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In this novel, first published by Doubleday in 1985, Texas novelist Elmer Kelton returns to the Civil War period, once again examining, as he first did in Texas Rifles, the effect of the war on Texans at home. Even while the conflict raged to the east, several groups of Texan Union loyalists hid out across the state, trying to avoid the anger and violence of the confederate-sympathizing “home guard.”
Kelton bases this story on a group who lived in a then-huge thicket on the Colorado River near present-day Columbus, although the characters, incidents and town of the book are of Kelton’s invention. As he always says, fiction writers are liars and thieves. Owen Danforth, a wounded Confederate soldier, comes home to Texas to recover, intending to return to his regiment. His family is torn apart by the wartwo brothers dead, one uncle, a Union sympathizer, shot in the back by the home guard. His fatheralso a Unionisthides out in the thicket with his remaining family because the home guard, led by “Captain” Phineas Shattuck, has sworn revenge on the Danforth clan. Torn between duty and family loyalty, Owen Danforth faces difficult decisions until a violent encounter leaves him only one choice.
About the Author
Elmer Kelton is the author of more than thirty novels dealing with Texas history at various periods. Several of his books have won the Spur Award from Western Writers of America and the Western Heritage (Wrangler) Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. WWA, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Western Literature Association have honored him for lifetime achievement. His most recent book is The Buckskin Line. TCU Press keeps several of his novels available in reprint editions.
Read an Excerpt
By Elmer Kelton
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Elmer Kelton
All rights reserved.
The war against the Union lay five weeks behind him, and he had crossed the Sabine out of Louisiana four days ago. Owen Danforth was beginning to feel at last that he was truly back in Texas. Here, until he decided he was ready to return, the war would not touch him.
Until he was ready ... A dull throbbing brought his right hand up to grip his tightly-bandaged left arm. Not all the fever had left it. He wondered if he would ever be ready to go back.
Late in the morning he had broken out of the close and confining piney woods. Now he rode upon the higher, drier prairies that looked and smelled of home. His rump itched with an urgency for getting there, but the afternoon sun was in his eyes, and he knew night would catch him with miles yet to go. The big Yankee horse beneath him no longer took a long and easy stride. The journey had been wearying, and only a couple of times along the way had Owen managed to beg oats or corn for him from some farmer he met, some stranger in whose barn he slept a night. The war had left little enough even for people to eat, and horses must sustain on whatever grazing they could find. The fresh spring grass was yet weak, and so was any animal that depended upon it.
Owen came finally to a wagon trace which seemed to strike a chord in his memory. Turning in the saddle for a different perspective, he thought he recalled using this road when he had traveled eastward two years and more ago with his brother Ethan, eager to join the fighting before it could all be finished without them. He found familiarity in the pitch of the gentle hills, the steeple of a distant church, the lay of a neglected cornfield with a gully started at its lower end, gradually carrying away the fertile topsoil with every rain.
A mile ahead he saw a string of large wagons moving ponderously toward him. They reminded him of the long military supply trains he had seen early in the war, trains that had gradually shortened as the Confederacy found it difficult to keep filling them. These, he saw as he came nearer, were heavy freight wagons paired in tandem, each pair drawn by four spans of big draft horses and mules. He pulled out of the trail to yield them room. A tired-looking middle-aged man on horseback rode up to him. He gave Owen's bandaged arm a moment's study.
"Howdy, soldier," he said pleasantly. "Where you bound?"
Owen said, "Home. I'm Owen Danforth. You'd be Jake Tisdale, wouldn't you?"
Tisdale blinked. "Owen?" His eyes narrowed for a longer, more careful look. "Damned if you ain't. Wouldn't of knowed you, son. You've changed a right smart."
"So've you. When I left here you was farmin' on the river. You in the freightin' business now?"
Tisdale nodded. "War duty. I was too old to tote a rifle, and they said I'd do the government more service haulin' freight. I take cotton bales down to the Rio Grande and ferry them across to Mexico. Confederacy trades them to French and Englishmen for war supplies. The Yankees can bottle up the Texas ports, but they can't do nothin' about us tradin' in Mexico." He pointed his chin toward the lead wagon, its wide-rimmed wheels raising dust as they labored by. "I come north with guns and ammunition and such."
