Authors: Elmer Kelton
Tags: #Mexico, #Cattle Stealing, #Mexican-American Border Region, #Ranch Life, #Fiction
Traveling at a pace that would not be hard on the horses, Andy and Farley took two days traveling from Austin to San Antonio. Farley said, “Last chance for a little relaxation. Ain’t goin’ to be much fun from here south.”
If you’d had much more fun in Austin you’d still be there.”
It’ll be all business when we get to the border. Go on ahead if you want to, but whatever trouble they got down there can wait another night or two.”
Andy did not feel like arguing. “We can tell them we needed to rest the horses.” He would welcome the chance to look around the historic city. “We’ll need to find Ranger headquarters.”
Tomorrow is soon enough. If they know we’re here they’ll want us to start south right away whether our horses are tired or not.”
Andy had never been to San Antonio, though he had heard many stories about its turbulent past. The town had been a crossroads of early Texas history. Several pitched battles had been fought there, first for Mexico’s freedom from Spain and later for Texas’s freedom from Mexico. Though other cities in the state were rapidly gaining in importance, San Antonio remained the jewel in its crown—if a sprawl of picket
and single-story buildings of stone and adobe could be considered a jewel.
As soon as they found a convenient wagon yard and put their horses away, Farley disappeared. He had been to San Antonio in his hell-raising days after the war and knew where he wanted to go. Andy asked the stable’s manager how to find the Ranger headquarters, then walked about, familiarizing himself with the center of town. Street traffic was heavy. A man had to look both ways before crossing over lest he be stepped on or rolled over by horses, wagons, and ox-drawn carts with high, solid wooden wheels that groaned and squealed on dry hubs.
He had known the population would be heavily Mexican, but seeing it for himself made him feel like an outsider. As a boy with the Comanches he had listened to Kiowas talking. He had felt helpless because he could not understand a word. He found himself just as lost trying to decipher some meaning from the Spanish he heard spoken all about him.
He had learned Comanche and relearned English. With time he should be able to pick up at least enough Spanish to get him by, he thought.
A strong German element was also evident, spilled over from early immigrant settlements founded in the 1840s. He despaired of ever learning to speak German. Spanish would be challenge enough.
He came unexpectedly upon what he recognized as the Alamo, at least the battle-scarred remains of the church that had been the center of the original mission complex. Much of the rest was gone, lost to new construction and bustling commercial uses. He was disappointed to find that even the old sanctuary had been turned into a warehouse. He thought it an undignified fate for a building where brave men had fought, bled, and died for Texas. Perhaps it would someday be turned into a shrine befitting the blood sacrifice that patriots of both Texas and Mexico had made there.
In the Ranger office Andy looked at a map that appeared to be the same as the one on Major Jones’s Austin wall except that more trails had been added, some ranches and small towns penciled in. A lieutenant traced one of the trails with his finger. “With some exceptions, you’ll find most white ranchers friendly to the Rangers. With some exceptions, you’ll find most Mexicans distrustful and unfriendly. Both sides have cause.” He turned back to face Andy. “Have you got anything against Mexicans?”
Major Jones asked me the same question. No, I don’t.”
Many people do, Rangers included. It’s not onesided, though. Many Mexicans have a hard grudge against whites too. Especially Rangers. They say we use our authority and our guns to help the gringo ranchers run them out of the country.”
Andy reflected a minute. “Do we?”
We’re not supposed to, but some take it to be their duty. Old wars don’t die easy. They linger on like an incurable disease.”
I try to treat everybody just alike.”
That’s a fine ideal. I hope you can live up to it when you’ve been on the river awhile. A man can lose his religion there if he doesn’t get killed first.”
Andy was not sure just what his religion was. Old Preacher Webb and others had counseled him about Christianity, but remnants of Comanche beliefs lingered as well. Sometimes the two seemed much the same. Other times they conflicted.
Andy asked, “When I get down there, what’ll my duties be?”
They’ll be whatever Lieutenant Buckalew tells you to do. If he says ride, you’ll ride. If he says shoot, you’ll shoot. Don’t waste his time or yours askin’ questions.”
When the lieutenant isn’t around, you’ll take orders from Sergeant Donahue. You may find that the lieutenant and the sergeant don’t always see eye to eye.”
In that case, which one do I listen to?”
The one who’s there at the time.” The officer turned toward a small safe. “How long since you’ve been paid?”
I was out on assignment the last payday. And I had to buy a horse. About all I’ve got in my pocket is a whittlin’ knife.”
I’ll advance you a little travelin’ money against your wages. We can’t have a Ranger beggin’ his way down the road. Keep account of your expenses. Maybe the state’ll see fit to reimburse you. Or maybe not.”
Andy normally wasted little time worrying about money, but once in a while the need could not be ignored. He had feared he would have to accept a wound to his pride by asking Farley to lend him a few dollars. But Farley might have no money left either after a couple of days and nights in San Antonio. It would give Andy deep satisfaction if Farley had to touch
for a loan.
His stomach rumbled loudly enough that he was sure the officer must have heard. He asked, “Where can I get a decent meal cheap?”
The lieutenant seemed to approve of the word
. “There’s a fair-to-middlin’ chili joint down the street a couple of blocks and around the corner. It’s not the Menger Hotel, but it’s fillin’. And the cook washes his hands once a day whether they need it or not.”
Sounds like the place for me.”
