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A Lone Star Saga
By Elmer Kelton
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2006 Elmer Kelton
All rights reserved.
AUSTIN, TEXAS, JANUARY 1874
The election had gone smoothly except for certain extralegal shenanigans perpetrated by both sides. Those were a normal feature of Texas politics and came as no surprise. By contrast the aftermath was chaotic enough to try the patience of saints, if there had been any. Rusty Shannon had encountered few saints in reconstruction Texas.
He slow-trotted his dun horse westward along a rutted wagon road skirting the edge of the Colorado River and wished he were back home on the farm where he belonged. On one side of him rode Sheriff Tom Blessing, in his sixties but still blacksmith-strong, solid as a block of oak timber. On the other, Andy Pickard whistled in a country boy's youthful awe and marveled at the town just ahead. His urban experience had been limited to a few small crossroads settlements.
Andy declared, "I had no idea Austin was this big. Must be three — maybe four — thousand people here. I never saw such a place in my life."
No one knew exactly how long a life that had been. Andy had been orphaned before he was old enough to retain clear memories. Rusty's best judgment was that he might be eighteen or nineteen, allowing some leeway on one side or the other. Strenuous outdoor labor and the excesses of Texas weather had given him a mature appearance beyond his years. He had a young man's seasoned face but had not lost the questing eyes of a boy eager to ride over the hill and see the other side. Girls seemed to consider him handsome. Andy seemed to have no objection to their thinking so.
Rusty turned up his frayed old coat collar against a cold wind coming off of the river. He had been wearing that coat for more than ten years, always intending to buy a new one someday when he felt he had a few dollars to spare but always "making do" for one more winter. He said, "San Antonio's bigger. I was there once."
His face, browned and chiseled with premature lines, was that of a man forty or more. Actually he was in his mid-thirties, but most had been hard years spent in sun and wind, riding with frontier rangers or walking behind mules and a plow. He said, "Got no use for San Antonio, though. It's overrun with gamblers and whiskey peddlers and pickpockets."
Tom Blessing declared, "Austin's worse. It's overrun with lawyers."
Andy had seen little of gamblers, whiskey peddlers, pickpockets or lawyers, but he was itching to start. He told Rusty, "You always say I need more learnin'. I'll bet I could learn a lot here."
"Mostly stuff you oughtn't to know."
Andy was well schooled in the ways of nature, but Rusty had worried about his limited book education. Andy had caught a little here and a little there as country teachers came, stayed awhile, then drifted on. Rusty, in his time, had had the advantage of coaching by a foster mother. There had been no woman to help teach Andy. At least he could read a newspaper, and he had an aptitude with figures. He was not easily cheated, nor was he a forgiving victim. Most who tried once never cared to do it a second time.
Andy said, "I doubt I'd get bored in a place like this. Bet there's somethin' goin' on all the time."
In Rusty's view, that was the trouble. His idea of a perfect day was a quiet one. He had finally begun having a lot of those, thanks to the farm. "Most of it you wouldn't want any part of. Country folks couldn't abide the crowdin'. You soon get tired of people trompin' on your toes all the time."
He was here against his will and better judgment. He had planned a journey north toward old Fort Belknap to visit the Monahan family and to bring Josie Monahan back with him as his wife. But Tom had asked him to make this trip, and it was against Rusty's nature to refuse a good friend. Tom had ridden often with Daddy Mike Shannon in old times when there was Indian trouble. He had introduced Rusty to the rangers at a crisis point when Rusty had badly needed somewhere to go. Rusty often said he would follow Tom into hell with a bucket of water. He had, once or twice. Austin might not be hell, but Rusty did not consider it heaven, either.
He wished he had not given in to Andy's plea that he be allowed to come along. He dreaded the temptations this town might present to someone no longer a boy but not quite yet a man. Rusty had taken on the responsibility of a foster brother after Andy's nearest known relative, an uncle, had rejected him. At times, like now, it had been an uneasy burden to carry.
He surveyed the town with apprehension. "Tom, reckon how we'll find your friend amongst all those people?"
"Maybe we'll get lucky and stumble into him. Otherwise, he's likely puttin' up at a wagon yard. We'll ask around."
Tom had been a county sheriff before reconstruction authorities threw him out of office for having served the Texas Confederate government. The recent election had restored his badge after the former Confederates finally regained their right to vote. Another sheriff, a friend of his, had sent word that he was badly needed in Austin. He had not explained his reasons. He had just said to hurry and to bring help. Tom had immediately called on Rusty, respecting his law enforcement experience before war's end had caused the ranger companies to disintegrate.
Andy had jumped at a chance to quit the farm a while and see the city. To Rusty he had argued, "You're liable to need somebody to watch your back. You made some enemies while you were a ranger."
