Kiowa Trail (1964)
Louis L’Amour is in fine form with “Kiowa Trail,” published in 1964. The elasticity of time is the underlying theme, and the number three is the motif.
There is so much to like in this 161-pager. L'Amour sets up the main conflict in the first chapter, but as the tale unfolds he deftly takes us through a series of flashbacks to illuminate his main character's history and character.
Kiowa Trail features one of the strongest female characters in all of the L’Amour canon: Kate Lundy, who first appears on page 2 driving an old army ambulance and shooting a buffalo gun. (Start counting--she is romantic interest number one.) Among L’Amour heroines, some might prefer Evie Teale in “Conagher,” or even poor doomed Ange Sackett, but it’s only a matter of taste. Kate Lundy is the real deal when it comes to ass-kicking frontier women, and she has a tragic past to boot.
In the main plot line, Kate's outfit is badly treated by the townspeople when they drive a herd up from Texas to the railhead in Kansas. The Lundy outfit takes its revenge by encircling the town with barbed wire, blockading it and sentencing it to economic death. That may seem like a harsh penalty, but doggone it, the town started it, when the locals gunned down one of Kate's cowboys because he had the temerity to call on the snotty daughter of a town bigwig. (Romantic interest number two, though never much competition for Kate.)
As the main revenge story plays out on the Kansas plains, we gradually learn about the leading man. Kiowa Trail is written in the first person voice of Conn Dury, and he comes with an impressive back story. He was captured by the Apaches at nine years of age and lived among them for three years (right, three), escaped back to the Texans at age twelve, and was adopted by James Sotherton for the next three years (yep, three).
James Sotherton is one in a long line of mentors in Louis L’Amour's novels. This stock character appears in many incarnations, always taking the leading man under his wing and helping him come of age. Often this includes a leavening of book learning, as is the case here. Sotherton, it turns out, is an English aristocrat who somehow got himself to Texas and fell in love with the country. Alas, after three years on his homestead, three (uh-huh) hombres kill Sotherton while Conn is checking on a water hole. So, naturally, Conn (now fifteen), takes after them. He dispatches two in short order, but the third one has “dropped from sight.” Ah, such a subtle plant! Get ready for a shock when this loose thread reappears many years later, choking in the dust in the final shoot-out.
Sotherton is dead, but Conn catches a lucky break from a second mentor, an Army officer named Edwards. Edwards gets Conn (sixteen, now) in touch with Sotherton’s family back in England. Before long, Conn crosses the pond for a few years; do I need to say how many? The Sothertons pay for his education at a tony prep school, then treat him to a Grand Tour of Europe, with James Sotherton's elderly father appearing briefly as yet another mentor. It's not easy to cram three mentors into one short novel, but three is the magic number.
There’s also a whiff of romance in the English countryside, in the form of a Sotherton niece who meets Conn at the train station and hangs around in the background during his stay. Sadly, Louis lets us down in this department. Conn and Felicia never get anything going. All we ever hear from Conn is that “I had had little enough luck at impressing her, and I had wanted to, very much.” Why even put the little heart-breaker in the story, then? Could it be that L’Amour was trying too hard to bring the number of romantic interests in the story up to three?
Anyway, Conn gets his English education, beats up the bully at the prep school, and comes home to the United States at nineteen, just in time to fight in the Civil War under mentor number two, Captain Edwards. Only after the war does Conn finally meet up with the awesome Kate Lundy, arriving at her Texas ranch moments after the Apaches have killed her husband and moments before they are about to do the same to her.
Kate Lundy is a tragic figure, marooned on the Texas frontier, her husband buried up yonder on a small knoll under a gnarled and ancient mesquite tree. Conn sticks around to help her out for a while, and somehow never leaves. Years pass, and the ranch thrives, but their relationship is stuck in Platonic mode. Why? Do we really need a deep psychological analysis? No. Louis L’Amour is not about psychology, he is about action. What we need, then, is a war with a Kansas cattle town to ignite the romance. Fair warning, though; Conn and Kate are so busy fighting their enemies that they never actually clinch, unless you count applying a field dressing to a wounded arm. About as amorous as it gets is page 132, when Kate says “Conn, that’s the second time you’ve told somebody that I was your woman,” and he replies “The third.” Oh, the threes!
It isn’t until page 139 that we get the last fragment of Conn's back story. This is well-crafted writing by Louis L'Amour, slipping back and forth from past to present, with time expanding and contracting. Give the man his due.
But it all breaks down, I’m sorry to say, in Chapter 9. A good writer can make time stand still for the reader in a figurative sense, but he shouldn’t do it literally. Chapter 8 ends with Conn pacing through the night like Alexander at Gaugamela, trying to come up with a plan for his next long-odds battle with the forces arrayed against him. As Chapter 9 starts, “The last stars hung in the sky.” Okay, pacing through the night, last stars hanging in the sky, it’s got to be almost morning, right? Indeed, L’Amour confirms this, when he tells us that a train stops and “Men descended to the platform, stretching and looking around, men heavy from their uncomfortable sleep.” Just before dawn, then. Got it. Conn and his buddies lay a trap, capture fifty men without firing a shot, leave the prisoners under guard in the stables, and turn their horses loose on the prairie. An hour or two of work, at most. Time for breakfast.
But no. Instead, Conn's crew immediately heads out for their next battle, and here's the problem. “We drove far into the night," writes L'Amour. "As we had started late, the moon was already low . . . .” Wait a minute: is he saying that it's still night? The reader scratches his head and reads on, and, sure enough, an entire night of riding and fighting ensue. No amount of textual analysis or fan-boy indulgence can clear up this problem. It’s pretty obvious that L’Amour forgot what time it was part of the way through Chapter 9, and went straight from daybreak to night, without any intervening day.
Oh, Louis, what happened? You were doing so well! And where the hell was your editor?