Authors: Elmer Kelton
Tags: #Mexico, #Cattle Stealing, #Mexican-American Border Region, #Ranch Life, #Fiction
fter several years as a Texas Ranger, Andy Pickard concluded that the average criminal he dealt with was about as intelligent as a jackrabbit. That said, even a dullard could pull a trigger and hurt somebody. A case in point was the reluctant prisoner trudging along ten paces ahead of Andy, dragging his feet and wailing about the insensitivity of law enforcement.
It ain’t fair,” the handcuffed man whined. “You’re a young man, barely growed, but you’re ridin’ my horse and makin’ me walk.”
Andy said, “You shot mine.”
I didn’t mean to.”
I know. You were shootin’ at
The prisoner stumbled over his own feet and almost fell. “How much further we got to go?”
A ways yet. It’ll give you time to consider changin’ your occupation.”
Deuce Scoggins had earned a reputation as a second-rate horse thief who could not tell a mare from a gelding and knew no better than to peddle them in the first town he came to after he stole them. His trail had led Andy across several counties along the Colorado River, but a string of angry victims had made the path easy to follow. Confronted, Deuce had fired one shot in panic, killing Andy’s horse, then had thrown up his hands and begged for mercy. Andy had made him strip the saddle, bridle, and blanket from the dead animal and transfer them to his own.
Where’d you get this horse?” Andy asked him.
Won him in a poker game.”
Andy doubted that. Deuce was not smart enough to win a poker game. He had stolen this horse like he had stolen just about everything else he had. Deuce’s sweat-streaked shirt was much too large, loosely draped over thin shoulders, the grime-edged cuffs almost covering his dirty hands. He had probably lifted it from somebody’s clothesline.
Andy asked, “Did you ever think about gettin’ a job and makin’ an honest livin’?”
Work? I tried once. Ain’t much I can do good enough that anybody’ll pay me for it.”
You’re not very good at this, either.”
Andy wondered if he was being fair, comparing Deuce’s intelligence with that of a jackrabbit. He might not be giving the rabbit enough credit.
Deuce grumbled, “Even an Indian would treat a man better than this.”
You don’t know Indians.” Andy did. Through several of his boyhood years he had lived among the Comanches. “Be glad you
know them. They’d make it a mighty short acquaintance.”
The afternoon was almost done when they rounded a bend in the wagon road and saw the crossroads town ahead. Its largest buildings were a courthouse, a new jail, and a church.
Deuce brightened, seeing that his long walk was almost over. He said, “I heard their old jailhouse got burned down. It wasn’t no nice place. I was in it once.”
Too bad you didn’t go in the church instead.”
Can’t you take these handcuffs off before we hit town? It’s embarrassin’ to let people see me this way.”
A little embarrassment might be good for you. There was a time when they would’ve necked you to a tree limb. As it is, they’ll likely just send you to the penitentiary.”
I already been there. It ought to be against the law to put a man in a hellhole like that.”
Sheriff Tom Blessing stood in the doorway of the redbrick jail. Recognizing Andy, he grinned broadly and raised his big right hand in greeting. He looked more like a farmer than a lawman, for indeed he was a farmer first. Despite his years he still had the muscled body of a blacksmith. “Bringin’ me a guest, Andy?”
Andy grinned back at him. “I hated for your new jailhouse to stand empty. The taxpayers have put a big investment in it.”
Andy dreaded the handshake because Tom could bend a horseshoe double, and he could break the bones in a man’s hand. He had been sheriff here so long that many people in town could not remember anyone else serving in that office. He showed no sign that he was ready to yield any ground to his age. He said, “Come on in here, Deuce. I’ve got a nice cell with your name on it, all swept out and waitin’ for you.”
Deuce sounded like a lost soul crying in the wilderness. “I’m hungry and I’m thirsty, and this Ranger has wore my feet down plumb to the bone.”
Tom offered no comfort. “Write a letter to the governor.” He led Deuce past barred iron doors and pointed him to a cell. When Deuce was inside, Tom slammed the door hard. That reverberating impact always reminded Andy of a gallows trapdoor dropping. There was something coldly final about it.
Tom told Deuce, “I’ll bring you a bucket of water directly. There’s a slop jar under the cot. Make yourself at home.” He winked at Andy.
Deuce was wanted in several counties, but Andy had brought him here because this was the nearest jail, and the sun was almost down. He did not care to risk camping with the prisoner on the trail. Here he could get a good night’s sleep without worrying that Deuce might try to escape. Tom would keep the horse thief in custody until the several counties that wanted him sorted out their priorities.
