Set in 1871 in the unforgiving wasteland of the Arizona Territory, Shavetail is the story of Private Ned Thorne, a seventeen-year-old boy from Connecticut who has lied about his age to join the Army. On the run from a shameful past, Ned is desperate to prove his worth -- to his superiors, to his family, and most of all, to himself. Young and troubled, Ned is as green and stubborn as a "shavetail," the soldiers' term for a dangerous, untrained mule.
To endure in this world, Ned must not only follow the orders of the camp's captain, Robert Franklin,but also submit to the cruel manipulations of Obediah Brickner, the camp's mule driver. Both Franklin and Brickner have been damaged by their long military service, both consider themselves able to survive the dangers of the desert -- floods, scorpions, snakes, and Indians -- and both imperil Ned.
Yet there are other characters, all richly drawn, who also confront Ned: half-wit soldiers, embattled Indians hidden in cliffs, a devious and philosophical peddler, and the fleshy whores who materialize in the desert as soon as the paymaster has left camp and dance with drunken soldiers around a fire late into the night.
After a band of Apaches attack a nearby ranch, killing two men and kidnapping a young woman, Ned's lieutenant -- a man seeking atonement for his own mistakes -- leads Ned and the rest of his patrol on a near-suicidal mission through rugged mountains and into Mexico in hopes of saving the woman's life. It is unlikely any can survive this folly, and those who do will be changed forever.
Meticulously researched and vividly told, Shavetail renders a time when the United States was still an expanding empire, its western edge bloody with the deaths of soldiers, settlers, and Indians. In language both spare and brilliant, Cobb brings readers this lost American landscape, untouched by highways or electricity and without the comforts of civilization.
Shavetail also marks the return of a great American literary voice. Cobb's first and only other novel, Crazy Heart, was published in 1987 to great acclaim and was edited by the legendary editor Ted Solotaroff. Cobb is also a former student of Donald Barthelme, who described Crazy Heart as "a bitter, witty psychological profile of genius."
Brutal and deft, laced with both violence and desire, Shavetail plunges into the deepest human urges even as it marks the ground where men either survive or perish.
Out on a rural highway on a cold, icy night, Patrolman Ronny Forbert sits in his cruiser trying to keep warm and make time pass until his shift ends. Then a familiar beater Jeep Cherokee comes speeding over a hill, forcing the rookie cop to chase after it. The driver is his old friend turned nemesis, Matt Laferiere, the rogue son of a man as beaten down as the town itself.
Within minutes, what begins as a clear-cut arrest for drunk driving spirals out of control into a heated argument between two young men with a troubled past and ends in a fatal hit and run on an icy stretch of blacktop.
As the news spreads around town, Police Chief Gordy Hawkins remains certain that Ronny Forbert followed the rules, at least most of them, and he’s willing to stand by the young cop. But a few manipulative people in town see opportunity in the tragedy. As uneasy relationships, dark secrets, and old grievances reveal themselves, the people of this small, tightly woven community decide that a crime must have been committed, and someone—Officer Ronny Forbert—must pay a price, a choice that will hold devastating consequences for them all.
Now Thomas Cobb, author of Crazy Heart and Shavetail, has taken up the story in this powerful and meticulously researched nonfiction novel. What seems at first a simple tale of crime and pursuit takes on much greater meaning and complexity as the story traces the past lives of the main characters and interconnects them—all leading back to the deadly confrontation that begins the book. Cobb cunningly weaves the story of the Power brothers’ escape with flashbacks of the boys’ father’s life and his struggle to make a living ranching, logging, and mining in the West around the turn of the century. Deftly drawn characters and cleverly concealed motivations work seamlessly to blend a compelling family history with a desperate story of the brothers as they attempt to escape.
Grappling with themes of loyalty, masculinity, technology, and honor, this sweeping saga reveals the passion and brutality of frontier life in Arizona a hundred years ago. Richly authentic and beautifully written, With Blood in Their Eyes breathes dramatic new life into this nearly forgotten episode of the American West.