There are moments when life is unequivocally good. A Friday night with nothing important to do and no immediate responsibilities; a playlist of Western movie soundtracks playing on my computer; a couch to lie on; iced tea to sip and a good Western to read. Who needs friends or useful tasks to perform? THIS is what makes life good.
The particular Western I was reading on that recent Friday night was Trumpets of Company K, by William Chamberlain. I had read an anthology of Chamberlain's World War II-themed stories when I was a kid and several years ago completed a life-long quest in identifying the author and reading those stories yet again. A few months ago, I reviewed his excellent WWII novel Combat General.
Chamberlain was an army officer himself, serving with distinction during World War II and retiring in 1946 at a brigadier general. He knew his stuff and his main characters are usually officers and represent the qualities that a good combat officer needs to have.
His first book-length work is not a World War II story, but a Western. The main character, though, is still representative of the qualities of a good leader who takes men into combat. Some things never change.
Frank Garland is a captain and company commander in the cavalry, serving at a remote fort in the Dakotas a few years after Little Big Horn. And though the post might be remote, there is no shortage of trouble.
There are rumors of a land grab, to be led by a powerful senator, which would mean land being taken away from the Sioux despite previous treaties. Because of this, a band of Sioux has left the reservation and already killed a number of people.
A lieutenant leading a patrol made poor decisions, getting two of his men killed and getting himself captured, That the lieutenant is the son of the senator arranging the land grab complicates that particular situation even more.
A former officer, cashiered for being drunk on duty during an Indian raid that left Garland's wife dead, has arrived in the area and is rumored to be providing the Indians with guns and whiskey. He also claims to be an agent of that senator.
So Garland and the fort's commander, Major Kingman, have all this to deal with. Also, Janet Davenport, who is engaged to the captured lieutenant, has arrived at the fort and blames Garland for sending him out on patrol.
The story that flows out of these interrelated plot points is suspenseful and thoughtful. Chamberlain centers most of the story around Garland, but also cuts away to the enlisted men from time to time to give us their points of view as well. The end result is a very suspenseful tale peppered with an intelligent and sharply-presented discussion of why men choose to be soldiers, of the Band of Brothers mentality that is so important to small units in combat, and of the responsibilities a combat leader must recognize and fulfill.
|Art by Frederic Remington. It's not from the novel, of course, but it's pretty awesome in its own right.|
There's not a lot of pure action, but its a story that doesn't require it, as Chamberlain keeps the events of the novel moving along briskly and various character moments stand out. I especially like the character arc of Major Kingman, the fort's C.O. He is determined to confront the senator and stop the land grab, thus preventing the war that the senator wants to use as an excuse for that land grab. Kingman knows he can't win--the senator has too much political pull and will without question bring Kingman's career to an end. But the officer knows right from wrong. He knows his duty both to his country and his men. He may go down in flames, but he will stand up and fight. He is awesome.
Trumpets of Company K isn't a perfect novel. Garland and Janet end up in love with each other, which is predictable and happens far too quickly--before the two even have a chance to have a real conversation, they are pretty much up to their eyes in mutual mushy feelings. But this is the only false notes among the strong characters in this excellent Westerns.