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I asked the postmaster at Raymondvile if he knew George Durham. The graying old fellow eyed me with evident astonishment.
"I reckon," he replied, "that you're a new man in these parts.
I nodded slow agreement. "I came down to try and meet Mr. Durham."
"That," said the postmaster, "needn't take much trouble." He glanced at his calendar. "This is Wednesday, ain't it? Mr. George comes in for his mail on Wednesday. He'll be along shortly."
Just to make conversation I remarked, "Now, this is the George Durham that worked for Captain McNelly?"
"Yes," the old fellow replied simply. "Mr. George is a MeNelly. I reckon he's about the only one left. That all happened quite a spell back."
"When Mr. Durham comes will you point him out for me?"
The little post office was busy. A steady stream of people came and went. The streets were what the Commerce would call bustling. Farmers from far and wide were starting life anew in this fabled land of deep soil and mellow sunshine. Their wagons and farm trucks stirred a ceaseless cloud of dust.
"That won't be necessary, son," the postmaster with a trace of tolerance. "When the biggest man in the biggest hat shows up and folks nudge each other and point to him—that's George Durham."
And that proved to be the precise sequence.
I first saw George Durham as he squirmed his huge frame from behind the steering wheel of a Model A carry-all. He emerged a leg and a shoulder at a time. When he was all out in the clear he tapped the pockets of his brush jacket; shook his pants back into normal walking position; removed his huge hat and reshaped its high crown; surveyed the Model A with casual tolerance; and started across the dusty street.
The postmaster was right. No one need tell anybody that here approached something solid in a human shape. First, he had the external appearance of a working man. Nothing phony, nothing dressy, nothing gaudy. Just a working man. Could be the foreman of a cow camp.
He walked directly toward his target—the post office. He looked neither right nor left. Moving with the majesty of the Katy Flyer backing into a station, he found a path cleared for him. The enraptured crowd just naturally fell away.
I accosted him boldly as he stepped up on the board sidewalk.
"You're Mr. Durham—that right?"
"That's right," he replied, without missing a step.
"I'm a writer—"
He halted and glanced down at my mere six foot. "What sort of a writer? he inquired.
"I work for a magazine. To get a story on Captain McNelly and a picture they—"
"You all aiming to print a story on Captain?"
"Well, get it straight before you print it."
"That," I assured him, "is what we want to do. That's why they sent me down to try and see you, Mr. Durham. You did work for Captain McNelly, didn't you?"
He turned and faced me squarely, as if the question had been totally unnecessary and something of an insult. Then he nodded slowly, reflectively.
"That's right. I'm a McNelly. My father was a McNelly in the war. I've been a McNelly all my life. I expect to die a McNelly. And when I get Over Yonder, I want to go back to work for the Captain if he's still running an outfit."
"I wonder if you have a picture of Captain?"
"Yes, Caroline—that was my wife—got hold of one a long time ago. It's in her trunk, out at the ranch."
"Reckon you'd let—"
"When I get my mail," he replied, somewhat throatily, "I'll buy a cup of coffee and we can talk it over."
He—George Durham—had just offered to buy me a cup of coffee. That meant something, a mighty big something, to a free-lance writer. It meant that I had broken down the barrier that had shielded writers and storytellers from George Durham for more than half a century.
The simple facts of history proved that George Durham must now be crowding eighty; and the archives at Austin indicated that he was the sole surviving source of the full story of the fabled McNelly group of Texas Rangers. The Captain himself had neither the time nor the inclination to write a blow-by-blow account of his historic cleanup of the Nueces Strip. Only a Ranger who had been there could do that, and George was the only one still alive.
There was nothing dramatic about that nickel cup of restaurant coffee. Nothing historically significant. The course of no empire was changed that day. But to me it lingers as a cherished memory. It launched an acquaintance that, for my part, matured into friendship. It began an association with a man whose image time has only enlivened.
We dawdled over the coffee for probably half an hour. And for once I yielded to my instincts and kept my mouth shut. I only answered questions about myself—and measured my words carefully, realizing I was under the scrutiny of a master scrutinizer.
I passed the test successfully.
"If you want to," he said, pushing back his chair and rising, "you can follow me out to the ranch, and I'll show you that picture of Captain."
I followed along a dirt road leading east for ten or so miles, and we stopped before an unmarked gate. It was a huge gate with a fifteen-foot span, built of rough, unpainted two-by-eights. It was crude, but most certainly substantial.
George took a key from his pocket, unlocked the gate, and swung it open. We entered. He stopped, got out of his car again, and returned to close the gate. I followed.
He looped the heavy chain into place, snapped shut the lock, gave it a testing tug, and said, "I'll show you where to get the key." He walked behind a mesquite and placed the key in a crotch. "When I'm here," he explained, "the key'll be there. When I'm not here, the key won't be there." I got his meaning.
I had a feeling—a feeling since validated—that inside the big gate was a world all its own—a world that pretty well lived its own life, made its own rules, minded its own business, and demanded the outside world do the same.
I followed George Durham about half a mile down a dirt trail and we approached a frame house. Like the gate, it was big and substantial, and unpainted. He motioned me to a chair on the gallery. "Have a seat," he invited, and he went inside. The chair was crude and aged, but substantial. The hair on the hide bottom was worn off except around the fringes. The legs were steadied with twisted baling wire.
George emerged carrying a battered shoe box that he deposited on a round table. Then he sat down in a rocking chair. For the first time, he now removed his hat and laid it beside the shoe box. He surveyed me again and presently explained—without apology, just reminiscently—"This place has sort of run down since Caroline went on to be with the Lord. That was in 'fifteen. Captain King built us this house when we were married in 'eighty-two. Caroline was a niece of Mrs. King.
"We came here right off when we were married. Never lived in any other house. We raised ten children here.
"This is El Sauz division of Captain King's ranch. He made me foreman when we came down. I'm still foreman. This old house is still in pretty good shape. The ranch has talked of fixing it up, but I talked them out of it. I promised Caroline that nobody else would ever live here but us, and I hope they tear the old house down when I go on to be with Caroline and Captain.
"When you write that story about Captain McNelly I might help you out with some things I jotted down through the years as they came to mind.
