“Matt Braun is a master storyteller of frontier history.” Elmer Kelton
“Braun is one of the best!” Don Coldsmith, author of the Spanish Bit series
Hank Laird earned the reputation as one of the most hardscrabble men ever to grace South Texas. He'd forged an empire out of chaos in the wake of the Civil War. But now the vultures are coming home to roost--and it's up to Laird whether Santa Guerra ranchlands will be heaven or hell. Reprint.
“Matt Braun is a master storyteller of frontier history.” Elmer Kelton
“Braun is one of the best!” Don Coldsmith, author of the Spanish Bit series
A ghostly stillness hung over Brownsville. The streets were all but deserted, and every store in town had closed shortly after the troops rode out earlier that morning. Along the river a lazy forenoon breeze stirred, drifting cross current. Tiny ripples skimmed the surface of the water, and trees shimmered beneath the glare of the sun. With the breeze came an abrupt end to the silence, broken by three sharp blasts of a steamboat whistle.
Hank Laird walked from the warehouse several moments later. He paused, testing the wind out of habit, and gazed across the river at Matamoros. Nearly a dozen sternwheelers lay docked and idle on the Mexican shore. But the Mustang, one of his own ships, had her boilers fired and was spewing columns of smoke from the twin stacks. Laird checked the cloudless spring sky and then moved off at a brisk pace toward the wharf.
A light skiff, with two oarsmen, waited at dockside. As Laird approached, his brother-in-law, Artemus Johnson, hurried forward to meet him. Johnson was a tall bony man, with shrunken skin and knobby joints, almost cadaverous in appearance. His features were set in a dour expression, and there was a troubled cast to his eyes. He shook his head, staring intently at Laird, and flung an arm in the general direction of the river.
"Hank, listen to me for once. This is madness! You haven't got a chance."
Laird never broke stride. "I've been listening to you all morning, and the answer's still the same. Now leave be! Let a man get on about his work."
"But the blockaders won't let you through. The war's over, Hank! They'll blow you out of the water."
"Not while I'm flying the turkey buzzard, they won't."
"You can't be sure of that." Johnson trailed alongside him down the wharf. "Maybe their orders have been changed. Now that the fighting's stopped, maybe they won't honor Mexican registry anymore."
"God's teeth, Arty! Why do you think our troops went downriver this morning? The fighting hasn't stopped. And the war's not over on the Rio Grande till the Yankees occupy Brownsville. That means I've got time for one last run, and I intend to take it. Blockaders be damned!"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. So far as the Yankees are concerned, the war is over. Now you're just a freebooter or a privateer of some sort. All that Mexican flag will do is give them something to shoot at."
"Every cripple does his own dance, Arty."
"You and your Irish proverbs. It'll be the death of you yet."
"Aye, perhaps it will. But then it's my neck, isn't it?"
"Not altogether," Johnson countered. "What about Angela and Trudy? Shouldn't you be thinking about them?"
"I am, bucko. I am."
Laird halted at the end of the wharf and pointed across river, to the Mustang. The sternwheeler was a shallow-draft riverboat, designed to navigate the sandbars and shifting channels of inland waterways. Yet today the craft rode perilously low in the water, for the main deck, from stem to stern, appeared to be a solid block of cotton bales.
"You're looking at two hundred thousand in gold, Arty. And believe me, gold speaks a language all its own. That'll spell the difference when the Yankees take over."
"And if you don't come back? Then what?"
"Quit being such a worrywart! Just do like I told you ... go on out to the ranch. Ramon has his orders, and he'll see to it you're all safe while I'm gone."
Laird stepped off the dock into the skiff and motioned to the oarsmen. Then he seated himself and looked back over his shoulder, grinning at Johnson.
"Kiss the girls for me. Tell 'em it's in the bag."
The crew of the Mustang never questioned orders. Given a choice, they would have much preferred to remain at berth in Matamoros. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox two days previously, and everyone on the river knew that the risks of blockade-running were now incalculable. Once they steamed into the Gulf, under the guns of Union warships, it could go either way. Yet today, despite that uncertainty, there was no grumbling as Hank Laird came aboard. The captains of his riverboats and their crews admired his cool judgment and nervy quickness in a tight situation. He commanded the loyalty of those around him, and by sheer force of character he had won the respect of every riverman on the Rio Grande.
Laird scrambled up a ladder to the Texas deck and entered the pilothouse. Waiting for him was Sam Blalock, captain of the Mustang and his oldest friend. After working together for nearly a decade, there was little formality between them. Blalock nodded and jerked his thumb at the chronometer.
"You're cuttin' it a wee mite close, Cap'n."
It was a title Laird had earned among rivermen, and he accepted it as his due. But now he detected mild reproof in Blalock's tone, and his eyebrows narrowed in a quick characteristic squint of mockery.
"The closer the better, Sam. Way I figure it, we'll squeak through and hit open water right about dusk."
"Squeak through!" Blalock grunted. "If it comes on dark, it'll be like a blind man tryin' to thread a needle."
"Aye, that it would. So you'd best get under way, hadn't you?"
