Louis L'Amour,
The Tall Stranger
(Fawcett, 1957)

The Tall Stranger is another of the earlier Louis L'Amour novels -- one of the earliest published, and one of the first I read. Our hero, Rock Bannon, stumbled while injured on a small wagon train heading west and, in return for their care while he needed tending, he stuck around to help them on their way. Besides, there's this girl....

Anyway, things turned sour when Morton Harper rode up to their circle one night, full of charisma and big ideas for a better route to California, and persuaded them -- against Bannon's advice -- to turn south and cut through the desert. One Indian attack later, the weary group discovers a beautiful valley, a massive oasis, where -- at Harper's urging -- they decide to put down roots. Trouble is, Bishop Hardy is already ranching that particular real estate, and he doesn't cotton to strangers building houses on his grazing land.

Then, a cowhand is gunned down, and nothing will settle things between the new settlers and the Hardy crowd but all out war. With Bannon, of course, caught in the crossfire.

The Tall Stranger has a story to tell, and L'Amour has always shown a fair hand when it comes to telling one. From the first few sentences, he paints a vivid picture of western life that puts readers right in the scene.

With slow, ponderously rhythmical steps the oxen moved, each step a pause and an effort, each movement a deadening drag. Fine white dust hung in a sifting cloud above the wagon train, caking the nostrils of animals and men, blanketing the sides of oxen and horses, dusting a thin film over men and women. And the miles stretched on before them, endless and timeless.

Red-rimmed and bloodshot eyes stared with dazed weariness into that limitless distance before them, seeing nothing to grip the eye or hold the attention. Long since all had been forgotten but the heat, the dust and the aching muscles. Each step lifted a powdery dust, stifling and irritating. It lay a foot deep on the plain, drowning the sparse grass and sage.

Pardon me, I think I need a drink of water.

L'Amour used to say (before his death in 1988) that he explored the land he wrote about it, and every rock and canyon that appeared in his book was real. If that's true, then he must have had a time researching Bishop's valley, because some of the descriptions -- particularly the night Bannon came over the mountain in a fierce thunderstorm -- must have been a lot of fun to research.

book review by
Tom Knapp

4 June 2016

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