THE LAST RENEGADE – Jo Goodman
Bitter Springs Series, Book 1
Bitter Springs, Wyoming Territory, 1888
Lorraine Berry (also known as Raine or the Widder Berry) owns and runs the Pennyroyal Saloon and Hotel in Bitter Springs. She's very disturbed by the recent killings in the area and after answering an advertisement, she hires a shootist to come help the town deal with the killer or killers. (Everyone is sure guilt resides with the man who own the areas largest ranch and his sons.) The gunman has a very famous name, Nat Church, who is the hero of a widely popular series of dime novel adventures.
While riding a train through the territory, Kellen Coltrane notices a man in distress in the back of the car and moves to investigate. The man has been stabbed and is bleeding to death. Before he dies, though, he says his name is Nat Church—Kellen recognizes the name as a fictional character—and urges him to tell Pennyroyal. Kellen debarks in Bitter Springs and finds that Pennyroyal is a place, not a person. When Kellen checks in and unpacks, he finds guns and letters from Mrs. Berry that Church must have put in his bag when he went to get the conductor and a doctor. He allows Mrs. Barry to believe he was working with Nat Church.
Kellen settles into town and keeps his eyes and ears open. He's quite taken with the Widder Berry, and she with him, but neither lets on. Raine isn't sure she can trust him; life has not been kind since she came to Bitter Creek.
The town and countryside is full of colorful characters, many of whom work in or frequent the saloon. Raine is a generous hostess and employer, and she feels some responsibility for the troubles in the area. Her reasons will gradually be revealed, along with some surprises. We early on take a liking to Coltrane, but it will take time before we learn who he is and where he came from. Meanwhile, can he prevent more killings and help bring the villains to justice?
THE LAST RENEGADE, with its intricate, complex, and suspenseful plot, is not a fast read. But the lifelike characters and a budding romance make for an exciting and intriguing whole. All is not always serious, however; the interaction and dialogue between Raine and Kellen is most often amusing. And there are two special characters in THE LAST RENEGADE…two rambunctious young boys nicknamed Rabbit and Finn. I was delighted to learn from a preview in the back of the book that a sequel, TRUE TO THE LAW, is on its way, and who should be in it but Rabbit and Finn! A new schoolteacher has come to town, and the adolescent Finn has a crush on her….