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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

The Buckskin Line

By Elmer Kelton  
A Forge Book, 287 pp, 1999

It's been ages since I've read a Western. The genre doesn't seem to be very popular these days. The library shelves are filled with Zane Gray and Louis L'Amour, as if they were still alive and pumping out the books. I wish L'Amour were still around - he's one of my favorite writers, and I've yet to read another Western author who enchanted me the way L'Amour did.

But I did find this little book at my local library, and decided to give it a try. I had seen other Kelton books but for whatever reason never checked them out. I should have - he's a fine writer.

This book is quite good. The subtitle says it's a novel about the Texas rangers, but that's not entirely accurate. The protagonist, Rusty Shannon, is a member of the fledgling ranger patrol, but the rangers aren't central to the plot. 

The novel begins with a historic raid of a Texas coastal town by Comanches in 1840. A child with red hair is taken captive by a warrior, Buffalo Caller, but is rescued by Mike Shannon. Mike and his wife adopt the boy as his own. His Christian name is David, but everyone calls him Rusty because of his red hair.

The book skips forward to 1859, and again to the early 1860s and the outbreak of the Civil War. Mike is murdered, and Rusty attempts to kill who he thinks is the killer, but Preacher Webb talks him out of it and convinces him to join the rangers on a remote outpost. Rusty meets up with a solid family with a babe daughter about his age (you know where that's going), but the family is solid Union, while the local bully is a Confederate determined to rid Texas of Yankee traitors. And there's still Comanches hanging around and causing trouble.

I've greatly simplified the plot. This is not your typical shoot 'em up Western, though there is plenty of action. It's a thoughtful examination of duty and loyalty, of Rusty's struggles to do the right thing in a maelstrom of strong emotions and murky moral lines.

This is a solid book, well-written and thoroughly researched. It's too early to claim Kelton as a worthy heir to L'Amour, but I'm going to read more of his books just the same.

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