Hard Trail To Follow
By Kelton, Elmer Forge Books
Copyright © 2008 Kelton, Elmer
All right reserved.
Chapter 1 Andy Pickard knew that sooner or later he might have to whip his future brother-in-law.
He had sensed Farley Brackett’s dark presence before he saw him, sitting on a roan horse where the rows ended almost at the bank of the Colorado River. Farley’s erect posture in the saddle indicated that he was not in a good humor. He seldom was.
Andy had walked a thousand miles up and down this fallow field, guiding a plow point through the mellow earth and staring at the rump end of a brown mule. At least, it seemed like a thousand miles. He leaned back to exert pressure on the leather reins tied together and looped behind his neck. The mule stopped in its tracks, always more willing to answer to “Whoa” than to “Giddyup.” It slumped immediately into a position of rest, flicking long ears to ward off a bothersome horsefly. Andy slipped a red bandanna from his neck and wiped his sweaty face while he waited to hear the latest complaint.
Farley’s voice was laced with sarcasm. “What’s that you’re leavin’ behind you, a furrow or a snake track?”
Farley’s attitude grated like a boil on Andy’s backside. The furrow was not as straight as it should be, but he had never claimed he was a good farmer. He tried to match Farley’s sarcasm. “A crooked rowdon’t mean a thing to a cornstalk. It’ll grow just the same.”
“You ought to’ve stuck to bein’ a Ranger. You’ll never make a farmer if you live to be a hundred and six.”
“I’d gladly swap you this mule for that roan. You can push the plow awhile, and I can laze around over the country like a property owner.”
Farley had spent little time behind a plow, leaving that to Andy and a couple of black laborers. As a prospective Brackett-in-law, it looked as if Andy was about to marry into a life long on hard work and short on appreciation, at least from Farley.
Farley said, “If it wasn’t for Bethel, I’d fire you.”
“If it wasn’t for her, I’d’ve done quit.”
He had thought a lot about leaving. Were it not for Bethel, he would have put this farm behind him months ago. He felt sure the Texas Rangers would be pleased to take him back. They had tried to persuade him not to resign in the first place. The things a man would do for a woman . . .
It was a big farm and a good one, something to take strong pride in if he had been born with hands that fit a plow handle. But of late he had revisited an old dream of going back west, perhaps to the hill country where he had spent a long stretch with the Rangers. It was still but sparsely settled. Land was easy to come by in comparison to this well-populated region of southeastern Texas. Some country out there was so far from the state land office in Austin that a man could squat on it free, at least for a few years, until he could build up his net worth. Another possibility was the rolling plains far to the northwest. There he had friends who would ride to hell’s rimrock with him if necessary. They had done it more than once.
When Bethel had accepted his marriage proposal, the couple planned such a move. She had been as eager as he was. Then her mother fell ill and deeded the farm to her son and daughter in anticipation of death. The wedding and other plans were deferred because Bethel was reluctant to leave her dying mother. This was home. She had grown up here. Her father was buried in this ground, and it was likely that her mother soon would be. Now that Bethel owned half interest in the place, she no longer discussed leaving.
That her cross-grained brother shared ownership was Andy’s hard luck.
At the time, Farley was recuperating from a wound suffered in Ranger service on the border, so Andy had agreed to stay and help. He worked for foreman’s wages, hopeful that Bethel would sooner or later come back around to his way of thinking. Lately that hope was wearing thin.
Farley seemed now to have recovered from the latest of many injuries, major and minor, to which he seemed especially prone. He had reverted to the same cranky misfit he had been before. Andy told him, “We’d get the plantin’ done faster if you’d pitch in and help. You could take the east field.”
Farley shook his head. “Can’t. Got to go to town and get some stuff for Teresa.”
“Write me a list, and I’ll go in your place,” Andy said.
“I ain’t sure you can read any better than you can plow a straight row. Never did see an Indian that could be taught how to farm.”
There he goes with that Indian thing again, Andy thought. He was not an Indian, but Comanches had captured him when he was a small boy and kept him several years. Farley harbored a strong dislike for Indians. Frequently he threw Andy’s old Comanche name up to him. “You’re lettin’ that mule get almost as lazy as you are, Badger Boy. Him and you had better get back to work.”
