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Elmer Kelton, most honored of all Western writers, writes of the formative years of the Texas Rangers with the knowledge of a native Texan and the skill of a master storyteller. In Rusty Shannon, tough and smart—necessary survival attributes on the 1860s Texas frontier—Kelton has created one of the most memorable characters in modern Western fiction.
“Elmer Kelton’s Westerns are not filled with larger-than-life gunfighters who can shoot spurs off a cowboy’s boots at a hundred yards. They are filled with the kind of characters that no doubt made up the West. . . . They are ordinary people with ordinary problems, but Kelton makes us care about them.” —The Oklahoman
An old arrow wound in Rusty Shannon’s leg had been aching all day, but the sudden appearance of Indians made the pain fall away.
“Them damned Comanches,” he declared to the boy. “They don’t ever give up.”
Sitting on his black horse, Alamo, he squinted anxiously over the edge of a dry ravine toward half a dozen horsemen three hundred yards away. They milled about, studying the tracks marking the way Rusty and young Andy Pickard had come.
An afternoon sun glared upon the summer-curing grass. Open prairie stretched to the uneven horizon like a wind-rippled sea. To run would be futile, for both horses had come a long way and were as tired as their riders. This ravine was the only place to hide, though it seemed more likely to be a trap than a refuge.
“They’re comin’ on,” he said. He drew the rifle from its scabbard beneath his leg.
Dread was in the boy’s eyes. “It is for me they come, not you. I go to them.”
“Hell no! I didn’t bring you this far…”
He did not finish, for the boy drummed moccasined heels against his horse’s ribs and put it up out of the ravine before Rusty could move to stop him. Andy could easily be taken for an Indian. His hair was braided. He wore a breechcloth and carried a boy-sized bow. A quiver of arrows lay across his back, a rawhide strap holding it against his shoulder. He made no move to bring the bow into use.
He stopped his pony and looked over his shoulder as Rusty spurred to catch up. The boy said, “You stay back. They are friends of the one I shot. They want me.”
Andy avoided speaking the name of Tonkawa Killer. To do so might anger the dead man’s dark spirit and spur it to mischief against the living.
Rusty checked the cartridge in the chamber. “Maybe this rifle can convince them they don’t want you all that bad.”
He stepped down, putting the horse between him and the oncoming Indians. He steadied the barrel across the saddle.
The boy’s eyes widened. “Don’t shoot. They are my people.”
“Not if they’re out to kill you. They’re not your people, and they sure ain’t mine.”
Andy Pickard had been taken from a Texas settler family as a small boy and raised Comanche. Rusty guessed him to be around ten, too young to carry such a heavy burden on thin shoulders. His sun-browned skin gave him an Indian appearance, but in close quarters his blue eyes would give him away. They were deeply troubled as he watched the warriors move toward him and Rusty.
“They come because I did a bad hing,” Andy said.
He had violated a basic tribal taboo; he had killed a Comanche warrior. Now he was subject to retribution in kind by the dead man’s friends and family.
Rusty said, “You had to do it. That evil-eyed Comanche was set on killin’ the both of us.” His hand sweated against the stock of the rifle. Andy might foolishly consent to yield himself up, but Rusty had no intention of letting him. “Soon’s they come in range, I’ll knock down a horse. Show them we mean business and maybe they’ll turn back.”
“They not turn back.”
As the Indians came close enough, Rusty thumbed the hammer. The click seemed almost as loud as a shot.
Andy said, “Wait. They are not Comanche.”
Rusty’s lungs burned from holding his breath. He gasped for air. “Are you sure?”
“They are Kiowa.”
Rusty wiped a sweaty hand against his trouser leg. “I don’t see where that’s any improvement.” Kiowas shared the Comanches’ implacable hostility toward Texans. Rusty had seen people killed by Kiowas. They were no less dead than those who fell to Comanches.
The boy said, “Kiowas no look for me. I go talk.”
He did not ask for Rusty’s approval. He raised one hand and rode forward. Surprised, the Kiowas paused for council. Rusty quickly remounted and caught up to Andy.
“Damn it, young’un, you’re askin’ to be killed.”
The boy did not respond. Instead, he began moving his hands, talking in sign language. The motions took Rusty by surprise, but they amazed the Indians more…a white boy communicating in the silent language common to the plains tribes. Rusty kept a strong but nervous grip on the rifle, careful not to point it directly at the Indians. He was keenly aware that several stared at him with hating eyes that bespoke murder. It would not take much to provoke the thought into the deed.
One Kiowa responded with hand signals. A single thick braid hung down over a shoulder, past his waist, the hair augmented by horsehair and fur. The other side was cut short to show off ear pendants of bear claws and a shining silver coin. Rusty sensed a gradual easing of the Indians’ attitude. He saw grudging acceptance, though he perceived that some warriors remained in favor of hanging his scalp from a lodge pole. Red hair was a novelty to them.
