Two Texas Novels
By Elmer Kelton
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1969 Coronet Communications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
In the 1890s a mile was a distance that a man could respect. From Sonora, Texas, up to San Angelo, and from there west to the Pecos River was a long, rough, dangerous trail, especially when a man paused every so often and turned in the saddle to look back with worried eyes for someone who might be following....
A lot of Texas maps didn't even show Sonora, for scarcely more than a decade had passed since it first began as a trading post on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. Much of it was fresh and new, the unpainted lumber not yet blistered and darkened in the sun. But to Johnny Fristo and Speck Quitman, riding in after spending the winter in a cow camp far down on the Devil's River, it wouldn't have mattered if Sonora had been a hundred years old. It was there, and so were they. A long winter had bowed out to spring, and this was going to be payday.
Speck was as eager as a new-weaned pup loosed on a fresh scent. "She's a peach of a town, ain't she, Johnny? Didn't seem this pretty when we left here last fall."
Johnny Fristo made a more sober appraisal of the scattered frame buildings and Mexican adobes huddled in open sunshine between the rough limestone hills along the river's dry fork. "No town looks like much when you're ridin' out of it with your pockets emptied."
For that matter, they weren't bringing much back. All these cowboys owned, they carried on their horses. Tied behind the high cantle of each saddle was a yellow Fish Brand slicker, a wool blanket and a warbag, bulging with their "thirty years' gatherings." The latter was a misnomer because neither had lived thirty years yet. Johnny was twenty-two and admitted it. Speck was the same and claimed twenty-five.
They had had a run of luck last fall, both good and bad. They had worked all summer with a wagon crew gathering cattle from the rocky hills and the liveoak thickets of the broad Edwards Plateau. After fall branding, the boss paid them off. They drifted into Sonora hoping to find something else. They hadn't found work, but the chuckleheaded Speck had found a man who was willing to teach him about poker. The lessons came high. By the time Johnny Fristo found out Speck had lost all their money, the "teacher" had vanished, bound for San Angelo and points north. The cowboys would have spent the winter swamping out saloons and sleeping on a porch if a hawk-faced cow trader named Larramore hadn't shown up. Larramore was looking for somebody to work cheap and take care of a steer herd he planned to winter down on the river. He was paying pasturage to Old Man Hoskins, who had more grass than he was using. Johnny and Speck spent the winter in a picket shack that was really half dugout, pitifully short of coffee and tobacco but a healthy distance from all temptation.
A few days ago a worried-looking Larramore had ridden into camp with a couple of extra men to gather the steers. He lamented that the cattle market had gone as sour as last week's milk, but he had finally managed to find a buyer.
"You fellers stay and patch up for Old Man Hoskins," Larramore said as he drove the cattle away. "I'll meet you in Sonora Friday and pay you off."
Luckily for Johnny and Speck, the good-natured old rancher had come by the camp. "Forget about patchin' up," he had said. "You punchers have coyoted out here all winter. Go git yourselves a taste of civilization. And drink one for me."
Now Speck licked dry lips and glanced toward the first saloon. "Larramore'll be real surprised. Reckon he's got the money for them cattle yet?"
Johnny nodded. "I expect so. Shouldn't make him any difference whether he pays us today or pays us Friday. Comes to the same figure anyhow."
They were a contrasting pair, not much alike except in age. Folks usually took a liking to the swivel-jawed Speck. He talked all the time, though sometimes he got so carried away that his talk quit making sense. Speck was short and bandy-legged, with a round face and freckles. His hair was rusty, his eyes a laughing blue. He could ride any bronc they led out to him and could rope anything that would run. Some folks said Speck had probably been sitting on a fence telling a windy when the Lord was passing out brains. At any rate, he hadn't quite gotten his share. If occasionally some rancher flared up and fired Speck for the tomfool stunts he pulled, he was likely to hire him back in a day or two. He was a good cowboy. A man could put up with a little flightiness.
Another reason ranchmen tolerated Speck's shenanigans was because they had to take Speck if they wanted Johnny Fristo. When you hired one, you hired both. When you fired Speck, Johnny went too.
Johnny didn't often have much to say. With Speck around, he didn't get much chance to talk anyway, and he had long since quit trying. Johnny was taller, thinner of build. He didn't share Speck's flashy ways, but he was always around to help pull his partner out of a jackpot. Johnny would be out doing his job with a quiet competence while Speck was still talking about it. He could ride along with his gaze on the horizon, his mind a hundred miles away, nod agreement to everything Speck said and not actually hear a word of it.
They had spent their boyhoods in the Concho River country up around the army post and cow town of San Angelo, sixty-five miles north of Sonora. Johnny's father raised cattle on a small ranch back from the North Concho. Speck had been brought up in San Angelo by an aunt till he was about fourteen. Then he had landed a job as a horse jingler out on Spring Creek. Once or twice a year Speck worked up courage to make a duty call to his aunt. He would get away as quickly as he could.
