By Sid Fleischman
Throw in a case of stolen diamonds, a missing father, a traveling theatre group and a gun-toting bounty hunter, and you have a 19th century western adventure you would not want to miss reading.
The story focuses on Jake, a twelve-year old boy grieving for his recently deceased father. Adding to his predicament is Jim Ugly, a dog that is “part elkhound, part something else, and a large helping of short-eared timber wolf”. Jim Ugly was close only to Jake’s father. Now that his father is no longer around, Jake has to take care of Jim Ugly, a situation which disturbs the boy but doesn’t bother the dog.
Jake is unconvinced that his father was guilty of stealing diamonds, and also that he is dead. But if Sam Bannock is still alive, why did he run away without telling Jake in advance? The only way to find out is to go looking for him, and the first place to start is where Jim Ugly always seems to be hanging out – at Smoketree Junction. From there, Jake travels from one place to another, with Jim Ugly by his side and bounty hunter D D Skeats at his heels. Mid-way through his search, he inadvertently clinches a small role in a play. He travels with the theatre group, performing at various towns while still on the lookout for his father.
The first chapter is a little slow-moving, but the pace quickens from the point Jake decides to run away from his cousin’s home, with whom he is staying since his father’s burial. The subsequent pages start to build up an expectation of an ending with a big bang. But the conclusion however does not meet that expectation and it somewhat deflates the excitement initially created by the story.
On the positive side, the similes and metaphors used to describe characters and situations make various points in the plot amusing. When Jake first sees Wilhelmina, he muses about her crying: “Who was this woman sobbing up a flash flood?” He finds D D Skeat’s hair “short and matted like the fur of a dead cat”. In describing Jim Ugly to the baggagemaster of the train, he says, “He’s got a disposition about like barbed wire.”
The reason for the boy’s wary respect for the dog and the reluctance to get too friendly with it is obvious from the vivid description of the dog’s attitude towards Jake and everything around it. It is this relationship between boy and dog that has a more interesting twist at the conclusion.