Louis L'Amour,
Crossfire Trail
(Fawcett, 1954)

When you read a bunch of Louis L'Amour novels in a row, you tend to notice their most obvious flaws. Like, for instance, he uses a lot of the same names. And his fistfights, which usually occur about once a book, have a nagging similarity to them.

Although, to be fair, how different can a scene be that involves two burly cowhands slugging it out in a saloon?

Anyway, I've been reading through a bunch of my old L'Amour collection -- primarily, so far, his earlier releases -- because of the connection my brother, who recently died, and I shared over these books when we were young. And I find that, flaws aside, I still love them.

Crossfire Trail is one of the earliest L'Amour novels, first published in 1954. But it's still a solid yarn, with a tight plot and interesting characters.

First among them is Rafe Caradec, a soldier-of-fortune who was shanghaied in San Francisco and has spent the last year working on a ship. He finally has a plan to escape the situation, but his friend, Charles Rodney, is dying from a beating from the captain, and Caradec won't leave while Rodney's still breathing -- or before he offers the captain some payback in return. Once ashore, Caradec is planning to keep his promise to Rodney, to ride to Wyoming and save his ranch from foreclosure for his wife and daughter, who have no idea why he disappeared or that he paid off the mortgage before vanishing.

Caradec arrives to find a tricky situation: Rodney's wife has died and his daughter, Ann, is engaged to the man Caradec knows was responsible for Rodney's bad fortune. A powerful rancher is also vying for the Rodney land, and no one -- including Ann -- believes Caradec's tale. It seems Ann's fiance, Bruce Barkow, told the town that Rodney had died a year before, his debts unpaid, and he has witnesses -- shady ones, admittedly -- who corroborate his story. So who's going to take the word of some no-account drifter?

But a promise made is Caradec's bond, and he doesn't give up easily.

The characters here are great, particularly the handful of men -- Tex Brisco, Bo Marsh, Rock Mullaney, etc. -- who loyally support Caradec in his seemingly fruitless campaign. Ann Rodney, too, is well-drawn by L'Amour; she's a fiery woman who has made a bad choice, but she has a strong sense of right and wrong that soon has her asking all the right questions. Even the bad guys -- Barkow, the hulking rancher Dan Shute, and their various goons and thugs such as Gee Bonaro and Trigger Boyne -- are appealingly written.

One of these days, I'll have to read some of L'Amour's more recent books. For right now, I'm having a blast in this long-ago past, and I'm enjoying these books far more than I expected.

book review by
Tom Knapp

9 July 2016

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