Louis L'Amour,
The Empty Land
(Bantam, 1969)

Louis L'Amour doesn't mess around setting the scene for The Empty Land. He begins the tale in 7th-century Utah, with a coyote who paws at a rocky outcropping to try and flush out a wily chipmunk. The chipmunk escapes unscathed, but the coyote started a break in the rock that, over the next few centuries, widened and split.

By the time the Utah territory was being settled in the 1800s, the hidden gold was exposed, and the town of Confusion was born. But the boomtown was violent, overrun by lawless types who wanted to get rich on the work of others. And, while the town founders had high hopes of running a law-abiding community, the bad guys were having their way -- until Matt Coburn, a noted gunman who has tamed rowdy boomtowns before, rode down the dusty street and put his hat in the fight.

The Empty Land features a thoughtful, introspective protagonist. Coburn is well aware why he's wanted, and he knows that the members of the peaceful community he helps to create won't want him around once the job is done. He, he realizes, would only remind them of the bad old days, the tough times and the violence that they wanted gone.

It adds a note of melancholy to the story. Even the ubiquitous romance, which crops up in nearly every L'Amour story, suffers from Coburn's reputation as a fighter and a killer. Laurie Shannon, a rancher a few hours' ride from town, is mighty fond of Coburn -- and he of her -- but his quick gun disturbs her. Madge Healy has a elements of a shady past, and she's something of a wanderer, too, but she understands his motives a little better than Laurie. Plus, she's rich, so there's that.

Coburn's navel-gazing adds an extra layer to the tale. He's not just a man with a six-gun and a fast hand, and he's not oblivious to the personal cost of his lifestyle. That's good reading.

book review by
Tom Knapp

16 July 2016

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