Andy prided himself on being able to get along with most people, but for years his relationship with Farley Brackett had swung back and forth between uneasy tolerance and outright hostility. Necessity had forced them to ride together as Rangers. Andy’s betrothal to Farley’s sister had joined them again, however reluctantly, on the Brackett farm. He had wanted to show her he could be a responsible husband and settle down to the tranquil life of a farmer. By now he had concluded that it would never be tranquil so long as he had to deal with Farley.
Turning the mule around, he roughly pushed the plow point into the ground and started another row. Farley was still talking, but Andy let the words drift away unanswered on the wind. He was saying a few words of his own.
He had often wondered why a woman so pretty and so gentle in nature should be saddled with such a brother. He tried to take into account that Farley had endured hardships enough to sour any man. He bore a war scar on his face and hidden scars deep within. His brothers had died fighting the Yankees. He and Bethel had lost their father to partisan violence that continued after the war. Farley had made himself a scourge to Union Reconstruction authorities and to state police who tried to enforce their edicts. His wildness had been both asset and liability during his later service as a Ranger.
Andy had long tried to accord him the benefit of the doubt. He realized Farley had abundant reason for being angry at most of the world, but sympathetic understanding was hard to maintain when he made himself so damned disagreeable.
The sun sank behind clouds low in the west, turning them to orange flame. The last few rows were no straighter than those before, but the hell with it. Farley could do them over if he was dissatisfied. Andy wearily laid the plow on its side and unhitched the mule. The lagging animal picked up new energy when it realized it was going to the barn for feed and rest.
Andy laid up the leather harness in the barn and fed the mule in a trough hewn from the trunk of a tree. Farley was brushing the roan. He offered no conversation, but his eyes smoldered. Anything Andy said would draw a barbed response, so he kept his silence. His feet dragged in fatigue as he walked toward the big house Bethel’s father had built in prosperous times before war tore his family apart. Bethel waited on the front porch, youthful and slender and pretty enough to make a man want to hug her to death. She stood on tiptoes and invited a kiss. “You’re tired,” she said. “You should’ve quit earlier.”
Looking into her welcoming eyes, he felt warm as sunshine. He embraced her so hard she gasped for breath. He said, “Didn’t want to waste any daylight.”
That was something he had often heard Rusty Shannon say. Rusty had more or less adopted him after his return from life with the Indians. He had managed to keep his patience during Andy’s difficult adjustment to the white man’s road. Though Rusty had carried a gun many years in the Ranger service, he had remained a farmer at heart, content now to work his own land a few miles from here. Andy had hoped he might be able to do the same, but now he dreaded the thought of following a mule up and down these fields the rest of his life. He had never lost the Comanche instinct for freedom, for drifting with the seasons and yearning to see the yonder side of the hill.
Bethel said, “You’ll feel better when you’ve washed up. Teresa and me will have supper ready pretty soon. Have you seen Farley?”
“Seen and heard him. He’s out at the barn.”
Bethel caught the sarcasm. “I wish you’d find a way to get along with him. He’s had a hellish life. And he is my brother.”
“That’s hard to forget. He keeps remindin’ me that I’m just a hired hand, and you’re the only reason he lets me stay here.”
“You’re a lot more than a hired hand. What’s mine is yours, or will be when we’re married.”
“Ain’t nothin’ really mine here except a couple of horses. Your old daddy built this place. I didn’t.”
Bethel’s eyes pinched. “Get ready for supper.”
Bethel’s father had made a modest fortune steamboating on the Brazos River before buying a large block of land and turning it into a prosperous farm. Carpetbaggers had stolen half of it after the war, but it was still a substantial enterprise.
Andy had barely finished drying his face on a towel when Farley stalked onto the back porch, pitched Andy’s wash water into the yard, and poured a fresh panful from a bucket. He said, “Badger Boy, about what I said out yonder . . .”
Andy hoped he was on the verge of an apology, but he should have known better. Farley said, “I meant every damned word of it.”
Andy’s face burned. No appropriate retort came to him. He clenched his teeth and went back into the house.
