677. A Perfect Book

This is a photo of my  copy. The front blurb, which is too small to read, says, “He was a rip-roaring rebel . . .  the Army be damned!”  However the narrator was nothing like a rebel and the Army appears nowhere in this book. So much for truth in advertising.

Let me tell you about a perfect book — not some abstract idea of perfection, but a very specific book called Last Scout by Wade Everett, which is the pseudonym used by two western writers, Will Cook and Giles A. Lutz, for the books they wrote together.

What makes Last Scout perfect, for me, is the way in which it weaves together four strands into one seamless cable. It is a mystery, a western, a story of family, and a story of a boy growing into manhood. Each of those strands gets roughly equal treatment.

It was never much of a success (see below) possibly because of this balance. If you love westerns, there is probably too much family stuff interrupting the action. A mystery lover would wonder why Wild Bill Hickok keeps showing up, and a family story reader might wish Page, the young narrator, wouldn’t get into so many fist fights and shoot-outs.

I like it all, but especially the pacing.

Chapter one: Deadwood, during the height of the gold rush. Page, our narrator, meets his grandpa for the first time. He has been languishing in an old folks home. Page meets him at the stage where his gramps greets him by throwing him repeatedly to the ground. He isn’t mad; he’s just an ornery old mountain man testing out the young-un. Page takes him back to his mother who is not happy that the old coot is coming home.

Page leaves to dodge the fireworks between the two and goes to see his dad, who is running one of the mines which have been losing money to stage hold-ups. His dad explains that his mother is half-Indian, born of one of the old man’s many wives. She was raised white in a school for girls until the old man took her back to the blanket where she had to learn to live as an Indian. That is where Page’s dad found her and married her.  She loves the old man, but she has never forgiven him for taking her out of the white world when she was a girl. All this has given her an exaggerated need for respectability.

Page borrows his dad’s shotgun and heads out to shoot some birds for supper, wild game to make his grandpa feel more at home. There he meets Buckley, manager of the stage line which is being overwhelmed by hold-ups. They hunt together, but Buckley is unskilled and Page is a wizard with a shotgun. At the end of the day, Buckley sets up a test. He hangs a batch of sacks of flour in trees a few miles out of town, and challenges Page to hit them from a moving stage. Jim Bell, the marshall, and Hickok hear about it and tag along. It is a wild ride, but Page pots every target, and Buckley offers him a job guarding the stage as Bell and Hickok look on. Of course he says yes. And of course that causes a row when he gets home, but he has given his word, so he keeps the job.

That’s chapter one of fifteen and already everything that will follow is rolling down the track at high speed. Hold onto you cowboy hat.

In a later chapter, Marshall Bell’s mother and Buckley’s sister come into town on one of the stages Page is guarding. Now the dynamics of three three families are play, which becomes more important when Page determines that the head of the robbers is a man from one of the three families. After he decides he can’t trust Bell, and since he it the primary target the robbers are shooting at, Page feels he has to unravel the mystery himself.

Page and his grandfather become uneasy partners, but Page can’t quite trust the old mountain man not to just shoot his suspects.

Eventually the robbers get caught, the family tensions sort themselves out, the mystery man in the background is outed, Page grows up, and there is plenty of manly fist and gun play along the way.

What makes all this perfect is the way things move from scene to scene. In a normal novel of this type, an action scene is often followed by some extraneous business, such as a pony ride from one town to another through memorable scenery. This gives the reader time to catch his breath. In Last Scout, a scene of family life moves to a scene of sharp action and then to a scene where Page learns a lesson in maturity. Nothing is wasted; nothing is extraneous.

If I have any complaint, it is that Page is too competent for his age. He makes too few embarrassing mistakes on his way to manhood.

All this takes place in about 42,000 pretty short words. An author today would need a series of four long books to give us this much story.

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It’s hard to find the publishing history of a minor work, so this is all I know. Last Scout was published in paperback in 1960 by Ballantine. I bought my copy used, probably in the seventies or eighties, and I haven’t seen another copy since. Apparently it was reprinted in 1997 in a Large Print Hardcover edition, credited only to Will Cook. As I write, Amazon has only two copies of the hardback and one of the paperback, all used, and your local used book store is likely to have none..

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