Rating: 4.5 stars
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When ex-union cavalryman and current California rancher, Jesse Putnam, is summoned by his wealthy aunt and boss to come to San Francisco for a meeting, he uses the night before to visit a bawdy hotel where he can satiate his illegal desires for men. But nothing prepared Jesse for then seeing his sexual companion standing in his aunt’s office the next day, apparently an employee of hers as well.
Wardley Bridger, now his colleague, is there to help Jesse investigate the peculiar goings on at the ranch in California where the profits are less than they should be and rumors are rife over bad management as well as potential illegalities. Previous investigators have come up empty handed so the men are going in undercover as ranch hands to see if they can ferret out the truth.
On their journey south on a trail that stretches out from the dusty Pueblo of Angles into the brush-covered hills of Ranchero Los Robles, Jesse and Wardley find they have much in common, from a love of fine literature to beautiful horses and finally a illegal sexuality that they don’t have to hide from each other. When a ghost rider appears at the ranch, threatening their investigation, Wardley and Jesse find that the truth jeopardizes evverything, including their burgeoning love affair.
Lucius Parhelion is one of the first names that pop into my head when someone asks for a recommendation for m/m historical fiction about the American West. Parhelion’s stories are told with an authentic, dry tone that seems to come up from the very soil and arid climate of the land the characters ride over and exist on. The author’s stories are factual, full of information and dates that locate the story in a specific time and place. But these details always serve to enhance rather than obfuscate or weigh down the discourse. Here is a sample:
Jesse shut the ledger hard enough to stir the smoky air. Above them, the nine years of accumulated spider webs that gave the Cobweb Palace its name, swayed gently. The proprietor felt that spiders were lucky. The patron confronted by a spider might or might not agree.
“I assume that our leaving the steamer before San Pedro would have something to do with obtaining mounts.”
“Well, there are horses a-plenty at the Playa Negra, but given what Mrs. Gifford said to me about due speed, I can’t see her being happy with our taking the time to ride all the way down from north of Santa Barbara to Los Robles.” Bridger shook his head while smiling, a rather mild reaction to Ada.
Parhelion easily inserts the name of The Cobweb Palace, an establishment that opened up in 1856 at the foot of Meigg’s Wharf on the northeast corner of Francisco and Powell Streets. What a lovely blend of fact and fiction, a trademark of this author I have come to expect from all of Parhelion’s stories.
Masked Riders is composed of 11 chapters, each with an amusing and old sounding title, such as Chapter VIII — You May Lead a Man Towards Aiming, but You Cannot Make Him Hit. The opening paragraph is perfectly suited to title and content:
If there was one lesson Jesse had been grateful to learn during the late rebellion, it was the difficulty of actually hitting a man with a bullet. He’d never expected to feel that particular gratitude again. He’d been wrong.
There are many issues discussed within the story, including the plight of the Celestials, as the Chinese were called, as well as the freed slaves who came west after the war was over. Parhelion gives the reader a real feel for the state of western society and the many layers it was comprised of through descriptions that paint such a vivid portrait of the people and land that I could almost feel like I was walking the streets or riding along the trails. The author’s characters are as strong as the historical setting they find themselves in. From Jesse and Wardley to Aunt Ada, a tower of strength and intellect in a diminutive body, all are fully fleshed out and totally human.
At 90 pages, I always end up wishing for more of a drawn out resolution to issues the men find at the ranch, although the ending was perfect in its realism and tone. If you love westerns, this is for you. If you love beautifully done historical novels, this is for you. If you love a realistically portrayed growing affection that turns into something more, than this is for you. Masked Riders is a wonderful introduction to the works of Lucius Parhelion. Don’t pass it or the author’s other works up.
Cover illustration by BS Clay. Beautiful cover, luscious, and perfect for the trail to the ranch and a relationship.