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They rode horseback up Austin’s broad main thoroughfare toward the forbidding antebellum structure which now, ten years after the Civil War, was being denounced in the legislature as the worst firetrap and eyesore in Texas—the capitol building. There were two riders, a big man with a broad-brimmed Mexican border hat and a little man with a short brown beard. A vague military look—something sensed as much as seen, something about the way he carried himself—made it plain that the smaller man was the one in charge.
He rode up almost to the steps and swung down from the saddle. He paused a moment, his thin shoulders pinching as he coughed into one hand. His face was pale and sickly, but his piercing eyes saw all there was to see and gave a hint that behind them a keen mind was running with the whistle tied down. He handed the reins to the big man and said: “Stay close, Sergeant. I have no idea how long I’ll be with the governor.”
Two men idled on the steps, puffing cigars and arguing about an item in a newspaper. One looked up, frowning. “It’s McNelly.” He spoke in a voice the little man could not miss.
“McNelly?” The other snorted. “Ain’t he the one used to work for them damned carpetbag State Police?”
McNelly gave no appearance of hearing until the big man took an angry stride toward the loafers. He turned and said, “No, Sergeant. There’ll be no brawling on the capitol steps. They didn’t say anything, and you didn’t hear it.”
The sergeant glared at the idlers but did not question the order. “Yes, sir, Captain.” He watched Captain McNelly march into the building and out of sight.
The loafers felt that the order was their protection. One said, “The sergeant don’t sound like a carpetbagger to me. Does he to you, Wilse?”
“Naw, he don’t. Where you from, Sergeant?”
Anger stained the big man’s face. He ignored the question until it was thrown at him a second time. “Arkansas,” he replied curtly.
“Arkansas. Well, now, I wouldn’t hardly think there’d be no carpetbaggers from Arkansas. I don’t see any uniform, either. What kind of a sergeant are you, anyway?”
“Ranger sergeant. Texas Rangers.”
“A Texas Ranger from Arkansas. That does beat all, don’t it, Wilse? A carpetbag Texas Ranger sergeant from Arkansas.”
The sergeant put one booted foot forward, caught himself and stepped back, glancing up at the open windows as if certain the captain would see him. Crisply he declared, “War’s been over for ten years. There’s no such of a thing anymore as a carpetbagger. Somethin’ else, Captain never was one. The man who says different is a low-down, yellow-bellied liar. And he hasn’t got the guts to come to the Ranger camp tonight and meet me out past the picket line.”
“If a man was to come around, who would you send out to fight him? That consumptive-looking captain of yours?”
The sergeant moved forward, fists up. The loafer jumped to his feet. “Remember your orders, Sergeant.”
The sergeant’s eyes narrowed, and his voice went quiet, the way the air sometimes does just before a storm breaks loose. “I’ll remember my orders. But I’ll also remember you two. And if you’re not on the picket line tonight to find me, I’ll be around tomorrow to find you.” He looked as if he could drive a nail with his bare hand. The loafers decided they were moths too close to the flame.
He watched, the color still high in his broad face, as the two retreated down the dirt street and disappeared into the open door of a saloon. He led the horses to a shady place and loosened the cinches, then squatted on the ground. There he could watch both the door of the capitol building and the door of the saloon. He would be here a long time, more than likely, but the captain had said wait.
When a man followed McNelly, he learned to rest every time he got the chance, for sometimes there was no rest at all. For a little man, Captain had the devil’s own endurance, except when he was suffering one of his spells.
The sergeant half dozed in the gentle warmth of the spring morning, but every movement at the capitol door caught his eye. He was sure the loafers had not left the saloon, either.
After perhaps two hours, he saw the familiar gaunt figure pass through the doorway and start down the long steps, back straight, thin shoulders held proud. The sergeant led the horses forward. He could tell McNelly was troubled by the way he chewed his unlighted cigar. The sergeant boiled with curiosity, but a man never asked the captain unnecessary questions. If Captain wanted something known, he would tell it. If he chose to keep it to himself, all hell couldn’t prize it out of him. His men learned to watch him and take their cue from his actions. If he ate a good supper, they knew they could figure on sleeping. If he drank coffee and munched a little hardtack, they knew a night ride was coming up, for Captain believed a man traveled best when he rode with his belly lank.
Captain asked, “Do you have any business in Austin that needs settling before we leave, Sergeant?”
The sergeant hadn’t known they were going anywhere, but then, he doubted the governor had called McNelly in to talk about the old days of the Confederacy. “That depends, sir. I take it we’ll be gone before tonight?”
“My orders are to leave when I’m ready. And I’m ready.”
