Fourteen-year-old Percy Murratt rides off from the dusty old cabin he’s always called home in search of answers about his Pa — Big Jim Murratt, a deputy sheriff killed riding the trail — and the mysterious man in white who visits his mother on the day this story begins.
The answers Percy seeks are not easy to come by, however, in this well-written new Western saga by standout author Leverett Butts. For even the friends of Lancaster O’Loch — the man in white — cannot make sense of why O’Loch, a former lawman himself, killed five deputies before high-tailing it out of town.
One of the surviving deputies swears almighty vengeance upon “Lank,” as he is known, for the multiple deaths, including the collateral demise of his younger brother, ridden down by O’Loch in his haste to leave town, on account of his having the sheriff’s wife, Guernica, riding pillion behind him.
Colorful characters abound in this perfectly executed, though often cryptic, tale, including Percy’s long-dead grandpa, who returns one night to help Percy on the trail. Then there’s Reverend Merle Tallison, an anxiety-ridden frontier clergyman who has inexplicably lost his direct connection to God. And, of course, there are the three mysterious sisters who suddenly appear out of nowhere to tell a tale of ransack and rape against a seemingly affable cattle rancher. What were his motives in the deplorable deed — if, in fact it really happened at all?
The narrative is a skillful blend of flashbacks and straight-up, dialogue-rich, interchanges between the principal players, who jump right off the pages and into the reader’s imagination. Pretty soon, you’ll be searching for your own spittoon in the empty saloon where the psychologically challenged parson plays hand after hand of intensely focused solitaire.
But, I digress. Revenge-seeking deputy Gary Wayne and his stoic sidekick Boris eventually catch up with Lank and the epic fight to take him back to justice alive is on. Dust and blood are liberally mixed in the resulting bare-knuckled fracas. But who emerges victorious? And what of young Percy? Is he really, as the perplexed pastor perceives, on a mission from God?
Finally, there’s the occasionally lyric turn of phrase to appreciate and savor:
“‘Psalm 109,” Ardiss’ voice had been soaked in whiskey and drug through gravel by a team of unbroken horses.”
Five stars to this ambitious tip of the slouch hat to Arthurian legend. It is often cinematic in scope and does a wonderful job of painting the storied Wild West lawman as a flesh-and-blood, frequently flawed individual. Really, it would do extremely well as a Clint Eastwood-directed film, given his penchant for offbeat, yet highly relatable, characters.
If you like your westerns one part The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and two parts Lonesome Dove, you’ll surely enjoy The Wasteland.