Teresa Brackett was placing food on the long dining table that had once served a large family. She smiled, but her dark eyes betrayed uneasiness. New to the family, she had become painfully aware of the strained relationship between her husband and Andy. She took pains to speak gently, trying to make up for Farley’s abrasiveness.
“There will come a better day,” she said.
It couldn’t get much worse, he thought. He had too much respect for her feelings to say it aloud.
In the past, Farley had often voiced a prejudice against Mexicans, but despite himself he had fallen in love with Teresa, the half-Mexican daughter of a border rancher. If there was anything consistent about Farley, it was his inconsistency. Now and again he acted almost human, but he usually got over it before it could become a habit.
Andy suspected that Teresa was already with child, though nothing had been said. It had been only a few months since she and Farley had married. If she delivered a son, the poor kid was in for a hard upbringing, Andy thought. Farley would work him like a mule.
Damned if I want to be around here to see it, he thought.
Farley’s boots clomped heavily as he entered the dining room. He dropped into a chair at the head of the table, reaching immediately for a steaming biscuit without waiting for the two women to seat themselves. He quickly dropped it onto his plate and blew on his burned fingers. Teresa placed her hand on his shoulder for a fleeting moment. Farley’s only response was a curt “You ought to’ve told me it was so hot.”
She seated herself in a corner chair that gave her a view of his profile. She said just as curtly, “You should’ve known. It came right out of the oven.”
Andy took satisfaction from her retort. Teresa was not letting Farley run over her. She had some snap, that little olive-skinned woman. It would serve Farley right if she bit his head off.
Teresa asked, “Did you bring me the things I asked for?”
Farley speared a slice of roast beef with his fork and plopped it into his plate. “Never quite got to town. Lost too much time makin’ sure Andy didn’t plow that field crossways.”
Bethel’s voice had the same snap as Teresa’s. “He works harder than anybody around here.”
“I could do better with my eyes shut.”
Andy withheld comment, though he pictured himself shutting Farley’s eyes with his fists. The image brought him pleasure.
Bethel said, “Teresa, you and me will go to town together tomorrow, and you can pick out just what you want. When it comes to buying something for a woman, Farley has no more taste than a one-eyed burro.”
Farley snorted. “I had pretty good taste when it came to pickin’ a wife. Better than you’ve got in pickin’ a husband.”
Andy said, “I don’t think either one of them has won a jackpot.”
Farley asked about his mother. Bethel said she did not feel strong enough to come to the table. She would take her supper in bed. Farley ate the rest of his meal in silence, then shoved his plate away. “You women may hear a rumor in town tomorrow, so I’d just as well tell you now.”
Bethel tensed. “Tell us what?”
“I’ve been askin’ around for opinions. I’ve about decided to run for sheriff.”
Disturbed, Andy let his fork drop noisily upon the table. “Against Tom Blessing? But he’s held that office for years.”
“Too many years. Tom’s gettin’ to be an old man. He’s earned the right to sit and rock on his front porch. The county needs a younger man to take over that job. I’m also thinkin’ of the salary and the rewards. We could stand some more cash income on this place. It’s a long time between crops.”
Andy had not thought of Tom as an old man, though he had grandchildren old enough to help him on his farm. He argued, “Me and you have both worked with Tom on Ranger business. He’s a good man, and he’s given this community a lot more than he ever got from it.”
“It’s time he had a chance to rest.” Farley’s brow furrowed, his eyes boring into Andy’s. “You ain’t goin’ to oppose me on this, are you?”
Andy did not waste much time thinking about it. “I will if Tom runs for reelection.”
Farley’s face colored, the scar on his cheek darker than the rest. “For somebody who’s anglin’ to be part of this family, you show damned little loyalty.”
“I’ve known Tom Blessing a lot longer than I’ve known you. He’s been a friend to me and Rusty and everybody else around here.”
Farley pushed his chair back. “Bethel, you could’ve had any man you wanted. Why in the hell did you pick him?”
Bethel spoke a couple of sharp words, then choked off the rest as Farley got up and left the room. She turned her gaze to Andy. He saw silent rebuke in her narrowed eyes.
He said, “He asked me, so I told him. If he didn’t want an honest answer, he oughtn’t to’ve asked me.”
