In 1880, Jack Givens is seventeen and living happily on his family's ranch in southwest Texas when a family tragedy involving rattlesnakes starts him down a path that will eventually make him one of the most famous (and reluctant) gunfighters in the country. Using his wits as well as his ability with a gun, Jack defends himself from the gunfighters who, looking to enhance their own reputations, come to challenge him.
When the gunfighters who target Jack start to threaten his family, he is forced to leave home. While trying to avoid other gunfighters and playing poker to support himself, he travels by horseback, stage coach, steamboat, and train to New Orleans, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco, with a lot of stops, poker sessions, gunfights, interesting (and sometimes humorous) characters along the way. He also has to contend with misleading newspaper reports which, in order to sell more newspapers, present him to the world as a vicious killer.
However, this book is much more than a Western about a reluctant gunfighter. It is also a family saga as well as a coming-of-age story, told with warmth and humor. It describes how the influences of Jack's father, the family ranch hands, and even his friends inadvertently push him down the path to becoming a gunfighter. It also shows how these same influences, along with some guidance from his mother, help him, at least for awhile, to survive this hellish existence.
The central question, of course, is whether or not Jack will survive. This, along with the way in which he attempts to end his life as a gunfighter so that he can return to his family, provides for some surprises near the end of the book.