Kent Tovey and Dar Pierce run the "Circle T" and "D.P." ranches, respectively, on opposite sides of the Río Largo ("long river"). Technically, they're competitors, but since there is enough land for each to run his ranch successfully, they often help each other out and have become friends. Workers for each ranch are told to be polite to the other ranch's workers, and to only go for cattle that have crossed over once the other ranchers have been notified, to avoid any suspicion of rustling.
But an impulsive act leads to a murder, which leads to more, with each side accusing the other without searching for evidence. When one of the ranch owners is found with his face half-shot off, it's war.
Author David Robbins's tough and forceful prose was the first thing I liked about Rio Largo. Later, I was impressed by how the author laces his old-style storytelling with modern sensibilities.
Any ranch worth its salt is going to have a high percentage of cowboys and vaqueros who are experienced gunhands. But Tovey and Pierce seem to have hired more than their fair share of hardened killers. The newest hire, Hijino, is a breed to himself, however -- the closest thing to a serial killer I've encountered in a tale of the Old West.
Robbins is also an expert at creating suspense, as his characters find out information and -- as they try to piece together who is behind the sabotage -- quickly realize that no one is safe. (Robbins also doesn't shy away from chronicling the effects of the bloodshed on loved ones.)
Entirely despicable, Hijino is also the most purely entertaining character in Rio Largo, simply due to his unpredictability. While the other denizens of the Circle T and D.P. are mostly loyal to their employers, there is underlying racism among a selection of the cowhands. Also, some of the Pierce children (half-Mexican by Dar's wife Juanita) just know that the "gringos" are behind it. But Hijino schemes entirely for his own purposes, and you just never know what he'll do next. One thing is for sure: he'll let no one get in his way.
Reader Joel Leffert's performance deserves a great deal of the credit for how much I enjoyed this book. From the youngest woman to the oldest man, his voices are individual and authentic. But this only enhanced the experience wrought by Robbins himself. Despite being published under the "Ralph Compton" mantle, this is no throwaway series novel but a possible contender for the mantle of modern classic. "Fill your hand" with a copy of Rio Largo.
Good clean western. Much action. Would recommend reading. Two prosperous ranches and good friends may be lost when a plot is put into action to get them to fueding among themselves and leave the range land and cattle open to theives.