When Richard S. Wheeler's Winter Grass opened with one rancher's cowboys cutting another rancher's fence, I thought I had seen enough western movies and read enough western novels to know what would happen next: a range war culminating in violence. True, this was Richard S. Wheeler, who I knew eschewed violence in his novels, but this is one of his early books, published in 1983, so perhaps, to get published, he was still writing what publishers wanted and expected. I was happy to be wrong.
Winter Grass, I was pleased to discover, is one of Wheeler's best novels and, in fact, one of the best western novels I have ever read, and no shots are fired in anger and nobody dies except by natural causes. Yet the novel remains riveting from beginning to end.
Wheeler's hero is a Harvard-educated Montana rancher named Quin Putnam who realizes his true business is raising grass, not raising cattle. Knowing what Montana winters are like, he makes sure he has enough grass to keep his cattle alive until spring, then puts a fence around it. Neighboring ranchers haven't planned ahead, however, and when a summer drought and overgrazing ruins the grass on their portion of the prairie, they set their eyes on the Putnam grass.
Instead of reaching for his gun, Quin seeks a legal remedy. His lawyer happens to be Nicole Aumont, perhaps Montana's only practicing female attorney in the 1880s. She also happens to be young, beautiful and in love with Quin, even though he, a widower, thinks he is far too old to interest her. Quin needs her help with another legal problem, too. He is raising Missy, a teenage girl orphaned by a Sioux party, whom he had ransomed years before with a few of his cattle. Now he loves her like his own daughter and wants to keep her, although Missy's grandfather back east seeks to claim her and put her in a school to exorcise the frontier out of her.
Readers will find out more about herding cattle, growing grass and surviving Montana winters than they ever expected. Winter Grass proves to be a powerful story, barely 200 pages long, about love, about growing grass, about building a life under harsh conditions and about getting along with one's neighbors.