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The Daybreakers (1960)

Updated: May 11

For classic Louis L’Amour, you can’t beat The Daybreakers. We meet the Sacketts, and we get cattle drives, gun fights, range wars, homespun aphorisms, and plenty of L’Amour’s trademark authorial touches. The Daybreakers may not be perfect—it’s too long, and it sags badly in a couple places—but it’s a great read.

After introducing the Sackett clan in 1960 with The Daybreakers, L’Amour went on to write another sixteen novels with Sackett protagonists, as well as salting in cameo appearances by family members in several others books. When he wrote The Daybreakers, did L’Amour already know that he would create a fictional dynasty that spanned centuries? He may have had the glimmer in his eye, but we will consider The Daybreakers as a stand-alone story, even as we tease out some of the characters and themes that became hallmarks of the Sackett saga.

Our tale starts in 1867, and is told in the first-person by Tyrel Sackett. As the novel starts, Tyrel is an illiterate hick of eighteen in the mountains of Tennessee. He kills Long Higgins in a straight-up shooting after Higgins’s errant aim kills the bride of Tyrel’s older brother, Orrin, on what was supposed to be his wedding day. The Sacketts and Higginses have been feuding for years, so you might ask, if the Sacketts have already killed eighteen Higginses, then what’s one more?

Nonetheless, because of the killing Tyrel has to leave Tennessee. Before he goes, he has a heart-to-heart with his pipe-smoking Ma, and tells her “I think maybe I can draw a gun faster and shoot straighter than anybody, anywhere.” This claim leaves little room for suspense or character development, but then The Daybreakers is not a coming-of-age story. Tyrel Sackett arrives on the scene fully formed. He doesn’t go looking for trouble, but if any comes his way he walks right up to it. A few days out of Tennessee, Sackett joins an outfit that is driving a herd of cattle west. Within minutes of arriving, someone calls him out, saying “maybe we should kill a farmer.” Sackett’s response? “Mister, any time you think you can kill this farmer, you just have at it.” Only the timely appearance of Orrin, come to join Tyrel on his western adventures, prevents Tyrel from killing a second man before the end of Chapter One.

Never fear, though, the body count will rise. But first we need to meet two more key players in the story. We’ve already met Tyrel’s older brother, Orrin, who is the extroverted foil to Tyrel’s brooding intensity. Though he saw his bride-to-be shot from his side on page 2, Orrin bears his grief lightly. He is fortune’s angel, sailing cluelessly through the novel. On the basis of his good looks, fine voice, and sunny disposition, good things just naturally come Orrin’s way. Even a disastrous marriage half-way through the book doesn’t slow him down. We also meet Cap Roundtree in Chapter One. Roundtree, as all Louis L’Amour fans know, plays the salty sidekick in several Sackett novels, so we need to learn all we can about him. I’ve included an addendum with everything I could glean about Cap from The Daybreakers.

And then there’s Tom Sunday, the foreman of the cattle drive, who completes the quartet around whom the novel revolves. He’s appealing, but he’s an alpha male in a pack that already includes two Sacketts. Sunday is as complicated and compelling as any Louis L’Amour character, and it is his tragic descent from charismatic hero to murderous alcoholic that lifts The Daybreakers above the garden variety Louis L’Amour western. Sunday’s final shootout and death is one of the best in the entire canon.

So with impressive economy, in the ten pages of Chapter One L’Amour introduces us to four major characters and several bit players, thirteen named actors in all. And yet, L’Amour is just getting started. The Daybreakers has a huge cast of characters, and in Chapter Two we meet six more, including the women that Tyrel and Orrin will marry. Orrin’s future wife is Laura Pritts (a play on the word “prissy”?), and it’s clear from the start what we are to think of her. Tyrel describes her as having “a kind of pale blond hair and skin like it never saw daylight; and blue eyes that made a man think she was the prettiest thing he ever did see. Only (sic) second glance she reminded me somehow of a hammer-headed roan we used to have, the one with the one blue eye . . . a mighty ornery horse, too narrow between the ears and eyes.” Orrin misses that subtlety, though, and walks right into trouble. By the end of the day, “she was looking at him like he was money from home.” Laura is heading to New Mexico with her father, Jonathan. By the end of the chapter Tyrel has figured out that their aim is to swindle the local Mexicans out of their land grants.

