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Dark Canyon (1963)

Updated: May 11

Louis L’Amour had hit his stride as a western writer by 1963, when he wrote Dark Canyon. The year before he had churned out a career-high five novels. Three per year was more typical for Louis in the 1960’s, and this was the case in the year of Dark Canyon. The book clocks in at 149 pages, and though it’s not one of L’Amour’s best, it is a testament to his prodigious gifts that we can enjoy even such lesser efforts.

The story follows the life of Gaylord Riley, who, as a lad, falls in with a gang of tough-but-soft-hearted outlaws led by Jim Colburn. They had become outlaws mostly by accident, many years before. This happens a lot in Louis L’Amours—a young and high-spirited cowhand throws a rope over the wrong steer and sells it for a little raisin’ hell money, and next thing you know he’s riding the outlaw trail. The Coburn gang has a slightly different origin story, but the details don’t matter. The point is, they take young Riley under their wings, setting up the overall story arc of a young man leaving a life of crime to become a respectable member of the community.

In many of his novels L’Amour lets us guess as to whether his geography is real or fanciful. After the outlaws send Riley packing in Chapter Two for his own good, he builds a ranch “Near the head of Fable Canyon, on a bench at the foot of the Sweet Alice Hills.” (Page 15.) You can look that up; it’s in one of the most remote areas of southeastern Utah. A lot of the action in the book, though, takes place in the town of Rimrock, which Louis describes as “unpeeled and raw, something over twenty miles to the northeast.” That would place Rimrock roughly on the line between Moab and Monticello, but there is no such town in the area, nor does a Google search of Utah ghost towns turn up the name. No complaints; if Louis wants to create a fictional town near the very real Sweet Alice Hills for his story, that’s fine with me. It's worth a passing note that L'Amour had used this general vicinity before; the 1954 novel Kilkenny is set a few miles to the south.

Rimrock society is dominated by an aristocratic rancher named Shattuck and a lowlife saloon keeper named Hardcastle. The two have fallen out after Hardcastle sought and was denied the hand of Shattuck’s niece, Marie, in marriage. All of this we learn in Chapter Three, in the space of less than three pages, and then L’Amour is back into the main story. Kudos for economy, Louis.

Riley builds his ranch out in the Sweet Alice Hills, but he needs cows. For those, L’Amour sends Riley two hundred miles north, to Spanish Fork near Salt Lake City, where he buys a thousand cows dirt cheap. All Riley needs is a way to get them through the deserts of Utah and back to his ranch. For that task, Louis imagines into existence an actual “Outlaw Trail,” though in fact the real Outlaw Trail is simply a romantic reference to a handful of hideouts along the spine of the Rockies. Having turned it into an actual trail, L’Amour then generates a host of outlaws along the way who, out the goodness of their hearts, help drive the herd in relays down the trail to Riley’s ranch. It’s a credibility stretch, to be sure, but it ties in with the central theme of Dark Canyon, the noble but misguided outlaw.

Every hero needs a romantic interest, and Marie Shattuck is just about all there is to be found in those parts. The ratio of men to women in most Louis L’Amour’s is shockingly lopsided, but Dark Canyon has one of the worst odds of them all. There’s Marie herself, who is painted in broad but attractive strokes. (See page 40—“Marie Shattuck was not was not merely a pretty girl, not merely a bright one with character; she was a girl born with that particular something that brought excitement to every man who looked at her.” We get to fill in the blank as to whatever it is that brings excitement to every man.) Other than Marie, there is her pal Peg Oliver, whom L’Amour damns with faint praise on page 49; “Peg Oliver was little, plump, and attractive, one of those merry, friendly, outgoing girls, liked by everyone.” After that, it’s slim pickings. Louis writes with economy, and he clearly figured he didn’t need to waste any more ink creating female characters. Still, the ratio of men to women who merit a proper name in Dark Canyon is, by my count, 29 to 2, which gives us an unintended laugh-out-loud moment on page 102, when one character ruminates that “there were very few eligible young men around.” Ah, but Louis was writing before the age of the Bechdel test, which asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man—a test that I doubt any Louis L’Amour novel would pass.

