Rancho Alegre, which came out in July 2005, was my twelfth traditional western novel and the second novel with Jimmy Clevis as the narrator and main character. Because Jimmy Clevis is a good-natured, fun-seeking fellow, writing from his point of view was once again an enjoyable undertaking for me.
As Jimmy tells the reader in the opening sentence of the story, Rancho Alegre means “happy ranch.” From there he goes on to talk about how he didn’t expect to go to Rancho Alegre or Pueblo, Colorado, but ended up going there anyway.
The title of this book has appeared in a few other places. I was inspired by having seen it on a sign, right inside a barbed-wire fence with crooked cedar posts, on the highway from Cd. Juárez to the city of Chihuahua, in the desert rangeland of northern Mexico. I have driven that highway many times, and for a few years I used to see the sign. Past the closed gate and the sign, a road stretched away across the desert, curved, rose up toward some hills, and disappeared. It was pleasant for me to imagine that somewhere out there in the far-flung country, the people were cheerful enough to give that name to the place where they lived.
At about the time I decided I wanted to write a story with this title, I no longer saw the sign along the highway. I mentioned my interest to some family members in Chihuahua, and they told me that Rancho Alegre was also the title of a song in the ranchera style. After writing the story, I found on the internet that there were a couple of guest ranches in the U. S. with the same name. I thought that was all right, too. We could all be happy together. But for me it still meant a ranch for me to imagine, a place out on the desert plains.
Because Jimmy Clevis has friends (not to mention a love interest) in the Spanish-speaking world, it was plausible that a place named Rancho Alegre would be a place for him to go. What I needed to do, for the purposes of creating a story, was to venture out and find a location for a fictional Rancho Alegre for him to go to. I had already decided that this was going to be a story in which Jimmy was going to look for a lost relative for someone else, and I had also decided (or more or less followed a feeling I had) that he was going to go south to do it. Jimmy’s first story, Red Wind Crossing, took place in northern Colorado, in a fictional place in the foothills west of Denver, so I studied the map for likely places to the south. In addition to having traveled straight west through Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction a few times (nice train ride), I had been southwest a few times, down through Buena Vista, Salida, and Poncha Springs and then over the pass to Gunnison. So I decided I would send Jimmy down that way so I could set most of the story in the area between Poncha Springs and Pueblo. Even though I had traveled that area a couple of times as well, I decided to do what I prefer to do when I have the time and other resources and when the weather cooperates. I took a special road trip down that way and poked around for a few days, soaking up a sense of place and gathering source material on historical background.
So that was how I started my work on this novel. I had my character and I had the place where he was going to go on his search.But of course I needed a little more story than just “Jimmy Clevis looks for a man’s long-lost son.” One way of making a search story interesting is to make it into a search for more than one thing. For example, not only does Jimmy look for a person, but he also, without announcing it to himself, is on a search for knowledge or truth, which will be the reader’s reward. Another way of increasing the story interest is to complicate the object of the search. I enjoy stories in which someone comes to the detective and says, I would like you to look for X, and the detective (in this case, an amateur detective) says I’m not interested. Then another person says, I would like you to look for Y, and the sleuth says, I think I can do that. Somewhere beneath the surface, the reader senses that in the process of looking for Y, the character is going to find X as well. So I thought I would give that a try. A man asks Jimmy to look for a stolen saddle, but Jimmy thinks it sounds a little too shady, so he turns down the work. Another man asks him to look for a long-lost son from a liaison earlier in life, and Jimmy says he thinks he can do that. Then the man who wants to find the saddle turns up dead (with a bullet hole), and Jimmy goes on his way to look for the old man’s natural son.
Does he find the saddle? We hope so, and we imagine he will find something else along the way, some kind of knowledge or understanding that makes the trip worth the effort. Meanwhile, Jimmy gets to spend a little time with the lovely Magdalena, and he gets to enjoy some of the festivities at Rancho Alegre. Who wouldn’t be happy? Well, the reader also knows that the dead man in the early part of the story won’t be the only one on Jimmy Clevis’s journey.
Rancho Alegre is available at Amazon.