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The Sky-Liners (1967)

There’s a swagger to Louis L’Amour’s story-telling in The Sky-Liners. By the time he wrote the book in 1967 L’Amour was almost sixty years old, but it was only in the previous dozen years or so that he had achieved real commercial success. With The Sky-Liners, L’Amour shows that he knows his audience and how to entertain ‘em. It’s full of his signature touches, and it clips along at such a pace that, while the absurdities occasionally catch our toes, they never entirely trip us up.

The Sky-Liners is L’Amour’s sixth novel about the Sackett clan. The first Sackett novel is The Daybreakers from 1960, which recounts the story of two young Sackett brothers who set out from the hills of Tennessee to make their fortune in the West, and is told in the first person by the younger, less extroverted brother. The Sky-Liners, by contrast, recounts the story of two young Sackett brothers who set out from the hills of Tennessee to make their fortune in the West, and is told in the first person by the older, less extroverted brother.

As the story starts Flagan and Galloway Sackett are twenty-four and twenty-three, respectively. They’ve come back to Tennessee to pay off their late father’s debts, after making a small stake shooting buffalo out west. This leaves them broke—they don’t even have horses—but they are free to head west again for good. As we know, the Sacketts never go hunting trouble, but somehow it always finds them. In Chapter One, the brothers make enemies of Black Fetchen and his gang, facing them down on the main street of Tazewell, Tennessee. The Fetchens are mounted, it’s their home turf, and they outnumber the Sacketts nine to two, but Flagan and Galloway make quick work of them anyway. They disarm the Fetchens, force them to sing “Rock of Ages,” and send them packing.

A short while later, as the brothers leave town, they are accosted by an itinerant horse trader named Laban Costello. As it turns out, until the Sacketts stopped him, Black Fetchen was coming to fetch Costello’s grand-daughter and force her into marriage. Thus we meet the love interest in The Sky-Liners, Judith Costello. Judith is a month shy of sixteen, and Flagan’s first impression is that she’s a “fool slip of a girl. . . . She had too many freckles, and a pert, sassy way about her that I didn’t cotton to. . . . I merely looked at her and she wrinkled her nose at me.” This is, alas, the most complete description we get of Judith. We hear how pretty she is several more times, but that’s about it, unless you count the freckles. L’Amour mentions them three more times. Is this laziness on L’Amour’s part, or is it an attempt at synecdoche, with Judith’s freckles standing in for the entire woman?

Did I say “woman?” We are actually talking about a fifteen-year-old girl. Should this trouble us? Is there a younger female lead in all of L’Amour’s novels, or a wider age difference between lead characters? Whether she counts as a woman or a girl, Judith is the only female character in the novel. Even for a Louis L’Amour, the ratio of men to women in The Sky-Liners is startling. A tally of characters with names, active roles, or speaking parts yields forty-seven men, and only Judith on the other side of the ledger. That is, unless we count someone who remains entirely off-stage and is referred to just twice, once as “the wife,” and once as “Mrs. Sharp.” And, while we’re counting, let us note that all of the characters are white, with the exception of one model-minority Mexican rancher who gets a small speaking role toward the end.

After Costello appeals to the Sacketts’ honor, and throws in a few horses, saddles, and $200, the Sacketts agree to take Judith west with them. Galloway is willing from the start, but Flagan takes more persuading. When he sees the horses, though, he weakens. The clincher? Costello tells him that Fetchen will get the horses if he marries Judith. This leads to one of the best lines in the book: “‘That makes sense,’ I said. ‘Now I can see why Fetchen wants her.’”

So, what are the Sacketts supposed to do with Judith? Take her back to Colorado, Costello tells them, to reunite with her father on his ranch. Is there a mother anywhere, or any siblings? We never hear, but never mind. Chapter One is over and the tale is underway. Kudos to L’Amour, who once again shows his chops by packing a lot into the first dozen pages.

Off they go, heading west. Judith, though, has a crush on Black Fetchen, and on the first night she bolts and heads back up the trail. Flagan wakes up and runs her down, ropes her, drags her off her horse, hogties her, and brings her back to camp tied to the saddle. L’Amour plays it for laughs, but if you stop to think about it, that’s a brutal way for a twenty-four year old man to treat a teenage girl.

Judith won’t talk to Flagan for a long time after this episode—who would?—but one night she strikes up a conversation with Galloway over the campfire. “What’s it like out there?” she asks. “Colorado?” he replies, “It’s a pure and lovely land . . . .” and off he goes on one of L’Amour’s panegyrics to the western landscape. “It’s a far, wide land with the long grass rippling in the wind like a sea with the sun upon it,” et cetera. It’s a nice image, though not particularly original. We nod along; it’s the usual high-church fare Louis likes to deliver, it’s all good. . . . But now hold on just a minute. We need to stop and savor this moment, because L’Amour has given us a veritable nesting doll of internal inconsistencies to unpack here.

