Authors: Elmer Kelton
Tags: #Mexico, #Cattle Stealing, #Mexican-American Border Region, #Ranch Life, #Fiction
And you’re stickin’ your nose in where you’ve got no business.”
Andy choked down his irritation. Though Len’s chatter could be a trial, he would prefer it to riding with a morose Farley Brackett. “I’ve got half a mind to go back and find him.”
If you do, you’ll go by yourself.”
That might be an improvement.”
Farley grumped, “You’re damned hard to get along with. Must be you ain’t got all the Indian out of you.”
ndy looked back a couple of times as they put the historic old town behind them. He hoped he might see Len catching up. He said, “Len’s a good Ranger, you can’t take that away from him.”
Farley said, “That don’t mean I’ve got to appreciate his company. A man can put up with just so much jaw.”
Andy knew of no one who disliked Len except some of the criminals he had sent away to board with the state. Farley was a good Ranger too, but Andy knew many people who did not care for much of his company, himself included.
He asked, “When are we goin’ to stop and camp?” He hoped Len would catch up.
Farley said curtly, “You already had your supper, and I brought mine with me.” He held up a pint bottle.
Andy had rarely seen him drunk, for Farley could hold a prodigious amount of whiskey without showing its effects. He had a stern will that did not permit interference with whatever he set his mind to do. Len, on the other hand, did not drink on duty or when he thought he might be called to duty. Even a modest amount of whiskey could start him to singing in a voice loud but seriously off-key.
At dusk Farley said, “We better call it a day. We been pushin’ the horses pretty hard.”
Farley had been pushing. Andy had just been trying to keep up.
Farley added, “We don’t need no fire. It’s warm enough, and we ain’t cookin’. A fire just draws visitors.”
Andy knew Farley was concerned about just one visitor, Len. They pulled off the trail a little way, unsaddled and hobbled their horses. Dragging one foot, Farley smoothed the rocks from a small patch of ground and spread his blankets. He hoisted the bottle without offering to share it. Andy would have refused it anyway. He had not developed a liking for whiskey and could not understand why others so readily did. It always burned his throat on the way down and kindled a fire in his stomach when it got there.
Farley said, “I don’t suppose you seen my mother and sister before you left?”
How were they?”
Fine. They’re the
members of the Brackett family.”
Farley accepted the implication without visible reaction. “You serious about Bethel?”
I might be if I wasn’t a Ranger.”
That’s easy fixed. You could quit.”
If you don’t like me ridin’ with you as a Ranger, you sure wouldn’t like havin’ me for a brother-in-law.”
I’d seldom ever see you.”
Andy said, “I guess that’s right. You hardly ever visit your womenfolks.”
It’s better that way. All I ever brought them was trouble.”
Andy kindled a small fire. Farley demanded, “What’s that for?”
I want to boil a little coffee after that ride.”
Never could see why some people got to have coffee all the time. It’s too much trouble. With whiskey, all you have to do is pull the cork.”
Andy heard the strike of a horse’s hooves and saw a lanky rider approaching in the dusk. A familiar voice shouted, “Hello, the camp. You there, Andy?”
Farley groaned. “Oh hell.”
Andy stood up and waved his arm. “Come on in, Len.”
Len Tanner swung a spindly leg over his horse’s rump and stepped to the ground. “I’d about give up on catchin’ you fellers. I thought you’d wait for me in town.”
Andy saw no need to explain and hurt Len’s feelings. “Farley was in a hurry to leave. It’s a right long trip to the river.”
I know. I had to deliver a prisoner all the way up to San Antonio. He was wanted for usin’ his knife a little too free. That’s a common failin’ in this part of the country. Got some of that coffee left? I ain’t had no supper.”
Farley muttered, “I suppose after a few days in town you was too broke to feed yourself.”
Andy figured Farley might be right about that. Wages slipped through Len’s fingers like sand. He always said he could travel lighter without the weight of silver in his pockets. He was too skinny to carry much extra weight anyhow.
Len said, “I’ll ride with you fellers if you’ll have me. It always shortens the miles when I’ve got somebody to talk to.”
Farley grunted and moved to where he had spread his blankets. “I’m hittin’ the soogans. If you find me gone in the mornin’ it’ll be because I made an early start.”
Len said, “Eager, ain’t he? He wouldn’t rush if he knew the border. It was easier fightin’ Indians. At least when you saw one you knew he was your enemy. Down yonder you’re never sure.”
Andy asked, “How come you to transfer from the San Saba? That was a nice place to be stationed.”
The captain volunteered me. I guess they needed a man with experience.”
More than likely the captain had heard Len’s stories one time too many, Andy thought.
They set out the next morning soon after daybreak. Len began to tell about his experiences since he had been sent down to the border. Andy listened eagerly, but Farley quickly lost patience. He stopped and dismounted, lifting his mount’s left forefoot and examining the shoe.
I think there’s a stone lodged in here,” he said. “You-all go on. I’ll catch up to you by-and-by.”
Andy suspected Farley was trying to get out of earshot. He would probably drag along behind. Andy had rather listen to Len’s stories than to Farley’s grumbling anyway.
He had noticed a bright, shiny star on Len’s shirt. Sometimes Rangers made their own badges. “Where did you get that?”
