The Texas frontier spring, 1865.
Rusty Shannon saw brown smoke rising beyond the hill and knew the rangers had arrived too late. The Indians had already struck, and by now they were probably gone.
He had expected trouble, but his pulse quickened as if the smoke were a surprise. He signaled his five fellow patrol members and spurred his black horse, Alamo, into a run. He did not have to look back. The men would follow him; they always did though he had no official rank. He was a private like the rest, but they had fallen into the habit of looking to him for leadership. Nor was he noticeably older than the others. Orphaned early, he could only guess he was about twenty-five, give or take a little. A harsh outdoor life had made him look more than that. He had accepted the responsibility of leadership by default, for no one else had offered to take it.
Back East, the strong nicker of the war horse was fading to a faint and painful whinny as the tired and tattered Confederacy kept struggling to its feet for one more battle and one more loss. To Rusty's independent, red-haired mannerof thinking, it was high time the Richmond government conceded defeat and let the guns fall silent. Even from his faraway vantage point at the edge of Comanche-Kiowa country he saw clearly and with pain that the war had bled both sides much too long.
The Texas frontier had a war of its own to contend with, and it was far from over.
Rusty Shannon was tall and rangy, some would say perpetually hungry-looking. Meals were a sometime thing when frontier rangers scouted for Indians. Often the men were too pressed to stop, and at other times they simply had nothing to eat.
He considered himself a soldier of sorts, though he owned no uniform. Texas had not even provided him a badge as a symbol of ranger authority. The cuffs were raveled on his grimy homespun cotton shirt, the sleeves mended and mended again. His frayed gray trousers seemed as much patch as original woolen fabric, for the long war had made new clothing scarce and money scarcer.
Red hair bristled over his ears and brushed his collar. Forced to be frugal, rangers cut each other's hair. It was often a rough job of butchery, but appearances were of little concern. Staying alive and helping others stay alive were what counted on the frontier.
Riding their assigned north-south line past the western fringe of settlement, the patrol had come upon tracks of fifteen to twenty horses at dusk yesterday. By order of Texas's Confederate government in Austin, the rangers were duty-bound to locate and take into custody any deserters or conscription dodgers who might be idling out the war in the wild country beyond the settlements.
Rusty knew the approximate whereabouts of fifty or sixty such men banded together for mutual security, but they were of little interest to him. If the Confederacy wanted them captured it should send Confederate Army troops to do the job. Five or six rangers were no match for so many brush men even if they invested a full heart in the duty, and he had no heart for that kind of business.
He had regarded secession from the Union four years ago as a grave mistake though fellow Texans had voted in its favor. He saw the war as folly on both sides, North and South. If a man did not want to take part in it, the authorities should leave him the hell alone. Officialdom did not share his view, of course. Remaining with the rangers on the frontier kept him out of the military's sight.
Freckle-faced Len Tanner had swung a long and lanky leg across the cantle, dismounting to study the tracks. "Conscript dodgers, you think?"
That was a possibility, but instinct told Rusty the trail had been made by Comanches or possibly Kiowas. Perhaps both, for they often joined forces to venture south from their prairie and mountain strongholds. The Indians were well aware that white men of the North had been at war with white men of the South for most of four years. They did not understand the reasons, or care. What mattered was that the fighting's heavy drain upon manpower left the frontier vulnerable. In places it had withdrawn eastward fifty to a hundred miles, leaving homes abandoned, strayed livestock running wild. Settlers who dared remain lived in jeopardy.
After sending one man back to company headquarters near Fort Belknap to report to Captain Oran Whitfield, Rusty had set out to follow the trail. Len Tanner rode beside him. Rusty had never decided whether Tanner's legs were too long or his horse too short, for his stirrups dangled halfway between the mount's belly and the ground. Eyes eager, Tanner said, "Tracks are freshenin'. We ought to catch up with them pretty soon."
"Catchin' them is what we're paid for."
"Who's been paid?"
The Texas state government was notorious for being perpetually broke, unable to meet obligations. Wages for its employees were near the bottom of the priority list, especially for those men in homespun cloth and buckskin who rode the frontier picket line far away from those who wrote the laws and appropriated the money.
Darkness had forced Rusty to halt the patrol and wait fordaylight lest they lose the trail. He had slept little, frustrated that the raiders might be gaining time. Night had been no hindrance to the Indians if they chose to keep traveling.
Now he saw a half-burned cabin, a man and two boys carrying water in buckets from a nearby creek and throwing it on the smoking walls. He remembered the place. It belonged to a farmer named Haines. Hearing the horses, the man grabbed a rifle. He lowered it when he saw that the riders were not Indians. He focused a resentful attention on Rusty.
"Minutemen, ain't you?"
Ranger was not an official term. The public often referred to the rangers as minutemen, among other things.