Rusty suspected Andy's motivation had less to do with protectiveness than with an urge to see something new and enjoy some excitement.
Because it was the dead of winter, Rusty and Andy had little farmwork that could not be postponed. Last year's crop was long since harvested, and this year's planting had to await warm ground. It would have been a good time for Rusty to get his red hair trimmed, then take a several-days' ride up to the Monahan place and ask Josie a question he had postponed much too long. Instead, he found himself approaching Austin and wondering why.
During ranger service that often took him far from home, Rusty had remained at heart a farmer with a strong tie to land he had known since boyhood. Andy empathized but had never been that dedicated to the soil. A tumultuous boyhood had given him a restless spirit. He welcomed any excuse to saddle Long Red and travel over new ground, to cross rivers he had not previously known.
"It's the Indian in him," Rusty had heard people say. "You never saw an Indian stay in one place long unless he was dead."
Andy was not Indian, at least by blood, but when he was a small boy the Comanches had taken him. They had held him through several of his vital formative years. Rusty had found him injured and helpless and returned him to the white man's world. But Andy had never given up all of his Indian ways.
Rusty hoped youthful curiosity would be satisfied quickly. He doubted that Andy would remain contented for long in a city like Austin any more than he was likely to be content spending all his life on the farm.
A squad of black soldiers drew Rusty's attention. He and Andy and Tom had drawn theirs as well. He murmured, "They're studyin' us like we might be outlaws."
Tom muttered in a deep voice, "They're lookin' at our guns. They're always afraid some old rebel may take a notion to declare war again." A few had, from time to time.
Rusty half expected the soldiers to stop them, but they simply watched in stone-faced silence as the three riders passed by and turned into a long street, which a sign on the corner said was Congress. At the head of it, well to the north, stood an imposing structure larger than any other Rusty could see.
Andy's eyes were wide. "Is that the capitol? The place where they make all the laws?"
Tom said, "That's the place. Fixin' to be a lot of different faces there now that we've elected a new governor. Be a lot of carpetbaggers huntin' new country."
Rusty had mixed feelings about the outsiders who had crowded into Texas after the war, hungry for opportunity. On the positive side they had brought money to a state drained dry after four years of debilitating conflict. On the negative side some had brought a bottomless hunger for anything they could grab and went to any lengths of stealth or violence necessary to satisfy it.
Now thousands of ex-Confederates, disenfranchised after the war, had finally recovered their voting rights. By a margin of two to one they had defeated the Union-backed reconstruction governor, Edmund J. Davis. They had voted in Richard Coke, a former Confederate army officer and one of their own. Perhaps that transition accounted for the large numbers of men standing along the street as if waiting for something to happen, Rusty thought. It did not, however, account for so many being heavily burdened by a variety of firearms.
Andy grinned. "Looks like the war is fixin' to start again." War had been a central fact of life among the Comanches, often sought after when it did not come on its own.
Rusty frowned. "I'm commencin' to wonder what we've ridden into." He reined his dun horse over to a man leaning against a cedar hitching post. "Say, friend, what's the big attraction in town?"
The man straightened, fixing suspicious eyes on Rusty, then on Andy and Tom. "I reckon you know, or you wouldn't be here. Did Governor Davis send for you?"
"I wouldn't know Edmund J. Davis from George Washington."
The man said, "A lot of Davis's friends have come to town includin' his old state police. They're all totin' guns. I see that you are, too."
Rusty kept his right hand away from the pistol on his hip, avoiding any appearance of a threat. "We brought our guns because we came a long ways. We didn't know what we might run into, or who."
"Just so you ain't one of them Davis police."
Mention of the Davis police put a bad taste in Rusty's mouth. "I used to be a ranger, but I never was a state policeman."
The governor's special police force — a mixture of white and black — had been organized as part of the state's reconstruction government, replacing the traditional rangers. Excesses had given the force a reputation for arrogance and brutality, arousing enmity in most Texans. Rusty had always felt that a majority were well intentioned, but a scattering of scoundrels overshadowed the law enforcement achievements of the rest.
A new legislature had recently abolished the state police to the relief of the citizenry and the consternation of Governor Davis.
The man said, "Local folks are naturally stirred up about so many strangers bringin' guns to town. Coke has been sworn in as governor, but Davis won't recognize him. Word has gone around that he has no intention of givin' up the office."
"But the people voted him out."
"He's declared the election unconstitutional."
Tom's face reddened. "He can't. That's not legal."
"He claims he's got the authority to say what's legal and what's not. Thinks he's the king of England, or maybe old Pharaoh."
