One of the final novels written by Louis L'Amour near the end of his life.
Set sometime in the 1980s, the story follows Major Joseph Makatozi USAF, callsign Joe Mack, a fighter pilot of American Indian ancestry who is kidnapped by the Soviet GRU and imprisoned in a Siberian gulag. Joe Mack quickly escapes, but is thousands of miles inside enemy territory with no friends, no weapons, no way of contacting the outside world, and the entire Red Army hunting him. Joe Mack must revert to his Sioux roots to survive an odyssey across 2,000 miles of Siberian forests, mountains, and tundra in the hope of reaching the Bering Strait and crossing back to the US.
This novel contains examples of:
- The '80s: The exact date is never made clear, but Mikhail Gorbachev is explicitly stated to be the head honcho of the Politburo.
- Ace Pilot: if it flies, Makatozi can fly it. If it doesn't fly, he still might be able to get it off the ground anyway. This is the whole reason the Russians abducted Joe Mack in the first place. He possesses an almost savant-level talent as a pilot, is qualified on every aircraft in the US inventory, and has extensive experience as a test pilot. Finding out what he knows would be an unprecedented intelligence coup for the Russians. Too bad they didn't know who they were messing with.
- Adaptation Expansion: Of the short story The Skull and the Arrow, so much so, that if it weren't for Word of God that it was the original, no one would likely know. The original is a western man who was savagely beaten and finds a pre-historic skeleton of a large bear in a cave and finds that a pre-historic man ended up wounding it and eventually killing it with nothing but a primitive bow and arrow and a stone axe, which bolsters his confidence and he returns to face his enemies again. Apparently, when Makatozi was at a dilemma as to whether to turn himself into the Soviet army or keep going, he was supposed to find something similar and take heart from it, but it ended up being cut from the final novel.
- Badass Boast:
- One night, all alone with his campfire and his spear, Joe Mack hears something moving in the darkness and knows exactly what it is. Joe Mack yells, "Go away, old bear. Go home and tell your cubs that tonight you saw a Sioux warrior, and that he let you live because he has killed enough for one day." The bear leaves him alone.
- Another one sometime later, when Joe Mack and Yakov steal a Red Army helicopter. When asked if he knows how to fly it, Joe Mack dismissively answers, "I can fly anything."
- The best one is Joe Mack's written message for Zamatev in the very last lines of the final Bookend. "This was once a custom of my people. In my lifetime I will take two. This is the first." It's written on Alekhin's scalp.
- Big Bad: Colonel Arkady Zamatev of the GRU.
- The Dragon: Alekhin. He's a member of the indigenous Siberian Yakut tribe, basically a Siberian Indian.
- Femme Fatale: Zamatev's mistress, who is also his mole within the KGB.
- Jurisdiction Friction: Zamatev is an ambitious mid-level officer in the GRU, Soviet Military Intelligence, with his sights set high. He has made a lot of enemies during his rapid climb up the ranks, but the only ones he's really scared of are the KGB. When an American prisoner hops the fence of his supposedly escape-proof gulag and goes for a walk in the Siberian wilds, he pulls every string he can find to keep the KGB out of the loop.
- Hero of Another Story: Yakov
- How We Got Here: The Bookends take place roughly a week after the final scene of the main narrative. The story begins over a year and a half earlier.
- It's Personal: Zamatev intended to kidnap Major Makatozi, interrogate him, exploit everything he knows, then discard him in the gulag's mass grave. This would be a huge intelligence breakthrough for the Soviet Union and Zamatev's ticket to General's stars. The problem is that, as a Sioux warrior, this constitutes a huge insult to Joe Mack's honor that simply can't go unanswered. He intends to make his way back to America, resign from the Air Force, then come back to find Zamatev and kill him. Of course, he needs to get to America first. Across 1700 miles of Siberia. In winter. With the Red Army on his trail. And he'll need to deal with Alekhin at some point. And not freeze or starve to death. Or get killed by a tiger...
- The Mole: The GRU has one in the Pentagon, who cut orders transferring Joe Mack to Alaska, so that he could be shot down over the Bering Strait and abducted.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome: The last thing we see is Alekhin running into Joe Mack who has already disposed of the Russian soldiers accompanying the Yakut tracker. Joe Mack tells Alekhin that he's been waiting for him. Cut to the final Bookend, where Zamatev is berating the Sole Survivor of Alekhin's Red Army detail. The kid is still scared absolutely shitless, and hands Zamatev a package from Joe Mack. Zamatev slowly realizes that it's wrapped in Alekhin's scalp.
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: When Alekhin thinks he's getting close to Makatozi, he considers murdering the Russian soldiers escorting him in order to face his target one-on-one. Subverted in that he not only considers them unworthy but also incapable, and expects them to get in his way. They have orders to bring the American in alive, while Alekhin intends to kill him.
- Proud Warrior Race Guy: Joe Mack is half Sioux, one quarter Cheyenne, and one quarter Scottish. Col. Zamatev thought he could use Joe Mack's Indian heritage as an interrogation tool. Zamatev never figured that his newest prisoner considers himself a US Air Force officer and a Sioux warrior. When he was a boy, his white grandfather insisted that he be taught the old ways of the Sioux, even enduring the trial of the Sun Dance. Joe Mack knows how to make a knife from stone, how to make and use a spear and a bow, how to make his own clothes and tools, and how to keep himself hidden in plain sight. He's also an expert with firearms and skilled in hand-to-hand combat.
- Retired Badass: Dr. Stephan Baronas, nazi-killing Lithuanian partisan, now a crippled old man long since exiled to Siberia by Stalin.
- Scarily Competent Tracker: Alekhin and Joe Mack share this trait. Special emphasis on scary in Alekhin's case.
- Sequel Hook: The end practically screams for a sequel. Unfortunately, L'Amour succumbed to cancer shortly after this one was published.
- Shown Their Work: Every survival, tracking, and concealment method described in the book works in real life. Louis L'Amour knew what he was talking about.
- Smug Snake: Colonel Zamatev.
- Villainous Breakdown: Zamatev begins having one when he hears that the KGB might look into the matter of his escaped prisoner, but he's able to pull it together for a while. By the time we get to the Bookends, he's losing his shit. His hands start trembling uncontrollably as he reads Joe Mack's note to him.
- Worthy Opponent: Joe Mack and Alekhin see each other this way. Alekhin often smugly warns Zamatev that he's wasting his time using the Soviet military to hunt the escaped American, and that Makatozi will simply kill any Russians dumb or unlucky enough to get too close to him. According to Alekhin, he's the only one who can defeat Joe Mack.