Owen had heard about the cotton trains. "I been told the Yankees invaded Brownsville from the sea to put a stop to this."
"They did. But we cross the Rio farther west, where their patrols can't reach. Then we travel down the river on the Mexican side and thumb our noses as we go by. Makes them madder'n hell." Tisdale looked at Owen's arm again. "If you're lookin' for work, I believe I can find somethin' you could do with one arm."
Owen shrugged. "Maybe later, after I see how things go with my folks. You seen them, Mr. Tisdale?"
Tisdale shook his head. "I been on the trail too much. It's all I can do to spend a night with the wife and young'uns when I pass through." He frowned. "I hear things, though. Seems like your old daddy's still got notions against the war. There's some fire-eatin' patriots that'd do him bodily harm if somebody was to just lead the way."
Owen grimaced, suddenly not sure he was in a hurry to be home. "I ought to've known he wouldn't see reason."
Tisdale seemed hesitant to speak. "I heard you and him had a considerable disagreement when you left for the army."
"I was of age to make up my own mind. So was my brother."
"Maybe the Lord's sent you at a good time. You bein' a wounded soldier come home, maybe the hotheads'll stand back and leave him alone. But you watch out, son. Things are touchy. There's been men killed for sayin' less than your daddy has."
Tisdale shook Owen's hand and fell into the dusty wake of the last wagon. Owen watched the train move away in its own slow time, and a sourness settled into his stomach.
Hell of a situation to come home to.
Gauging the position of the sun, he decided he should reach Uncle Zachariah Danforth's farm before dark. The tall bay horse needed rest, and Owen could better face the confrontation with his father if he arrived home fresh. Uncle Zach had been of the same mind as Andrew Danforth on the Confederacy question and the war, but at least he could be tolerant of an opposing viewpoint. Tolerance was a seldom thing with Owen's father.
The left arm felt hot beneath the bandages, which had needed changing for the last two days. Now and then a sharp pain grabbed him with the violence of a cotton hook. Odd, he could not remember feeling any pain when the Yankee saber had slashed him. He had been caught up in the shouting fury of hand-to-hand fighting. Something about the fever of battle masked the pain until the excitement had peaked. Only then had he realized his arm was hanging uselessly, blood spilling from his sleeve and running down a dead-numb hand that could not feel its warmth. The first doctor who examined him was ready to saw the bone in two. Owen had fought like a cornered badger until the doctor turned away in frustration, telling him to go ahead and die if that be his choice. Blood poisoning had nearly killed Owen, but he still had his arm. He could not yet tell whether it would ever be of use again.
He felt no rancor toward the doctor or even toward the faceless Yankee who struck him and rode on. He had no idea, for the excitement had been intense, whether the Yankee had been small or large, young or old. He did not know if the man had survived the fight. Many on both sides had not.
I'll be home tomorrow, he told himself. His mother would know what to do, what would be needed to draw out the fever and the poison. If the arm was to be saved, his mother would know how.
When the fever had been at its worst, the lifeline to which Owen had clung most tightly was an obligation to set things right with Andrew Danforth, to reconcile for careless and angry recriminations flung at their parting. Perhaps tomorrow he would find better words.
The sun was twenty minutes gone behind the great oak trees on the river when a turn of the trail and a clearing of the scattered timber showed him Zach Danforth's cabin in the dusk. Before he thought better, he touched spurs to the big horse and tried to bully a faster trot from him. He slowed, knowing he had taxed the animal too much already.
Uncle Zach had been a widower longer than Owen could remember. His only child had died at birth, along with its mother. Zach had helplessly watched her die and could never bring himself to put another woman through that jeopardy.
Riding toward the double cabin, Owen kept his eyes on the open dog run between its two sections. He shouted, "Hello the house. Anybody home?"
A gruff voice spoke behind him. "Turn slow, soldier, and show me who you are."
Owen turned quickly, stiffening at sight of a shotgun. Zachariah Danforth stood beside a small shed where he sheltered his harness, saddles and other goods that needed protection from the weather. He raised the shotgun to let Owen see the muzzle of it.
