A Wind of Knives
by Ed Kurtz
Snubnose Press (2013)
Daniel Hays is a widower and owner to a failing Texas ranch during the Civil War. If that's not enough to wear down a man, he awakens one day to find his lone ranch hand, Steven Houpe, beaten, mutilated, and hanged from the branch a juniper tree. It's insult enough to see a friend done in like that, but it's unfathomable it should happen on Daniel's own land. And if that's not enough to spur him to seek justice, but he and Steven were a mite closer than folks in those days could tolerate, let alone speak aloud, so a need for justice twists into a hunger for vengeance.
A Wind of Knives is a blend of revenge tale, murder mystery, classic western, and a wistful love story thrown in for good measure. Daniel Hays' rage in the wake of Steven's murder seems whiskey-fueled at first. But he sobers up and tries to get the law on his side, but the sheriff is busy with other matters and the deputy is in no hurry to dole out justice for a "sodomite." Daniel is on his own, directionless and set to kill whoever is responsible despite never having killed a man in his life. An old friend, Christopher Case (the deputy's older brother), joins him out of concern, but seems more intent on keeping Daniel from getting himself killed than hunting down a killer. Christopher feels like a voice of reason amid the hornet's nest of emotions driving Daniel on his path for vengeance.
It's a small odyssey in a sense, and a compelling one at that, with Daniel contending with one road block after another as he tries to put a face to his anger. The best he can manage for a time is to be haunted by a wounded coyote he finds on the trail, a specter that walks a razor's edge between spurring Daniel on and warning him off--not to mention the fitful dreams of Steven's face telling him to let it go.
While I wouldn't be surprised some readers might be taken aback at a bisexual protagonist in a western, it's the emotional impact and the universally relatable turmoil of wanting to set things right, not just in the world but in himself, that really stands out in the story. There's a time when Daniel's trek feels like a long road to ruin, abandoning his farm to hunt down a killer even though he has no idea how to go about it--or even if he has it in him to do it when the time comes. I really got a sense of the loneliness and despondence, but it didn't take long for me to hope Daniel could find some solace through his grief, even more than a want to see Steven's killer(s) brought down in a righteous hail of bullets.
It kind of felt like a long-buried gem that Ed Kurtz has mined from some hidden vein of American folklore. It's solid gold and one of the best written stories from 2013 that I've read so far.