“You’ve got to give him more time. You just don’t understand him.” Bethel sounded hurt.
“But I do. I understand him too damned well.”
Teresa looked down at her plate, her face flushed.
Andy saw that further discussion would lead to an even more heated argument. He stood away from the table. “I’d best let the air clear a little.” He walked out onto the front porch. Farley stood there, smoking a newly rolled cigarette. His angry gaze touched Andy, but he said nothing. Andy went on to the barn, where a tack room had been converted into small but comfortable sleeping quarters for him. The arrangement had originally been meant to be temporary, until he and Bethel married. There were times, like now, when he wondered if they would ever stand before a preacher.
He sat on a hay bale and began sharpening a hoe to give his hands something to do. A shadow fell against the door. Bethel stood there, frowning at him. She asked, “Are you in a mood to talk?”
Andy laid the hoe aside. It had not really needed sharpening anyway. “I’m always in a mood to talk to you. But if it’s about your brother, I doubt there’s any use. He’s what he is, and I’m what I am. I don’t see either one of us changin’.”
“You could if you’d both have patience.”
“I had patience, once. Farley has worn it down to a nub.”
“This farm has been a heavy load for him. He’s never had this kind of responsibility before. Once he knows he can handle it, maybe he’ll settle down and be easier to get along with.”
“He’s never been easy to get along with. If it wasn’t for you, I’d’ve already quit tryin’.”
“Try a little longer. We don’t want our marriage to start with you and my brother fighting over every little thing that comes up.”
“He’s the one you should talk to. It’s him that’s always raisin’ hell about somethin’.”
She shook her head. “It looks like I can’t talk to either one of you.” She left the barn, leaving Andy wondering if he could have said something differently. He didn’t know what it might be.
* * *
Late the next afternoon he was slipping the harness from the mule when he saw two riders approaching the barn. He tensed until he realized neither was Farley. He didn’t know anybody who would willingly ride with Farley anyway. His future brother-in-law was not adept at making friends. Andy’s spirit lifted as he recognized Rusty Shannon. Beside him rode Sheriff Tom Blessing, still straight-backed in the saddle despite his years, and broad-shouldered as a blacksmith. In fact, he was a blacksmith, and a farmer, and a carpenter as well as a peace officer. He could do just about anything he put his mind and hands to. Serious, self-sufficient men like him had brought Texas up from the struggling, poverty days of the republic to where it was today.
They dismounted, and Andy eagerly shook hands with both men. He considered them the best friends he had, along with a Ranger named Len Tanner and an old black farmer named Shanty.
Rusty’s hair remained the same dull reddish color as when Andy had first seen him, though it had begun to show strands of gray. His years as a farmer had given him a muscular build and calloused hands. His eyes were still as keen as during the many years he had been a Ranger. They took in the whole farmstead in a sweeping glance. If anything had been amiss, he would have seen it.
He said, “Been a while since you’ve been over to visit with me and Alice, or to play with the young’un.”
Andy nodded in regret. “I’ve been meanin’ to, but workin’ this farm has been like swimmin’ in water over my head.” He removed the last of the harness and slapped the mule on the rump. It moved eagerly toward the feed trough. “You-all come on up to the house. The womenfolks keep the coffeepot on, and they’ll have supper ready directly.”
Tom asked uneasily, “You reckon Farley’s there?”
“I expect so. He’s got a habit of quittin’ early. New wife, you know.”
Rusty said, “We don’t care to run into Farley, not just yet. We’ve come to ask you if it’s a fact that he’s fixin’ to run for sheriff.”
Andy looked upon Rusty as a foster brother and Tom as something of a foster father. He studied the older man with misgivings. “That’s what he told me. I tried to talk him out of it, but I’d just as well argue with a fencepost.”
Tom asked, “Is he mad at me about somethin’?”
“No more than at anybody else. He doesn’t need a reason to get mad. It comes on him natural, like rheumatism.”
Tom’s eyes showed concern. “I’ve been sheriff a long time. I hadn’t thought about puttin’ away my badge.”
“Anybody who knows Farley is goin’ to think hard before they vote for him. He’s not a man they’d want to have authority over them. Especially packin’ a gun.”
