Anybody who knew retired black rodeo-rider Cletus (Hambone) Dolbey's fear of water can tell he must have been onto an awfully big payoff to be outfitting himself in a wet suit preparatory to getting himself beaten to death with a branding iron. And long before Denver bail bondsman CJ Floyd (The Devil's Red Nickel, p. 97, etc.) has figured out just what Hambone was looking for on his arid tract of upcountry heaven near the range of hills called the Devil's Backbone, he has a pretty good idea who was in on the search along with him: Pandeco oil president Whitaker Rodgers, so firmly under his CEO mother's thumb and so starved for cash that he'd be receptive to just about any wildcat scheme that promised a quick return. Unfortunately, Rodgers isn't the only person who might have wanted to kill Hambone; there's also Rebecca Baptiste, Hambone's tempestuous former lover, and her (and Hambone's) son; Percy Lewis, the rodeo rider who blamed his career-ending injury on Hambone; and all the Pandeco sharks lined up behind Rodgers. Despite getting warned off repeatedly by the law, CJ vows to get to the bottom of Hambone's death--not knowing he's already got his hands full with Celeste Deepstream, the vengeful and resourceful twin sister of a lowlife that CJ's just hauled back to Denver. Less ambitious and more fast-moving and streamlined than CJ's first two cases, though there are still enough interesting suspects in Hambone's killing for an entire page of the Denver phone book.