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The Rider of Lost Creek (1947 and 1976)

Louis L’Amour wrote the original version of The Rider of Lost Creek in 1947, when he was thirty-nine years old, under the pen name Jim Mayo. He had been publishing stories in pulp magazines for ten years with increasing success, and was working his way up to novels, but it would be several more years before his breakthrough with Hondo in 1953. The original version of The Rider of Lost Creek was novella-length and was published in West magazine. In 1976 L’Amour re-wrote the story as a full-length novel, published by Bantam Books. The timing of the re-write is probably not coincidental: the copyright on the original would have belonged to the magazine, but it would have lapsed after twenty-eight years unless renewed. If the copyright was not renewed, then the story would have fallen into the public domain sometime in 1975 and L’Amour (or anyone else, for that matter) could have used the material without need for permission from the original copyright holder.

Lance Kilkenny, the hero of our tale, is the protagonist of two other full-length novels by L’Amour, Kilkenny (1954) and The Mountain Valley War (1978), as well as two short stories and a novella which can be found in collections published after L’Amour’s death (the short stories are A Gun for Kilkenny and West of Dodge, the novella is Monument Rock). All of that came later, though. The Rider of Lost Creek is L’Amour’s first story about Kilkenny, both in the order that L’Amour wrote the stories, and in the order of Kilkenny’s fictional biography. Curiosity led me to track down the original 1947 version of The Rider of Lost Creek, to compare it to the later 1976 novel. Having done the homework for you, I can confirm that the 1976 version is essentially just a padded version of the 1947 story. The few discrepancies between the two that matter are noted here.

We always try to to determine where and when the action in a Louis L’Amour novel occurs. In some cases this is easy because L’Amour tells us and everything adds up. In one sense, we know exactly where The Rider of Lost Creek takes place; it is set in the border country of Texas, just north of Laredo. The 1976 version even includes a map by Alan McKnight (who did maps for a number of L’Amour’s books) so that we can follow the action. But in another sense, The Rider of Lost Creek takes place in an entirely imaginary locale. The McKnight map shows the maximum elevation difference across the entire region to be 300 feet. Nonetheless, the 1947 version contains references to creeks, mountains, cliffs, pine forests, slot canyons, and buttes, where in fact there is very little other than flat, scrubby sagebrush country. The 1976 version flattens out the country somewhat, and eliminates the mountains and pines, but cliffs and canyons remain, along with a “towering thumb-like butte” toward the end of the book. L’Amour is obviously more interested in telling a story of the mythic West, with whatever geographical features he might want for the purpose, than he is in topographical accuracy. Realizing this, we can simply shrug and move on when we read, as we do in both the 1947 and 1976 versions, that it was “at least six hundred feet to the floor of the valley from where Kilkenny stood.”

As for determining the year in which the action takes place, it’s hopeless. In the first chapter of the 1947 version L'Amour tells us that the year is 1880, but that’s impossible given the historical references. Two famous gunfighters, Phil Coe and John Wesley Hardin, make cameo appearances in that same first chapter. Yet Coe was killed in a gunfight with Bill Hickok in October 1871, and Hardin was arrested in August 1877 and spent the next seventeen years in prison. Three other historical references provide both further clues and further confusion. First, the plot involves a range war triggered by ranchers stringing barbed wire, and it wasn’t until late 1876 that barbed wire came into wide use in Texas. (Trivia moment: the robber baron John “Bet-a-Million” Gates made his first big score at the age of twenty-one selling barbed wire to the Texans after arranging a sensational demonstration of its effectiveness on the streets of San Antonio.) Second, at one point the Texas Ranger Lee Hall rides up to Kilkenny’s campfire for a conversation. Hall (full name, Jess Lee Hall) joined the Rangers in August 1876 and immediately began making a name for himself, retiring from service in 1880. By the time Hall visits Kilkenny he is already famous, which suggests the story takes place not earlier than 1877. And third, in the 1947 version Kilkenny visits a railroad station in the fictional town of Cottonwood, yet the first railroad in the region wasn’t completed until 1881. Thus, depending on which historical reference you latch onto, the action in The Rider of Lost Creek might occur as early as 1871 or as late as 1881.

The 1976 version does a little, but only a little, to clear up the confusion. L’Amour takes out the references to Phil Coe and the year 1880, and the railroad is now under construction rather than in operation. But L’Amour leaves in John Wesley Hardin, Lee Hall, and the barbed wire, and if the railroad is under construction then it can only be, at best, a year or two from completion. So take your pick. If we throw out the outliers and squint a little, we might say that The Rider of Lost Creek takes place somewhere around 1877. I need to warn you, though; when we get to the other stories in the Kilkenny series, further discrepancies will show up. But maybe the precise year doesn’t matter any more than geographical accuracy. The time and place is the mythic Old West—ain’t that enough?

