Updated: Feb 26, 2022
Killoe clocks in at fewer than 40,000 words, making it one of Louis L’Amour’s shortest novels. It came out in 1962, a year in which L’Amour published five new westerns, a feat he would never equal again. L’Amour was 54 when he wrote Killoe, having made a late start as a novelist—the western that first got him widespread notice, Hondo, was published when L’Amour was 45. By the time he got to Killoe, L’Amour was making up for lost time, writing at breakneck speed. Perhaps this is the reason the book works so well. It’s a Louis L’Amour western stripped down to the basic elements.
Killoe is the story of a cattle drive, with a hardy band of Texans heading to New Mexico in search of untouched country and open range. The year is 1858, making it a bit of an anomaly; most of L’Amour’s westerns are set after the Civil War. A road trip is a sturdy vehicle for an adventure narrative, and L’Amour throws all sorts of obstacles in the way of our settlers to keep things lively: rustlers, bandits, hostile Indians, stampedes, flash floods, and parched deserts. If it has a bit of a make-it-up-as-you-go feel, well, that’s no different from many of L’Amour’s books.
Killoe is written in the first-person voice of its title character, Dan Killoe. Like most L’Amour leading men, he’s tall, tough, young, and better at talking to cows than women. L’Amour could have tried for a bildungsroman, given that Killoe is only 23 when he hits the trail with his beloved Pa and needs to prove himself to the other settlers, but there isn’t much character development in the book. Killoe is already fully fledged. Instead, L’Amour opts to frame the dramatic tension around a sibling rivalry. Pa, you see, has another son, Tap Henry, whom he adopted when he married his second wife. This brother-from-another mother is seven years older than Killoe, “a reckless man with a taste for wild country and wilder living.” Tap is the one who gets them all moving westward, with his fine duds, his swaggering ways, and his stories of open country just a-waiting out yonder. We smell a rat right away, of course, and a few of the wiser heads on the cattle drive are skeptical about Tap as well. Everyone signs up, though, and off they ride for New Mexico, with 3,500 head of cattle.
Killoe has more than the average number of women for a Louis L’Amour. Some of his novels have exactly one, which obviously is the minimum. In Killoe, by contrast, the stage is practically crowded with women, five by my count. These include two mom’s on the cattle drive, Emma Stark and “Tim Foley’s wife.” It’s pretty pathetic that L’Amour couldn’t be bothered to find Ma Foley a first name, considering that she makes the whole trip to New Mexico. Then there’s Rose Sandy, also along for the cattle drive, but primarily there to create trouble for her husband and the single men on the journey: “Rose was a mighty pretty woman and she kept a good house, but she couldn’t keep her eyes off other men. Worst of all, she had what it took to keep their eyes on her, and she knew it.” (Page 13.)
And then there are the two romantic interests. We meet Karen Foley on page 8, and our introduction to her is: “Karen Foley came to stand beside me, her eyes watching Tap.” Ah, well done, Mr. L’Amour! How much is foreshadowed in that first sentence! Karen may be “the prettiest girl anywhere around,” and Killoe’s girl, sort of, but she’s got her eye on Tap. It’s a classic set-up; two brothers, one girl, and we know how it’s going to end. Karen will come around in the end to recognize that Killoe is the better man, despite Tap’s charisma, charm, nicer boots, etc. Will Killoe have to kill Tap in the final chapter, or will someone else do the job?
Except that’s not how it plays out. L’Amour swerves off his own well-beaten path. Tap gets the inside lane on Karen and never yields it. By page 42, Karen declares that she’s going to marry Tap. And Killoe’s reaction to this news? Pathetic: “I just drifted off, feeling a sort of ache inside me, and angry with myself for it.” He then indulges in a sour-grapes soliloquy that is completely out of character both for a young feller like Killoe and for L’Amour himself, who is much more at home with a written-in-the-stars approach to romance:
“Truth to tell, all folks dream, old and young, and they picture in their minds the girl or man they would like to love and marry. They dream great dreams and most of them settle for much less. Many a time a man and wife lie sleeping in the same bed, dreaming dreams that are miles apart and have nothing in common.” (Page 44.)
