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The Eyes and Ears of Texas

Texan-born and Texan-bred, Elmer Kelton wrote over 40 novels set in his beloved state.

Book Cover Growing up with John Wayne in the movies and Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Maverick, and the classic Have Gun—Will Travel, I have noted with some gloom the decline in popularity of the great American story form known as the “horse opera.”

There are no longer any Western or cowboy (and injun) shows on television, and the movies only occasionally offer up some of the same—some thick slabs of Larry McMurtry sentimentality, or sporadically something like Lawrence Kasden’s Silverado, Tombstone, or my favorite, Walter Hill’s Geronimo.

In fiction there is not much more than Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry—though early Elmore Leonard covered the Western terrain and, of course, Elmer Kelton, author of more than 40 novels, honored by his peers as the greatest Western writer ever. Kelton, who passed away last summer, has a new volume out, Texas Sunrise: Two Novels of the Texas Republic (Forge Books), which, as the title indicates, contains Massacre at Goliad and After the Bugles.

Thomas and Joshua Buckalew, who emigrate to Texas (still part of Mexico), soon find that a rising level of antipathy between the new settlers and Mexican authorities quickly incinerates into the so-called Texan revolution, eventually resulting in the mythmaking Alamo and the less widely recognized Goliad Massacre, around which the first novel is centered:
Josh had shot a few men in the war and he had always wondered about it afterwards…who they were, where had the come from, how it came they were destined to be at that particular place at that particular time to die by his hand rather than someone else’s. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to dwell on…

Six weapons roared. Horses plunged and squealed. Men shrieked and cursed and fell. Through a cloud of black powder-smoke drifting out from the wagons, Josh watched his man jerk backward, clutching his stomach, then slide off, and crumple in an awkward heap. Another man crawled on the ground, screeching, going limp as a terrified horse trampled him. The smoke was heavy, but Josh could see that at least four men had been left untouched. Someone had completely missed his target.
After the Bugles, the sequel to Massacre, begins at the crucial battle of San Jacinto—which secured Texan independence—where the Buckalew brothers now experience the hardships of war’s aftermath and the unabated hostilities of the region’s conflicting cultures.

The story is quintessentially Americana—one of the things that recommends it. And as long I am at it, let me remind you of Paulette Giles’s wonderful tale (set in East Texas), The Color of Lightning, and the early novels of James Carlos Blake—The Pistoleer, The Friends of Pancho Villa, Red Grass River, and especially In the Rogue Blood.
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