Tom asked, “Did he give you any trouble?”
Not after he shot my horse. He went to blubberin’. Thought I was fixin’ to kill him. I let him keep on thinkin’ so till I got the cuffs on him.”
shot him for killin’ their horse. Whose is that you’re ridin’?”
No tellin’. Somebody’s probably lookin’ for him.”
I’ll check my notices.” Tom fingered through a stack of papers on his desk. “I got a message for you somewhere. Yeah, here it is.” He handed a paper to Andy. “Your captain sent a wire to all the sheriffs around here, not knowin’ just where you’d turn up. Wants you to report in to him.”
Andy felt uneasy, wondering what the captain might want. Maybe the state’s finances had turned tight again and the Ranger force was being trimmed. It had happened often before. His several years of service were no guarantee that he would escape the next cut.
He asked, “Reckon the telegraph office is still open?”
I expect so. The operator’s not anxious to go home of an evenin’. His wife’s been burnin’ the beans lately on account of him bein’ a sorry poker player.”
Andy mentally composed a brief message on his way down the street. In the telegraph office he wrote it out on paper, reporting the capture of Scoggins. He read it over and penciled out every word it could spare. The state disliked paying for long messages, so Ranger reports tended to be spare on detail. He remembered one Farley Brackett had sent:
Five fugitives met, three arrested, two buried.
He told the telegraph operator, “If I get a reply, I’ll be stayin’ the night at the jail.”
I’ll fetch it over soon as it comes.”
Andy stayed to watch him tap out the message. He still marveled at the progress he had seen in just the few years he had been a member of the Rangers. It seemed unreal that he could write a few lines here and know they would be received miles away in an instant. The telegraph had done much to tighten up law enforcement across Texas. Word of a fugitive could race past him and alert officers to intercept him down the road.
Andy could not imagine how it might ever get much better than that.
Back at the jail he found Tom standing in front of the woodstove. The sheriff said, “I’m heatin’ some leftover beans and corn bread for the prisoner, but I expect you’ll want somethin’ better. I’ll go with you down to the eatin’ joint soon as I get Deuce taken care of.”
Tom had a farm a few miles out of town, but he often spent the night in the jail rather than make the ride twice, once out and then back in the morning.
Andy said, “If it wasn’t already so late I’d ride out and pay a visit to Rusty Shannon. Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Tom smiled at the mention of the red-haired former Ranger. “I used to worry a right smart about Rusty. He pined away for a long time after Josie Monahan died. He’s fared some better since he made up his mind to marry her sister Alice. She’s been like a tonic to him.”
He deserves a run of good luck for a change. He had enough bad to do for a lifetime.” Rusty had been like a brother to the orphaned Andy, teaching, counseling, providing a benchmark when Andy seemed about to lose his way. “If it wasn’t for Rusty I don’t know where I’d be now. In jail, like as not. Or dead.”
Tom had a benevolent smile his prisoners seldom saw. “You never were that bad of a kid. All you needed was guidance.”
Andy had been taken by Comanche raiders when he was a small boy. They raised him until he fell back into Texan hands at about the time his voice started to change. His reintroduction to the white man’s world had exposed him to many pitfalls. Even now, in his midtwenties, he sometimes found himself facing situations where the choice was difficult to make. He had always leaned heavily on Rusty’s advice. When Rusty was not around, he tried to visualize what Rusty would do.
He said, “Too bad Deuce Scoggins didn’t have somebody like Rusty to point the way for him when he was young.”
Tom shrugged. “Might not’ve made any difference. There’s some people that nobody can help. They’ve got no skill and no trade. They’re too shiftless for honest work, and every time they come to a fork in the road they turn the wrong direction. I’ve seen a lot like Deuce, driftin’ to God knows where. I’ve got to watch myself so I don’t get to thinkin’ the whole world is that way.” Tom’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been a Ranger for a good while now. You ever find yourself gettin’ cynical?”
Andy had to think a minute before he remembered what
meant. “I still find there’s more good folks than bad ones. If I try, I can even feel a little sorry for Deuce.”
Don’t tell him so. It might encourage him to get worse.”
The telegraph operator found Andy sitting with Tom at a table in the restaurant, hungrily emptying a bowl of thick beef stew. He waved a sheet of paper. “Got a reply to your message. Thought you’d want to see it right away.”
Andy read it slowly, his finger tracing the lines. Rusty had been more successful in teaching him about farming and being a Ranger than about reading and writing.