Here’s another 19th century young western hero, but a fictional one this time. The book is Payback at Morning Peak by Gene Hackman. Okay, I’ll admit that I picked up the book out of curiosity to see if the former actor can write.
Northern New Mexico and central Colorado provide the setting for this novel. Jubal, a 17 year old boy, is out hunting when he hears shots and sees smoke at his family’s farmstead. He returns to find his family under attack by a gang of lawless rowdies. To his horror, he finds his father gagged, trussed up, and suspended over a roaring bonfire. Seeing the indescribable agony his father is experiencing in being roasted alive, Jubal knows he must reach inside himself and shoot his father. Jubal’s mother is already dead and his sister is dying. Both have been brutally raped.
The boy manages to wound and injure several of the attackers before they discover and pursue him. He escapes but forces himself to return to the farmstead the following day to properly bury his family. Despite his grief, Jubal knows he cannot let these killers get away with their crime. But he needs to decide who he is—a young man bent on revenge or a boy whose upbringing would settle for seeing justice done.
The dilemma haunts him through the rest of the book as he encounters unsympathetic and incompetent lawmen who want to treat him as the guilty party. Jubal doesn’t entirely give up on the legal system but knows it is up to him to hunt these men down. In time he becomes frightened by how readily he relies on a gun. But he regains his balance when a spirited girl sees the good in him.
It is in the Cripple Creek goldfields that Jubal becomes a man when he confronts one of the killers. During the encounter Jubal learns that the use of guns sometimes has unintended consequences that are impossible to ever put right again. The outcome makes Jubal decide to resume a normal life at home and put guns aside, but the last of the killers have other ideas. Jubal must act decisively again, this time to save others. But he learns heroic acts are not always neat and clean when operating in the adult world with adult rules. And oh yes, Hackman did a credible job in telling the story.