Leaving Epitaph by Robert J. Randisi

Mary Shaye was in the wrong place at the wrong time—crossing the road in front of Ethan Langer and his band of renegades, who were escaping on horseback after having just robbed the Epitaph town bank. She’s trampled underfoot, sadly, leaving behind a family that includes her three sons named Thomas, Matthew, and James. Her husband, Daniel Shaye, is the sheriff of Epitaph, but was working elsewhere in town when Mary was killed. He, along with his sons, is devastated. They bury their dearest and hold a healthy grudge against the townsfolk, since no one at the scene tried thwarting the gang, thereby ensuring Mary had little chance of survival. Daniel deputizes his sons, against his own better judgement, and goes in search of the thieves. The Shayes are not fooling themselves for a minute when it comes to their true intentions:

The “hunt” was what they were calling it. They did not pretend that it was anything but, because when you hunted, it was understood that you intended to kill your prey.

Langer pilfers banks mostly across the Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona region. He has a brother named Aaron, who also runs a gang, making a friendly rivalry of sorts between the siblings to see who can top the other in money looted. The Shayes blood-streaked trek will eventually cross both groups, with their first stop along the retribution trail being the town of Vernon, where Daniel is acquainted with the local, unethical sheriff named Sam Torrance. When Torrance brazenly lies to Daniel about the Langer gang’s whereabouts, Daniel permits his eldest, Matthew, to do a merciless smack-down of the corrupt lawman. The Shayes get the needed information, but they have to pull the out-of-control and burning-with-hatred young man off the pummeled figure. The results weigh heavily on Daniel:

His boys probably didn't have any idea how tightly strung they were. Matthew had been the first to break, but he could see it in all three of them, just as he knew it was in himself. They were all like bowstrings that were about to snap, and it was his job to keep it from happening.

Leaving Epitaph combines several popular Western themes, including blood vengeance, boys becoming men on the trail, and the bonding of father and sons. What advances Randisi's tale above countless, comparable fare is that he probes into the mindset of each of the individual points of view. One paragraph starts you off with one of the brother’s innermost concerns, and the next passage seamlessly flows into Daniel’s own apprehensions on a related subject. And it’s not just the “white hats.” Randisi delves into the hastily-diminishing faculties of the lead outlaw. Ethan Langer has become unhinged by the lasting impression of his horse grinding Mary Shaye into the earth. As leader, he can’t exhibit weakness, but his fraying conscience begins to spill over into public short temperedness and questionable decision-making which doesn’t go unnoticed by his men, ultimately threatening his control. As a result of this disclosure in a back-and-forth storytelling method, the suspense intensifies until the unexpected and tragic conclusion.

Robert J. Randisi also created the famed Gunsmith series and is a respected hardboiled crime writer—he founded The Private Eye Writers of America and its coveted Shamus Award. His writing is lean, brisk, and backed with reflective richness that gives the proceedings gravity beyond just another run-of-the-mill oater. The author is staggeringly prolific, too, with over 400 Western books notched on his keyboard. So, without a doubt, there are ample places to start perusing his lauded body of work, but one very good choice is Leaving Epitaph.


Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent Western novella, Hell Town Shootout.

Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.

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