Around the same time, Tyrel’s future wife arrives with a wagon train of Mexican-Americans who drive into Abilene. The wagon train is led by Don Alvarado, right out of model-minority central casting, “a tall, fine-looking old man with pure white hair and white mustaches.” With him is his grand-daughter, Drusilla. If we hope for a plausible explanation of why the Alvarados are in Abilene with a wagon train and forty men, and where are they coming from, we will be disappointed. We learn, though, that they are on their way back to New Mexico, where they have extensive landholdings. It takes no imagination to guess that this is the Mexican family Pritts plans to dispossess.

As always, we want to know more about the love interest. Drusilla is fifteen or sixteen when we meet her, half Irish and half Mexican. Alas, other than that, and her beautiful dark eyes, we don’t get much. It’s fun to hear Sackett tell us that Drusilla sets his head whirling “like somebody had hit me with a whiffletree,” but that’s second-hand information, and not the same as a direct description. (Our first of many Google searches tells us that a whiffletree is the pivoted swinging bar to which the traces of a harness are fastened and by which a vehicle or implement is drawn.) It’s fairly typical for L’Amour to give brief descriptions of his leading ladies, most of whom have their feet planted firmly on pedestals, but The Daybreakers stands out in this department. I mean, the horses get more ink than Drusilla and her big eyes. In Chapter Seven alone, we get two full pages of descriptions regarding the appearance and personalities of the horses Sackett buys, and we’ve already seen how L'Amour described Laura Pritts with reference to that old hammer-headed roan. Prepare, then, for a full-on cringe when you get to the dialogue between Tyrel and Orrin in Chapter Fifteen, in which they discuss dealing with women the same way you handle horses.

Entertaining it is, but like all Louis L’Amours The Daybreakers has flaws, some annoying and some amusing. In the annoying category, and as mentioned earlier, the novel sags in a couple places. In Chapter Four, Tyrel, Orrin, Cap, and Tom Sunday ride to Colorado to make a little money by rounding up stray cows on the Purgatoire River. After a few weeks they’ve gathered a small herd, and they drive them down to Santa Fe. There, they sell them to the army, netting each man a stake of about $1,000. Mission accomplished, you’d think, but after some inconsequential wrangling with Pritts, the four of them ride right back to the Purgatoire for more cows. Tyrel doesn’t even stop in to visit Drusilla. This time they drive a larger herd to Abilene, and after selling it they have another $6,000 each. There is absolutely no reason why they need to make two trips, spanning four chapters, when everything that happens could be covered by one round up.

More annoying is the side hustle that Tyrel undertakes in Chapter Thirteen. By then, he and Orrin have established a ranch in Mora, New Mexico (the new Sackett homeland), met their future wives, built a house, and shipped Ma in from Tennessee. The Pritts gang is causing trouble for the Alvarados, and Tyrel has a good thing going with Drusilla. Why, then, would L’Amour send him and Cap Roundtree off to Montana for a year, to look for gold? As with the second trip to the Purgatoire, there is no reason for it. Yes, they find gold, and Sackett guns down a couple of killers in a Montana saloon, but it’s all superfluous. L’Amour tries to generate some motivation by having Tyrel reflect on his need for money—“I was nigh to broke”—in order to build some cred with Drusilla. But Drusilla is already in love with Tyrel, and so is Don Alvarado, who practically begs Sackett to marry his grand-daughter. And as for being broke, what happened to the $7,000 that Tyrel banked after rounding up cows along the Purgatoire? In Chapter Two we learn that Tyrel and Orrin made $25 per month on the cattle drive that brought them west, which annualizes to $300. With the money from the Purgatoire round ups, then, each brother has capital equal to more than 20 times the annual pay of a working man. Money is not really an issue. L'Amour might have done better to drop Montana entirely. Or maybe he could have used the space to explain how Jonathan Pritts finds the money to pay fifty or sixty hired guns for his years-long range war against the Alvarados, and yet is outmaneuvered and outgunned at every step.

