Bruce W. Most – “Rope Burn”

Rope-Burn-by-Bruce-W.-MostNick DeNunzio is a long way from home. He is “trying to get his bearings in a bearingless land.”

That’s a reference to the largely un-populated landscape that surrounds him. It’s also a reference to the roadmap to his soul.

DeNunzio is far from his life as an ex-cop from Baltimore. He finds himself in windswept Wyoming. He’s running from the “corrosiveness of silence” and his role in police work that resulted in a “just another dead black kid in a shit part of town.” The media frenzy in the fallout focused more on the corrupt narcotics squad, not the loss of life. DeNunzio’s mind won’t let it rest.

DeNunzio is haunted, but he learned a thing or two as a cop, including how to ride a horse on the city’s mounted patrol. That comes in handy as he gets pulled into (coerced into) helping track down a cattle rustler.

He is fish out of water, a city guy among the cows and ranch hands. But he’s learning to like the open country. “Through his travels in the West, Nick had seen land like this often, land without landmarks, where a man was unable to tell where he was going or where he had come from, and often did not care.” Nick is wanted for his reputation, not his “cow knowledge.” The locals want a heavy whose reputation alone might encourage the rustler to stop his stealing ways.

Rope Burn does not set up like a straight murder mystery. The genre tropes require (suggest) a dead body in the first 30 pages (or less). That’s not the case here. Nick DeNunzio takes his time settling in and Bruce W. Most takes his time letting us watch DeNunzio learn the new world of small-town sheriffs, small-town media, expansive ranches and, for instance, the subtleties of cow branding.

The first half of Rope Burn reads as much like a novel as a mystery. There’s tension and warning shots, but the first fresh body—and it’s not the last— doesn’t turn up until about half-way along. The tension is slow to build but comes full force once it arrives; the building blocks are all in place. Rope Burn has its boots on the ground so when the bullets fly they carry extra zip.

Like all good stories, Rope Burn is half plot, half character study and half setting—far more than a whole. Most wastes no opportunity to help us see the landscape and how the view is altering, or not, DeNunzio’s point of view. DeNunzio’s brooding and self-loathing carries weight. The tautness derives from whether Nick’s past will catch up with him and whether all this drifting has allowed him to find an explanation or settle his soul.

What should he have done differently? What could he have done differently? The answer comes down to speaking up, being more forthright about everything. His silence, it turned out, was deadly.

DeNunzio’s awareness of partial truths comes in handy as he starts tracking the rustler and then the killer—or is it killers? But certain attitudes linger. “He hated himself for this, for playing the bully cop. It was just such zealotry, such reckless disregard for the consequences, that had put a young boy’s blood on his hands. It was his zealotry that had driven away his wife and his colleagues and ultimately himself. Yet he couldn’t stop himself.”

Once the bodies start piling up, DeNunzio flashes his clue-finding wits. He is analytical and a keen observer. And he’s not afraid of risking his life to prove a point to his circle of rural doubters.

In the end, you can hold on as tightly as you want but if the force on the other end is more powerful, even the strongest grip in the world can still get stung.

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