"She's a sweet old lady," Johnny had heard him say with a certain reverence. "But she's mean as hell."
Today they came into Sonora by way of the Del Rio road. Eastward, halfway up a hill, stood the new Sutton County courthouse. Horses lazed at hitching racks and posts along the sloping, dusty street. Sweating freighters grunted at the weight as they unloaded store goods from a heavy wagon that had hauled them down from the railroad in San Angelo. A pair of smaller wagons, one tied behind the other, groaned under a load of early-shorn wool.
Speck eyed the first saloon but rode on by it. "Heard a feller say once to always pass up the first one. Shows you got willpower."
Johnny grinned. He knew this saloon had been the site of that cardsharp's school. "Speck, if it's all of a whatness to you, I'd rather clean up first."
Speck reined in at the square frame front of the second saloon, stepped down and wrapped his reins through a ring in the hitching post. "You wash the outside and I'll wash the inside."
They had a little money — not much. Larramore had advanced them a few dollars last fall. He owed them for a winter's work, so they would have plenty when they found him. Johnny had counted his money several times before leaving the cow camp, and now he counted it again. Main thing he wanted to begin with was a change of clothes. Those he wore had spent a hard winter, washed periodically in the river, beaten with a rock and slept on to press some of the wrinkles out.
After a while, with new-bought clothes bundled under his arm, he walked into a barbershop which advertised a bathtub. The barber was busy shaving a customer. "Have a seat, cowboy."
Johnny picked up a copy of the weekly San Angelo Standard, looking hopefully for items about people he knew. He didn't find his father's name in it, but he hadn't expected to. Baker Fristo was just a little rancher, and he didn't get to town much. Johnny read the trespass and cattle brand notices and shook his head in doubt over ads for patent medicines supposed to cure everything from adenoids to hemorrhoids.
Finishing the paper, he began wondering idly about the man reclining in the barber chair. He couldn't tell much except that the customer was very tall, had a new black suit and wore a pair of high-laced shoes on feet that probably were more used to boots. A new broad-brimmed black hat and a suit coat hung on a rack by the front door.
Rancher, probably. Or a cattle buyer.
The barber was as talkative as Speck Quitman. "Folks say you've bought a ranch up on the Colorado River, Milam." The man named Milam couldn't answer. The barber was scraping whiskers from his jaw. "Yes, sir," the barber went on, "I was up in that Colorado City country once. Sand country, it is, and good for cows. Man don't go stumblin' around over rocks all the time."
The customer had a firm, deep voice. "Any country is good, Jess, when you own a piece of it yourself."
The barber wiped soap off of his blade. "Used to think that way myself, till I lost my little place in the big panic. Found out it's easier to scrape chins than to try and scrape a livin' off a piece of hardscrabble land. But, then, I reckon you wouldn't buy anything but a good place, Milam. Bet you and Miss Cora are goin' to be real happy."
"We will," the man said. "She'll be mighty pleased with the place, the way I've got it fixed up for her."
"When you takin' her?"
"We're leavin' tomorrow mornin', takin' the Sonora Mail to San Angelo."
The barber finished. As the customer stood up, Johnny saw that the tall man was around forty — maybe a little more. The outdoors had weathered him badly. His hair showed streaks of gray, but his moustache was still coal black. Crowtracks were etched at the corners of keen gray eyes that looked as if they had seen aplenty of hardship. For a moment those eyes lighted on Johnny. They were not unfriendly, but they looked as if they could read whatever was in a man's mind. Johnny nodded, wondering what it was about this stranger that made him feel suddenly uncomfortable.
"Howdy," said the man Milam, and that was all. He put on his hat and coat, paid the barber and left.
The barber turned to Johnny. "Shave? Haircut?"
"Both. And then a long, slow bath." Seating himself, Johnny jerked his chin toward the door. "Who was that?"
"Him? Why, friend, I thought everybody knew Milam Haggard."
"Name sounds kind of familiar."
"He was a Texas Ranger down on the Rio Grande. Married Miss Cora Hays here, and she talked him into takin' off the star. He's been off up the country, buyin' them a place to live."
Johnny stared out the open door. He vaguely remembered now. "This Haggard, he's got a name for bein' a bulldog in a fight, hasn't he?"
The barber shook his head knowingly. "A man couldn't have a better friend than Milam Haggard. Or a worse enemy. There's no end to what he'll do for a man he thinks is in the right. He's been known to ride fifty miles in the rain to fetch medicine to a sick Mexican kid. But break the law and you got trouble. He hates an outlaw. He sticks to a trail, Milam does. I don't suppose he ever let a man get away, once he ever got the scent. I recollect one time he trailed a pair of horse thieves plumb down into Mexico. I seen him come back leadin' their horses. Their gunbelts was looped around the saddlehorns, and the saddles was empty. Milam never did talk about them hunts. But he didn't have to."
