Saturday, August 4, 2012

Riker's Gold by Skeeter Dodds

I picked up this novel wondering what kind of western writer someone named Skeeter might be. Checking the copyright page, he's apparently actually James O'Brien. I gargled the Internet and came up with nothing about this particular writer.

Riker's Gold was originally published as a Black Horse Wester in 2001. I read the large print edition published in the Dales Western Library.

I thought I would be in for a long, slow read when the novel opened with Jack Riker bemoaning the bad times: his once-fruitful farm has hit bad times, as the past few years have brought drought and a failing future to Riker and his wife, who has turned rather bitterly against him as well.

Then a soldier comes by and leaves behind saddle bags full of Army gold for Riker's safekeeping. The soldier is sick with a fever that has wiped out the rest of his company. He wants Riker to hold onto the gold until the Army sends someone looking for the lost troop. Then the soldier rides into the snow-covered mountains to die.

A band of thieves come across the soldier's trail and follow him into the mountains. They see him scribble a note, then fall over dead. Overcoming their fear of the illness that's claimed all the dead soldiers lying about, they take possession of the note and read about the gold and its whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Jack has ridden into town to lock the saddlebags in the safe within the sheriff's office. Jack is part-time lawman for the town. After a rattling argument with his wife, who wants him to simply take the gold and start a new life, Riker thinks the gold will be safer hidden in town until the Army shows up. But a nosey townsman peeps through the office window and sees Riker locking away the saddlebags, which raises his curiosity. The fellow is a known lush, and the wily bar owner can tell something is on the man's mind. Lubricating the gent with free drinks, he learns about the hidden saddlebags and wonders why Riker would make the effort to secure them.

The barowner has kept a long-simmering feud going with Riker, because he hankers for Riker's wife. When he learns the sheriff's safe holds gold, he stirs up the townspeople – who, like Riker, are beaten down by bad times – in a scheme to get the gold and Riker's wife, too. The conflict boils over when the deadly gang of thieves arrive in town, and the shooting begins.

Dodds uses the love triangle effectively in this story, building a range of conflicts from that emotional dynamic coupled with Riker's ethical dilemma about how to handle the gold placed in his care. Although there are plenty of characters willing to fire guns in this tale, Dodds plays a wary game with his primary character, Riker, by having the sheriff keep gunplay at bay until the final town-sized shootout that brings the story to a climax. Dodds handles this nicely.

I was intrigued enough by Riker's Gold to wonder how the author might handle another plot. I'll have to find out.