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After several years as a Texas Ranger, Andy Pickard concluded that the average criminal he dealt with was about as intelligent as a jackrabbit. That said, even a dullard could pull a trigger and hurt somebody. A case in point was the reluctant prisoner trudging along ten paces ahead of Andy, dragging his feet and wailing about the insensitivity of law enforcement.
“It ain’t fair,” the handcuffed man whined. “You’re a young man, barely growed, but you’re ridin’ my horse and makin’ me walk.”
Andy said, “You shot mine.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“I know. You were shootin’ at me.”
The prisoner stumbled over his own feet and almost fell. “How much further we got to go?”
“A ways yet. It’ll give you time to consider changin’ your occupation.”
Deuce Scoggins had earned a reputation as a second-rate horse thief who could not tell a mare from a gelding and knew no better than to peddle them in the first town he came to after he stole them. His trail had led Andy across several counties along the Colorado River, but a string of angry victims had made the path easy to follow. Confronted, Deuce had fired one shot in panic, killing Andy’s horse, then had thrown up his hands and begged for mercy. Andy had made him strip the saddle, bridle, and blanket from the dead animal and transfer them to his own.
“Where’d you get this horse?” Andy asked him.
“Won him in a poker game.”
Andy doubted that. Deuce was not smart enough to win a poker game. He had stolen this horse like he had stolen just about everything else he had. Deuce’s sweat-streaked shirt was much too large, loosely draped over thin shoulders, the grime-edged cuffs almost covering his dirty hands. He had probably lifted it from somebody’s clothesline.
Andy asked, “Did you ever think about gettin’ a job and makin’ an honest livin’?”
“Work? I tried once. Ain’t much I can do good enough that anybody’ll pay me for it.”
“You’re not very good at this, either.”
Andy wondered if he was being fair, comparing Deuce’s intelligence with that of a jackrabbit. He might not be giving the rabbit enough credit.
Deuce grumbled, “Even an Indian would treat a man better than this.”
“You don’t know Indians.” Andy did. Through several of his boyhood years he had lived among the Comanches. “Be glad you don’t know them. They’d make it a mighty short acquaintance.”
The afternoon was almost done when they rounded a bend in the wagon road and saw the crossroads town ahead. Its largest buildings were a courthouse, a new jail, and a church.
Deuce brightened, seeing that his long walk was almost over. He said, “I heard their old jailhouse got burned down. It wasn’t no nice place. I was in it once.”
“Too bad you didn’t go in the church instead.”
“Can’t you take these handcuffs off before we hit town? It’s embarrassin’ to let people see me this way.”
“A little embarrassment might be good for you. There was a time when they would’ve necked you to a tree limb. As it is, they’ll likely just send you to the penitentiary.”
“I already been there. It ought to be against the law to put a man in a hellhole like that.”
Sheriff Tom Blessing stood in the doorway of the redbrick jail. Recognizing Andy, he grinned broadly and raised his big right hand in greeting. He looked more like a farmer than a lawman, for indeed he was a farmer first. Despite his years he still had the muscled body of a blacksmith. “Bringin’ me a guest, Andy?”
Andy grinned back at him. “I hated for your new jailhouse to stand empty. The taxpayers have put a big investment in it.”
Andy dreaded the handshake because Tom could bend a horseshoe double, and he could break the bones in a man’s hand. He had been sheriff here so long that many people in town could not remember anyone else serving in that office. He showed no sign that he was ready to yield any ground to his age. He said, “Come on in here, Deuce. I’ve got a nice cell with your name on it, all swept out and waitin’ for you.”
Deuce sounded like a lost soul crying in the wilderness. “I’m hungry and I’m thirsty, and this Ranger has wore my feet down plumb to the bone.”
Tom offered no comfort. “Write a letter to the governor.” He led Deuce past barred iron doors and pointed him to a cell. When Deuce was inside, Tom slammed the door hard. That reverberating impact always reminded Andy of a gallows trapdoor dropping. There was something coldly final about it.
Tom told Deuce, “I’ll bring you a bucket of water directly. There’s a slop jar under the cot. Make yourself at home.” He winked at Andy.
Deuce was wanted in several counties, but Andy had brought him here because this was the nearest jail, and the sun was almost down. He did not care to risk camping with the prisoner on the trail. Here he could get a good night’s sleep without worrying that Deuce might try to escape. Tom would keep the horse thief in custody until the several counties that wanted him sorted out their priorities.
Tom asked, “Did he give you any trouble?”
“Not after he shot my horse. He went to blubberin’. Thought I was fixin’ to kill him. I let him keep on thinkin’ so till I got the cuffs on him.”
