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Reilly's Luck (1970)

Reilly’s Luck was one of my favorite Louis L'Amour westerns when I was a boy, so I re-read it to see if it holds up as well as I remembered. Sure enough, it’s a terrific yarn, filled with great scenes and vivid writing; vintage L’Amour, at the height of his powers.

Reilly’s Luck traces the life of Val Darrant from the age of four to his early twenties. In the first pages, Val’s worthless mother foists him off on Will Reilly, an itinerant gambler. At first reluctant to take on the boy, Reilly ends up adopting Val and raising him on the road.

Although mentors abound in L’Amour’s westerns, there are surprisingly few real father figures. In Reilly’s Luck, L’Amour shows what he can do with a father-son relationship. Will Reilly is tough, he’s good-looking (“immaculate and coldly handsome” - page 7), he’s a jock (“a fine athlete, and an extremely fast foot-racer” - page 7), he’s attentive to Val, he teaches him life lessons, and he takes him on adventures. This, I suspect, is why I liked Reilly’s Luck so much as a boy. Will Reilly is the perfect substitute Dad. He even likes to sing. My favorite thing about him, though, is the wisdom that he dispenses as they ride along, part Polonius, part Ben Franklin, part Yoda. A few choice examples, from the many sprinkled throughout the first 70 pages of the book:

“I have always liked the feel of a good book. It’s like a gun. When a man opens a book or fires a gun he has no idea what the effect will be or how far the shot will travel.” Page 6.

“It is always a little further to the top than you think.” Page 13.

“Don’t just look out the window, Val. You must learn to see, and to remember.” Page 21.

“Don’t ever risk money on sympathy or anger.” Page 22.

“The cost of something is measured by your need of it.” Page 41.

The book meanders along for its first few chapters, tossing out sweets of this kind as Val grows up under Reilly’s wing and they travel across two continents. There’s a great scene outside of Innsbruck, where Reilly turns the tables on Prince Pavel, a rotten European aristocrat who tries to horsewhip Reilly over a romantic rivalry. I remember what a shock it was to me as a boy, then, to find the novel abruptly changing direction on page 64. Reilly is gunned down in front of Val, ambushed by three men as he leaves a restaurant. (Nice little detail: “ . . . he had no warning. Even so, in his reflex he cleared his gun from its holster.”) From that point on, the bildungsroman is over, and the book becomes a revenge story.

Val’s quest to find the three guys who killed Reilly—“his father, uncle, brother, friend, all these in one”- page 65—gives the rest of the novel an overall arc, but Louis takes his sweet time in bringing it home. Shortly after Reilly is killed, Val is wandering the plains of Texas and runs across the Bucklin family on page 79. They are heading from Virginia toward some likely rangeland out yonder. The Bucklins have two lovely daughters named Western and Boston. It’s pretty obvious what’s in store for Val, though we never quite learn why two were needed when one would suffice.

No matter the number of beautiful girls, there’s no time for romance just yet. Louis needs to unspool the yarn a bit first. Val outdraws the first of the varmints who killed Reilly on page 92, but then he heads East. Years pass. Pages flutter by. From pages 94 to 117, our hero has an adventure in St. Louis involving the salvage of a steamboat wreck, which, though entertaining, has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the novel. L’Amour made his first mark as a writer of short stories for adventure magazines. Could it be that he pulled an unpublished short story from the drawer and inserted it here? If so, why? It’s not as if Reilly’s Luck needs padding. It clocks in at 218 pages, which is pretty long for a Louis novel, leaving aside the endless drivel of his later years.

From St. Louis, Val goes on to New York, and acquires a law license along with further business and street smarts. Things finally get back on track on page 118, when Val comes into contact with his no-account mother, Myra. Like her son, Myra has risen in the world, though in her case by killing a series of rich husbands. It’s at this point that Louis throws a few too many balls in the air. We’re more than half way through the book, yet so far Val has only killed one of the three guys who murdered Will Reilly, not to mention their paymaster, who turns out to be Pavel, the aristocratic European cad whom Reilly humiliated and whipped (literally) back in Austria. There are, of course, also the Bucklin girls pining for Val out on the plains of Texas. And now, Val has to deal with his murderous old Ma, who can’t seem to leave well enough alone, and has teamed up with Prince Pavel to go after Val.

Too many balls in the air, it’s true, but clearly L’Amour is having a good time. He turns out a classic scene in which two would-be tough guys call out Val while he’s eating dinner. Val tells them he’s a magician, and to prove it he has them hold buckets of water against the ceiling with broomsticks, giving them to believe that he’s going to make the water disappear. Then he shucks their guns, sits down at the table, and makes his own dinner disappear, all the while making fools of the tough guys. It’s a great little set piece. No tie in to the plot, no blood on the sawdust, just L’Amour having fun with his story. Pages 134-36.

