The Tithing Herd
by J. R. Lindermuth
Sundown Press, 2017
The Tithing Herd, by J. R. Lindermuth, is a traditional Western with a bevy of action, solid characterization, and a literate and vivid style. Lute Donnelly is a former lawman tracking a vicious outlaw called Spanish across New Mexico’s high desert. Lute is seeking vengeance on Spanish for murdering his brother. He seems closer than ever when Lute cuts a boy, Tom Baskin, down from a tree—where he was “hanging by his heels from the limb of a cottonwood”—and Lute is told Tom had been riding with two members of Spanish’s gang.
Lute wants to track the boy’s partners, hoping they will lead him to Spanish, but instead Lute reluctantly agrees to accompany a cattle herd set aside by local Mormon ranchers as their tithe to the church. The cattle trail leads Donnelly back to a Mormon town where the woman he loves, the widow Serene McCollough, is rumored to be marrying an elder of the church. But that’s not Lute’s only trouble because Spanish’s gang is set on rustling the tithing herd and it will do anything—including kidnapping and murder—to get what it wants.
The Tithing Herd is an entertaining Western tale. Lindermuth paints his settings with a fine brush:
“Far off to the northwest he saw the hazy escarpment of the Mogollon Rim and before it, rumpled cedar-crested ridges, diminishing in height as they fell forward to meet a rolling valley swathed in buffalo grass and traversed by a broad stream which sparkled in the sunlight purpling the hills.”
The characters, especially Lute, is rich with contradictions and, at times moral ambiguity. Lute’s aim at vengeance is understandable but inconsistent with his worldview and internal morality. The villains are dark-hearted and sociopathic, which allows the reader to wantonly root for their demise. The narrative builds slowly until rattling into gunplay and violence. The Mormon element is interesting. Lindermuth develops his Mormons with sympathy and realism: they are good and bad both. But ultimately, The Tithing Herd is Lute Donnelly’s story, and it is darn good for those readers with hankering for the Old West.