The Pumpkin Rollersby Elmer Kelton
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In the cattle drives of the Old West, pumpkin rollers were green farmboys, almost more trouble than they were worth. When Trey McLean leaves an east Texas cotton farm to learn the cattleman's trade, he learns fast--about deceit among men and the love of a woman. When luck sets him on a cattle drive to Kansas, Trey learns the trade, and the unwritten code of violence that plagues it.
Young Trey McLean is a pumpkin roller (farmer) with ambitions of being a cattleman. Leaving his father's East Texas farm with a dun horse and four old cows he rides toward the unclaimed lands "out west." When his cows are stolen by a greedy farmer with the connivance of a dishonest sheriff, it is not his anger at this injustice but his helplessness to alter the situation that wins us over. He is not an archetypal macho hero with blazing six-guns but an ordinary man who confronts unfairness with gritted teeth. We share Trey's confused response to Jarrett Longacre, a top hand and a fugitive from the law, whose thoughtless outlaw ways embroil Trey with Marshal Gault, a lawman with an obsessive, unforgiving nature. Jarrett is a likable, troublesome presence in each stage of Trey's life and labors: the wagon yard in Fort Worth; on Ivan Kerbow's cattle drive, the event signalling Trey's rite of passage from farmer to cowboy; on Kerbow's ranch in far West Texas. When Trey marries Sarah Stark and agrees to manage Kerbow's ranch, Kelton adds a feminine dimension to the narrative. Just as Jarrett stands in contrast to Trey, Katy Rice, a former prostitute who becomes involved with Jarrett, is Sarah's opposite. Sarah's fear of loneliness has her hearing voices in the wind, while Katy relishes solitude. The final confrontation between Jarrett and Gault forces each of these four characters to resolve their inner conflicts and accept the consequences.
A superb coming-of-age novel by a master western storyteller whose deft touch with characterization is underappreciated.
"Elmer Kelton is an authentic American voice." John Jakes
"This is a hallmark of any Kelton novel: His research is thorough and his feel for the time and place is remarkable." Fort Worth Star-Telegram
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The Pumpkin Rollers
By Elmer Kelton
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1996 Elmer Kelton
All rights reserved.
Since about the time Andrew Jackson whipped the British at New Orleans two weeks after the War of 1812 had officially ended, it had been McLean family tradition to register births, marriages and deaths in a big leather-bound Bible. The Book was already a considerable repository of family history by the time James Wilton McLean's mother added his name in a studied hand a decade before the War of Northern Aggression.
After that, few occasions arose for his full name to be written down. His domino-playing father hung the nickname Trey upon him because he was the third-born son. It clung like an East Texas chigger.
It had become family tradition also that each son except for the firstborn would strike out on his own when he became old enough and big enough to whip his father. There was not room for more than one grown son to remain on the family's small blackland farm. That dubious privilege went to the oldest. Trey McLean was not certain he could whip Pap, and even less certain that he wanted to try.
So, turning his back on tradition, he said good-bye to his weeping mother and frowning father, venturing forth upon a wagon road that meandered off in a generally westward direction past the cotton gin and the gristmill, across the river and on toward that awesome, mysterious country most people simply called "out west." He wore a floppy farmer-boy hat that might have looked good on a scarecrow. The brown horse he rode matched his age and trailed four cows that would never be ten years old again. That was the sum of his accumulated wealth, earned laboring for neighbors when his father could spare him from the plow and the pitchfork, the cotton sack and the corn-heading knife.
Trey realized that four cows of such mature years offered at best a slow start toward a fortune, but a weak fence had allowed all to consort freely with a neighbor's black bull. In proper season he could expect his head count to double. He had been assured that somewhere to the west of Fort Worth he should find free grazing on land to which no one had yet established any legal claim.
He saw one potential complication. The Comanches and the Kiowas had not yielded to the army's insistence that they repair to the reservation. They were not ready to entrust their future welfare to Uncle Sam's bald-headed nephews who administered the Indian agency. But Trey had faith. Though he had been too young to fight for the Confederacy's lost cause, he had taken over the job of bringing wild meat to the family table while his oldest brother fought the war. He claimed he could knock the left eye out of a squirrel as far as he could see it wink. He figured Indians would have the good judgment to respect marksmanship and leave him and his livestock alone.