“Some Rangers would’ve shot him for killin’ their horse. Whose is that you’re ridin’?”
“No tellin’. Somebody’s probably lookin’ for him.”
“I’ll check my notices.” Tom fingered through a stack of papers on his desk. “I got a message for you somewhere. Yeah, here it is.” He handed a paper to Andy. “Your captain sent a wire to all the sheriffs around here, not knowin’ just where you’d turn up. Wants you to report in to him.”
Andy felt uneasy, wondering what the captain might want. Maybe the state’s finances had turned tight again and the Ranger force was being trimmed. It had happened often before. His several years of service were no guarantee that he would escape the next cut.
He asked, “Reckon the telegraph office is still open?”
“I expect so. The operator’s not anxious to go home of an evenin’. His wife’s been burnin’ the beans lately on account of him bein’ a sorry poker player.”
Andy mentally composed a brief message on his way down the street. In the telegraph office he wrote it out on paper, reporting the capture of Scoggins. He read it over and penciled out every word it could spare. The state disliked paying for long messages, so Ranger reports tended to be spare on detail. He remembered one Farley Brackett had sent: Five fugitives met, three arrested, two buried.
He told the telegraph operator, “If I get a reply, I’ll be stayin’ the night at the jail.”
“I’ll fetch it over soon as it comes.”
Andy stayed to watch him tap out the message. He still marveled at the progress he had seen in just the few years he had been a member of the Rangers. It seemed unreal that he could write a few lines here and know they would be received miles away in an instant. The telegraph had done much to tighten up law enforcement across Texas. Word of a fugitive could race past him and alert officers to intercept him down the road.
Andy could not imagine how it might ever get much better than that.
Back at the jail he found Tom standing in front of the woodstove. The sheriff said, “I’m heatin’ some leftover beans and corn bread for the prisoner, but I expect you’ll want somethin’ better. I’ll go with you down to the eatin’ joint soon as I get Deuce taken care of.”
Tom had a farm a few miles out of town, but he often spent the night in the jail rather than make the ride twice, once out and then back in the morning.
Andy said, “If it wasn’t already so late I’d ride out and pay a visit to Rusty Shannon. Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Tom smiled at the mention of the red-haired former Ranger. “I used to worry a right smart about Rusty. He pined away for a long time after Josie Monahan died. He’s fared some better since he made up his mind to marry her sister Alice. She’s been like a tonic to him.”
“He deserves a run of good luck for a change. He had enough bad to do for a lifetime.” Rusty had been like a brother to the orphaned Andy, teaching, counseling, providing a benchmark when Andy seemed about to lose his way. “If it wasn’t for Rusty I don’t know where I’d be now. In jail, like as not. Or dead.”
Tom had a benevolent smile his prisoners seldom saw. “You never were that bad of a kid. All you needed was guidance.”
Andy had been taken by Comanche raiders when he was a small boy. They raised him until he fell back into Texan hands at about the time his voice started to change. His reintroduction to the white man’s world had exposed him to many pitfalls. Even now, in his midtwenties, he sometimes found himself facing situations where the choice was difficult to make. He had always leaned heavily on Rusty’s advice. When Rusty was not around, he tried to visualize what Rusty would do.
He said, “Too bad Deuce Scoggins didn’t have somebody like Rusty to point the way for him when he was young.”
Tom shrugged. “Might not’ve made any difference. There’s some people that nobody can help. They’ve got no skill and no trade. They’re too shiftless for honest work, and every time they come to a fork in the road they turn the wrong direction. I’ve seen a lot like Deuce, driftin’ to God knows where. I’ve got to watch myself so I don’t get to thinkin’ the whole world is that way.” Tom’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been a Ranger for a good while now. You ever find yourself gettin’ cynical?”
Andy had to think a minute before he remembered what cynical meant. “I still find there’s more good folks than bad ones. If I try, I can even feel a little sorry for Deuce.”
“Don’t tell him so. It might encourage him to get worse.”
The telegraph operator found Andy sitting with Tom at a table in the restaurant, hungrily emptying a bowl of thick beef stew. He waved a sheet of paper. “Got a reply to your message. Thought you’d want to see it right away.”
Andy read it slowly, his finger tracing the lines. Rusty had been more successful in teaching him about farming and being a Ranger than about reading and writing.
“Any answer?” the operator asked.
“Just say, ‘Will comply.’”
That ought to be short enough to satisfy the money counters, he thought.
The operator picked up a biscuit from the table and took a big bite of it as he went out the door. Tom asked, “New orders?”