Speaking of authorial excess, there are more than 50 named characters in The Daybreakers, as well as numerous unnamed extras. The ratio of men to women—there are only four women named in the book—is typical for L’Amour, and we’re used to it, but 50 characters is simply too many, and it reflects a certain laziness. Throughout the novel L’Amour makes them up on the spot, including three in the final chapter, and he drops them just as quickly, sometimes with barely a line of dialogue or a smidgeon of action. I counted, for example, fourteen bad guys with actual names, and at least three more who die without ever getting a name for their tombstones. This is without including Jonathan Pritts and his hammer-headed roan of a daughter, or the doomed Tom Sunday. Some of the bad guys just get beat up, or arrested, or run out of town, but most of them are gunned down. Tyrel kills six of them, plus at least three Ute warriors, and Tom Sunday accounts for another five. Five of these so-called toughs last for fewer than three pages apiece before they are food for worms. This prolixity with characters extends even to the Sacketts themselves, as we learn there are two younger brothers that come west with Ma, Bob and Joe. These two spare Sacketts do nothing whatsoever in the novel, and as far as I know never appear in future books either. (Joe has a non-speaking role as a corpse in the first chapter of L’Amour’s 1977 novel, Borden Chantry, but I’m not sure that counts.) It’s too much. We can’t keep track of all these characters, and as it turns out, neither can L’Amour. On page 129 he gives us a man named Wilson who operates a supply store in town, presumably having forgotten that the novel already has someone else named Wilson whom we met on page 74.

More amusing than annoying, The Daybreakers gets tangled up in its own timeline. We learn that the first seven chapters all take place within less than a year, because Tyrel reflects upon turning nineteen at the end of Chapter Seven. By Chapter Ten another year has passed, in which the four amigos make their trips to the Purgatoire River country. Then, as we know, Tyrel and Cap Roundtree spend a year up in Montana in Chapter Thirteen. So that’s three years. Yet when they get back to New Mexico in Chapter Fourteen, five years have passed since the boys left Tennessee. There’s no explanation or excuse for this, it’s simply sloppy writing.

Also amusing, as always, are L’Amour’s professorial flourishes. Tom Sunday teaches Tyrel how to read, and before long Sackett tells us: “I’d come across a book by Jomini on Napoleon, and another by Vegetius on the tactics of the Roman legions.” (Google them yourself.) We are also treated to mentions of Alexander Hamilton and William Pitt, and the writings of Blackstone, Montaigne, and of course Plutarch. Just a typical beginner’s reading list. As for local history, we are treated to a passing reference to “Beale’s camels” in Chapter Seven. A Google search reveals that Edward Fitzgerald Beale was a colorful personage who played a significant role in California history, having adventures and getting rich in the process. Among other things, Beale used camels as pack animals to survey a wagon road across Arizona to the Colorado River, which is still in use today as part of Interstate 40. L’Amour also salts in plot appearances by three other historical figures: the gunfighter Clay Allison, Vincente Romero (a big wheel in early New Mexico), and Ceran St. Vrain. Each led to a diverting Google search, but my favorite is St. Vrain, not because he was, as Tyrel says, “the most influential man in Mora,” but because by the time he shows up in the novel (1872, according to the five year timeline that L’Amour gives us), St. Vrain had already been dead for two years.

Just about every Louis L’Amour has a fist fight, and The Daybreakers supplies. In Chapter Twelve, Orrin gets elected marshal, and he rides in to clean up the town. Just as Matt Coburn does in “The Empty Land,” Orrin tacks up a public notice laying down the new rules, and then provides a demonstration to show that he can back up his words. On the spot, L’Amour conjures up Bully Ben Baker (gotta love the alliteration), “a noted brawler,” who is “several inches taller that Orrin, weighed two hundred and forty pounds.” Orrin thrashes Baker and never takes a punch, and throws Baker with “a rolling hip-lock,” then tosses him over his shoulder with a "flying mare.” Back to the internet we go, where a Wikipedia site on Cornish-style wrestling offers two description of hip throws, though neither is called a “rolling hip-lock.” (If you Google “rolling hip lock” you’ll see some cool martial arts moves, but both participants wind up on the floor, whereas Orrin remains on his feet for the whole fight.) The same site describes a “flying mare” as a move in which you throw your opponent over your shoulder and onto the ground. L'Amour especially likes the "flying mare," and it shows up in several of his other novels, including Kilkenny (1954).

