Title: The Last Chance Ranch
Author: D.G. Parker
Cover Artist: Anne Cain
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy Link: Buy Link Last Chance Ranch
Genre: M/M historical western romance
Length: 188 pages
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by Jenre
Wonderful historical western story about a group of unusual men coping with hatred and bigotry.
In the rough desert country of New Mexico, Ben Johnson runs a horse ranch called the Bar J. More than a business, the ranch is home to a collection of drifters, gamblers, drunks, and gunslingers, all of whom have found a second chance at life. What’s more, the ranch is a haven for men who prefer the company of other men, like Ben himself.
He and his young lover, Obie, deal with the everyday running of the Bar J and try to keep their ranch hands out of trouble. But when the arrival of strangers brings threats from without and within, Obie and Ben find out who their friends truly are and whether the strength of their love can see them through.
Warning: Please remember to have a stock of hankies on hand when attempting to read this book!
I’ve read a few D.G. Parker short stories and always found her writing to be thoughtful and accessible. I was pleased to discover that she’d written this longer novel and so dived in to read. What I hadn’t realised is that this book is a follow on from a short story which appears in the anthology Know When to Hold ‘Em by Dreamspinner Press which I haven’t read. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to have read the story before hand as it seems that most of the things you need to know are given as reminders in this book. Having said that, it was a little odd to come straight into the established relationship between Ben and Obie (Obediah) and as a result I took a little bit longer to warm to their relationship than I might have done if I’d seen them come together in the previous story. Not too long though because their troubles were one reason I needed to have a hanky nearby!
The story is told with two separate narrators who alternate through the book. The first is Obie who is in love with the owner of the Bar J ranch, Ben. The ranch breeds horses and has a moderate success. Ben and Obie’s relationship is not a great secret and as a result of this, Ben has been refused business at the local lumber mill. This makes repairs difficult, but they cope as best they can. Because Ben is unconventional to say the least, he seems to attract men looking for work who have no options left in life, leading to the ranch being nicknamed ‘The Last Chance Ranch’. As the book begins one of the old hands has died in his sleep, leaving Ben a little short. Chance has it that two new men arrive at the ranch looking for work. The first is a black man, Temper Free, who’s been wondering rootless for a while and is our second narrator. The other is another drifter, James Arcady. Ben takes them on and it isn’t long before tensions begin to rise. Firstly, Temper notices that Arcady seems to have a bad history with one of the other ranch hands, Larry. Then a Mexican soldier, Captain Vargas, tries to scam Ben out of his horses, leading to bad feelings between those two men.
This story is what I would consider a ‘slow burner’. It doesn’t appear that very much happens in the story but I was still engrossed. Most of the plot is character based and involves development and growth of relationships between the characters and in the personalities of the characters themselves. Not that nothing happens in the story – it certainly does! There’s action and drama; tension and sadness; love and laughter. These exciting events all happen within the gentle plotting which draws you slowly in rather than grabbing you. I was charmed by the story, and by the men who inhabit the pages. I can always tell when a book has been successful for me when I find my emotions are so engaged that I’m moved to tears, or smiles and that happened a few times for me whilst reading this book.
Another aspect that worked for me was in the historical setting. Again, most of this is done through the thoughts and attitudes of the characters. There’s hatred and intolerance in the town for the way that Ben and Obie live, but there’s also kindness, solidarity and a ‘live and let live’ attitude that comes from living in hard times. The friendships that Ben maintains with his neighbours are just as vital to the story as the enemies he makes in Vargas and the town Sheriff. There’s not much in terms of descriptions of place, just bare minimum really, nor are there long descriptions of life on a horse ranch, but that wasn’t important in this book. The importance came in the characters and how they related to their surroundings. Because of that, the setting is personalised with the reader being told relevant information – such as the drudgery of clearing out horse stalls rather than being told how to run a horse ranch.
The romance aspect comes within both the narratives and it was interesting to see how the two narrators discussed their love for the other man. Obie is passionate, short-tempered and very loyal. His descriptions of the relationship he has with Ben matched that personality. Temper is thoughtful and calm, letting very little ruffle him and taking advice before acting. His romance is gentler, but just as loving as Obie’s and I was pleased at how the romance progressed for both men.
Overall, I would recommend The Last Chance Ranch. The story is gentle but compelling, the characters well rounded and engaging and the writing superb. If you like historical westerns, then I urge you to read this book.