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Kilkenny (1954)

Updated: May 12

L’Amour published Kilkenny in 1954, shortly after his breakthrough with Hondo in 1953. Though Kilkenny was one of his earliest stand-alone novels, L’Amour had introduced the character of Lance Kilkenny seven years earlier, in a novella-length story entitled The Rider of Lost Creek, which was published in West magazine. In an earlier essay, I reported on The Rider of Lost Creek, and I assume familiarity with that essay here.

Kilkenny recounts our hero’s last campaign, after which he settles down with the love of his life, Nita Riordan, whom we met in The Rider of Lost Creek. In later years, L’Amour returned to the cast of characters he created in The Rider of Lost Creek and Kilkenny, and in the process created insurmountable problems for anyone who tries to construct a coherent timeline of Kilkenny’s adventures.

When looking at The Rider of Lost Creek, we noted several historical references that are internally inconsistent, making it impossible to pick a year for the story with any confidence. After considerable effort, we gave up the attempt, and loosely placed the action there somewhere between 1877 and 1880. Obviously, Kilkenny occurs after The Rider of Lost Creek, but how long after? In Kilkenny, L’Amour tells us that Kilkenny and Nita Riordan met again one year after the action in The Rider of Lost Creek, “in the cedar breaks of New Mexico where Kilkenny had been trying to establish a home” (though none of the stories L’Amour wrote later about Kilkenny makes any mention of this episode). L’Amour also tells us that Nita had been ranching in the area where Kilkenny occurs for about six months before the story gets under way. From these clues, we can deduce that at least two years must have passed since The Rider of Lost Creek, and perhaps more.

For purposes of our analysis of Kilkenny we ignore everything that happens in the stories that L’Amour wrote later. However, we should note that the action in The Mountain Valley War and Monument Rock would require at least two more years to elapse between The Rider of Lost Creek and Kilkenny. Ignoring L’Amour’s later stories, and using just what we have in Kilkenny, let us estimate that about three years have passed since The Rider of Lost Creek. We might then say that Kilkenny occurs sometime between 1880 and 1883—but for one further discrepancy. The action in Kilkenny opens with our man visiting Clifton House in New Mexico as the Barlow & Sanderson Stage rolls through. A bit of research reveals that Tom Stockton built Clifton House in 1867, and that Barlow & Sanderson used it as a stage stop in the 1870s. Alas for our timeline, stage service at Clifton House ceased in 1879. In other words, this historical reference in Kilkenny simply compounds the problems created in The Rider of Lost Creek. Ah, well; if L’Amour didn’t bother to get it right, then I suppose we shouldn’t try to fix the problems for him.

The action in Kilkenny occurs over the course of about three weeks, in and around the fictional town of Horsehead in southwestern Utah. Horsehead is a product of L’Amour’s imagination, but the geography around it is real. Helpfully, the book includes a map created by Alan and William McKnight, who did maps for several other L’Amour westerns including the 1976 re-write of The Rider of Lost Creek. Using the map as a reference we are able to follow the movements of the characters with considerable precision. A careful reader will note discrepancies between the text and the map in a handful of places; L’Amour occasionally sends a character riding off in the opposite direction of his objective, if the map is to be believed. After flipping back and forth between the text and the map while puzzling over these discrepancies, I realized that the timetable and action hang together better if you treat the map rather than the text as correct, and ascribe the errors to sloppiness on L’Amour’s part. On the other hand, L’Amour is not the only sloppy one: the map contains a mis-spelling in its reference to “countour interval 400 feet.” (It is worth a passing mention that L’Amour set his 1963 novel Dark Canyon in the same general vicinity, a few miles north of the action in Kilkenny.)

Kilkenny has come to this god-forsaken country, using his usual alias of “Trent,” trying to escape his reputation as a gunfighter so that he can devote himself to a quiet life of ranching. No such luck. As L’Amour writes in The Rider of Lost Creek, “sooner or later his past always seemed to catch up with him,” and Kilkenny’s past has followed him to Horsehead via three separate trails. First, he’s instantly recognized by a character in town named Dolan, who came across Kilkenny in the Civil War. Second, as noted above, about six months before Kilkenny rides into the country, his old flame Nita Riordan established a ranch a few miles outside of town—a coincidence that L'Amour makes no effort to explain. And third, there’s Jared Tetlow. Kilkenny barely has time to build a rough ranch house up in the mountains before Tetlow rides into the country with an army of fifty toughs and over ten thousand head of cattle. It’s a land grab, with Tetlow aiming to squeeze out the small fry, including Nita and Kilkenny, and the ensuing clash drives the plot. By another stupendous coincidence, in the first three pages of the book, and three hundred miles away at the Clifton House, Kilkenny was obliged to gun down Tetlow’s youngest son because the whelp was rash enough to draw on Kilkenny. It’s no surprise, then, that within two days of Tetlow’s arrival in Horsehead, Kilkenny’s alias is blown.

