The Power Affair

A new novel delivers a new look at a highlight of Arizona's gunfighting days

In the cold month of February 1918, the notorious Power brothers kept the population of southeastern Arizona restless and nervous as they led thousands of men on a relentless 29-day chase through the wilderness that would become one of the most famous manhunts in the state's history.

The young miners and ranchers, who lived on a spread in the Galiuro Mountains with their father, had run afoul of the law in Graham County for failing to register for the draft. The Allies were stalemated in the trenches in France, and they looked to America for fresh cannon fodder. Early one morning, a group of lawmen rode into the mountains to take Tom and John Power to jail. A gunfight ensued. Three of the lawmen were shot dead, as was Jeff Power, the family patriarch. Tom and John, both wounded, took off running with their hired man, Tom Sisson. They gave it a legendary effort for weeks but eventually surrendered to the Army just inside Mexico. Sisson died in prison, but the Power brothers were eventually paroled as old men after spending about 40 years behind bars.

It's a favorite story of those who revel in Arizona's gunfighting days, when a man could still be an absolute son of a bitch and get away with it just fine. That it has anti-federal overtones makes it all the more appealing to the politically romantic.In the hands of Thomas Cobb, the author of Crazy Heart, the well-worn tale becomes a thin slice of dark and nasty realism mixed with scattered paeans to rugged libertarianism. That's not to say that the first ever novel written about the Power shootout isn't a good read. It is that and much more.

The "true" story of what became known as the Power affair is rather sparse. The Power brothers always maintained that the posse shot first. The lone surviving lawman said otherwise. Newspaper reports from the time, including those of the Arizona Daily Star, paint the fugitives with a broad boogeyman law-and-order brush typical of the genre.  It's impossible to determine the true motives of any of the key players, which is why the story lends itself so easily to the novel form. In a brief note at the beginning of the book, Cobb writes, unhelpfully, "Though the vast majority of events and people in this novel are true, they are also fictional." Cobb, who grew up in Southern Arizona but now lives in Rhode Island, knows the rough land over which the brothers fled toward Mexico, and he understands deeply its social history. He dresses up the skeletal facts of the affair with conflicts between the majority Mormon population and "gentiles" like the Power family; with scenes of bootlegging and police corruption in the wake of a burgeoning state-level Prohibition movement that would soon go national; with precise and often beautiful descriptions of ranch work and cowboy life nearly devoid of intentional romanticism; and with a riveting side plot about the fitful, brutal rise and fall of the Power family, including a harrowing take on the mysterious death of young Ola May Power, the novel's most compelling character.

With Blood in Their Eyes is a well-written page-turner of the highest order. And while Cobb uses historical personages like so many marionettes, he does so with what seems to be more sympathy than most puppet masters usually allow. He is clearly on the Powers' side.

Consider a speech by Jeff Power, in response to a sheriff's suggestion that his boys should register for the draft because it is their duty to defend the United States of America.

"That ain't our country," Jeff Power says. "That's New York and Pennsylvania and Kansas and whatever the hell other states they got now, including this one. That ain't my country. You can have the whole damned bunch of it for all I care. I wouldn't lift a finger to stop you if you was to burn it to the ground, because I don't give a damn. Rattlesnake Canyon. That's my country. Bought and paid for. And I will defend that. You send someone up to take what we got up there, and you will see some defending. And you won't want a lot of it."

While such tribalism, still defended in some corners of Arizona, is an absurd impediment to the very idea of human society, not to mention political union, coming from Cobb's version of Jeff Power, it sounds quite logical. Because once you have read Cobb's tale of all the woe and violence and hard work—of aching bones and broken, muted hearts—that brought the Power family to that gunfight now frozen in time, all you can think is, "Yeah, leave them alone."

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