With bold snips of the sharp scissors the barber took off Johnny's winter growth of hair. "Miss Cora, she made him turn in his badge and put up his guns. She was afraid someday somebody would be abringin' his saddle in empty."
Johnny took a slow soak in the barber's tub, lazily enjoying the luxury of castile soap. Out in a cow camp, a man was lucky to have plain old lye soap that took off the hide along with the dirt. Finished, he tucked the bundle of dirty clothes under his arm, mounted his horse and walked him to the saloon. Speck's horse was still hitched out in front, head down, one hind foot turned up in rest. Johnny shook his head. Likely as not Speck would forget that animal and leave him standing out here all day. Johnny untied the horse and led him to a wagonyard with his own. Might as well turn the horses loose in the stableman's corral and give them some feed; they weren't going anywhere today.
Unsaddling, he asked the stableman, "All right if we bed down over here tonight, me and my partner? We won't bother nothin'."
Hotels were for ranchers, drummers and the like. Cowboys generally slept in the wagonyard or down on the riverbank.
"Help yourself. Just don't be doin' no smokin' around that hay. I'd hate to sell you a burned-down barn." Critically, the stableman looked Johnny over. "You couldn't pay for it noway."
Walking back, Johnny told himself it was fortunate Speck didn't have enough money on him to get into a poker game. Put Speck to work in the country and he was usually worth his wages. But turn him loose in town and he was likely to kick over the traces, bedazzled by the flash of cards and the slosh of whisky. It was like he hadn't grown up, and maybe never would.
Johnny had let Speck have three dollars this morning. He figured that wasn't enough to get him drunk or into a poker game. Entering the saloon, he found out how wrong he was. Speck pushed away from a gaming table and threw his hands up in a gesture of defeat. "That cleans me." He spotted Johnny. "Hey, partner, come here and give me enough for a fresh start. I'm just about to clean these fellers' plow."
Johnny covered his impatience with a grin he didn't mean. "Looks to me like it's your plow that shines."
"Aw, Johnny ..." But Speck could see Johnny meant to be firm. He didn't beg. He leaned on Johnny, looking instinctively to his partner to help him keep his nose clean.
One of the gamblers called to the bartender, "Lige, give them cowboys a drink. I'm payin' for it with their own money."
Speck and Johnny leaned work-flattened bellies against the short granite-topped bar. Speck lifted his glass and said, "Here's to Larramore and his speedy arrival."
Johnny almost choked. He knew he had tasted worse whisky, but he couldn't remember just when. Speck had a fondness for the stuff; Johnny could take it or leave it alone. This kind was better left alone.
A man appeared in the saloon's open door. He started to walk in, then stopped abruptly, seeing Johnny and Speck. Quickly he backed out and walked off up the street.
Johnny straightened. "Speck, that was Larramore."
Speck hadn't noticed. "Maybe he didn't see us."
"He saw us. He backed out like somebody had shot at him. I don't like the smell of it."
Speck frowned. "You don't think he would ..." He broke off, doubt in his eyes. "You know, he just might."
Johnny nodded grimly. "Let's go find out."
Larramore was walking briskly away. Johnny called, but the cow trader appeared not to hear. Johnny and Speck broke into a long trot and caught up with him in front of a general store.
"Mister Larramore," Johnny said, coming up behind him, "just a minute."
Larramore turned and looked surprised. "By George, it's Speck and Johnny. Wasn't expectin' you-all till Friday."
Johnny said, "Old Man Hoskins told us to come on in. So we're here, Mister Larramore, and we sure do need our money."
Larramore's face was blank. He was watching someone walking up the street. "Money? What money?"
Johnny's voice hardened. "We put in six months of work for you, Larramore." He wasn't using the mister now. "You promised us twenty dollars a month. Now we want to get paid."
Johnny was hardly aware of footsteps on the plank walk behind him, or of a man with a badge who passed them and started into the general store. But Larramore had seen him, and he raised his voice.
"I've already paid you. I paid both of you at the ranch. What do you mean now, tryin' to browbeat me into payin' you again?"
The man in the doorway stopped and turned, his attention caught.
Speck Quitman's face boiled full of rage. He grabbed both fists full of Larramore's shirt. "You're a liar! All you ever gave us was a few dollars advance last fall. Now, damn you, pay up!"
Watching the sheriff, Larramore stood his ground. "Get your hands off of me, you halfwit! I won't stand for bein' robbed!"
The insult to Speck made Johnny clench his fists. "You're the one who's a thief, Larramore."
The sheriff had heard enough. He stepped up and placed a big hand firmly over Speck's fist, his eyes stern. "Turn him loose, cowboy." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Texas Showdown by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 1969 Coronet Communications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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