Author Gilbert Ralston is better known for his writing credits in Hollywood. Ralston helped create the “The Wild Wild West” show and wrote for similar television pieces like “Laredo”, “The Big Valley” and “Gunsmoke” in the 1960s. Ralston, born in Newcastle, Ireland, attended college at Sierra Nevada College, worked as a journalist and was a member of the Western Writers of America. All three of these experiences, combined with his screenplay skills, contribute to the look and feel of this series, ‘Dakota’. The series debut, “Dakota Warpath”, was released by Pinnacle in 1973 under the guise of just another hard-hitting action series. It isn’t necessarily in the mold of a ‘Death Merchant’ or ‘Destroyer’. This is more of a white-knuckle detective vehicle…that still manages to delivers the same goods.
Dakota is a half Piegan, half Shoshoni detective working out of the Sierras in Nevada. He’s an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam as a talker for an advanced unit. Apparently, Dakota and his two brothers were surrounded in the bush and only Dakota survived. There is a slight discrepancy to this story later as Dakota tells a Marine pilot he was a Ranger. In my research, only Army had Rangers but this could be associated with Dakota attending Army Ranger school at one point and possibly learning demolition. Regardless, Dakota emerges from the war and becomes a police force in New York before moving back to the Sierras to work his family’s ranch while simultaneously doing investigative work (and rodeo). All of this seems like a whole lot of hyperbole on the part of the author – but I’m going to say I absolutely love this character. In a lot of ways Dakota is the perfect merger of Craig Johnson’s dedicated sheriff Longmire and his loyal friend Henry Standing Bear. Again, this book was released in 1973 but is nearly the perfect precursor to Longmire. Dakota embodies the intelligent, western working man in the able hands of a brilliant writer.
“Dakota Warpath” performs its obligations as a series debut – introducing the character while also building validity. In the early pages we gain most of the above through a conversation between Dakota and a longtime friend named Sam Lew. Dakota is introduced to a potential new client, unknown at the time as Amy Rainey. She explains her husband was murdered in a Nevada town called Poison Springs and those same killers are targeting her. Before Dakota can take the case, Sam’s car explodes killing both Sam and Rainey. It’s Dakota’s crime to solve – did the killers target Sam or Amy and why? The town’s sheriff deputizes Dakota and soon the location is moved to Poison Springs. It’s your typical one-horse town controlled by a millionaire named Burton Ashley. He runs the place including its casino and ranch brothel. Dakota plays nice with Ashley for a little while, and later teams with the town’s deputy, Phillips, a journalist named Spring and a brief love interest in Janet. Dakota also teams up with a Navajo kid named Louis as he investigates the Rainey murders and Ashley’s complex criminal empire.
Ralston writes this book as a testimony to his screenplay experience. It reads like a movie or television episode where a lot of “on page” action isn’t necessarily described in exhaustive detail. For example, Dakota can walk into a familiar place and just know some of his hometown’s residents and friends. The burden isn’t on Ralston to explain how Dakota knows them or what they are wearing or where they are standing during dialogue. I actually prefer this style of writing and it certainly trims the fat off to leave room for the “meat and potatoes”. It keeps the book moving at a fairly high pace even if you were to cite the slow burn build up of the first half. The books finale is a firestorm for the last 40-50 pages, placing Dakota in the desert hills with a .38 against a half-dozen armed bad guys. That portion of the writing is very western oriented and captures intense cat and mouse tactics as Dakota defends his position. Nestled in between detective work, fist fights and gun battles s are some really touching moments where Dakota consoles a senile, elderly man, calls his mother nightly and returns a 15-year old girl to her father. It isn’t bravado, bullet belts and bare chests – Dakota is a human that makes mistakes throughout the book and isn’t afraid to admit it. There were four more books in this series and I wish there were more. Sadly, Ralston passed away in 1999 at the age of 87. He leaves behind a legacy of quality media including this career highlight - in my opinion. ‘Dakota’ comes highly recommended and should please fans of the ‘Longmire’ series.