Shoe-Bar Stratton (1922) is about as Western a Western as ever wearily wandered West. "Buck" Stratton is the owner of some grazing land outside of Paloma Springs. He'd bought it immediately before heading off to war, and now, back from Europe, he's looking forward to returning to his cowboy life.
BUT WAIT... unscrupulous double-dealers have rustled Buck's whole ranch! The Shoe-Bar is now the property of Mary Thorne, who runs the ranch with the aid of Tex Lynch. Mighty mystified, Buck signs on as a lowly hand under the nom de cowboy of Bob Green. He's not sure what Mary and Tex are up to, but he's keen to figure it out.
The forces of good and evil align swiftly and predictably. Mary is a petite blonde with a bit o' pluck to her (there is, in fact, a chapter called "Nerve" in which Mary has some). She's a prisoner of both the opposition and her own gullibility - convinced that Tex and his cronies mean nothing but the best for her. On her side are Buck and one of the younger hands, an impressionable youth with a crush on Mary.
Against her, the clever and sinister Tex. The ranch boss is, amongst other things, suspiciously attractive - a lot of supposedly-straight cowboys are going on about Tex's piercing dark eyes and rosy cheeks. There are also some dodgy mobsters (seriously), some grumpy minions and a pair of sneaky Mexican servants - imagine Gollum with a disgracefully transcribed accent, and you're approaching the racist glory of Pedro and Maria.
The first two-thirds of Shoe-Bar Stratton are focused on the mounting tension. All the players - Buck, Tex, Mary and Mexican Gollum - are sharing the ranch and having a whale of a time spying on one another. Buck and Tex try their very best to be polite to one another, teeth (and fists) clenched all the while. The latter third, when the action kicks in, is less interesting as it is all the more formulaic (Mary = hostage; big secret = oil; bad guys = inevitably confess). Everything resolves conveniently and predictably.
Shoe-Bar Stratton is a by-the-numbers traditional Western, which, shocking racism aside, is no terrible thing. In many ways, it exceeds expectations. Mary, although far from Red Sonya, is no fainting flower. She begins the book fooled, but is by no means stupid, and Mr. Ames does his best to explain her behaviour rationally. She's not gullible because she's a woman; she trusts Tex because her father did, and he's been kind to her. Mary's uncomfortable with a gun, but, after soul-searching, is able to pull the trigger. In many ways, this makes her the most empathetic character in the book. Buck is perfect (and boring). Tex begins clever, but turns into a snarling Zane.* Mary's the only flawed - and empathetic - character.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Shoe-Bar Stratton is the way it balances the Wild West with World War I. Buck is returning home the same year the war ends, and the opening chapters describe his transformation from soldier to cowboy. It is beautifully done. Buck takes a ship to a train and a train to the end of the line. From there, he trades his suit for beat-up chaps and his "forty-five army automatic" for a "thirty-eight Colt", because the former "don't go very well with the outfit". With these graceful actions, Buck is moving from one world to another, establishing both the rules and the genre for the reader. Although the year is 1920, the abstract West is timeless.
The modern world does intrude, but it is unwelcome. One of the villains drives a motorcar, even out into the desert (where it fares badly on the broken ground). The telephone is used once (but then the line fails). Even visitors from the East - two of Mary's friends - are unwanted. The man's polished attire makes him an object of disdain, the woman's flirtation with Buck reminds him of the agony of his convalescence. Part of Tex's villainy is that he invites the modern - he allies himself with these motorcar drivers and wearers-of-suits. Buck and Mary, however, eschew it. Mary puts it best when she says: "When I think of the years I’ve wasted in cities! I couldn’t ever go back. Even with all the worries, this is a thousand times better." Buck, who is constantly smelling the fresh desert air and enjoying the desolation, agrees.**
For this, if nothing else, Shoe-Bar Stratton is significant. Mr. Ames portrays a West that, although still "wild" is more manageable than the rest of the world. The intimate villainy of Tex Lynch and his syndicate is not only surmountable, it is rational. Compared to the sanity-shattering, catastrophic violence of World War I, pistols at dawn and women-tied-to-railroads isn't just escapism - it is therapy.
You can find Shoe-Bar Stratton for free on Project Gutenberg. Joseph Ames has a cameo in the SF Encyclopedia due to his "Lost Race" fiction.
*As in, Billy Zane's performance in Titanic, in which he transforms from vaguely empathetic to moustache-twirling, pistol-waving villain. Lest people start feeling sorry for the dude with the artist-shagging fiancée...
**In fairness to Mr. Ames, Buck and Mary even have the good grace to feel sheepish about the oil wells they'll be sinking in the near future. Well, a little.