera. Indeed, his exploits from that time register throughout the novel, both as legend and as narrative fodder. But if you want an even better idea of Angus’ motivations and character in The Valles Caldera, we recommend it.

In Valles, we find Angus two years after the events of Ten Shoes Up (Valles takes place in 1883) in unfortunate circumstances. An accident lames his beloved horse Tuscon, and he’s forced to find a new one. It comes in the form of No Más, an unbroken creature that petrifies its handlers but warms up to Angus pretty quickly. After gaining each other’s trust, it’s off to Denver, ready for their next assignment.

Although a western, The Valles Caldera has elements of historical fiction in it, especially in the first half when Angus is dispatched from Denver to Albuquerque (in the then New Mexico Territory) to investigate Milton J. Yarberry. Yarberry is infamous in Albuquerque history; the city’s first Town Marshal, accused of robbery and murder and sentenced to hang, although he maintains his innocence.

Ultimately, however, it’s not Yarberry who leads Angus to the caldera. Rather, it is El Patron Mendoza Mendoza (“who likes people to say his name twice, out of respect,” according to Chief Deputy Marshal Dave Knop, giving Angus a rundown of things around Albuquerque) and his clan who lead Angus there. Indeed, Angus crosses them when he breaks up an assault in Bernalillo, coming to the aid of a woman getting roughed up by two of Mendoza’s sons.

The Valles Caldera - Cover-1

For the most part, The Valles Caldera is narrated by Angus, with some chapters told by Mendoza Mendoza. Though never too long, the Mendoza chapters are nice little apercus into the clan’s motivations regarding Angus. Indeed, you get more than an inkling of why Mendoza Mendoza is so warily respected, and why everyone thinks twice before crossing him or his clan. Take, for instance, what El Patron tells his sons after their encounter with Angus:

“We will get revenge for the brand. By the brand! When we have this man, Ignacio will brand his forehead with the M/. Then I will cut off his head. That is the revenge of our brand.”

The character of Angus emerges easily from his narration and actions. In many ways, he’s a stereotypical cowboy: he’s young, itinerant, more friend to horse than man (though, over the course of Valles, he finds himself smitten with one Jill Garrison, who’s handy with firearms), enjoys a good whiskey or mescal, strives for self-sufficiency, and buries his emotions. In that case, what’s he doing as a U.S. Marshal and not a cowpuncher?

Stuart’s background is legal; he obtained business and law degrees from the University of Arizona and has previously published books on everything from trial lawyer conduct to Miranda rights. So it’s no surprise that even in his fiction, there’s a lawyerlike veneer. There are many moments when Angus’ narration goes far in-depth on a variety of topics, from the history of the territory to the differences between red foxes and grey foxes. At times, the level of detail makes the story sag. Take, for instance, this tidbit from when Angus is facing down the Mendozas in Bernalillo:

Most pistols are single action and have to be cocked as you pull, and then fired from instinct. They produce white smoke, the smell of burnt gun powder, and a thunder everybody recognizes. When you hear it, it’s too late. A wad of lead about the size of your thumb is headed your way. Squeezing that trigger makes your eyes squint and your gun arm swings faster than a bronc inside a cyclone. Gunfighters call it going to sights on the first shot. Sometimes you only get one.

Taken out of context, it sounds like Angus is delivering an opening statement in court, not facing down two 1880s outlaws. And in the wrong hands, much of The Valles Caldera (and its predecessor Ten Shoes Up) could have read as one long opening and closing statement.

But barring asides like these, there are many moments where Angus’ character is clearly delineated, especially around his horse No Más, after they’ve been riding a bit:

All night long, I heard trees cracking with frost. What looked like blue steam drifted off the river below us. At full dark, there were no stars visible, but I could sense a soft moonglow over the clouds. The pale blue, opaque sky comforted No Más and me. Not that he said as much, but I could tell—ears still, eyes half-lidded, and steady breath sounds. He might have gone to sleep before I did. Hard to tell with horses. They don’t tell you in words what they’re doing. But, they like to hear me talk. Most of ’em, anyhow.

Overall, characters in The Valles Caldera don’t meet halfway with Angus; they either take to him immediately or decide they want to murder him. It’s a clear split between love/affinity and hate. Further, the plot of The Valles Caldera seems likewise split on whether Yarberry or Mendoza is more important to Angus’ story. Of course, it’s Mendoza who steps up as antagonist and sets into motion the second half of the novel.

Perhaps, though, regarding Yarberry, Stuart was hampered by circumstance. And while Yarberry isn’t present at the showdown up in Valles, his figure seems to linger in Angus’ mind. Indeed, it’s at and after Yarberry’s hanging where we find Angus at his most ruminative—and The Valles Caldera at its most touching.

Yarberry was hanged February 9, 1883, before a crowd of over 1,500. After witnessing it, Angus deliberates whether to vent to No Más about Yarberry’s treatment or not. His response is decidedly somber, not sanguine:

Walking up to the livery barn to check on No Más, I thought about what I’d say to him on the matter of hanging men. I brushed No Más down and picked his feet. That done, it came clear to me. Horses are used in hangings out on the trail. Sometimes by outlaws and sometimes by lawmen who don’t want to be bothered with what they call due process of law. What would a horse want to know about any of that? I kept it to myself and walked back to the La Posada Hotel. Bought a double glass of whiskey, but didn’t drink it in the bar. Taking it to my room, I put it on the table beside the bed. It was empty the next morning, but I couldn’t remember drinking it. I decided I’d seen my last hanging.

Fans of the Angus series (or converts intrigued by Ten Shoes or Valles) will have to wait and see whether that’s the last hanging Stuart makes him see.

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