The sergeant frowned. “Well, sir, there is one little piece of business I ought to take care of. Won’t be but a minute or two. I have a small debt that needs settlin’ in that saloon.”
“All right, but no drinking. We’ve got to ride.”
“No drinkin’, sir.” The sergeant dismounted. He held the reins awkwardly until the captain silently reached out for them. Under no circumstances would the sergeant have presumed to ask Captain to hold his horse. He walked into the saloon.
Two minutes later he was back smiling, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand against his shirt. In his left hand he held several black cigars. “For you, Captain. Compliments of the bartender.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. Debt all paid?”
“Paid in full, sir.”
He knew better than to ask where they were going. But there were ways of fishing for an answer. “Spring like this, it could still get chilly up in North Texas. Somebody stole my coat. Reckon I ought to buy me a new one, sir?”
“We’re not heading north.” The little captain’s sharp eyes held a rare glint of dark humor, and the sergeant knew McNelly saw through him. “We’re going south.”
“I didn’t mean to pry, Captain.”
“You had just as well know. I find the rumor is out anyway. The governor has authorized me to recruit new men and build up my force for a cleanup job. It’ll be a dirty one.”
The sergeant struggled against his curiosity, but he couldn’t keep it from showing.
The captain could see. “We’re going all the way to the Rio Grande. Our orders are to clean up the Nueces Strip.”
They called it the Nueces River, but many of those early Texans didn’t know how to spell it, for they were gringos and the word was Spanish, given for the pecans and other nut-bearing trees which grew in wild abundance along its banks. To Anglo ears the name sounded like New Aces, and that was how some of them wrote it.
A map of Texas shows the Nueces is born amid the Edwards Plateau, draining the limestone ridges and the live-oak flats far west of San Antonio. It runs generally south until it comes within less than forty miles of the mud-choked Rio Grande. Then, like a skittish colt wary of a tired old stallion’s uncertain temper, it shies off and quarters south-eastward, ever edging away from the big river. It cuts across the horn-shaped lower tip of Texas and spills itself into the Gulf’s blue waters at the northernmost point of Padre Island, a hundred miles above the mouth of the Rio Grande.
That stretch of coastal prairie and desert wasteland, that parched region of short grass and cactus, mesquite and chaparral lying between the two rivers was known in Texas’ youthful years as the Nueces Strip. By treaty it belonged to Texas, but the original people living there hadn’t written the treaty. Most of them hadn’t even read it. They lived in easy tempo in thatched huts and brush jacales, in rock houses and sun-baked adobes, raising their little patches of corn, running their rangy cattle on God’s own grass. They ate gringo beef when it came handy, for taking from the gringo wasn’t stealing; it was an act of liberation. They worshipped their God with a great devotion and loved their families as fiercely as they hated their enemies. Though they lived in Texas, they considered themselves Mexican. They had no particular allegiance to the government of Mexico, for it changed as often as the moon, but they honored Mother Mexico because they were of la raza, The Race.
Since the Mexican War they had found themselves crowded more and more by the light-skinned extranjeros, the foreigners who came with horses and cattle, with official-looking papers and with tough, badge-wearing rinches on horseback to enforce the foreign words on those papers. Some of the people of la raza retreated across the big river to simmer in anger and futility. Others stayed, for to them the land was as Mexican as themselves, and one did not leave his querencia—his homeland—any more than he would abandon his mother. The more tolerant made friends with individual Anglos, though they distrusted these blue-eyed ones as a race. Mira, hombre, is it not widely known that the gringo has but two aims in this world, to rob the man and to despoil the woman? The gringo, in turn, sometimes found that there was no more loyal friend than a Mexican who liked you, though he was convinced that as a group the “greasers” were untrustworthy. Why, man alive, anybody could tell you the Mexicans were a cut-throat bunch of thieves and liars you couldn’t afford to turn your back on.
Small wonder, then, that for decades a minor, undeclared war flared spasmodically along the Nueces Strip, sometimes fed on the one side by cow thieves and murderers who justified themselves as patriots, fighting for la raza; and fed on the other side by land grabbers and Mexican-haters who eased whatever conscience they may have had by telling themselves this was a holy war that had started with the Alamo.
It reached its peak in the spring of 1875. That was the year of McNelly’s Rangers … of Palo Alto Prairie and Las Cuevas.…
* * *
Vincente de Zavala missed his loop at the last calf’s hind legs, and chunky Bonifacio Holgúin, standing near the mesquite-wood branding fire, began to hoot at him. “Cuidado, muchacho, or you will rope your own neck and strangle yourself. If it were your young wife in your hands instead of that rope, you would not fumble so.”
