You’d be well-advised to never use that creative pejorative — sequel — anywhere near Baron R. Birtcher’s latest modern-day Western thriller, Fistful of Rain, because this vividly-told tale is everything all those flop Hollywood follow-ups are not — a robust success that stands on its own merits.
In Ty Dawson, an Oregon rancher, Korean War vet and reluctant sheriff, Birtcher has created a durable and winning character with the values and virtues of an Old West lawman struggling to deal with the chaos and turmoil of America in 1975 — a nation battered and bitterly divided by the upheaval of the Vietnam War and Watergate and the tarnished myth of the American Dream.
Dawson, who readers first meet in Birtcher’s excellent South California Purples, is a traditionalist, a third-generation cowboy who still saddles up to help his hands work the cattle on his family’s Double Diamond ranch and wants to protect his county and his people from the destructive forces ripping America’s social fabric.
But he’s also an independent thinker with integrity and a deep-seated sense of fairness and an ornery contempt for political hucksterism and demagoguery. He’d prefer to be left alone on his ranch, but his sense of duty and growing awareness of the evil sweeping into fictional Meriwether County won’t let him.
This makes him the perfect protagonist for a crime thriller with social and political overtones that may be set in the post-Vietnam years, but have still have powerful resonance today. The violent mystery Dawson has to solve initially centers on a sheep rancher named Harper Emory, who claims he was beaten by members of a neighboring hippie commune, Rainbow Ranch, when he tried to find some missing sheep he claims they stole.
The commune is run by a dark and charismatic Svengali type who attracts runaways like Tennessee teenager Mila Kinslow and a sweet-souled L.A. musician named Peter Troy. Many of the good citizens of the county, stirred up by Nolan Brody, a pompous county council chairman Dawson can’t stand but has to deal with, view the commune folk as dangerous outsiders who no doubt deal drugs, practice free love and otherwise threaten their way of life with who-know-what other acts that decent folks abhor.
Emory, who first makes his claim public at a county council meeting, adds fuel to the fire. He’s a bitter man, angry about the loss of his son, killed in Vietnam but whose body was never found. Backed by Brody, he rails again the hippies, demanding Dawson do something — like drive them out. Dawson refuses, but doesn’t much care for the commune’s leader and some of his hard-ass lieutenants.
Those are the early battle lines, echoing the social and political turmoil of the era. And then the crime wave hits — vandalism of the commune’s sandwich shop, arson of an old building. Then the first of nearly a dozen murders and killings, including the brutal slaughter of an elderly doctor who was the town’s icon — the bloodshed escalating rapidly, spiraling beyond Dawson’s control.
Birtcher masterfully weaves terse descriptions of hard-boiled violence and tense confrontations with lyric passages about Dawson’s war experiences and his thoughts about the turmoil of the times invading his corner of country heaven.
It is in these passage where the author rises above the back-and-forth of a modern Western whodunit, striking an insightful chord that is, at times, exquisitely elegant. It is also where Birtcher etches a reminder straight from today’s headlines about those who use hate-mongering and demagoguery to point at a scapegoat in order to divert attention from their own evil deeds.
A previous review compares the author’s passages about post-Vietnam America to the writings of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. While there is a cursory and superficial similarity, chiefly because of shared subject matter, Birtcher has a distinctly different voice that offers his own unique view of those turbulent times. This makes Fistful of Rain all the more of a jewel to read.