Is there anything Kilkenny can’t do? We learned in The Rider of Lost Creek that Kilkenny is a a top hand, a “damn good straight-up bronc rider, and a good hand with a rope.” We also learned that he’s done some freighting, rode shotgun on a stage, worked as a lumberjack, and has a college education. Now, in Kilkenny, we also find out that Kilkenny can track, he can build a stone house, and in a fight for survival in the desert “there was no trick of white man or savage that he did not know.” He out-maneuvers Tetlow at every turn. No one ever gets the drop on him. He never makes a mistake, never misses a shot. He whips three of Tetlow’s men with his fists in a single encounter, barely breaking a sweat. (He throws one of them over his back with a “flying mare,” a move that L’Amour uses repeatedly in his fight scenes. For a full discussion, see my essay on The Daybreakers (1960).) Of course, we already knew that Kilkenny is “probably the fastest man in the West with a gun.” His Civil War record, though, is harder to pin down. In The Rider of Lost Creek (1976 version) he was a dispatch rider for the Union Army, but in Kilkenny we hear that he finished the war with the rank of Major and led men in combat.

L’Amour is usually content to describe his heroes with a sentence or two, typically involving height, weight, and strength. In The Rider of Lost Creek we learn that KIlkenny is tall and Irish, he wears black clothes and two tied-down guns, he has a lean, brown face and green eyes, and his curly black hair is covered by a flat-crowned black hat. Pretty standard stuff. But in Kilkenny, L’Amour fetishizes the man. Over and over we hear about Kilkenny’s physique and appearance: “He was a green-eyed man wearing a flat-crowned, flat-brimmed black hat, black shirt and chaps.” “His hair was black and curly. He was a lean, powerfully built man.” “He was a tall man, well over six feet, with wide shoulders, thick and powerfully shaped. His hips were lean and his waist small. When he walked, it was less the rider’s walk than the woodsman’s.” “Tall, quiet man with the brown face and the easy smile.” “The way he smiled, the way the laugh wrinkles came faintly at the corners of his eyes, eyes long accused to squinting against desert suns. She remembered the quick way he walked, the strong brown hands, the way his green eyes could grow cold—although they had never grown cold when they looked at her.” “He was like an edged blade, sharp, clean, and strong, yet resilient.” Did we mention that he is tall? In the first three pages, L’Amour describes Kilkenny as “tall” or “the tall man” nine times. As for his age, per our analysis in The Rider of Lost Creek, Kilkenny was somewhere in his thirties at the time of that tale. Adding a few years for the passage of time, and taking into account the new fact that Kilkenny rose to the rank of Major in the Civil War, he could be as old as forty by the time of Kilkenny.

Speaking of appearances, let’s get another look at Nita Riordan. She receives a great introduction in The Rider of Lost Creek, and we get more in Kilkenny, where she is described as “Spanish and Irish, and beautiful. All woman, too, but but one who can take care of herself. She handles a pistol like a man, and a Winchester, too.” “A tall girl with long green eyes and very black lashes.” “Tall, lissome, her skin a beautiful olive.” Sounds good to me, though I don’t know what “long green eyes” are. As for her age, L’Amour told us in The Rider of Lost Creek that Nita was twenty-four, and several years have passed since then.

We didn’t get any physical contact between Kilkenny and Riordan in The Rider of Lost Creek, and in Kilkenny L’Amour keeps the two apart for the first 76 pages, but when they get together it’s pretty heady stuff.

Her eyes widened a little, and her lips parted, he could see the sudden hunger in her eyes, and he stepped toward her, half-frightened by the feeling that shook him. Roughly, he took her arms and pulled her to him and she reached hungrily for his lips and they melted together and deep within him something seemed to well up and the cold dams across his feelings were gone.

That qualifies as smoking hot stuff for a Louis L’Amour Western. Dare we guess what it was that welled up within him? And note the writing; L’Amour favors short sentences, and he tends to punctuate his longer sentences with commas or double-dashes. But in the passage quoted above, he drops the punctuation and he gives us a long, almost run-on sentence of thirty-nine words, all but eight of which are single syllables. L’Amour knew what he was doing, and we tip our hat to him for channeling Hemingway and Joyce. And then, when they break their clinch, we get a terrific speech from Nita as she counters his argument that a gunfighter’s life can end at any moment.

