Read an Excerpt
By Elmer Kelton
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1975 Elmer Kelton
All rights reserved.
Well, preacher, if you've come to pray over me in my last hours, I'm afraid it's too late. I've seen a few of them last-minute conversions, and I never put much stock in them. I doubt as the Lord does, either. But I'm grateful for your company anyway. Looks like they're going to hammer on that scaffold out there all night, so I won't be getting no sleep. Far as I'm concerned they could put it off a day or two and not work so hard.
Don't be bashful. If you want to hear my story, all you got to do is ask for it. It can't be used against me now. I've seen what they said was my story lots of times, written up in the newspapers and penny-dreadfuls. Lies, most of them. Some reporter listens to a few wild rumors, gets him a pencil, some paper and a jug, and he writes the whole true story of Joe Pepper, big bad gunfighter of the wild West. Damn liars, most of them newspaper people. Tell one of them the time of day and he'll set his watch wrong.
I think I know what you're after ... you'd like to have the story straight so you can tell it to your congregation. Maybe it'll scare some of them twisty boys and turn them aside from the paths of iniquity. It might at that, though I can't say I've wasted much time regretting the things I've done. My main regret has been over some men I didn't shoot when I had the chance.
Don't expect me to give you the dates, and maybe I'll disremember a name or two. I figure a man's head can just hold so much information, and he'd better not fill it up with a lot of unnecessaries.
I've always liked to tell people I was born in Texas, but since you're a preacher I won't lie to you. I always wished I was born in Texas. The truth is that I was born just across the line in Louisiana. My daddy and mama, they could look across the river and see Texas; they was of that old-time Texian breed, and it was just an accident of war that I wasn't born where I was supposed to be. You've heard of the great Runaway Scrape? That was after Santa Anna and them Mexicans wiped out the Alamo and massacred all of them soldiers at Goliad. The settlers, they lit out in a wild run for the Sabine River to get across into the United States before Santa Anna could overtake them.
Now, my daddy was in Sam Houston's army for a while, leaving my mama with some neighbors on the land he had claimed in Austin's colony. But when the Scrape started, he got to fretting about her, knowing she was nigh to term. Didn't look then like Sam Houston intended to fight anyway; he just kept backing off, letting Santa Anna come on and on. So my daddy deserted and rushed my mama across into Louisiana where she would be safe. While he was there, Sam Houston and his bunch whipped the britches off of Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Daddy missed out on that. He also missed out on the league and labor of land that the Republic of Texas granted to all the San Jacinto soldiers. If he'd of been in on that, we'd of been a lot more prosperous than we ever was.
The rest of his life he always told people he had been a soldier under Sam Houston. He didn't tell them about the deserting, and the Runaway Scrape.
When the war was over my folks went back to the farm, and of course I was with them by then. You'll hear people who don't know no better bragging about what a wonderful grand thing it was, the Republic of Texas. Either they don't know or they're so old and senile that they've forgot. It was a cruel, hard time. There wasn't no money to be had, hardly, and most people had to grub deep just to hold body and soul together. Seems to me like the first thing I can remember is following my mama and daddy down the rows of a cottonfield. Time I was old enough to take hold of a hoehandle, they had one ready for me. Only time I ever laid it down in the daylight was to take hold of something heavier. I remember watching my folks grow old before their time, trying their best not to lose that little old place.
I was grown and hiring out for plowman's wages when the War between the States come on. I was a good marksman like everybody else in that country then; most of the meat we ever had on the table was wild game that I went out and shot. There was people that used to run hogs loose along the rivers and creeks, living off of the acorns and such. Every once in a while I would shoot me one of those and tell the folks it was a wild one. They wouldn't of eaten it no other way. Religious folks they was; they'd of taken a liking to you, preacher. But I always felt like the Lord helped them that helped theirselves, and I helped myself any time it come handy.
Well, like I say, the war started. Right off, I volunteered. My old daddy, he joined up too. It had always gnawed at him, I reckon, that he wasn't there when Sam Houston won that other war. He wanted to be in on this one. So he left Mama and the kids to take care of the place, and him and me went off to war. He never did get there, though. We hadn't been gone from home three weeks till he was taken down with the fever and died without ever seeing a Yankee. We gave him a Christian burial three hundred miles from home. I always wanted to go back someday and put up a stone, but I never could find the place, not within five miles. Probably fenced into somebody's cow pasture now.
