A Pinkerton detective doggedly pursues an old enemy in Fetter’s debut historical novella.
In 1882, a train is hauling a massive shipment of bank notes and gold from San Francisco to Tucson, Arizona. Someone tips off the outlaw Barksdale Gang, who intercept the delivery. But they didn’t anticipate running into Pinkerton agent Henry Wheeler, who’s traveling undercover as a mild-mannered Bible salesman. Wheeler, a Confederate Civil War veteran, served in the same unit as the gang’s leader, Kirby Barksdale, and his little brother, Danny; together, they raided Union supply trains until Kirby’s betrayal resulted in Wheeler’s injury and capture. The war is long over now, but for Wheeler, old wounds haven’t healed, and he aims to bring Kirby to justice. However, things don’t go as planned, and a bloody clash results in the deaths of gang members and railroad employees. Kirby escapes with most of the cash, while Wheeler locks Danny up in a Tucson jail, overseen by a morally dubious deputy. Wheeler makes plans to intercept Kirby and recover the funds, and Danny’s incarceration becomes complicated when a clever saloon worker gets involved in an attempt to free him. The book concludes with an unrelated short story, set decades later, about a grifter trying to steal an isolated prospector’s hidden gold. Fetter’s readable style evocatively captures the story’s hardscrabble, desolate environment. Even the most loathsome characters retain some shred of humanity, as exemplified by cruel Kirby’s genuine love for his brother. However, there are some moments of awkward prose (“The young outlaw averted the salesman’s gaze”), and the book’s tendency toward lengthy exposition robs some potentially powerful moments of their impact, giving the brief narrative a disjointed and compressed quality. Characters with a notable Western twang to their speech get the best dialogue; the more buttoned-up characters come off as less realistic.
An intriguing but flawed debut Western.