He said, “They must think it’s strange to see a white Comanche boy.”
“There are others. Not just me.”
Like Andy, numbers of Texan and Mexican children had been taken captive and raised Comanche. Such forced adoption was one way the tribe offset losses caused by war and accidents of the hunt.
Andy said in a low voice, “I tell them you are my white brother. We been to trade with the Comanche.”
“Let’s bid them goodbye before their thinkin’ changes.”
The boy resumed the sign talk. The only part Rusty understood was when he pointed southeastward and indicated that to be their chosen direction. The Kiowas quarreled among themselves. Rusty could tell that a couple of the youngest favored freeing the boy but killing his white brother. Fortunately the older warriors prevailed.
Andy said, “No look back.” He set his pony to moving in a walk to demonstrate that he had no fear.
Rusty forced himself to stare ahead and not turn in the saddle. He wished he could be certain the two hotheads were not following. After a couple of hundred yards Andy let his pony move into an easy trot. Rusty sneaked a quick glance. He was relieved to see that the Kiowas were riding westward, all of them.
He wiped his sleeve across his face to take up the cold sweat that stung his eyes. “You sure pulled our bacon out of the fire that time.”
“Bacon? We got no bacon.” Andy’s puzzled look showed that he did not understand. Many expressions went over his head. He had only lately begun hearing the English language again after years of exposure only to Comanche.
Rusty said, “We’ve still got a ways to go before we can take an easy breath. We’d better ride into the night as far as these horses can travel.”
Andy looked back over his shoulder toward the broad prairie and everything he was leaving behind. He appeared about to weep.
Gently Rusty said, “I know it’s hard. Go ahead and cry. Ain’t nobody around to hear you but me.”
Andy squared his shoulders. “I would hear.”
• • •
The Red River was behind them, but caution prevailed upon Rusty to stop occasionally and survey their back trail. The boy asked, “You think they follow so far?”
Rusty saw no sign of pursuit, yet experience had taught him not to place too much trust in appearances.
“Depends on how bad they want you.”
Another long look to the north showed him nothing to arouse anxiety, at least no more than he had carried in the pit of his stomach during the days since he and Andy had hurriedly left the Comanche encampment. They had been two solitary figures on the open plains. The Llano Estacado was a haven to the horseback tribes but remained a forbidding mystery to white Americans, a blank space on their maps. It was a vast country of few landmarks and few tracks. It could swallow up a stranger, lose him in its immensity and doom him to slow starvation. But for several years it had been the only home Andy Pickard could remember. He kept looking behind him.
“Back there…I belong.”
Rusty understood the boy’s painful dilemma. “Them Comanches would kill you in a minute.”
The thin voice quavered. “Most are friends.”
“It don’t take but one enemy to kill you.” Rusty had been through this argument several times during their flight. He knew the boy remained strongly tempted to turn about and take his chances. Perhaps at his age he did not fully comprehend the finality of death.
Rusty had seen much of death in his thirty-something years on the Texas frontier. Comanches had killed his own parents and had taken him when he was but three or four years old. From that point his experience had diverged from Andy’s, however. Texan fighters had recovered Rusty a few days after his capture. He had been raised by a childless pioneer couple and given their name, Shannon, because he knew no name of his own.
Years later he had followed his foster father’s example and attached himself to a frontier company of rangers patrolling the outer line of settlement, guarding against Comanche and Kiowa incursion. He had remained a ranger volunteer during the four years of civil war. That service
had exempted him from joining the Confederate Army and fighting against the United States flag old Daddy Mike Shannon had defended with his blood in conflict against Mexico.
Hardship had robbed Rusty of his youth, giving him the look and bearing of a man ten years older. His hair was the color of rusted metal, untrimmed in weeks and rushing uncombed against a frayed collar. A heavy growth of red-tinged whiskers hid most of his face, causing a deceptively fierce look belied by the gentleness in his voice. “It’s tough to turn your back on everything you’ve known, but you’re
white. You belong amongst your own kind.”
Andy placed his hand against his heart. “Here, inside, I Comanche.”
Another boy might cry, but Andy’s Indian-instilled pride would not allow him to give way to that much emotion, not outwardly. Inwardly he could be dying and not show it. Even when Rusty had first found him lying flat on the ground with his leg broken and given up for dead, Andy had not cried.
Rusty said, “You’ll feel better when we get to some friendly faces.”
Andy clenched his teeth and looked away.
Dusk revealed a campfire several hundred yards ahead. Rusty’s first instinct was to circle widely around it, but he reasoned that Indians were unlikely to build so visible a fire this near to settlements.
Andy asked, “The Monahan farm?” That had been Rusty’s first announced goal.
