"The Shots at Iron Mountain: A Story of Two Men — Tom Horn and Geronimo"

By Jiri Cernik

In "The Shots at Iron Mountain," Jiri Cernik revisits the oft-told story of Tom Horn, executed for murder in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1903. The trial and verdict continue to be controversial. Cernik tips his hand early: The novel is dedicated “to all those who believed he was not guilty.”

Cernik’s portrayal of Horn as a transitional figure between the lawless days of the open range and the more settled 20th-century society is unsurprising, echoing legal historians such as John W. Davis, whose 2016 "The Trial of Tom Horn" reaches more or less the same conclusion. Cernik, unlike Davis, laments the loss of the romance of the Old West. In his view, Horn simply operates by a different code, leaving him vulnerable to the conspiratorial machinations of small landholders, politicians and would-be capitalists courting eastern development money.

An innovative feature is the pairing of the Horn trial story with Denver Post articles written by the primary point-of-view character, Rick Jackson. Jackson, a longtime Horn partisan, ghostwrites a first-person account of Horn’s previous adventures as an Army scout and confidante of Geronimo, based on jailhouse interviews he conducts while Horn awaits trial.

Though their narrative connection with the main story is thin, the excerpts reinforce the characterization of Horn as an honorable man operating in a world where violence is accepted and perhaps necessary. Horn’s rough edges aren’t denied, but they are smoothed over considerably. His reputation as a hired gun and tendency to brag about his exploits are explained away as the scout-turned-detective’s own public relations hype.

Cernik doesn’t take as much advantage of Jackson’s point of view as he might; for example, Jackson shows little interest in competitively scooping the local journalists, even though he believes they are biased against Horn. Relying heavily on doubles and purloined testimony, Jackson’s conclusions about how Horn was framed are implausibly elaborate on their face, but it is easy to see how the reporter, conflicted about the coming of a new era, could reach the conclusions he does.

Born in what was then Czechoslovakia, Cernik embodies the European fascination with the American West. In addition to fictional westerns, his previous books include histories of the West published in the Czech Republic. Despite his State Department credentials as a language instructor, Cernik seems not quite at home in his adopted tongue; the text is replete with anachronisms (Did turn-of-the-20th-century figures really call people “weirdos”?), article errors (he tends to use “the” before a proper noun, as in “the Horn”), and unnatural syntax. Skillful editing might have ameliorated the text’s awkwardness, but this is not the case, as misspellings and typographic errors exacerbate the novel’s problems.

Acknowledging that his story is “not an accurate historical narrative,” Cernik is generally careful to distinguish known fact from narrative flourish and speculation. Horn admirers and others interested in the frontier’s last days will find in "The Shots at Iron Mountain" a welcome defense of the range detective’s reputation.

Bernie Quetchenbach is a professor of English at Montana State University Billings.

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