First of all, the Sacketts are uneducated hicks whose usual conversation is more along the lines of “What all you got there, boy?” “Varmint. I ketched it down the road a piece.” Whence cometh, then, such elegiac language? Perhaps we should let that pass—dialogue consistency never troubled L’Amour, and we like it when he waxes poetic. But second, what’s with the the simile? Based on the backstories we’ve heard, neither of the Sacketts has ever laid eyes on the ocean, so how would they know what the sea looks like with the sun upon it, or think to draw the comparison? Third, while we can’t be absolutely sure the Sacketts have never seen the sea, we do know for certain that they’ve never seen Colorado. In Chapter One Costello asks them “Have you ever been to Colorado?” And Flagan responds, “Nigh to it. We’ve been in New Mexico.” And fourth, we’ve already been told that Judith is going back to Colorado to be with her father. Why, then, would she ask Galloway what it’s like out there, if she’s already been? We read on, and sure enough, only one page later L’Amour writes, “From time to time Judith talked some to Galloway, and we heard about her pa and his place in Colorado.”

Unburdened by such editorial concerns, L’Amour takes us, Judith and the Sacketts westward. As they cross the Kansas prairie, Flagan goes out one night and comes back with a shot-up cowpoke. Seems he had worked for Evan Hawkes’s cattle outfit until a gang of thieves “come chargin’ through camp, a-shootin’ and a-yellin’ and they drove off our herd.” He’s bad hurt and knows he won’t make it through the night, and we are treated to a poignant death-on-the-plains scene. Louis lays it on pretty thick, so if you have tears, prepare to shed them now. Before he bleeds out, the fellow provides enough information to identify the cattle thieves as the Fetchen gang. Then he gives a gold locket to Judith—“Ain’t much, mebbe, but my ma wore it her life long, and her ma before her. I’d take it kindly, if you’d have it as a present.”

We are still wiping our eyes as L’Amour ends Chapter Two with a nice summation of the Sackett credo: “Not that we minded a fight. We Sacketts never had much time for anything else. If we weren’t fighting for our country we were fighting men who still believed in rule by the gun, and no Sackett I ever heard of had ever drawn a gun on a man except in self-defense, or in defense of his country or his honor. Right then I was glad Galloway stood beside me. Nobody ever needed an army when they had Galloway, and maybe one other Sackett . . . it didn’t make much difference which one.”

Next stop is Dodge City. The Sacketts arrive with a few of Hawkes’s men and cattle in tow. Black Fetchen is there as well, looking mighty fine, and he spirits Judith away right under the noses of the Sacketts, proposing marriage to her in the hotel dining room. She agrees on the spot, and to twist the knife into Flagan, she says she’ll marry Fetchen the next morning. In a quandary, the Sacketts go to the law, allowing L’Amour to indulge his love of name-dropping. Neither the marshal, Wyatt Earp, nor the sheriff, Bat Masterson, can offer the Sacketts any help, but it does enable us to pin down the approximate date. Earp was marshal of Dodge City from the summer of 1877 to December of 1879, and Masterson served a two-year term as sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, from 1877-79. Thus The Sky-Liners must be set in 1878 or 1879.

With the two famous lawmen of no assistance, the Sacketts devise their own plan to prevent the wedding. They dragoon the justice of the peace and the only preacher in Dodge and take them way out onto the plains to hear the fake deathbed confession of one of Hawkes’s cowboys, and to help him write his last will and testament. This, of course, takes all night and well into the next day, and prevents any nuptials. It’s a clever ruse, and an adept juxtaposition to the real death at the end of the preceding chapter. It is also, sad to say, the last time L’Amour goes for laughs in The Sky-Liners. Going forward, the book is increasingly grim and blood-soaked.

The next morning, after some more pointless name-dropping by L’Amour (among others, Doc Halliday wanders through the set), the Fetchens ride out of town with Judith and Hawkes’s herd of cattle. Flagan surmises that Fetchen must plan to take over the ranch that Judith’s father has established in Colorado. The Fetchens get a few days lead, but the Sacketts tie up with the Hawkes outfit and set off in pursuit. It’s up to the Sacketts now to track down the Fetchens. L’Amour makes this sound enormously difficult, but fortunately Flagan “can trail a trout up a stream through muddy water.” Never mind that the set up makes no sense: how hard can it be to follow the trail of nineteen men, a sixteen year old girl, and a herd of cattle, out on the open plains, especially when you already know where they are going?

They catch up to the Fetchens eventually. A frontal attack is impractical, because the Fetchens outnumber them, so Flagan sneaks up on their camp at night and spirits Judith away while his pals create a diversion by stampeding the cattle. The chapter ends with Flagan back at the Hawkes campfire, contemplating both Judith—“She didn’t look much like a little girl any more, and looking at a girl that away can confuse a man’s thinking”—and his cup of coffee—“It was hot, blacker than sin, and strong enough to float a horseshoe.”

After stampeding the herd the Hawkes outfit recovers some of their stolen cattle, but Fetchen still has the rest, and he’s been rebranding them with a mark that covers the Hawkes brand. (In more than one of his westerns, L’Amour says that you can tell an altered brand by butchering the animal and examining it from the inside, so I looked it up. Sure enough, that’s one way to do it, though apparently an experienced ranch hand can tell a recently altered brand just by looking at it.)

