Thursday, December 27, 2018

Kidnapped Dads, Spies and Double-Crosses

As the September dusk in San Antonio turned into a dark and shielding night, the stranger witht he arrow wound decided that it was time to make his escape from the doctor's house.

That's an excellent opening sentence, isn't it?--designed to immediately draw you into the story.

Will C. Brown's 1960 novel The Nameless Breed wins points from its setting alone. Placing the action in Texas in 1844 (when Texas was still an independent republic) immediately sets it apart from most Westerns. The new nation was struggling to remain independent, suffering incursions by Mexican soldiers, raids by Comanches, an economic depression, and pressures from other nations to either expand its territory and influence or simply allow itself to be annexed into the United States.

The protagonist is Brazos McCloud, who has spend the last year trying to figure out how to free his father from the Comanches. Finding him and rescuing him doesn't seem possible, but there might be a chance of ransoming him if Brazos and his two brothers can raise enough cash.

It's the fluid political situation that gives them an opportunity to get the money they need. A spy for England named Spide (appropriately nicknamed Spider both because of his appearance and his personality) wants to see some diplomatic papers that are being brought by courier from Washington. Brazos is normally a scrupulously honest man--we see several examples of this throughout the novel--but when the story opens, Brazos has already stolen these papers. The plan is to sell them to Spide, then head north to where the Comanches hang out, looking for a way to contact them and offer a ransom for his father. The McCloud family is vehementaly anti-annexation, so stealing from a Union agent as Step One is saving their dad is something they can live with.

But things continually go wrong. Brazos is recovering from a Comanche arrow wound when the novel begins (from a random attack that didn't involve his mission), he gets seperated from the papers, and it is soon apparent that Spide (who isn't necessarily working for the English) is planning on double-crossing him.

Brazos is a great protagonist. He has a strong sense of right and wrong that he will not compromise on even when the situation around him is terrible. The fact that he wants to honor his part of his deal with Spide after Spide has double-crossed him is evidence of that. He is courageous, loyal and able to keep his head under pressure. But he's not a one-dimensional hero--the author gives him a concrete and relatable personality. The supporting cast, both good guys and bad guys, are equally well-drawn. Brazos' older brother Wid, who rides north on the ransom mission with his brothers despite the pain and difficulty of doing so with a wooden leg, is a particularly strong character. The rest of the family doesn't want to go, but know they have to let him try for him to keep his manhood.

As Wid's sister-in-law says: "Don't you see--it's the last act of a man, the way for him to prove to himself that he is still a whole man. The oldest of you doing what the oldest son ought to do! Better he goes and suffers in the going, on the trail, than stays and suffers inside himself, a prisoner to his deformity! I cry to myself when I think of him going, but I would not want to see him shrivel here day after day while the rest of you were riding north [to rescue their father]."

The action sequences are exciting and suspenseful. Most notable here is when Brazos and one other character have to flee from a gang of killers by crawling under a huge patch of Yucca Daggers (plants with sharp, bayonet-like leaves). Stand up and they will skewer themselves even if they aren't immediately shot. Continue to crawl and they cut themselves on sharp rocks and have to dodge rattlesnakes.

The Nameless Breed won the Spur Award (given by the Western Writers of America) in 1960 and clearly deserves it. It works as both an excellent and exciting work of genre fiction and as a wonderful character study of a family in which each of them would risk anything for the others.

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