Andy nodded. “Captain says our company is bein’ cut again. Says headquarters in Austin wants to reassign me to the Mexican border.”
Tom frowned. “If you’ve ever thought about resignin’, this might be the time. A man can get killed down there.”
“A man can get killed anywhere. Deuce might’ve shot me if he hadn’t hit my horse instead.”
“But it’s like a holy war along the Rio Grande. Been that way since the battle of the Alamo and doesn’t show any sign it’s fixin’ to change. You’re automatically somebody’s enemy on sight. It just depends on how light or dark your face is.”
“Sounds like the Indian wars.”
“The Indian wars are over with. This one’s not. Do you speak any Mexican?”
Andy swallowed a mouthful of stew. “Just a few cusswords I’ve picked up.”
“You’ll have every chance to use them, and probably pick up a bunch more.”
The captain had not given Andy a deadline for showing up in Austin. Because the horse he had taken from Deuce was undoubtedly stolen, he left it in Tom’s custody and bought one at the livery barn. Rangers were obliged to furnish their own horses, but the state was supposed to pay for one killed in the line of duty. Andy trusted that he would be reimbursed. If not, he would still eat, though it might be a while before he could afford a new hat or a pair of boots.
Tom approved of the black horse. He rubbed his big hand down the back and the shoulder and finally patted the animal’s neck. “Got long, strong legs. He’ll serve you well in a chase.”
“I hope I’m the one that does the chasin’.”
“If not, you’ll sure be glad for those good legs.”
* * *
WHEN ANDY PREPARED to leave town the next morning, Tom said, “Sorry I couldn’t provide you a featherbed.”
The jail cot had been hard as a cement floor.
Andy smiled. “At least the price was right.”
Tom said, “I’ll ride with you as far as Shanty’s farm. Then I’ll be cuttin’ off and goin’ home.”
“I’m glad for the company.”
“If they send you by San Antonio, be sure to go and visit the Alamo. It’ll help you understand the trouble you’ll run into when you get to the Rio Grande.”
Riding down the street, Andy saw two women pull a buggy up near a general store.
Tom said, “That’s Bethel Brackett and her mother.”
“I know.” Andy hesitated, wondering if he should ride over and greet them. He realized they had seen him, so he had no choice. “Give me a minute, Tom.”
Tom smiled. “Take all the time you want. If it was me and I was thirty years younger, I’d take the whole mornin’.”
Dismounting, Andy extended his hands to help the older woman down. She said, “We had no idea you were in town, Andy.”
“Passin’ through on duty. You’re lookin’ fine, Mrs. Brackett.”
He turned toward the younger woman, who had been driving the horses. Bethel seemed reluctant at first to accept his help. “Andy Pickard, I ought not to speak to you.”
“What did I do?”
“It’s what you don’t do. You don’t ever come to see a girl. You could be dead and I wouldn’t know about it for six months.”
He thought her pretty, even if at this moment she was being petulant. He said, “If I ever die, I’ll write you a letter and let you know.”
“You could’ve let me know you were here.”
“Didn’t get in till late yesterday. Can’t stay. I’ve got orders to report to Austin.”
She frowned. “Even my brother Farley breaks down and sends us a few lines every six months or so. I’d write to you if I knew where you’d be.”
“Half the time I don’t know that myself.” Andy could not tell whether she was angry or just a bit hurt.
She turned at the door. “If you run into my brother somewhere, tell him Mother and I are all right.” She went inside, leaving him embarrassed and not knowing what to do about it.
Tom had watched quietly. He drew in beside Andy and said, “That little girl thinks a lot of you.”
“Hard to tell it, the way she acts.”
“A woman likes to have some attention paid to her, and you ain’t done it. She’d follow you in a minute if you was to just ask her.”
“Follow me to what? A tent camp in the brush with a Ranger company? She was raised better than that.”
“You won’t be a Ranger forever. Sooner or later you’ll get a bellyful of cold camps and short rations. You’ll start lookin’ for a place to light.”
“I don’t know as I could ever be a farmer like Rusty. Followin’ a mule down a corn row is too slow a life for me.”
“Lots of Rangers go in for sheriffin’ when they get tired of the service. They can uphold the law and still sleep in a decent bed most nights. If you was to decide to give it a try I’d hire you as a deputy.”
“Much obliged, Tom, but so far I’m satisfied with what I’m doin’.”
* * *
A FORMER SLAVE, Shanty York had inherited a small farm when his owner died. At first he had trouble keeping it because some neighbors objected to a black man’s being a landowner. Several of them burned his cabin one night. Rusty and Tom and other friends rebuilt it and none too gently elevated Shanty’s antagonists to a higher level of tolerance.
