If you like Jo Goodman, you’re probably wishing there were more Wild West stories in the same vein. Fortunately for you, back in 1996, Patricia Potter wrote Diablo.
Kane O’Brien (known as ‘Diablo’) can best be described as ‘white-trash Confederate’: not a former slave owner, he joined up hoping to finally belong to something, but he only found a horrifying war. One act of mercy – saving the life of a Union captain – resulted in his capture and a year in the Yankee prison camp of Elmira. When he got out, carpetbaggers seized his friend’s ranch, and Kane was pushed into outlawry. He got caught, his friend Davy was captured trying to rescue him, and they’re both on Texas’ death row when that same Union captain, Ben Masters, reappears with an offer. If Kane can find and deliver the location of Sanctuary, a secret hideout for most-wanted criminals, Kane can win a pardon for Davy. Kane will have to return to prison. He takes the deal.
Blindfolded, Kane is led to Sanctuary. It’s run by Nat Thompson, an aging gunslinger whose niece and nephew have lived in the town for most of their lives. Nicky Thompson, the niece, is drawn to Kane. He seems to be (and is) more than the criminals she usually meets, and from whose influence she is trying to save her brother. Kane falls for Nicky, too, but realizes that saving his friend means betraying her and the place she lives in. The plot is compounded by terminally ill Nat’s plan to hand Sanctuary over to Kane – but not on a timetable that will meet Masters’ deadline and save Davy’s life.
As a reader, it’s so satisfying to have a set of characters with plausible motivations setting them at odds with each other. Secrets are kept for very valid reasons. When Kane and Nicky fall in love, it makes perfect sense that he’d try to stay away from her, but as a lifelong outcast, he’s unable to resist the pull of people treating him well (even if he knows they want something from him). It’s equally reasonable for Nicky, the daughter and niece of outlaws, not to see any strong obstacle between them. She pursues him rather relentlessly, which is always fun.
The contrast between Kane and the other outlaws at Sanctuary is well constructed, too. There are evil men there, but also petty men, greedy opportunists who hurt people casually rather than sadistically, which is a historically realistic brand of Wild West criminals. Yet the two can be equally dangerous, especially now that Nat is ill and the outlaws smell blood. Ben Masters is also a well-developed secondary character.
The book goes downhill when Kane gets permission to leave Sanctuary, but doesn’t explain that it’s to meet Masters and beg for time. The author can’t quite decide if Nicky, who clearly is going to follow him, is the scrappy virgin heroine of the early 1990s or the rising badass of the late 1990s and 2000s. In one of Nicky’s first scenes, she shoots a would-be rapist, but then she starts riding around Sanctuary unarmed, which conveniently allows Kane to save her. She rescues Kane on his travels, but when Kane puts her in a hotel while he goes to meet Masters, and warns her that the brother of the man she killed is in town, of COURSE she decides she can’t possibly wait in the room. Of COURSE she follows Kane, of COURSE she overhears a snippet of the conversation, and of COURSE she rides off, furious and hurt, without confronting him. I’ve read that sequence of events a thousand times, and it’s annoying every time.
It feels strange to say that I wanted the characters to kill more people, but their reluctance to take lives seemed unrealistic given their setting and lifestyles, and inconsistent across the book. As mentioned, Nicky kills that first assailant, but Kane lets a later assailant go free on two separate occasions. Nat Thompson only horsewhips and throws out a man who assaulted young Nicky, which is out of character for a gunslinger. For Kane, there’s the partial excuse that he doesn’t want to kill after the war, but he has to realize that turning certain men loose when they have grudges against both Kane and the woman Kane loves is simply postponing one of their deaths. Plus, the tone shifts back away from mercy when one of the released men murders someone, which doesn’t surprise any reader with two brain cells, and made me pretty frustrated with Kane. I sure hope he felt good about himself for keeping his conscience clear! The fact that that death facilitates a sequel feels very insulting to the victim, too.
In so many ways, like the intricate plot, three-dimensional supporting characters, and moral trap, this book holds up very well. Nicky needs a major update, some plot points feel dated, and the level of violence is inconsistent. On the whole, though, we don’t get enough good Westerns, and Diablo is one worth reading.