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Sackett (1961)

We first meet the Sacketts in The Daybreakers, Louis L’Amour’s 1960 tale of two brothers who leave the hills of Tennessee to seek their fortunes in the west. With Sackett, L’Amour gives us his second novel about the clan, and many more will follow. The main action takes place in 1875, about two years after the end of The Daybreakers.

The title character and first-person narrator is William Tell (call me “Tell”) Sackett, older brother to Orrin and Tyrel of The Daybreakers and, if anything, an even tougher hombre. Many of L’Amour’s heroes are big lugs, but Tell Sackett might be the biggest lug of them all. His self-description: “I stand six feet and three inches in my sock feet, when I have socks, and weigh one hundred and eighty pounds, most of it crowded into chest and shoulders, muscled arms, and big hands. No getting around it, I was a homely man. Over-tall and mighty little meat, with a big-boned face like a wedge. There was a an old scar on my cheekbone from a cutting scrape in New Orleans. My shoulders were heavy with muscle, but a mite stooped."

For all of Tell Sackett’s heft, the novel itself is light-weight, clocking in at just 155 pages. It’s a good, breezy read, though, with plenty of entertaining sidetracks and off-the-cuff yarns to fill column space. The first chapter is L’Amour in top form. Sackett kills a bottom-dealing card sharp named Bigelow on the first page, and before the chapter is over he’s driven cattle from Texas to Montana, engaged in a horse-trade with an Indian “with a long, sad face and eyes like an old wore-out houn’dog,” and told the story of how he met General Grant during the Civil War. (Grant stops by to admire Sackett’s sharp-shooting while Sackett was “keeping three Rebel guns out of action, picking off gunners like a ‘possum picking hazelnuts.”) We also learn that Sackett can’t read, that he’s a lousy singer, and the origin of the phrase “lighting a shuck.”

And oh, how Louis loves to drop names. In and out of Chapter One comes Nelson Storey, owner of the cattle that Tell helps drive to Montana. Sure enough, a Google search tells us that Story (L’Amour’s spelling is off by one letter) led the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana, in 1866, and in time he became a big wheel in Montana history. L’Amour doesn’t actually say that Sackett was on that first cattle drive, nor would that make sense in the chronology of the novel, but it’s a nice a touch. Story would be well-pleased, having not only worked his way into L’Amour’s novel, but also served as the historical inspiration for one of the greatest westerns ever written, Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry.

L’Amour is like a great jazz pianist who sits down and wanders around the keyboard, playing fragments of various melodies, before settling on the main tune. And we’re the rapt audience, eating it up, knowing we’re in good hands. Sure enough, just as Chapter One ends, L’Amour finds his tune, with “And then we came upon the ghost of a trail.”

And so the yarn begins. Tell follows the trail up into the San Juan mountains of Colorado, somewhere above Vallecitos Creek north of Durango. There, Tell finds gold in a high, hidden valley discovered long ago by Spanish explorers. With the climax of the story in mind, L’Amour gives a detailed description of the valley and its troublesome access. To get there, you go up the mountain, across a pass, and past an alpine lake. Then you follow the waterfall out of the lake through a narrow defile down about a thousand feet, and there you are. Snow, ice, flash floods, and the rest risk cutting off the valley entirely. In time, upon further exploration, Tell discovers that it is also just possible to get back to the Vallecitos valley by climbing a sheer rock face, crossing over a high ridge, and scrambling down, down a steep mountainside to the valley below.

Tell reckons that his ghost of a trail hasn’t been used, or the valley visited, in maybe 300 years. But it turns out he’s wrong, for soon enough someone starts stealing his food, and Tell finds the tracks of “a child or a small woman.” Sackett is puzzled, but he’s more interested in the gold. So, ignoring the obvious sign that there’s girl nearby, Tell gathers up a small poke using crude tools, then rides down to Mora, New Mexico, to visit his family and buy a full complement of mining supplies. Sackett laments that women never shown any interest in him, other than his dear old Ma, but could he be more clueless, leaving the valley without checking on the girl who is stealing his food?

