Louis L’Amour’s long-lost first novel, faithfully completed by his son, takes readers on a voyage into danger and violence on the high seas.
Fate is a ship.
As the shadows of World War II gather, the SS Lichenfield is westbound across the Pacific carrying eighty thousand barrels of highly explosive naphtha. The cargo alone makes the journey perilous, with the entire crew aware that one careless moment could lead to disaster.
But yet another sort of peril haunts the Lichenfield. Even beyond their day-to-day existence, the lives of the crew are mysteriously intertwined. Though each has his own history, dreams and jealousies, longing and rage, all are connected by a deadly web of chance and circumstance.
Some are desperately fleeing the past; others chase an unknown destiny. A few are driven by the desire for adventure, while their shipmates cling to the Lichenfield as their only true home. In their hearts, these men, as well as the women and children they have left behind, carry the seeds of salvation or destruction. And all of them—kind or cruel, strong or broken—are bound to the fate of the vessel that carries them toward an ever-darkening horizon.
Inspired by Louis L’Amour’s own experiences as a merchant seaman, No Traveller Returns is a revelatory work by a world-renowned author—and a brilliant illustration of a writer discovering his literary voice.
Praise for No Traveller Returns
“A highly entertaining nautical adventure . . . Beau L’Amour has done his father’s fans a service by showcasing the future bestselling author’s already developed storytelling and mature insights into human nature.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Although L’Amour’s name will be forever linked with the American West, fans should welcome the opportunity to read some of his early work. . . . The insight into each character is typical of everything L’Amour ever wrote.”—Booklist
About the Author
Our foremost storyteller of the American West, Louis L’Amour has thrilled a nation by chronicling the adventures of the brave men and woman who settled the frontier. There are more than three hundred million copies of his books in print around the world.
Beau L’Amour is a writer, art director, and editor. He has written and produced several films, including USA Network’s The Diamond of Jeru. Since 1988 he has been the manager of the estate of his father, Louis L’Amour.
Date of Birth:March 22, 1908
Date of Death:June 10, 1988
Place of Birth:Jamestown, North Dakota
Read an Excerpt
February 1939 . . .
The shipfitter was a big man, hard-muscled from work, yet fat from age and too much drink. His nose was a spiderweb of red veins and his eyes were bloodshot. He stood in the dim and echoing vastness of the tank, braced on a plank supported by sandbags and scaffolding. Above his head were line after line of rivets. His aching arms held an air hammer, its supply line an awkward weight impairing the accuracy of his work.
Alone in Portside Wing Tank Number Seven, he lowered the heavy tool, choking back a groan of frustration and effort. Beneath a dirty wool shirt his ribs were bruised yellow and black, and his head pounded. The ship was a Grosset & Tate tanker, bound out for the Far East as quickly as the yard could get her back in the water. Of the lengthy list of repairs and improvements, this was the last. The work went on late, as late as it had to, in order to be completed.
Though the tanks were carefully vented and scoured before any work was done, the shipfitter still felt delirious. Was it petroleum fumes, the hangover, or the beating he had received? Did it matter? He leaned on the wall of the tank. He shouldn’t be here. He wasn’t up to it. But chances to work came rarely now. He got the pickup jobs when other, more senior, more reliable men, were out.
Rain dripped through the hatch, and the caged bulb that lit his work glared and swung as the wind outside blustered against its cable.
He tried to clear his head, but every breath hurt him under the arms and over the heart. He cursed, cursed as vilely as he knew how. It had been that damn pretty boy, the one who had attracted the crowd in the Beacon Street Pool Room. A bigmouth acting like he was better than all the other men on the beach.
The ’fitter had ignored him at first. The guy had been telling stories and reciting poetry to a group of young men and girls who looked like they were college students out for a night of slumming in the waterfront bars. But if you listened close, it seemed he’d been everywhere and done everything. And, if anyone spoke up, well . . . the guy would say he’d been there first and done it better.
No one seemed to mind but the shipfitter, who, though he refused to admit it, was already in a foul mood. He had taken over a two-room shack where some of the more unsavory elements that gathered at the Port of Los Angeles could go to get out of the rain. By offering shelter and an occasional alibi, and through sheer physical intimidation, the ’fitter had managed to cut himself in on a good many robberies of drunken seamen and the stealing of tools from Bethlehem and the other shipyards.