“I know it may not be long, and yet it may be forever. Who knows how long it is for anyone. All of us, all over the world, all of us walk along a thin edge between life and death and it takes so little for us to fall. It isn’t tomorrow I want unless it comes. It’s today, Lance! We women, we don’t have so much imagination about some things. We’re realistic. You think about what it may mean to me tomorrow, if I lose you. I think about what it means today, if I don’t have you.” He looked at her and tried to find words and there were none. He watched her lips, the rise of her high breasts as she spoke, the wetness of her lips.

High breasts? Wet lips? Be still my teenage heart! It’s not often that we hear about breasts from L’Amour. Of the books we have looked at so far, the only reference that come close is in Considine, where we hear that Lennie’s “blouse was a bit too small for her.” But Kilkenny was only L’Amour’s second Western novel, and up to that point he had made his living as a writer for pulp magazines, where perhaps breasts were more the thing. We could use more of this, but that’s all there is, unless you count the smooch on the last page.

Instead, what we get is gun smoke and a high body count. I counted at least eighteen dead, though Kilkenny himself only accounts for six. That’s about one dead man per day during the course of the action, but then, as is usually the case with L’Amour, there are men to spare. Kilkenny has three women with speaking roles and two others who are named or noted but who are little more than bystanders. As for men, I counted thirty-four with names and/or speaking roles, though that is an undercount if you consider unnamed men who ride and die at various points.

With two exceptions, all of the characters are white. The first is Nita Riordan herself. She is half Mexican and sometimes speaks in L’Amour’s cringe-inducing Mexican dialect, but she effectively passes as white. The second is Nita’s ranch foreman, Jaime Brigo, whom we met in The Rider of Lost Creek, where he was described as “A big Yaqui half-breed who can sling a gun as fast as the Brockmans, track like a bloodhound, and is loyal as a Saint Bernard.” We get more of the same in Kilkenny. “More than fifty years of age, the Yaqui possessed the strength of a gorilla, the devotion of a dog, and the cunning of a wolf.” “He was an educated man, but beneath the knowledge he possessed he was first, last, and always an Indian, a Yaqui. He was basically still a savage.” Yes, the only non-white character in The Rider of Lost Creek and Kilkenny is a “half-breed” who is likened to various animals and is “still a savage.” Louis L’Amour was a product of his time (as are we all), and he perpetuated stereotypes of Native Americans that were useful to our national myth-making and helpful in selling pulp fiction. Perhaps the best we can say is that L’Amour never treated Native Americans with pity or contempt; they are always portrayed as tough warriors and proud people, superior to the whites in their ability to survive in the deserts and wildernesses of the West.

In The Rider of Lost Creek we also met Cain Brockman, but there he was one of Kilkenny’s enemies; Kilkenny gunned down his brother, Abel, and beat up Cain in an epic saloon fight. Something has happened in the intervening years, though, because by the time the action in Kilkenny occurs, Brockman is working for Nita and is a loyal member of the retinue. L’Amour offers no explanation in Kilkenny of what brought about this change of heart, other than a cryptic conversation in which Kilkenny says that “Cain was never bad, it was just that he followed Abel’s lead. That was a good job I did, killing him. A good job for Cain if for no one else.” To which Nita replies, “He thinks so, too. And he says you were the only person who ever treated him decently, and the only one who could ever handle him.” Not until 1978, in The Mountain Valley War, does L’Amour give a fuller explanation of Cain’s conversion (which we will cover in a later essay).

As usual, many of L’Amour’s other characters are stereotypes. Most of L’Amour’s bad guy gunslingers are skinny little chaps, and Dee Havalik is no exception. At first we hear that Havalik is “unassuming in appearance,” but “deadly as a rattler and blurred lightning with a gun.” L’Amour soon forgets about the unassuming appearance, though, and fills in the description. Havalik is “a wiry man, slender and gray-faced. His eyes seemed to be almost white.” “Small, slender-boned and pinched of face, he was a man compact of nervous energy and drive. Far from pleasant at any time, with a gun in his hand he became ice cold and passionless.” And then there’s “that flat, ugly mouth, the cold chill of that still gray face, the viciousness of the man’s eyes.” Despite how fast both Kilkenny and Havalik are on the draw, the final shootout takes place with the two of them stalking each other in a wagon yard, guns in hand. It’s satisfying nevertheless. Havalik may be a skinny little guy, but he’s tough, and Kilkenny has to put six bullets into him before he dies.

