By David R. Altman

This is a column about two Westerns.

Well, not exactly two Westerns in the traditional literary sense; that is, no Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurtry or Zane Grey.

I’ve finished two books in the past couple of weeks that deal with the West—one about George Armstrong Custer and the other about a modern-day (fictional) Texas Ranger from a well-known author whom you usually don’t associate with Westerns.

If you’re a fan of James Patterson (his 150 novels have sold nearly 300 million copies worldwide) then you’ve got to find his latest book, called Texas Outlaw (the second in a series).

While this one doesn’t deal with some of the modern-day crime thrillers that Patterson is best known for, it’s an action-packed story about a Texas Ranger assigned to a case in West Texas that everyone assumes was an accidental death but turns out to be anything but that.

Patterson and co-writer Andrew Bourelle have created another memorable character in Texas Ranger Rory Yates (isn’t that a great name for a Texan, ‘Rory’, as it reminds me of Rory Calhoun, the famous Western actor of the fifties and sixties, whose real name was Francis Timothy Calhoun, but his agent felt Rory would work better, and it did).

Anyway, Rory Yates becomes a hero in Patterson’s early pages when he inadvertently walks into a bank robbery while his new boss is dozing in their patrol car.

Rory is engaged to a young country western singer who is gaining national fame while he is on assignment in the small west Texas town of Waco.

This town has it all. Unexplained murders, kidnapping, corruption, drugs and just about everything illegal you can think of in a small town. There’s also an underlying love story fueled by the fact that Rory and his fiancé are separated by his isolated assignment in Waco and her national music tour.

The storyline is unpredictable, which, along with the (very) short chapters that make any fiction book move more quickly (there are 115 chapters in Texas Outlaw’s 436 pages), creating an enjoyable, fast-paced thriller. It’s also filled with plot twists that you won’t see coming and a sort of double-header conclusion that will keep you engaged right through the Epilogue.

Just before I started Texas Outlaw, I finished A Terrible Glory: Custer and The Little Bighorn, by author and scholar James Donovan (available at most public libraries).

This book, which the L.A. Times said was “…probably as close as we’re going to get to know what really happened” at Custer’s final battle.

For those of you who enjoy American historical books, particularly those dealing with the 19th century, Native American history and the Civil War, this one should be near the top of your list.

It takes place in the United States’ war against the Indian tribes. It documents one of the final, sad (though heroic) chapters of Native Americans fighting to keep their land rather than being forced onto government reservations where their lives would never be the same.

It’s a story of the Sioux, combined with warriors of the Lakota, Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne tribes, whose battlefield supremacy defeated General George Custer and his 7th Calvary in 1876.

The infamous battle took place where the Little Big Horn river flows into the Yellowstone River — near what is now the Montana-Wyoming border.

The detail and complexity of this book take some serious concentration, as there were many subplots that surrounded the final battle for General George Armstrong Custer.

You will also learn how the great Indian leaders, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, prepared for the attack that would be their last and most memorable victory.

Using first-hand accounts of the battle’s survivors, Donovan describes in great detail the many lost opportunities that could have prevented the slaughter of Custer and the 246 soldiers that died that day at the Little Big Horn. The Sioux lost 33 warriors and six women and children.

Donovan details how a lack of communication — as well as personal differences among Custer and other Army officers — contributed to a nearly perfect storm for the Sioux massacre of Custer’s forces.

Custer, a West Point graduate who fought at Gettysburg and later worked for General William T. Sherman, apparently never met an interviewer he didn’t like. He would often invite a reporter to accompany him to battles so the stories could be told quickly in newspapers back East.

Donovan provides a balanced look at Custer, whose personal reputation suffered greatly (and perhaps, unfairly) as a result of the battle that became known as his ‘last stand’. The book also examines how his widow, Libbie, sought to repair her husband’s legacy in the years following the war.

So, if you need a break from too many COVID-19 updates, pick up one of these two books. You will not only enjoy the solace of a good read, you will be entertained by stories of both the new and the old West.

David R. Altman, a former Georgia Author of the Year nominee for his poetry chapbook Death in the Foyer, writes about books and writers. He can be reached at altmandavidr@gmail.com

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