Richard S. Wheeler
Signet, April 2003
Wheeler takes a break from his successful and long running Barnaby Skye series to give us one of his “traditional” westerns. I’ve never read Wheeler but found his prose in Cutthroat Gulch easy to read but prosaic. His suspense is never really suspenseful, though, and the mystery he sets up never pays off.
|We meet Blue Smith, an old-time sheriff who’d long ago cleaned up the county and is now at the end of his career. He’s about 50. His eyesight is going and so is his hearing. His young deputy is covetous of the top spot. He’s an ornery sort, and his roughness goes deeper than just the edges. His wife loves him, though, and the town has respect for him.|
Smith’s vice is fishing. He goes to a certain pond with some regularity and it’s been made clear to just about everyone in the town of Blankenship that this is Blue’s fishing hole. It’s here that Blue finds the body of a dead man.
Taking his time, Blue investigates and cannot find out who the dead man was. He’s a stranger, unknown to anyone. Blue figures that the body was left at the fishing hole as a message to Blue himself, left for the sheriff to find. Just what that message might be is unclear. He finds a trail leading away from the murder scene and follows it. In almost no time his horse and packhorse are killed by a sniper. The shooter, Blue reasons, is toying with him.
Shortly we’re introduced to Blue’s daughter Tammy, her two children, and her husband, Steve. They live close to where the tracks lead. It occurs to Blue that the killer knows him and is leading him somewhere. He worries for his daughter. That worry is borne out when Steve is murdered.
Leaving his daughter in the care of a trusted friend, Blue continues his search. It’s about then that he’s told that Jack Castle has been released from prison. Castle, once a favorite in the Smith household, had turned wild and went to prison. He had been the son Blue had always hoped his own son would be. But things went bad.
Slowly, he begins killing Blue’s family. Steve is first, then Blue’s wife, then Tammy. The children are left unharmed. Blue realizes that Jack is saving him for last and sets a trap of sorts by his fishing hole. There, he confronts Jack with the children in tow. With stern understanding Blue tells Jack that someone has to take care of the kids once he is gone. Either that, or Jack will have to kill the kids, too. Unable to murder children Jack rushes off and commits suicide.
Aside from the all too common bloated story telling in today’s fiction, the story is obvious with no twists or turns. The characters act ridiculously. Jack has promised to kill Blue and all his family, but his daughter and son think little of this threat, even after Tammy’s husband is murdered. Toward the end, Blue’s son, Absolom, charges down on Jack with clearly no chance of surviving. It’s a stupid thing to do, and a bit of foolishness the character has never displayed. He’s killed instantly. It is at this point that Blue realizes he’s been a bad father. He didn’t give Jack the kind of support he needed, and he didn’t give Absolom space to become his own man.
In fact, the whole book ends up being about how Blue has screwed up. Yet he’s the only one left alive, except the children. And he hides behind them when Jack came gunning for him. I understand what Wheeler was trying to do. He was, in effect, slapping Jack in the face with reality. While that may work in real life, western fiction needs a more explosive confrontation. Wheeler ignores this to give Jack a “noble” end. Yet he pretty much ignores Jack’s death. We never see it. We barely see the result of it. And Blue doesn’t care how Jack died, either. Nor does Blue (or Wheeler, for that matter) care about the murdered man that started the book – who he was, where he came from, why he was killed. Ultimately, neither do we.