“We’re not far enough south yet.”
If it were still wartime Rusty would suspect that the camp belonged to deserters from the Confederate army or men trying to escape conscription officers. But most of the hideout brush men had dispersed peacefully when war’s end removed any reason for isolating themselves.
He said, “I’d pass them by, but we ain’t eaten a fit meal in days. Maybe they even got coffee.”
He recognized a chance that these might be outlaws. Defeat of the Confederacy had left legal authority badly diminished at state and local levels. The wartime brush men had grown accustomed to living like coyotes, constantly on the dodge from Confederate authorities. Now a minority had turned to raiding isolated farms and villages, stealing horses and whatever else came easily to hand. The risk of punishment was slight where law enforcement was scattered thin and rendered toothless by lack of funds. The Federal occupation forces appeared more interested in punishing former Confederates than in suppressing the lawless
or pursuing hostile Indians.
Rusty made out the shapes of two wagons. These gave him reassurance, for outlaws were not likely to encumber themselves with anything that moved so slowly. He reined up fifty yards short of the fire to shout, “Hello the camp.”
Several men cautiously edged away from the firelight. An answer came. “Come on in.”
Rusty sensed that several guns were aimed at him. He kept his hands at chest level, away from the pistol at his hip and the rifle in its scabbard. “We’re peaceable.”
“So are we.” The reply came from someone who moved back into the flickering glow of the fire, holding a rifle at arm’s length. Once Rusty could see the lanky, hunched-over form and the long unkempt beard, he was reasonably sure he had encountered the man before.
He asked, “Don’t I know you from around Fort Belknap?”
The man peered closely at Rusty. “I’ve freighted goods over that way.”
“I was in the ranger company. Served under Captain Whitfield. And before him, Captain Burmeister.”
“I remember Whitfield. A good and honest man. But there ain’t no rangers since the war ended. What you doin’ way off out here in the edge of Indian country?”
“Us too. We’re huntin’ buffalo. Saltin’ humps and tongues to barter back in the settlements.” Barter was almost the only method of exchange in Texas since war’s end. Spendable money was as scarce as snow in August. The man turned his attention to Andy, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “What you doin’ with that Indian kid?”
“He’s not an Indian. They stole him when he was little. Tried makin’ him into a Comanche.”
“He’s got the look of one. I don’t know as I’d want to run into him in the dark.”
“He’s a good kid. Just not quite sure yet who or what he is.”
“I’d put some white-boy clothes on him as quick as I could. Else somebody might shoot him for an Indian. Rescued him from the Comanches, did you?”
“It’s more like he rescued me.
You-all got any coffee? I’d lease my soul to the devil for some fixin’s like we had before the war.”
“We’ve got a little coffee cut with parched grain. Best we can do. Mix it with whiskey and it ain’t too awful. Got some beans and buffalo hump too. You look kind of slab-sided.”
“Much obliged. We’re as hollow as a gourd.”
Andy had not spoken. He dug into his supper like a starved wolf.
The hunter watched him with interest. “The boy’s got the manners of a wild Indian, all right.” The comment was matter-of-fact, not judgmental. “You’ve got a lot to unlearn him before you can make him white again. He some kin to you?”
“No, the only kin we’ve found is an uncle. He looked Andy over and turned his back on him.”
“Probably figured he was too far gone to civilize. You figurin’ to finish raisin’ him?”
“Somebody’s got to.”
“I wouldn’t want the responsibility. How did he fall into your lap?”
“He came down into the settlements on a horse-stealin’ raid.”
“That young’un ain’t old enough.”
“He sneaked off and followed the raidin’ party. Didn’t let them see him ’til it was too late to send him back. Horse fell on him and broke his leg. That’s the way I found him.”
“He looks all healed up now.”
“We kept him ’til he was, me and some friends of mine. But he was homesick for the Comanches. If I didn’t take him back he was fixin’ to slip off and go anyway. So, bad as I hated to, I took him.”
“What’s he doin’ here now?”
“A few of the tribe weren’t happy to see him back. He had to kill one so we could get away.”
The hunter frowned darkly. “Awful young to have blood on his hands. It’s hard to wash off.”
“Wasn’t none of his choosin’.”
“If I was you, I’d turn him over to the Yankee army. I’ve heard they’ve got schools for Indian boys back east someplace.”
“But he’s white. Reckon I’ll keep him and do the best I can.”
“I’m glad it’s you and not me.”
Rusty explained, “When I look at him I see what I could’ve been. The Comanches stole me once, just like him. If the Lord hadn’t been lookin’ my way, I’d be Comanche now myself. Or dead.”
Rusty sipped with pleasure the mixture of bad coffee and bad whiskey. “Andy’s got a long, twisty road ahead of him. But I want to give him the same chance I had.”