Tell visits his family and gets his mining supplies, and before long he is riding back to Colorado with the family sidekick, Cap Roundtree, in tow. But his shopping spree has generated speculation about his gold strike, and he is followed by an assortment of lowlifes, including members of the Bigelow family bent on revenge. Notwithstanding the need for haste and secrecy, Tell and Roundtree take their time getting back to Colorado, passing through one town after another. Among other stops, they visit San Luis, Colorado, and go into Salazar’s store. A quick Google search confirms that such an establishment existed at the time, and that the Salazars of San Luis, Colorado, have thrived in the area for generations. L’Amour could not have known, when he wrote Sackett in 1961, that there was a six-year old member of the Salazar clan who would grow up to be a United States Senator, Cabinet Secretary, and Ambassador to Mexico—Ken Salazar.

Eventually, Tell and Cap make their way back to the San Juans. Tell leaves Cap down by the Vallecitos and heads up to the high mountain valley alone for more gold. This time, he follows the tracks and finds a girl in a cave, near death from sickness and starvation. She is Ange Kerry, “a young girl, a little thing” with “a great mass of red-gold hair,” who has been left to fend for herself in the wilderness after her grandfather died from a rockslide injury. They’d come into the mountains hunting the same gold. Sackett nurses Ange back to health, and after a week they head back down to the valley. In the meantime, upwards of forty people have arrived to start a town, following the scent of gold that Tell and Cap laid down. As Tell and Ange near the settlement, Sackett matter-of-factly guns down two men who ambush them. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, but Ange is a bit more squeamish, and for a while this puts their relationship on pause.

The summer passes, Tell cleans up the town the way a Sackett knows best, and with winter coming on he rides up to the high mountains for one more load of gold. On his first night there, an ice storm followed by a blizzard cuts off his return. Meanwhile, a handful of bad guys have kidnapped Ange and forced her to lead them to the gold, and they’re snowed in, too. It’s a classic set-up; the main protagonists are trapped by the weather in close proximity to a passel of bad guys. When I first read Sackett as a teenager, I was riveted by Tell’s heroics, as he fends off the bad guys, and rescues both Ange and a bad guy with a broken leg by taking them, literally, “up the creek and over the mountain” in a blinding snowstorm. Ecce homo!

The rescue accomplished, L’Amour wraps up the story briskly, though there’s time for one more gunfight. To borrow a line from the movie Romancing the Stone, “If there was one law of the west: Bastards had brothers, who seem to ride forever.” We've heard all along about the vengeance-bound Bigelows, and the last and baddest of the Bigelows is waiting for Tell in the local saloon when he comes off the mountain. In a typical display of Sackett family loyalty, Orrin and Tyrel come riding to help when they hear of Tell’s troubles, but they get there too late. Tell killed the first of the Bigelows on page one, and he kills the last of them on the final page, minutes before Orrin and Tyrel arrive.

Thus ends the tale, but there are many Sackett novels to come from L’Amour, so we must pay close attention to certain characters and themes. Tell Sackett was mentioned in The Daybreakers, and is a character that L’Amour will return to many times in his novels, as a main protagonist, as an ensemble actor, and as a bit player. He is L’Amour’s archetype; tough, loyal, lethal, hard-working, droll, philosophical, stoic.

As for Cap Roundtree, we met him in The Daybreakers as well, and he is an important recurring character in the Sackett saga. I have separately published a compendium of information about Roundtree gleaned from The Daybreakers and Sackett, and I’ll add to it as I comment on other novels in which he appears.

Another recurring character is Sackett’s mother, known only as “Ma.” We already know from The Daybreakers that she’s tough, smokes a pipe, and likes her rocking chair. In Sackett we also find out that she is “some crippled by rheumatism.” Given the way L’Amour describes her, I’ve always pictured Ma as Whistler’s Mother, who was sixty-seven when she sat for the famous portrait. But how old could Ma really be, after all? We know from The Daybreakers that Ma had five sons, and that in 1867 the middle one, Tyrel, was eighteen. Tell is the oldest of the Sackett boys, and just shy of twenty-eight in 1875, when Sackett takes place. That would make him twenty in 1867, just two years older than Tyrel. We also know that Orrin is the second son, so he had to be squeezed in between Tell and Tyrel. Putting it together, this means Ma must have given birth to Tell, Orrin, and Tyrel at roughly one year intervals, in 1847, 1848, and 1849. Then she had two more boys after Tyrel, per The Daybreakers. If we assume that they were born at two year intervals, that would make the youngest son born about 1853. With this information, we can bracket Ma’s age. If Ma had her last son when she was forty years old, it would give her year of birth as 1813. Coming at it from the other end, if Ma had her first son, Tell, when she was young, say, twenty-one, that would give her year of birth as 1826. Using those years as outer boundaries, it puts Ma’s age at somewhere between forty-nine and sixty-two at the time of Sackett. Hard living will age anyone prematurely, and rheumatism can strike at any age, but Ma isn’t necessarily as old as L’Amour might lead us to believe.

