Shavetail presents a realistic and riveting look at life in an isolated Army outpost in the Arizona Territory during the war against the Apache. Thomas Cobb’s portrayal of camp life as boring, dirty, and brutal is probably very close to the reality. Cobb has done his research, and it is a delight to see his inclusion of historical sources at the end of the book.
The characters are quite compelling. Ned Thorne, the 17-year-old recruit running away from his past is a fine protagonist. When he finds the diary of Mary, a settler abducted by the Apache, her voice adds another dimension to the story. Captain Robert Franklin is heroic and action-oriented, which contrasts oddly with his bouts of depression. His lifelong friend Lieutenant Austin is more interested in publishing reports of new species of flora and fauna than soldiering, and is weirdly solicitous of Franklin. Donovan the trader shrewdly anticipates the wants and needs of his clientele, and shows up like clockwork on payday with his liquor and prostitutes to relieve the soldiers of their money. The mule driver Obediah Bricker is sadistic and cunning, a veritable master of manipulation with a philosophical bent. I find the preoccupation with the odd relationship between Franklin and Austin a bit tedious. Austin’s ramblings remind me of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. I would rather have seen more about the camp and activities of the soldiers instead. Yet the sheer unpredictability of the story makes up for this.
What seems to be a straightforward rescue mission to find Mary ends up as a Western “heart of darkness” sort of foray, with the elusive Apache leading the soldiers into a strange encounter with a Mexican patrol that ends in a burst of numbing violence. The ending is surreal and unexpected. Shavetail is an exceptional and entertaining read, especially for someone with an interest in the time period.