Thursday, January 29, 2015

Elmer Kelton, Texas Showdown

This book is actually two short novels by Elmer Kelton, first published in the 1960s and reissued under one title by Forge in 2007. Pecos Crossing, originally titled Horsehead Crossing (1963), appeared under Kelton’s own name, while Shotgun, originally titled Shotgun Settlement (1969), was published under a house pseudonym, Alex Hawk.

First off, Elmer Kelton is one of my top-10 favorite western writers. He wrote with a strong sense of history and an informed awareness of the West Texas terrain, its flora and fauna, and its weather. I find it easy to believe in his characters. They are not just convenient types but possess an emotional depth that makes them three-dimensional.

I would say he achieves this by conceiving of them as ordinary people who get themselves into all-too-human predicaments that force them into making choices. And these in turn drive a plot that is both inevitable and often unpredictable. As in his novel Other Men’s Horses (reviewed here a while ago), his central characters are fundamentally decent people up against dangerously determined men ready to lie, thieve, and kill.

His women are strong-willed and resourceful. Romance plays a role in both novels in this volume, as a young man falls in love with a girl who complicates matters as he follows his heart, though at the risk of losing his life.

Often, a pivotal character is a lawman who has learned how to wield authority with a firm but easy hand and has earned the respect of others by exercising a strong sense of fair play, even when upholding the law puts him on the unpopular side of a dispute.

One other thing. While there is a kill-or-be-killed element in Kelton’s fictional West, and men carry and use firearms, there is not an assumption that the reader is a gun enthusiast who needs to know the make, model, and caliber of every weapon that shows up in the narrative. It’s probably just me, but this habit of western writers today immediately draws attention to itself--like a fetish. For this reader, it comes across as too much information and disturbs rather than reinforces the illusion of a credible scene.

Pecos Crossing.  The central characters in this exciting yarn are two young cowboys who stop a stage to collect unpaid wages from one of the passengers. In the resulting confusion, a woman is accidentally shot dead. Her husband, a retired Ranger, then tracks down the boys to take revenge for her death.

Fleeing westward, the two come upon a young woman and her father, who is dying of TB. One of the cowboys, Johnny Fristo, wants to help them. His partner, who is chiefly responsible for the trouble the two are in, disagrees. Fristo, with a stronger sense of decency, prevails, though they lose time and the Ranger eventually catches up with them at a crossing on the otherwise treacherous Pecos River.

Like Other Men’s Horses, the story unfolds as a series of adventures encountered while traveling across a rough and mostly unsettled frontier.

Shotgun. The characters in this novel are drawn from the more usual stock of recognizable types that appear in westerns: the big ranch owner, his sons, a problematic neighboring rancher, his daughter, and a cunningly vicious villain who wants both men’s ranches.

Blair Bishop is the cattleman who, over a lifetime, has acquired a vast acreage. At the novel’s start, his main problem is a long drought that is drying up the water supply for his herds and leaving them with little grass to feed on. There has been an invasion of the thirsty cattle of his neighbor, Clarence Cass, and they are being driven back where they came from.

Relations between the two ranchers are further complicated by the fact that Bishop’s son, Allan, and Cass’s daughter, Jessie, make no secret of having fallen in love and intend to run off together if Bishop doesn’t give them his blessing.

Enter the villain of the story, Macy Modock, with a ten-year grievance against Bishop, who once had him sent to the pen for some wrongdoing. Having served his time, Modock hires a gunman and a shady lawyer to put the squeeze on Bishop by claiming legal ownership of parts of his ranch. Strengthening his hand, Modock lures Cass into his scheme.

Elmer Kelton
In a long and suspenseful conclusion, Jessie is holed up in a barn, bravely exchanging shots with Modock, while Allan lies unconscious beside her. Like the young women in Pecos Crossing and Other Men’s Horses, she is a credit to her gender.

Wrapping up. Texas Showdown is currently available in print and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Blowing my own horn: For an in-depth, two-volume survey of early writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (to obtain a copy, click here).

Further reading/viewing:
BITS reviews of Elmer Kelton novels

Image credits:
Author photo,
Horsehead Crossing cover,
Shotgun Settlement cover,

Coming up: TBD


  1. Elmor Kelton was my all time favorite writer-friend in the writing world. He never, ever laughed at my questions about cowboying, Texas grasses, or how windmills were repaired a hundred years ago with no Lowes or Home Depot around the corner. Yes, an expert on Texas flora, fauna and history. I miss him terribly.

  2. Elmer was an adult who wrote adult stories of the West, unlike so many western writers whose stories are all guns and swagger.

  3. I've read a couple of Mr. Kelton's books and liked them, and I will be reading more. He was a fine writer to be looked upon as an inspiration.

  4. As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate "realistic" characters more. I still like the larger than life characters better and I believe they are far more important to us as a species than the realistic ones. The larger than life characters, at least the heroes, teach us what to strive for, teach us to work toward being better, even though we will all fall short of those goals.

    1. For me, it's become a matter more of both/and than either/or.

  5. One of my favorites, have read a half dozen or so of his books. Have not read the two from above, they will be on my list

  6. I need to post comments ahead of Charles Gramlich. For seven years now he writes what I'm thinking. :)

  7. Ron, I have read a good deal about Elmer Kelton's westerns and your review tells me what I have been missing yet. I like reading frontier fiction with a "strong sense of history," sound knowledge of the lay of the land, and realistic characters. Sometimes descriptions alone are enough to hold my attention.