"This is Captain's picture. I'll let you borrow it if you'll pledge to give it back."
I naturally made the most of Durham's invitation to call on him for help. But I moved cautiously, to avoid pressing my luck too far.
I waylaid him in Raymondville the next Wednesday and we went through the coffee routine with hardly a variation. Anxious to get another invitation to follow him out to the ranch, I brought up the subject of Palo Alto.
"I wonder, Mr. Durham," I led off, "if you'd go with me some of these days and help me make a sketch of that battleground."
"No. No siree. I won't. Some fellers from Texas University wanted the same thing. But it's against Captain's orders. One of his rules was never to go back over the ground of a scrap. But I can give you the list of Rangers in that scrap. Captain led sixteen of us in. I've heard of at least a hundred who say they were in it. But there were sixteen—I'll give you their names if you want to follow me out to the ranch."
Our Wednesday meetings soon became a fixed habit.
Hoping for, and anticipating, many more to come, I rented an apartment in Harlingen, brought my family down from San Antonio, and enrolled the children in the Harlingen school.
Presently I began carrying to our Wednesday meetings a typed draft of my previous notes, which I left with George for his perusal until our next meeting. In this leisurely tempo the McNelly story took shape and the incidents were placed chronologically. Evidently convinced I was trying to get the material correct, Mr. Durham mellowed and talked freely, checking incidents from yellowed papers in the big trunk and reliving some of the stirring incidents with enthusiasm.
Between Wednesdays I browsed through the Valley for material on some other free-lance stories and assignments. Every time George Durham's name was mentioned I got a new image of him. He had become more than an institution; he was a legend, especially in law-enforcement circles.
At that time he had been a resident of Texas for nearly sixty years. He had been under just two bosses and had drawn pay checks from only two sources: Captain McNelly and Captain Richard King—and King's successors. He had been a peace officer the entire time—either a Texas Ranger or a deputy sheriff. Veteran officers estimated that Durham had "handled" more than nine hundred outlaws and wanted men. Durham told me this figure was "about right, counting the raiders from across the river."
In George Durham's book there were only two kinds of people—the outlaws and the law-abiding. There were no big or little, no brown or black, no white or red. His respect for the orders of his superiors and his regard for the majesty of organized law were part of the legend. His only known abiding hatred was for the gaudy, swashbuckling "bad man."
"Those fellers with their gun butts all notched," he told me, "are the easiest arrests an officer can make. They've killed many; yes. Killed soda jerks and limber drunks. It's always a pleasure to take one out of circulation."
George Durham—like his idol, Captain McNelly—was a deeply religious man. Like his idol, his unbelievable courage stemmed from a belief that the time of a man's going was fixed the day he was born into this world and that nothing he could do would change it. He would die at the proper time, before the blazing muzzle of a gun, or under a roof between clean sheets. Only the Good Lord knew those things.
As a practical stockman Durham was reckoned as a top hand. His judgment as to the combined heft and value of any given herd was uncanny. He had always a clear picture of the grazing potential of every one of the two hundred sections of El Sauz.
He lived one day at a time, making quick and inflexible decisions as problems and challenges arose. "I never carry over any of today's worries," he told me. "That way I get a good night's sleep and make a new start at daybreak the next morning."
As I took my final leave of George his parting admonition was: "The way you've put down that story is fairly good and the facts are straight. Captain wasn't a hero, and don't you let those fellers change things to make one out of him. He only did his duty as a peace officer—and he wouldn't want you to make it look any different.
On May 17, 1940, George Durham died in the house built for him and Caroline. He was eighty-four.
This is his story, pretty much as he told it. Some grammatical corrections have been made in the interest of readability. But none of the facts he gave me have been tampered with. This is Durham's own account, as accurate as his memory and those yellowed papers in the big trunk could make it.
Around my farm home down in Georgia, Captain McNelly was a bigger war hero than General Lee. My dad served under Captain McNelly with his Texas guerillas in Louisiana. He said that General Lee made his plans first and then fought; that Captain McNelly made his plans like a chicken hawk—after he had located his target and was coming in for the kill.
Dad outlasted the actual war; but he didn't outlast Sherman.
For several years I did the best I could to help out and get the farm back to making a living for the family. But we had to start with no stock, no tools, no chickens—nothing much but a house that had been plundered.
Lots of our neighbors in the same fix pulled up stakes and went to Texas. The way we heard it, this was a fairyland where beeves by the thousands ran loose and belonged to anybody with a rope and a branding iron and able to hold his own.
I pulled out for Texas in the spring of 'seventy-five. I was nothing but a big hunk of a farm boy straddling a plow horse, with a few victuals and a pistol.
Right away after I crossed into Texas I began asking about Captain McNelly. Was he still alive? Where could he be found? In mighty near every settlement someone knew the Captain, either direct or by reputation.
I drifted up along the coast, inquiring here and there, and wound up in Washington County, where folks told me Captain was farming a headright of cotton over near Burton.
The Burton post office was in the back of the little drugstore and soda fountain. I asked the postmaster if he knew Captain McNelly.
"Sure, I know him," he said. "You a friend of his?"
I told him my story. I only wanted to see the Captain and maybe shake his hand.
The postmaster then told me, sort of confidential: "McNelly will more than likely be through here today. I sent a letter to him last night by messenger—I thought I'd best rush it to him as it was from the Governor's office. It might be important. It's a safe bet the Captain will go through here to Austin to look into it."
There was a girl waiting on the soda fountain, and two or three of the local boys were squandering their nickels on soda water. I strolled up and did the same thing. My nickels were mighty scarce; but I figured I'd never find a better spot to spend one or two. She was a mighty pert little trick and I was sipping my soda and getting some talk under way when a little runt of a feller entered, nodded to everyone, and ordered a dollar's worth of black cigars.
As he left, the postmaster hollered to me, "That's him! Better catch him!"
"Naw," I answered. "The Captain McNelly I wanted was the one that led the Texas scouts in Louisiana during the war. The old Captain."
The postmaster shook his head. "That's him. There ain't but one Captain McNelly. There'll never be another. That's him. You can tell your younguns you saw him. If you want to speak to him better get going."
I did. I overhauled him as he climbed into the seat of a light carryall. He was rolling an unlit cigar in his mouth.
