Friday, March 09, 2012

Forgotten Books: Texas Shall Be Free! - H. Bedford-Jones

This five-part serial by H. Bedford-Jones ran in ARGOSY from January 4, 1936 to February 1, 1936. It's the sequel to his novel "Bowie Knife" but with the exception of some historical figures does not use any of the same characters. This one starts a short time after the other novel leaves off with the fall of the Alamo and the slaughter of the old mission's defenders by the Mexican army under the command of General Santa Anna. Tennessean Gordon Durant, who has come to Texas to help in the fight for independence, is on his way from Goliad to San Antonio, carrying a message from his commander Colonel James Fannin intended for Colonel William Barrett Travis, in command at the Alamo. Durant has another reason for being in Texas, though: he is searching for his evil half-brother Vincent, who looks so much like Gordon that he was almost able to successfully seduce Gordon's fiancee in New Orleans. This occurred after Vincent stole a great deal of money from his and Gordon's late father in Tennessee. In the great pulp tradition, Vincent Durant is a thoroughly despicable villain.

Before he reaches San Antonio, Gordon Durant encounters a Mexican officer and is forced to kill him in a brief fight. The officer is carrying dispatches intended for Santa Anna. Gordon takes his uniform and the dispatch case, intending to masquerade as the dead officer. While disposing of the dead man's body, he is stumbled upon by a Mexican outlaw, Jacopo, who takes him for someone else-Vincent, obviously-and prattles on about stolen gold and how Vincent is a member of the same outlaw band. Gordon pretends to be his half-brother in order to get away and ride on into San Antonio.

When he gets there, he discovers that the Alamo has fallen and all of its defenders are dead. He successfully carries out his impersonation of the dead officer and is assigned by Santa Anna to a spying mission. Gordon's only real aim is to get out of San Antonio safely so that he can carry the news of its fall to the rest of the Texas army. But he gets saddled with the beautiful Dona Amadora de la Vega, who also thinks he is really Vincent Durant (half the people in Texas seem to have run into Vincent) and who happens to be the niece of the Mexican officer Gordon Durant killed. Amadora has a small casket full of jewels with her . . . or is it full of gold stolen from Santa Anna instead?

For several installments, Gordon Durant runs around southern Texas, catches up to his half-brother only to lose him before he can settle the score between them, is captured by the gang of outlaws that Vincent has joined, escapes, rejoins the Texas army and is sent out to spy by Sam Houston, discovers that his fiancee Faith and her father are also in Texas, is captured at the Battle of Coleto with the rest of Fannin's men and barely escapes when they are executed in the massacre at Goliad, scouts for the Texas army with Deaf Smith, and finally winds up taking part in the Battle of San Jacinto in which the outnumbered Texans handily defeat the Mexican army and capture Santa Anna. This decisive battle also forms the backdrop for Gordon's final showdown with his brother.

This is all as breathless as it sounds, and to be honest, all the fictional intrigue and adventures surrounding Gordon Durant come off as a bit forced and confusing. It reads wonderfully, of course, thanks to Bedford-Jones' skill as a storyteller. If anything, "Texas Shall Be Free!" has even more momentum than its predecessor, which was an excellent novel.

What sets this story apart and lifts it to the status of one of the best historical novels I've ever read about the Texas Revolution are the descriptions of both the landscape and the battles. I don't know if Bedford-Jones ever visited Texas or relied solely on research, but he nailed the area between San Antonio and the Gulf of Mexico. I've been all over this part of the country, and every bit of description rings true. Then there are the passages concerning the Goliad massacre, the Runaway Scrape (when the Texas army as well as the settlers in the area were fleeing from Santa Anna), and the battles at Coleto and San Jacinto. Bedford-Jones' prose is never wordy and never loses its swiftness, but he paints vivid pictures of these scenes that plunge the reader into the experiences he describes. Not to gush, but this is historical fiction at its best.

If I were a small-press publisher, one of the first projects I'd take on would be a reprinting of "Bowie Knife" and "Texas Shall Be Free!" in one volume. Since I'm not, I'll just highly recommend the issues of ARGOSY in which they appear to any fan of top-notch historical novels.


Walker Martin said...

I agree BOWIE KNIFE and TEXAS SHALL BE FREE should be reprinted. The best bets would be either Black Dog Books or Altus Press.

Evan Lewis said...

Dang. I'm still missing one segment of each serial!

Peter Brandvold said...

James, you're making me howl with want to read these! You can probably hear me down there. Tell Livia not to get the guns out--it's only Pete up in Colorado. He wants to read Bedford-Jones.

jhegenbe said...

Read this last summer and enjoyed the "behind-the-scenes" feel of the running around southern Texas. It stands alone well, so you don't really need to read Bowie Knife first. Not a western, of course. Very good historical romance.

Fred Blosser said...

It would be nice to see a reprint volume. I'd buy it. Maybe the ghosts of Fannin and his boys are still hanging around Goliad. My wife was seriously creeped out by Presidio La Bahia when we visited there a few years ago.