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ranger's trail

3 October 2003

The back cover of Ranger's Trail by Elmer Kelton quotes Texas governor Rick Perry: "Elmer Kelton is truly a Texas legend." I was in danger of having to turn in my Texas passport, because I'd never read an Elmer Kelton novel. Ranger's Trail shows both why Kelton is legendary and why Texans always feel a bit ambivalent about their legends.

The main plot of Ranger's Trail offers considerable, complex suspense. It's 1874 in Texas. When former ranger Rusty Shannon comes to claim the hand of the middle Monahan sister, Josie (he once loved and lost the eldest sister, Geneva), he's sent off on an errand to collect the youngest sister Alice, who has run off with a mean varmint named Corey Bascom. Shannon duly collects Alice, but the Bascom family decides she needs to die. So Corey's idiotic brother Lacey shoots and kills Josie by mistake.

The picaresque middle of the novel is driven by two misunderstandings: Shannon thinks that Corey has killed Josie, and Corey thinks that Lacey has killed Alice. So Corey wanders across Texas trying to work out his grief, while Shannon tracks Corey with the idea of shooting him.

Much of the action consists of assorted good characters – mainly Shannon and his foster-son Andy Pickard – fighting and killing men who very badly need fighting and killing. Ranger's Trail is deeply concerned with the nature of badness. What makes men bad? Shannon's friend, sheriff Tom Blessing, thinks about it.

"War soured some of them. Then there's some raised that way by folks that had coyote blood in them. And some are just born with a deep streak of mean. Somethin' missin' out of their brain or their heart. They're hard to cure."
Rusty Shannon knows the cure: "Kill them dead and bury them deep." Such a conversation may well have occurred in Texas in 1874, but it's appropriate to read it as a commentary on issues of human nature, crime, and justice in Texas in 2003. The gurney in Huntsville has replaced the cottonwood tree on the banks of the Brazos, but there's still a strong sense in Texas that some people are deep-down not worth the trouble of keeping alive.

But there's room in Kelton's world for theories of nurture, too. Shannon himself has taken Andy Pickard, a hell-raising, uncontrollable adolescent of white birth and Comanche upbringing, and molded Andy into a competent young ranger. Andy tries to pass along the love, stubbornly believing that a corrupt and wild child named Scooter can be redeemed.

The other salient ambivalence in Ranger's Trail comes in its opening episode, an extraneous sequence in which Shannon, Blessing, Andy, and some fun-loving former rangers come to Austin in January of 1874 to witness the end of the Reconstruction state government, and to be on call to shoot anyone who seems to deserve it.

The end of Reconstruction in any southern state is one of the most vexed moments of its history. It involves the closing of the door for almost a century on civil rights for non-whites. Kelton's depiction of the Coke-Davis Dispute that marked the end of Reconstruction in Texas is mostly slapstick (the ex-rangers play tricks on black federal troops and spike their cannon), presented through an agonizingly balanced interpretation delivered by the narrator. His interpretation finds fault with both sides. But we get the strong feeling that justice prevails when Coke and his ex-Confederates seize power in Austin. Our heroes, though they are for the most part apolitical, are all more or less on the side of Coke. Meanwhile, though our heroes themselves are scrupulously anti-racist, the black and Indian characters in the story are listless freedmen on the one hand and murderous pillagers on the other.

Anyone who thinks that the Civil War and Reconstruction are ancient history should read books like Ranger's Trail. In the old Confederate states, those times are only yesterday for a lot of people.

Kelton, Elmer. Ranger's Trail. New York: St. Martin's, 2002.