But one of his cronies, an oiler from a ship’s engine crew who worked strong-arm for him when in port, owed the ’fitter money. The oiler hadn’t been honoring their arrangement, and now the ’fitter was searching the streets of San Pedro with retribution, or at least collection, on his mind.
“The Café Olympic or the Astor Bar in Shanghai, just mention my name.” Pretty Boy was a pinch hitter for an actor well known for playing brooding, rebellious young men. “They set up a boxing match, you see. I was to fight this great big Russian wrestler.”
The ’fitter could stand no more, “You? Pah! Why, I could break you in two!”
“Perhaps you could, friend. Join us, why don’t you? Have a drink and let me finish my—”
The ’fitter swung.
He swung right at the smug young man’s perfectly etched chin. Pretty Boy went down like he’d dropped through a hole in the floor—but the ’fitter’s fist connected with nothing but air! The students scattered in a confusion of shrieks and angry yells, and the shipfitter stumbled forward into a pool table.
Then the young man bobbed back up behind him, having ducked completely under the ’fitter’s haymaker. The ’fitter felt two gunshot-fast concussions over his right kidney and turned straight into a jab that split his lips. He struck out but the younger man took the punches on his forearms and shoulders, ducking and dodging, firing blow after blow at the ’fitter’s body.
A boxer. The ’fitter wouldn’t have guessed it from the look of him, but there it was. He shook his head, and the pain told him he’d been hit harder and more often than he realized. The kid was fast, damn fast. But he knew what to do with boxers!
The big man lunged forward, his legs uncoiling, arms out, trying to get inside, to grapple and break this boy with his weight and strength. But the young man—the boxer—calmly grasped the ’fitter’s jacket. One hand closing on the fabric at the elbow and the other at the lapel, the boxer spun the big man around and down, his stylish loafer smashing the side of the ’fitter’s knee.
He crashed backward into a chair, the arm of it cracking against the side of his head, splitting his ear. The ’fitter scrambled to his feet to see the boxer dancing lightly forward and back, his right hand brushing dark curls out of his eyes. They were in a ring of wide-eyed patrons, dungarees and overalls mixed with letter jackets and brightly colored skirts.
The shipfitter had rushed again, a wounded bull, enraged as much by the gasping crowd as by the matador he charged. Even before he found himself on the floor again—ribs broken, ears ringing, and a shoulder dislocated—he heard the motherless son, the bloody fop, claiming that this . . . and then this . . . was what he had done to the Russian wrestler in Shanghai.
In the echoing shadows of the great steel tank, the shipfitter growled. He would have his revenge, somehow. He lifted the barrel of the air hammer. Breathing carefully, shallowly. He could live without the wages, but without the job itself, he had no access to the yards. That meant no access to the stolen tools he pawned or sold. It meant no access to all those things that would never be missed on the ships themselves, items that could be dropped by a lonely stretch of fence to be retrieved later from the outside. When times were bad, a tool or two was the difference between cheap whiskey and canned heat. He had to finish.
The rivets on tanks intended for volatile petroleum products had to be “caulked” like a boiler, a process of burring down the edge to create an airtight seal. The ’fitter placed the head of the hammer against the next rivet and clamped down on the trigger. The noise in the enclosed space was shocking. Even with the cotton the ’fitter had stuffed in his ears, it seemed like it would rip his head apart. He moved the caulking edge around the rivet and moved on.
After four more rivets, he dropped the air hammer and leaned on the wall of the tank, pressure hissing from the fitting on the hose. He’d been on the job four hours and needed a drink, or several. Everything hurt. The fight had been two days ago, and still everything hurt.
Three more feet to go. A couple dozen rivets. He looked at the hammer with dread. To hell with it, the shipfitter thought. To hell with it.
He crawled out of the access hatch into the rain. He pulled up his tools and coiled the hose. At the dimly lit window to the shipyard office he stopped and clocked out.
“Wing Tank Number Seven,” the ’fitter said. “All finished.”
“A good thing too,” replied the little man with the pencil behind his ear. “We’re behind schedule. Can’t get ’em in lest you get ’em out.” He peered at the ’fitter’s bandaged forehead and bruised cheekbone.
“What happened to you?”
“Ahh, shut up!” The ’fitter waved him off as he shuffled toward the road, the lights of the yard making halos in the damp air between him and the gate.
Two hours later the shipfitter was dead to the world in his shack with rain dripping from the eves. Beside his dirty mattress was a nearly empty bottle. He was dreaming of revenge, dreaming of that boxer with his skull crushed by a homemade blackjack.