One of the great pleasures in reading Louis L’Amour novels is the hunt for oddities and idiosyncrasies. Some have breath-taking continuity gaps. There are no massive inaccuracies or inconsistencies in Sackett, but the water gets murky if you dive too deeply into questions of age and chronology, as the previous paragraphs suggests. Tell Sackett turns twenty-eight in the summer of 1875, which means he was just seventeen when the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865. Yet there he was, potting Rebel soldiers with General Grant looking on. The minimal age to enlist in the Union Army was eighteen, although there were plenty of under-age soldier in the Union Army. Still, to be a combat veteran at the age of seventeen is a stretch, even for Tell Sackett, who says that “We Sacketts had begun carrying rifles as soon as we stood tall enough to keep both ends off the ground.”

We also are attuned to L’Amour’s descriptions of his heroines, and broadly to his treatment of women in his novels. We don’t learn much about Ange Kerry’s physical appearance other than that she is small and young, and has all that red-gold hair. She’s feisty, though, and tough. She survived on her own for months up in that high mountain valley, and when it’s time to come down off the mountain in a blizzard, Tell acknowledges that “She was little, but mighty lithe and strong when it came right down to it.” As for treatment of women in general, L’Amour’s writing is, to use as the current argot, strongly gender-confirming. Here a few choice passages from Sackett: “It’s a comforting thing to hear a woman about tinkling dishes, and stepping light, and looking pretty.” “Drusilla had been raised right. She had a mug of steaming coffee before Cap and me as soon as we set down to table.” “Drusilla looked slim and pretty as a three-month-old fawn, her eyes big and dark and warm.” “No man can shape his life according to woman’s thinking. Nor should any woman try to influence a man toward her way. There must be give and take between them, but when a man faces a man’s problems he has to face them a man’s way.”

L’Amour was writing in the 1960s, in a specific genre for a specific audience, so we aren’t really surprised by his use of terms and stereotypes. Indians are Indians, not Native Americans, and come in for heavy stereotyping, but at least L’Amour treats them with respect, especially for their skill and bravery in battle, and their knowledge of their natural surroundings. For a passage that lays out some of L’Amour’s views about Native Americans at length—too long to reproduce here—see Pages 55-56. Likewise, Mexican-Americans are usually minor characters, salted in for local flavor. As is often the case, these are model minorities, toward whom L’Amour takes a slightly condescending tone. Sackett doesn’t have much in this regard, other than the afore-mentioned Salazars, but we do get a brief interaction with Esteban and Tina Mendoza, a couple who take in Tell and Cap for the night and favor us with phrases such as “It is my hoosband, Esteban,” and “there is much trouble.”

As for L’Amour’s signature turns of phrase, Sackett has plenty. We’ve already captured a few above, including “lighting a shuck,” “six feet and three inches in my sock feet, when I have socks,” and “up the creek and over the mountain.” Here are a few others:

I was feeling spooky as an eight-year-old at a graveyard picnic in the evening.

I came out of those blankets like an eel out of greased fingers.

Tyrel was hell on wheels with a pistol.

Tell: "Trouble is, no woman in her right mind would marry a fool, and I’m certainly one." Ange: "A lot you know about women. Did you ever see a fool who didn’t have a wife?"

You have to hit a man right through the heart, through the head, or on a big bone to stop him if he’s mad.

And, finally . . . There was a faint lemon color edging the gray of the clouds when I rolled out of my blankets. [See a similar use of “lemon” to describe the color of the morning sky in The Keylock Man and The Daybreakers.]

If you want more, read Sackett for yourself. You won't be sorry.

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