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The Texas Frontier, 1865
The Civil War is over and Texas is reluctantly yielding to the Union soldiers spreading across the state, even into the dangerous Comanche country. David "Rusty" Shannon, proud member of a "ranging company" attempting to protect Texas settlers from Indian depredations, finds that the rangers are being disbanded. He makes his way home to his land on the Red River, hoping to take up the life of a farmer and the hand of the beloved girl he left behind, Geneva Monahan.
But Geneva has married in Rusty's long absence and the country is filled with hostiles―not just Indians, but hate-filled Confederates, overbearing Union soldiers, and army renegades. Rusty's youth as a captive of the Comanches returns to haunt him when, in pursuit of Indian raiders, he takes as prisoner Badger Boy, a white child taken from his murdered parents by a Comanche warrior.
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Elmer Kelton (1926-2009) was the award-winning author of more than forty novels, including The Time It Never Rained, Other Men's Horses, Texas Standoff and Hard Trail to Follow. He grew up on a ranch near Crane, Texas, and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. His first novel, Hot Iron, was published in 1956. Among his awards have been seven Spurs from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. His novel The Good Old Boys was made into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones. In addition to his novels, Kelton worked as an agricultural journalist for 42 years, and served in the infantry in World War II. He died in 2009.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Texas frontier, spring, 1865.
Rusty Shannon saw brown smoke rising beyond the hill and knew the rangers had arrived too late. The Indians had already struck, and by now they were probably gone.
He had expected trouble, but his pulse quickened as if the smoke were a surprise. He signaled his five fellow patrol members and spurred his black horse, Alamo, into a run. He did not have to look back. The men would follow him; they always did though he had no official rank. He was a private like the rest, but they had fallen into the habit of looking to him for leadership. Nor was he noticeably older than the others. Orphaned early, he could only guess he was about twenty-five, give or take a little. A harsh outdoor life had made him look more than that. He had accepted the responsibility of leadership by default, for no one else had offered to take it.
Back East, the strong nicker of the war horse was fading to a faint and painful whinny as the tired and tattered Confederacy kept struggling to its feet for one more battle and one more loss. To Rusty’s independent, red-haired manner of thinking, it was high time the Richmond government conceded defeat and let the guns fall silent. Even from his faraway vantage point at the edge of Comanche-Kiowa country he saw clearly and with pain that the war had bled both sides much too long.
The Texas frontier had a war of its own to contend with, and it was far from over.
Rusty Shannon was tall and rangy, some would say perpetually hungry-looking. Meals were a sometime thing when frontier rangers scouted for Indians. Often the men were too pressed to stop, and at other times they simply had nothing to eat.
He considered himself a soldier of sorts, though he owned no uniform. Texas had not even provided him a badge as a symbol of ranger authority. The cuffs were raveled on his grimy homespun cotton shirt, the sleeves mended and mended again. His frayed gray trousers seemed as much patch as original woolen fabric, for the long war had made new clothing scarce and money scarcer.
Red hair bristled over his ears and brushed his collar. Forced to be frugal, rangers cut each other’s hair. It was often a rough job of butchery, but appearances were of little concern. Staying alive and helping others stay alive were what counted on the frontier.
Riding their assigned north-south line past the western fringe of settlement, the patrol had come upon tracks of fifteen to twenty horses at dusk yesterday. By order of Texas’s Confederate government in Austin, the rangers were duty-bound to locate and take into custody and deserters or conscription dodgers who might be idling out the war in the wild country beyond the settlements.
Rusty knew the approximate whereabouts of fifty or sixty such men banded together for mutual security, but they were of little interest to him. If the Confederacy wanted them captured it should send Confederate Army troops to do the job. Five or six rangers were no match for so many brush men even if they invested a full heart in the duty, and he had no heart for that kind of business.
He had regarded secession from the Union four years ago as a grave mistake though fellow Texans had voted in its favor. He saw the war as folly on both sides, North and South. If a man did not want to take part in it, the authorities should leave him the hell alone. Officialdom did not share his view, of course. Remaining with the rangers on the frontier kept him out of the military’s sight.
Freckle-faced Len Tanner had swung a long and lanky leg across the cantle, dismounting to study the tracks. “Conscript dodgers, you think?”
That was a possibility, but instinct told Rusty the trail had been made by Comanches or possibly Kiowas. Perhaps both, for they often joined forces to venture south from their prairie and mountain strongholds. The Indians were well aware that white men of the North had been at war with white men of the South for most of four years. They did not understand the reasons, or care. What mattered was that the fighting’s heavy drain upon manpower left the frontier vulnerable. In places it had withdrawn eastward fifty to a hundred miles, leaving homes abandoned, strayed livestock running wild. Settlers who dared remain lived in jeopardy.