Three Weeks Later . . .
There was no sound but the low pulse of engines down below, an occasional clatter of pots from the galley, and the hissing of the coffee urn.
The man sat silently, sipping his black coffee over the rim of an enameled cup, holding it in both hands and staring blankly across the room, his lids still heavy with sleep. His face was strong and square, and the hands that held the cup were callused and powerful. He was blond, Nordic. His worn dungarees, faded from many washings, were neatly patched on one hip. His elbows rested on the mess table. His arms were tattooed, a blue and white ship sinking in a blue and white sea on one arm, and a slender girl in a dancer’s pose but without a ballet dress on the other. His hair was rumpled, his jaw covered with a stubble of beard. His name was Pete Brouwer, he was a sailor. He could have been nothing else.
Another man stumbled sleepily into the mess room and stood glaring at its one occupant. Then he picked up a thick white cup and drew it full of coffee, adding tinned milk and sugar. He slumped into a seat at the opposite end of the table.
He was short and thick-bodied. Although clean-shaven, his jowls were blue with beard. His eyes were small and deeply set, his big hands covered with coarse, black hair. Mahoney was an oiler, a member of the “black gang,” or engine crew. Like many Liverpool Irishmen, he cared for little but whiskey and beef stew.
Though he had never laid eyes on Pete, the blond seaman, before two weeks ago, he hated him. He hated him for reasons he would admit to no one aboard this ship, hated him because he had never wanted to see the man again, yet here they were trapped on the same boat, sharing the same watch, all the way to the Far East and back. Pete wasn’t the only man aboard Mahoney hated, but in Pete’s case he had to keep his enmity a secret; if he let it show, there’d be hell to pay.
Two others came in, a seaman and a fireman. The seaman, a slender fellow with buck teeth, was humming a popular ballad. The fireman, known as Slug, a top-heavy, lumbering fellow, lurched across to a bench and leaned against the bulkhead. In a minute he was dozing.
There were thirty-three men aboard ship, and each had a name, a life, and a dream. The steward, crew’s messman, and pantryman were Filipinos, the officers’ messman was an Atlanta Negro, the two cooks were Chinese, and the remainder of the crew were various shades of what is loosely termed “white.”
The ship was a tanker bound out from San Pedro for Manila, carrying eighty thousand barrels of naphtha. In two of the after tanks there was a space of several feet between the liquid and the tank top. A slight shortage resulted in the failure to fill the tanks. This was of no particular importance, except that eighty thousand barrels of naphtha is eighty thousand barrels of potential destruction, made somewhat more dangerous anytime the fumes mixed with oxygen in the air. A combination of seals and ventilation minimized the danger, but as the ship moved westward it rolled slightly, and there was a soft whisper as the naphtha shifted inside its tanks.
It lacked five minutes of midnight. At midnight the Man at the Wheel would hear the chronometer sound eight bells. He would relay them again with the bell-cord overhead, and the Man on Lookout would reply by bell from the bow. Then they would be relieved by the twelve-to-four watch and retire to the petty officers’ mess, where they had no business to be, to drink coffee and talk. The coffee would be a bitter brown wash and the talk mostly lies. Later, they would go to their quarters in what tankermen called the fo’c’stle, even though it was aft. They would roll into their bunks, and sleep.
The second mate would be on the bridge thinking of his wife, and the third mate would be below in his bunk thinking of his fiancée in Los Angeles. The third mate was just twenty-six and still had confidence in women and romance. The second mate was thirty-seven with a wife and three children, two of whom he was reasonably sure were his. The second mate had little confidence in either women or romance.
As the tanker steamed through peaceful seas, the water parted, rolling back in phosphorescent waves that rippled away into the glassy darkness. Myriads of stars sparkled along the Milky Way like harbor lights along the shore of night. Dennis McGuire, the sailor on lookout, leaned on the rail and watched the slow dip of the bow and the slow, measured lift that followed. He frowned into the vastness of the night and wondered about Faustine back in Los Angeles.
When had he truly decided to leave? Was it when he had signed the Articles of Shipping days earlier or when he had woken up in her bungalow that last morning? At the time, he had felt uneasy and assumed he was confused by his feelings and the obligations that might come if he stayed. Now he was not so sure.
He liked to tell people he had an infallible sense of when to escape any particular situation. For the first time, though, he found he was unsure about the result. There was a strange sense that something was amiss. That should have cleared up when he left Faustine and Hollywood behind, however it had not.