Louis also gives us a great scene where Tyrel squares off against three of the Pritts gang in Chapter Ten. They get the drop on him, so to buy time, Sackett rolls a smoke and starts telling a story. As he talks, he lets the twig he’s holding to light his cigarette burn down. When it singes his fingers, Tyrel yelps, then sweeps his hand down to his gun and shoots Pritts’s men out of their saddles. A year later in a Montana saloon someone gets the jump on Sackett by touching Tyrel’s gun hand with the end of a cigar. Sackett takes four bullets, but he guns down his adversaries and recovers. Reflecting on it later, Tyrel says, “That was one time I was sure enough outsmarted. It was one trick Pa never told me about, and I’d had to learn it the hard way.” Really, though? Isn’t it more or less the same thing Tyrel did in Chapter Ten? It’s hard to say who is more to blame; L’Amour for using the same trick twice in one book, or Sackett for falling for it the second time.

Let us end with a few lines and passages from The Daybreakers, to illustrate just how good Louis L’Amour can be when he’s at the top of his game. Read the novel, and get the rest of it for yourself.

Grass and nothing but grass except for flowers here and there and maybe the white of buffalo bones, but grass moving gentle under the long wind, moving like a restless sea with the hand of God upon it.

It was something fierce and terrible that came up and liked to choke me, and then it was gone and I was very quiet inside. The moments seemed to plod, every detail stood out in sharp focus, clear and strong. Every sense, every emotion was caught and held, concentrated on that man coming up the street. . . . Suddenly, with a queer wave of sadness and fatality, I realized that it was for moments such as this that I had been born. Some men are gifted to paint, some to write, and some to lead men. For me it was always to be this, not to kill men, although in the years to come I was to kill more than I liked, but to command such situations as this.

You stick your finger in the water and you pull it out, and that’s how much of a hole you leave when you’re gone.

There was a pale lemon glow over the eastern mountains . . . . [L’Amour likes this image enough to use it more than once. See, for example, from The Keylock Man: Keelock woke . . . with the lemon light of day showing faint across the eastern sky.]

There’s nothing binds men together like sweat and gunsmoke.

Pride and whiskey are a bad combination.

Death hung in the air like the smell of lightning on a rocky hillside.

Cap was out and around, nosing after news like a smart old coon dog looking up trails in the dust or the berry patches.

Cruz looked to me like one of those sleek prairie rattlers who move like lightning and kill just as easily.


Addendum: Notes on Cap Roundtree

Cap is “a thin, wiry old man with a walrus mustache who looked to have ridden a lot of trails.” Chapter One.

“He was a mighty hard old man, rode as many hours as any of us, although he was a mighty lot older. I never did know how old he was, but those hard old gray eyes of his had looked on a sight of strange things.” Chapter Two.

“That old man had learned a lot in his lifetime, living with the Sioux like he did, and the Nez Perce.” Chapter Three. [Always a bit of a know-it-all, L’Amour informs us that the correct pronunciation of “Nez Perce” is “Nay-Persay”. He’s right that the name comes from the French for “pierced nose,” and that’s how the French say it. But in the U.S., and in the English tongue, everyone pronounces it “Nezz Purse.”]

“Roundtree humped his old shoulders under his thin shirt and looked ready to fall any minute but the chances were he would outlast us all. There was iron and rawhide in that old man.” Chapter Four.

“Cap knew the country, knew every creek and every fork. There were no maps except what a man had in his skull, and nobody of whom to ask directions, so a body remembered what he saw. Cap knew a thousand miles of country like a man might know kitchen, to home.” Chapter Four.

“Behind that rasping voice and cold way of his I think there was a lot of sentiment in Cap, although a body would never know it.” Chapter Twelve.

Just how old is Cap Roundtree? Sackett himself says he doesn’t know, though that’s barely credible. The plot of The Daybreakers spans five years, and during that period Tyrel and Cap become best friends and are rarely apart. Surely, over some campfire, Tyrel would have asked the obvious question. But credibility is not the point, storytelling is. L’Amour is playing with several archetypes in the character of Cap Roundtree, including the Sidekick, the Mentor, and the Sage. Age doesn’t matter, and indeed it’s probably better that we never know how old Cap is. Do we care how old Dumbledore is? Gandalf? Yoda? I suspect that L’Amour is playing with us on another level as well. In Chapter Three, we learn that Cap had come over the Santa Fe trail in 1836. That was 31 years before our story starts. If Roundtree was in his twenties when he came over the Santa Fe trail, then he’d be in his fifties when he met the Sacketts. Louis L’Amour was 53 when he wrote The Daybreakers.

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Harry Walsh
Harry Walsh
Dec 26, 2022

Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, L'Amour, O'Brien.

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