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The Empty Land (1969)

Scholars of the oeuvre know that Louis L’Amour likes to flatter his readers with a smattering of erudition, but no other Louis L’Amour western starts with a three paragraph survey of Sixth Century world history. And then you reach the fourth paragraph and—well, who else but Louis would go straight from a tour of the Dark Ages to a lone coyote trotting across a barren Utah slope? Settle in for a good tale, folks; The Empty Land, published in 1969, is Louis L’Amour at his best.

As far as I know, The Empty Land is the only Louis L’Amour that fits within the classic western theme of a lawman cleaning up a town. Is it possible that, after this 182 page epic, L’Amour had nothing more to say on the subject? Did he leave it all, figuratively speaking, in the dusty streets of Confusion? Perhaps, but then Confusion is no ordinary gold rush town. The original prospector who files his claim in Carson City is followed back to Confusion by a horde: “Hundreds of belted men were coming up the trail, men booted, unshaved, and wild, coming up the high-road to hell . . . . By nightfall three hundred men were camping or building along the slope.” (A skeptical reader might wonder how Carson City came to have three hundred men with nothing better to do than to follow a prospector back to his claim. The entire population of Carson City numbered 3,042 in 1870 and 4,229 in 1880. Thus, with a stroke of his pen, Louis sends 10% of its citizens to populate his mythic boom town.)

And Confusion just gets bigger and wilder from there. There’s a killing on the second day, and “By the night of the fifth day there had been seven shootings, two of them fatal, and one man killed by a knife.” Soon, every stock Western character has arrived. We have gamblers, immigrant laborers, saloon keepers, a gritty newspaperman, brothel owners, and a jaded but beguiling chanteuse with a heart of gold under her icy exterior. The lead bad guy is Big Thompson, a hulking, sadistic bully, but there is plenty of room in Confusion for other despicable characters, including a criminal kingpin named Kingsbury, and a weaselly lowlife named Peggoty Gorman (as Dickensian a name as you’ll find in the entire L’Amour canon). My favorite minor character, though, is Nathan Bly, a gentleman gambler who is as fast and deadly as a rattlesnake.

The one thing the town needs which it ain’t got is a good marshal. The first man to take the job—“a respected, well-liked ex-soldier named McGuiness”—lasts less than 24 hours before Big Thompson kills him. The next man is a “high-binder” who tries to shake down the local businesses. (Points to Louis for use of the archaic term “high-binder,” defined by the OED as “an unscrupulous person, especially a corrupt politician.”) Nathan Bly kills his two henchmen when they try to put the arm on him, and Big Thompson’s gang runs the fellow out of town. Clearly, Confusion is going to need more than a respectable Army veteran or a penny-ante crook to tame it.

Enter the hero of the novel, a world-weary tough guy named Matt Coburn. Coburn is a wounded animal. He has cleaned up so many towns and killed so many bad guys that all he wants is to be left alone, maybe to run a few cows in a distant canyon out yonder. Improbably, he just happens to ride through Confusion, ostensibly on his way to yon far hills, offering the lame excuse that “I like to look at new towns, to wonder how long they will last.”

He has his look at Confusion and then he rides on, but he doesn’t get far. Matt Coburn is the reason we shelled out $2.50 for this paperback, and we know he won’t be gone long. Coburn can no more escape his fate than can the protagonist in a Greek tragedy. Lest there be any doubt that Matt Coburn is the man for the job, Louis goes all High Church at the end of Chapter 3, including a passing nod to the Bard himself. “Meanwhile, back in Confusion, circumstances were moving men on the chessboard to involve Matt Coburn. For there are, in the affairs of men and nations, inexorable tides from which they cannot remain aloof. If they do not enter upon them prepared, they will be caught unprepared, and at the wrong time.” Chessboards and tides in the affairs of men, indeed! Bless you, Louis L’Amour, for this flagrant, and slightly pretentious, appeal to literary respectability. Just don’t let it slow down the action.

We all know that Matt Coburn will accept the hand that fate deals, and become the marshal of Confusion. But first, he has to help a game-but-in-over-her-head rancher fend off some leering cattle rustlers. Could she be the one to sooth the savage beast that lurks within Matt Coburn? Hold that thought, because next thing we know, Coburn is riding shotgun on a shipment of gold for Wells Fargo, and there he meets up with the previously-mentioned beguiling chanteuse. She seems to be in over her head, too, vying with the criminal kingpin Kingsbury for control of one of the richest mines in town.

