Cletus Slocum stole Donley Bannister’s best horse and crippled it. Now Slocum lay facedown in the dirt, as dead as he would ever be.
Bannister was known locally as a horse trader, .nding them in faraway places and bringing them to the West Texas hill country for sale. He could recognize a good horse as far as he could see it, and spot a blemish from .fty yards. He loved horses as other men might love a woman. The blue roan, he thought, was one of the best he had ever owned.
The four Slocum brothers— three now that Cletus was gone— also had a reputation for knowing good horses, stealing them when and where they could. They had gone unpunished because law of.cers had not been able to bring a strong case to court. It was dif.cult to persuade a witness to testify against one of them, knowing that to do so was to invite an unfriendly visit by the other three.
Bannister did not wait for the law to act. He pursued Cletus across the rockiest ground along the South Llano River. He caught up with him when the roan stumbled and went down, breaking a foreleg. While witness Willy Pegg trembled and begged for his own life, Bannister put an end to Cletus’s dubious career. He felt no remorse over the man, but his heart was heavy with pain when he shot the crippled roan.
Riding back to Junction, he stopped at a modest frame house he shared with his wife Geneva. While he hastily gathered a few necessities for travel, he told her, “I just killed Cletus Slocum. It was a fair .ght. You stay put here till I come back. Don’t try to follow me.”
Thoughtfully, he left her some money. Not so thoughtfully, he neglected to kiss her good- bye before he rode away. Afterward, though she often thought about that oversight, he never did.
Andy Pickard stood in the open boxcar door, feeling through his boots the rumble of steel wheels against the rails. Wisps of coal smoke burned his eyes as he watched West Texas hills roll by at more than thirty miles an hour. He wished he were heading home. Instead, the train was carry ing him farther and farther from his new wife.
He sometimes wondered why he had decided to rejoin the Texas Rangers. There were less stressful ways to make a living. He had had more than enough of farming, walking all day behind a plow and a mule, taking verbal abuse from a cranky brother- in- law. He wanted to raise livestock, for that was something he could do on horse back, but a decent start in ranching required money. He did not yet have enough. Rangering seemed his best option for now. He regretted that it often took him too far and kept him too long away from Bethel.
He turned to a stall where his black horse stood tied, feet braced against the pull of the train’s forward motion. He said, “At least you’re gettin’ to ride most of the way. Bannister’s horse had to take it all on foot.”
The Ranger of.ce in Fort Worth had received a wire saying that Donley Bannister was seen in the West Texas railroad town of Colorado City. Andy happened to be in Fort Worth to deliver a prisoner. He had been dispatched to apprehend Bannister and bring him back to stand trial for shooting Cletus Slocum.
At least the disagreement had been about something worthwhile, Andy thought. Too many men had been killed quarreling over such trivial matters as whiskey, cards, or dance hall girls. A horse was a different matter. A good horse might well justify a righ teous killing.
Extension of rails across the state had given Ranger ef.ciency a strong boost in these early 1880s. No matter how fast he traveled, a fugitive could not outrun the telegraph, and now he had to contend with the railroad as well. Rangers could put their horses on a train and cover distances in hours that would otherwise keep them in the saddle for days. They could move ahead of a .eeing suspect and cut him off or at least rush to wherever he had last been seen and shorten his lead. That was Andy’s mission on this trip.
To the best of his knowledge, he had never seen Bannister. He had a physical description of the man, however, in the handwritten fugitive book he carried in his pocket: tall, husky, with pale gray eyes and a small scar on his left cheekbone where a mule had once kicked him. Probably a bit crazy too. A kick in the head could do that to a man, and nothing could kick harder than a mule.
The train chugged to a stop at a siding beside a tower upon which stood a large wooden water tank. Andy climbed down to stretch his aching legs and beheld the largest windmill he had ever seen. He judged its wheel to be twenty feet across, maybe twenty- .ve. Locomotive boilers required a lot of water to produce steam. The windmill, vital to the railroads, had also done much to open up large areas of West Texas for settlement by farmers and ranchers. They provided water where nature had neglected to do so.
He had recently placed a smaller mill over a hand- dug well on acreage he had bought in the hill country west of San Antonio. Someday, when he had saved enough, he planned to resign from the Rangers again, build a house beside the windmill and move there with Bethel. It was a good grass country for cattle, and several people had brought in sheep. Andy had no prejudice against woolies. They seemed to thrive so long as their own er could .ght off the wolves and coyotes and bobcats. These had a strong taste for lambs.