De Zavala told him in rich and fragrant Spanish to go to hell. He had been dragging these calves out by their heels. This time he built a new loop in his rawhide reata and purposely roped the calf around the neck. It bawled and pitched and kicked. Vincente’s white teeth gleamed in mischief. This, hombre, would give that sugar-eating Bonifacio cause to laugh out of the other side of his mouth.
Tall Lanham Neal cast a quick glance at the young woman who stood watchfully by the branding irons, right hand protected from the heat by a heavy leather glove. Good thing all that hurrawing was covered up in Spanish, he thought, for much of it was ripe and gamey. But on reflection he knew Zoe Daingerfield probably understood every word. She had spent her life among the people of the Nueces Strip.
He shrugged. If she knows what it means, it’s nothing new to her. If she don’t, it won’t do her no harm.
Anyway, he had tried to tell her. He had tried to talk her out of coming with the men on cow hunts like this. It wasn’t for a woman. But old man Griffin Daingerfield was hobbling around waiting for a broken leg to heal, and he had declared that one of the Daingerfields needed to be out looking after the family interests. The old man wouldn’t have been on that crutch in the first place if he hadn’t bullheadedly refused to let Vincente take the vinegar out of a fresh and rested young horse for him. Griffin, in short, was a great deal older than he was ready to admit.
There had been only one Daingerfield son, and he had been taken by the fever the year the Yankees tried to put their gunboats up the Rio Grande to stop Confederate cotton from crossing the Mexican border. Old Griffin had tried to bring up his daughter to take the boy’s place and be able to inherit the ranch someday. He had done a fair-to-middlin’ job of it, Lanham Neal thought. She was a cowgirl; you had to give her that. When she got her knee hooked over the horn of that sidesaddle—hidden by heavy riding skirts, of course—there wasn’t any shaking her loose; she rode like a grass burr. She knew the cow. She could even rope a little, when she had to, though roping from a sidesaddle was not widely encouraged.
The hell of it was—and this must have bothered the old man—she still looked like a woman. A pretty good-looking woman, as far as a brush-country cowboy like Lanham Neal was concerned. Maybe she wouldn’t have caused any stampede in a place like San Antone where pretty women grew like peaches on a tree, but down here she was like a single blossom on an empty prairie. The old man had chased many a smitten cowhand away from his door, forbidding him ever to let his shadow fall there again. Lanham Neal had stolen many a long and wishful look at Zoe Daingerfield’s quiet face, and now and again she looked back at him. But old Griffin never caught him at it; Lanham was careful about that.
Jobs weren’t easy to come by these days; in this border country money was tight. Money was always tight for Lanham Neal. Seemed to him sometimes that hard luck dogged him the way a skulking wolf will trail after a lame bull, waiting to see him stumble. Seemed like every time Lanham had something going his way—something that looked as if it could work out well—luck would turn on him and kick him in the face. This job was good. Lanham didn’t want to lose it, not even for a smile or two from Zoe Daingerfield.
Lanham stood aside and gave Bonifacio the honor of grabbing the fighting calf and flanking it, for it served him right. Bonifacio’s heckling had needled Vincente into bringing this one by the neck instead of by the heels. Bonifacio swore profusely, threw his knee into the ribs as the calf jumped, then with great exertion brought it over and down hard on its side. The calf’s breath gusted out with a harsh grunt. Lanham grabbed one hind leg and pulled it toward him, dropping on his rump and hooking the other hind leg firmly with the heel of his boot. With Bonifacio holding one end and Lanham the other, the calf was helpless.
Vincente grinned down from the saddle as he recoiled the reata. “Bonifacio, if you talked less you would have more strength to wrestle the cattle.”
Bonifacio’s answer was unrepeatable. Zoe Daingerfield, unconcerned, walked out with a hot running iron in the gloved hand. She ran the letter D onto the calf’s hip, then added a diagonal line that made it the Daingerfield Slash D. She carried the iron back to the fire, peeled off the glove and returned with a sharp knife. She earmarked the calf with a deep underbit, then bent over and with two strokes of the blade turned the bull calf into a steer.
Lanham looked away uncomfortably as she did it. That was a job a woman shouldn’t even see, he thought, much less actually do. Lots of people would have looked at her in horror. What were these young women coming to?
If it bothered Zoe, she didn’t show it. Old Griffin had trained her to look at life with both eyes wide open and not cover facts with a veil. She wiped the blade clean on an old handkerchief. “Last one, Lanham?”
