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Breaking the Law in Texas : CONFESSIONS OF JOHNNY RINGO by Geoff Aggeler (Dutton: $18.95; 310 pp.)

December 20, 1987|David Dary | Dary is the author of "Cowboy Culture" (Knopf) and other works. and

All successful novelists know how to take their readers into the minds and hearts of their characters. Geoff Aggeler is such a writer as he masterfully demonstrates in this first novel, a fictional memoir of outlaw Johnny Ringo.

Aggeler's subject, a real-life figure in the Old West, was born about 1844 and died in 1882. Only scattered records of his life are available to historians, and they paint a picture of an educated intellectual, a reserved and morose man who drank too much, was obsessed with violence yet possessed of a sense of honor straight out of Sir Walter Scott.

Aggeler captures these things and more about Johnny Ringo in what is one of the freshest Westerns to ride the range in recent memory.

He has Ringo--his real name may have been John Ringgold--telling his own life story beginning toward the end when the outlaw rides into the Dragoon mountains to set down his life story on paper. Aggeler's novel rings of much truth as he weaves other real-life characters that Ringo knew or may have known into the narrative, including a Mexican girl called Elena in Tombstone.

The first factual record of Ringo is dated 1875 in Mason County, Tex. Aggeler follows the facts of Ringo's life as they are known through his involvement in the "Hoodoo War," a Texas feud; his cowboy days in New Mexico with Curly Bill Brocius, the Clantons and McLaurys; and his involvement in the vendetta against the Earp brothers in early Arizona.

Although official accounts call Ringo's death a suicide, some old-timers have claimed that Frank Leslie, a drinking companion, killed him, and a manuscript left by Wyatt Earp details how he supposedly killed Ringo. Aggeler chose the Wyatt Earp version to end Ringo's life, and the description is most convincing.

Aggeler's careful historical research has enabled him to go into the mind and heart of Ringo and produce a highly believable character. The result is a novel that may more accurately reflect the truth of this outlaw than true history could ever record.

Aggeler, who teaches English and the humanities at the University of Utah, may find it difficult to top this first novel, a skillfully done piece of writing that provides enjoyable reading.

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