Alan Geoffrion

Broken Trail

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Broken Trail Summary

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Set in the late 19th century, American author Alan Geoffrion’s Western novel Broken Trail (2006) follows an older cowboy and his nephew as they travel from Oregon to Wyoming on a mission to transport 500 horses to be sold to the British Army. Their journey takes an unexpected turn when they rescue five Chinese girls en route to be sold as sex slaves and servants. Pursued by a group of bounty hunters hired by the matriarch of the whorehouse that purchased the girls, Prentice Ritter and his nephew, Tom Harte, race against the clock to cross the perilous mountain passes to reach a safe haven. The novel draws from the real-life sex trafficking of Chinese women in the late 1800s, as well as the booming horse trade with the British Army. Broken Trail has been adapted into a film of the same name, also written by Geoffrion.

The novel begins in 1889. In San Francisco, many hopeful Chinese immigrants are sold into slavery daily. Five of them end up in the hands of Captain Billy Fender, sent by “Big Rump” Kate, who runs a whorehouse in Caribou City, Idaho and is its most powerful denizen. Meanwhile, in Oregon, Prent Ritter meets his nephew Tom at his ranch to inform him that his estranged mother has died. In her will, she gave all of her possessions to Prent, rather than Tom. Prent apologizes for the actions of Tom’s mother; he proposes that Tom help him deliver 500 horses to Sheridan, Wyoming. In return, he promises 25% of the journey’s profits.

Prent and Tom purchase the horses from local ranches and then head towards the Idaho border. There, they hire a third companion, a fiddler named Heck who is down on his luck. Soon afterward, they cross paths with Captain Fender and the enslaved girls. Fender asks if he can follow close to Prent’s group for added security; he agrees warily. On the first night, after Prent, Tom, and the fiddler decline Fender’s offer to let them rape the slaves, Fender drugs them, stealing their cash and several horses. He absconds with one of the girls, leaving the other four behind. The next morning, Tom finds Fender asleep, having just raped the girl. Tom hangs him and returns to the camp with the girl.

Prent treats the girls kindly; though they know almost no English, he teaches them to call him Uncle, and they develop a mutual trust. When Tom returns with the fifth girl, they head east through Idaho. Tragically, they lose one of the girls, Sun Fu, to a fever caused by a tick. The group gives her a funeral and a warming eulogy. Meanwhile, Kate hires bounty hunter Ed Bywaters, better known as “Big Ears,” to find the girls and to kill their new travel companions. Tom and Heck unwittingly enter Caribou City in order to find people who will take care of the girls; there, Tom meets Lung Hay, who speaks to the girls in Chinese and relates that they do not wish to leave them. Tom and Heck go to the saloon, where they meet Kate, who offers them a prostitute. When they turn her down, she demands that they return the girls to her. They prepare to escape town, closely pursued by Kate and her men. Tom fends them off as they escape.

In the final section of the novel, the party continues east across Wyoming, with the addition of Lung Hay. Tom and one of the girls develop an attraction to each other, while another girl grows deeply depressed. One day, the girl commits suicide by walking in the path of a horse stampede. The group encounters an Indian tribe that forces them to pay to pass through their land. Kate’s men close in on them again, led by a bounty hunter named Ed. Prent scares them away by pretending to be Smallpox Bob, a figure notorious for deliberately infecting thousands of Indians with lethal smallpox by giving them infected blankets. At last, the horses are shepherded to their destination town of Sheridan, Wyoming. The group rests at the home of the British buyer, Malcolm. Prent gives Tom the profits he is due so that he can start building a good life for himself. The next day, Ed catches up to the group, murders Heck, and takes the girls. Just before he kills Prent, Tom arrives and kills most of Ed’s men, wounding Ed himself. Prent takes the opportunity to beat Ed to death. As the novel ends, the girls board a stagecoach en route to San Francisco. Tom says goodbye to Sun Fu, with whom he has fallen deeply in love. Just before the stagecoach leaves, Sun Fu chooses to stay. For generations, their family remains in Wyoming, carrying on their ranching tradition.