"Captain McNelly," I said, "I'm George Durham, from Georgia."
"All right," he said crisplike. "What can I do for you?"
"My dad worked for you in Louisiana."
"Did he get back?"
"Yes, sir, but Sherman got him."
He nodded to his Negro driver who clucked and shook the lines. They had a span of rangy, fifteen-hand, wellmatched mules, and they took off in one of those smooth, ground-eating paces that made mules the choice of folks who wanted to go the farthest between suns.
I stood and watched the rig trail off to the north in a cloud of dust. And I still stood. This had all happened in less than a minute. But it had done something to me. I had pictured the Captain McNelly I came to see to be a picturebook sort of Texas fighter. Big and hairy, with his pistols gleaming. What I had just seen could have been a preacher. A puny one at that.
I went back to the drugstore, but I didn't yearn for any more soda water or talk with the little lady. I went straight up to the old man.
"How long, you reckon, before the Captain gets back from Austin?"
"How do you know he's going to Austin?"
"You told me."
"I did not." The old man came up close and gave mesome of my first and best advice. "I reckon I told you toomuch. That letter was Captain's business. I shouldn't have meddled and blabbed about it. From here on if you want to know any of the Captain's business ask the Captain. He won't tell you, but he'll give you a look that'll stop meddling."
My feathers fell, and I felt sort of droopy. I felt that the little lady behind the soda fountain and all the others in there were snickering at me.
I moseyed out to my horse and took the reins off the hitching rack. I backed off a ways and looked him over. He was a good farm horse, but clubfooted and swaybacked. My saddle was the cheapest sort of a hand-me-down. I climbed aboard and let the old nag have his head. He was pointing east; and we cantered back that way.
For a little while I mulled over the idea of riding on back to Georgia. Boys my age get funny ideas at a time like this. Back home, of course, they would sure snicker at me—I had taken off for Texas with such a show.
Off to the right I saw a big flat field of maybe forty acres. This was planting time, and two teams were breaking and seeding it. I rode out and asked the man if he needed a hand. He looked me and my horse over and said yes.
"I'll pay you fifty cents a day and found," he said. I went to work—the same kind of work I had left Georgia to keep from doing. I worked six days, collected my three dollars, and went back to Burton.
I had done a lot of thinking and had both my big feet on the ground now. I admitted I wasn't yet a man. But I wasn't licked. I had come to Texas to make my own way and maybe get a start. And now I had three dollars cash that I could jingle.
You know, clinking silver dollars has always done something to me; sort of like having a blooded horse between my knees. I went back into that drugstore and banged down one of the dollars and told the little lady to set me out a soda.
The old man came up and asked, "Where've you been, son?"
I barely noticed him and said, "I think it was you that told me not to go around asking questions."
He drew back and scanned me from head to foot. "Well, well. I'll be dogged. Son, you'll probably make it. You'll make somebody a good hand. Good, sound body. Plenty of size. Captain would probably sign you on. You got a horse and pistol. He'd pay better than chopping or planting cotton. And the work would be steady."
"What Captain?" I asked, coming alive.
"McNelly. He located a camp yesterday, three miles out west on the Corpus road. He's hiring men. He'd maybe take you. Why don't you ride on out and give it a try?"
I gulped the rest of my soda, raked in my change, and did just that.
There were a dozen or so men clustered here and there; and under a spreading oak there was a little tent with a table in front and a man doing some paper work. Captain McNelly was walking around, his hands deep in his pockets, an unlit cigar dangling from his mouth.
I didn't feel a bit bashful or scared. He looked at me and I looked at him. He didn't say howdy. I didn't say howdy.
Pretty soon he spoke. "You're that lad from Georgia.'
"You want to sign on?"
"Do you know what this is?"
"This is a Ranger company."
"You still want to sign on?"
"Do you own a horse and saddle?"
"Yes, sir." I pointed.
"Do you own that pistol you're wearing?"
"Can you hit a target at thirty paces?"
"Meaning a man, sir?"
"I don't know, sir. I never tried."
He half-circled me and sized me up from every angle. I tried not to flicker an eyelash. He went over to the big feller at the table, took his soggy cigar out of his mouth, and said, "What do you think, Sergeant?"
The big feller said slowly, "I think he's worth a chance, Captain. I'd risk it."
Captain turned to me and said, "Your pay will be thirty-three dollars a month in state scrip and found. You furnish the gun; the state will furnish the shells. You want it?"
He turned to the big sergeant and said, "Sign him up."
I broke out a big grin, I reckon. As near as I recollect, this was April 25, 1875. It was the biggest day in my life up to then. And sixty years later, I still reckon it as one of the biggest days—the biggest next to the day Caroline married me.
Here I'd ridden all the way from Georgia to get a job in Texas—had turned around and started back. A day or so ago I was a farm hand. Now I was working for Captain McNelly as a Texas Ranger, just as my dad had worked for him as a scout.
I felt some chesty. Just a country boy, but I'd caught on fast. As time went on I learned that the most important lesson a man could learn on coming to Texas was to keep his mouth shut and not ask questions. I had learned that and just now passed that test.
Now that I was one of them I thought I'd be friendly and mix with them. They were bunched in twos and threes here and there, and some were alone. For the most part they were emptying their saddlebags, and cleaning and oiling their gear. None of them had more than five pounds of mess gear and all. One or two had an extra shirt. They were traveling light.
As I'd walk up, they'd look at me and say nothing. I sauntered on until I came up to one who was turning gray, sort of, and he smiled and nodded.
He was whetting a knife on a piece of sandstone. I watched and wondered if I ought to have a knife. His wasn't a pocket knife. It had an overall length of a foot or better, a good part of it being a copper-covered handle. It shone like good metal and was sharp on both sides.
I watched him for a spell and then tried to make some talk. I grinned and said, "My name's Durham. George Durham."
He was through, so he got up and replied, "Shore 'nuf?"
Later on, when we served together, I learned he was signed on as Jim Boyd. Still later I learned he was on the dodge from California for killing an army officer, among others. I also learned, from watching him one moonlight night, that he was by far the best knife fighter who ever crossed my path.
Him being an older man and seeming to know his way around, I cottoned onto him and watched what he did and how he did it. I was a green hand, and I was trying to learn.
