Badman Ballad by Scott R. Sanders (Bradbury Press: $14.95)
"From the moment he opened his cabin door and found a coiled blacksnake asleep on the stoop . . . Ely Jackson knew in his bones that today was no day for stirring about." And from the moment we read these first words in Scott R. Sanders' "Bad Man Ballad" we know we are in the hands of a master storyteller.
The year is 1813 and Ely Jackson, a shy backwoods orphan boy of 17, searches the Ohio Valley for his only surviving brother, whom he last saw burying their parents a full four years ago. But his search is interrupted on this "bad day for stirring about" when he discovers the body of a dwarf unceremoniously stuffed head first into a tree stump.
Around the scene of the grizzly murder Ely discovers bootprints large enough to swallow up his own. Driven to find the man whose feet could fill those marvelous prints--"You start a thing, you finish it, Pappy used to say,"--he joins with the only man in town willing to accompany him in his quest to bring the giant to justice: Owen Lightfoot, a timid lawyer from Philadelphia who fears this may be his last chance to overcome his queasy stomach, shore up his willowy spine and become the adventurer he always dreamed of being.
An Unlikely Player
They are joined in their hunt by an even more unlikely player. She is Rain Hawk, a half-breed girl who lives alone in the woods making spices and perfumes and who is the last person to see the dwarf alive. Rain Hawk says she knows the giant, whom she calls Bear Walks, knows the silent language of his hands, and also knows his heart.
The trail they follow through the frontier forests and towns of the Ohio River Valley is full of conflicting rumors: Some say the giants are of fearsome size and rage; others say they are innocent and kind.
The power of "Bad Man Ballad" lies in the relationships that develop among the three as they search for the bear-man and in the relationships they develop with the bear-man himself once they finally catch up with him. He is, truly, an innocent. He reveals himself to the group because he is mesmerized by the music from Ely's flute and because he does not understand the ways of the white man. Even though Rain Hawk has explained that he will be tried and possibly hanged, it all means nothing to him.
Study of Fear, Courage
Sanders unfolds the tale perfectly. This is a finely paced mystery-adventure that keeps us turning page after page long after we have vowed to "quit at the end of just one more chapter." It is also a study of fear and courage. When Owen pushes himself alone out into the dark of night, knowing full well he may come upon the bear-man, he is pushing himself far past the limits he feared were set in his life. And when Ely vows to see the bear-man through the ordeal, to stand by him through his days in prison and through the trial, he takes on more than he could ever have imagined.
And maybe most importantly, this is one of those rare books that teaches, for by signing on for this trip through Sanders' mythic world we find ourselves forced to choose between our hearts and what many call "justice." "We have claimed the land by force," Owen says, concluding the bear-man's defense at the trial, "and our soles are bloody."
"Bad Man Ballad" is a robust epic. Sanders' pen (or, more likely, his word processor) has a full range of colors and a magic brush. He is an artist who mixes his own paints. The richness of his prose would be enough in itself to recommend his novel. But luckily he gives us much more.