These two damsels in distress keep Coburn occupied for several chapters, and by the time he delivers the gold and gets back to Confusion it’s almost too late. According to Louis L’Amour, there is a pattern such towns follow unless someone like Matt Coburn gets there in time to save them from destruction. As Coburn puts it: “They [the bad guys, that is] will run wild. They’ll tear the town apart, they’ll burn, and they’ll kill, and then there won’t be any reason for staying on, so they’ll drift. And that will be the end of your town. A few of the mines may still be worked, and some ore shipped to one of the mills, but five years from now the town will be dead, and in time even its name will be forgotten.”

Well, now, wait just a minute there, Mr. L’Amour. Inexorable tides or not, as long as there’s gold to be had, it’s safe to say that people will live in the vicinity and dig it out of the ground. Whether or not Matt Coburn cleans up the town is not going to change that equation. And for that matter, once the gold has all been mined, there will be no reason for the town to continue its existence, no matter how good a job Matt Coburn does in cleaning her up. The survival or decline of the town will depend upon how much gold is there, and how long it takes to dig it out. But enough; we are not looking for careful micro-economic analysis at this point. We have been waiting as L’Amour wends his way through history lessons, Shakespearean flights of eloquence, and romantic subplots. It’s time for the real action to start, and we are getting impatient. After all, we’ve come to Chapter 15, page 137, and Coburn still hasn’t put on the badge.

Don’t worry, folks, it’s worth the wait. Once Coburn finally straps on his guns and walks into town, it is all action. He kills his first bad guy that night. The next morning, he writes the names of 70 low-lifes on a piece of paper and tacks it to a post in the middle of town, with the heading: “NOTICE To Thieves, Murderers, and Short-card Artists; You are no longer welcome in Confusion. Those listed below can get out or shoot it out, and start any time they are ready.” (The notice, I’d say, has a measure of literary flair. It’s clear, it’s concise. No typos, unless you count the unnecessary capitalization of “Thieves, Murderers, and Short-card Artists.” There is even a bit of whimsy, with it’s moral equivalence of murder and cheating at cards.) There is only one name missing from the list: Nathan Bly. When Bly asks Coburn the reason, he replies “Because you’re a gentleman, Nate. You’re a damned good man with cards, but you have your proper pride. You’ve never cheated anybody in your life.” Never mind that Bly has already gunned down at least three people in Confusion. He’s a gentleman—he can stay!

As for the rest of them, some get the message and clear out, but there are plenty who decide to make a fight of it. Too bad for them. As a morning warm-up—little more than a clearing of the throat, really—Coburn is challenged to a gunfight by a gambler named Dan Cort. Cort makes his entrance in the middle of page 144, draws on Coburn about 120 words later, and is dead in less than one page. Coburn shrugs it off, saying “He was too anxious to get his gun out. The fast draw is only part of it. You have to make the first shot count.”

Next up: Big Thompson. Although he’s got sixty pounds on Coburn, and all of it muscle, the new marshal drags Thompson out into the street and beats the tar out of him before lunch, as a way of showing everyone else just how tough he is. Then things get really bloody. Before the afternoon is over, Coburn will kill both Thompson and his rat of an accomplice, Peggoty Gorman, with a shotgun in a saloon. (A question for aficionados: Are there other Louis L’Amour novels in which the hero kills the bad guy after beating him up? It seems to me that usually a beating is enough.) Then, as night falls, the crime syndicate makes its move, and the novel reaches its climax with a full-fledged battle in the streets of Confusion. On one side the mounted mercenaries hired by Kingsbury, the criminal kingpin. On the other side are Coburn and the good citizens of the town, including an honest madame and Nathan Bly. It’s one of L’Amour’s bloodiest and most chaotic gunfights. Coburn goes down in the middle of the street with four slugs in him, but not before he sees Bly shoot Kingsbury through a window in cold blood.

And then it’s over, at least for the most part. Gratuitously, Coburn has to rise from his sickbed to kill one more bad guy who shows up late to the party, but at last there is nothing left to do but ride off with the girl. Ah, but which one? The rancher, or the chanteuse? You’ll have to read The Empty Land and find out for yourself.

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Harry Walsh
Harry Walsh
May 04, 2021

Masterpieces by the artist and the critic.

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