Wow, Louis, where did that come from? Not from your own life, I hope. By the time he wrote Killoe, L’Amour was just six years into his marriage to a much younger woman.
Be that as it may, between Karen Foley’s wandering eye and Killoe's world-weary philosophizing, the message is pretty clear: Killoe is better off without Karen. That means we need another love interest, but where is one to be found, now that the settlers have driven their 3,500 head of cattle out into the desolate plains of west Texas?
Never fear, L’Amour is up to the task. We start with a half-dead Mexican, Miguel Sandoval, who crawls into camp on page 36. Miguel is one tough dude. Killoe finds him passed out, covered in his own blood, with a knife in his hand, “gripped so hard we couldn’t get it loose.” He was out riding the country when the Comancheros found him and gave chase. Miguel killed two of them, but they eventually got a bullet into him. Then “I fell, they caught me with a rope and dragged me. I got out my knife and cut the rope and I took that man’s horse from him and rode . . . they pursued again. My horse was killed, but they did not catch me.” (Page 46.) From there, Miguel crawled with his knife across country, fending off wolves.
Miguel, in turn, leads Killoe to Conchita, Miguel’s sister by adoption. Killoe back tracks her horse and finds her alone, at a water hole, in the middle of nowhere. Improbable, yes, but here at last, on page 55, we meet the real love interest in the story. L’Amour starts Chapter Three with a fabulous description, a great sentence that pivots midway from girl to gun; a sentence that only Louis L’Amour could have written:
“She was young and she was lovely, and the sun caught and entangled itself in the spun red-gold of her hair, but the rifle in her hands was rock-steady, its muzzle an unwinking black eye that looked at my belt buckle.” (Page 55.)
That’s more like it, Louis! This redhead, like virtually all L’Amour heroines, can also shoot, rope and ride, and she joins the cattle drive. They are so busy with the cows, though, that there is little time for romance, let alone canoodling. Except, wait, what’s this on Page 105-06? “Standing up at last, I looked at Conchita and she rose too, and we walked back from the fire together. Miguel stood by his wagon, and when we passed him, he said, “Vaya con Dios.” Nicely done! It’s just 35 words, but Louis at least gives us a little for our imagination to work with.
The narrative core of the book is Chapter Four, where Killoe leads the settlers across a waterless, eighty mile stretch from the Concho River to the Pecos River in west Texas. This is L’Amour at his very best, as he describes the heat, dust, and weariness of the drive. For ten pages, Killoe drives the company to exhaustion, and L’Amour makes us feel every mile of it. Here’s a sample from Page 94, describing the last night of the crossing:
“The crimson and gold faded from the sky, the blues became deeper. There was a dull purple along the far-off hills, and a faint purplish tone to the very air, it seemed. We moved the remaining cattle into the darkening day, into the slow-coming night.
“Under the soft glory of the skies, they moved in a slow-plodding stream, heads down, tongues lolling and dusty. They moved like drunken things, drunken with exhaustion, dying on their feet of thirst, but moving west.
“The riders sagged wearily in their saddles, their eyes red-rimmed with exhaustion, but westward we moved. The shrill yells were gone, even the bawling of the cattle had ceased, and they plodded on through the utter stillness of the evening.”
And there is so much more to like about Killoe. The story rollicks along without any major plot or continuity gaps. The title character is pretty standard issue, but he has more depth to him than the average L’Amour leading man. He has a melancholy streak, as we already know from his musings about Karen Foley, and he has a self-awareness of his own violent nature that is rare for a L’Amour character. He describes it thus on Pages 127-28:
“There was in me a quality I had never trusted. . . . [D]eep within me there was a kind of fury that scared me. . . . It would mount and mount until I no longer thought clearly, but thought only of what must be done. When those furies were on me there was no fear in me, nor was there reason, or anything but the driving urge to seek out my enemies. . . . At such times I would become utterly ruthless, completely relentless. And I did not like it.”
