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By Matt Braun
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1973 Matt Braun
All rights reserved.
LIEUTENANT JOHN Tays found himself at a slight tactical disadvantage. He was leading a force of eighteen Texas Rangers, and his orders were to safeguard the journey of three American businessmen. But at the moment, he was standing eyeball to eyeball with close to a thousand Mexican insurgents, and whoever blinked first would very likely wind up cold meat. Somewhat like a man who has a bear by the tail, Lieutenant Tays had developed a sudden liking for far away places.
That morning, as false dawn had given way to first light, the besieged Americans saw that all hope of escape was gone. Under cover of darkness the villagers of San Elizario had encircled with hastily dug rifle pits the adobe hut in which the Americans were trapped, and the sun's brilliant streamers glinted off a solid ring of blued steel. Rangers and civilians alike gazed at the fortifications in dull apathy. After seven days of intermittent fighting, any hope that the army would lift the siege had long since faded. Time had run out, and to a man they knew full well that the Mexicans would exact a grim price for the misery inflicted on them in the last few months.
Waiting for the final attack, Charles Howard could only reflect on the vicious bitch called fate. Earlier that year he had formed a combine with various El Paso businessmen for the sole purpose of cornering the Rio Grande salt trade. East of town, across a hundred miles of barren desert, lay a small chain of salt lakes. Though only recently arrived in Texas, Howard was a man of considerable ambition; an opportunist not above an unsavory deal if enough money were involved. And he was quick to grasp that whoever held a monopoly on the salt lakes could name his own price for that precious commodity.
Though Howard bore a remarkable resemblance to a well-fed hog, he was an affable, persuasive talker. Political skulduggery was a game he understood well, and within a short time, his combine had been allowed to file a claim on the distant lakes. While such grants were normally restricted on public service lands, the burgeoning salt cartel had in effect been given a license to steal. With legal possession of the lakes, they could collect a fee on every fanega of salt hauled away, and there were none to prevent them from raising the price to whatever the traffic would bear.
But Howard and his cronies had miscalculated the temper of the people. Throughout the memory of many generations, natives from both sides of the Rio Grande had driven their oxcarts to the dry lakes, braving a fortnight in the waterless desert so that their families might have salt. Moreover, they also bartered salt in the interior regions of Chihuahua, and the gummy cakes they gouged from the earth represented the primary money crop of every village along the border. The El Paso combine posed a threat not only to the natives' own humble needs, but more significantly to the meager livelihood they had been able to glean from the salt trade itself. Reaction was swift and violent.
Under the leadership of Don Luis Cardis, the insurgents had captured Charles Howard at San Elizario, the village closest to the salt lakes. There they forced him to relinquish all claim to the disputed lands, presumably squelching his salt racket in the bud. Then, in exchange for his life, they extracted his promise never to return and sent him packing down the road. Though Howard was built along the lines of a whale, he was hardly a jovial fat man accustomed to turning the other cheek. Ten days later, he caught Don Luis alone in El Paso and gave him an overdose of buckshot, leaving the Mexicans leaderless, if not wholly defanged.
Public officials immediately set the telegraph wires humming, urging the governor to request assistance from troops stationed at nearby Ft. Bliss. Of the fifteen thousand souls along the upper Rio Grande, roughly a thousand were norteamericanos. Should a race war erupt, they would be doomed by the sheer weight of numbers. More distressing still, El Paso was isolated by an arid waste of some five hundred miles from the nearest American settlement. With visions of the entire community being wiped out overnight, local politicians demanded forceful action from the government in Austin.
Characteristically, the governor disdained the use of federal troops and sent instead a company of Texas Rangers, commanded by Lieutenant John Tays. Never wanting for a glib argument, Howard somehow convinced Lieutenant Tays that the Mexicans were in open revolt. After all, fewer than five decades had passed since Texans defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Only a fool would doubt that the greasers remained loyal to Mexico! Accompanied by the Rangers, Howard and his cohorts had returned to San Elizario, determined to recover what was theirs by right of connivance and political clout.
But natives along both sides of the border were also marching on the sleepy village. Chico Barela had emerged as their new leader, and his call to arms drew upwards of a thousand fighting men even as Howard prepared to reclaim the salt lakes. No sooner had the businessmen arrived in San Elizario than they found themselves confronted by an ugly mob. The cry went up for blood, retribution for the murder of Don Luis Cardis, and the Rangers were barely able to hold them off. Retreating to an adobe hut on the south side of the plaza, the hated gringos quickly found themselves under siege by the frenzied Mexicans.
