Death in Cantera is my twenty-fourth western/frontier novel, my fifth book with Five Star, and my second Dunbar story. I wrote it in 2013, and it came out in early 2016. By the time I wrote this novel, I had an established relationship with Five Star, so I could think about writing a story with that publisher in mind. Also, because Dark Prairie had done well with reviews, sales, and an award, and because the people at Five Star liked Dunbar, I had encouragement to write another novel with him as the somewhat mysterious sleuth.
In planning this novel, I felt obliged to continue with the setup of the first Dunbar story. I would present the narration through an observer narrator so that I could preserve the mystique of Dunbar and stay outside of him. Because Dunbar has a superior power to act, the narrator has a lesser power. In Dark Prairie, the narrator was a young adult; for variety, I decided to use a middle-aged man for this story. I also decided to maintain the literary quality of the Dunbar world, so I made this narrator literate and educated, with a good level of perception and a decent command of language. I also decided to make him an outcast of sorts, having made a mistake earlier in life. I thought this would give him a bit of complexity. The mistake (accessory to a train robbery), being known and public, has kept him from achieving success, comfort, and happiness. This would be in contrast with the perpetrator, whose wrong has remained hidden and whose life has contained respectability and comfort.
Part of my inspiration for this story came from a case I saw on a true-crime program. In this case, a zealous police officer is able to force a conviction of guilt upon a young man who then spends many years in prison until he is finally exonerated and awarded a settlement for wrongful conviction. The police officer, as is often the case with investigators and prosecuting attorneys on these programs, insists he is right even when he is proven beyond a doubt to be wrong.
In Death in Cantera, Dunbar comes to town to investigate an ancient crime that resulted in a person being falsely accused. When the convict serves his time and comes back to town, he is wrongly killed. Meanwhile, a woman has lived in guilt and agony and silence, and she dies when discovery of the malefactor is nigh. As is often the case in real life as well as in fiction, the perpetrator still tries to beat the game and remain exempt from justice. In the view of our story, it is imperative that he pay and in public.
This story, then, is not about justice only. It is about correcting injustice, making sure that the corrupt person who caused injustice will pay. It also about things in the past that have died, like people’s ambitions and desires, and things that cannot be changed, including people having suffered injustice.
Stories like this sometimes give me
opportunities for other thoughtful endeavors, or even indulgences. In late
2012, not long before I began planning this novel, I read Camus’s “L’Hôte,”
which I do once or twice a year. This time, I was taken by the references to
the fields of stone that the people harvested or gathered. This stony place was between the desert and
the mountains or between the desert and the plateau. I read the story again in
March of 2013 and appreciated this aspect again. So I had an idea for a plain
quarry, plus a quarry that is a city of stones, or necropolis, and I had a nice
word play on quarry.
While I was at it, I thought I would have a little fun. I had read that one of the bêtes noires of editors of fantasy fiction is the opening scene in which the peasants are out gathering herbs. So with a straight face, I send my humble narrator out to gather stones, in order for him to meet Dunbar on the spare plains under a cloudy sky. At the end of the story, as he is wrapping up the narrative, he tells how the Bluestone Quarry is for sale. He observes that “it might offer an opportunity for someone whose wants were small and who would like to try his hand at making a living with a harvest of stones.”
Before I began writing this story, I took time to go on a field trip. I thought it would be interesting to go to the site where the narrator assisted in a train robbery. I also wanted to observe some quarries, as many of the events in the story take place near a couple of different quarries. So one day in late July of 2013, my wife and I took off in her Jeep Cherokee and went exploring. We drove to Cheyenne and from there took the highway to the summit between Cheyenne and Laramie. Up on top, we drove out into the picturesque range country of large rocks, twisted trees, cowboys on horseback (who paused for a picture), and a sociable buck antelope who stared at us when we reached Hermosa, the site of the fictional train robbery. From there we went down to Tie Siding and into Laramie.
Along the way, as well as outside of Laramie itself, we saw a few quarries. I renewed my impression that a quarry did not have to have a spectacular setting such as the rock wall of a canyon or a mountainside. The one in Laramie, like many a gravel pit, consisted of a broad hole, not very deep, in a broad, grassy area. I could see where the stone was dug out of the strata, beginning with a top layer that was a foot to three feet thick. The ground was a solid carpet of smaller pieces that, one presumes, were not usable. The grass and brush were growing back, so that a hundred years after the quarry was exploited for buildings in Laramie and for the University of Wyoming, I did not see impressive bare ruins. Still, this was good material for one of the two quarries I had in mind for the story.
After an overnight in Laramie, we took the Happy Jack Road to Cheyenne, then the Horse Creek Road north of Cheyenne. From there we went to Iron Mountain, where I had done my field research for For the Norden Boys several years earlier, and on to Chugwater. The whole route was very peaceful, like the road to Hermosa, but it felt even more insular and lonely.
Home again, I began to write the story. I worked on it through the fall semester, and I had my third draft completed and ready to submit in the last few days of December of 2013.
This novel took a little longer than some to go through the editorial process, and I had a couple of others in the pipeline, so it did not come out until early 2016. It received good reviews, however, and it went on to win a modest recognition with the Will Rogers Medallion Awards. Also, as the second Dunbar novel, it put me in the position of now having a series character.
Death in Cantera is available at Amazon.