I didn't have any gear to fuss over, so I had nothing to do but mosey around and try to strike up some talk. I felt mighty good—felt like I was all of a sudden a man. I had been hired by Captain McNelly, the same as the rest of them. I was as big and as good. And I had to talk.
One feller had a pretty fair-sized piece of tarp spread down and quite a bit of gear, including an extra shirt and a big box thing that looked like a camera. I learned later he was signed on as Parrott, and that he was a part-time picture-taker, drifting through the country.
Being as I had to talk, I said to him, "Wonder where we're going?"
He got up off his hunkers, stretched himself, looked me over in a sort of a fatherly way, and said, "Hadn't you heard?"
"No," I replied.
"This is a sort of a secret," he said, "but we're going where the Captain says go. Where he takes us.
That set me boiling. I bristled and fired back, "I've had enough of that damn smart-aleck talk. I asked a question. I can't make you answer, but I can damn sure make you stop jawing back at me.
He broke out in a pleased laugh and slapped his thigh. "You're a good bet, son," he said. "You'll either make it or else you'll go down trying."
In a minute he said, "I don't know, but I'd say it's a good bet Captain will take us into Corpus first. They're having a heap of trouble lately. Those raiders from across the river hit the Corpus country a while back. Burned down three or four of the settlements, killed several good folks, and raised hell in general. I was in Corpus last week and the whole settlement was forted and expecting the raiders to hit any time.
"It'd be a good guess that Captain will throw us at that bunch as a starter."
That guess proved to be right. By sundown we had twenty-two men, who'd ridden in one at a time. The word had got around and they came in from all directions at odd times. I was the youngest of the lot. Most of them gave you the idea they had fought in the war. On which side was their business. Captain didn't ask, of course.
He didn't ask much of anything when they came up to the table. He looked them over, pretty much as he'd done me, and either took them or cut them back—like buying saddle horses.
But those he took had something. They showed the wear and tear of a hard life. Their clothes were heavy and coarse, made for work. Their boots were scuffed and worn. Their faces were stubbled or bearded and usually deep-furrowed. Somehow you wouldn't pick a one of them to push around.
Their pistols were a part of their clothes, same as their boots and hats. They weren't decorations. They were sizing each other up, and weren't friendly or unfriendly.
The wagon master bellowed, and we gathered up our mess gear and filed by. Each got a helping of frijoles and a good hunk of johnnycake. Those that had a cup got coffee. I didn't have a cup.
As dark began gathering, the big sergeant who had been at the table hollered the command to fall in. I didn't know what that meant, but I followed the others into a single line. It was, of course, a military command. I found out then the sergeant's name was John Armstrong. When the line was formed he passed down and made a nose count.
Captain appeared out front and Sergeant Armstrong reported, "There's twenty-two, Captain."
"Does that tally?"
Captain commanded, not too loud, "Count off by eights." The men seemed to understand that order, and did it.
"All number eights, step forward two paces." When they had done this, he continued, "You'll be acting corporals until further orders. You'll be held responsible for the men in your dab. You'll post a guard of four men in three-hour tours, beginning at the head of the line."
He stopped a minute, then said, "It'll be all right to light up some fires. When you bed down—bed down at the ready at ten-pace intervals, behind your mounts."
These were all military orders that I knew nothing about. But most of the men did, and those who didn't had sense enough to do as the others did.
My corporal had signed on as Williams—Polly, he came to be called. He was a man now beginning to gray up some, and he had sure had service somewhere. He knew orders and how to obey them. And he also seemed to know a heap about Captain McNelly.
I was caught in the third watch that night and was sleeping sound when Williams shook my shoulder and roused me. That was one mighty good habit the old-timers didn't have to teach me—to be able to sleep when sleeping time came. When you can do that you don't wear out so fast.
Williams shook my shoulder and I came up right sharp. I had my hat on and my pistol holstered by the time I straightened up full. He watched me in the dim light of a last-quarter moon.
Then he advised me in a fatherly fashion, "Son, it's your turn to stand guard three hours, and standing guard in this outfit means just that. Stand, don't sit. Don't even hunker. We ain't in enemy country yet, so far as we know, but we're on a war footing, under war orders in Captain's book. If you'd be caught napping on guard—well, Captain can't order you shot, but he can bounce you out of this outfit with a black mark that'll go down on the books and follow you to your grave."
Well before daylight action began around the supply wagon. The wagon boss was Dad Smith, and he brought along his son to help. The boy cut the wood and lookedafter the fire. He was a boy about my age, and we came know him as Febe.
My corporal waved me in and I fell in line for breakfast—corn mush and one slice of side meat and coffee. This boy Febe got me a cup and poured me some coffee. I had never drunk much coffee, as it was a mighty scarce item back in Georgia. And after sipping some of this I doubted if coffee habit would ever get much hold on me. But it sure picked you up and started your innards grinding and your brain whizzing. It was home-parched and powerful.
The rest of the hands went back to killing time, and so did I. Captain and Sergeant Armstrong were busy up around the table as men began riding in from here and there. One bunch of four rode in from Burton. Three more came in from the north. Captain was looking them over and Armstrong was doing the book work.
I sauntered over to Boyd, who had that knife out whetting it and shining it up. He looked up and said, "Ever play cards, son?"
I said, "Some."
"Got any favorite game?"
"I've played more stud than anything, I reckon."
"I got a deck," he said. "Want to kill some time?"
I said yes, and he cleaned off his tarp. He laid down some money and I threw out my jingling cash.
I didn't seem to learn too fast. In no time all my money was over in his pile.
"That all you got?" he asked.
I gave a sheepish smile and said it was.
"Well," he said, throwing my coins back, "neither of us is going to be spending any money for some time, and a boy needs some walking-around-money in his jeans. Take it. When we get to where we can spend it I'll win it back off you for keeps."
Dinner time came and went and nobody said anything. For myself, I was a little hungry. But I saw Dad Smith latching up the endgate and loading his cooking gear.
Sergeant Armstrong ordered us back into line, new hands and all. There was quite a line. He counted us off again and turned to the Captain.
"There's forty-one, Captain."
"Does that tally?"