It’s nice, too, to see L’Amour’s geography hang together so well, as we follow Killoe from river to river across Texas, to end up in the paradisiacal Mimbres Valley in New Mexico. Alas, faithful though he is to the geography, L’Amour is a bit looser on some of his history. To start, there are his exaggerations regarding the Comancheros, whom we are told were, in some cases, “worse than the Comanches themselves.” (Page 65.) Now, now, Mr. L’Amour, as you well know, no one was more worse than the Comanches. “Comancheros” was a term applied to traders, most of Hispanic ethnicity, who traded with the Native Americans in the Southwest before the U.S. military eradicated them or forced them onto reservations. The Comancheros lived in a gray zone of legality, but they were not primarily known for their ferocity. Nonetheless, L’Amour needs an antagonist for the second half of the book, and he conjures up a band of fifty or sixty Comancheros led by tough guy named Felipe Soto. It doesn’t really bear up under scrutiny, but let us grant L’Amour his novelistic license.
And if we let him go that far, we might as well give him a little more rein. The Comancheros are after our Mexican friend, Miguel, because he stumbled by accident across their secret hideaway, Palo Duro Canyon. Um, nope. While it is true that Palo Duro Canyon was a stronghold of the Comanches in west Texas, its location was no mystery. It had been mapped by the U.S. military in 1852, six years before our story is set.
But why quibble, when we can simply enjoy L’Amour’s story-telling? He distributes lovely little Easter eggs throughout the book for eager hunters. There are the random displays of knowledge, such as the pointless discourse on grinding corn on Page 15. And, on the same page, there’s the statement that the frontiersmen left fringes on the sleeves and pants legs of their homemade clothes not for ornamentation, but to drain the rain off faster. True or false? Who cares? The same goes for Page 69, when Louis tosses off the “fact” that when a rattlesnake is shedding its skin it won’t rattle, but it is short-tempered and will “strike at anything that moves.”
And there’s this terrific little tall tale, on Page 102, when one of the salty characters on the cattle drive says: “Reminded me of a time up on the Canadian when I was headed for Colorado. We ran into a dust storm so thick we could look up betwixt us and the sun and see the prairie dogs diggin’ their holes.”
For the credulous, there’s the claim on Page 33 that the call of an owl doesn’t echo. L’Amour also trotted this one out in Considine, written in the same year, but it’s hogwash. Like any other sound, an owl’s call will echo.
My favorite head-scratcher, though, comes before the story even begins, in the dedication, which reads:
To Bill Tilghman: Frontier Marshal
WHO SHOWED ME HOW IT WAS DONE
WITH A SIX-GUN
Bill Tilghman, as if you didn’t already know, was the real deal; a buffalo hunter, lawman, and gunfighter in the old west. Problem is, Tilghman lived out his years in Oklahoma and died in November 1924, at the age of 70, when Louis L’Amour was only sixteen. According to “The Official Louis L’Amour Website”, L’Amour lived the first fifteen years of his life in Jamestown, North Dakota, until hard times forced his family out on the road as itinerant workers. So, should we believe that a young L’Amour somehow met Tilghman and got a demonstration of six-gun prowess from the old legend? Well, if Louis and his family hit the road in 1923, and found their way to Oklahoma over the next year or so, they might have crossed paths with Tilghman. Moreover, Tilghman was on the stage and lecture circuit in the last years of his life, promoting his legend. Maybe Louis L’Amour made it to one of Tilghman’s lectures, and maybe Tilghman gave a demonstration with a pistol on stage, or afterward to a star-struck boy.
I like to think there must be a kernel of truth in it somewhere. If not, like Killoe, at least it makes a good story.