Thursday, May 5, 2016

Wagon Train Conspiracy

It's really a clever plan. There's gold in the Little Big Horn area. The Sioux are no longer a major threat--their power broken by the Army after Custer's 7th Calvary was massacred a year earlier. So you can organize a wagon train--large enough to keep what Indians you may meet at bay--to move into gold country and start a town. Anyone who comes has to have at least one wagon and carry a load of goods. With a town established, some will prospect for gold. Others will ranch. One man plans to start a freight company. Another will run a general store. In a brand-new town in a country yet to be tamed, the possibilities are endless.

But there's another, somewhat darker plan underneath that one. One of the men who organized and now leads the wagon train realizes that the total value of goods and cattle being brought with the train can be valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If something were to happen to the wagon train--something that might later be blamed on the Sioux--then that man and a few select others can claim the goods and make a fortune.

That's the premise for Louis L'Amour's 1950 novel Westward the Tide. The protagonist is Matt Bardoul, a man with a reputation for being good with a gun. This is something that--to a degree--works against him as he begins to suspect that the wagon train is in danger. The villains in the train immediately see him as a threat, but some of the other wagon train leaders distrust his reputation too much to take his warnings seriously.

Also, Matt himself isn't completely certain his suspicions are accurate. It's a situation that L'Amour uses very effectively to build up tension as the wagon train moves out into unsettled territory. Matt sees that a few of the wagons are carrying more men and less supplies than others; and that many of those men are outlaws and thieves. But he's got no proof of anything overtly illegal and he himself can't be certain of what the villains are planning.

He's also reluctant to bring things to a head, because there are women and children on the train who would be caught in the crossfire if open battle broke out. That includes Jacquine Coyle, the beautiful daughter of one of the wagon train leaders, to whom Matt has taken quite a shine.

Of course, his relationship with her would be less rocky if she weren't spending her time with Clive Massey, co-leader of the wagon train and the probable leader of the outlaws.

So Matt and the few men he can trust have to bide their time--even when most of their ammunition is stolen from their wagons and a good man is killed in what Massey claims is self-defense. Matt knows that the outlaws will strike soon and that they can't afford to leave any witnesses behind. But he needs to bide his time and consider the women and kids first. In many ways, the novel plays out like a pure suspense tale.

Not that it lacks for pure action. Like all L'Amour westerns, this one has plenty of action. There's a lot of gun play, a tense knife fight between a wounded Matt and a Sioux warrior, and a exciting fist fight.

Of course, in a L'Amour novel, there's always an exciting fist fight. L'Amour was (among many other things) a boxer. He knew the Sweet Science well and he knew how to choreograph a fight. When you read one of his novels, you know the hero is going to start trading punches with somebody at some point and you always look forward to it.

The extended climax of Westward the Tide is particularly tense, with Matt wounded and the innocents on the wagon train in truly horrible danger. All this builds up into the expected but no less exciting confrontation between Matt and Clive Massey.

In fact, it's interesting how often L'Amour uses the same tropes--brutal fist fight at some point and a final confrontation between hero and villain at the climax--in so many novels, but it never gets old. Often, he adds some factor (such as a trick Massey has up his sleeve in the final shootout) to give these scenes variety. But mostly these moments are often so good just because L'Amour was a great storyteller who simply knew how properly to spin a yarn.

Westward the Tide may also be L'Amour's most cynical novel in its dissection of civilization and remarks about the death of the open frontier. At one point, he even stops the story for a few pages so an old Indian stopping by the campfire can pontificate on the difference between living on the land and simply pillaging the land. This attitude never gets in the way of the story and, in fact, L'Amour makes sincerely interesting philosophical points. But one really gets the feeling that Louis L'Amour really was born 70 years too late.

Well, lucky for us he did wait around for the 20th Century before being born. The world would be a poorer place without his novels.

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