Lanham was the caporál here, the strawboss. But vaqueros like Vincente and Bonifacio didn’t really need much supervision. They could have done about as well without him, and Lanham knew it. He only hoped old Griffin didn’t come to the same conclusion. “Yes, ma’am, we’re through. Your daddy is twelve calves richer.”
“Twelve calves.” She didn’t sound particularly pleased. She watched as Bonifacio opened the gate and the cattle trotted warily out in single file, a couple of the cows feinting at Bonifacio with their sharp horns. “How many of those calves will we raise, and how many will be stolen across the river by the Cortinistas?”
Lanham shook his head. “Quién sabe?” His frowning gaze trailed the cattle. They clattered off toward the protection of a mesquite thicket, where the bewildered calves would pause to lick their wounds and the cows would make a motherly fuss over them. Lanham knew that for the drive the four riders had made today, they ought to have picked up a lot more cattle. Zoe had called it. The river, that was the trouble.
The Rio Grande lay just a few miles south. A bandido didn’t have to be skilled at his trade to swim a horse across there in the dark of night, round up whatever stock came easy to hand and take them back over. They had done it in a minor way for years and years. Now they were doing it wholesale, riding across in bunches, stealing everything that walked on four legs except the jackrabbits and the wild javalina hogs. In their own eyes they were more than bandidos now; they were Cortinistas, “soldiers” of the general Juan Nepomuceno Cortina.
“Dad needs these cattle,” Zoe said worriedly. “They’re stealing him blind and he can’t afford it.”
“Damn little I see that he can do about it.” Lanham gave her a boost up onto her sidesaddle. This was one thing which always gave him a valid excuse to touch her. “You all set, Miss Daingerfield?”
“All set. And you can call me Zoe.” She smiled.
“Not when your old daddy’s in earshot.”
She smiled again. “He’s miles away.”
That was what made it frustrating, sometimes, to work here. Lanham Neal had had saloon girls and sidewalk señoritas smile at him lots of times, and it didn’t fever him much. He answered their beckoning fingers now and then, when he felt the need, but he held no illusions about what they really wanted. They were after whatever silver might be jingling in his pockets; it never was very much. But with Zoe Daingerfield, it was different. She didn’t need what little money could be found in a cowhand’s pockets, but she smiled anyway. And that roused the fever in him.
It couldn’t be for his money, because he didn’t have enough to buy wadding for a shotgun. It wasn’t likely his looks, either, for the cracked mirror in the jacal where he slept told him his mouth was too broad and his nose maybe a little too big. He almost always needed a haircut, and he didn’t find time to shave very often. Perhaps Zoe saw something that didn’t show in the mirror.
It might have been his strength she saw. Lanham Neal had been over a lot of country the last ten or twelve years. At the age of fifteen, he had gone off hell-bent to fight the Yankees in the last futile months of the war, after they had killed his brother with Hood’s army at Nashville. The first battle he was in, Lanham fell with a bullet through his hip before he ever got a good look at a Yankee. He had almost died. Long after the war was over, he started for home, penniless, walking most of the way in spite of the hip. And when he got got to where home had been, he found house caving in, family gone, the farm being worked by strangers who had taken it over for taxes in the name of the new Reconstruction government. In those first hard years after the war, a man could have swapped a good pair of boots for a farm … if he had had the boots. Lanham Neal was barefoot.
It had taken strength to make it through those times. One way and another, Lanham had survived. He had squatted on new land west of the old settlements, only to have the carpetbag lawyers take it away from him once he got it broken and a good crop of cotton almost ready to pick. He had gone to mavericking cattle—picking on those unbranded calves he figured came from herds the carpetbaggers had taken over. It was a practice considered legal enough in those times. No brand, no owner. When he had accumulated a good-sized bunch of calves and yearlings, he traded them for grown steers and threw the steers in with a Kansas-bound trail herd, figuring on filling his pockets with Yankee gold at the railhead. He never got there. Jay-hawkers stampeded the cattle at the Kansas line. Lanham wound up in a Kansas jail along with most of the other drovers when they tried to take their cattle back at gunpoint. They got away from those paper-collar Comanches with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a horse apiece to carry them home to Texas.
His luck had run with a startling consistency—always sour. Everything he touched turned to ashes, seemed like.
That was one reason he hesitated to give much sign of his true feelings to Zoe Daingerfield. His luck might rub off on anybody who got too close to him.
