I’ve read so many disappointing westerns lately that I am almost afraid to pick them up. But At Twilight’s back cover copy sounded intriguing, so I gave it a shot – and I’m glad I did. It’s easily the best western I’ve read in the last couple of years. Slow paced and thoughtful, it’s a great character study of two different people whose paths cross in post-war Texas. Good historical detail, a juicy conflict involving the futility of revenge, and a sweet love story make this book well worth reading.
J.W. Walford escapes from prison after he’s arrested for killing a man in cold blood. Unimpressed by J.W.’s compelling reasons for the crime, a local posse has been chasing him through East Texas. He’s nearly to the end of his rope when he finds a small ranch in the middle of nowhere, and an unconscious woman by its well. He helps her back inside, revives her, and helps her care for her infant daughter.
Louisa Burgess’s luck is about as bad as J.W.’s. Her worthless husband was shot and killed for cheating at cards – right after he gambled away their ranch (purchased with her dowry money). She fell ill immediately afterward, and Titus Gillette, the new owner of the ranch, sent a “helper” who is more of a jailer. Lou has spent the past few days drugged, and is terrified that Titus thinks she’s part of his winnings. When J.W. helps her, she returns the favor by hiding him from the posse. Since both of them are anxious to escape the immediate area, they agree to travel together as husband and wife. They hope that their charade will fool anyone looking for them separately.
In fact, they are being hunted. Titus has hired a mysterious man named Morgan to bring Lou back. Morgan was already looking for J.W., as they share somewhat similar goals. During the Civil War, J.W.’s wife and son were killed during a Confederate raid on Lawrence, Kansas. J.W.’s sister Tess was brutally raped at the same time. When the war ended and J.W. left the Union army, he and Tess began a crusade to find and kill all the men who participated in the raiding party. Morgan would also like to see those men dead, but for a different reason; he was one of the raiders, and he would like to begin a political career. He doesn’t need any reminders of his shady past coming back to haunt him. He figures that J.W. will kill everyone for him – and then he can kill J.W.
When Lou and J.W. begin their charade, they have only the most tenuous of plans. J.W. is frantic to get to Austin where his sister is; he’s late for a rendezvous and doesn’t want her to worry. Lou has some vague idea of joining her mother, who lives in Mexico City. For the present, they join up with a wagon train heading to San Marcos, and pretend to be husband and wife. But it doesn’t take long for them to develop real feelings for each other. Lou is reluctant to attach herself to anyone after her recent experience with a feckless husband, but J.W. seems so honorable and caring (and attractive). J.W. doesn’t think he has any right to Lou. His whole life has been consumed by revenge, and he sees his death as a probable outcome.
With a romance, we all know to expect a couple to start out at odds for some reason, overcome their differences, and end up together. I know I’m reading a good book when I can’t immediately spot how they’ll get from point A to point B. J.W. and Lou are good people who would like to be together, but their situation seems hopeless. J.W. starts out honor-bound to finish his quest. By the time he realizes that it could cost him everything, he can’t see a way out of it. Even if he were to give up, he’d still be on the run. It’s a great conflict, and the characters’ motivations are completely believable.
Before I read At Twilight, I was beginning to wonder if the entire western subgenre was peopled with TSTL heroines and idiotic gunslinger heroes. Lou and J.W. were like a breath of fresh air. Both of them are intelligent and introspective. They think about each other in a way that’s romantic and sweet rather than simply lustful. Their relationship is slow to develop, and that’s what lends it credence. Lou is smarting from her disastrous marriage, and she thinks a lot about her family life with her grandfather. J.W examines his quest for revenge, and what he’s become as he’s pursued it. Meanwhile, they interact and form a convincing rapport.
Henderson’s attention to historical detail is thorough, and it really helps set the stage. You can picture the landscape and imagine the people. She capture the mood of a state still coming to grips with the Confederacy’s defeat. It actually seems like its really 1868 – rather than some amorphous time in the non-descript “Old West.”
My one quibble with the book is that at times it’s a little too slow. The first third takes place during the course of a day, but it’s an interesting, eventful day. It’s the middle that drags a bit. The ending has the opposite problem; everything wrapped up a little too quickly. However, J.W.’s sister looks like she’s being set up for a sequel, which should help with the loose ends. Tess is an intriguing secondary character, and the conflict for her book has a lot of potential.
Despite the occasional pacing flaws, this is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend. Good westerns seem to be pretty rare these days. If you’re a fan (or you used to be one) I’d snap this one up while you can.