Authors: Elmer Kelton
Tags: #Mexico, #Cattle Stealing, #Mexican-American Border Region, #Ranch Life, #Fiction
Lately Andy had given considerable thought to Rusty Shannon and Alice. And Bethel Brackett. He did not feel at home in this hot and brushy borderland, so different in people, climate, and terrain from what he had known. He had been revisiting his old dream of settling down in a pleasant valley, perhaps in the hill country, somewhere along the San Saba or Llano rivers.
Idling had never suited him for long. He had a sense that time was a gift not to be wasted. Through the day he pitched in with a couple of Big Jim’s Mexican hands in digging postholes for a new corral. He could keep an eye on the house while doing that. Physical exertion helped him sweat off some of his frustrations. The fatigue that came upon him toward the end of the day gave him a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
Despite his reassurances to McCawley, he felt a vague uneasiness as night came on.
Farley said, “I can’t see what you’re worried about. Ain’t nobody made a try for the kid yet.”
Dark always worries me. You never know who or what might be out there in it.”
At dusk Andy and Farley made a wide circle around the house, walking to the edge of the brush and checking the outbuildings.
Farley said, “Like I told you, ain’t nobody comin’. I’d bet my life on it.
It’s Tony’s life we’re bettin’.”
Though he had seen nothing, Andy closed the shutters that covered Tony’s window. Tony demanded, “Do you have to do that? I’ll suffocate in here.”
Better than lettin’ a Jericho man shoot you through the window. Maybe you’ll think about this the next time you decide to pull a raid on somebody’s cattle.”
I’ll bet half of those cattle belonged to Tio Lupe in the first place.”
I’m not a judge. I’m just a Ranger. Or was. It’s on account of you that I got fired.”
Tony showed no remorse. “If you had any self-respect you wouldn’t have been a Ranger anyway. The Rangers are a tool of the gringo land grabbers. They won’t be satisfied till they’ve run all the Mexicans across the river.” He scowled. “Who knows if they’ll even stop there? I heard that to the day he died, Sam Houston was plottin’ another invasion of Mexico.”
And I heard that the earth is flat, that if you go to the edge of it you’ll fall off.”
Go ahead, make fun of what I’m tellin’ you. You just haven’t seen things from my side of the river. Someday some Mexican general will rise up and drive the gringos all the way north to San Antonio. Maybe farther.”
Andy tried to think of an answer. “I guess you think that general might be your uncle Lupe?”
Who knows? The strongest leaders we’ve ever had came up from the people. Like Father Hidalgo. He raised the cry for Mexican independence from Spain.”
As I heard it, they shot him.”
That was the Spanish. They were no better than the damned gringos. And we Mexicans beat them.”
And then the Texans beat you.” Almost before Andy got it said, he wished he hadn’t. He saw that he had touched a raw nerve.
Tony flushed. “You better watch out that when the stampede starts you don’t get tromped in it.” He turned his face toward the wall.
It was useless to argue with Tony. Andy felt foolish for trying. He went outside to be sure a proper guard had been set up. The face he saw at the front of the house was not the one he expected. He found a bronc rider whose name he remembered as Francisco.
Andy said, “I thought Toribio was standin’ the first watch.”
Francisco’s grasp of English was tentative. He touched his hand to his stomach. “Toribio sick a little.”
Andy remembered that Francisco had been in the house to visit Tony a couple or three times. Evidently their friendship went back a long way. “Well, you watch good. There may still be somebody lookin’ to get at him.”
Good boy, Tony. I watch.”
Andy had been sleeping on a cot in the hallway. An invader would have to go past him to get into Tony’s room. Farley had spread his bedroll near the back door. Hewitt slept at the end of the hall nearest the front door. With guards inside and outside, Andy felt that Tony was well protected.
He did not remove his clothes, other than his boots. He would get up at least once in the night to check on the guards outside. The steady
of a tall grandfather clock in the nearby parlor slowly lulled him off to sleep.
He was jarred awake by gunshots from somewhere outside. Flinging off the light blanket that covered him, he dashed into Tony’s room. Though it was dark he saw that the shutters were open. Tony was not in his bed. Andy rushed to the open window and tried to see out into the darkness. He heard a horse running. Somewhere out there a man shouted angrily. More shots echoed back from the brush.
He bumped into Hewitt as both tried to go out the front door at the same time. He saw the guard Francisco standing, looking off southward in the direction from which the shots had come.
Andy demanded, “What’s happened?”
Francisco turned. To Andy’s surprise he was smiling. “Antonio … he get away.”
I bring horse for him so he goes to his uncle. Men in the brush shoot, but I think they no hit Antonio. He is gone
for the river.”
Farley came running up. “Damn kid. I didn’t think he was in shape to climb out the window, much less to ride a horse.”
Andy said, “Looks like he fooled us.”
Francisco chuckled. “Fool everybody.”
Andy was tempted to hit him, but he saw no gain in it beyond possibly venting a little of his frustration.
Looks like Jericho’s men were layin’ for him.” He heard more shots, farther away. “Sounds like they haven’t caught him.”
Francisco said, “Fast horse. Nobody catch.”
Andy said, “Come on, we’d better see if we can help him.”
Hewitt said, “We couldn’t find an elephant out there in the dark.”
But we know he’s headed south. He won’t stop till he gets to the river unless Jericho’s men overtake him.” He had no doubt that Jericho or his men had done the shooting. He would give odds that the angry voice he had heard belonged to Jericho himself. “Maybe we can cut his trail and catch up to him.”
Andy went back for his boots. He trotted toward the barn, Hewitt and Farley close behind him. Hewitt fretted, “Donahue will have my hide for this.”
Andy didn’t give a damn about Donahue, but he felt that he had let Big Jim down.