Besides, as slow as these cows walked, it was going to be a long while before they muddied their feet at the banks of the Brazos or the Colorado, or whatever other western watercourse he settled upon. The army's spokesmen kept promising they would soon force the wild tribes to yield.
The same people had vowed to bring the South to heel in a month.
Trey would not allow his high spirits to be dampened by concern about Indians anyway. He was too excited over the prospect of being truly free for the first time, responsible only for himself, adventuring into a new land where years of cotton had not yet wearied the soil and sapped it of strength. There, the newspapers claimed, the only limits to a man's prospects were his willingness to work and the size of his dream.
Trey had always been a hard worker, and his dream was as big as the cloudless sky under which he rode on this shining spring day.
Tied behind his saddle was the canvas war bag his brother had carried to Virginia and back. It remained in good shape except for two Yankee bullet holes, battlefield-mended in rough fashion. It contained a change of long-handled underwear, one homespun shirt and a pair of pants a little shorter than Trey's long legs. On his feet were the only boots he owned, homemade, bull-stout and hog-ugly, with a ten-dollar gold piece sewn into the top of one for emergencies. Hanging in two cotton sacks on either side of the saddle were flour, salt and coffee beans, a slab of fat bacon, a skillet and a can to boil coffee in. As for meat, he had no doubt he could live on the results of his marksmanship. That meant rabbit and squirrel now, perhaps venison and buffalo once he passed the heavily settled, heavily hunted East Texas settlements.
He had seventeen dollars Yankee in his pocket to meet whatever contingencies might arise. All in all, he felt he had a running start toward a career as a cattle baron.
His father did not share Trey's optimism. Pap had never taken into proper account that Trey was four years younger than his oldest brother and two years younger than the next. He had expected Trey to keep up with them in the amount of labor he could accomplish between daylight and dark. Thus, he had rarely acknowledged merit in his third-born son. A pattern of automatic criticism had become too deeply ingrained to change though Trey had grown to be the tallest and strongest of them all.
Trey had tried not to let his father's pessimism slow him, but at times the disparaging words burrowed beneath his confidence like a gopher undermining a cornerstone. He needed reassurance from time to time to shore up what Pap had undercut.
"You won't get fifty miles with them cows," Pap had declared. "They'll run off or get stole. You'll come draggin' back with the seat of your britches out and your belly thinkin' your throat's been cut."
"Bet you!" Trey had proven Pap's dire predictions wrong in the past, especially since he had finally outreached his brothers in length of leg and arm and hardness of muscle. He was determined to do it again.
And he did. He made it seventy miles before he lost the cows.
He was in an itch to hurry a lot of distance between himself and the black, gummy soil of the McLean homeplace, but he found there was a limit to how fast four long-aged cows would willingly travel, especially when their ribs were beginning to spring in their pregnancy. He carried a bullwhip on his saddle but did not like to use it. He had no wish to inflict pain upon his property. It seemed to do little good anyway. Like a mule, the cows had a way in their bovine stubbornness of rushing their hind legs a little when he pressed them, while their front legs kept going at the same stolid pace.
After a while he gave up the effort to hurry them and reconciled himself to spending the first night at the farm of Pap's brother, Uncle Matthew, eight miles up the wagon road.
Uncle Matthew was all right; he had often taken Trey's side when Pap had criticized him for one perceived shortcoming or another. But one could not take Uncle Matthew without accepting Aunt Maudie as well, and Aunt Maudie could talk until Trey's ears hurt. Uncle Matthew had taken refuge in deafness, though Trey had noted that he seemed to hear fairly well when he wanted to. His impairment was selective.
As Trey had feared, Aunt Maudie told him a hundred reasons why he should give up the foolish notion of going west and becoming a cattleman. She was firm in her conviction that herdsmen in general were indolent agents of Lucifer, while hardworking tillers of the soil were the meek God had chosen to inherit the earth. Besides, she said, it would be a hundred years before the country west of Fort Worth ever became anything other than a godless wilderness, and even a young man like Trey would never enjoy such a life span, especially out there where savage Comanches had free run. His life was likely to be as short as a dirt dauber's, she said.
Uncle Matthew said little in her presence, but next morning as he opened the gate to let the four cows out of his hay lot he took his old black pipe from his mouth and pointed west with the stem of it. "This was a raw country too when me and your pap put Tennessee behind us. We took ahold and made somethin' out of it. Now, you got the makin's to do better than him or me either one. You ain't got much to start with, so there ain't no way you can go but up. Do it, and make us proud."
