Louis L’Amour died in 1988 at the age of 80. In his long life as a writer, he published 105 novels and other books, almost all of them westerns or set in the West.
He has more than 320 million copies of his works in print, and I’ve just read one of them, his 1962 novel Shalako.
My expectations weren’t high, given that L’Amour’s books are genre westerns. Still, many have been turned into movies. In fact, that’s why I was reading Shalako — because, recently, I’d seen the 1968 film with Sean Connery in the title role and Brigitte Bardot as the love interest, a European noblewoman Irina.
Shalako has some of the negatives of genre fiction of all sorts. For instance, none of the characters is very complicated, particularly the baddest of the bad guys, Bosky Fulton.
At one point, the reader is told there is “something unclean about the man.” Later, he is described as an “ill-smelling, hatchet-faced gunman.” And, toward the end, we learn that he has “yellow eyes.”
To top it all off, Bosky strips the valuables from one of his dying friends, the second baddest guy, and leaves him to the Apaches.
Okay, so L’Amour lays it on thick about Bosky.
A real page-turner
On the plus side, though, Shalako is a real page-turner.
It ends with Shalako Carlin on the top of a butte, fighting for his life in a hand-to-hand battle with Tats-ah-das-ay-go (Quick Killer), a lone wolf Apache warrior (and the one who, a few hours earlier, dealt that slow death to Bosky).
Shalako is “Rainmaker” in Zuni. And the reader has just learned that he isn’t simply a Western man, born and bred. And he’s not simply a white man who can out-Apache an Apache. He’s also a man who, after the U.S. Civil War, fought in Africa, Afghanistan and Germany and who, during a short visit to Paris, befriended Impressionists Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas as well as writer Emile Zola.
Okay, so maybe L’Amour lays it on thick about Shalako.
Still, Shalako’s successful leadership of a small party of mostly greenhorn men and women — tourists is what they are — in fighting off waves of Apache attacks in a high mountain clearing got my blood running.
And, then, the six pages devoted to his mano-a-mano combat with Tats-ah-das-ay-go revved the intensity even higher.
It ends — This won’t ruin the surprise. You know it’s coming. He gets the girl, too — this way:
[Tats-ah-das-ay-go] hit the edge of the cliff above the desert in a sitting position, his broken arm still grotesquely behind him, and then he toppled back, his black eyes still upon those of Shalako, and then he fell slowly backward into space.
The last thing Shalako saw was the eyes of the Indian, the eyes of Tats-ah-das-ay-go, the Quick-Killer, fastened on his.
As the Apache fell, Shalako cried out suddenly, almost in anguish, in admiration: “Warrior! Brother!”
And he spoke in Apache.
“The land is hard”
The admiration that Shalako holds for this one Apache mirrors the admiration that L’Amour exhibits toward the Apache warriors, the greatest on earth, he believes.
(In the early 1960s when the civil rights movement was still finding more failures than successes, respect and admiration for someone outside the white mainstream was a pointed message.)
L’Amour’s respect for the Apaches is paralleled by his respect for the land. Indeed, he is a proto-environmentalist, as is his character Shalako who says:
“The land is hard. A man cannot fight this country. He lives with it, or he dies. A man learns to become a part of it, to live like the desert plants do, almost without water, and to use every bit of available cover, like the desert animals do….”
And, deepest of all, it seems from Shalako, L’Amour holds a stoic sense of the ephemeral nature of life.
The best moments in the novel
The best moments in the novel, like the final moments of Tats-ah-das-day-go, have to do with death.
Even Rio Hockett, the second baddest of the bad guys, faces his coming death with dignity:
Now a dozen Indians surrounded him, baiting him as they might have baited a wounded bear. He mopped the blood from his face, holding his fire.
And Buffalo Harris, ambushed by Tats-ah-das-day-go:
Slowly his muscles relaxed and the idea of the ranch was gone from his mind, the idea of survival was gone, and then life was gone. In that big body, so filled with strength and energy and that mind with plans…there was nothing, nothing at all.
And the wounded Hans Kreuger, knowing he is dying and thinking over his life:
How can any man know? How can he guess which decision it is, often an inconsequential one, that sets him irrevocably upon the highway to failure, success, or sudden death? How can a man guess that from one particular instant he is committed, where the cogs will fit, one into the other, and each one turning the wheel inevitably closer and closer? How can he know as he laughs over a glass of wine, as he marches proudly, as he talks softly to a girl on the terrace…how can he know that each is a move that brings him closer to the end?
Shalako is a novel filled with stereotypes — the strong, silent man among men; the spunky, pretty, competent woman; the worthy foe; the dirty rat.
Yet, there is a dark recognition in this novel that, however strong, competent or worthy — or even dirty — one may be, “the end” is coming.
Sure, Shalako triumphed over Tats-ah-das-day-go.
But, like the Apache, his time will come.
Patrick T. Reardon