Looking upon two blanket-covered forms on the ground, Rusty felt a chill. The blankets were charred along the edges. "Yes sir, Mr. Haines."
"How come you always show up when it's too late?"
Rusty could have told him there were not enough rangers to be everywhere and protect everybody. The war back east had drawn away too many of the state's fighting-age men. The ranger desertion rate had risen to alarming levels, partly out of fear of being conscripted into Confederate service and partly because the state treasury was as bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard. Even on those rare occasions when a paymaster visited the frontier companies, he never brought enough money to pay the men all that was due them.
It was futile to try to explain that to a man who had just lost so much. "We'll bury your dead," Rusty said, "then I'll send a couple of men to escort you and your boys to Fort Belknap."
The farmer set his jaw firmly. "We've got nobody at Belknap. Everybody we have is here, and here we're stayin'."
"You've got no roof over your head."
"We saved part of the cabin. We can rebuild it. You just stay on them red devils' trail."
Rusty saw only the man and the two boys. Fearing he already knew, he asked, "What about your womenfolks?"
The farmer cleared his throat, but his voice fell to little more than a whisper. "They're here." He knelt beside one ofthe covered forms and lifted the scorched blanket enough for Rusty to see a woman's bloodied face. The scalp had been ripped from her head. "My wife. Other one is our little girl. The Comanches butchered them like they was cattle."
"How come they didn't get the rest of you?"
The farmer looked at the two boys. They still carried water to throw on the cabin though the fire appeared to be out. "Me and my sons was workin' in the field. The heathens came upon the cabin so quick they was probably inside before Annalee even saw them. I hit one with my first shot, and they drawed away. All we could do for Annalee and the baby was to drag them outside before they burned." He looked at the ground as if ashamed he had been unable to do more.
Rusty was undecided whether settlers like Haines who remained on the exposed western frontier were brave or merely foolhardy. Either way, he would concede that they were tenacious.
Ruefully the farmer turned his attention back to his wife and daughter. "Conscript officers decided to pass me by on account of my age and my family." He cleared his throat again. "I wish they'd taken me. My family would've moved back to East Texas and been safe." He gave Rusty a close scrutiny. "You're a fit-lookin' specimen. Why ain't you in the Confederate Army?"
"I figured I was needed more in the rangin' service."
The Texas legislature had fought and won a grudging concession from the Richmond government to defer men serving in the frontier companies. But the agreement was often ignored by conscription officers who raided the outlying companies and took rangers whether or not they were willing to go. Those drafts had increased as the Confederacy's fortunes soured and its military ranks were decimated by battlefield casualties. So far Rusty had avoided the call, though he had a nagging hunch that time was closing in.
The farmer rubbed an ash-darkened sleeve across his face. His voice became contrite. "Sorry I jumped all over you. I know it's not your doin' that there ain't enough rangers. It's the Richmond government's fault, takin' off so many men tofight a stupid war a thousand miles away. And the Texas government for lettin' them get away with it. Damn them all, and double damn Jeff Davis."
There had been a time when such words could put a man in mortal danger from rope-wielding zealots determined to rid Texas of dissidents. Rusty had helped cut down the bodies of his friend Lon Monahan and Lon's son Billy from the limb of a tree in the wake of the hangmen. Now and then in the dark of night the memory brought him awake, clammy with cold sweat and fighting his blanket. He had long harbored the same opinions as Haines but spoke them aloud only to friends he could trust. He had witnessed too much grief brought on by night-riding vigilantes like Colonel Caleb Dawkins who did not go to war themselves yet demanded that others do so or die.
The farmer cautioned, "There was sixteen, eighteen Indians. I don't see but six of you."
"We're lucky we've got six." The five who accompanied him, like Len Tanner, were men Rusty felt would stay with him if they skirted along the rim of hell. He looked again toward the bodies. He shuddered, for he had seen too many like them. "If we come across a minister, we'll send him. You'll want proper services for your folks."
"Much obliged, but I can read from the Bible same as any preacher."
The older of the two boys appeared to be around twelve, the other perhaps ten. Rusty felt sorrow for them. They would have to finish growing up without their mother. But at least they still had their father. Unlike Rusty, they had not lost all their family. Surely the war back East would sputter out before they were old enough to become soldiers.
The war here was another matter. He could see no end to it.
The farmer pointed. "I'm fearful for August Faust, my neighbor. I hope him and his family saw the smoke and forted up."
"We'll go see," Rusty promised. He signaled the patrol and set off in the southeasterly direction the Indians had taken. The tracks were plain enough to follow in a lope.
He expected more smoke ahead, but he heard sporadic firing instead. Someone was still fighting at the Faust place. When the picket cabin came into full view, Rusty rough-counted eleven Indians. Most were afoot and taking cover wherever they could. It stood to reason that a few others were behind the cabin, out of his sight. Fifty or sixty yards away, two warriors held a number of horses.
