Conagher is an outlier in Louis L’Amour’s oeuvre. Most of his westerns feature young men making their way in the world, and rarely do they or their love interests have more than a few years of adult experience. In Conagher, by contrast, the title character is a 35-year-old drifter with nothing to show for 22 years of hard work but “his chaps and his saddle.” And his love interest is Evie Teale, a widow who is raising two step-children in Apache country, and who describes herself thus: “Men never had noticed her very much, and now that she was no longer a young girl they noticed her even less.” The novel traces their separate stories, with their paths intersecting and finally merging.
Conagher is a tale of loneliness, hardship, and grit. L’Amour handles his themes deftly, giving us enough of Conagher and Evie’s interior lives so that we root for them, without laying it on too thick. Both of the main characters have had their delusions knocked out of them, without entirely giving up on their dreams. They long for companionship, but they can’t speak plainly to each other of their needs and desires. Conagher is taciturn, bottled up, touchy. Evie expresses her emotions by writing out scraps of poetry and tying them to tumbleweeds—the frontier equivalent of messages in a bottle.
With Conagher, L’Amour once again shows that he is a master of the first chapter, setting the scene, introducing the characters, and kick-starting the plot. On page one, L’Amour paints the landscape in a few marvelous strokes, and at the same time prepares us for the human heartache to come:
“The land lay empty around them, lonely and still. One their right a ridge of hills with scattered cedars, on their left an open plain sweeping to a far horizon that offered a purple hint of hills. In all that vastness there was nothing but the creak and groan of the wagon, and overhead the sky, brassy with sunlight. . . . The heavy wagon rumbled on, endlessly, monotonously. The heat was stifling, their pace so slow they could not escape the dust. It settled over their clothing, their eyebrows, in the folds of their skin.”
It’s a great start, and the quality of the writing remains consistently high throughout the novel. Which is not to say that Conagher is perfect. It suffers from the lack of a strong, central antagonist. Instead, L’Amour gives Conagher three different opponents, none of whom really passes muster. In the early chapters, we see Conagher’s ruthless side when he delivers a brutal beating to Kiowa Staples. Seems that Staples has been spoiling for a fight and has promised to kill Conagher. So vicious is the beating, though, that Staples rides out of town as soon as he can get back on his feet. Next, Conagher takes on a gang of outlaws led by Smoke Parnell, who are rustling cattle from the outfit Conagher rides for. Conagher wins skirmish after skirmish, but eventually Parnell and his gang wound Conagher and corner him in the wilderness. Improbably, though, they have a change of heart and ride away just when they have the chance to kill Conagher outright. Finally, in the last chapter, Conagher beats up Kris Mahler in a barroom brawl. It’s an epic fist fight, even by L’Amour standards, but Mahler has posed such a modest threat to Conagher up to that point that we are a bit surprised they even come to blows. Perhaps L’Amour wants us to see that, while Conagher can handle any trouble that comes his way, his real antagonist is his own beaten-down psyche. How do you keep the cowboy from riding away? In the end, Evie tracks Conagher down and simply says “Mr. Conagher? I think you should come home.”
Because L’Amour prides himself on historical accuracy, we always try to nail down both the year and location of the story. It takes a bit of sleuthing, but there are enough clues in the text to figure out that Evie Teale’s homestead is in western New Mexico, about midway between Socorro and the tiny town of San Francisco Plaza.
As for the year, that’s harder to guess. We are told that Conagher is 35 when the story starts, and in Chapter 3 we get his curriculum vitae up to that point: “He’d driven spikes on the railroad, handled a cross-cut saw in a tie camp, helped to sink a shaft on a contract job, and helped to build a couple of mountain roads in Colorado. Then he’d driven a team over the Santa Fe, put in four years in the army in the War Between the States and got to be a sergeant. He had been wounded twice, escaped from Andersonville, and had fought Indians in Dakota and Wyoming. He’d gone up the trail from Texas three times, and had punched cows in Texas, the Arizona Territory, Nebraska, and Wyoming.” Working with this, let us suppose that Conagher left home at 16 and worked in the west for two years before joining the army. He would then be 22 when the war ended in 1865. Add 13 years, and that gives us 1878 for the start of the action in Conagher. It could be earlier, if Conagher was older when he joined the army, but it is hard to see how it could be much later. Another clue: the threat of Apache raids is constant throughout Conagher. A bit of research indicates that the so-called Apache Wars waxed and waned for decades, with “Victorio’s War” in 1879-80 a particularly bloody episode. Near the end of the book Conagher has a colloquy with a group of Apache warriors led by a chief L’Amour identifies as Benactiny, aka Benito. The website American-Tribes.com states that “Beneactinay” was killed by the U.S. army in March 1883 in Arizona. The same website, and others, describe another Apache chief, Benito, who was active around the same time.
