From the time I first began writing fiction more than fifty years ago, I was determined someday to write a novel about the development of the cattle industry in West Texas, the heyday of the open-range cattleman and cowboy. The concept ebbed and flowed during the years, changing shape and direction as my own concept of history broadened and changed.
Stand Proud is probably as near as I will ever come to fulfilling that longtime ambition. It was done on a broad canvas, spanning a period from the latter part of the Civil War until after the turn of the century, through the final years of the Indian as a free-roaming entity on the Texas plains and finally to the time when all the land was settled up, fenced up and a new regulatory mind-set was taking hold.
That period of more than forty years saw tremendous changes on the land, not all of them for the better. I tried to show them through the eyes of fictional cattleman Frank Claymore, who is something like the story I have heard all my life about the old-timer declaring that he had seen many changes during his long years, and he had been against every one of them.
Claymore is in some ways an amalgamation of many actual cattlemen I have known about or studied over the years. He borrows a great deal from the archetype of them all, Charles Goodnight, whose biography was so grandly written by J. Evetts Haley. Goodnight spent most of his early life in Texas. When the Civil War began, he harbored reservations about the Confederacy, as many Texans did. To avoid going east with Confederate regulars to fight against Union troops, he chose to join a frontier company and scout for Indians, thereby serving Texas without having to fire upon the Union flag.
My Frank Claymore follows the same course. As the story opens, he is forted up against the Indians with other civilians in what was known as Fort Davis on the Clear Fork, south of present-day Breckenridge. This is not to be confused with a military post of the same name farther west in the Davis Mountains. Much description of the fort and its life is drawn from the classic Interwoven, by Sallie Reynolds Matthews, who remembered it from her childhood, and from the melancholy diaries of Sam and Susan Newcomb.
One of the needless tragedies of the Texas frontier was the ill-considered, ill-fated battle of Dove Creek, fought west of present-day San Angelo in the first days of 1865. Against the advice of many experienced Indian fighters, a set of Confederate irregulars attacked a migrating band of Kickapoo Indians on the assumption that they might be hostile Comanches. The Kickapoos had been a friendly tribe, but they proved to be fierce fighters in self-defense and administered a grievous whipping to the attackers before fleeing south to sanctuary in Mexico. No longer friendly, they became a scourge along the Rio Grande.
Frank Claymore is hauled into that battle as a private soldier, much against his better judgment. It is a turning point in his life.
Some years ago, while Stand Proud was in its planning stages, an elderly ranchman named Ira Bird told me a story about his father, a teenager late in the Civil War, too young to join the regulars but old enough to scout the Indian frontier with a Ranger company. One day while on a scout into what is now Coke County, he rode upon a tall hill and looked down into a beautiful valley, its floor dotted by thousands of grazing buffalo. Duty bade him ride away, but the scene haunted him for years. Later, married and starting a family, he went in search of that valley, found it and settled there. His descendants still live on Yellow Wolf Creek.
As I have often done with such stories that caught my imagination, I interpolated it into this narrative of Frank Claymore. Unable to forget the grand valley he has seen, Claymore returns to claim it and later in his life defends it against those he considers to be despoilers.
Often those who had the aggressive characteristics necessary to go into a raw land found those characteristics incompatible with the settled, ordered society which came later. Though they had cleared the path, civilization no longer had a place for them. It shoved them aside or plowed them under.
Claymore finds himself in that position in his later years. Early in life he is regarded as a hero, a trailblazer, a bringer of civilization to the wilderness. Late in life he is condemned as an exploiter, an impediment to progress. In truth, he has not changed. Society has changed, along with its concepts. A newspaper reporter tells Claymore, “In those days they wanted heroes. Today they are looking for villains. I am a writer. I write what they will read.”
The irony is that the public often found villains in the same men it had once regarded as heroes.
In real life this happened to Goodnight and many others. Texas novelist Benjamin Capps explored the same phenomenon in his splendid Sam Chance.
Stand Proud brought me more adverse criticism than any of my other novels. Some readers and critics simply disliked Frank Claymore. They considered him irascible, unyielding, intolerant. I cannot argue with that; I intended him to be that way. Had he not been, he would not have accomplished as much as he did. His was not a time or place for the weak, the equivocal. Those could come later, after the taming. Then they would be safe to decry what their predecessors had done to make the land secure for them.
I saw Frank Claymore as a product of his time and the experiences of his formative years. The West Texas into which he came was raw and dangerous. He had to be tough-minded. Though he did not seek a leadership position, it was thrust upon him by others who considered his abilities superior to their own.
Early in the story, Claymore lacks full control over his life and suffers because of others’ bad decisions. He is drawn into the frontier service against his will. While he is away serving the Confederacy, his one-time friend takes advantage of his absence to marry the woman Claymore loves. He is carried into the disastrous battle of Dove Creek and, through the folly of others, suffers a wound that will plague him the rest of his life.
The bitterness of these experiences hardens Claymore. It makes him vow that never again will he allow himself to fall under someone else’s authority. Henceforth he will make his own decisions and ride his own road no matter what it costs him. There are times when it costs him dearly, for he is mortal, and his decisions are sometimes wrong.
He has difficulty communicating his feelings, even to his wife, so he is often misunderstood by those around him. This failure is at the root of many of his problems, as it often is with all of us. He has no patience with those he perceives to be idle or incompetent, for life has not allowed him the luxury of idleness, and the incompetence of others has almost killed him more than once.
Like most of his contemporaries, Claymore regards the Indian as an obstacle to be overcome and does not question the rightness of the white man’s taking the land. That kind of introspection would come from later generations who would condemn Granddad for his heartlessness but nevertheless enjoy the results of his conquest and never seriously consider giving any of them away.
Late in life, as it happened with many old-time cattlemen and Indian fighters, Claymore would come to respect his former enemy, though he never returned what he had taken from him. Beset by a generation which took at the point of a pen instead of the point of a gun, he could appreciate what an honest and worthy adversary the Indian had been.
As a group, those early cattlemen who pushed their herds into new country were a tough, single-minded lot. They had to be if they were to survive. It is easy, after a century or more, to criticize them for not sharing the enlightened views which we have had the leisure and the security to develop over the last couple of generations. One must wonder, however, as we eat up the seed corn left to us by those pioneers, how we will be judged by future generations who may find no seed corn left.
Elmer KeltonSan Angelo, Texas
Stand Proud copyright © 1984, 1990 by the Estate of Elmer Stephen Kelton
Eyes of the Hawk copyright © 1981 by the Estate of Elmer Stephen Kelton