Captain waited a minute then ordered, "As I call your names, you come over here. L. B. Wright. J. B. Robinson." They came up to the Captain and faced the line, and Captain said,
"These men are your lieutenants."
He called out two more names.—R. P. Orrill and L. L. Wright. When they came up he said, "These are sergeants. John Armstrong is your first sergeant."
With the introductions over, Captain said, "Be ready to move out in fifteen minutes."
I had no gear to gather, and I had my nag saddled and boarded and in line behind Polly Williams in plenty of time.
Sergeant Orrill with two Rangers galloped out ahead of the line and fanned out in patrol. We moved out behind them on the road to Corpus Christi well ahead of sundown.
I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and neither had my horse. But I learned that when the outfit was on the move eating could be put off. And we were now on the move. It sure beat killing time around camp.
The way Captain fixed control over this bunch can't be told. I still don't know how he did it, but he did. One thing, he didn't waste a word or a move. He appeared to know exactly what he wanted to do and how to go about doing it. I got the feeling that here was a man who could tell you what to do and you'd do it and never have any suspicion that he might be wrong. In less than two days he had put together a bunch of men of all sorts and made an outfit that moved like old hands. Some of them he knew from years past. That was the reason he made them officers. He had picked them all for only one reason—to him they looked like men who would take orders and fight.
The talk later on was that many of these men were onthe dodge and were wanted in other places. A story is still making the rounds that one of them was the old Missouri guerilla, Frank James. For myself, I don't know and don't give a damn. They were all good enough to be hired by Captain McNelly. That was then, and still is, good enough for me.
We moved all night at a brisk walk, and I sometimes had to jog that old plow horse of mine. He came near to shaking my kidneys loose. An hour or so before daybreak we saw water off to our left as we moved in close to the coast. We skirted the upper end of the bay before sunup and headed south to Corpus.
Corpus Christi was a fair-sized settlement at that time. There were one or two big stores and a considerable number of little ones. (In case you wonder how I know names and dates and details of a lot of things, just remember that in the fifty-odd years since it all happened lots of us have talked it over around cow camps a thousand and one times. Times and things in this country are sort of dated by Captain McNelly—"that was before McNelly," or, "this was after McNelly." The farther the years moved us away from the man, the bigger he and his time looked.)
As we rode into Corpus Christi that morning, I wouldn't have known that it was Corpus unless someone had told me. I recollect the town seemed mighty quiet for a settlement its size. There were no women or children on the street. And mighty few men.
The reason was that they were ready for a bandit raid. They were forted as best they could be—had their window shutters drawn close and all hands inside, except for a few outside on errands.
I later learned that at the time McNelly rode into Corpus with his new Ranger outfit that April morning in 1875 the river bandits were swarming all over the area, having a big time. This was the first time they had raided so far across the border. And they found the going good and the plunder plenty. They had swarmed across from Las Cuevas, down below Laredo, in droves of from fifty to one hundred. One band had struck through Duval County up toward Beeville, and Buck Pettus had his vigilantes in the saddle.
Two or maybe three bands of twenty-five or more had struck toward Goliad and Refugio, where Hines Clark and Martin Culver gathered up their vigilantes and turned them back.
Mike Dunn and two neighbor ranchers, Jim Lane and John Wilson, had surrendered when about thirty outlaws swarmed into their cow camp one evening up on the south bank of the Nueces River. For some reason or another the bandits held them as hostages for about a week, then pushed them out in front on one of their big raids—on Tom Noakes' store at Nuecestown.
That raid made Nueces history for two or three reasons. It was the farthest inland the river bandits had struck inforce. It was pulled off on a religious holiday—Good Friday, March 26, 1875. And the bandits took eighteen brand-new Dick Heye saddles, which were what you'd call now the Cadillacs of the saddle world. They were heavily studded with silver conchos in a pattern you could tell half a mile away, a fact that proved to be the death warrant for many a man.
The day before the Captain took the outfit into Corpus, the people had hung a bandit on a big pecan tree at the edge of the plaza. He had been brought in by Pat Whelan, who'd been out scouting with an eight-man posse when they raised a small bandit outfit on the Little Oso. Pat had lost two men and killed three bandits, and brought one in.
From Sheriff McClure, Pat Whelan, and Mike Dunn, Captain got a good picture of the situation right away. From Dunn he got a full report on the Nuecestown raid: Tom Noakes, who ran the big store there, took the five Noakes children through a tunnel he'd built to the river, but Noakes' wife, Martha, had tried to save her feather bed from the burning store and had been quirted and mistreated. Things like that sure riled the Captain.
Captain seemed mighty concerned about those eighteen Dick Heye saddles. He got Mike Dunn to give him a good picture of them—length of the tapideros, if the skirts were conchoed. He wanted all details. He also asked Mike to describe the man who quirted Martha Noakes. Mike told him he was a two-pistoled American dressed in all the mail-order finery. "Some taller than usual," Mike added. "Brown—saddle-colored—hair. Had a heavy, deep scar, reaching from his hairline to the point of his chin, on the right side. One of those regular rowdy dudes. He was trying to make Martha tell him where the money box was hid. But she was the spunkiest woman I ever saw. She wouldn't drop her feather bed, and she wouldn't tell him nothing. He laid his quirt down her back mighty heavy."
Sol Lichtenstein, owner of the biggest store in Corpus, was standing by Captain while Mike talked. "Captain," Sol said, "I got some of those saddles on order, but they ain't in yet or I'd show you one.
Captain studied a minute, then told Sol, "When they come, don't sell a one until I tell you differently." He turned to Sergeant Armstrong and ordered, "Describe those saddles to the Rangers. Make sure they understand exactly. Then order them to empty those saddles on sight. No palavering with the riders. Empty them. Leave the men where you drop them, and bring the saddles to camp.
This order later on got Captain in quite some trouble at Austin, and it was talked about a whole lot in the governor's campaign. But I can say for sure, after all these years, there wasn't a man shot out of a Dick Heye saddle who wasn't down in The Book.
Captain chewed on the butt of his unlit cigar for some time, and then he faced Old Sol and said, "The Legislature didn't give me a dime, but I've got to have supplies. Rifles, mainly. Ammunition, and a few victuals. I'll—"
Sol took him by the arm and led him toward his store, saying somewhat proudly, "There's the biggest store, best stock of supplies, 'twixt Santone and Brownsville. Come in. Pick out what you want. All you want."