Throughout his Kilkenny stories, L’Amour remains consistent in his description of the man as presented in The Rider of Lost Creek. He is tall and Irish, he wears black clothes, he has a lean, brown face and green eyes, and his curly black hair is covered by a flat-crowned black hat (though at one point in the 1947 version L’Amour has Kilkenny pulling down his sombrero).

Is there anything Kilkenny can’t do? In The Rider of Lost Creek, we hear that he’s a top hand, a “damn good straight-up bronc rider, and a good hand with a rope.” We also learn that he’s done some freighting, rode shotgun on a stage, and worked as a lumberjack. As you’d expect from a Louis L'Amour hero, he’s good with his fists; Kilkenny resorts to combat mano a mano on four separate occasions in The Rider of Lost Creek. He can take punishment, too. At one point, Kilkenny suffers a gunshot wound to the head which knocks him unconscious and causes his hair to become matted with blood, but he shakes it off and we hear nothing further of it. No one else seems to notice either; only a few hours pass before Kilkenny rides into battle to help out his old friend Mort Davis, but neither Mort nor anyone else mentions the bloody head wound.

And, of course, Kilkenny is among “the fastest gunmen in the West,” said to be “faster than Hickok or Hardin” with “the nerve of Ben Thompson.” We hear that he killed his first man at the age of sixteen “in a fair stand-up fight.” No one knows for sure how many he’s killed since, though some speculate that it is between eighteen and twenty-nine (in the 1947 version, these estimates are qualified by “not counting Indians and Mexicans”). Whatever his tally, Kilkenny will add seven more during the course of The Rider of Lost Creek. It's all in a day's work. As Kilkenny himself puts it, “I’ve killed men. Most of ’em needed it, all of ’em asked for it.”

How old is Kilkenny? L’Amour doesn't give us an exact age, though he writes that Kilkenny is “young in years.” Nevertheless, we can attempt an educated guess. In the 1976 version, we learn that Kilkenny was a dispatch rider for the Union Army in the Civil War. (Kilkenny's Civil War service will change in Kilkenny, but we can deal with that in a later essay.) Also, at the end of The Rider of Lost Creek, we hear that Kilkenny has a college education. Putting these pieces together, we might surmise that Kilkenny graduated from college at the age of twenty-two, then joined the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War. Based on those assumptions, he would be twenty-six when the war ended in 1865, and in his late thirties at the time of The Rider of Lost Creek. We could shave off a few years if we suppose that Kilkenny left for college before turning eighteen, and dropped out after two years to join the Union Army mid-way through the war, but that still puts him somewhere in his thirties. Does that qualify as “young in years?” Perhaps for some of us it does, but for a Louis L’Amour hero it’s pretty long in the tooth. As Rachel McAdams says to Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers (one of the greatest movies of all time), “Well, you’re not that young.”

One of the pleasures of the Kilkenny stories is that L’Amour puts together an ensemble cast around the main hero, and the characters follow him from book to book. Rusty Gates (a great name; you can hear the hinges creaking) shows up in Chapter Two and tags along for the rest of the book, playing the loyal sidekick. (Gates is a somewhat provisional member of the Kilkenny ensemble, however. In The Rider of Lost Creek he gets the second girl in the story, but apparently it didn’t work out because he is still single in Monument Rock. Gates is nowhere to be seen in Kilkenny.)

And we meet Cain Brockman. Brockman is an implacable foe here, but he becomes a stalwart friend in later novels, despite the fact that Kilkenny kills Cain's twin brother Abel in The Rider of Lost Creek. We hear about Brockman's size, strength, speed with a gun, and fighting prowess, but his main purpose in The Rider of Lost Creek is to serve as the punching bag in an epic fistfight with Kilkenny at the end of the book.

We are also introduced to Jaime Brigo, who is described as “A big Yaqui half-breed who can sling a gun as fast as the Brockmans, track like a bloodhound, and is loyal as a Saint Bernard.” He has “a dark, Indian, strangely handsome face” and “perfect teeth.” He works for Nita Riordan, the main love interest, and as someone puts it, “If she says ‘Kill him,’ he would. Anybody. He moves like a cat, and nobody wants any part of him.” What are we to make of it that the only Native American in the story is a “half-breed” who is described in animal terms? Louis L’Amour was a product of his time (as are we all), and he perpetuated stereotypes of Native Americans that were useful to our national myth-making and helpful in selling pulp fiction. Perhaps the best we can say is that L’Amour never treated Native Americans with pity or contempt; they are always portrayed as tough warriors, proud people, and superior to the whites in their ability to survive in the deserts and wildernesses of the West.