Trey gathered up all the confidence he could muster. To prove his father wrong and his uncle right, he told himself he would ride through hell and out its far side.
He did not realize how short a trip it could be to hell. At the slow pace the cows set for him, it took about a week.
Trey had never known much about law or lawmen. Pap had always figured the less government there was, the better. That started with the county courthouse and held all the way to Washington City. Trey had only a nodding acquaintance with the local sheriff. An officer of the law always made him a little nervous, as if he had done something wrong that he didn't even know about but the officer did.
He had never been more than a few miles west of his Uncle Matthew'sfarm, so by noon of the second day he was among strangers in a strange country. By the end of a slow week he didn't even know the name of the county he was traversing. He stayed on or near the heaviest-traveled road that led west, and when he came to a fork where he couldn't tell the difference, he let the cows graze while he waited for somebody to come along and give him proper directions. He found most people friendly, inclined to tarry and jaw a spell.
He was not concerned, then, when a farmer rode up behind him in a buggy whose springs sagged under what must have been three hundred and fifty pounds of pure lard. The farmer's eyes were half hidden behind a roll of fat at the top of puffy cheeks that vibrated like pudding. He had the voice of a man speaking from the bottom of a well. "Where'd you come by these good cows, young fellow?"
Trey saw no reason not to tell him. On the contrary, he was proud of the fact. "Bought them with the savin's from my labor. I'm takin' them out west to start me a herd."
"No two of them seem to have the same brand."
"They come off of four different farms. I ain't figured out a brand of my own yet."
"You got any kin in this county? Any friends?"
"They're all sixty-seventy miles behind me. I don't know a soul around here."
He wondered why the farmer seemed pleased at that. Most folks tended to cluck in sympathy at the thought of his passing through a land of strangers, a pilgrim in the wilderness.
The farmer pointed. "You stay on this main road. You'll come to a fork a couple of miles farther on. Be sure and bear to the right. I expect you'd like to spend the night in town."
Trey hadn't so far. He had been managing about sundown each evening to find a farmhouse and somebody willing to let him pen his cows for the night. Most of them invited him to supper. In town they would want money for that. But he thanked the farmer anyway and watched the man put the large buggy horse into a long trot, laboring on ahead. He pitied the animal its heavy load.
The first sign of the town was the courthouse clock tower, standing taller than anything else on the horizon. He estimated that it was an hour to sundown and about that long to the edge of town. He could see a couple of people riding toward him, one on horseback and one in a buggy, but he thought little of it. He was used to meeting travelers along the road. After a time he recognized the farmer. The horsebacker was a stranger. He looked like a farmer too, about the same age as Pap. Not until he was near enough to address Trey without shouting did Trey notice the badge pinned to the man's shirt pocket. Immediately he felt that old welling-up of guilt, though he had nothing to feel guilty about.
The officer did not say "Hello" or "How do?" or any such pleasantry. He just rode a slow, thoughtful circle around the cows, which gladly took the opportunity to drop their heads into the grass and begin stuffing their paunches.
"I see four different brands here on four different cows. Where's your brand?" he demanded.
"Ain't decided on one yet."
"If you don't have your own brand, how do you know they're your cows?"
That seemed a foolish question to Trey. The officer probably knew more about plows than cows, this being cotton country. "By their marks and their colors and their general looks, same as I know people," Trey answered.
"You got any papers with you to prove ownership?"
A hard look in the lawman's narrowed eyes began to worry Trey. "There never was no papers. I just paid the money and got the cows."
The officer jerked his head toward the farmer in the buggy. "Mr. Lige Connors here, he says they're his cows."
"He may say so, but he's wrong."
The farmer leaned forward, making the buggy springs creak. His jowls shook. "You callin' me a liar, young fellow?"
Trey felt the stirrings of anxiety. "I'm sayin' you're mistaken."
The farmer pointed at the nearest cow. "They're mine, Micah. See that one with the twisted horn? I'd know that spotted hide if I seen it in a tan yard."
Anger coursed through Trey as he realized the farmer was flat-out trying to steal his cows. That was one sin. He was swearing false witness. That was two. Old Preacher Featherstone back home would have his work cut out for him, trying to pray this man back from the brink of perdition.
The sheriff declared gravely, "I'm takin' these cows into custody. And you too, young man. We take a mighty poor view around here of men who try to get off with other people's stock."