"You might not get paid," Captain warned. "The carpebaggers didn't leave much money in Austin, and the boys up there ain't willing to spend any of it to stop what they call a war in this Nueces country."
"I'll do the worrying," Old Sol said. "It's better for me give you my stock than it is for those river bandits to come in and get it. Take what you want and sign a receipt." Leading Captain into the store, Sol continued, "Tom Noakes would've done that if you'd got here in time. You betcha."
Then Old Sol grinned. "Now, about rifles," he said, you're in plumb luck, Captain. We got a big shipment the last boat from the east. All the latest model repeaters—Henrys, Spencers, Winchesters—"
"How about Sharps?" Captain asked.
"Sharps? Sure, we always carry a small stock for the buffalo hunters. Maybe thirty or so—
"I want them," Captain said.
"Sharps, Captain? I thought you were going man hunting—not buffalo. Those heavy, single-shot Sharps—whew! When you hit a buffalo, he's yours. If you miss, you can reload. If you miss a man—"
"I don't want men who miss," Captain said.
Old Sol had thirty-six Sharps carbines. Captain took them. They were boogers. I broke mine open and that fifty-caliber bore looked big enough for a gopher to crawl through. That flat-nosed bullet looked as big as your thumb. It was plenty wicked. But—no second chance.
As time went on I came to know that right there was Captain's idea of fighting. He gave you one big chance; then you were on your own. You learned mighty quick not to bust that cap till you had your target lined up in your sights. Naturally, I had never handled a gun that big and heavy. But like most any other country boy of that time, I was a fair-to-middling shot with either a rifle or pistol. And I was quick to learn from the older hands.
Old Sol stocked our wagon with box after box of pistol and rifle shells and a good supply of parched coffee, frijoles, and corn meal.
Pat Whelan was the last man Captain talked to before he lined us out of Corpus to the west an hour or so before sundown. He ordered Pat to disband his posses and to notify all the others he saw to do the same thing, except when they were deputized and under command of Sheriff McClure.
"I'll try," Pat promised.
"I said nothing about trying," Captain explained coldly. "I ordered you to disband them."
Pat hedged some. "All of them may not want to disband."
"That's right," Captain said. "Some of them don't. They're the ones who have a little private killing to do in the name of a posse. But I want you to notify all that, beginning now, armed bands picked up in public will be treated as outlaws."
"We'll be glad to help you, Captain—"
"When I want you to help me," Captain said sharplike, "I'll put you on my roster. Give you a full-time job. Hunting outlaws is a good, full-time job. That's what we've been hired to do. Get that word to all these posses."
We rode maybe an hour in a brisk walk. Then we rode into the fringe of a rain squall, one of the sort that happens only along the Texas coast. It was the first one I had seen or been in. The skies closed in and almost blotted out the setting sun, and the wind gusted around from all directions, it appeared.
As a farm boy I admired the good spring season green fields all along the Texas coast. There was moisture aplenty, and this rain squall was only extra. By dark water was standing on flat ground that didn't seem to drain in any direction.
That made the going heavy for our column. Anybody who hasn't been in this coast country before they built roads couldn't have any idea of how boggy the black ground gets when it's well soaked. It doesn't seem to have any bottom, and even the snipes get bogged.
Dad Smith had rigged up a light farm wagon with bows and a tarp. It wasn't too heavy loaded with supplies, but it got so it could move only a short distance before that black, sticky gumbo had to be cleaned off the wheels. Dad's wagon was hooked to a well-matched span of mules that could pull almost anything loose at both ends, except when their every step sunk them in better than hock deep and they had to pull out one foot at a time.
We weren't making any distance, but there wasn't any place to pull up for a halt. To stop in that mire meant you'd only sink deeper, and Captain kept us moving.
This being the second straight night we'd been in the saddle, neither men nor mounts were in very good shape. My old nag was a good, solid farm horse with plenty of chest and bottom, but he got so near fagged that I had to rowel him just about every step.
It was well past daylight when, on ahead, we saw a ground swell. It was packed with beeves, deer, jackrabbits —and rattlesnakes, as we soon found out. A funny thing about animals and snakes: in weather like this they get along, side by side.
The sun came up bright and hot; the sky was clear and blue; and this swell seemed to be the far edge of the rain belt. Just beyond it a bit was a wooden trestle spanning the Little Oso. We had covered something like twelve miles Since leaving Corpus.
Maben and Parrott, scouting ahead, waved Captain up and showed him two Mexicans dangling from the trestle. They'd been hung several days before. Captain shook his head, Maben later told me, and flushed red with anger. "Outlaws didn't do that," he said. "Some posseman worked off an old grudge."
Captain didn't halt us or turn us onto that high ground. Up ahead he found the footing more solid, and he waved the column on. When we had crossed the trestle, he didn't give us any new orders—he showed us what to do. He dismounted, loosened his saddle cinches, lashed his heavy pistol belt across his saddle, and marched ahead—afoot, leading his mount.
The rest of did the same. I was as hungry as a country boy could be. And I didn't have a scabbard for my Sharps. Like a greenhorn I had cradled it all night in the crook of my arm. One of the older hands showed me how to lash it with saddle thongs in a bow knot that would drop it loose easy.
Captain perked all of us up, just showing us. I forgot about being hungry. Good bright sun, good-smelling fresh air—and me, a strapping youngster only being asked to do what a little preacherish-looking Captain did. If I grumbled or let him outdo me I'd better have stayed on the farm.
The column didn't make any speed, but we got to Banquette by midafternoon and Captain put us into camp. In no time at all Dad Smith had a good fire going and a pot of frijoles under way. He dumped a double handful parched of coffee in some boiling water, and it wasn't long till we all had a cup of it and some biscuits that must have been made up before Dad left East Texas. But when they were soaked they went down mighty easy.
We hobbled our horses and choused them out to the wrangler to graze. We were at home now, joshing around like we were at a Sunday foot-washing.
Banquette in those days was quite a place, even though it had only one inhabitant—that being old W6 Wright. One of him was enough—more population than most places.
