Louis L'Amour,
(Bantam, 1962)

I count Last Stand at Papago Wells among my favorite books by Louis L'Amour. If I had read Shalako first, their positions might be reversed.

The stories, written only a few years apart, have similar plots and protagonists. Both involve an unlikely group of people banding together at a desert water hole in a desperate defense during an Apache attack. Those who survive owe their lives to a lone man on a horse who comes upon them by chance, a man who knows and respects the Apache ways. Heck, both books even have a massive sandstorm near the end.

Despite the similarities, Shalako stands on its own as a strong tale. The protagonist, Shalako Carlin, stumbles on a hunting party composed of European nobles, their servants and aides, as well as a group of American teamsters and guides for hire. Few of them have any experience in the West -- and those who do, aren't particularly trustworthy -- and they view the threat of an Indian attack with amused derision. After all, how could a half-naked savage pose any danger to trained officers from Europe?

Things don't go like they expected, obviously. And Shalako, whose first instinct is to flee the scene on a borrowed horse, realizes they'll die without him -- and there is, after all, a pretty young woman among them who was kind to him.

And L'Amour's heroes always have a weakness for a pretty, strong-willed woman. While a modern reader will almost certainly find his attitude a bit sexist -- not misogynistic, because he treats his female characters with a great deal of respect, but he certainly writes like a man who believes women have their place -- one must also remember he was writing about a different time and circumstance. Modern views aside, there weren't a lot of female gunslingers back then.

As for Shalako -- a character L'Amour obviously liked well enough to use as the name of his proposed western town -- the man is an enigma. Lacking a formal education but boasting more than the usual amount of practical know-how and a hard-ended appreciation for military tactics, he has plenty of grit and boundless admiration for the desert landscape and the people who live there.

It's another great book from an enduring western writer. I am increasingly glad I started re-reading these books from my youth.

book review by
Tom Knapp

5 November 2016

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