To Elmer Kelton, the brush country of southwest Texas is home. Nobody knows Texas's history, people, beauty, and dangers as well as this greatest of Western writers.Barbed Wire, the first novel in this omnibus, is the story of one-time cowboy Doug Monahan, who runs a fencing crew outside the town of Twin Wells. Monahan, a likeable, hard-working Irishman, and his workers dig post-holes and string red painted barb wire for ranchers as protection against wandering stock, rustlers, and land hungry cattle barons.Their fencing operation is opposed by Captain Andrew Rinehart, a former Confederate officer and an old-school open range cowman of the huge R Cross spread. With his brutal foreman, Archer Spann--who does the violent work of chasing squatters off the range--Rinehart wages a barb wire war against Doug Monahan. A second colorful tale of the brush country is Llano River. Dundee, a onetime cowboy, one of Monahan's fencing crew in Barbed Wire, wanders into the town of Titusville, broke, tired, and itching for a fight. Town patriarch John Titus hires Dundee to find out who is rustling his cattle, but he already has a culprit in mind--Blue Roan Hardesty. Once a friend, now a sworn enemy of the powerful Titus clan, Hardesty is Titus's choice for villain--but Dundee is determined to find out the truth, even if it costs him his job. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
Kelton has been writing westerns for nearly 50 years; the keystones of his suspenseful, carefully drawn style can be found in these two early, previously published full-length novels. In Llano River (1966), cattle tycoon John Titus hires Dundee, a drifting cowboy with a quick temper, to find out who is stealing Titus's cattle. When Dundee rides into an outlaw town filled with rustlers, killers and other undesirables, what he finds leads to murder, revenge and vigilante justice on a large scale. In the aptly titled Barbed Wire (1957), hapless cowboy Doug Monahan makes a living putting up fences in south Texas--but he also makes a lot of enemies among the big cattle ranchers who don't favor fences. When one of Doug's friends is shot down in cold blood and Doug is burned out of business, he vows revenge. Unintended loss and suffering among some nice folks result, but the baddies misjudge the good guys' resolve. Both novels offer frontier excitement, suspense, a bit of mystery and romance, and plenty of flying fists and fast-shooting six-gun action. Kelton's first books are as good as his most recent work. (Feb.)
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January 23, 2006
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Excerpt from Brush Country by Elmer Kelton
It was a sorry way for a cowboy to make a living, Doug Monahan thought disgustedly. Bending his back over a rocky posthole, he plunged the heavy iron crowbar downward, hearing its angry ring and feeling the violent jar of it bruising the stubborn rock bottom. He rubbed sweat from his forehead onto his sleeve and straightened his sore back, pausing to rest a moment and look around.
Across the broad sweep of the gray-grass valley, up the brush-dotted hill and down again on the gentle far slope, new cedar posts stood erect like a long row of silent soldiers. And stretched taut down the length of the line, four strands of red barbed wire gleamed brightly in the late-winter Texas sun.
Doug Monahan had the look of the cowboy about him, the easy, rolling gait, the slack yet somehow right way of wearing his clothes that stamped him as a man of the saddle. But he wasn't riding now, and he hadn't for quite a spell. Sweat darkened his hickory shirt under the arms and down the back, the spots rimmed with white salt and caked with dirt. The knees of his denim pants were worn through and frazzled out. His brush-scarred boots were run over at the heels from a long time of working afoot.
He gripped the crowbar with big, leather-gloved hands, lifting it and driving it down into the narrow posthole. Each strike chipped off rock and caliche. Sulfurous sparks flew angrily against his dusty boots. The rocky ground was fighting him every foot of the way.
At length he went down on his knees with a bent can to scoop dirt and chipped rock out of the hole. Wiping sweat from his stubbled face, he stood up and stretched. His gritty hands pressed against the small of his back, trying to ease the ache that was there. His gaze drifted in satisfaction back down the fenceline, where two other men also were digging postholes. Past them, a dozen cedar posts leaned at crazy angles in unfilled holes an even rod apart. Beyond these stretched the unfinished fence, stout heart-cedar posts hauled up from the river and tamped solid in holes nearly three feet deep.
And on them, the heavy No. 9 wire gleamed with its bright red coat of factory-dipped paint and its wickedly sharp barbs.
The pleasant tang of mesquite smoke drifted to him on the crisp breeze. Monahan looked down toward his chuckwagon. By the sun, which with retreating winter still stood a little to the south, it was almost noon. Paco Sanchez would have dinner ready directly.