The thought of Bethel brought both warmth and pain. Stationed in a Ranger camp near a former army post town, Fort McKavett, he had rented a small house at the edge of the settlement. There she was able to grow a garden and raise chickens. He had spent nights with her when he was not away on duty. He realized this was not the customary way for a young couple to begin married life. Too often he had to kiss her good- bye and ride away without knowing when he might return. Looking back, which he always did, he would see her small .gure standing there, waving, watching him until he was beyond sight.
He had warned her at the beginning that as a Ranger’s wife she would spend many days and nights alone, waiting, wishing. But he wondered if she had fully understood how often she would have only a .ock of chickens and a brown dog for company. He even wondered if he should have put off marriage until he could provide her with a more stable home. But both had waited a long time already, almost beyond endurance.
He hoped he could capture the fugitive quickly and get back to her. A dispatch had indicated that Bannister could probably make a strong case for self- defense if he had stayed in Junction and faced trial. But he had chosen to run, so he was playing hell with Andy’s married life.
The train’s black- uniformed conductor walked down the line after seeing that the boiler was properly .lled. Pulling out his pocket watch and checking the time, he said, “We’ll be pullin’ out in a couple of minutes, Ranger. Ought to be in Colorado City in an hour.”
“Good,” Andy said. “The sooner there, the sooner I can get my business done and go home.”
The conductor gave him a quizzical smile. “I’ll bet you’ve got a young wife waitin’ for you. That’d account for your constipated look.”
Andy’s face warmed. “I didn’t know it showed.”
“I know the signs from personal experience. Seems like I’ve been married since I was six years old.”
Andy asked, “How do you handle it, bein’ away from home so much?”
“Home these days is what ever train I happen to be on.”
“You don’t miss bein’ with your wife?”
Thoughtfully the conductor said, “Son, the .re burns hot when you .rst get married, but then it cools down. There’s times you start feelin’ crowded. You look for a reason to get away for a while, and she’s just as anxious to be shed of you.”
“It won’t be that way for me and Bethel.”
“It will. Nature works it out like that to keep married couples from killin’ one another.” The conductor frowned. “You ain’t told me, but I suspect you’re after a man. Is he dangerous?”
“I just know that he’s charged with murder.”
“Then he’s dangerous. And you’re .xin’ to tackle him by yourself?”
“He’s just one man.”
“If I was you, and I had a young wife waitin’ for me, I’d .nd a safer way to make a livin’.”
Bethel had not said much directly, but Andy had sensed that she felt as the conductor did. One of these days, when he could afford to buy more land and the livestock to put on it . . .
The train slowly picked up speed. Andy watched the telephone poles going by. A line had been strung alongside the tracks all the way from Fort Worth. It didn’t seem logical to him that progress could advance much farther. Just about everything conceivable had already been invented.
Colorado City was mostly new, an offspring of the railroad as it had advanced westward. When the boxcar was centered in front of a loading chute, Andy led the black horse down the ramp to a water trough. A little Mexican packmule followed like a faithful dog. After both animals had drunk their .ll, Andy rode up the street toward the court house. It was customary for a Ranger to call upon local peace of.cers unless there was a reason not to, such as a suspicion that they were in league with the lawbreakers. That was not the case here.
Andy introduced himself to the sheriff, a middle- aged man with graying hair and an expanding waistline. The sheriff said, “I got a call that you’d be on the train. I thought they’d send an older, more experienced man.”
“I’m old enough. What’s the latest about Donley Bannister?”
“Nothin’ much more than what I wired your captain. I got wind that he’d spent time here playin’ poker and puttin’ away whiskey. Me and my deputy found his tracks and trailed him to the county line. That’s as far as we had jurisdiction. I can take you to where we turned back.”
“I’d be much obliged.”
“I hope you’re a good tracker.”
“Bannister don’t seem to be tryin’ hard to cover his trail. He likely .gures he’s already outrun whoever may be after him. I doubt he considered how hard it is to outrun a train.”
Standing at a window, Andy let his gaze drift wishfully to a sign that said Restaurant. Where the elite eat.
He was not sure what elite meant. Schooling had been limited by a tendency toward .ghting more than studying when other boys offered offense, which they often did. He had been taken by Indians when he was small and lived with them several years before being thrown back into the white world. Fellow students made fun of his Indian ways and his awkward attempt to relearn the language of his people.
