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Sunday, September 11, 2011


‘Wagon Hunt’ is set in the year 1868 in an America still coming to terms with the end of the Civil War. It is the story of three men who are trying to find their way in this changed country, and of how their choices affect their lives.

The main character is Pete Baker, marshal of Baxter Springs. His position is placed under threat by the newly-elected Mayor Dell, who wants to bring in his own man to do the job. Pete has a young family, however, and fights for his career. That is until there is a bank robbery in town, and Dell sees his chance to remove him.

The bank robbery is carried out by Charlie Weston, former Rebel and member of Alan Quantrill’s guerrilla band. In 1863 he participated in the Lawrence Massacre. The ensuing enactment of General Order No.11 by the Union government, which was caused in part by the massacre, left much of his home county of Jackson devastated and led to the exile of his parents in Kansas. They were never to return to their homestead. He is burdened by guilt because he connects his part in the massacre with his parents’ displacement and this guilt eventually deadens him inside, dehumanises him. He becomes an outlaw and spends the next years robbing and looting. The beginning of the book sees him at age 38, growing weary with this transient and dangerous life. He wants to pull one more big raid so that he can buy some land and maybe become a farmer.
Weston succeeds in robbing the bank in Baxter Springs but Pete is alerted to the robbery almost immediately. He, along with his deputy Joe Flaherty, chases Weston and his band out of town and across the plain. There is a shootout where Pete and Joe succeed in subduing all of the gang except Weston, who escapes in the commotion. This leaves Pete and Joe to return to town empty handed where they are summoned once more to meet with Mayor Dell. To avoid being fired Pete makes a deal with Dell. He asks for two months to track down this bank robber. If he succeeds he will remain as marshal, if he fails he will quit his post. Dell agrees to this as Pete is popular amongst the townsfolk and Dell is reluctant to draw their ire. He sees this as a fair compromise because he can’t imagine Pete succeeding.

Not everything goes well for Weston either, however. He is scammed of his money by Josiah Maxwell, son of land baron Bat Maxwell. In a fit of temper he guns down Josiah in a Lawrence saloon. He escapes on foot into the night where he is found unconscious by an emigrant returning to his wagon after buying some supplies in town. Weston awakens in the back of a wagon as they head west along with the rest of the wagon train.. He settles into their life as it gives him time to think and is a good hiding place from the men he supposes are coming to kill him. He begins to recover some of his humanity amongst this community and begins to fall for a beautiful young woman named Rose. As they travel he proves useful to the emigrants, helping them to ford the Platte, hunt buffalo and see off some Sioux aggression.

The third man is Tom Bogue. He is a hired gun, commissioned by Bat Maxwell to find and kill Charlie Weston, his son’s killer. He must first track him down and he visits Baxter Springs to enquire about the bank robbery. There he poses as a Pinkerton and questions Pete who, hoping that he might have some information, follows him to Lawrence where he discovers that he has been picked up by the wagon train, and then onto the trail. Bogue is ready for Pete and Joe, however, and he captures them on the banks of the Platte. He does not kill them as he has a plan to use Pete to flush Weston out when they catch up with him.

Eventually they catch the prairie schooners before Fort Bridger. Pete is sent in to find Weston, as Bogue is sure he will be recognised by his prey. Pete concocts a plan with Weston, however, and they eventually kill Bogue after a struggle. Pete has developed a rapport with Weston and doesn’t arrest him, despite the consequences for his job. Weston is free to continue west with Rose, their love free to blossom. Before he leaves, he gives Pete the remainder of the money from the robbery. The novel ends with them going their separate ways and Pete looking forward to returning home to his family.

The crux of the story deals with Weston recovering his humanity after joining the wagon train and subsequently falling in love with Rose. He gives up the money he has stolen at the end of the book whereas Bogue chases him and is willing to kill him for cash reward. Bogue is emotionless, unable to see beyond the task at hand. Kill for money – that is his mantra and he ultimately dies because of this. Pete has the most to lose of them all. A job, a wife, a child and a great friend in his deputy. He is the character that is the most easy to identify with. His motivations are many and the pressures on his decision-making affecting the most people. Ultimately, it is his innate humanity that keeps him on the straight path and prevents the type of extreme behaviour that Weston used to deal in, and Bogue continues to deal in until his death. As they move further and further west the characters leave civilisation behind them and this distance between the corruption and vices of the towns and cities seems to bring out the best in Boland and Weston. The rugged Rocky Mountains provide the scene for the final confrontations.

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