William W. Johnstone released his seventh ‘Last Mountain Man’ book in May of 1990 for Zebra. “War of the Mountain Man” continues the adventures of paperback warrior Smoke Jensen and his westward war with land barons, rapists, outlaws and criminal fast-draws. At this point in time, it’s all rather cookie cutter as Johnstone seemingly just calls in the action by recycling fights and enemies and placing them in subsequent books. At one point, in the middle of this entry, two characters shockingly absorb Smoke’s account of killing over 200 men in prior adventures. It’s a testament to the book’s high body count and the protagonist’s own immortality. Smoke may be grazed by bullets or fists, but his unwavering legacy just continues on – maybe at the expense of the reader.
The book’s opening chapter explains that Smoke and his wife Sallie have sent the kids abroad via a steamship. Sallie wants to spend some time alone with Smoke and wants the two of them to go visit an old school colleague, Victoria, in Montana. Victoria and her husband Robert have inherited a ranch in Hell’s Creek where a land baron named Max Hutchins resides. Smoke is weary of the visit, but is reading between the lines – Sallie needs Smoke’s skills to liberate the two ranchers. The two arrive at a small town on the Swan River where Smoke is informed that a survivor named Jake Lewis is still alive. Readers may remember that Smoke avenged the death of his first wife in a camp called Uncomphagre in the series’ first book. Jake, a survivor of Smoke’s Uncomphagre raid, is working for Hutchins which is an easy connect the dots for the author. Smoke beats up Jake and throws him in a horse trough before saddling up and heading to a town called Barlow on the outskirts of Hell’s Creek. In and around Barlow is the main location for the book’s story.
Barlow is a corrupt little place where Hutchins has killed off the editor, Marshall and tarred and feathered the minister. He’s replaced them all with his own men, something that Smoke corrects instantly upon arrival. He throws both deputies out of a second story window and slaps the fire, and corruption, out of the town’s judge. Collectively, he rallies the town’s 30 willing citizens to fight back against Hutchins and his 100 gunners. The town votes to elect Smoke as the sheriff and soon the town is rebuilt – bank, shops, school, police force, etc. Barlow is an unusual spot geographically. The north end is controlled by Hutchins and the south is ruled by an equally vile criminal in Red Malone. The two split the gambling, whoring and raping equally and Smoke soon cuts off all supply trains in and out of Hell’s Creek. There’s no railroad to this part of the country…so needless to say Smoke prompts the ultimate war with Malone and Hutchins. A bulk of the book’s story is hit and run tactics by both men, some rapes, burnings and, of course, some death. The finale is predictable as the town defends the raiders in the not so epic showdown.
Johnstone never seems to run out of books, yet he is clearly out of ideas here. Malone and Hutchins are molded from the same vile elements as the series’ prior bad guys – Potter, Stratton, Richards, Hanks and McKorkle. These books wouldn’t be nearly as lethargic if we actually saw Smoke injured or pressed face first to the boards. Instead, Smoke is arrogant to the point of annoying because he, like the reader, knows he is invincible. It’s nearly pulp fiction as Smoke runs around, often completely alone, and kills off dozens upon dozens of bad guys. It’s a catch 22 – we love the hero disposing of the bad but at the same time we want the hero to at least get wounded or make some sort of inevitable comeback against superior odds. Smoke is never vulnerable, never in danger and never…that interesting. It’s unfortunate, but this series is rather stale and lifeless with a barrel-chested hero that has immortality.
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