L’Amour wrote Dark Canyon decades before the publishing world showed any concern for diversity and inclusion. The modern reader, though, gets a jolt from time to time when Louis treads heavily in areas where today’s authors dare only tiptoe. The sheer number of bit characters in Dark Canyon allows L’Amour a little more scope than usual in this area. There is the foreign-born Sheriff Larsen, who speaks with a laughable Germanic accent. (When he says “It is my pusiness now,” our first thought is that he is talking about his cats, not his business.) There are two Mexicans cowhands who speak with a studied formality and are in all other respects nice, subordinate, model minorities (though the less said the better about “Chata, the half-witted Mexican boy who slept in the shed back of the saloon.” (Page 111.)) And, a true rarity for Louis, there is a black man, Ned Baldwin, who serves as the loyal cook for the Shattuck family. Baldwin appears for the first time on page 142, and is out of the action by the bottom of page 143, having been clobbered senseless by the bad guy without contributing anything of value or importance.

As always, we read the text with eager anticipation of finding inconsistencies and improbabilities, and we do not go away disappointed. The town of Rimrock is introduced on page 16 as “scarcely a year old, a dusty avenue shaded by cottonwoods and lined by false-fronted stores. It was a one-doctor, no-lawyer, five-saloon town, with two good water-troughs, a deep well, and excellent home-made whiskey.” That’s classic L’Amour writing, colorful and succinct. We can imagine him sitting at his typewriter, conjuring up the setting for the book, nodding with satisfaction, and moving on. Louis would have been well-advised, though, to go back and review his description once he’d finished the book. Why, to begin with, is the town scarcely a year old, and why has it suddenly sprung into being? Most of the main characters have been living and ranching in the area for years, and nothing of particular interest or importance has happened in the last year to cause a town to appear. And as the book rolls along, the population keeps growing. It turns out there is also a cantina, a restaurant or two, at least two houses of ill-repute, a newspaper, a bank, a church, and a drug store. What supports this booming local economy? L’Amour tells us that there are just eight ranchers in the area, and there is no hint of any other industry or economic activity.

Then there’s the Pirates of Penzance plot. It’s a nice idea that Colburn and his gang are all noble men who have gone wrong, and that Gaylord (a noble name, one notes) will lead them back to redemption. And, sure enough, once Riley has the ranch up and running his old mates come to live with him, and go straight. (Pages 116-18.) But this is not a comic operetta, and it’s hard to sustain the plot device. When the Colburn gang sends Riley off in Chapter Two to make his fortune some honest way, they combine their kitty and stake him to ten thousand dollars in cash. Adjusting for inflation, that’s about a million dollars in today’s money, all of it stolen. Nevertheless, the banker in Rimrock accepts the deposit with scarcely a question. Sheriff Larsen (he of the heavy accent) is willing to look the other way, too, since the gang never robbed anyone in his jurisdiction. And prim and proper Marie seems entirely unconcerned about it. (“Did you think it would make a difference to me? You know it wouldn’t.” Page 119.) Still, the Colburn gang has nine or ten thousand dollars of bounty money offered for their capture (Page 111), which presumably will not go away just because the local sheriff is willing to let them settle down to a quiet life of ranching.

The real problem with Dark Canyon, though, is Gaylord Riley himself. To call him two-dimensional is to give L’Amour too much credit. Louis usually tells us, at a minimum, his leading man’s height, weight, and hair color, but we don’t get even these bare details, and nothing in the book infuses this Riley with any personality. Moreover, Riley’s backstory doesn’t hold together. Let’s go to the text, teasing out the events in Riley’s life in chronological order.