A Mexican cut it for me out of a silver peso. Looks pretty good, don’t it?”
Looks like a target.”
Ain’t nobody hit it yet. Been a couple tried.”
White or Mexican?”
One of each. Most Mexicans don’t like Rangers, and a lot of whites don’t like Rangers gettin’ in their way when they’re tryin’ to take what belongs to the Mexicans. We get shot at from both sides.”
By noon Farley had not caught up. Andy could see him poking along a couple of hundred yards behind. Len asked, “Reckon we ought to stop and wait for him?”
He likes his own company. Let him make the most of it.”
I figure he must’ve been born in the dark. Me, I was born in the daylight.”
Andy enjoyed studying the changing landscape. It was gently rolling, mostly open except for watercourses lined with trees and many varieties of brush. Wide areas were flat enough for farming, though little had as yet been broken by the plow. Cattle of many hues grazed the tall, summer-curing grass. Some hoisted their tails and ran for the thickets. Others watched placidly as the riders passed, for this was a much-used public roadway. They were accustomed to wagon, cart, and horseback traffic.
He said, “Sure looks peaceful.”
Len shook his head. “Wait till we get down into the brush country. Plant, animal, or human, everything there is lookin’ for a chance to draw blood. They’ve all got stickers, horns, knives, or shootin’ irons.”
Farley grudgingly rejoined them as they stopped at an abandoned adobe hut from which windowsills and the roof had been removed. The mud walls were gradually disintegrating, most of their plaster covering gone.
Len said, “Sure feels good to sleep indoors now and again.”
Farley spread his blankets outside, by himself.
As the next day waned toward dusk they began looking for a place to stop. They came upon a little creek that appeared to be a favored camping site. A half dozen Mexican ox carts were there. A couple of dark-skinned men walked out to meet the riders. They spoke in Spanish. Andy could not understand a word.
Len said, “I’ve picked up a little Mexican lingo. They’re invitin’ us to share the camp with them.”
Andy asked, “They can see your badge. I thought all Mexicans hated Rangers.”
Just the same, they’d feel safer camped with us. There’s gringos around who would be glad to do them harm.”
Farley said, “They might wait till we’re asleep, then carve their initials on our gizzards.”
Len argued, “They’re just freighters, haulin’ goods from the Gulf of Mexico to San Antonio. They know if they hurt anybody they couldn’t get away. An ox team travels awful slow.”
I don’t trust anybody I can’t understand. We need to find a place where we’re by ourselves, or at least with people who talk our language.”
Andy said, “The worst people I ever knew spoke our language real plain. They just didn’t think the same way we do.”
Farley snorted. “Stay here for all I care. I’m goin’ on.”
Andy glanced at Len and shrugged. They traveled a while longer. Farley turned from the road and followed a cow trail about a quarter mile. “Them people might come huntin’ for us after dark. They’ll play hell findin’ us out here.”
Andy was not keen on making a dry camp. He asked, “What have we got that they’d want?”
Our horses. Our guns. We’re gringos, and we’re Rangers. That by itself might be enough.”
Len said, “Can’t fault anybody for bein’ what they was born. The big dealer dealt us each a hand the day of our birth. It’s up to us to play it out the best we can.”
Farley said, “I was born cautious.”
Not all that cautious. Andy remembered when Farley’s reckless disregard for reconstruction law had made him a target of the carpetbag state police and brought bad trouble down upon his family. But Farley was selective in what he chose to be cautious about.
Len said, “If you-all are nervous about my badge, I’ll take it off.” He stuck it in his pocket. “If anybody jumps us now, it won’t be because we’re Rangers.”
Toward noon the next day Andy began seeing dust rising in the south. It troubled him for a time because it was too localized to be a dust storm.
Len said, “It’ll be a trail herd on its way north. Lots of them swing by San Antonio to supply their wagons.”
The point man, riding at the front of the strung-out herd, was white. He gave the three Rangers a silent and distrustful study, then moved on past them. Len observed, “It’s a steer herd bound for the Kansas railroad, I’d guess. Cow herds are generally headed farther north, like to Wyomin’ and Montana.”
Wyoming and Montana were exotic-sounding names to Andy. He said, “I wonder how it’d be to go up there ourselves.”
Len shook his head. “The sight of a snowflake makes me shiver. Feller told me one time he was up in Wyomin’ and seen a hat movin’ along on top of the snow. When he went to look, he found a cowboy under the hat, and the cowboy was on horseback.”
Andy grinned. Len declared, “It’s the gospel truth. At least that’s what the feller told me.”
Farley’s face was without expression. Andy could count on one hand the number of times he had ever seen Farley smile at a joke, or anything else. Farley nodded toward the cattle. “Notice how many different brands they’ve got on them?”
Len said, “A lot of those are Mexican brands.” He pointed out that they were larger and more intricate than most of Texas origin.
Andy asked, “You think they’re stolen?”
Let’s say they was got awful cheap. They swum the Rio Grande in the dark of the moon. Come daylight, they was citizens of Texas.”
Andy said, “Maybe we ought to arrest this whole outfit.”
Farley said, “Didn’t the Comanches ever teach you how to count, Badger Boy? There’s a dozen or fifteen of them and just three of us. I doubt you’d find a churchgoin’ man amongst them.”