Blalock muttered something to himself, then turned and crossed the pilothouse. He leaned out the window, hands cupped around his mouth. "Look alive down there! Make ready to cast off!"
On deck there was a flurry of activity. Lines were cast off fore and aft, and moments later the dull throb of steam engines sent a vibration throughout the entire ship. Blalock slowly maneuvered the Mustang clear of the dock and brought her into midstream. Then he ordered the engines all ahead full and settled down to outwitting the ever-changing hazards of the Rio Grande.
Once under way, Laird left the pilothouse and walked forward on the Texas deck. Outwardly bluff and hearty, he was nonetheless a shrewd, icy realist. He too had misgivings about this last run; there was every likelihood, just as Arty Johnson had said, that the Yankees would blow him out of the water. But he made it a practice never to display inner doubt to anyone. By nature he was a gambler, and he'd learned early in life that confidence counted far more than the odds. A man assured of himself bred that same conviction in other men, and as a result, forever held the edge. It was a belief that had served him well, and today, despite certain qualms, he felt compelled to test it one last time against Yankee cannons.
In truth, Hank Laird hated to see the war end. He enjoyed the danger—thrived on it—and found himself eminently suited to the life of a smuggler. Before the war, operating a steamboat line had given him modest wealth and a certain amount of personal satisfaction. It hadn't been easy; he'd come to the Rio Grande as a deckhand and battled his way up to the position of river pilot. Eventually he had earned his captain's papers, and years later, with every penny he could scrounge, he'd bought his first stern-wheeler. Then another and still another, always undercutting the competition, until finally he had only one rival left on the river. Yet, with all he'd accomplished, he never felt any great sense of fulfillment. Until the war.
By early 1862, the Union blockade had sealed all Atlantic ports as well as the Gulf Coast. Virtually overnight the Rio Grande became the back door of the Confederacy. King Cotton was the South's one commodity, negotiable on the world market for arms and munitions and the materials of war. European ships anchored offshore and a lively trade developed under the noses of Union blockaders. Flying the neutral flag of Mexico, with ownership of their riverboats hidden behind dummy registry, Hank Laird and his rival, Joseph Starling, became a vital link in the Confederate war effort. They handled cotton on commission, bought and sold on their own, and always demanded payment in gold. Laird even bought a ranch north of Brownsville, and established a way station for the wagon trains of cotton being transported overland to the Rio Grande.
Yet profits and patriotism were merely offshoots of a far greater reward. Hank Laird was in his element, a legitimate buccaneer blithely thumbing his nose at Yankee warships. Never in his life had he enjoyed himself so immensely. Nor was if likely that he would ever again find an enterprise so fitted to his character. And with the Confederacy in a shambles, the cause lost and the war ended, he felt a very personal sense of loss. Standing there on the Texas deck, gazing blankly at the shoreline, he was gripped by the vision of a bleak and dreary future.
Things simply wouldn't be the same. Not after today.
A curious blend of commerce and war was centered around the mouth of the Rio Grande. Union troops were encamped on the north bank of the river, while across from them, occupying the village of Bagdad, were the Imperialist forces of Emperor Maximilian. Civil war also raged in Mexico, and within the past week, the guerrilleros of Benito Juarez had been driven inland by renegade generals who supported the emperor. Yet the tides of commerce were unaffected by either war; the world's merchants, loyal to no cause but their own, traded with victor and vanquished alike. Offshore, upward of a hundred vessels, ranging from creaky schooners to iron-hulled steamships, lay at anchor awaiting a cargo of smuggled cotton. Their counterparts, three Union warships, patrolled the coastline like seagoing watchdogs. With the fall of the Confederacy, and Imperialist victory on the border, it was an explosive situation. Everyone waited, eyes fixed on the mouth of the river. Throughout the merchant fleet, it was even money that the next blockade-runner caught in open water would be sunk..
Shortly after sundown the Mustang steamed past Bagdad. Paddles churning furiously, the riverboat plowed into the Gulf and set a bold course for the offshore fleet. Sam Blalock manned the wheel, and beside him, Laird kept a sharp watch northward along the coast. The Mustang had scarcely cleared breakwater when Laird stiffened, peering intently into the fading light. Off the port side, a Union man-of-war loomed out of the dusk and quartered leeward to intercept. Laird recognized the ship instantly, the U.S.S. Portsmouth, of twenty-two guns, their chief adversary since the blockade began in earnest.
"God a'mighty!" Blalock yelled over the roar of the engines. "Look at that scutter come!"
"Hold your course, Sara. Steady does it." "You're awful goddamn calm for a dead man!" Laird smiled. "Speak for yourself. I've got more lives than—"
The captain of the Portsmouth cut short his reply. One of the forward guns belched smoke and a cannonball sailed across the bow of the Mustang. An instant later a second gun boomed and a geyser of water erupted thirty yards off port. Salt spray splattered against the windows of the pilothouse, and Blalock involuntarily ducked.
"I told you, Hank! It's heave to or get the deep six. That bastard means business!"