The old man looked frail. Nevertheless, he was working in his garden when Andy and Tom rode up. He seemed always to be busy so long as there was daylight to work by. Shanty took off an unraveling old straw hat and wiped a tattered sleeve across a black face shining with sweat. His broad smile displayed a solid row of white teeth. So far as Andy knew, he still had all the ones God had given him. “Mr. Tom! Andy! You-all git down and grab ahold of this hoe awhile.”
He reached out his hand, and each man took it. For most people Shanty would precede their names with Mr., as he did with Tom. But he had known Andy since the day Rusty had brought him home, a hurt and frightened boy who spoke only Comanche. Shanty had helped care for Andy’s broken leg and patiently coached him word by word into remembering his forgotten English.
Tom exchanged a few pleasantries, then rode on toward his own farm. Shanty said, “You’ll stay and eat with me, won’t you, Andy?”
Andy said, “I wish I could, but I’ve got orders. Just want to drop by and see Rusty before I go.”
Shanty kept smiling. “You don’t need to worry none about Mr. Rusty. He’s doin’ fine, him and Miz Alice. I don’t know as they’ve told anybody yet, but she’s in a family way.”
Andy chuckled. “The old rusty-haired son of a gun. I didn’t know he still had it in him.”
“It’s in Miz Alice now. She glows like the sunrise.”
It was useless to ask Shanty how he was doing. If he were on his deathbed he would declare that he was fine. His face gave little clue to his real age, but his short gray hair and the droop of his shoulders showed that he was getting old. Andy asked, “Anything I can send you from Mexico?”
“Any necessaries, I can get right here to home. Can’t think of nothin’ I’d want from way off yonder.”
“The Rio Grande is pretty far, all right.”
“Too far for these weary old bones. You be careful you don’t come back speakin’ Mexican. Took us long enough to get you over speakin’ Comanche.”
Andy reached into his saddlebag and lifted out a small sack. “Brought you some rock candy to sweeten your disposition.” He knew the old man loved candy, but Shanty rarely splurged on such luxuries.
Shanty’s eyes teared a little as he struggled for words. “I thank you mighty kindly.”
Andy stalled, not wanting to leave. Every time he rode away he wondered if this might be the last time he saw the old man. He asked, “Would you like me to milk your cow for you before I go?”
“She’s dried up for a little while. She’s in a family way too.” Shanty stared at him, his eyes serious. “You be careful, boy. They tell me there’s lots of wicked goin’s-on down along that river.”
“There’s wicked goin’s-on everywhere.” Andy reconsidered what he had said and wondered if his experience with lawbreakers was making him a little cynical. Tom Blessing had warned him about that.
He turned once in the saddle to wave at Shanty, then reined the black horse in the direction of Rusty Shannon’s farm. The familiar terrain brought back memories, most of them pleasant, a few he did not want to dwell upon. Not far from here he had been part of an unlucky Comanche raiding party, come down from the high plains to steal horses. In a skirmish with Rangers and settlers his horse had fallen on him. Rusty had recognized that he was white and took him to his farm to heal. At first Andy had given him reason to regret his generosity, trying to escape back to his Comanche friends. He had eventually realized that the Indians had reached the end of their time as free-roaming horsemen of the plains. He had gradually accepted his place in the white world, though sometimes he still found himself thinking like a Comanche, feeling like a Comanche. He leaned heavily upon instincts that were sometimes so strong they puzzled him.
Like now, for instance. He sensed a horseman’s approach before he saw him. As he crossed over a rise in the wagon road he saw a man on horseback, moving diagonally toward him. He recognized one of Tom Blessing’s brothers. They stopped and visited a few minutes, but Andy did not mention what his instinct had told him. Most people did not know how to accept it.
Riding by Rusty’s field, he saw that the corn was tall and green, promising a good yield. He remembered a time he had found the crops beaten into the ground by a hail so devastating that Rusty had reenlisted in the Rangers awhile to make up for the financial loss.
Alice stood in the cabin’s open dog run, slicing a ham suspended from a rafter. She did not see him right away. She was a slender woman with light brown hair almost to her waist. He had always considered her handsome, though her sister Josie might have been prettier. Josie’s death had dealt Rusty a blow that for a time threatened to break his spirit. Eventually he had worked his way up from the darkness and had come to accept Alice.
Andy had been pleased, though he had one reservation: he feared Rusty might regard her as second best, a substitute; that Josie still held first place in his heart. Alice deserved better than that.