Even as Trey shouted, "They're my cows!" he saw the futility of it. In a wildly irrational moment he tried to put the cows into a run, but they had long since gotten past any fear of him. They moved two or three steps and dropped their heads into the grass again. They seemed willing allies to their own abduction.
The sheriff's voice was calm, as if he did this every day. "Now, son, I've got a pair of handcuffs here, but they got a way of gallin' a man's wrists. You can come along peaceful and help me drive these cows into town, or I can cuff you to my saddle and make you walk alongside me all the way. I ought to tell you, this old horse of mine is bad to kick."
"I can prove by my Uncle Matthew that these cows belong to me. I can prove it by my pa."
"They got paper to back up their word?" The sheriff waited for the answer, though he knew what it would be. "It'd come down to their statements against Mr. Connors's, and they're strangers here. Everybody in this county knows Lige Connors."
"I'll bet they do!"
The farmer was so jubilant over acquiring four cows without cost that he paid no notice to the implied insult.
The sheriff pointed toward town. "Them cows've got calves in them, so push them gentle, son. Have respect for other people's property."
The iron door clanged shut behind him with an impact that seemed to shake the stone jailhouse. The sound carried a brutal finality that sent shivers down Trey's spine. He had never seen the inside of a jailhouse before, much less the inside of a locked cell. He had accepted Pap's admonition that a man who stayed out of saloons, houses of ill repute and their like need never find himself in that kind of trouble. But his father had never had his cows coveted by a man to whom truth was a stranger.
Farmer Connors watched as the sheriff turned the key in the lock. "Son, mind tellin' me when them cows was bred? It'd be helpful to know when they'll be shellin' out their calves."
Trey's throat tightened with anger so that it hurt to speak. "How am I supposed to know, since you claim I stole them from you?"
The farmer's pudgy cheeks wobbled as he shook his head. "It's a disgrace the way the younger generation sass their elders. We've come into mean times." He turned toward the door. "I'll send a couple of boys to drive my cows on up to the house pens."
The sheriff jingled his ring of keys, wiggling one out of the lock. "You plannin' on filin' charges, Mr. Connors?"
The farmer's little eyes peered at Trey over puffed rolls of fat. "Naw, I reckon not. A night in the jailhouse'll probably teach him more than a month in the schoolhouse. You escort him to the county line in the mornin'. Make sure he understands we don't want to see him around here no more, nor hear no more of his sass."
The sheriff nodded quiet agreement.
After Connors waddled out, Trey declared, "You know he's lyin' about those cows, else he wouldn't have to ask me when they was with the bull."
"Sure, son, I know that."
"Then how come you to lock me up?"
"For your own safety. If I was to let you go now, you'd try to take them cows back and like as not get yourself shot. By tomorrow you'll have a cooler head. You'll see that you're lucky not to lose more than just four cows. They've already seen their best days anyhow."
"I worked long and hard to buy them cows."
"Figure it as the cost of education. Ain't nothin' comes free."
"Cows come free to a thief, and you're helpin' him."
"He's a power in this county. I need this job. Got a bad back, so I can't do heavy work no more." The sheriff's voice softened with sympathy. "I know how you feel, son, but don't think you been singled out. He's been pullin' this kind of stunt on travelin' folks for a long time."
"What need has he got for four piddlin' old cows? Ain't he already got enough?"
"For a man with an appetite like his, there ain't enough." The sheriff stopped at the door. "It'll be suppertime directly. If you'll promise to behave yourself, I'll let you eat with me and my family. Else you'll have to settle for beans in your cell."
"I've been behavin' myself. This trouble wasn't none of my doin'."
Excerpted from The Pumpkin Rollers by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 1996 Elmer Kelton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Elmer Kelton (1926-2009) was the award-winning author of more than forty novels, including The Time It Never Rained, Other Men’s Horses, Texas Standoff and Hard Trail to Follow. He grew up on a ranch near Crane, Texas, and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. His first novel, Hot Iron, was published in 1956. Among his awards have been seven Spurs from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. His novel The Good Old Boys was made into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones. In addition to his novels, Kelton worked as an agricultural journalist for 42 years, and served in the infantry in World War II. He died in 2009.
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This book is a good read for American Literature students. Male students will enjoy the western story and female students will enjoy the romance. It is comparable to Lonesome Dove or All the Pretty Horses.