Rusty said, “That’s what I’ve been tellin’ you, Tom. You’ve got lots of friends. How many has Farley got?”
Andy said, “You could crowd them all into a small outhouse and have room left for a plow horse.”
Tom frowned in thought while Rusty and Andy continued to present their case. Rusty said, “If you was to quit, that’d leave the county in Farley’s hands. You wouldn’t want to do that to the folks who’ve always supported you.”
Andy said, “I’ve put up with Farley a long time, and I guarantee that there ain’t no pleasure in it.”
Tom said, “I suppose you’re right.”
Andy said, “Sure we’re right. You’ve been here since they dug the river, and we need you. Everybody needs you.”
The sheriff unconsciously rubbed his hand over the badge on his vest. “I’ll talk it over with the missus.”
Andy said, “I’d bet you a box of cigars that she’ll tell you to give Farley the lickin’ of his life.”
Tom seemed almost convinced.
Rusty said, “That’s settled.” He gave Andy a critical study. “Speakin’ of Farley, I’ve wondered why you’ve stayed on here like a hired hand, puttin’ up with his ill temper. There’s other things you could do instead.”
“But I’d have to leave Bethel. She’s tied down here till her mother either gets well or dies.”
Rusty did not appear satisfied with the answer. “If she’s really the woman for you, she’ll understand. If she’s not, she won’t. Should you change your mind, you’re always welcome over at my place. I can find plenty for you to do.”
Tom said, “Same goes for me. I could use a better deputy. The county judge saddled me with a sleepy-eyed kid who doesn’t know which end of the broom to sweep with. You’d be natural for the job on account of your Ranger service.”
Andy said, “I’ll keep it in mind. You’re sure about not stayin’ for supper?”
Tom said, “I need to go back to town. I’ve got a bad one locked up, waitin’ for the Rangers to come and get him.”
Andy asked, “Anybody I’d know?”
“Name’s Luther Cordell. Him and his bunch held up a bank over in Galveston. Wounded the banker.” Tom’s eyes went hopeful. “I’d like to hire you as a special deputy to help me watch Cordell till they take him off of my hands.”
Andy did not consider long. “I’ve got too much responsibility here.”
Tom turned toward his horse. “It never hurts to ask.”
Andy watched both men remount. He said, “Tom, don’t you be worryin’ none about Farley. He couldn’t win that election if he was runnin’ against a dead man.”
“I’m just worried about the cost of electioneerin’. Cigars don’t come cheap.”
As the two men rode away, a black farmhand came out of the cowshed carrying a bucket of fresh milk in each hand. Andy asked, “Want me to tote one of them up to the big house for you, Tobe?”
“I’d be obliged, Mr. Andy.” The black workers called him Mister, though they used his given name. Tobe handed over one of the buckets. “That old brindle cow ain’t givin’ milk like she ought to. I’m afraid if Mr. Farley sees the bucket ain’t full, he’ll accuse me of quittin’ too quick.”
“I’ll tell him she’s dryin’ up. She’ll freshen when she has her calf.”
It pleased him that some things were beyond Farley’s control, like the succession of the seasons and life cycles of the animals.
Farley sat in a rocking chair on the porch. He did not even glance at the milk bucket. His voice was sharp. “I seen Tom Blessing and Rusty out there talkin’ to you. What did they want?”
Andy considered not telling him anything, but he decided perversely that Farley needed more to worry about. “They asked me if you’re really figurin’ to run for sheriff. I told them you are.”
“What did they say?”
“Tom thought about quittin’ at the end of this term.” Andy waited for Farley’s satisfied smile, then added, “Me and Rusty talked him out of it. We told him he’ll win the race right handy.”
Farley’s smile vanished like the blowing out of a lamp. “Damn you, Badger Boy.” He jumped up so quickly that the chair tipped and almost turned over on its side. One rocker thumped solidly upon the porch as it came back down.
Andy saw the fist but could not dodge it. He staggered backward, dropping the bucket. Milk splashed across the porch and spilled down the steps. For a moment Andy saw only sparkling lights. Then Farley’s scarred face showed through them. Andy swung at it with all the force he could bring to bear. Farley fell back against the rocking chair, knocking it over with a loud clatter. Farley bawled in rage and rushed at Andy, swinging his fists like a windmill. One drove breath from Andy’s lungs, but he managed to land a fist solidly against Farley’s nose. Blood ran down Farley’s lips and off his chin.
