Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dude Ranch Nurse

By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1970

The bus toiled up the treacherous mountain road, carrying red-haired Nicole Lawson to her new job as nurse at the High Sierra Dude Ranch. High Sierra, where March men, her employers, wrangled bitterly among themselves. High Sierra, rimmed by craggy mountains where dangers lurked. High Sierra, where she soon would be the object of violent emotions: jealousy, anger, desire—and love…
“You’re even more attractive when you’re mad!”
“You’re pretty as a palomino.”
“Don’t tell me a girl who looks like you wants to work all the time?”

“She’s too young and far too pretty to be a good nurse.”
There are actually three books called Dude Ranch Nurse, if you can believe it, and the second one I’ve read. (See the first one here; the third is from the Cherry Ames series, which are mystery stories for girls of the Nancy Drew ilk, and so will not be reviewed for this blog.) Of the two VNRNs, this one is better, which is a bit surprising, as this author has earned nothing higher than a C+ from me in the past, while Arlene Hale has garnered three B+ marks. But I think this counts as faint praise.
Our heroine, Nicole Lawson, has taken a job for the summer at the High Sierra dude ranch in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. The ranch is run by the March family, and patriarch Howard is confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. He’s a capable and cantankerous old crab who refuses any kind of help, but Nicole immediately finds him endearing. His son Dane, however, does not. Dane is a boor, the kind of swaggering lout who shows up an hour late to collect Nicole at the bus station. When he does arrive, he offers no apology but instead “his eyes lingered on the full breasts, the slim legs.” These references to the heroine’s anatomy to me clearly bespeak a male writer; women writers will proclaim a heroine’s beauty but pay little attention to their bodies.
There’s another March boy, Dr. Michael, who has set up the ranch’s first-aid station. He lives in Minneapolis—the same city she’s from, thought the two have never met before—and he drops by the ranch, intending to stay only a few days to help her set up shop. The two have a drink together, and he sees her to her door and doesn’t kiss her goodnight, to her chagrin. “If he had wanted to kiss me I would’ve let him! she admitted to herself. I would have been as submissive and thrilled as any fool teenager.” I’ve never heard of teenagers being described as submissive before, but Nicole needn’t worry; soon they’re kissing and making plans to meet in Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, there’s an odd dynamic between Nicole and the other male ranch hands. Some of them drop by the clinic and make almost violent passes at her; early on one gets a little too close for comfort and refuses to move away until she opens the autoclave and releases some steam in his direction to frighten him off. Dane is the most aggressive, but Nicole does not seem intimidated by him or the others, out of unrevealed martial arts skills or stupidity: “If anyone like Dane March tried to force her into something she didn’t want to do she would know how to handle him!” Or she’s just kidding herself: Her first night at the High Sierra, a drunken Dane tries to break into her cabin, and she most definitely does not know how to handle it. “Her mind raced with terror,” and she jumps out of bed and presses her back “stupidly” against the locked door while staring fearfully at the windows, wondering if they’re locked, too. She’s saved when Michael turns up and drags Dane away. “But soon Michael would be gone and she would be alone here. She was frightened but she tried to fight her feelings. She was not a schoolgirl to be frightened by sounds in the night, or by a drunk’s attempts to force a drink upon her. If a situation like that arose again she would know how to handle it. She would be firmer next time, if there was a next time. Not scared, as she had been tonight. She would put Dane March, or anyone else who got out of line, right back where they belonged!” Uh, right.
When he comes around the clinic the next day, Dane threatens her, “Don’t try to brush me off, Nicole. I wouldn’t like that.” She puts him right back where he belongs with her usual mantra: “Nobody is going to make me do anything that I don’t want to do. And I mean nobody.” He is so defeated by this that he grabs her, “his strong arms crushed her against him, hurting her breasts. She gasped in pain, and tried to push away from him.” As he is “bending his dark face to hers,” another ranch hand, who has been clawed by a grizzly in the mountains, is carried in the door, and her attacker is foiled.
But the entire situation is swept under the bearskin rug when, after the first day of a camping trip on horseback with the ranch guests, one of the hands gallops into camp. Old Howard March has had a very bad attack of MS, and Nicole is needed to care for him. En route back to the High Sierra, the bloodthirsty grizzly attacks the ranch hand and kills Nicole’s horse. She escapes into the mountains, but this bear is either really hungry or really pissed, because soon it’s coming after her. She crawls into a cave, and though the bear is unable to reach her through the tiny entrance she wriggled through, it discovers a hole at the top of her hiding place and digs its way in. As it plops into the cave, though, she squirms out the entrance again—and now the bear is trapped inside the cave, unable to get out the way it came in. When she’s done vomiting, Nicole looks up and sees Michael with her chaperone ranch hand, who hadn’t been killed by the bear after all, climbing up to her. She promptly faints, waking back at the High Sierra to hear Howard—now totally cured, apparently—asking Michael if he’s planning to marry Nicole. He is, of course; he’s going to take her back to Minneapolis that very day and marry her, and “we’re not coming back.” Sure, she says, though as she’s kissing him she’s thinking about all the vacations they would spend at High Sierra.
The abrupt ending leaves quite a few questions about the March family unanswered. Dane is unreprimanded for his predatory behavior, and lives on to assault future ranch nurses. The brothers are as embattled as ever, perhaps now more so, since that Michael is marrying the object of Dane’s aggressions. Nicole’s unrealistic attitude of invincibility remains intact; though she was able to ward off one ranch hand and the grizzly, she was clearly unable to protect herself against Dane and has learned nothing from the experience. But the story itself isn’t half bad, even if—as usual with Richard Wilkes-Hunter’s novels—there isn’t much to it. If you are intent on visiting a literary dude ranch, if only so you can say with a laugh that you have, this is the one to pick, but don’t expect much from the trip.


  1. Lovely site. I have often wondered whether anyone has ever written about the huge amount of pulp fiction featuring nurses and doctors that was produced. Now I need wonder no more. Great work. A real labour of love and I salute you for it.

  2. Thanks! It's a labour of something, love perhaps, or maybe just obsessive behavior, but there it is. Glad you appreciate it.