Book Review – Dead Man’s Hand by David Nix

Dead Man’s Hand
David Nix
Sourcebooks
Pub date Feb 22, 2022

Jake Paynter is a doomed man. Haunted by an abusive childhood and his participation in atrocities of the Civil War, he seeks the isolation of the Plains Cavalry as a white officer for an all-Black Buffalo Soldier troop. Now, he is in irons and certain to be hanged for killing his captain after refusing an inhumane order.

Despite his best efforts to maintain isolation, he starts to make friends on his journey to trial. The people of the wagon train begin looking to Paynter for leadership, and he reluctantly falls into the role. The opportunity to escape arises when the wagon train is attacked by bandits, but Paynter’s growing ties to the travelers compel him to stay. As his trial approaches, Paynter must lean on his friends for salvation, but the laws of the west are swift and harsh, and a grueling confrontation with his past is on the horizon.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve read a true old fashioned Western novel, and I was pleased when I received the review request for Dead Man’s Hand. There was a time in my younger days when I devoured books by Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour and it was nice to revisit the past.

While there are aspects of the novel that are so true to the parameters of a western: dusty trails, small towns, forts in the wilderness, horses and wagons, there are few purely good or bad guys.

Actually, I should amend that last statement because a couple of the villains really are truly nasty men with black hearts and black souls. However the good guys don’t wear pure white hats; theirs are shades of grey, making the characters very human. Jake and his friend, Gus, one of the former Buffalo Soldiers, have both done things that dig at their consciences and make them wonder if they still have one foot in the wrong camp. On the other hand, they are brave and good men with a deep loyalty to each other, as well as the people they meet on the wagon train.

The challenges faced by the caravan making its way across the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, on a path toward Oregon, are many – floods, threats by raiding Indians, deaths, and delays for broken wagons. However, those pale in comparison to the threat from Sally, the leader of a post-Civil War band of mercenaries who take advantage of the unsuspecting and raid farms and ranches and wagon trains to kill the men and rape the women and take whatever spoils they find.

Sally has a vengeful grudge against Jake, which increases his interest in attacking the wagon train. It’s not just about the possible gold in one of the wagons. It’s personal. Not much about those attacks is sugar coated in the story, and the reader is privy to the horrible things that some people will do to others – just because they can.

Jake is a prisoner, being taken to a military court-martial after killing a superior officer. He knows that he’ll be hung after the trial, and through most of the journey, he vacillates between accepting that fate or giving in to the temptation to escape. His friends, Gus and Stacy, the wagon-masters’ daughter who is half Shoshone, certainly wish for the latter and make many offers to assist. Still Jake resists. The goodness within him will not allow him to leave the people in this wagon train to fend for themselves against a marauding band of outlaws.

While reading, it’s always an added pleasure to come across a well-turned phrase that brings a smile, as well as a tidbit of wisdom worth a moment of added consideration. I highlighted several in this book, including:

“Her comment raised a smile from him that hung on his lips like a wisp of cotton before the breeze seemed to sweep it away.”
“A journey interrupted is a journey forever unfulfilled. The only solution was to stand again, lean into the wind with intention, and continue.”

The second quote could well serve as the theme of the story and the motivation for the characters, especially Jake. His personal journey was toward becoming a better man. That motivation and characterization worked perfectly.

The only minor issue I had with the novel was the repetition of Jake’s mental self-flagellation over his past. For me, his musings about all that he’d done, and what had been done to him, were too frequent and presented with too much self-reflection. While some of that awareness is necessary to show his character arc, I thought the abundance of it didn’t fit the man who was so emotionally closed off because of his past.

However, that issue is a personal one and other readers might not see it as problematic. Also, I can say that the issue didn’t take away my enjoyment of Dead Man’s Hand, which is written in descriptive narrative that brings the setting and the action to life, and gives the reader characters worth knowing and following through this adventure.

Photographed by Sara Jordan Photography

When I was eight, my adventurous parents hauled our young family from the west coast to a Wyoming mountain town perched on the border of the Wind River reservation. That magical landscape infused my formative years with a wonder of local lore that was both historical and present, and revealed to me that often the greatest stories have been all but forgotten or were never told.

After publishing science fiction and historical romance for ten years, it seemed a matter of destiny that I’d eventually return to the tales of my youth. The Jake Paynter series brings together fact and fiction to explore places, people, and themes precious to me.

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