Yellowleg is simply the name given to the book's protagonist, a man introduced as wearing a McClellan hat and yellow-legged pants, both leftovers from the American Civil War. As a former Union serviceman, Yellowleg has spent the last eight years of his life trying to find the Confederate soldier that scalped most of his head off. When the book begins, Yellowleg is paired with a young cocky gunfighter named Billy and a veteran survivalist named Turk.
Once the trio arrive in Gila City, New Mexico, Billy and Turk begin discussing a bank heist. Yellowleg wants no part of it, instead he's in town to see an ex-battlefield surgeon. Due to a rifle ball buried in his scarred shoulder, Yellowleg's gun hand isn't as slick and accurate as it once was. It's right after this medical consultation that Yellowleg attempts to shoot a fleeing bank robber. His shoulder gives out and the shot drifts off target killing a young boy. Later, the boy's grieving mother Kit sets off by wagon to the town of Siringo to bury her son beside his dead father. Yellowleg, accepting responsibility for the death, sets off with Turk and Billy to follow the woman and keep her safe. Across this hostile, barren wasteland, the trio not only must contend with a grief-stricken maniacal woman but also warring Apache warriors...and each other.
Like Arnold Hano's 1958 classic western The Last Notch, much of Fleischman's narrative is psychological. There's action and violence mixed into the customary revenge formula, but it's few and far between. In some novels that can be a very bad thing. Not with Fleischman. Instead, he uses this thick, wrenching atmosphere to drain the humanity from the thick-headed, bullish character of Turk. The character of Billy is written in a way that's symbolic with the gunslingers of the west – arrogant, proud, tense and sexually charged. When he isn't groping, he's practicing killing. The mourning mother Kit is a modern woman escaping the downtrodden life of showgirl, bar-room maiden and servant. Her defiance to all that have beaten, betrayed and wronged her is a resounding, triumphant portion of the narrative – intended or not.
Yellowleg, rightfully so, has his own tale to tell. The curse for revenge, his wasted years, his complacency to just accept that his life is only worth living if he can avenge his loss. The fact that he remains under the hat, in the same war-torn clothes of his past, is truly a symbol for Yellowleg's own life. The cloak of revenge that he tightly wears chokes out any happiness or meager satisfaction. His past is the only living he does.
Fleischman carefully constructs the narrative to highlight each character and their ultimate weakness. As a western, it's layered with adventure and sprinkled with enough firefights and gunplay to appease the casual genre fan. Beyond being a great western, it's just a great novel about humanity and the endless struggle with ourselves. If you love Arnold Hano and Clifton Adams, then you'll love this. It's by far one of the better westerns I've read.
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