After sending one man back to company headquarters near Fort Belknap to report to Captain Oran Whitfield, Rusty had set out to follow the trail. Len Tanner rode beside him. Rusty had never decided whether Tanner’s legs were too long or his horse too short, for his stirrups dangled halfway between the mount’s belly and the ground. Eyes eager, Tanner said, “Tracks are freshenin’. We ought to catch up with them pretty soon.”
“Catchin’ them is what we’re paid for.”
“Who’s been paid?”
The Texas state government was notorious for being perpetually broke, unable to meet obligations. Wages for its employees were near the bottom of the priority list, especially for those men in homespun cloth and buckskin who rode the frontier picket line far away from those who wrote the laws and appropriated the money.
Darkness had forced Rusty to halt the patrol and wait for daylight lest they lose the trail. He had slept little, frustrated that the raiders might be gaining time. Night had been no hindrance to the Indians if they chose to keep traveling.
Now he saw a half-burned cabin, a man and two boys carrying water in buckets from a nearby creek and throwing it on the smoking walls. He remembered the place. It belonged to a farmer named Haines. Hearing the horses, the man grabbed a rifle. He lowered it when he saw that the riders were not Indians. He focused a resentful attention on Rusty.
“Minutemen, ain’t you?”
Rangerwas not an official term. The public often referred to the rangers as minutemen, among other things.
Looking upon two blanket-covered forms on the ground, Rusty felt a chill. The blankets were charred along the edges. “Yes sir, Mr. Haines.”
“How come you always show up when it’s too late?”
Rusty could have told him there were not enough rangers to be everywhere and protect everybody. The war back east had drawn away too many of the state’s fighting-age men. The ranger desertion rate had risen to alarming levels, partly out of fear of being conscripted into Confederate service and partly because the state treasury was as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Even on those rare occasions when a paymaster visited the frontier companies, he never brought enough money to pay the men all that was due them.
It was futile to try to explain that to a man who had just lost so much. “We’ll bury your dead,“ Rusty said, “then I’ll send a couple of men to escort you and your boys to Fort Belknap.”
The farmer set his jaw firmly. “We’ve got nobody at Belknap. Everybody we have is here, and here we’re stayin’.”
“You’ve got no roof over you head.”
“We saved part of the cabin. We can rebuild it. You just stay on them red devils’ trail.”
Rusty saw only the man and the two boys. Fearing he already knew, he asked, “What about your womenfolks?”
The farmer cleared his throat, but his voice fell to little more than a whisper. “They’re here.” He knelt beside one of the covered forms and lifted the scorched blanket enough for Rusty to see a woman’s bloodied face. The scalp had been ripped from her head. “My wife. Other one is our little girl. The Comanches butchered them like they was cattle.”
“How come they didn’t get the rest of you?”
The farmer looked at the two boys. They still carried water to throw on the cabin though the fire appeared to be out. “Me and my sons was workin’ in the field. The heathens came upon the cabin so quick they was probably inside before Annalee even see them. I hit one with my first shot, and they drawed away. All we could do for Annalee and the baby was to drag them outside before they burned.” He looked at the ground as if ashamed he had been unable to do more.
Rusty was undecided whether settlers like Haines who remained on the exposed western frontier were brave or merely foolhardy. Either way, he would concede that they were tenacious.
Ruefully he farmer turned his attention back to his wife and daughter. “Conscript officers decided to pass me by on account of my age and my family.” He cleared his throat again. “I wish they’d taken me. My family would’ve moved back to East Texas and been safe.” He gave Rusty a close scrutiny. “You’re a fit-lookin’ specimen. Why ain’t you in the Confederate Army?”
“I figured I was needed more in the rangin’ service.”
The Texas legislature had fought and won a grudging concession from the Richmond government to defer men serving in the frontier companies. But the agreement was often ignored by conscription officers who raided the outlying companies and took rangers whether or not they were willing to go. Those drafts had increased as the Confederacy’s fortunes soured and its military ranks were decimated by battlefield casualties. So far Rusty had avoided the call, though he had a nagging hunch that time was closing in.
The farmer rubbed an ash-darkened sleeve across his face. His voice became contrite. “Sorry I jumped all over you. I know It’s not your doin’ that there ain’t enough rangers. It’s the Richmond government’s fault, takin’ off so many men to fight a stupid war a thousand miles away. And the Texas government for lettin’ them get away with it. Damn them all, and double damn Jeff Davis.”
There had been a time when such words could put a man in mortal danger from rope-wielding zeal...
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