So the journey westward continues. Before long, the Sacketts and Judith go on ahead of Hawkes, figuring to make faster time of it. In making this plan, Flagan recognizes that “First off, we had to locate Costello’s ranch, for all we had in the way of directions was that it was in the Greenhorns.” Again, Louis, check your notes. What about Judith? Doesn’t she know where her own father’s ranch is?

As they get close, they ride into a stage stop for information. The dining room is “nigh to empty,” but we get this description of an old man there. “One old codger with a face that looked as if it was carved out of flint was sitting there. . . . He was a lean, savage-looking old man, one of those old buffalo hunters or mountain men, by the look of him—nobody to have much truck with.” Sure enough, the old man is Cap Roundtree. Piecing together what we know of Roundtree from The Sky-Liners and other books, our best guess is that he was born around 1805-10, so he is roughly seventy years old in this novel. Needless to say, Cap joins up with the boys, saying “I been sharin’ Sackett trouble a good few years now, and I don’t feel comfortable without it.”

For those who have been wondering why Black Fetchen and his gang would ride half way across the continent just to chase down one teenage girl and a few horses, L’Amour now supplies a plausible answer, based on a bit of real history. The so-called Reynolds Gang operated in the area in 1864. This “gang” was actually comprised of Confederate soldiers from a Texas battalion acting upon orders to raid the Colorado gold fields and gather bullion in aid of the Confederate war effort. They were hunted down and wiped out before the Civil War ended, but tales of buried gold circulated for years. The Fetchens have reason to believe that the Reynolds gold is somewhere near Costello’s ranch, and that Costello might have information that will help them find it.

At this point, with The Sky-Liners half-finished, it reaches a turning point. The journey west is over and the story is no longer a high-spirited road trip. Gone are the comic scenarios, the stampedes, the campfires. Everyone has converged on the area near Costello’s ranch. Judith is left behind in the care of the aforementioned Mrs. Sharp, and from now on it’s a battle of wits and guns between the Sacketts and the Fetchens.

The climax of the book is a running battle that takes place over the course of several days and forty pages, with wild inconsistencies and improbabilities adding to the chaos. True to form, L’Amour is specific and accurate with his geography, and we can track the movements of the characters on Google maps if we care to do so. The Fetchens still have an overwhelming numerical advantage, and after some maneuvering and feints, they get the Sacketts cornered in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just east of what is now Great Sand Dunes National Park. Flagan gets shot twice and becomes separated from the others. Losing blood and blacking out periodically, he keeps fighting until he finds Judith.

Judith? What the hell is she doing there? Well, she says, “Nobody came back, and we were worried. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I slipped away and came in this direction.” Oh, okay, that explains everything. Then, as Fetchen’s men close in, with Flagan exhausted and bleeding from two bullet holes, Judith drops the L Bomb: “Flagan, I love you.” Could her timing be any worse? We can sympathize with Flagan if his response seems a bit perfunctory. “I love you, too,” Sackett replies. “Only we haven’t much time. . . . When this fuss begins, Judith, you stay out of it, d’you hear? I can make my fight better if I know you’re out of harm’s way.”

That’s a pretty sorry excuse for a love scene, even considering the low standards L’Amour generally sets in this area. But wait—just maybe Louis is hinting at a little more. The foregoing is an exact quote from the book, including the ellipses after “Only we haven’t much time. . . .” Could L’Amour be playing the Hemingway card, telling us everything by telling us nothing? Whatever does or does not transpire during that subtle little dot-dot-dot, Flagan suddenly gains new strength. His wounds had him hobbling and using his rifle for a crutch before Judith arrived. Now, after that declaration of love and tantalizing ellipses, Sackett charges up the mountain, blows away at least six of the Fetchens, and joins Galloway at the top of the ridge to rout those who remain. Omnia vincit amor!

And yet, weirdly, this is not the end. There is one more chapter to go, because L’Amour allows Black Fetchen and his gunslinger Russ Menard to escape the shoot out on the ridge. So, in an entirely anti-climactic last chapter, the Sacketts take a job a few weeks later riding shotgun on a stage coach that Fetchen and Menard try to hold up, and only then do we get the final shoot out. It’s a sadly unsatisfactory way to end such a good story.

And no one ever finds the Reynolds gold, either.

Addendum: L’Amour salts the text of The Sky-Liners with more than his usual quota of good lines, several of which we find in his other novels as well. In addition to those quoted in the text above, here are a few more, though still just a sampling:

Galloway was so rough “he wore out his clothes from the inside first.”

“He was a good cutting horse who could turn on a dime and have six cents left.”

“Three riders had come over the hill, riding hell bent for election.”

“It did a man no good to ride about always feathered for trouble.”

“Pretty as a bay pony with three white stockings.”

“Those boys could part your hair with the first bullet and trim around your ears with the next two.”

“You can’t always tell a coyote by his holler.”

The Mexican cowhands had been roping and riding “since they were knee-high to a short pup.”

“Every time I looked at her my knees got slacker’n dishwater.”

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1 Comment

Harry Walsh
Harry Walsh
Dec 03, 2023

I can't stop laughing. L'Amour and his critic were born for each other!!

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