Elmer Kelton, the best writer of American westerns since at least Zane Grey has died. In 1995, a fraternal organization called the Western Writers of America voted Kelton the best western writer who ever lived.
Kelton became a great novelist in his spare time. He lived a writer’s life. He spent most of his career as a newspaper reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times. After he left that job he paid his bills by working as an editor for a couple of magazines called Sheep and Goat Raiser and Livestock Weekly.
He wrote novels about working class men – roustabouts, day laborers and wranglers – who were usually deeply flawed but redeemed by their courage, self-sufficiency, and honor. His heroes never gave a damn about their careers. He celebrated men who were free. And because he was from West Texas and he knew the livestock business, many of his characters were West Texas cowboys.
“If I really had been a good cowboy like I wished I could have been, I’d probably be still working on some ranch out on the Pecos River,” he told the New York Times in 1986. But, Kelton did know enough about the cowboy way to write truthfully about it.
“Next to his way with a horse, a cowboy was proudest of his independence,” Kelton once wrote. “He worked for other men, but they owned nothing of him except his time. He was a free soul. He could ride from the Rio Grande to the Powder River and seldom see a fence. He could start that ride with five dollars in his pocket and have three left when he finished, if that was the way he wanted to travel. Money did not rule him.”
Kelton is survived by his wife of 62 years, Ann Kelton of San Angelo, his sons Gary Kelton and Steve Kelton, his daughter Kathy Kelton, four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, one great-great grandchild and his three brothers Merle, Pat and Eugene.
More than 500 people attended his funeral last month. As his mourners carried his body to his grave, a sound system played the old Roy Rogers song, “Happy Trails To You Until We Meet again.”
Some trails are happy ones,
Others are blue.
It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here’s a happy one for you.
Elmer Stephen Kelton was 83-years-old.
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