The kernel of an interesting story with an attractive hero is embedded in Bobbi Smith's Brides of Durango: Elise. Unfortunately, a mediocre writing style and a plot with too many unrealistic episodes overwhelm the likeable elements of the story.
The year is 1883, and Trace Jackson is the sheriff of Eagle Pass, Colorado. When he and his posse are ambushed by the Matt Harris gang, everyone in Trace's posse except Trace is killed. He is left for dead. Rescued by an old mountain man, Trace decides not to reveal his own survival, leaving himself free to recover from his wounds and then eventually to track down Matt Harris.
Shortly after Trace leaves his sanctuary, he wins a newspaper, the Durango Weekly Star, in a card game. He assumes his grandfather's name, Gabe West, buys himself a pair of eyeglasses, dons a business suit and a bow tie, and travels to Durango to take up newspapering while he recuperates and learns to shoot left-handed.
When Trace's stagecoach pulls into Durango, Elise Martin, the Star's reporter, is waiting for the previous owner of the Star. Dressed as a bride, Elise is planning to press Ben Hollins into acting as her groom in a fake wedding ceremony. The preacher performing the ceremony is the leader of a gang of robbers, and Elise has arranged for the sheriff of Durango to arrest Preacher Farnsworth before the ceremony is complete.
Ben Hollins’ non-appearance is only a momentary setback for the redoubtable Elise. Trace is the only possible candidate on the stagecoach who could fill Ben's shoes. Elise promptly drafts him, and…in the first of a string of unlikely events…Trace agrees to be married to a woman he has never before laid eyes on.
The bogus wedding is a success, Trace gets to kiss his ersatz bride, the sheriff arrests Farnsworth, and Elise gets her story: "Pretender in the Pulpit!" Even after Trace introduces himself as Gabe West, the new owner of the Star, Elise remains convinced that he is indeed what he appears to be, a pleasant, mild-mannered sort of man, not her type at all.
While I found the phony wedding most unlikely, it was an interesting hook into the story. However, I found Elise's next plan to garner headlines for the Star completely unbelievable. She decides to pose as a working girl at the local saloon in order to gather the material she needs for an article describing how difficult their life is. No one stops her…not Trace, not even her grandmother. Even today, I would be tempted to lock an attractive 22-year-old granddaughter in her bedroom if she proposed such a dangerous scheme to me. I could not imagine Elise being allowed to carry it out in 1883.
If Smith's writing had been better, perhaps the implausible plotting would have bothered me less. Smith writes a grammatically correct but stylistically awkward prose. "Terror was etched in both their faces as they watched in horror what was transpiring." Constructions such as this abounded and continually directed my attention away from the story.
Elise was never more than a plot device to me, the mannequin Smith used to jerk her story forward from episode to episode. I found Trace much more interesting. He was attractive…I kept thinking, Gary Cooper…and I understood his motivations. Furthermore, the idea of a tough, competent man masquerading as something of a pantywaist may be as old as fiction, but it can still make for a compelling story. The moment when Gabe West was revealed as Trace Jackson did give me a frisson, but oh, what I had to struggle through to get there!
--Nancy J. Silberstein