Bausch (Out of Season, 2005, etc.) rides into frontier America for a tale of a Civil War veteran weary of "trouble and slaughter."
Bobby Hale was a Union soldier—several times. He "skedaddled"—enlisted, took the bonus, deserted and enlisted again. Even so, Hale was in the ranks at bloody Fredericksburg and Chickamauga. Bausch’s battle descriptions flash and roar—"I shot into smoke and noise...wounded men caught fire where they lay...even now the screams keep echoing in my skull." In 1869, equipped with a Colt Dragoon, an Evans repeater rifle, and his mare, Cricket, Hale hooks onto a pioneer wagon train led by a man named Theo and his Crow scout, Big Tree, "six and a half feet tall and solid as stone." En route to Oregon, they winter in Montana. Hale and Big Tree head into the Rockies to trap, an adventure lasting years. Then a Sioux woman, who’d latched onto Hale, decides she prefers Big Tree. Hale repairs to Fort Ellis, Montana, and winters in a Conestoga wagon with widows Christine and Eveline—"Those two women give me respite from strife and struggle"—before enlisting as a scout. Bausch’s research makes real the violent period—sowbelly and hardtack, militias murdering Indians, freezing blizzards. Scouting, Hale kills White Dog, a warrior who’d earlier killed Big Tree. But White Dog was part of a peace party, and Hale deserts. On the run, Hale accidentally wounds Ink, a half-breed captive fleeing her husband. The pair stumble onto the Battle of Little Big Horn, "ground...littered with dead horses and dead soldiers and a few Indians," before trekking into the "land of the Nez Perce...where Ink is certain we can be happy, and live in peace."
With a setting gleaming with historical accuracy and a protagonist whose voice is right out of Twain, Bausch’s novel is a worthy addition to America’s Western literary canon, there to share shelf space with The Big Sky, Little Big Man and Lonesome Dove.