The war wasn't nothing I like to talk about. My part in it wasn't much different from most any other soldier's. I taken three bullet wounds, one time and another. I killed a few men that had never done nothing against me except shoot at me. Maybe that sounds funny to you, but it's true. There wasn't nothing personal in it; they was shooting at everybody that wore a uniform the color of mine. They didn't know me from Robert E. Lee. It was our job to kill more of them than they killed of us.
Everybody seemed to feel like it was all right for me to shoot strangers in the war, but in later years they got awful self-righteous. Some wanted to hang me when I'd shot a man that did have a personal fight with me, men that wanted to kill Joe Pepper, only Joe Pepper beat them to it. Folks would say I'd forgotten the war was over. Well, it never was over for me. Seems like I've been in one war or another most of my life. I never could get it straight, them changing the rules on me all the time.
I was way over in Pennsylvania when the war was over and they told us to go home. I had taken a good sorrel horse off of a dead Yankee, but that chicken-brained captain of ours led us into an ambush that a blind mule could've seen, and the horse got shot out from under me. The best officers we had got killed off in the first years of the war, seemed like, and mostly what we had left in the last part was the scrubs and the cutbacks. The night after they told us to go home, I slipped along the picket line and taken a good big gray horse of the captain's. I figured he owed me that for getting my sorrel shot. I knowed he wouldn't take the same view on it, though, so I was thirty miles toward Texas by daylight.
That horse was the making of my first fortune, in a manner of speaking. Big stout horse he was, about fifteen hands high, Tennessee stock. Once I had schooled him, I could rope a full-grown range bull on him and he'd bust that bull over backwards. But that was later on, of course. That was when I was still known as Joe Peeler. The Joe Pepper name came later.
When I got back to the old homeplace I found out Mama had died, and the kids was taking care of the farm themselves. Couple of the boys was grown and plenty able. They didn't have no need of me, and one thing they didn't need was an extra mouth to feed. So I taken off and headed south with an old army friend of mine, Arlee Thompson. He had come from below San Antonio in the Nueces Strip country. That was a rough territory them days, Mexican outlaws coming across the line to see what they could take and run with, American outlaws settling there so if they was pressed they could always run for Mexico. The honest people — what there was of them — had a hard time. Even the honest ones fought amongst theirselves a right smart, Americanos against Mexicans and vice versa. You'd of thought they had trouble enough without that, but they didn't seem to think so.
The ranches had let a lot of their cattle go unbranded through the war because there just wasn't enough men to do the job. There was grown cattle there — bulls three and four years old that had never felt knife or iron — cows with their second or third calf at side, their ears and hides as slick as the calves' were. Cattle wasn't worth much in them first times after the war, hardly worth anybody fighting over. People fought anyway, of course. Men'll fight when they can't even eat. Me and Arlee, we figured there'd be money in cattle again. We set out to claim as many as we could. Mavericking is what we called it them days, after a man named Maverick who said all the branded cattle belonged to the man who registered the brand, and all the unbranded cattle belonged to him.
Now, there was some people who didn't take kindly to what we done. You ever hear of Jesse Ordway? He was a power in that lower country. He didn't go to war himself, so he was sitting down there putting things together while most of the men was off fighting Yankees. He gobbled up a lot of that country, taking it away from the Mexicans, buying out war widows for a sack of cornmeal and such like. He didn't object to people branding mavericks as long as they was working for him and burning his brand on them, but it sure did put the gravel under his skin to see other people doing it. He thought he had him a nice private little hunting preserve. The rest of us was poachers.
But damn good poachers we was. Inside of a year me and Arlee had us a pretty good-sized herd of cattle apiece. We didn't own an acre of ground, either one of us, but half the people down there didn't. Jesse Ordway didn't actually own a fraction of what he claimed. Most of it he just squatted on and used because he was bigger and stronger than anybody else and had the gall to hold it.
I didn't tell you yet about Arlee's sister. Millie was her name. Arlee wasn't much to look at, tall and thin and bent over a little, and had a short scar over one cheek where a Yankee bullet kind of winked at him as it went by. But Millie, she must've took after her mother's side of the family. I've got a picture of her here in the back of my watch. See, wasn't she the prettiest thing ever you laid your eyes on? Picture's faded a little, but take my word for it. She wasn't much bigger than a minute, and had light-colored hair that reminded me a little of corn silk. And eyes? The bluest eyes that ever melted a miser's heart.
She was living with her old daddy on the place he had claimed as his share from the revolution. It was a league and a labor just like they'd of given my daddy if he had stayed with Sam Houston. But the old man Thompson had had his share of hard luck and had lost most of his country one way and another. He was down to just a little hard-scrabble outfit about big enough to chunk rocks at a dog on. Time me and Arlee got there, he was most blind, and it was up to Millie and a Mexican hand named Felipe Rios to take care of the work. Jesse Ordway had branded up a lot of the old man's calves for himself, and there wasn't much the old man or that Mexican boy could do about it. The old man prayed a good deal, asking the Lord to forgive Ordway because he knowed not what he done.