The next week proved a hellish nightmare for the Americans. They ate horse meat, rationed their water, and waited anxiously for federal troops that never came. Instead of attacking directly, the Mexicans pinned them down with sniper fire night and day, certain they couldn't hold out longer than the dwindling water supply in their canteens. Then, as the seventh morning dawned, the natives waited in their newly dug rifle pits, ready for an all-out charge should the gringos prove unreasonable.
Shortly after sunrise Chico Barela called for a parley under a white flag. Lieutenant Tays stepped from the adobe, and the Mexican leader's conditions were heard clearly by everyone in the hut. The Rangers would be allowed to depart in peace, but Howard and his partners, John McBride and John Atkinson, would remain as hostages in the village. The gringos had one hour to consider the offer, and if they refused, then their company would be killed to the last man. With that, the Mexican flashed an arrogant grin and strode back to the rifle pits.
Turning, Tays moved through the door of the hut, only to be greeted by a deadly silence. None of the Rangers could bring themselves to look at the three businessmen. While they were sworn to uphold the law, they had families to think about, not to mention their own skins. And besides, hadn't the greaser promised that the three men would simply be held as hostages? Like as not, they'd be released just as soon as things calmed down. Probably no more'n a day or two at the most.
Charles Howard was many things, but above all else he was a man who believed in hedging his bet. Even if the Rangers agreed to fight, which seemed highly unlikely, he would surely be killed. That was a foregone conclusion. No, the wiser move was to surrender. Although he wouldn't trust a greaser's word any further than he could spit, it made sense to get the Rangers clear and hope they could return in time with a cavalry troop. Briskly confident, he outlined the plan to Lieutenant Tays and saw the strain wash out of the Rangers' faces. McBride and Atkinson weren't too happy with his decision, but then they didn't have a hell of a lot of a choice. Come to think of it, none of them did.
Thirty minutes later Tays and his Rangers pounded out of the village, spurring their horses for El Paso. Behind they left Howard and his partners the featured attraction amidst a howling mob. Some years would pass before even the strongest of them could erase the scene from his memory.
Chico Barela was no less pragmatic than Charles Howard. He remained a leader only so long as he served the will of his people, and right now, his ragtag army was calling for blood. Gringo blood! With the Rangers hardly out of sight, the hostages' arms were bound behind them, and they were marched across the plaza to an adobe wall beside the ancient mission. While McBride and Atkinson seemed numb with shock, Charles Howard allowed his captors nothing more than a tight smile. He had gambled and lost. And where he was headed, he had best enjoy the fresh air while he could.
Without benefit of prayer or even a blindfold, the prisoners were shoved against the wall as a firing squad was hurriedly formed. Lacking a sword, Barela borrowed a machete and raised it overhead. When it fell, the roar of gunfire thundered across the plaza, instantly followed by the maddened shout of the onlookers. Atkinson and McBride dropped lifelessly in the dust, but Howard had been gutshot, and he staggered forward, knees buckling.
"¡Más arriba, cabrones!" he moaned through clenched teeth. "Higher, you stinking goats!"
"¡Acábenlos!" roared the delighted mob. "Finish him!"
Chico Barela marched solemnly to the wounded man. Deliberating a moment, he gauged the blow, then swung the machete. Charles Howard's head toppled to the ground, ending his brief moment as salt baron of the Rio Grande. Spurting bright fountains of blood, his body simply collapsed, and the crowd went mad with a spasm of sheer joy.
"¡Hecho!" cried Chico Barela. "It is done! Don Cardis is avenged. The salt lakes belong again to the people!"CHAPTER 2
SHORTLY AFTER suppertime, the men began drifting into the compound. Spread along the banks of the Rio Grande just west of town, Hart's Mill was an imposing structure. The river had been channeled and damned so that it flowed through a high stone arch erected on one side of the millhouse. Locally, it was said that the sluggish river was a mile wide and a foot deep; too thin to plow and too thick to drink. But as it tumbled from the towering arch, sufficient force was generated to turn a huge creaking waterwheel. Seth Hart had copied it directly from those he remembered as a boy in New England, and along the upper Rio Grande, his was the only gristmill. Somewhat like its owner, the mill seemed formidable, unrelenting as it ground inexorably on; one of a kind in a land where industry and determination often fell victim to the drowsy pace of the natives.
Near the mill stood Seth Hart's home. Overlooking the river, it was built of foot-thick adobe and surrounded by tall shade trees. And it was here that various El Paso businessmen who shared Hart's political persuasion met once a week for a bruising, heads-up poker game. The house rules were table stakes, check and raise, and a good stiff jolt of rotgut for those left sucking hind tit. As in his business and political endeavors, Seth Hart played poker to win.