L’Amour also has more serious matters to cover. On page 151, you’ll find as concise a statement of Louis L’Amour’s worldview as anywhere in the canon. I quote at length:

“They knew that not all men are men of good will; they knew there was evil in the world, and stood strong against it. They knew that there were some who would take by force what they would not work to acquire. They knew, as Val did, that outside their windows waited hunger, thirst, and cold; that beyond their doors there were savage men, held in restraint only by a realization of another force ready to oppose them, to preserve the world they had built from savagery into order and peace, where each man might work and build and create without the threat of destruction.”

Great stuff, Louis! You are the man!

On we read, gobbling up the goodies that L’Amour throws our way. Bad guy number two gets the drop on Val, but his bullets are stopped by the book Val is holding, giving Val enough time to draw and return fire; a nice resonance with Reilly’s philosophizing on page 6, quoted above. The story twists and turns, but eventually everyone meets up in Colorado, where L’Amour labors to tie up all the loose ends. That’s a tall order, yet on pages 196-97 he actually adds three new hired gunmen to go after Val. Really, it’s just too late at this point to introduce a new squad of bad guys, especially when there are already plenty around. Still, Val gets his revenge on the last of Reilly’s killers, and there’s enough lead left over for the late-arriving bad guys, too. As we turn the last page, Val’s dear old mother and the European prince are still at large, but L’Amour is out of gas, and alas, he leaves those threads hanging.

L’Amour is always good at turning a phrase, and he’s at his best here. Reilly’s Luck is so full of bon bons for the L’Amour reader that we readily forgive him the book’s faults. In fact, it’s almost endearing to come across the inevitable continuity problems which seem endemic to L’Amour’s novels. Any decent editor would point these out, so if L’Amour didn’t bother to fix them then it could be that he just didn’t care. If so, who are we to question? I didn’t care when I was a kid; I didn’t even notice. Nonetheless, here are two, for the record:

— In chapter 1, Reilly and Val leave town in a hurry, in a borrowed buckboard. We get a lot of details about what Reilly manages to load into the buckboard before blowing town: “a couple of bedrolls and about a hundred rounds of .44’s” (page 9); four sets of warm clothes for the boy, and a warm coat and cap (page10); Reilly’s trunk, with the impressively large wardrobe we have already heard about, and a buffalo robe (page 11). They drive most of the day into the wilderness, until a snow storm forces them to take shelter with three outlaws in a remote cabin. Reilly and the boy spend the night, and then leave early the next morning. In gratitude to the outlaws, Reilly gives them: “a couple slabs of bacon, some frozen beef, maybe half a dozen cans of beans” (page 17), with Reilly noting apologetically that “We didn’t pack flour because we didn’t figure to have any place to bake.” Then, on page 18, Reilly throws in “a ten-pound sack of dried apples.” Very generous, but where did Reilly get all those groceries, in light of his hasty departure the morning before?

— After Reilly is gunned down, Val leaves town at once, and rides away to a remote cabin in the mountains of Colorado. “He kept to the back country, riding west and south. He avoided people . . . .” How is it, then, that Val manages to mail a packet of letters “the first morning after the killing”? Pages 68-69.

In Reilly’s Luck, L’Amour also indulges his penchant for celebrity cameos, to a greater degree, I’d bet, than in any other of his books:

— On page 39 we meet a boy Val’s age, introduced as “Billy, the son of the woman who kept the boarding house” in Silver City, New Mexico. Guess who it turns out to be? It’s Billy the Kid, as we find out when Val and the boy reconnect some fifteen years later. Fun, but pointless as far as the story goes. Pages 130-33.

— On page 57, our two protagonists go buffalo hunting with “a tall young man named Garrett . . . a good shot with a rifle.” Garrett plays no role in the plot, either, and never appears again. Oh, but wait! On page 131 we’re reminded that it was Pat Garrett who hunted down and eventually killed Billy the Kid. Ah, very subtle, Louis!

— On page 60, Val has a brief conversation with a pretty girl even younger than himself, who tells him she’s an actress, Maude Kiskadden. L’Amour had been doing some research, it seems. Maude Kiskadden started her life out West but ended it as Maude Adams, the leading Broadway actress of her day.

— Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous detective agency, gets a bit part, too, on pages 122-24. At least in this case, there’s a purpose. Myra is using him to dig up dirt and information on her marks.

Best of all, L’Amour combines his name-dropping with the the biggest continuity error in the book. On page 58, Reilly and Val meet up with “a tall man with long flowing hair to his shoulders, riding a magnificent black horse,” who introduces himself as Bill Hickok. Hickok, it turns out, is friends with Will Reilly: “Will had loaned him a horse one time when he had been badly in need of one.” Reilly and Val shoot the breeze with Wild Bill, and then: “Bill Hickok spent the night with them and rode on in the morning. That was the first and last time Val ever saw him.” Page 59. But no! On page 104, Val is down on his luck in St. Louis when he hears someone call his name. Val turns around, and—it’s Bill Hickok! It’s almost too good to be true.

Thanks for the stories, Louis, and a few laughs as well.

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