You'll have to pardon me, preacher, but that's one thing I never could accept about these religious people, always asking forgiveness for their enemies. Ordway knew what he was doing, and he didn't need forgiveness; what he needed was a damn good killing.
First time I seen Millie I couldn't believe she was Arlee's sister. But there was a resemblance; they both had the same big blue innocent eyes. You could've told either one of them that the sun would come up out of the west tomorrow and they'd believe you. I told Millie a good many lies at first, till my conscience got to hurting. People will tell you I never had a conscience, but they don't know me. It always plagued me when I done something I thought was wrong. So most of my life I've tried not to do them things. Other people might've thought I done wrong, but I don't have to listen to their conscience, just mine.
The old man died a little while after I got there. I reckon he had been ready to go before but had waited till Arlee was at home to take care of Millie. Old folks are like that sometimes, you know; they just keep the door locked against death till they're ready to go, then they seem to walk out and meet it of their own free will. I've seen some that greeted it like a friend.
The day came when we got news that the railroad had built west into Kansas, and people in South Texas began to round up a lot of them cattle and drive them north to turn into Yankee dollars. Me and Arlee had us close to two hundred steers apiece over and above the maverick heifers we had put our brands on. The heifers had to stay — they was seed stock for the future. But them steers was excess, a liquid asset like the bankers always say. During our mavericking time we would split them fifty-fifty. We worked together, me and Arlee. We would put his brand on one and mine on the next. Felipe Rios helped us, but he didn't get no cattle. He was working for wages, when we had any money to pay him. Anyway, he was a Mexican. They let Mexicans maverick cattle for other people, but they was stealing if they mavericked for theirselves. They would get their necks lengthened. Sounds rough, but that's the way it was, them days.
Four hundred steers wasn't enough to make up a good trail herd, so we throwed in with some more smaller operators and put together something like thirteen hundred head of cattle.
Jesse Ordway tried to crowd us. He brought in a couple of Rangers and claimed we had stolen a lot of the cattle — me and Arlee and some of the others. He bluffed and blustered, and I reckon he thought he had them Rangers in his pocket, but he didn't. They listened to him real polite, then started asking him to show the proof. That was one thing he couldn't do. The Rangers cussed him out for wasting their time and rode off and left him.
Then he tried to bluff us. He brought a gunfighter he had used to run some of the Mexicans off of their country, a pistolero name of Threadgill. He was before your time; you probably never heard of him. He was just a cheap four-flusher anyway. He got by on bluff, not on guts. The only thing game about him was his smell.
Ordway brought Threadgill and some others up to stop us the morning we throwed our herd onto the trail. Threadgill was the man out front. The way they had it made up, he was supposed to kill one or two of us and the rest would turn tail and run.
I used to carry my pistol stuck into my belt them days. I never did fancy a holster much. I watched Threadgill's face. Just before he reached for his gun, I could see it coming in his eyes. I didn't try to draw my gun; that would've taken too long. I just left it in the belt and twisted the muzzle up at Threadgill and pulled the trigger. Bullet caught him at about the second button on his shirt. One of them other toughs tried to draw his gun, but a shot come from behind me, and he was already falling before I could get my pistol pointed in his direction.
It was over in about the time it takes a chewing man to spit. There was that big Texas gunfighter Threadgill laying on the ground at Ordway's feet, dead enough to skin. The other one was laying there coughing, going the same way only taking a little longer. I looked around and seen smoke curling up from Felipe Rios's pistol. He had one of them old-fashioned cap-and-ball relics that must of weighed forty pounds.
It would've shamed that hired tough considerable to have knowed he was killed by a Mexican.
I kept my pistol pointed at Ordway's left eye, where he couldn't hardly overlook it. I hoped he would do something foolish, so we could adjourn court right then and there. But he decided not to press the case. He taken the rest of his men and went home, looking like a scalded dog.
The story got noised around, and nobody else in that part of the country gave us any argument. If anything, them old boys came out to help us push our cattle along. A lot of them was glad to see anybody get the best of Jesse Ordway.
I could of shot him right then and there, and later on I wished I had. It would've saved me and lots of people a right smart of trouble. It taught me a lesson that I didn't forget as the years went by: when in doubt, kill the son of a bitch.
Excerpted from Joe Pepper by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 1975 Elmer Kelton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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