It was not normally Comanche or Kiowa custom to make a frontal assault on a well-defended position. They preferred to catch their quarry by surprise with a quick, clean strike, pulling back if resistance proved stronger than expected. Evidently that had been the case here. Almost every time an Indian raised his head, fire and smoke blossomed from the doorway or a glassless window. Someone was firing from the back as well. The raiders had the cabin surrounded, but they were a long way from taking it.
Tanner grinned. "They only got us outnumbered by three to one. We ought to crack this nut pretty easy."
The befreckled young ranger would willingly go hungry for three days to get into a good fight. He had, several times.
"Then let's be at them." Rusty drew his pistol and loaded the chamber he customarily kept empty for safety. He preferred the rifle, but it was difficult to use from a running horse.
The rangers were two hundred yards from the cabin when the Indians discovered them and ran for their mounts. In the excitement three horses jerked loose and loped away, wringing their tails. Two Indians set afoot swung up behind others. A third mounted a spare animal whose owner no longer needed him. Rusty saw an Indian lying beside a tall woodpile but did not take time to determine if he was dead.
A man with an old-fashioned long rifle stepped out of the cabin and took a parting shot. An Indian slumped forward but grabbed his horse's mane and remained astride. The man shouted, "Go get them!"
Rusty called, "Everybody all right?"
"Nobody killed." He waved the rangers on. "Get my work horses back if you can."
Horses and mules were almost as important as life, for without them a farmer had no way to plow his fields, no way to travel except to walk. The war had pulled most horses out of this region except wild bands ranging free beyond the settlements. Few farmers were equipped to catch those, much less to break and train them. And should they manage to do so, chances were that either the Indians would steal them or a government horse-buying team would come along and take them away. It would leave Confederate scrip or worthless promissory notes, which Rusty regarded as legalized theft.
The Indians cut immediately to the creek. Timber there was heavy enough to give them partial cover for their escape, though it would slow them as they dodged through the trees and undergrowth, the entangling briars.
Rusty said, "We'll stay out here in the open and keep up with them." Sooner or later the fugitives would have to quit the timber and ride into the clear.
Tanner turned in the saddle. "Look back, Rusty."
Two raiders had broken out behind the rangers and were racing toward the cabin. Startled, Rusty reined the black horse around. His first thought was that they intended another try at Faust or one of the other settlers who had come out of the cabin and gathered in the yard. He spurred in pursuit, intending to keep the warriors too busy.
The pair slowed their mounts and leaned down, grabbing the fallen man by the arms and lifting him up between them. Men in the yard fired a couple of futile shots.
It was a point of honor among plains warriors not to ride away from the battlefield and leave a wounded or dead comrade behind to be killed or mutilated if rescue was at all possible. By white men's standards the Comanches were savages. Though Rusty deplored their propensity for random killing, he respected their bravery. He wondered if he could muster the courage to do the same thing.
The main body of warriors crossed the creek and emerged on the other side, beyond the protective timber. They retreated northward, pursued by three rangers who were no match for them in numbers should they decide to turn andcounterattack. Rusty reined up, knowing he was unlikely to catch the fugitives. He was not sure he even wanted to. They seemed to be retreating back toward the reservation, taking with them a dozen stolen horses. Even in the unlikely event that the patrol caught up and killed them all, it would make little difference in terms of the larger war between white men and red. There would still be enough to keep the fight going ... Comanche, Kiowa, sometimes Cheyenne and others.
The black horse's hide glistened with sweat. Rusty slowed him, then brought him to a stop. The three rangers who had pursued the main group abandoned the chase and turned back. Two more Comanches left the creek and circled around them, striking out northwestward across the prairie in the wake of the others. Rusty stopped and drew his rifle but knew his shot would be wasted. A snowball in hell stood a better chance.
A single rider crossed the creek and took after the pair. Rusty recognized Tanner's lean form. He waved his hat and shouted, "Len, get the hell back here!"
He feared the Indians would lead the reckless Tanner off by himself, then turn and kill him. Fortunately the wind was in the right direction to carry his voice. The ranger drew rein and reluctantly returned.
"Damn it, Rusty, they'll keep splittin' off in little bunches, and first thing you know we'll be wonderin' where they went."
Rusty was aware of that. He had seen similar escapes in the four years he had served a frontier company. It was a familiar Comanche tactic to divide up, knowing the pursuers were seldom able to follow them all. The last small bunch, though closely trailed, would somehow manage to disappear like a puff of smoke.
Shortly he looked back over his shoulder and saw three more warriors on open ground north of the creek, racing away. They had concealed themselves in the timber until the pursuit had passed.