Monahan frowned a little, watching his wagon. Gordon Finch sat there with three of his men, sipping coffee. Sat there like a lazy pot hound.
He had a right to, Monahan supposed, for after all, this was Finch's ranch. But nothing ever graveled Monahan quite so much as to have someone sitting around idly on his fat haunches and watching him work.
The easy breeze carried with it a sharp breath from the Panhandle to the north. Monahan shivered as the chill touched him. He picked up the crowbar and began chipping again. Hard muscles swelled tight within the rolled-up sleeves as the bar battered its way downward.
This was a real comedown for Monahan. Once he'd had a ranch of his own down in the South Texas brush country, and there had been a time when he might have been too proud to do this kind of work. But a long, hard drought can make a man do things he never thought he would.
Doug Monahan was young yet, with a glint of red in his hair and whiskers to go with the Irish name. He had blue eyes that could laugh easily, or could strike quick sparks, like the strong iron bar that bruised its way into the resisting earth.
Finishing the hole, measuring it by a ring he had painted thirty inches up on the bar, he walked to a small stack of cedar posts. He picked one and dropped it into the hole. He stood it straight, sighting across its axe-hewn top to hard-set posts which stretched out of view up over the hill. He glanced the other way, where stakes driven in a string-straight line marked the one-rod intervals for more postholes, as far as his eyes could see.
He watched rangy Longhorn cattle plod along in single file down a hoof-worn rut that had had its beginning with the buffalo. Headed for water, they followed an ancient trail that tomorrow would be blocked forever by these shining red strands of wire.
"Company coming yonder, Doug."
Stub Bailey was pointing to four riders who topped the hill and came down in an easy trot, following the new fence. Stub was a short, thickset happy-eyed man Doug had picked up over in Twin Wells and as good a hand as he had ever run across.
Monahan's glance touched the rifle that leaned against the pile of new-cut posts. He hesitated, then moved toward it.
"Reckon it's that trouble Finch hinted about?" Bailey frowned.
"I hope not."
"It's Finch's worry, ain't it?" Bailey asked. "That's what he come for."
Monahan grunted. His own idea was that Finch had come out to feed his men--and himself--at someone else's wagon.
He slipped off the work-stiffened gloves that were worn almost black. Shoving them into a hip pocket, he picked up the rifle and moved unhurriedly toward the wagon.
"May not be trouble atall," he said. "And I sure don't want Finch starting any."
Monahan was sure of only one thing about Gordon Finch, that he didn't like him. He wasn't even sure why. Maybe it wasn't for Monahan to ask questions or pass any judgment. After all, this wasn't his land. He had come here a stranger and contracted to build a fence for Finch--nothing more.
Finch had spotted the riders by the time Monahan reached the wagon. He stood up lazily, squinting, trying to see clearer. He kept sipping the coffee. Monahan suspected he had laced it from a bottle in his coat pocket.
"Couple of my boys," Finch said in a gravelly voice that had a perpetual belligerence about it. He had a way of always sounding angry. "Bringing somebody in."
Finch's shoulders were a little stooped, and a soft paunch was beginning to push out over his belt. He had the florid face of the man who drinks too much and doesn't work enough to stay healthy. He could talk loud and make strong promises, as he had when Monahan agreed to take the fencing job. So far, he hadn't so much as paid for wire and posts, though he knew Monahan was working on a shoestring. He hadn't even furnished grub to the fencing crew.
He had come here yesterday, telling of a rumor that there might be trouble at the fencing camp. Not everybody liked this barbed wire.
"You just go right on putting up fence," Finch had said. "We're here to protect you."
Finch's men had done some scouting around, but all Finch himself had done so far was protect the chuckwagon.
Monahan saw worry in old Paco Sanchez's black eyes. Paco dropped a hot Dutch oven lid back over browning biscuits and wiped his dark, rheumatic hands on a flour-sack apron. His troubled gaze dwelt on the approaching riders.
"Go on with the cooking, Paco," Monahan said quietly. "Stick close to the wagon."
The aging Mexican nodded and eased toward the chuckbox. His eyes, bright as black buttons, flicked from Monahan's rifle to the four riders, then back again. Paco had lived many a long year within gunshot distance of the Rio Grande. He had seen much of violence. Now he was gentled by age, old and weary and dreading.
Monahan sometimes wished he could have left Paco in South Texas, for the old man deserved an easier life than this in his declining years. But nothing had remained to leave him with. The Bar M ranch was lost, and the cattle with it.
Stub Bailey eased and shook his head. "Won't be no trouble out of them two, Doug. That's just old man Noah Wheeler."