Owen swallowed. "Uncle Zach, it's me."
"Owen?" Suspicious eyes stared from under a wilted felt hat that had been old when Owen was yet a boy. "Come a little closer and let me see."
Owen was drawn thin, and he had not been able to shave himself decently since he had taken that saber wound. He wore a beard that had not felt scissors or razor since he had left the Georgia cotton warehouse that served as a field hospital. "It's me sure enough, Uncle Zach."
The eyes flickered with glad recognition, and the shotgun dropped to arm's length. "Git down, boy. I was lookin' for company, but you ain't what I expected."
Owen dismounted slowly, clinging to the saddle after his feet were on the ground, for his knees threatened to buckle. Zach was about to embrace him when he noticed the bound arm. He still almost broke Owen's right shoulder with a loving squeeze of his big hand. "You been hurt, boy."
"That's why they let me come home."
Zach's long silence and pained eyes spoke of sympathy. He had always provided a sympathetic refuge when Owen had one of his many quarrels with his father. "I'll put your horse up and find him a bait of oats. You look like you've had a long trip on a bad road."
"Looks don't lie," Owen admitted, rueful at letting someone else take care of his horse. That was a job a whole man did for himself.
Relief washed over Owen as he stared into that kindly, beloved face. Zach was a little older than Owen's father, but the eyes were the same, the deeply lined face similar except for Zach's rough, gray-streaked beard.
"Good-lookin' bay you got," Zach commented. "Better than you left here on."
"Turncoat horse," Owen said. "He was in the Yankee army. I caught him runnin' loose after a little sashay against some Union supply wagons. Owner never showed up to claim him."
"Wonder the army let you come home with him. They keep the good ones for the officers and make the boys take the plugs."
Owen frowned. "A lieutenant taken him away from me. The night I left, I borrowed him back off of the picket line."
Zach spat. "I hope you brought home a gun, too. You'll need it, to keep that horse."
"There's a pistol in my saddlebag. I got it the same way I got the bay."
"Carry it in your pants, or in your boot. They won't give you time to fetch it out of your saddlebag."
Owen blinked. "Who? We never had much trouble with horse thieves in this country."
Zach gave him a troubled study. "Things ain't like you left them, son. You've probably got a notion you put the war behind you when you started back, but you didn't. It's here."
"Worse. The country's overrun with heel flies."
Heel flies were insects that buzzed around the hocks of cattle in season and drove them crazy. "What have heel flies got to do with the war?"
"These are the two-legged kind. Home guards, they call theirselves." Zach spat again, and Owen could see anger boil into his eyes. "They enforce the conscript law and make sure everybody says a prayer once a day to Jefferson Davis. They see somethin' they want, they take it in the name of the Confederacy. They see somebody they don't like, they jail him for the same cause, or do worse. It's almost a pity you come home, boy. Now you'll see what you been fightin' for."
Before Texans had cast their votes for secession, Zach and Owen's father had been among several in the county who campaigned vigorously to remain within the Union. Sam Houston had talked against secession, and like many Texans those two old settlers thought Sam Houston had hung the moon. They had embraced the Union flag too long to turn against it.
That had been the source of much friction, some spoken and some swallowed, between Owen and his father.
He could see the years had not tempered Zach's feelings. He knew within reason that his father's would be as strong.
When the bay horse had been fed, Zach took Owen's rolled blanket and his saddlebags under his arm. "We tend the stock first, then the men. I ain't got much in the way of fixin's, young'un, but I'll not leave you sleep hungry."
Owen might have been a young'un when he left home, but the war had whipped that out of him. Times he felt as old as Uncle Zach.
In the kitchen side of the double cabin, the old man coaxed a small blaze in the fireplace and hung a pot of beans to warm. He whipped up a batch of bread with stone-ground corn of his own raising and ground a double handful of coffee beans. "Coffee's scarce," he said. "I generally save it for Sundays, but this is an occasion." Lastly he cut thick slices of bacon and laid them in a skillet. It was simple bachelor fare, but to Owen it had the aroma of a feast in the making. He had missed more meals than he had found on the trail home.
