cover image Death Rattle: The Plainsmen

Death Rattle: The Plainsmen

Terry C. Johnston. Bantam Books, $24.95 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-553-09084-0

This latest installment in the apparently never-ending adventures of intrepid mountain man Titus Bass--aka ""Scratch""--carries Johnston's fearless hero far from the Rockies on a horse raid in pre-Mexican War California. Joining up with a band of two dozen similarly ragtag refugees from the failing beaver trade, Bass trails across the deadly desert lands of the Southwest, fighting thirst, hunger and, of course, frequent battles with fierce adversaries. Along the way, he's shot several times, pierced by a number of arrows and always saved from certain death by the arrival of some friend or other left dangling in a previous novel. Upon their return, and after slaughtering a number of evil Mexicans, the rustlers discover only a small market for their four-legged booty. Bass and his bigoted buddies end up rescuing settlers caught in the Taos Rebellion, an uprising of Pueblo Indians. There's little of value in this picaresque tall tale. Bass is the only character who is developed beyond one dimension, and his heroics strain belief. The plot is episodic and quirky, with pitched battles against the odds occurring frequently, linked by Bass's ruminations on his adventures in previous Johnston novels, complete with footnotes to direct the reader to the proper title. The story is pockmarked with meticulous lessons in woodcraft and even, at one point, wall plastering. Other footnotes clarify geographic and linguistic references for the uninitiated. Brief outbursts of realism and description indicate that Johnston has done his homework, but the novel is further marred by careless overwriting, including hokey, inconsistent and often anachronistic dialect. (Dec.)