"Who's Noah Wheeler?"
Finch growled an answer before Bailey could reply. "A grubby old nester that got hold of four good sections of land that ought to be in somebody's ranch. Raises hay and sells it to some of them two-bit cowmen. He's got chickens, ducks, even some hogs. Rest of the nesters around here went and settled along Oak Crick, but not him. He had to go out and grab ahold of good rangeland. Somebody ought to've run him back with the rest of the dirt farmers a long time ago."
Monahan glanced at Stub Bailey. Stub had been around Twin Wells long enough to know a little about most people here, and Monahan could tell that Bailey disagreed with Finch.
He could see that the old farmer was eyeing the red wire closely as he rode in. Noah Wheeler was a blocky man, solid as a rock fence. He sat his horse firmly, without the cowboy's easy, even lazy way of riding. His battered black hat fit squarely, its brim flat for shade and not for show. He wore a plain woolen coat, frayed with signs of hard work and long use. His heavy mustache, once brown, was now salted with gray.
The rider beside him was a girl. Long skirts all but covered the sidesaddle she rode. She was slender, the man's coat she wore fitting her rather like a collapsed tent. She seemed dwarfed by a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, evidently lined with paper to keep it on tight.
"Morning, Noah," Bailey said pleasantly. "How's the world serving you?"
Wheeler smiled, a pleasant, eye-crinkling smile that held nothing back. "I can't complain about the world, but I sure wish this rheumatism would leave me alone."
Finch glared at the pair. His questioning eyes cut to one of the riders who flanked the old man and the girl.
"Found 'em comin' down the fence," the rider told him. "Noah said he was just lookin' for a way through, and I don't expect he meant any harm. But you said bring anybody we found, so we brung him."
If for no better reason than the contempt he saw in Finch's face, Monahan felt an instinctive liking for the farmer. It rubbed him against the grain when Finch said, "All right, Wheeler, move along."
Firmly Monahan said, "This is my camp. I'll say who goes." He told Wheeler, "Sorry to've bothered you. We been expecting a little trouble. You-all light and rest yourselves. Paco's got chuck about ready."
Wheeler's eyes lighted, and he forced down a smile as Finch sharply turned away. He stepped down from his old high-horned saddle and stamped his heavy boots, trying to restore the circulation in his cold feet. "Thank you, friend. We got food in the saddlebags. We didn't expect to run into anybody."
"Hot meal's a sight better," Monahan replied. He moved toward the girl, hands outstretched, and lifted her down from the saddle. For just a second their eyes met. She gave him a quick smile, then shyly looked away. By her blue eyes, he took her to be Wheeler's daughter. Wheeler confirmed it.
"My name's Noah Wheeler. This is my daughter, Trudy."
Wheeler's giant hand was rough as dried leather and crushing-strong. He had spent his life at hard work.
Monahan bowed toward the girl in the old cowboy manner. She took off her big hat. He saw a fine-featured face, almost a pretty face, and honey-colored hair done up in long braids tied at the back of her neck. Again there was that shy smile. Country girl, right enough.
By way of conversation, Monahan said, "If I'd known we were fixing to have such company, I'd've cleaned up a little. I imagine I look like a prairie dog."
The girl made no reply, only smiled again. Wheeler said, "A working man ought never to apologize for his looks." He eyed the camp curiously. "We been hunting a few head of our stock. We try to keep them at home, but there's always some of these long-legged Texas cattle coming in and leading them off."
He studied the stacks of cedar posts that had been brought in by wagon. He bent over the red spools of barbed wire. He stooped stiffly and picked up a short curl of wire that had been snipped from a spool. He fingered it as if afraid it might bite.
"Bobwire," he said wonderingly. "Heard a right smart about it, but this is the first I ever seen." He touched a thumb to one of the barbs. "Sharp. These things could really rip up an animal."
"They learn in a hurry," Monahan told him. "You can't hardly get one to hit it a second time."
Wheeler smiled indulgently. "You look like a man who'd know horses. Pretty intelligent, a horse is. But about a few things he hasn't got the sense of a jackrabbit. If there's anything in ten miles that'll hurt him, he'll find it. Especially if he's the best horse you got."
He shook his head and dropped the wire. "The stuffs all right, I guess . . . just hate to think what it'd do to a horse."
Monahan washed his face and hands in a basin of cold water. He dug coffee cups out of the chuckbox and poured them full. He handed one to the girl and felt pleasure at her half-concealed smile. She hadn't yet said a word.