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
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
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.