"Faith, Samuel! Have faith. He's bluffing!"
"Like hell! He's got us bracketed. The next one'll take us midships!"
Laird walked to the port window, hands clasped behind his back. The Portsmouth was closing fast and the range had been reduced to a few hundred yards. Even at top speed, the Mustang was a ponderous target, sluggish and impossible to maneuver in choppy waters. Evasive action was out of the question, and he knew the Yankee gunners wouldn't miss if their captain swung broadside and ordered a salvo. Yet he wasn't convinced. Some visceral instinct told him it was a matter of whose nerves lasted the longest. Eyes fastened on the warship, he turned slightly and called out to Blalock.
"A hundred says it's a dodge. All bark and no bite."
"Done! But how the hell will I collect if we're—"
"By the Sweet Jesus!" Laird whooped wildly. "You won't collect, jocko! You'll pay. Look!"
Blalock glanced over his shoulder and saw the Union man-of-war fall off, then slowly come about on a westerly tack. With a great sigh of relief, he eased the Mustang two points to starboard and headed for the nearest merchant ship. At his side again, Laird uttered a low gloating laugh, and elbowed him in the ribs.
"Thank you, Sam. Easiest hundred I ever made."CHAPTER 2
The girl finished dressing, then walked to the door and looked back. There was a question in her eyes, but Laird wasn't interested in a return engagement. While she was attractive enough for a puta, he hadn't been impressed by her talents in bed. He'd had better, and since there was no scarcity of whores in Matamoros, he saw no reason to encourage her. After a moment he rolled out of bed and padded barefoot to the washstand. Hepoured water from a pitcher into a cracked basin, and finally glanced up at her in the mirror.
"Que quieres, chiquita?"
"De nada, senor."
"Bien! Hasta pronto."
She opened the door and closed it softly behind her. Laird waited until the latch clicked, then he cupped water in his hands and briskly scrubbed his face. The water was tepid but refreshing and he let it drain down over his body. After rinsing his mouth, he smoothed his hair back and caught his reflection in the mirror. He stood for a moment studying himself.
The vestiges of a violent youth marked his face. The bridge of his nose was slightly off center, and above the ruddy wind-seamed features an angry scar was visible over one eyebrow. It was by no means a handsome face, with a square jaw and wide brow, but it was ruggedly forceful under a thatch of chestnut hair and a bristling mustache. All that saved it from being hard were the eyes, smoky blue and inquisitive, the brash, spirited look of a born trickster.
He stepped back, watching himself in the mirror, and patted his belly. Still lean and tough as leather, not bad for a man approaching forty. Though he wasn't exceptionally tall, he was full-spanned through the shoulders, with wrists thick as a singletree and arms knotted with muscle. Standing there, posing for the mirror like some barroom bullyboy, it suddenly struck him as a little absurd. Particularly for a man of his age and position. Yet despite himself, he felt a twinge of pride in the fact that there were few deckhands who would care to tangle with him in a rough-and-tumble slugfest.
Abruptly the muscle-flexing gave way to a look of mockery, and he turned from the mirror, laughing at himself. He'd been cooped up in this fleabag hotel too long. A whore a day, swilling tequila till his head felt juiced, bored to tears and frustrated by the endless waiting. It was no life at all, and damned inconsiderate of the Yankees. An imposition of the worst sort.
Hank Laird was temporarily a fugitive. The federal Amnesty Proclamation required all former Rebels to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Yet tens of thousands of Confederates, both military and civilian, were denied amnesty under the broad restrictions laid down by the government. Among those ineligible, the most notable were men who had held high office in the Confederacy, and anyone who owned property valued in excess of $20,000. While Laird's steamboats were still docked at Matamoros, his holdings in Brownsville and the ranch north of town automatically consigned him to this latter group.
The path to absolution was studded with pitfalls. The first step was a special application for amnesty, to be reviewed by the local commander of the Union occupation forces. Afterward, with proper endorsement by the military, the miscreant could then be pardoned directly by the president. But approval or disapproval rested solely in the hands of conquerors, and once the judgment was rendered there was no appeal. With absolute power, few military commanders were immune to corruption, and bartering for amnesty became one of the more profitable spoils of war.
Always the pragmatist, Hank Laird simply retired to Matamoros and, through his lawyer, conducted negotiations from the opposite side of the Rio Grande. It was a seller's market, however, and the Union commander, General John Stark, drove a hard bargain. Almost daily, offer and counteroffer crossed the river, and after nearly a month, Laird was still trying for an acceptable compromise.
Excerpted from Lords of the Land by Matt Braun. Copyright © 1979 Matt Braun. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Matt Braun is the author of more than thirty books and the winner of the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for his novel The Kincaids. A “true Westerner,” he was born in Oklahoma and is the descendent of a long line of ranchers. He writes with a passion for historical accuracy and detail that has earned him a reputation as the most authentic portrayer of the American West.
Braun continues to travel the West, gathering materials for his novels. The Second Coming of Lucas Brokaw is his first flight into contemporary fiction and has been optioned for development as a theatrical motion picture.
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