The Rustlers of West Fork is the first of four novels that Louis L'Amour wrote about Hopalong Cassidy's adventures in the American western frontier. Click Hopalong Cassidy Background for more information about these books.
Plot Summary: It's the 1860s and ranchers and the cowhands who work for them are the most common residents of small towns in the frontier. Buck Peters, the original foreman of the Bar 20 ranch, is ready to repay a debt he owes to another rancher, Dick Jordan. Unfortunately, Dick now lives several days ride west of Buck's ranch, on the Circle J ranch near Horse Springs. A trusted messenger needs to take the $15,000 Buck is repaying Dick across the wild land and into a region known for lawlessness and robberies. Buck decides that person should be his friend, Hopalong Cassidy.
Hopalong (Hoppy) runs into some trouble on his way to Horse Springs, first when three men try to ambush him to get the money before he ever leaves town and then when he rescues a father and son from an Apache Indian raid. One of the men who attacked Hoppy mentions a name before he dies, Avery Sparr. Hopalong learns from the family he rescued and their friends that Avery Sparr has a reputation as "the slickest, fastest gunman" around Horse Springs. He has also taken up residence at the Circle J with Dick Johnson and his daughter, Pam.
After Dick Johnson was injured in an accident, Avery Sparr and his partner Arnold Soper have taken a bigger and bigger leadership interest in the Circle J. Unbeknownst to Dick or his daughter, Sparr also had Soper register a new cattle brand. In a time before the West was fenced off with barbed wire, ownership of each cow (and the potential profit it represented) was based on the brand it wore. By trusting the wrong men, Dick has given Sparr the opportunity to organize a slow takeover of his entire business. Even worse, Sparr has used the opportunity posed by Dick's injury to make Dick and his daughter, Pam, prisoners in their own home.
Hopalong had some inkling of trouble at the Circle J from a letter Pam sent him before he left the Bar 20. Mixed in with the standard greetings and conversation was a coded call for help. The more Hoppy finds out about Sparr, Soper and their gunmen, the more convinced he becomes the he needs to rescue Dick and Pam and set things right on the Circle J.
My Reaction: I didn't know any of the Hopalong Cassidy background until I reached the Afterword of this book. That didn't really effect my enjoyment of the story. Some of the characters from Clarence Mulford's original Bar 20 stories make appearances, but they're all clearly labeled as friend or foe. This book is really more of a stand alone story, like a Western TV series with one-shot episodes instead of long-term story arcs.
If you've ever seen a Western-themed movie or TV series, you'll have a good idea what to expect from The Rustlers of West Fork. The good guys are full of common sense wisdom, courage, and grit. The bad guys are cowardly, conniving, and bloodthirsty. I enjoyed L'Amour's descriptions of the lands and history of how towns like Horse Springs developed and the way a clever man could try to takeover an entire ranch without raising any suspicions.
I was also more impressed with the Pam character than I had expected to be. She wasn't able to protect the family business from these high-class rustlers, but she did manage to get a message out for help and work with Hoppy on his rescue plans.
Western Slang: The language in this book is beautiful. Some of the slang reminds me of my father-in-law, but taken to the extreme. Some I had to ask my husband for translations. Here's a sample.
- "plumb salty" - street-wise, crafty, (maybe a "gun-slick") opposite of a "pilgrim" or "soft-tailed tenderfoot"
- "Boot Hill" - the graveyard
- "played hob" - cause trouble
- "hoss" or "cayuse" = horse
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