A robbery gone wrong results in murder, and the culprits sneak away in the dark of night. Before morning, an opportunity for revenge blossoms into a raison d'Ítre. And the cousin of the slain man finds his life altered by circumstances for the better. Just before the dawn of the twentieth century in 1898 Mitcham's Beat, Alabama, a stretch of hardscrabble farmland whose occupants mind their own business, an ingenious plan bears fruit.
With the shocking murder of Arch Bedsole, word spreads quickly that someone from town assassinated the storekeeper to keep him out of local politics. Soon the denizens of Mitcham's Beat gather and discuss retaliation, unwilling to let the fancy folks from Grove Hill or Coffeetown interfere in country business. United in purpose and inspired by an excess of bootleg whiskey, they form an association, Hell-at-the-Breech, one whose members will sign a blood oath and make a vow of secrecy. Soon there are two murders and tales of nightriders with covered faces. When questioned by the law, everyone has an alibi.
Sheriff Billy Waite, overdue for retirement, is too fond of whiskey and not anxious to uncover the source of activities in Mitcham's Beat. He rides from cotton farm to cotton farm, but nobody's talking. When a Grove Hill man is shot and killed in his own home on Thanksgiving, events spin out of control and a posse forms to deal with the troublemakers. Greed and violence are potent motivators and ill-intentioned men gather on each side. This is a lose/lose situation, and Billy Waite can't keep the violence at bay for long; the lynch mob is bloodthirsty and the outlaws are ready as well.
It is apparent that the lack of law on both sides will result in unnecessary killings, as mob mentality takes over, suppressing rational thought. In the breech, the rebellion feeds on itself while the vigilantes resort to equally atrocious acts. The collateral damage to innocent families is stunning and the clash of cultures leaves many bodies in its wake.
Author Tom Franklin keeps a firm grip on his characters: the jaded Waite, the naÔve Mack, the desperate old widow, and the callous hired gun who infiltrates Hell-at-the-Breech to gather information. In a spare but powerful style akin to Cormac McCarthy or Jeffrey Lent in Lost Nation and written in a regional dialect, Hell at the Breech tells it straight. Yet Franklin manages to evoke the reader's sympathy for a jaded man whose job has worn thin and a young boy who wants only to stay alive. At the end of a lawless century, civilization has finally erected a set of standards to govern a nation. An astute judge of human nature, Franklin has crafted a fascinating tale before Mitcham's Beat accepts the rule of law and those who cross the line will be held accountable.