— On page 10-11, Riley describes his hardscrabble upbringing: “Pa an’ me was livin’ on a little two-by-four place down on the Brazos. Pa was gimpy in one leg, caught a bullet fightin’ Comanches the time they killed ma. We had ourselves a few cows, and we’re makin’ out to have more.” [A note on the text: in this passage, “we’re” is a probably a typo, and should be “were”.] Five rustlers killed his pa and put three slugs into young Riley, leaving him for dead. Riley was a tough customer even then, and he crawled back to the cabin. “I fixed myself up,” he says, and “When I got well I got pa’s old six-gun and went to work.” Riley found and killed three of the five rustlers, but then the trail went cold. (When you get this sort of narrative early in a Louis L’Amour, you can look forward to the hero settling the hash of the last two rustlers before the last page is turned. Alas, on this score you must brace yourself for disappointment.)

— On page 1, when Colburn brings Riley into the outlaw gang, Riley is described as “a kid with narrow hips and wide, meatless shoulders and chest. The old Navy .44 looked too big for him, despite his height.” The next day, on page 2, he is “a lean, raw-boned kid on a crow-bait buckskin.” The reader gets to guess his age, but given the information noted below, he can’t be more than sixteen.

— On page 26, Riley tells the sheriff of Rimrock, “Once—when I was sixteen—I rode through this country. We camped two days at the spring where I’ve located.” Who is this “we”? On page 35, as Riley is looking over the Sweet Alice Hills, he notes to himself; “Jim Colburn knew of this place.” It must be, then, is that Riley visited the area during his tenure with the Colburn gang. This pegs his age upon joining the gang at no more than sixteen.

— On page 9, we find out how Colburn met Riley. Colburn was facing off against three card sharks in a saloon, when Riley says from the bar “Deal me in, too, or give him back his money.” According to Colburn, “They knew this kid. What they knew I still don’t know, but they wanted no part of him, and he was more than likely wishing a fight with them. . . . So when I pulled out, I invited him along. He was foot-loose, and I couldn’t turn my back on him after that.” What is a kid of no more than sixteen doing in a saloon? Moreover, the card sharks knew him, implying that Riley had been in the vicinity for a while, and yet the kid was foot-loose and ready to leave on the spot with Colburn.

— On page 47, we learn that Riley rode the outlaw trail with the Colburn gang for two years. That makes him not more than eighteen when the main action starts. Yet, for the remainder of the novel, he acts, and is regarded as, a fully grown man. One of the characters, upon meeting Riley for the first time, judges that “This man had been up the creek and over the mountain—he was no average man.” (Page 22.) Moreover, he has somehow acquired expertise in ranching and cattle. (Pages 36, 106.) Where, when, and how Riley gained this knowledge is a mystery. Surely he didn’t get it from his pa when they were living on that little two-by-four place down on the Brazos, running a few cows. Incongruously, Riley has also acquired a prissy way of talking, at least around Marie. He goes from dropping his G’s for the first nine chapters of Dark Canyon to saying “shall” three times in the space of a half page in Chapter Ten; “I shall build the house,” “I shall send for as many as I can think of,” and “I shall want you here . . . always.”

Fact is, Gaylord Riley is a cipher. He saw his mother, then his father, killed by frontier violence, and he killed three men before he was sixteen. Following that, he fell in with a gang of robbers, who acted as his surrogate parents for two years. And yet, we get no sense whatsoever that Riley has paid a psychological price for all that trauma. Louis L’Amour heroes are a stoic lot as a rule, but Gaylord Riley seems to lack any humanity. We don’t expect a lot of feelings and emotions from L’Amour, but it’s hard to relate to someone with no emotional life at all. It’s as if L’Amour hung a bunch of leading-man attributes on a clothes rack and sent it out to perform, without bothering to hire a human to inhabit them.

The take-away? Dark Canyon is not a bad read, and true Louis L'Amour fans won't want to skip it, but if you want a better take on the noble outlaw theme, you might prefer the Gilbert and Sullivan version.

One last note on the text. By the time he wrote Dark Canyon, L’Amour was just getting started with the Sacketts. He wrote The Daybreakers in 1960 (the ur-text for the Sacketts), followed by Sackett in 1961, and Lando in 1962. Clearly, though, L’Amour already had big plans for the dynasty, because Tell Sackett makes a cameo in Dark Canyon, riding in to help Riley as a ranch hand on page 73, helping around the place for a few weeks, and then riding out again after the big shootout on page 140.

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