“Darlings of the Dust” is a short story that appears in the anthology Contention and Other Frontier Stories, released by Five Star Publishing in May 2019. In my story, the cowboy detective named Dunbar (from his own series of Dark Prairie, Death in Cantera, and others) arrives in the town of Westlock, Wyoming, and goes to work at the Paradise Valley Ranch.
The bunkhouse cook narrates the story. Before long, it becomes apparent that Dunbar has taken an interest in two girls that the ranch owner has working at the big house. The rancher, in turn, becomes irate with Dunbar and tells him not to talk to the girls. Dunbar does not buckle under. Before long, it becomes apparent that the rancher would like to drop a load of hay on Dunbar, but he does not know how to operate the hayloft equipment well enough. At last the rancher becomes so defensive that he has a shootout with Dunbar. In the aftermath, the narrator learns that the ranch owner has held the girls captive and has used them for his own sordid purposes.
I wrote this story out of a sense of justice. My character Dunbar is an agent of justice, in that in all of his stories, he enacts the pattern of coming to a place, exposing a malefactor, and bringing him to justice. As in other stories I have written, the villain does not just rustle cattle or steal money. He commits crimes against other people, and he must receive his due punishment.
My idea for this story came in part from a true crime story in which a somewhat charismatic man maintained something like a cult of people, commune-style, and exploited their financial resources. He also exploited the daughters of one of the women. Toward the end of the story, in which the perpetrator ended up in prison and the girls told their stories, one of the girls, now a young woman of college age, also shared her experience of people not believing that someone could stay in a situation like that and not report it. Her story was similar to that of others I had heard, in which the victim was helpless to act because of fear of retribution, fear of disbelief, and shame. The part that I found most moving and most convincing was hearing the young woman tell her story in her own voice. And so I decided to write a story in which a girl asserts her own story and her own dignity in spite of the townspeople’s prejudice and unwillingness to believe.
I leave it to the reader to decide whether the story succeeds. For me, having the story accepted for the anthology is the first level of success. After that, any reader’s recognition of reality, literary value, or socially redeeming value adds to the success of the story. I express my thanks to Five Star Publishing for including this story, and I express my appreciation to the victims of this world who have the courage to tell their stories.
Contention and Other Frontier Stories is available at Amazon.