Devils on Horseback: Zeke is the 3rd in the Devils on Horseback series. Each of these heroes is a tortured Civil War soldier, trying to find his way in the reconstructionist south.
Here's the blurb, courtesy of bethwilliamson.com: Intense, reserved and known for his strategic thinking, Zeke Blackwood has struggled to find his place in the post-war world. After the violent death of the first woman to capture his heart, Zeke retreats into a whiskey bottle—until he’s handed the position of town sheriff.
Zeke sobers up and tries his damnedest to be the best lawman he can be. He hadn’t counted on the tempting new saloon girl to jeopardize his cold, unhappy existence.
Naomi Tucker is a survivor, a woman who made it through the war on her own wit and strength. She hoped moving to Tanger, Texas would bring her the peace and stability she yearns to find. Instead she runs head-on into a cool-eyed sheriff who welcomes her to his bed, only to push her away.
The wildness of the West is far from tamed. It threatens the town’s efforts to rebuild, Zeke’s bond with the Devils—and his fragile relationship with Naomi. As Zeke’s hold on sobriety slips, he and Naomi must choose between settling for half a life apart, or embracing all they could be. Together.
I think Beth Williamson's books get better with each one she writes. She may be one of the best western historical writers out there right now. This was a beautifully written book about two wounded souls. Some of the most beautiful, emotional, poignant, and powerful passages in the book come while describing Zeke's alcoholism, his despondency when fighting his feelings about alcohol, and his desperation, feeling like he is fighting a completely losing battle.
In the middle drawer was a flask with more dents and scratches than the desk. Zeke hadn't touched it, hadn't dared to. Yet now all he could think about was what might be in the flask.
He licked his lips, already tasting the smoky flavor of the imaginary whiskey. Before he even realized what he was doing, the flask was in his hand. He pressed the dented tin to his forehead, the metal cool against his flushed skin.
Zeke cupped the flask, staring at it until he felt a tear roll down his cheek. "It's so fucking hard," he whispered. "I just need a sip."
He unscrewed the top.
Each time you think Zeke has hit bottom, he picks himself up and dusts himself off, only to fall again. Until he has lost everything, including Naomi, and leaves town, drowning his sorrows in the desert. He is hit with an hallucination of his friend Nate and after that comes the following passage:
Agony roared through Zeke as every wound he tried to drown was ripped open anew. Once the tears began, he couldn't stop them until he simply had no more left within. His face was hot and gritty, as the salty wetness mixed with the elements of the rawest human emotion.
As the sun set, a solitary figure huddled between two rocks, shirtless and shoeless, hugging his knees while rocking back and forth. Zeke Blackwood had finally hit bottom.
One gets the feeling, reading Zeke's story, that Beth Williamson either has some sort of personal experience with alcoholism, or did some very good research. Zeke's feelings are incredibly realistic, and heartbreaking.
I haven't said much about the heroine, but she is portrayed as a moral (but not uptight) woman. But one who has had to compromise her principles in order to survive. One who is unwilling to be treated as a 2nd class citizen by the man that she loves, unapologetic for the path she has had to take in order to survive. You get a sense of her almost immediately, wen it's clear upon being taken to jail, that she is terrified to be locked "in a cage", but she puts on a brave front rather than show her fear. Her inner dialogue gives a glimpse of the woman beneath. I really liked that Williamson not only showed the sexual attraction between these two characters, but also the link of shared suffering, and showed some scenes in which they spend time together just talking, sharing their backgrounds. It makes it all the more heartbreaking when Zeke turns his back on Naomi in favor of the bottle.
Once again, we also see the closeness between the men (the "Devils on Horseback"), Zeke and his brother Lee, their cousin Gideon, and their friend Jake. These guys are a family, brought together by a shared childhood and the horrors of war. These guys would do anything for each other, and the strain of Zeke's alcoholism brought to their relationships was well written.
The only quibble I had with the book was when Zeke was off cleaning himself up, how is it that in the space of 2 short weeks, Naomi allowed herself to become engaged to the town preacher when she was so deeply in love with Zeke? I understand, given her background, her desire to be respectable, safe, loved, and all that, but in 2 weeks? That didn't make sense to me. I was happy to see her come to her senses when Zeke came back to town.
All in all, this was a beautifully written book about salvation, forgiveness, and learning to love and be loved. Zeke seriously broke my heart. You can buy this in ebook format from Samhain here. I also highly recommend the first two in the series, Nate and Jake, as well as anything Williamson has written. I particularly loved The Education of Madeline, which is being rereleased from Kensington Brava in February. Can't wait!