I like westerns and Kelton’s books in particular. I’ve written before in this blog about his books (click on the All past articles link in the box to the right and then go down to December 2007 for my blog entry on Sons of Texas by Elmer Kelton). His stories are often coming-of-age stories where a young man is finding his place in the world and coming to grips with the complexity of the people around him, learning to appreciate their qualities and accept their faults. Kelton’s books also have a strong sense of place: Texas during and after the Civil War.
This story is set a bit later, around the turn of the century, when a wealthy rancher named Frank Claymore is on trial for murder. Crippled with rheumatism and bursting with cantankerous crotchets, he is helped into the courtroom by his lifelong friend, Homer Whitcomb.
Almost immediately, we flash back to his youth, when he and Homer and another friend, George Valentine, ride out to search for cattle on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and run into a Comanche hunting party. With the Civil War going on back east, the Confederacy cannot send troops to Texas to fight the Indians, so families from Clear Fork, including Frank’s sweetheart Rachal, have taken refuge in Fort Davis.
Each succeeding chapter starts with Frank’s trial and then takes up the story of the past again, until finally we understand the twists and turns of the path that led Frank to this moment in the courthouse, where the town seems to be against him, all but Homer and the two Native Americans under the Chinaberry tree outside.
Kelton handles the time changes deftly never leaving me in any doubt as to where and when we are. And I found the descriptions of the land stunning, particularly those of the early years, before the buffalo had been slaughtered and the prairie grasses plowed under. The valley that Frank stumbles upon and swears to return to is vividly drawn, not just the look of the hills and stream, but the feel of the place, the awe that it inspires.
Frank is well aware that his actions have brought about, or at least contributed to the changes he so deplores, not that he would admit that out loud to anyone. I, too, have been ruefully surprised when I look back at the unintended consequences of so many of my decisions and actions. My poor record at predicting outcomes, both good and bad, leaves me humble and repentant.
Initially, Frank seems like the worst kind of bad-tempered, controlling old man, certain that he is always right, never hesitating to criticise those around him. But as his past unfurls, marked by grief and loss and unlooked-for responsibilities, he begins to make sense and inspire more sympathy. How could he be otherwise—this taciturn man who understands cattle but not people—given the trail he has followed? Through him, I came to understand and appreciate several of my acquaintances.
Frank’s story moved me, at first to rage and frustration, sometimes to nostalgia, occasionally to amazement and respect. It left me thinking about friendship, the bonds of the past, and—finally—forgiveness.