Even yet, a Comanche word occasionally popped out of his mouth. Moreover, he sometimes had a .ash of sixth sense about situations and events beyond his sight. To the Indians, these were visions; to Andy, they were a mystery. He had no control over them. They came unbidden. Often when he would have welcomed one, it would not come at all.
He had such a hunch now about Bannister. He felt it likely that the man was no longer in a hurry, probably assuming he had traveled far enough to be safe. Otherwise he would not have tarried in this town to seek after plea sure.
The sheriff said, “Why don’t you walk over yonder and grab you some breakfast while I go saddle my horse?”
Andy said, “Suits me .ne. There wasn’t anything to eat on the train.”
The sheriff started to turn away, then stopped. “See that dispeptic- lookin’ gent goin’ into the café? That’s Luther Fleet. He’s a tinhorn gambler. I heard that Bannister and him have done business together. He might tell you somethin’.”
Andy said, “Thanks. I’ll go talk to him.”
Fleet sat at a table alone. Andy sized him up at a glance. Restless eyes and slick, long- .ngered hands told him this was not a man to whom he would trust his horse or even his dog.
Andy said, “Mind if I sit down with you?”
The answer was a growl. “There’s other tables.”
“But you’re sittin’ at this one, and I want to talk with you.”
“If you’re lookin’ for a game, it’s a little early in the day.”
“I’m a Ranger.” Andy touched the badge on his shirt, handmade from a Mexican silver .ve- peso coin. “I’m lookin’ for a man named Donley Bannister. I hear you and him are friends.”
The gambler’s eyes .ashed a negative reaction. He said, “Friend? Not hardly. Him and me have done a little business together. I always came out on the short end.”
“Do you know where he went when he left here?”
“He didn’t share his plans with me, and I didn’t watch him leave town. He could’ve gone north, south, east, or west. Maybe even straight up. Why don’t you try straight up?”
Andy moved in closer and noticed a small bruise on Fleet’s left cheek. It looked fresh. He asked, “By any chance, was that blue spot a gift from Bannister?”
The gambler involuntarily brought his hand up to the bruise and .inched. “He claimed I’ve been owin’ him money.”
“Go to hell.”
The man’s attitude was enough to sour Andy’s appetite, strong though it was. He moved to another table and sat with his back to Fleet.
As Andy and the sheriff rode out from town, the lawman
asked, “Did you have any luck?”
“I’d’ve learned more talkin’ to a fence post.”
“Fleet’s pretty good at .eecin’ cowboys and railroad hands, but he’s not good enough to go up against the real professionals. He’ll welsh on the wrong one someday and get his lights blown out. I’d volunteer to sing at his funeral.”
“I might be inclined to join you, if I could sing.”
The tracks led north. The sheriff said, “Ain’t a lot in that direction, not for a long ways. Ranches and maybe a mustanger’s camp or two. Hunters killed out the buffalo. Indians stay pretty much to the reservations anymore, where they belong. There’s no way of mixin’ the white race with the red. Too many differences.”
Andy knew the differences all too well, for he had lived in both camps. He said, “The Indians were just .ghtin’ for their land.”
“But before it was theirs, they took it away from somebody else. This land has been fought over by .rst one and then another since God .nished it and took the seventh day to rest.”
Andy knew the futility of arguing the Indians’ point of view. He understood the white view as well. The dilemma was too much for a man in his late twenties to reconcile. Old men had dif.culty with it, too.
After a time the sheriff reined up and made a sweeping motion with his hand. He said, “This is the county line, as near as I can .gure it. From here it’s for you to catch up or to give up.”
“Rangers don’t give up easy.”
“I’ve seen some that wished they had. Don’t take it for granted that your outlaw will surrender peaceably. Been many a good rider thrown off by a gentle horse.”
Andy was unsure about his ability to stay on Bannister’s trail to its end. He had known Indians who could follow anything that walked, but the tracking trait had eluded him despite his best intentions. Perhaps the fugitive would become complacent and stop somewhere long enough for Andy to catch up.
Toward dusk he smelled wood smoke and spotted a chuck wagon camp a short distance ahead. He judged that it was about the time for a cowboy crew to be eating supper. He rode warily toward the .re, knowing the cook would object to dust being stirred up near his wagon. The men were scattered about, squatting on their heels or sitting on bedrolls, plates in their hands. They paused in their meal to stare at him with curiosity.
A little man in a frazzled old derby hat walked toward him, a grease- stained sack tied around his soft belly.
Excerpted from Other Men's Horses by Elmer Kelton.
Copyright © 2009 by Elmer Kelton.
Published in November 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or
medium must be secured from the Publisher.