Then there’s the town doctor, Doc Blaine. He is “tall, undeniably handsome, forty, of mysterious background, usually drunk, but without a doubt, gossip had it, the best surgeon west of the Rio Grande.” (Compare those seven commas, tightly spaced, to L’Amour’s description of the clinch between Kilkenny and Nita quoted above.) After one half-hearted joke at the start of Chapter Three, L’Amour drops all references to Blaine’s drinking, and instead employs him whenever L’Amour has something to say or needs a spare hand to drive the action. At one point, Blaine delivers a nice little panegyric to Kilkenny, but it is obviously L’Amour himself speaking. “Your type has drifted up and down the world since it began. The lone hunter, the man on the prowl, the fighter for lost causes, the man who understands weapons better than women and understands women quite well. Yes, I know your type. They sailed with Drake, they built the Hudson Bay Company. They were the backbone of the free companies of the Middle Ages. . . . Your type fights the wars of the world and gets nothing from it but a lonely grave somewhere and the memory in the minds of a few men who die and then there is nothing.”

In a nice little twist, and despite his age, Blaine winds up with the only other unmarried woman in the story, Laurie Webster, niece of the town lawyer, and who gets the three key descriptors: she is young, she is beautiful, and, like just about everyone else on the side of righteousness in Kilkenny, she is tall. Given that we like Blaine, and recognize him as L’Amour’s mouthpiece, we are jolted out of our seat when he says at one point: “The cause of right is never lost. . . . Take Andy Johnson. They hated him, called him a little man, reviled him, tried to impeach him to get the presidency in the hands of a man they could control. He voted as he believed right and acted as he believed. Now the reaction is setting in and most people believe he was right. This is a good cause, not a lost one.” Seriously? Praise for Andrew Johnson? The alcoholic, disgraced, and impeached successor to President Lincoln, who shamefully worked to unravel Reconstruction after the Civil War? Is it possible that L’Amour saw Johnson as admirable? If so, the timing is particularly jarring, given that Kilkenny was published in the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, which signaled the end of decades of legally-sanctioned segregation.

L’Amour’s style, plot points, and characters were fully developed, or nearly so, by the time he wrote Kilkenny, even though it is only his second stand-alone Western novel. Authorial flourishes and phrases which would become hallmarks of his novels are already present in Kilkenny. We have his name-dropping (Clifton House, Andrew Johnson, Wyatt Earp, Sir Francis Drake, the Hudson Bay Company, and the rest), his use of stampedes and flash floods to spruce up the action, and his romantic description of western landscapes. And, sure enough, we hear again L’Amour refer to Nita Riordan as “A girl to walk beside a man, and with him, not behind him.” We learn that you never look right into the campfire at night because then you can’t see what is going on in the surrounding darkness. We hear that in the West (at least in Louis L’Amour’s West) "few men would risk bothering a woman. It was the one thing the frontier would not accept.” Two different characters are described as “huge” yet “moving like a cat” or “moving with the ease of a big cat”—a simile that L’Amour would return to over and over. And how many times in his novels do L’Amour’s characters ride into dusty little towns to find that the food in the local restaurant is superb, as in the case of the Westwater Saloon in Horsehead, which serves food that “would have favored any cafe in Paris.”

And, as always, we find a few plot inconsistencies to enjoy. We’ve already noted how Doc Blaine’s drinking disappears in Chapter Three. Also in Chapter Three, Kilkenny rides out of town towards his home in the mountains at night, yet wakes up the next morning in the town hotel. On page 63, Blaine learns Kilkenny’s true identity from the town sheriff, but by page 70 he is reporting that he heard it from Dolan. And we wonder where Jared Tetlow got the idea, money, and motivation to drive ten thousand head of cattle up from Texas into the Utah desert.

Clearly, there is something about the character of Lance Kilkenny that appealed to L’Amour, for he wrote four novels and two short stories featuring him. In each story, Kilkenny is an enigmatic transient, usually going by the alias “Trent,” who is trying to shed his reputation as a gunfighter, but who always winds up in a scrap on behalf of the little guy. Supposedly, Kilkenny is known throughout the West by reputation, yet he is so mysterious that almost no one can give an accurate description of him; a conceit that is hard to sustain, given Kilkenny’s distinctive appearance, his large retinue, and the number of people who wind up involved in his adventures. Still, Kilkenny is a character we are happy to revisit, for he is the archetypical Louis L’Amour leading man, and he is squarely within the tradition of the Lone Ranger, Zorro, Spiderman, Batman, and any number of other mysterious serial heroes. Kilkenny will ride again!

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1 Comment

Harry Walsh
Harry Walsh
May 12

And there are six "ands" in the hugging paragraph!

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