Ranchers battle farmers for control of the Wyoming Territory.
Since there are plenty of places from Ohio to Idaho for farmers to work the land, it doesn’t seem right to Jefferson Parker, the pre-eminent rancher in the up-and-coming town of Brooks, that he has to watch while they buy parcels of land much better suited for grazing cattle. He’s determined to consolidate his ranch and his power to influence the railroads to build a line to Brooks and the federal government to grant Wyoming statehood—by buying up the little farms around him if possible, by more drastic means if necessary. The latter include bringing in a hired gun named Cord to sweet-talk, bully, or murder the farmers, whose leader, Wisconsin transplant James Johansen, isn’t about to pull up stakes again. The stage seems set for a remake of Shane, with Cord in the Jack Palance role. But Cord, who claims that “mostly I sell my gun out to stop killing,” is a lot more nuanced than Palance’s Prince of Darkness. He rescues former slave Mal Jones when Parker’s bullying son, John, attacks him; he rides hell for leather to bring Johansen’s son, Seth, to a medically trained barber when the boy has an attack of appendicitis; he suggests that Johansen set up an irrigation system to help him over droughts and helps him lug heavy irrigation barrels out to his fields. Clearly, the race is on between Parker’s sense of Manifest Destiny and Cord’s conversion from gunslinger to messiah.
Wolfe (The Last Ride, 2014, etc.) plots as schematically as a scriptwriter, shaping scene after scene to make one point at a time. But his command of his story keeps the pages turning as fast as that ride to the barber.