The occupying Union forces had given their handpicked governor dictatorial power. He had instituted worthwhile improvements, particularly to the educational system, yet Texans resented his issuing punitive executive orders from which they had no recourse. Though Davis was a Southerner and a longtime citizen of the state, most former Confederates felt that he belonged to the enemy. He had fled Texas early in the war, eventually becoming a brigadier general in the Union army. The governor's office had been his reward.
Now it appeared that he did not intend to give it up.
Tom said, "We hold no brief for Davis. We voted for Coke." He glanced questioningly at Rusty. "At least I did."
Rusty nodded. He, too, had voted for Coke because he felt it was time to shed the smothering reconstruction regime so Texas could work its own way back to order and stability.
"Then I'd advise you to either join Coke's militia or take care of your business and move out of town before the roof blows off of the capitol yonder."
Pulling away, Rusty muttered to Tom, "I think I see why your sheriff friend asked you to come and bring help."
"I've known him a long time. I couldn't turn him down."
Tom's loyalty to a friend was such that he had reluctantly left an ailing wife at home to come on this mission. Rusty's loyalty to Tom did not allow him to refuse Tom's request, though he had planned to be marrying Josie Monahan about now. He said, "We're liable to get pulled into a fight that ain't ours. That whole damned war wasn't really ours."
Like the late Sam Houston, Rusty had never favored secession from the Union, nor had he ever developed any allegiance to the Confederacy. One reason he had remained with the frontier rangers throughout the war was to avoid conscription into the rebel army. Even so, he had come to resent the oppressive federal occupation.
Tom frowned. "I wouldn't have asked you to come if I'd known we were ridin' into a situation like this. Maybe you and Andy better turn around and go home."
Disappointed, Andy said, "We ain't hardly seen the city yet."
Rusty said, "We've come this far, so we'll wait and size things up. Then we can go home if we're a mind to."
Initially Tom had harbored reservations about the wisdom of the war, but once it began he had given his loyalty to Texas and the South without looking back. He said, "Davis got beat fair and square. If he was a proper gentleman he'd recognize the will of the people. He'd yield up the office."
Andy said, "The Comanche way is simpler. A chief can't force anybody to do anything. If the people don't like him anymore they just quit payin' attention to him. No election, no fight, no nothin'." He snorted. "And everybody claims white people are smarter."
Andy's sorrel shied to one side, bumping against Rusty's dun. Two men burst off the sidewalk and into the dirt street, wildly swinging their fists. Immediately another man joined the fray, then two more, cursing, wrestling awkwardly. Foot and horse traffic stopped. Onlookers crowded around while the fight escalated.
Andy asked, "Whose side are we on?"
Rusty said, "Nobody's." He saw little difference between the combatants except that some might be drunker than others. He said, "We'd best move on before some fool pulls a gun." He found the way blocked by men rushing to watch the fight.
Faces were bloodied and shirts torn, but nobody drew a pistol or knife. Whatever the quarrel was about, the participants did not seem to consider it worth a killing.
A city policeman strode down the street, gave the situation a quick study, then stepped back to observe from a comfortable distance, hands in his pockets. Shortly a blue-clad army officer trotted his horse up beside the policeman. His sharp voice indicated he was used to people snapping to attention in his presence. "Aren't you going to stop this?"
The policeman did not take his hands from his pockets. "A man can get hurt messin' in where he wasn't asked. Long as they don't kill one another, I say let them have their fun."
"You are paid to enforce the peace."
"Not near enough. Ain't been any peace around here since this governor business came up. You want to stop the fight, go ahead."
"The army is not supposed to interfere. This is a civilian matter."
"And this here civilian is goin' into that grog shop yonder to have himself a drink. If anybody gets killed, come and fetch me." The policeman turned away. The officer watched him in frustration, then turned his attention to the ongoing fight. A couple of the brawlers had had enough and crawled away to sit on the edge of the wooden sidewalk, there to nurse their wounds while the altercation went on. They were not missed.
Andy's eyes danced with excitement as his fists mimicked the movements of the belligerents. He had been in plenty of fights himself, usually instigated by other young men making fun of the ways he had learned from the Indians.
Rusty knew a good scrap when he saw one. This was not a good one. It was slow-footed and clumsy, loud but not likely to produce anything more serious than loose teeth, bruised knuckles, and maybe a flattened nose. He decided the policeman had been right in leaving bad nature to run its course.
Onlookers' comments bore out his assumption that some of the fighters were Davis men. Others supported Coke. The fight slowly staggered to a standstill. The Coke men appeared to carry the victory, such as it was. They moved away in a triumphant group, weaving toward the grog shop the policeman had chosen. Their opponents dragged themselves to the sidewalk and slumped there, exhausted.
The fight had energized Andy. He said, "Some folks take their politics serious."
Excerpted from Ranger's Law by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 2006 Elmer Kelton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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