Before the Americans swarmed over the place Banquette bad been a sort of a frolic center for the Mexicans. They came in for their Saturday night bailes; and of course on feast days they had their horse shows, roping contests, and rooster fights. They also had a little adobe chapel where they prayed.
It was by now more of a ghost town, mostly in ruins. The stock pens were only outlines of broken-down stockades and fences. The little one-room chapel still had a roof of sorts, but it was chipped and chunked off nearly to ruins. Still, it was the only thing that looked like a shelter of any sort.
Banquette was known then, and for some years more, as the jumping-off place into the lower Nueces country. At the time Captain McNelly came in it was pretty well known as the sheriff's deadline. Men on the dodge figured if they made Banquette they could make the Rio Grande without too much trouble from the law.
Folks who started the stage line from San Antonio to Brownsville tried to make a remount station there, but they couldn't keep any stock. The stagecoaches now stopped only when they had a package to leave off for some of the ranchers in the area. These were left in care of old W6 to deliver when he could.
Nobody knew where old W6 came from, because nobody asked. You didn't ask such questions. It wasn't polite, and it was sort of risky. Where a man was from and what his maiden name was before coming to Texas was reckoned as his own affair.
I heard later that old W6 dropped in from nowhere—started burning W6 on steer flanks and claiming everything in sight, including five or six sections of mighty good grazing land lying along the south bank of the Nueces. He claimed he won the land with his thirty-thirty Winchester.
He was a talky old booger and would lay a bet on anything under the sun. Whether the stagecoach would get through to Brownsville with all its passengers and baggage, and so on. You name it and choose sides.
"Howdy, Cap," he gabbed at Captain. "Heading for the lower country?"
"Maybe," Captain shot back.
"How many hands you got?"
"Betcha a hundred you don't take forty-two in with you all the way,
"I don't bet," Captain said.
"Betcha a hundred you don't bring twenty out."
"I don't bet," Captain said shortlike and turned to walk away.
Old W6 took Captain by the arm and said, "Wait a minute, Cap," and pointed to the old chapel. "The stage driver yesterday left a box of books for me to give you. Government books—from the governor. They're right over there in the casita. Come along. I'll show you."
He lifted out a sizable box with the lid pried off. "I thought they were mail-order catalogs at first. But they ain't. They're names of some of our citizens who appear to have been in trouble back home. A passel of 'em."
Captain took one of the books and began thumbing the pages.
"I ain't in there," W6 said. "I already looked; else I'd be across the river by this time."
All of us Rangers ringed close around, gawking. I was sure curious. The book looked as big as a mail-order catalog. The greenhorn in me got the upper hand, and I blurted out, "Is that book full of names, Captain? What are they—?" Captain scorched me down with a blistering look, and Corporal Rudd nudged me back.
Captain handed one each to Lieutenants Wright and Robinson and Sergeants Armstrong and Orrill. He kept one for himself, then ordered the box to be thrown in the wagon.
Some of the older hands who had worked for Captain before guessed that this was a list of men wanted for crimes all over the country, men whose last-known address since the war was Texas. They said it was a list made up by Captain when he worked awhile for the Republicans right after the war, setting up a State Police. He worked less than a year and then quit when he saw they aimed to take law-enforceinent into their own hands and not let the people have any say.
Now that the Democrats had run the carpetbaggers out and were in power in Austin, they had printed that list in the book. The older hands with us reckoned the Governor had ordered Captain to handle them.
A little while by sun, Sergeant Orrill whistled us into company line and formed us for overnight camp. I had caught a couple of catnaps since we got to Banquette, but I was sleepy—and my turn on guard wouldn't come until the third posting.
The next morning our mounts were pretty well freshened up; and as for me, I was loaded with frijoles up to my ears and feeling like a country boy ought to feel at the beginning of a new day.
Captain had huddled considerably with his officers and old W6 and made his decision as to which way to move the outfit on this morning. Some of the bandits who had raided through the Nueces and Goliad country had headed back for the river at Las Cuevas with several cartloads of hides and other loot from the settlements.
A bigger band had turned down the coast from Banquette. Those bandits were loaded with plunder, including most of the Dick Heye saddles. They no doubt would take a fling at high society in Brownsville and Matamoros, and show off all their finery.
So Captain headed the outfit down the coast after he formed us and moved us out along the old Taylor trail—named after General Taylor of the Mexican War. This trail skirted the edge of the Big Sands, an area of sand dune between the present cities of Falfurrias and Edinburg, through country fairly well open.
But we moved at the ready. Captain had flank riders well out in front. Every Ranger had his pistol belt plumb full of cartridges, and five of those big Sharps shells in his pocket. At least that's where I had mine, because they wouldn't into my pistol belt.
Captain moved us at only a brisk walk. He seemed to know exactly where he was going and what he was up to. Two or three times he pulled aside from the front and waited for the wagon to come up, and he had some talk with Dad Smith. But he wasn't wound up, and he wasn't chewing on the butt of his cigar.
We moved for about two days, doing nothing much but traveling. Then, a couple of hours by sun, we pulled up at Santa Gertrudis. This was a town with more than a hundred people, on Captain Richard King's ranch of the same name.
At that time Santa Gertrudis had been established a little more than twenty years. The main ranch house was centered with a steeple, maybe seventy-five feet high. And it was manned by two lookouts.
They had picked us up way out yonder, and their scouts had hurried out to have a closer look. They piloted us into the outer area of the cluster of buildings, and Captain King rode out and took over.
This was, of course, the first time I had laid eyes on Captain Richard King. And like Captain McNelly, he wasn't too much to look at the first time. In fact, he was a dead- ringer for Captain McNelly at a short distance. Each of them hefted around 130 or 135, stood about five and a half feet, had brown hair and beards. Neither of them looked like a storybook captain of anything. But they were. Both of them.
Most of the stock pens and traps at Santa Gertrudis were built of lumber. Sawed lumber. I learned later that Captain King and Captain Mifflin Kenedy had swapped a boatload of steers for a boatload of sawed lumber from Florida. Both had come to Texas from back East during the Mexican War, then had run river steamers for Charley Stillman during the gold-rush days when swarms of folks landed at Brownsville on their way to California. They had started the Santa Gertrudis as partners in the middle fifties, but had begun dividing up four or five years before we arrived. They had come back from the Rio Grande as far as they could, to get away from the river raiders and the Cortinistas. They had managed to brand many a longhorn, but they hadn't managed to keep the raiders away.