She gave Andy a sisterly hug, then pushed him off at arm’s length to look him over. “Don’t the Rangers ever feed you? You look like you haven’t eaten in a month.”
He grinned. “I eat Indian style. When I can get it, I eat all I can hold. When I can’t get it, I live off of what I ate before.”
“I’ll slice some more ham and see how much you can eat for supper. I’ve managed to put some weight on Rusty. If you’ll stay around a week or so I’ll fatten you up too.”
“Can’t. I’ve been ordered to Austin.”
She appeared disappointed. “A few days of company would be good for Rusty. He hasn’t been away from the farm much since plantin’ time.”
“I guess he figures he did enough travelin’ when he was a Ranger. A man can get awfully tired of it.”
“Don’t you get tired of it, Andy?”
“Now and then. But soon as I rest up a little I’m ready to go again.”
“There’ll come a day when you’ll decide it’s been enough, like Rusty did. You’ll want to settle down.” Her eyebrows lifted. “Are you goin’ to see Bethel Brackett before you leave?”
Andy looked down. “Already saw her, in town.” He abruptly changed the subject. “Where’s Rusty at?”
Her eyes told him she still wanted to talk about Bethel, but she said, “He went lookin’ for a heifer. He thinks she’s had her calf, and she’s hidin’ it out.”
“Summer calves can be hard to raise.”
“A farmer is ready to take a rain or a calf any time.”
She went into the kitchen side of the cabin. “I’ll start supper when I see Rusty come to the barn. How about some coffee while you wait?”
“I can get it myself.”
Rusty had done his bachelor cooking at the fireplace, but Andy noted that a new iron stove had been installed. A shop-made table and sturdy wooden chairs replaced the crude homemade kitchen furniture that he remembered.
Coming up in the world, he thought.
He watched Alice, trying to discern sign of her pregnancy. All he saw was a brightness he had not found in her eyes before. He said, “Shanty tells me there’ll be three of you by-and-by.”
She looked startled. “How could he know? We haven’t told anybody.”
“Guess he saw it for himself. He said you glow like the sunrise.” He studied her face. “I believe he was right.”
“I have reason enough. I’m happy here. I couldn’t ask for things to be any better.”
Andy looked at the mantel. Always before, he had seen a picture of Josie there. It was gone now.
Alice turned to see where his gaze was directed. She said, “Lookin’ for Josie’s picture? Rusty took it down. He said he didn’t need a picture to remember, or to keep pushin’ the past into his face. Said yesterday’s gone. Today is all we’ve got.”
“You think he really sees it that way?”
He saw a flicker of doubt in her eyes. “Sometimes when he holds me I can’t help feelin’ that he’s thinkin’ of Josie.” She blinked and turned away. “I’ve tried real hard to be a good wife to him. Lord knows he deserves it. I wouldn’t ask him to forget Josie, ever. But maybe with time I can be as much a part of him as she ever was. Even more.”
“Maybe you already are.”
“No, not yet, but I will be. I’m a Monahan, and you’ve never seen a Monahan give up.”
Andy heard a milk cow bawling. He walked to the door and saw that Rusty had ridden up to the log barn. He said, “I’ll see if he needs any help.”
“Tell him supper will be ready by the time he gets through with the milkin’.”
Rusty pumped Andy’s hand as if they had not seen each other in years. It had been only a few months since Andy had ridden by here on his way to an assignment. They exchanged small talk about crops and rain and local politics. Andy squinted. “I see a little more gray in your hair.”
“You’ve got the sun in your eyes.”
“Alice looks fine.”
“She does, doesn’t she?”
Andy pointed toward the milk cow. “You’ll be needin’ all the milk Old Boss can give. I understand you-all are expectin’.”
Rusty was surprised. “Alice told you?”
“Shanty did. That old man sees things nobody else can.”
“He ought to. He’s been around since the Colorado River was just a creek. What brings you over this way?”
Andy told him he was due for reassignment to a company on the Rio Grande. That brought concern to Rusty’s eyes. He repeated what Tom Blessing had said: “A man can get himself killed down there.”
“A little risk never stopped you.”
“It would now.” Rusty glanced toward his cabin. “I’ve got responsibilities.”
“You’ve got a responsibility to yourself. If you stay too long you’re liable to get all shot up and have to quit anyway. Then you may be too crippled to do much of anything else.”
“I’m doin’ a job that needs to be done. When I stop feelin’ that way I’ll turn it back to them like you did.”
Jericho’s Road copyright © 2004 by the Estate of Elmer Kelton
Hard Trail to Follow copyright © 2007 by the Estate of Elmer Kelton