Jim Dancer had a reputation. He’d ridden with Quantrill during the Civil War and since then had killed a hundred men, robbed fifty banks, and was Jesse James’ lieutenant. None of it was true except riding with Quantrill. In the seven years since the war had ended, Dancer had spent most of it out of the country. Didn’t stop the rumors of course.
Chapter one serves as a prologue for the main story. It deals with the assault on Lawrence, Kansas in 1863 and the beginnings of Dancer’s reputation. Just a boy of nineteen, he led the troop taking on the Union troops quartered there. He carried a deep hate for Northern soldiers who’d shot his father down for no reason. But he had no stomach for killing old men, civilians who’d done nothing to him and only stepped in when he saw a wretch named Yancey about to shoot a young girl trying to defend her father.
He stopped that, but drew Quantrill’s ire such that he was ordered to kill the girl’s father right in front of her. Quantrill called him by name and gave the order. So Dancer pulled the trigger and ended the life of one Theodore Slocum.
Chapter two opens nine years after that horrific raid and Jim Dancer has been captured by George Cummings of the Pleasanton Detective Agency out of Chicago. An eighteen month hunt had resulted in Dancer’s arrest, Cummings was pleasant enough. “Just doing a job.”
An attempt to cross a flood swollen river on a ferry results in spooked horses, the ferry overturning, Cummings getting a kick in the head, and Dancer nearly drowning. As it was, he spent the night on the bank handcuffed to a dead man, the key long lost in the waters of river. Rescue came from a stage expecting to cross on the ferry.
Dancer decides on the spur to become George Cummings, the dead man beside him Jim Dancer. He resigns from the detective agency at a satellite office where no one knows him and takes a job building the new railroad line in Kansas going to the new instant town of Lanyard, closer to for Texas trail herds than Dodge. After getting paid off and entering town, a chance encounter with him stopping a drunken cowboy from manhandling a young woman draws the ire of the cowboy who demands Dancer get a gun(he’s unarmed) or get out of town.
The law in town is a scared little man who’d just resigned rather than go up against half a dozen drunken Texans. borrowing the gun, Dancer outdraws the man and is an instant hero. The woman is the niece of the man who virtually owns the town and their name is…Slocum!
Dancer, nee George Cummings, gets roped into the town Marshall job, six hundred a month and three dollars for every arrest. Then he begins a tight rope walk as he cleans the town up. He feels an attraction to Slocum’s niece, daughter of the man he’d killed nine years before. She doesn’t remember him and has blossomed into a beautiful twenty-four year old woman.
Another old acquaintance is in town and can’t quite remember where he knows Dancer from: Yancey, the nasty little cretin from Lawrence who’d started his “bad” reputation.
The book has much more and Dancer even gets some help at an awkward moment from some old friends.
A fine little novel from an old master. He turned it into a movie in 1949 titled FIGHTING MAN OF THE PLAINS starring Randolph Scott. A couple of notes on small roles in the film. Paul Fix(Micah Torrance on The Rifleman) plays the little weasel Yancey and a very young Dale Robertson(of Gruber’s Tales of Wells Fargo series) has a small part as Jesse James. The movie follows the book pretty close with a few minor changes to make for a more dramatic effort.