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The horse tracks appeared suddenly out of the chaparral, milled in brief disorder, then struck northward up the crooked wagon trail that snaked its dusty way through the mesquite and catclaw and prickly pear.
Coming upon the tracks, Frio Wheeler reined his horse to a quick stop. His hand dropped instinctively toward the stock of the saddlegun beneath his leg. He peered through narrowed eyes at the trail, which disappeared into the rippling late-summer heatwaves and hostile brush. He took off his flat-brimmed black hat to wipe dust-thickened perspiration onto his sleeve and turned to the Mexican who rode beside him.
“What do you make of it, Blas?”
Sombreroed Blas Talamantes turned in his big-horned Mexico saddle to look at the tracks as they led out of the mesquite. Sweat-soaked, his homemade cotton shirt clung to his back.
“Twelve, maybeso fifteen horses.”
Frio Wheeler stepped from the saddle and squatted on the ground for a close look. He fingered the tracks. Not very old—an hour or two, maybe. Made since daylight, at least. “A few years ago, I’d’ve said Indians.”
Blas Talamantes shook his head and pointed. “A piece of cigar, Frio, over there. Vaqueros, maybe?”
“Maybe cowboys. More likely renegades from across the Rio.” Wheeler swung back onto his horse, took a grim look across the drought-stricken country, and brought the saddlegun up into his lap. “Best listen hard, Blas, and keep our eyes peeled. There’s a war on.”
This was the Rio Grande country of Texas in 1863, a small extension of the bloody conflict ablaze upon the battlefields of Virginia and Tennessee, upon the green rolling hills of Gettysburg. Here on the underbelly of the Confederacy lay the South’s only open border, its only port free of the Union blockade. Along this thorn-studded trail to the Rio Grande, dust boiled high over trains of mule-drawn wagons and ox-drawn carts, carrying their heavy burden of Confederate cotton southward to be sold across the river in Mexico. Moving north, the same trains would carry war supplies for the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy—rifles, powder and bar lead, sulphur, mercury, and cloth.
At the end of this trail across the barren sands and the forbidding chaparral waited the twin cities of the Rio—Brownsville on the Texas bank, Matamoros on the Mexican. Once sleepy border towns, separated by the sluggish waters of the muddy Bravo, they had awakened to the rattle of sabers and the boom of cannon. They were swollen now and bustling with the international commerce of war. Gold coin clinked to the groan of wagon wheels, and tequila spilled in the streets.
Though this was a long way from Virginia, men rode with eyes open and their guns ready to use, for the hatreds of war had come to the Rio. By the hundreds, Texans with Union sympathies had fled southward across the river. Some had gone north by boat from Bagdad and other Mexican ports to join Lincoln’s forces and wear the blue. Others remained in Mexico. Many of these waited impatiently in Matamoros, listening eagerly for war news, looking across the river with longing eyes at a homeland that now had become an enemy. Sometimes, in league with border bandits of either Anglo or Mexican blood, these men swam the river at night to raid and burn in the name of the Union, then ride back to sanctuary across that narrow, muddy boundary. Renegados, the Confederate Texans called them, using the Mexican name. It was a time of indistinct loyalties and confused hatreds, when friends had become enemies and old enemies had somehow become friends—a mixed-up time when all the rules had been lost.…
* * *
FRIO WHEELER TOUCHED big-roweled Mexican spurs to his sorrel’s ribs and moved him into an easy trot. Wheeler sat upright in the saddle, shoulders squared with a pride born of his place and time. He was in his early thirties, though it would have been hard to guess his age from looking at him. He was a man seldom under roof. His skin was burned Mexican-brown from the scorching sun of Texas’s ancient Camino Real, the Royal Road, and from wagon trails through the Wild Horse Desert and the chaparral. His brown hair, which needed a cutting, was beginning to show a glint of gray. Turkey tracks had bitten deep at the corners of his blue eyes, for he habitually squinted against the glare of the sun-drenched land.
Riding beside him, Blas Talamantes was the more spectacular. His high-peaked Mexican sombrero was twice as wide as Wheeler’s plain old black hat. His brown leather breeches were decorated with lacing laboriously sewn by a loving woman’s nimble fingers. Wheeler had allowed his big spurs to darken with grime and tarnish, but Talamantes had kept his own polished to a bright silver. Both men rode with collars and sleeves buttoned against the sun.