Last but certainly not least, there is Nita Riordan, Kilkenny’s true love and the woman who will tie him down for good in Kilkenny. Seldom has L’Amour waxed so rapturous in describing one of his heroines. We get a teaser early in the book, when someone describes her as “half-Irish, half-Mexican, and all wildcat. She’s the best-looking woman in the southwest and a tiger when she gets started.” Later, when Kilkenny meets her, we get the full treatment: “Her skin was the color of old ivory, her hair jet-black and gathered in a loose knot at the nape of her neck. But it was her eyes that were most arresting, her eyes and her mouth. Her eyes were hazel, with tiny flecks of a darker color, and they were very large, her lashes long. Her lips were full, but not too full, and they were beautiful. Yet despite her obvious beauty, there was a certain wistfulness in her expression, a strange elusive charm that prevented the lips from being sensual. Her figure was seductively curved, and she moved with a sinuous grace that had no trace of affectation.” This is good stuff, and L’Amour must have liked it, too. The description of Nita in later Kilkenny stories is almost word-for-word the same. How old is she? That depends on your source. In The Rider of Lost Creek Nita is twenty-four, but later stories add several years, as we will see.

The attraction between Kilkenny and Nita is immediate. When they meet, the tone of L’Amour’s writing shifts noticeably. For three pages they speak to each other with a stilted formally that is entirely out of keeping with the dialogue in the rest of the book. It’s an odd, almost dream-like conversation. L’Amour, it seems, is going for a “time stood still” effect, and he pulls it off pretty well. That this was L’Amour’s intent is verified by a passage in Kilkenny, where Nita reminisces about the day they met: “She had looked across that room at him and suddenly they had seemed alone, as if only they remained in life and nothing else could or did exist.” As he leaves the scene Kilkenny tries to shrug it off, telling Rusty Gates that “a man who trusts a woman is one who writes his name upon water,” but he’s hooked. At the end of The Rider of Lost Creek Kilkenny rides away, in the mistaken belief that Nita is better off loving no one than loving a gunfighter. He’ll be back, though. The Kilkenny-Riordan pairing is one of L’Amour’s best.

The characters in The Rider of Lost Creek are almost without exception white Anglos. We've met Nita, who is half-Mexican, and Jaime Brigo, discussed above, but that’s it for ethnic diversity, unless you count Pedro, the Mexican boy at the livery stable, who appears in six lines of text in Chapter Sixteen. And as usual, there is a radical imbalance between the sexes. A rough count gives us thirty-five men with names, but just two women, and one of them is Nita Riordan.

All right, you say, but how’s the story itself? Not bad, though not great. L’Amour conjures up a murder mystery, a cattle range war, and four separate sources of evil (a gang of rustlers, a gunslinging criminal mastermind, an insane murderer, and the homicidal Brockman twins). That’s a lot of narrative ground to cover in one short novel, and in the end it’s perhaps too much. L'Amour does better when there is a straightforward story arc and a single bad guy. Pieces of the tale don’t entirely make sense, maybe because L’Amour was under deadline when he wrote the first version of The Rider of Lost Creek. We've already discussed the disappearing head wound. Also, when Kilkenny receives three telegrams with vital information, why does he stick them in his pocket instead of reading them? When someone dry gulches Kilkenny and knocks him unconscious, why don’t they finish the job? Why won’t Nita Riordan tell Kilkenny what he needs to know about the gunslinger who is intent on killing him? We can say, at least, that the busy plot allows for plenty of bloodshed. I tallied twenty-nine killings, including Kilkenny’s seven, but I probably missed a few, and that’s without counting the forty or so members of the rustling gang who are wiped out in the final chapter while Kilkenny is off dealing with the gunslinging criminal mastermind.

But what sticks with you about The Rider of Lost Creek, reading the 1947 version, is how many of L’Amour’s trademark touches are already present, including his love of historical name-dropping, his vivid descriptions of the countryside, his philosophical musings, and the big man who moves like a cat. There are classic bits of dialogue, such where Rusty Gates says to Kilkenny, “I seen Cain Brockman shoot a crow on the wing!” and Kilkenny replies, “Did the crow have a gun?” And sure enough, although it’s missing from the 1976 version, in 1947 Kilkenny offers the highest praise that L’Amour can give for a woman—words that he will use with minor variations over and over in the years to come: “I want a girl to walk beside me, not behind me.”

In summary, The Rider of Lost Creek is a good read, but not L’Amour at his best. If he tries to cram too much into the book, it may simply be that L’Amour can’t resist embellishing his yarns. He has so many riches to bestow that he can carelessly throw baubles to the crowd. Who else but L’Amour could serve up a side dish as delightful as the following little discursion about Kilkenny’s past?

He had been cornered by Kiowas in a buffalo wallow—and left three dead, one wounded, and took the gun from the last man and set him afoot to tell the story to his people. Two weeks later he had stopped three tough white men from abusing a Kiowa boy, bought him a horse and sent him to his people carrying the rifle he had taken from the fight at the wallow.

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