Conagher dwells on the loneliness of life on the frontier. But how much lonelier it must be for the men than the women! A careful review yields just three other women characters in the novel beside Evie (not counting her step-daughter). These all appear in Chapter 4, and consist of two women who ride the stage coach and are mentioned on four pages, and another passenger on another stage coach who is “scarcely more than a girl, with a round pretty face,” and who shows her sand during an Apache raid (three pages). That’s a small tally against the 24 male characters who get names and/or speaking parts. And it’s not just a man’s world out there, it’s a white man’s world. Never mind that the story takes place in an area that was part of Mexico until 1848. The novel has only one speaking part for a man of Mexican heritage, a bartender named Pedro who appears in the final chapter. And of all the Apaches who visit and raid Edie’s homestead, only the aforementioned Beneactiny gets a speaking role or any other indicia of individuality.
As with most of L’Amour’s novels, Conagher rewards the discerning reader with a handful of inconsistencies and plot holes. It’s obvious from the start that Conagher is a simple man who rides for the brand. By his own account in Chapter 9, “He simply did what had to be done, and his code of ethics was the code of his father, his family, and his time.” For the Louis L’Amour fan this sort of stuff is so familiar that we almost read right past it. But then we pause. What’s this reference to the Conagher family code of ethics? We go back to Chapter 3, and here’s what we find: “His ma had died when he was four, and his pa had gone off to help build railroads and had never come back. His aunt and uncle had taken him in, but he’d worked for it. Lord, above how he had worked! His aunt always threw it up to him how his pa had never come back.” Some code of ethics.
The biggest inconsistency, though, is one that I remember from reading Conagher when I was a boy. Early in the story, Conagher recounts how he lost a thumb “when I was tryin’ for an extra turn around the horn and a fifteen-hundred-pound steer hit the end of the string.” That’s the sort of detail that sticks with a reader. The missing thumb is a great set-up for a plot point, but we wait for the pay off in vain. L’Amour never mentions it again. None of the people Conagher meets ever seems to notice that he’s missing a thumb, including Evie and her two bright, curious step-children. Nor does his missing thumb have any effect on Conagher’s actions. He does everything from making fires, shooting guns, setting snares for rabbits, and beating up Kris Mahler, all without any regard for the lack of an opposable thumb. It’s a real missed opportunity for L’Amour, who most likely simply forgot about it himself as he wrote the novel.
As is his wont, L’Amour adds a few historical nuggets to his narrative in Conagher. In Chapter 4, we hear about how a tough old buffalo hunter named Kirk Jordan backed down a gun-slinging marshal named Billy Brooks in Dodge. “Kirk made Billy take water. He run Billy clean out of town.” That’s a true story. It happened in 1874, and L’Amour liked it enough to use it again in A Man Called Noon (1970).
There's trouble, though, when L’Amour’s invokes the memory of a legendary Texas Ranger. Conagher tells the story thus: “There was a Texas ranger named Captain Bill MacDonald who said there was no stoppin’ a man who knew he was in the right and kept a-comin’.” It reads well and moves the story along, but, it’s so sloppy. Louis got the last name wrong; the correct spelling is “McDonald” not “MacDonald.” The quote is wrong, too, The motto on McDonald’s grave reads: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-comin’.” Last but not least, McDonald didn’t become a Texas ranger until 1891, at least a decade after the action in Conagher. This is the sort of thing that a fact-checker could have helped with, if L’Amour had allowed editors near his work. But dollars to doughnuts Louis just pulled the reference from his memory and never bothered to check it for accuracy.
Conagher isn’t as rich as some of L’Amour’s other westerns in the idiomatic expressions we have come to love, but there are more than a few, including:
“They’ve been up the creek an’ over the mountain, they’ve hunted buffalo an’ they’ve fit Injuns an’ maybe outlaws, an’ they’ve done it like you an’ me hitch a team of horses—it’s ever’day work to them.”
“He’s seen a-plenty and he just ain’t about to be bothered by any tinhorn who comes along the pike.”
“He was an old curly wolf from the high country.”
“He was a loner—he had always been a loner. He was as covered with spines as any porcupine.”
A final note: Turner Network turned Conagher into an excellent television movie in 1991, starring Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross. Read the book, then watch the movie.