There was much about them that was similar—size, build, and age. By a like token there was much that was different—their upbringing, their heritage of two cultures a world apart. To Wheeler, the first consideration always was to tend to the business at hand. To Blas, business was not unimportant, but a man should also seek out whatever beauty, love, and adventure the day might yield, for there might not be a tomorrow; and if there were no tomorrow, the business would have been of little import.
The two men had ridden together a long time now, and the things about them that were different had been put aside. Wheeler was patrón, and Talamantes was the man hired. But over and beyond that, they were compadres, so that it was not always apparent who was patrón and who was empleado.
Blas Talamantes had the better ears. “Frio, I hear shooting.”
Frio stopped and slowly turned his head, seeking the sound. It came to him on the hot breeze from uptrail.
“Renegados,” he guessed, his mouth drawn tight. “They’ve hit some small outfit that’s short of men.”
“Maybe yours,” said Blas.
They rode on with their rifles ready. The firing was nearer now, dropping down to a few sporadic shots and eventually stopping altogether. Presently they saw white smoke begin to spiral upward over the brush.
“Cotton smoke,” Frio said. “I expect that’s some CSA bales that’ll never make it to Matamoros.”
They heard hoofbeats drumming toward them. Frio jerked his head to one side, signaling Blas to pull out of the trail. “Two of us couldn’t dent them much,” he said, “but they could plow us under.”
This was a hostile country where almost everything went armed for its own protection, whether it be plant life or animal. The thick mesquites and catclaws at trailside were white-flecked with cotton scraps that their tough thorns had ripped from bale-laden wagons. Frio and Blas sought a way through this brush and the thick growth of man-tall prickly pear. They dismounted, rifles in hand, and stood with fingers over their horses’ nostrils. The sound of the hooves came louder, and Frio could glimpse a flash of movement.
Watching over a tall clump of pear, he saw the men pass by in a jog trot. He saw the black-clad Mexican in front, wearing a sombrero so wide that in the afternoon sun it cast a shadow to his waist. He saw the two Anglos who moved side by side, half a length behind the Mexican. Trailing these, a dozen more riders straggled along, all of them apparently Mexican. They led four strings of mules, these still wearing the harness with which they had drawn the cotton wagons. Trace chains rattled from the steady swing of their pace.
The men passed, but the gray dust still hovered a while behind them, drifting at last out into the heavy brush.
Frio Wheeler’s eyes glowed with helpless anger. “My mules.” He swung back into the saddle, Blas following suit. “Blas, did you see who was ridin’ out in front?”
Blas nodded, his mouth grim. “Florencio Chapa! Bandido muy malo, with a heart like a grinder’s stone.” He paused, looking at the ground. “The gringos, you see who they are?”
Gringo could be a fighting word on the border if used in the wrong tone. But there was no offense in the matter-of-fact way Blas said it.
Frio’s jaw ridged with regret for what he had seen. He knew from Blas’s eyes that the Mexican had known the men. “You mean Tom McCasland? Yes, I recognized him.”
“He is your best friend, Frio. Or he was.” The last came more like a question.
“War changes things, Blas.”
“That other gringo, he is Bige Campsey. In the old days Tom McCasland would never ride with a man like Campsey.”
Frio shook his head. “Like I said, war makes a man do lots of things. Come on, we best go see how bad the damage is.”
They found five wagons strung out in the trail. The one in the lead, loaded with burning cotton bales, collapsed in a shower of sparks as Frio and Blas rode up. The other four wagons were being saved, though the Mexican teamsters were letting themselves be scorched to push burning bales out of the wagon beds and onto the ground. Without asking questions, Frio and Blas pitched in to help. They tossed their rawhide ropes over the tops of smoldering bales and spurred their horses out, dallying the ropes around their saddlehorns and pulling the bales down from the wagons.
The raiders had missed dumping some of the water barrels. A sandy-haired young Texan was running back and forth, dipping water and pitching it onto a wagon, dousing flames. With the bales out of the way, some of the Mexican freighting crew shoveled dirt over the fires, slowly snuffing them out.