They saddled and set out in a lope in the direction from which the last shots had come. The firing had stopped. That could mean Tony had eluded his enemies in the darkness, or it could mean … Andy did not want to think about that.
Hewitt said, “What I can’t see is why Jericho is so hell-bent on gettin’ that kid. It’s not like he’s Lupe Chavez’s right-hand man.”
Andy replied, “It’s somethin’ about Jericho losin’ a nephew. Even a man like him can have feelin’s for his kin. He blames Chavez. Got a grudge against Big Jim too. Killin’ Tony would give both men a kick in the teeth.”
Patches of thick brush forced them to slow down to prevent thorns from injuring the horses. The men were not immune to them either. Andy heard Farley curse as an unseen mesquite branch slapped him across the face. “Damn near put my eyes out,” Farley complained. “Every time I go somewhere with you, Badger Boy, somethin’ happens to me.”
The only saving grace was that Jericho’s men were probably having the same trouble.
In the darkness and the brush it would be easy to lose the way and begin traveling in circles. Andy picked out a star he judged to be more or less due south. Whenever they had to skirt around an obstacle he kept reining back in the direction of the star. He paused from time to time to listen, but he heard no more shots, no hoofbeats. He was fairly sure they had not gotten ahead of Jericho’s men. He hoped they had not ridden past Tony.
At least they ain’t caught him,” he said. “We’d hear shootin’ if they did.”
They continued riding through the night, though without any solid indication that they were on the right track. Andy began to be plagued by doubts, which he thought best not to confess to Farley or Hewitt.
Just at daybreak he heard desultory gunfire in the distance. He reined up to listen. “It’s at least three or four different guns. Sounds to me like Tony is makin’ a stand.”
Farley said, “He won’t hold out long if they’ve got him bottled up in the brush.”
Hewitt pushed past Andy and Farley. “I’ve got to protect my prisoner.”
The two quickly caught up with him. Andy said, “He’s not anybody’s prisoner, not till we pry him loose from the hole he’s in.”
They almost rode upon the Jericho men before they realized how close they had come. Andy heard the hiss of a bullet passing by his ear and clipping into a tangle of mesquite limbs behind him. He drew his pistol and fired a couple of shots. He had little expectation of hitting something he could not see, but it might give the pursuers something extra to worry about.
Farley said, “Let’s surround them.”
Another bullet sang as it passed by. Andy realized it did not come from the Jericho crew. “Look out. Tony can’t tell us from them.” He shouted, “It’s Andy. We’re comin’.”
Jericho’s men did not seem talented at hitting moving targets. They fired several ineffective shots as the three riders swung around them.
Andy saw that Tony’s horse was down. Tony was lying behind it, pistol balanced across the saddle. Andy jumped to the ground. “Are you all right?”
Tony said crisply, “Hell no, I’m not all right. They shot my horse out from under me.”
Andy saw blood on Tony’s shirt and doubted it came from the horse. “Looks like they hit you.”
Tony shook his head. “No, but the fall opened that wound up again. Been bleedin’ some.” His hand shook. “I can’t hold my gun steady or I’d’ve gotten two or three of them by now.”
You ain’t got a lick of sense or you wouldn’t be out here in the first place. We’re goin’ to take you home.”
Like hell. You think you can get past them?” He nodded toward the Jericho men, less than a hundred yards away. “One of them rode off a while ago. I figure he went for reinforcements. The only direction we can go from here is south.”
Andy realized he was right. They had caught Jericho’s crew by surprise just now or they would not have gotten past them. They could not go back through or around them without heavy risk. He looked at Farley and Hewitt. “You-all ready for a swim?”
Hewitt said, “I’m still a Ranger. It’s illegal for me to cross the river.”
Liable to be fatal if you don’t.”
Since you put it that way …” Hewitt fired toward the men in the brush. “Just want them to know that we ain’t gone to sleep.”
Andy said, “Let’s hoist Tony up into my saddle. I’ll ride behind him.”
Farley pointed out. “That means they’ll have to shoot through you to get him. Are you sure he’s worth it?”
Probably not. But let’s go.”
Andy’s horse fidgeted, made nervous by the shooting and the smell of blood. Tony was as weak as a sick colt. Andy and Hewitt struggled to get him into the saddle while Farley watched for the Jericho men to move. Andy swung up behind Tony. He said, “Hold tight to the horn so you don’t slide off. One more fall just might put you under.”
It’ll take more than that.”
They moved into an easy lope. Shortly Farley shouted, “They’re tryin’ to go around us. We’d better whip up.”
Andy looked back. He saw six riders, somewhat scattered but spurring hard. “How far is it to the river, Tony?”
It’s just ahead of us.”
Then we’d better give them a horse race. If they get in front of us, we’ll never be able to go through them.”
The ground seemed a blur as Andy and Farley and Hewitt pushed their mounts for all the speed they could get. But Andy’s was handicapped by carrying the weight of two riders. Once the horse stumbled and went to its knees trying to jump over a bush. Andy almost lost his hold on Tony. The horse regained its feet, but it had lost some ground.
They hit the river still barely ahead of Jericho’s men. Andy held tightly to Tony as the horse began thrashing, plunging through the water. This was not an ideal place to cross. The river had narrowed, but narrowing made it deeper.
The pursuers’ aim was spoiled by the motion of their swimming horses.
Andy and the others broke out on the south bank and resumed running. But Andy’s hopes began to sink as he saw that they were going to lose the race. Jericho’s riders were gaining rapidly. Gradually they maneuvered around to the front, fifty yards ahead. They stopped and faced about.
Andy brought his horse to a stop and slid off, reaching up to help Tony down.
The riders began firing at them. A bullet thumped against the cantle of Andy’s saddle.