Dusk Along the Niobrara is my twenty-eighth western/frontier novel, my ninth book with Five Star, and my fourth Dunbar novel. I wrote it in 2017-18, and it came out in June of 2019. As of this writing, in July of 2019, it has received good reviews. When I did the proofreading on it about five months ago, I thought it held together pretty well.
In order to plan this novel, I found time to go on a field trip in the Niobrara country, a little more than an hour north of where I live. The Niobrara River is a tiny river in Niobrara County, Wyoming, although it gains in size as it flows east through Nebraska. This past winter, the people in central and eastern Nebraska endured serious flooding along the Niobrara, but here in Wyoming, it is an austere little stream, which is compatible with my story.
I began my trip as I did the year before with Castle Butte. I spent the night at my cabin near the Rawhide Buttes, about a mile south of the Niobrara County line. When I went out of the cabin in the morning, the low cloud cover was thinning down to a fog with the sun faint but visible. I heard a whoof! up to my right, and I turned to see a buck antelope with curled horns, his head and neck visible in the mist as he began to trot down the hillside less than a hundred yards from the cabin door. He paused on a little flat, made his whoof! sound again, and took off. I thought that was a good omen for my field trip.
When the sun was up and the sky was clear, I left the cabin. After a little circumnavigation, I picked up the county line road again on the other side of U.S. Highway 85. I drove through hilly country on a muddy road with big bogs and choking weed growth, thanks to recent rains. I was north and west of an area called Prairie Center, and I was familiar with this road from many past excursions in that area. In recent years, I had come to see that this road was not as well maintained as in years past, and there were a couple of spots, far away from ranches or traffic, with one hill rising after another and causing a true sense of isolation, where I thought it would be a bad place to get stuck.
I came out of that area and arrived at the northern reaches of Prairie Center, and as if to confirm, I saw a couple of bunches of antelope. I drove across this more open grassland until I came to the Van Tassell Road, which I also knew well. I turned and drove north. I stopped at the Van Tassell cemetery, on a tranquil elevation as I came over the last hill before reaching U.S Highway 20 and the town of Van Tassell.
At the cemetery, I saw grave markers for people who were born in the 1850’s through the 1880’s. Some people lived into their eighties, while others had shorter lives. A couple of women died in their twenties and thirties, and several infants and children did not live long at all. All of this was good, mournful material for the idea I had for my novel. So was the scree-scree sound of the hawks overhead.
When a person comes down into this
area, she sees the siltstone, chalky bluffs and buttes and a widened-out bottom
land. My interest lay to the west, so I turned on Highway 20 and drove that
way. The river flowed eastward on my left, with slough-like patches of tules
and reeds. In many places, a person would not know where the river was, as it
is a bankless, treeless stream winding through the grassland. I turned north
off the highway at a place called Node, which was my imagined focus of my
story. I reached a high point where I could see for miles to the north and
west. As with other stretches I had seen earlier, the country was broad
grassland, treeless except for ranch headquarters and a couple of places where water
ran or runs.
I explored the area by driving north for several miles, then turning around, driving back to the highway, going west to Lusk, and going north on Highway 85 to the Hat Creek Breaks. I explored the northern locale of my story, which would go close to the southern edges of the pine ridge that runs along the breaks. I like these landscapes that have pine ridges and grassland, but trees were on the northern border of my studies at present. (I would come back to these breaks a year later for another story.)
Back at my camp, close to sundown, a hawk came sailing along, making a song not quite so shrill as the ones at the Van Tassell cemetery. The moon came up orange again, at about nine, shifting in the gossamer clouds.
All of this background, as I have mentioned, was fitting for the tone of the story I was imagining. Because this was a Dunbar story, I was dedicated to the idea of bringing justice to a crime that has gone unpunished and that, in my way of thinking, goes against the social body because someone is allowed to get away with it (but not forever). As it turns out in this story and others, the solving of one crime leads to its relation to another crime. The victims in this story are people of lower socio-economic rank, people on the fringes of society and its more prosperous members. So I have sympathy for the downtrodden and under-valued, at the same time that I try to resist being polemical.
Also because this was a Dunbar story, I had to devise a ground situation that would allow for an observer narrator to accompany Dunbar as the sleuth goes to work in the ranch country. The narrator forms a friendship with Dunbar and is treated to some of Dunbar’s whimsical, morbid, and literate philosophy. The narrator also observes Dunbar, in his superior power to act, bringing justice to the Niobrara country.
This novel was a challenge and a reward to write. It came out a little shorter than my previous novel, Castle Butte, as it was in the low sixties rather than in the high sixties. But in proofreading it, I thought that it found its own length just right and that it achieved quite a bit in proportion to its being a short novel. Of course I hope readers enjoy it, from the allusions to Corinth and Delphi and Choragos, to the moments when two range riders on the sunbaked plains have a cheerful conversation about people who die in glaciers, to the moment when one of the antagonists makes the wrong remark about a woman, to the larger idea that old crimes deserve to be looked into and punished.
Dusk Along the Niobrara is available at Amazon.
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