Cotton smoke is a hard kind to take, and the choking smell of it clung awhile from the still-smouldering bales that lay about in scattered confusion. Cotton-bale fires were difficult to kill, but Frio thought most of these were under control. He had already given up on the sixteen bales in the collapsed lead wagon. A few others also were too far gone to save, for the stubborn fires would continue to eat away like cancer within the heart of the bales.
Without taking time for a close look, Frio decided four of the five wagons could be salvaged. Damage appeared to range from slight to rather bad, but none beyond repair. They were the big prairie-schooner kind of freight wagons with a twenty-four-foot bed, the hind wheels almost six feet tall, the front ones just short of five—solid-iron axles, the wagon tires six inches wide and an inch thick. Hell-and-high-water wagons, these were. In this dry country they saw mostly hell.
A Mexican teamster came leading ten mules out of an opening in the brush. The only team that had been saved, they still wore their harness. The mules danced wild-eyed, smelling the smoke. But the teamster was talking to them in fast-flowing Spanish that included some profanity, and they weren’t going to give him much trouble.
Frio wiped grimy sweat onto his sleeve. He looked around for the sandy-haired boy. “What about it, Happy? Anybody hurt?”
Happy Jack Fleet had only recently come of age, and the excitement of the skirmish still played in his eyes. There was, indeed, a happy look on his smoke-smudged face. That the kid had actually enjoyed this fight came as a surprise to Frio, though on reflection he knew it shouldn’t. From the beginning, Happy had struck Frio as the kind who would charge a bear with a slingshot and laugh as he did it. He wasn’t old enough to have had the wildness stomped out of him.
Happy said, “They hit one man in the shoulder. Antonio Garza, on the lead wagon. Nobody killed.”
Frio nodded, glad it hadn’t been worse. “Guess it’s foolish to ask what happened.”
“They came on us all of a sudden.” Happy’s voice still carried a remnant of the fight’s intoxication. “Wasn’t time for us to circle up, even if there’d been room to.” He glanced at the pear and thorny brush that closed in tight alongside the trail. “All we could do was pile off and take to the pear. They had things pretty much to suit theirselves, except that we kept them dodgin’ some. They set fire to the cotton and cut loose the teams, all but the last one. We had it too well covered.”
Frio said, “I expect you did the best you could.”
Happy’s eyes laughed a little. “Them Mexicans of yours are teamsters, not soldiers. They couldn’t hit the side of a barn if they was locked up in it.”
“I hired them to skin mules. Didn’t figure on them havin’ to fight.”
“You may need to figure on it from now on.”
They walked over to where the wounded man had been stretched out on the ground, a dirty blanket under him. The head teamster, known as the caporal, was trying to slow the blood and get a look at the bullet hole. In Spanish he said, “Flaco, build a fire. We have to take the bullet out.”
The wounded man groaned his dread, but he made no further protest. The Mexican people had a way of shrugging their shoulders and taking whatever misfortune fate chose to hand them, and there was usually enough of it to go around. The fire was built and the water put on to boil. When all was ready, the caporal turned to Frio.
“Patrón, you have the steadiest hands of any man I know. Will you do what has to be done?”
They had brought up all the tequila that was left on the train. It wasn’t much, for the trip to Brownsville was nearly over. But the wounded man was so drunk by the time the operation began that he had little idea what was happening. He fainted shortly, and the job went with ease from there on. Done. Frio let the wound bleed a little to wash it clean and turned the rest of the task over to the caporal.
Happy Jack had watched without a comment. Now he turned away with Frio. “They’re a hardy breed, these Mexicans. You can’t kill one of them with a double-bitted ax. Small wonder there’s so many of them.”
To the people who were acquainted with him around here, the kid was simply Happy Jack, a cowboy and nothing more. He had come riding down one day from what in that time was known as West Texas—a little way beyond San Antonio. He bore a cowboy’s quiet distrust of anyone who didn’t ride a horse. With the rash pride of youth he felt he was a man sufficient unto himself.
“I guess you got a look at your ranch,” he said to Frio.