The Santa Gertrudis ranch house was more like an army arsenal inside. In one big room there were eighty stands of Henry repeating rifles and maybe a hundred boxes of shells. Two men stood in the lookout tower day and night, and there was always a man at the ready for each of those rifles. But that didn't stop the raiders.
When we unsaddled and penned our horses Captain King looked them over and shook his head.
"How in the world did you get this far on those nags?" he asked Captain McNelly. "You must have had to walk some."
"They're all we had," Captain McNelly said, "and the main fact is—we're here."
We were put up for the night. There were bunks for who wanted to bed down inside. There was good beef aplenty, and we got the best—some of the best beef stew I ever greased my chin with, it seemed. And the coffee—well, I drank plenty. It was good. It would have been good in any country, but the way they served it here at Santa Gertrudis, I overdid it.
We ate in the grub shanty. Only it wasn't a shanty—it was a hall with four tables seating maybe a hundred. We filed by and filled our mess kits and got a cup of coffee. A woman and a young girl gave us refills whenever we needed them. I soon found out that by emptying my coffee cup this girl would come up, reach across my shoulder, and say "Could I pour you some more?" I would have drunk cup after cup of coyote poison if she'd have refilled for me. Three times I said, "If you don't mind, ma'm," and three times I said, "Thank you, nia'm."
Whenever she walked up it seemed like somebody had dumped over the lilac water. I reckon I'd have sat there and drunk coffee till it ran out of my ears, but she seemed to catch on after awhile and didn't come back to me.
I struck up a little talk with one of the stock hands and found that the girl's name was the only name under the sun it could have been—Caroline. Somehow I knew it had to be Caroline. And she was a niece of Captain King's wife. She was Caroline Chamberlain.
I bedded down out in the open saddle shed, but I didn't go to sleep. That coffee was biling me from foot to head—and my head was spinning like a squirrel cage, but not only from the coffee. I decided not to leave this place. I'd pull out from Captain McNelly and hire on here as a ranch hand. I'd work hard till I got to be a foreman; then I'd ask Caroline to marry me. Only a country boy could have had such crazy ideas. Maybe the three-quarter moon also had something to do with it.
I finally dozed off around daylight, and was shaken to my feet by Corporal Rudd. Our nags were gone and the pen was full of some real saddle horses. The others were picking out their mounts, dropping a loop on them easylike and hauling them in.
I had a lariat rope, all right, but I don't know what for. I had aimed to practice when I got the chance, but right then I couldn't have looped a post. And Caroline was right down there in the corral, as much at home as she'd been in the mess hall! What to do I didn't know, but I sure did give up any idea of trying to go to work as a ranch hand.
Captain King then proved he could read men better than he could read the back of his hand. He spoke to one of his vaqueros, who dropped a rope on a good, rangy sorrel gelding and brought him up. Captain King said, friendlylike, "Where you from, son?" I told him Georgia. Then he asked, "How come you to hire on with Captain McNelly?"
I told him my father had worked for Captain during the war. He nodded, again friendlylike. He examined my old saddle. The cotton cords in the cinch were worn thin and one was all but gone. It had no skirt—and the stirrups were the thin, wooden kind, and well worn. It was a cheap farm saddle to begin with, and it had begun many years ago.
He told his vaquero to give me another saddle and a rifle scabbard. I never forgot that.
I reckon he looked just once at me and knew I never could rope me a mount. Looking back through the years I see how crazy a country boy could get—planning to leave the Rangers and go to work for Captain King as a ranch hand. In the first place, of course, if I had left Captain McNelly there, Captain King wouldn't have let me stay all night on the ranch. I never had a crazier idea—or was it? I finally worked it out, all right. I got to be a foreman, and— but that all comes later. I didn't quit Captain McNelly until he was in his grave.
At that time I must have been the shabbiest looker in the outfit. None of the others were dudes, but they wore good hats and boots. Their clothes were worn, but mine were worn and shabby to start with. My hat was skimpy and limber. In fact, it had served my dad for a good many years—and was a cheap farm hat to start with. My britches were homespun jeans, patched in the seat, and I had long ago outgrown them. My boots were farmer's boots—square-toed, with some of the hair still on them. But I was healthy and husky, and willing to learn. And I was dead set to make good with Captain, to go where he sent me and do what he told me to.
When I cinched the saddle on that sorrel gelding he made a picture, and I had to step back and look him over. Back home, he and that saddle would have been worth least two hundred dollars. The horse had a good, roomy chest, open flanks, wide nostrils. He had some good breeding. But I was just looking.
"You like him, son?" I turned and saw Captain King right behind me, smiling. I could only nod my head for "yes."
"How much is a horse like that worth, Captain?"
He gave me a little smile and said, "Don't let that bother you, son. Wherever Captain McNelly sends you that horse will take you. He's a good, solid animal. Plenty of stay, and enough speed." I was a happy youngun.
Most of the other hands were now saddled, but Captain McNelly had not picked his horse. His eye was roving over the milling pen. You could tell he was following a big bay, a standout even in that pen.
"That's Segal. You want him?" Captain King asked, again proving he seemed to see everything and to savvy men.
Captain McNelly nodded his head slowly. "That's a five-hundred-dollar horse. What a piece of horse flesh! I couldn't ask you for that animal. Texas would never pay you for him."
Then Captain King said the same thing Old Sol had said back in Corpus: "I'd rather give him to you than have those bandits come and take him. Most of those rascals are mounted on my stock, and I at least want to do as good by you, Captain."
As we pulled away from Santa Gertrudis we were a lot different outfit from the motley crew that Captain had flung together only a week ago back at Burton. We were forted and ready for anything.
For myself, I felt mighty chesty. For the first time in my life I had a prime bit of horse flesh between my knees, and that always does something to a man. We all had good rifles, good pistols, and we were behind a leader who didn't bobble or look back—a leader who had done nothing but win, a leader that the governor was betting on to bring law to the Nueces Strip.