Toward the end of the Indian wars, the U.S. military surplused property it no longer needed. A few corrupt supply officers and clerks cashed in by selling property off the books. The Western Two Thieves and a Puma (1980) by John Reese tells the story of two men, one who served as a general and one who was a sergeant, who participated in such siphoning. The fates of the two men are tied together because they marry a pair of Italian-American sisters, whose family is always looking for financial opportunities. Each of the men go into the cattle business for themselves on neighboring ranches in California.
Decades later, the wife of the former sergeant Whiting has died. He is struggling to make ends meet because his herds have diminished. Meanwhile, the ranch of former general Hethcutt, who is arrogant and incompetent, is thriving somehow. A high number of Hetchutt’s cattle exhibit Shorthorn traits although Whiting was the only one of the two ranchers to buy Shorthorn stock. Whiting keeps a detailed, encoded log book of Hethcutt’s cattle to use as evidence in a cattle rustling lawsuit.
Whiting’s property is often used Lon Tsan, a roving opium den operator. Lon Tsan has mostly Chinese customers. His other main customer at Whiting’s ranch is a cougar named Sneaky. The puma had been orphaned and raised as a cub by Whiting’s daughter. The puma becomes partly domesticated and totally addicted to Lon Tsan’s product over the years. Although the premise sounds far-fetched, it works. Sneaky becomes a lovable, sympathetic, and not entirely docile character throughout the book.
Jefferson Hewitt, a full partner and field agent of a bonding company (a detective, really), arrives and offers to help Whiting with his claim. Hewitt is an excellent marksman with sufficient resources to hire a lawyer for Whiting and a temporary gang of men to pull security around the ranch. Although Whiting has a very solid lawsuit, he suspects Hewitt is involved in the case for bigger, undetermined financial reasons. Those reasons don’t become clearer until the final third of the book. The action culminates to a final confrontation between the forces of Whiting, Hewitt, Lon Tsan and Sneaky versus the forces of Hethcutt.
Overall, Two Thieves and a Puma is a great read. Although nobody in the story is without blame, it’s satisfying to watch the little crook take on the big crook and win. In this regard, the book is similar to the Walter Matthau movie “Charley Varrick,” which was based on a book also written by John Reese. The characters in Two Thieves and a Puma jump off the page, warts and all. The financial intrigue is very compelling and Reese has a good sense of timing for revealing critical tidbits and explanations as the plot progresses.
It’s impossible to describe without spoiling the end, but there is an aspect of the ending that isn’t very good. I wish Reese had written the ending just a little differently. But overall the book was excellent–very satisfying, tight, clever, and lively.