Frio nodded. He had started these five loaded wagons south from San Antonio, then had left them in the rolling live-oak hills. He had ridden ahead at a fast pace to have time for a quick look over his ranch and still catch the wagons before they completed the more than two hundred miles to Brownsville and Matamoros.
Frio Wheeler had drifted down to this region several years ago from his home territory along the Frio River. He had found there was room here; room for a man to grow big if he started early enough and helped push an undeveloped land. Captain Richard King was doing it on his ranch along Santa Gertrudis Creek. Frio had seen no reason he couldn’t do likewise in the brushland and the coastal prairies of the lower Rio Grande. He had brought cattle here and started to build. It had looked as if the future was unlimited. Then had come the war.
It wasn’t that the South didn’t need beef; it did, and desperately. But distance was one of the enemies here. It was one thing to haul cotton and other nonperishables overland a thousand miles and more. It was quite another to drive cattle. It had been tried and abandoned as an impractical job. South Texas cattle had slumped in value. Frio Wheeler had raised a stake and gone to freighting, for this way he could mark time and hang onto his part of the ranch while doing a job that might help bring a Confederate victory. It was a job fully as important as marching off to Virginia with a rifle over his shoulder. The war wouldn’t last forever. The Yankees would soon realize they couldn’t whip the South, and they would come to terms both sides could live with. Then maybe a man could go back to the business of growing, of sweating a civilization out of this region the early Mexicans had called the Desert of the Dead.
Frio managed to see the ranch only occasionally anymore, but Blas Talamantes had stayed there as his caporal. War had drawn away most of the manpower, and they were short-handed. But Blas at least was able to hold Frio’s ranch together. He was getting most of the calves branded, something many ranchers weren’t able to do. The herd was steadily building because there was so little market, so few sold. When this war was over there would be old steers in that brush with horns longer than a man’s arm. Perhaps then, Frio thought, a hungry North might be in the market for beef. No matter what a man thought of Yankees in general, their money spent good.
Now Happy Jack stared regretfully at the burned-up cotton bales and the ruined wagon. “I wish we could have done more, Frio.”
It hurt, but Frio had picked up from the Mexican people some of their ability to shrug and turn their backs upon misfortune. “It’s spilt milk now. What worries me is gettin’ the rest of this cotton to the river with just one team. We’ll have to load one wagon and haul it in. We’ll cache the other wagons and the rest of the cotton bales in the brush till I can get fresh teams back up here. I’ll leave you here in charge, Happy.”
Disappointment came to Happy’s eyes. “You goin’ across the river to Matamoros?”
Frio nodded. “I generally do.”
“That’s where you’ll find the ones that done this. Them two gringos that was sidin’ the bandits, I expect they’ve got a Union flag over their door. I’d like to go help you hunt them.”
Frio shook his head. “Happy, they’re fair game on this side of the river. Over there, they can’t touch us and we can’t touch them. We can’t afford to get Mexico turned against us.”
“Mexico ain’t goin’ to turn against us. She’s makin’ too much money out of the cotton trade.”
“Happy, last year a Unionist by the name of Montgomery joined with some Matamoros bandits on a raid in Zapata County. They killed Isidro Vela, the chief justice. He was well thought of on this side of the river. Some time later a bunch of our boys crossed over the Rio at Bagdad, caught Montgomery, and hung him. Nobody denied that he had earned it, but it almost caused Mexico to close the border. Bad as he needed killin’, it wasn’t worth the cost.
“Sure, it hurts to stand on the riverbank and watch somebody like that runnin’ around loose on the other side. But it works as much in our favor as it does theirs. More, maybe. The Yankees keep all our ports bottled up, but there’s nothin’ they can do about the trade that goes out of a Mexican port. Long as Mexico stays neutral, we all win. She ever changes, we lose.”
Happy Jack pursed his lips. “Then you don’t aim to start no fight with them?”
The young man pushed his hat back and leaned against a wagon wheel, disappointed. “I reckon I’ll stay here. I won’t be missin’ nothin’.”
Bitter Trail copyright © 1962 by the Estate of Elmer Stephen Kelton
Barbed Wire copyright © 1957 by the Estate of Elmer Stephen Kelton; renewal copyright © 1985 by the Estate of Elmer Stephen Kelton