Zach said with a touch of sadness, "It's good to have you here, Owen. Been an empty place without you comin' over to see me ... you and your brothers."
An old ache came to Owen, and he stared at the floor. "I wrote you what happened to Ethan. Did you get my letter?"
Zach nodded. "Died in your arms, you said."
"It was quick. He was gone in a minute after the bullet struck him." He kept looking down, unable to lift his gaze. "I never did hear just what happened to Andy Jr., except that he was killed."
Zach was awhile in answering. He rubbed the corner of one eye. "It was after they started the conscript law. Your daddy knowed they'd be comin' after your brother first thing, so he let him and a couple others of the same persuasion light out for Mexico. They got a hundred miles before a home guard patrol caught up to them. Claimed the boys put up a scrap, but you know Little Andy wasn't no fighter. Murdered all three and left them layin' where they fell."
Zach paused. "I went down with your daddy to bring the boys home, but some kind folks had buried them. We never could find just where."
Owen felt a biting anger and the helplessness of loss. "Dad shouldn't've let him go. If he hadn't been so almighty set against the war ..."
Zach's eyes gave no quarter. "You taken one brother to war with you and lost him. Your daddy tried to keep the other at home and lost him too. Looks to me like you and him ought to call it even and find a way to get along."
Owen rubbed the hurting arm. "That's what I want to do, if he will."
"Give him time. They was brothers to you, but they was sons to him. You can lose a brother and go on. Lose a son, and you lose a part of yourself."
Owen said, "I'm not proud of the way I left here. I said things I shouldn't've. When I get home tomorrow, I'll set myself straight with Dad and with Mama."
Zach looked away, suddenly. "Your mama?" He gave his attention again to the cooking, turning the bacon with a fork. "I reckon where you been you didn't get much mail."
"Been way over a year since Mama's last letter. Most of the mail gets lost."
Zach set the food on the table. Owen tried to remember his manners, but the hunger was too much. He wolfed down the first plateful, then gave more time to the second. Zach ate little, watching him with troubled eyes. When Owen had finished, Zach said sadly, "I didn't want to tell you till you'd had your supper. Your mama died back in the winter. There was a fever come through the country."
Owen had seen so much of death on the battlegrounds that he had thought he was immune to grief, but this caught him unprepared. He walked outside, and Zach let him work out his feelings alone. Much later, when Owen went back into the cabin, Zach sat in an old rocking chair that had been his wife's. He looked at Owen without comment, waiting for Owen to speak. But Owen had no words to say.
Zach stood up, finally, and walked over to look at Owen's bandage. He unwrapped the dirty cloth and frowned at the wound. "Wonder you didn't lose the arm."
"Almost did. Truth is, Uncle Zach, they sent me home figurin' I stood a good chance to die."
"No money in your pocket. No medal on your coat. You didn't get much except experience, did you?"
"I've had aplenty of that."
Zach cleansed the wound with homemade whisky, which raised a fire in the raw flesh. He took a drink out of the jug and offered it to Owen. The fire in the arm was too strong for Owen to risk another in his belly.
Zach observed, "Still fevered some, I'd say."
Owen told him it was.
"Well, I know what'll draw that out. I'll fix you a pony poultice."
"You just set here and rest. I'll be back directly." Zach lighted a lantern and went outside. When he returned the aroma came through the door with him. He carried half-dried horse manure in a bucket. He said, "This won't do much for your social standin', but it'll do a right smart for your healin'."
Excerpted from Dark Thicket by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 2016 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wars are fought on many fronts ... some far away, some in our backyards ... some internal, some external. In 'Dark Thicket,' Elmer Kelton shows us that love, family loyalties, ideological beliefs, and personal honor can cause conflicts that bring out the worst and the best in us. 'Dark Thicket' is a quiet, little story that never quits being entertaining and thought-provoking. It is written in a simple, honest, elegant style that avoids the cloying cliches and humdrum over-writing that are all too often the staple of many so-called western writers. Elmer Kelton is a great novelist and 'Dark Thicket' proves it. Savor it.