Andy heard a woman’s anguished cry. He did not know whether it came from Bethel or Teresa. He struck Farley again and saw his brother-in-law sprawl backward on the porch.
Both young women stepped between them. Bethel grabbed Andy’s arms. Farley struggled to gain his feet. Teresa knelt over him, pushing against his shoulders to keep him down. Bethel scolded, “Back off, Andy. What do you think you’re doing?”
Andy fought for breath. “Tryin’ to show your brother . . . there’s some things I won’t take.”
“But he’s not a well man. That wound—”
“That wound is all healed up. He just leans on it like it was a crutch.”
Teresa scolded her husband with the same sharpness Bethel had used. “Fighting like a schoolboy. Look at you, your face all bloody. Who struck first? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
Bethel said, “It makes no difference who struck first. It takes two to make a fight. Either one of you could have backed off.”
Andy said, “I’ve been backin’ off too long. I’m tired of it.”
Bethel’s eyes cut him like a blade. “And maybe you’re tired of me, too.”
Andy sobered quickly under the lash of her anger. “You know better than that. But some things get to be more than a man can stand still for.”
Teresa let Farley get to his feet. He swayed like a cornstalk in the wind. She took his arm and led him toward the door. She said, “We’re going out to the back porch and wash your face. Look at your knuckles, all skinned and bleeding.”
Farley submitted to her will but gave Andy a smoldering glance before going inside. “This ain’t over with.”
Bethel forcibly guided Andy backward into the rocking chair. Her voice still crackled. “What am I going to do with you?”
“What are you goin’ to do with your brother?”
Shaking her head, she went to the door. She paused long enough to say, “Give Farley time to get washed, then you come in and do the same. We’ll have supper on the table pretty soon.”
Andy was too angry to eat. Fighting was more strenuous than plowing. By bedtime he was sore in muscles he did not know he had. He had skipped supper, fearing that anything he ate would probably come back up. Anyway, he did not care to sit at the same table as Farley. His stomach still churned after his temper had cooled. He sat rocking on the porch, listening to night birds chirping in the live-oak trees. He wished his life could be as simple as theirs seemed to be.
Bethel came out and sat on the edge of the porch, near enough for him to touch. He did not try, for he sensed that she was still provoked at him. The two sat in silence, close together, yet far apart. He wanted to speak to her, to say something that might quiet her overcharged emotions, but he could think of nothing that would not sound hollow. He had no intention of backing down.
Finally she said, “Maybe it’d be better if you left here awhile.”
That surprised him, but he knew it should not. “Been thinkin’ the same thing. I don’t want to go by myself, though. I’d want you to go with me.”
“You know I can’t. There’s Mother, and there’s Farley.”
“Yes, there’s Farley. There’ll always be Farley.” Andy wished he could keep the sharpness from his voice, but he was not good at hiding what he felt.
“What can we do, then?”
“Nothin’ much we can do. We’re boxed into a corner. Farley’s not fixin’ to change, and I can’t abide him ridin’ me all the time. Looks like I’d best do what you said and leave.”
She reached up and took his hands. “I didn’t mean what I said. I don’t want you to go.”
“But you don’t want me to stay either. If I do, there’s bound to be another fight. Maybe several. Looks like there’s no choice for me, but you’ve got one. You can go with me.”
“You know the answer to that.”
Andy felt an ache deep inside. “Then don’t set a place for me at the breakfast table. I’ll be gone by daylight.”
She arose and sat in his lap, her arms around him. He felt her tears wet against his cheek. She whispered, “I love you, Andy.”
“And I love you. But . . .” There was no point in repeating what he had already said. Though regret slashed him like a knife, he realized that neither could back away. Each had taken a stand. Pride demanded that both stay with it.
Copyright © 2007 by Elmer Kelton. All rights reserved. Continues...
Excerpted from Hard Trail To Follow by Kelton, Elmer Copyright © 2008 by Kelton, Elmer. Excerpted by permission.
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