The hunter said, “I ain’t heard him speak. Has he forgot how to talk English?”
“It’s comin’ back to him. He just needs time.”
“I’ve known a couple of boys the Indians taken and kept for years. Never could purge all the coyote out of them.
They was like a broke horse that has to pitch once in a while no matter how long he’s been rode.”
“Nothin’ comes easy if it’s worth anything.”
“Just so you don’t expect too much. You’re dealin’ with damaged goods.” The hunter started to tip the whiskey jug, then remembered his manners and offered it to Rusty. “You’ll probably need a lot of this before you get that boy
raised. You got a woman?”
“I’m not married.”
“Too bad. Sometimes a woman’s influence can help in tamin’ a wild one. Got any prospects?”
“The one I wanted married somebody else.”
When Rusty and Andy had finished supper, the hunter said, “You-all are welcome to spend the night. Just one thing…are them Comanches huntin’ for this boy?”
“There’s a chance a few still are.” Rusty sensed what was on the man’s mind. Andy’s being here might put the camp in jeopardy. “Maybe it’s best we move on a little farther.”
“No, you-all stay. We’ll double up the guard. If there’s any Indians prowlin’ about they’re apt to give us a try whether the boy is here or not. We won’t let him fall back into their hands.”
Rusty warmed with gratitude. These men were strangers, yet they were offering an orphan boy their protection. “I’m much obliged.”
The hunter shrugged. “We’ve got the Federals comin’ at us from one side and Indians from another. And scallywags that dodged the fightin’, pushin’ and shovin’ now to get onto the Union tit. Us old Texas rebels have got to stick together.”
Rusty had never considered himself a rebel. On the contrary, he had harbored a quiet loyalty to the Union all through the war, though it would have been dangerous to make an open display of that loyalty. Hundreds who did so had died at the hands of Confederate zealots. He saw no point in mentioning this now that the war was over. They were all considered Americans again, though many had lost their basic legal rights of citizenship, including the vote.
He said, “I’ll stand my share of the guard.”
“Figured that. I wouldn’t expect no less out of a ranger.” The hunter granted. “You reckon we’ll ever get the rangers back again?”
“Not anytime soon. The Federals have a hard opinion of anything they think smells Confederate. They bristle up at the thought of Texans ridin’ in bunches and packin’ fire-arms.”
The night passed without incident. Rusty and Andy ate breakfast with the hunters. As Rusty saddled his horse, the leader jerked his head, summoning him to one side.
“You remember me tellin’ you about them two boys that came home after years amongst the Indians? One of them eventually went to the bad. Killed a man and tried to run off back to the Comanches. There wasn’t no civilizin’ him. Posse had to shoot him like a hydrophoby dog.”
“It won’t be like that with Andy.”
“Don’t take him for granted. Watch him, or one mornin’ you might wake up with your throat cut.”
• • •
The hunters spared Rusty enough meat and salt to last until he and Andy reached the Monahan family’s farm. He intended that to be the first stop on the long trip back to his own place down on the Colorado River. Andy seemed increasingly concerned after they resumed their journey.
“The man say maybe somebody shoot me for Indian.”
“Nobody’s fixin’ to shoot you. Just the same, I’ll be glad when we get you into different clothes. And we need to cut that hair.”
Andy touched one of the long braids that hung down his shoulders. “Cut? What for?”
“They draw attention. Lots of folks don’t trust anybody that looks different.” The hunter’s warning weighed heavily on Rusty’s mind.
“I am different. I am not ashamed.”
“I’m not sayin’ you should be. Ain’t your fault the Comanches stole you.”
“It was a good life.”
“But not the life you were born to. Me and Daddy Mike and the preacher trailed after the war party that stole you, us and a bunch of volunteers. We never could catch them. It was like the wind picked them up and carried them away. I don’t suppose you recollect much about that.”
“A little only.”
It was well that the boy did not remember much. Rusty remembered more than he wanted about the long pursuit, the shock of first blood when they came upon Andy’s kidnapped mother cruelly butchered on the trail. Before that, he had never seen a person dead at Indian hands. In the years since, he had seen many. Back east there had been but one war, between Confederates and the Union. Here on the Texas frontier there had been another, against Comanche and Kiowa. He was grateful the eastern war was over. He could see no end to the one closer at hand.
Through no fault of his own Andy was caught in the middle, whipped about like a leaf in a whirlwind. Rusty had experienced a similar inner conflict, a similar confusion of loyalties during the war between the states.
He said, “It’s not like you’ve got any druthers. At least you know what your real name is. I had to borrow mine.”
Andy fingered the braid again. Sternly he said, “I will wear white-man clothes. I will talk white man’s talk. But I do not cut my hair.”
Copyright © 2001 by Elmer Kelton
Posted June 6, 2010
No text was provided for this review.