After being greeted by their host, the men took their usual seats and settled down for a long, spirited night. They were old friends, each having come to El Paso when it was still a stopover to somewhere else, and there were few secrets among them. They loved whiskey and cards, shared a long standing dream to make El Paso the hub of power in west Texas, and considered themselves ethical businessmen as well as adept politicians. They saw no contradiction in this latter belief, for they readily agreed that a man of substance must play many roles. While there were no saints among them, neither were there any scoundrels, and on this bedrock, their friendship had taken root and grown.
With drinks served and small talk out of the way, the men sat back to await the first deal. But Seth Hart absently riffled the cards, as if pursuing some elusive thought that resisted words. His thatch of white hair spilled over his head like an unkept mane, and the soft, cider glow of the lamp gave his face the flat sheen of weathered rawhide. Were these men his sons, or had this been a land of clans, he would have ruled as patriarch, the venerable elder to whom all others looked for guidance. Although neither condition existed, Hart was still a man of considerable influence, and his four friends seldom made a move without seeking the miller's counsel. Curiosity whetted, they waited in deepening silence as he sifted the chaff from what it was he had to say.
Hart cleared his throat and spat a wad of phlegm at a cuspidor beside the chair. When he spoke his voice was gravelly, as if he had spent too many years swallowing the dust from his own gristmill. "Boys, before we get sidetracked on poker, I'd like to get your ideas on this hornet's nest Charlie Howard stirred up. We're looking down a long, hard road, and if somebody doesn't calm the Mexicans pretty quick it's liable to be a bloody one." He paused, mulling the thought further. "One thing's for certain. Just as sure as we're sitting here, Ed Banning and his bunch aren't going to do a damn thing except keep right on lining their pockets."
"Maybe the greasers'll ventilate Banning the same way they did ol' Charlie." Doc Cummings, owner of the local mercantile emporium, chuckled softly at his own wit. "After all, Charlie was a spoon-fed piker compared to the Banning boys."
Horace Adair reared back in his chair. Noted for his hair-trigger temper, the Irishman was general manager of a mine north of town. "Jesus Christ, Doc! You made your point and missed it, all in the same breath. Granted Ed Banning would skin a flea for its hide and tallow, but he only steals from poor folks indirectly. Political corruption and cattle rustling rarely matter one way or the other to peones. Come to think of it, they might even admire him."
Curiously, Horace Adair was closer to the truth than he realized. There were many in El Paso who openly admired the Banning brothers, and their ranks weren't limited to saloonkeepers, madams, and cardsharps. Ed and Sam Banning had hit town in the spring of '79, shortly after word leaked out that three railroads were laying track toward the border. At the time, El Paso was little more than a crossroads. The trail from Santa Fe to Mexico City ran directly through the center of town, while the stage route connecting San Antonio with the Pacific Coast meandered off in the opposite direction. And El Paso's chief claim to fame lay in the fact that the Butterworth stage stopped there twice a day.
But with the arrival of Southern Pacific's first train only last month, the little border town had undergone some startling changes. Trains were daily disgorging a horde of mercenaries who smelled loose money on the freshening wind. For those with a strong stomach, there were fortunes to be made, and whores, tinhorn gamblers, thimbleriggers, and gunslicks had descended on El Paso like swarming locusts. Hardly to anyone's surprise, the Banning brothers were running strong at the head of the pack, welcoming outlaw and harlot alike with open arms. With liberal doses of bribery, intimidation, and outright murder, they had taken over city hall and virtually dominated the city council. Although it saddened early settlers like Seth Hart and his friends, there was no denying that in only two short years Ed Banning had become the power to be reckoned with in El Paso.
"Horace, as usual, your logic is devastating." Doc Cummings cast a mischievous smile around the table, amused by the Irishman's pugnacious manner. "But I'll tell you one thing. Ed Banning's day is coming. He's got his finger in everything else, and he'll probably get around to trying to steal the salt lakes just like Charlie Howard did. Maybe if we wait long enough, the greasers'll settle his hash for us."
Before Adair could frame a reply, Seth Hart broke in sharply. "Doc, you and Horace are both missing the point. Howard trying to grab the salt lakes only aggravated a sore that's been festering for years. And mark my words, the Bannings' rustling operation across the river will one day force the patrones to lead their people against us. So far they've sat back and watched, but if their ranches keep getting raided, they'll organize those peones, and God help us then."
The men silently glanced at one another, weighing Hart's words. Nate Hobart, proprietor of the Alhambra Hotel, sucked nervously at his drink and tried to think of something profound to add. But his natural reticence won out, and he merely waited for the shaggy-haired miller to resume.
Excerpted from El Paso by Matt Braun. Copyright © 1973 Matt Braun. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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