In this debut Old West novel, set in 1880 in the Arizona Territory, the wars with Native Americans have mainly ended, but the prejudice and violence against them still thrive.
Juan Ruben Tellez de Santiago, an aging Navajo, and Morgan Braddock, his business partner, ride to Esther Corbin’s farm a few miles outside of Chasm Creek in search of fresh water and some shade from the desert heat. Morgan is sick; Esther is the mother of four, managing the farm alone while her husband, Howard, is away. She is frightened and picks up her shotgun to warn the strangers to leave. But the weapon goes off accidentally, and Morgan is hit with some buckshot. Guilt-stricken, Esther offers the travelers overnight refuge until Morgan can heal. Within the first three pages, Cox has introduced her three main characters. The two men are here to execute Morgan’s latest plan. Ruben will make a deal with renegade Apaches to round up wild horses; the duo will break them; and Morgan will sell them to the Army soldiers stationed at nearby Fort McDowell. Esther agrees to rent the pair her farm, moving with her children into town to stay at her brother’s currently unused house. Unfortunately, her brother, Jacob Tillinghast, the mescal-drinking, goat-loving town marshal, finds an old poster proclaiming that Morgan is “Wanted for Murder” in the territory of New Mexico. There’s already plenty of material at this point for the coming excitement. But the real drama of this novel involves the heartbreaking backstories of Morgan and Ruben, their friendship, and the relationships that develop between each of them and Esther. Hope and tragedy alternate throughout pages suffused with pathos. Native American mysticism mingles with Western violence as the past haunts the present in a twisting plotline. And the visceral prose is evocative of the dry Southwestern landscape: “They maneuvered around cactus and thorny brush and switch-backed up the steep slope, headed for a saddle between two peaks. The ground was thick with prickly pear, and stands of saguaro cactus towered above him.”
This engaging narrative with memorable characters features supernatural overtones that lead to an unsettling finale.