He started to leave, but the officer snapped his fingers and said, “Almost forgot. There’s another Ranger who’ll be headed the same way as you and Brackett. He came up to deliver a prisoner. Maybe you know him. Name’s Len Tanner.”
Andy grinned. “I’ve known him since I was this high.” He held his hand flat at chest level. “I lost track after he got transferred away from my camp. Where do you reckon I’ll find him?”
Go where you hear the loudest talkin’.”
Len had a reputation for a loose jaw. He could talk the bark off a live-oak tree. Andy had first gotten to know him when an accidental horse fall and broken leg took him out of Comanche hands and thrust him back into the life of a white boy. A jovial spirit who came and went as the mood struck him, Len had spun enticing tales of high adventure and eventually had talked Andy into joining the Rangers.
The café’s proprietor had laughing eyes that offset the fierceness of his black beard. His body was shaped like a pickle barrel. He asked, “Cowboy?”
Nope,” Andy said. “Ranger.”
Ain’t nothin’ too good for a Ranger. I’ll give you a choice: beefsteak or chili. Same price.”
That bein’ the case, I’ll take the beefsteak.”
The man laughed. “Some of the biggest ranchers in South Texas come in here to eat. It’s the only time a lot of them ever eat any of their own beef.”
Andy took that to imply that most preferred to eat their neighbors’ cattle. It also implied that the operator of the chili joint was not choosy about the source of his meat supply.
Andy said, “It doesn’t sound like rightful ownership means much around here.”
Not unless a man is ready and willin’ to fight for what belongs to him. There’s people here who can steal your socks without takin’ your boots off.”
The cook poured a cup of coffee for Andy without being asked. A cast-iron skillet clanged as he placed it atop the stove. He plopped a huge spoonful of hog lard in it to heat and melt. He said, “The secret to a good steak is to fry it deep in plenty of hot grease.”
Enough of it, Andy thought, and he could develop a belly like the cook’s.
The cook said, “I ain’t seen you before. Where are you stationed?”
Andy told him he was being reassigned to the border. The man’s face went serious. “The trail down to the Rio Grande can be risky, especially the lower part. The more Rangers the better. You never know who’s liable to pop out of the brush lookin’ for somebody to shoot.”
I’ll have another Ranger with me. Maybe two if I can find Len Tanner.”
The name brought a flicker of recognition from the cook. “I believe that old boy was in here yesterday. He talked till my ears hurt.”
The cook turned Andy’s steak over in the skillet. “If I was you I wouldn’t noise it around too much about bein’ a Ranger. I rode awhile with McNelly’s outfit. Down in that border country the Mexicans called us
and they didn’t say it sweet. I decided to move up here for my health.”
Mention of Captain McNelly stirred Andy’s curiosity. “What kind of a man was he?”
As good a feller as I ever knew. He had a hard job to do, and he done it despite bein’ sick most of the time. Some days he was almost too weak to stay in the saddle, but he wouldn’t let go. He meant to clean up the border if he had to kill half the population. He
kill a lot of them. Some claim he went too far.” The cook shrugged. “All I can say is that bandit raids tapered off right smartly by the time he got through.”
Andy said, “From what I hear, they’re back. Maybe not as strong as before McNelly, but bad enough.”
The cook lifted the steak on a fork and dropped it onto a platter. “Want a little advice? No extra charge.”
Don’t trust every smilin’ face you see. You never know for sure who’s your friend and who wants to see you dead. When in doubt, shoot first.”
Andy asked, “What if I kill somebody innocent?”
There’s damned few innocent people down there. They might start that way, but they get over it.”
Andy’s back was to the door, but he sensed that someone had entered the room behind him. The voice was Farley’s, and he sounded agitated. “Eat quick and let’s get movin’.”
I thought you had some celebratin’ to do.”
Done done it. I’m ready to go.”
What’s the big hurry? It’s already late in the day. We can’t get far before dark.”
We can get far enough. I’ll go fetch our horses while you finish your supper.”
Farley left in a trot. The cook said, “Don’t eat too fast. Ain’t good for the digestion.”
I just hope he didn’t kill somebody.”
Before Andy had finished eating his steak and red beans, Farley was back and leading Andy’s black horse. He shouted from outside, “Come on. Let’s move.”
Andy kept his seat until he had emptied the platter and finished his coffee. He paid the proprietor out of the money the lieutenant had advanced. The cook said, “Mind what I told you. They’ll smile when you’re lookin’ and stab you when you turn your back.”
Farley was fidgeting as if he had ants in his underwear. “You damned sure took your time.”
I don’t see why we have to rush away from here like a couple of thieves.”
Farley did not answer. He set his horse into a long trot. He did not bother to look back and see if Andy was following.
Andy caught up to him as they passed through the southern outskirts of town. “Who did you shoot?”
The question surprised Farley. “I never shot nobody.”
The way you left, I thought maybe you did.”
Farley looked back. “It wasn’t nothin’ like that. I ran into an old friend of yours, and I was afraid he’d want to ride with us. I can’t listen to Len Tanner all the way to the border. I might shoot him to shut him up.”
Annoyed, Andy said, “All this rush was to get away from Len? Where did you find him?”
I was visitin’ a couple of ladies I know. He was there doin’ the same thing. You’re too young to understand.”
I’m old enough. Seems to me like you ought to find yourself a good woman and leave those other
What woman would look twice at this scarred face unless she was paid to do it?”
There’s bound to be some. You’ve been searchin’ in the wrong places.”