Tanner argued, "There ain't all that many of them. What say we show them who's the boss?"
Rusty considered his choices. "The odds are too long. We'll just keep trailin' after them so they won't turn and come back. Maybe we can crowd them into settin' the stolen horses loose."
Moving into a stiff trot, he gathered the patrol and half a dozen loose horses the Indians had taken, then abandoned under pressure. Rusty hoped these were the ones stolen from Faust and perhaps the Haines' farm.
He picked out the oldest man, whose thin shoulders were pinched, his face weary. "Mr. Pickett, if you don't mind, I wish you'd take these horses back to the Faust place. The rest of us'll pester the hostiles all the way to the river."
Oscar Pickett seemed relieved. He was too old for such rigorous duty, but he would die before he would admit it aloud. "What do you want me to do afterward?"
Even men twice Rusty's age readily took his directions. He tried to give them in a manner that sounded like friendly suggestions rather than commands. "Stay at the Haines' place a while. Your horse needs a rest. You can come up to Belknap tomorrow." The rider appeared more tired than the horse, but Rusty wanted to spare the older man's pride.
He turned to the rest of his rangers. "What do you say we go aggravate those Comanches?"
Steals the Ponies was his name. He had stolen several this time, only to be forced to abandon some under pressure of the Texan war party that had dogged the raiders so closely. The loss nettled like prickly pear spines digging under his skin. He had contended all along that the white horsemen were too few for real warriors to run from. But Tall Eagle had assembled this raiding party, and it was for Tall Eagle to say whether they fought or retreated. The older warrior had decided at the first cabin that their medicine had gone bad because one of his followers was wounded by the opening shot. The feeling had been reinforced when they failed to take the second cabin by surprise and the teibo horsemen interrupted their siege.
Next time, or the time after, it would be different. Theyounger, more eager warriors would sooner or later pull away from Tall Eagle, for he was beginning to lose the nerve he needed for leadership. Steals the Ponies would organize his own raiding party as his father, Buffalo Caller, had frequently done before him. Then he would be the one to decide whether to attack or pull away.
His father's forays had not always been successful, but he had never turned and run like a frightened dog. Buffalo Caller had eventually died in a raid on a white settlement. His was a fitting death for a warrior.
Frustration prompted Steals the Ponies to stop for a show of defiance. Tall Eagle shouted for him to keep up, but Steals the Ponies defied him. He turned back toward the little group of white horsemen who trailed behind. They made no effort to close the distance but acted as an annoyance, like so many heelflies. They must belong to the formidable Texan warrior society known as rangers, he thought. Rangers stuck like cockleburrs.
He doubted that the white men could understand his words, but they would understand his gestures well enough. He crisscrossed his war pony back and forth in front of them, shouting insults, waving his bow over his head.
One of the white men rode a little ahead of the others. His face was dark with several days' whiskers, but he sat erect in the saddle, a young man's way. Steals the Ponies decided on a challenge. He raced toward him, waving the bow, drawing an arrow from his quiver. The other rangers quickly moved up to flank the leader. Steals the Ponies saw that the young Texan had no intention of answering the challenge.
He knew he was within range even of the rangers' pistols, but he had made a display of courage and would not compromise it by turning and running away. He was close enough to see that the rider's whiskers and shaggy hair were red.
That shook him a little. More than once, his father had told him of a troubling vision about a red-haired man. The day Buffalo Caller was killed, he had been in a close fight with a ranger whose hair was the color of rusted metal. Though someone else fired the fatal bullet, Steals the Ponieshad always felt that the redhead's strong medicine was somehow responsible for his father's death.
This might not be the same man. Then again, it might. Steals the Ponies shuddered, but pride would not allow him to run. He turned slowly away from the white men, letting them know he was not afraid though they could easily kill him. For a time he held his pony to an easy pace that kept him within range if they should choose to shoot. They did not. He supposed their forbearance was a tribute of sorts to his valor. He stopped again to deliver a loud, defiant whoop, then moved on to rejoin the others.
He hoped Buffalo Caller might be watching from the spirit land to which he had gone. His father would be proud. He wished his foster brother could be here to see this, but Badger Boy was too young to ride on such an expedition. He would hear of it, though, and perhaps he would be inspired to become the greatest fighter of them all.
The warriors gave Steals the Ponies their silent approval, all except Tall Eagle. Tall Eagle rebuked him with a scowl. Steals the Ponies smiled inside, knowing the leader was jealous. The older warrior could have made the same gesture but had not chosen to do so. Perhaps he had not even thought of it. Word of Steals the Ponies's exploits would spread among The People. They would say he was a son worthy of his father and a model for his younger brother to emulate.
He had shown the teibos his courage. Perhaps the next white men to see him would remember and be afraid.
Copyright © 2001 by Elmer Kelton