There was another thing, too. Old Griffin Daingerfield liked him. Griffin had a head like a mule, sometimes. He was inclined to holler first and reflect later, but Lanham respected him too much to betray his trust. Griffin was one of the mossy-horned old brush-poppers who had taken this country like a challenge and had charged head-on, ready to fight man, beast, brush or weather, individually or in a bunch. Lanham figured a thing like that gave a man a right to holler once in a while. And beneath it all, the rancher had feelings for people—the ones he figured as good people; he made his own choices about that. Mexican or gringo, he sized them up individually and made his judgment. He seldom altered that first judgment. Lanham had come down to the Nueces Strip after the Kansas debacle, broke, all but barefoot again, the fever eating at him. If it hadn’t been for Daingerfield and Zoe, the fever probably would have carried Lanham off for good. Griffin took the sick cowboy into his house and doctored and fed him. The only thing he had required—and he did that with looks and actions rather than with words—was that Lanham keep a fitting distance between himself and Zoe … no stirring of any emotions that might lead to something the old man would have to oil his rifle for. Lanham had kept that faith, though now and again it took strong measures like a sudden dip in the cold waters of a tank, or even an infrequent trip to the lamp-lighted streets of Brownsville and Matamoros.
Vincente de Zavala pointed toward the cattle as they disappeared into the brush. In Spanish he said, “It is good that we have them branded. When their mothers wean them, they might fall into the hands of maverickers.”
Lanham’s reply was in English. It was common for border people to conduct bi-lingual conversations, each person using the language that came easiest to him but understanding the other. “Griffin Daingerfield needs them as bad as any mavericker. Gettin’ to be all he can do to hold this place together. He goes under, you and me are out of a job, Vincente. You with a young wife to feed, that wouldn’t be good.”
Vincente shrugged. “Food is not a woman’s only need. Or a man’s.”
Bonifacio was staring back across the corral, his round, brown face puzzled. “Caporál, I thought the branding fire had burned itself out.”
“It has, just about.”
Bonifacio pointed. “It makes much smoke.”
Lanham turned, frowning. It was smoke, surely enough, and at a glance he knew it didn’t come from the branding fire. He rubbed a sleeve across his sweating face and cast a quick glance at Zoe. “Vincente, that is the direction of the house.”
Zoe gasped, a cold fear suddenly rushing into her eyes.
“Caporál…” Vincente’s mouth dropped open. “Bandidos?”
Lanham swore. “I hope not. Hang on, Zoe. We got to ride hard.”
The words were wasted. She had already made the start.
Bonifacio was always the last to grasp an idea. He spurred mightily, but he never did catch up.
Vincente was saying over and over, “Maria!” It was the name of his wife. “That Cheno Cortina. That accursed Cheno!”
* * *
He ruled the lower river country, at least that on the south bank of the Rio, this Cheno Cortina. Juan Nepomuceno Cortina was his full name, but to the people of la raza on both sides of the Bravo, he was Cheno, and for most of them the name carried a touch of magic. Of good blood but unschooled, shrewd and ambitious but without mercy for those who opposed him, the red-bearded one had repeatedly gouged the greedy gringos, hitting them in their moneybags where it really hurt and inviting them to kiss his backside. This in itself was enough to insure his endearment to all those shoeless ones who had lost land to the extranjeros, to all those pobres who had worked hard for little pay and had felt the contempt that sometimes lurked in narrowed gringo eyes.
In this spasmodic border war, el generál for more than a decade now had been Cheno Cortina, and his soldiers had been the Cortinista cattle rustlers and horse thieves, bush-whackers and house burners, darting across the river unpredictably, here one time, yonder another. Quiet for months, they would suddenly make a lightning guerrilla raid, leaving a trail of fire and blood, usually escaping across the river unscathed and carrying their booty of horses or cattle, or, once in a while, silver and gold. Now and again a few hapless ones failed to make it and lay till their bones bleached white in the Texas sun. But if ever they crossed to the south bank, they were in sanctuary, swallowed up by the immensity of Mexico, sheltered by sympathetic peons who considered them avengers of a great wrong—people who still cursed the day the vain tyrant Santa Anna had ingloriously lost at San Jacinto and to save his own bloody hide had signed away to the Texans a birthright the Mexicans considered their own.
Now other men rode and dared and sometimes died, while Cheno Cortina waited patiently in Matamoros and pulled the strings, basking in the sunshine of the people’s admiration and growing rich from his share of the Texas spoils.
* * *
Vincente de Zavala hit the ranch yard ahead of the others. “María,” he shouted, eyes searching desperately through the smoke. He was out of the saddle and on the ground running before his horse slid to a stop. In front of the charred jacal that had been his, a woman lay still and silent. The south wind picked up dust from the hoof-churned earth and tugged at the shredded remnants of her black dress. Vincente dropped to his knees. He cried out in anguish.
Zoe saw, and her face blanched. She ran for the smoking ruin of the “big house,” which in reality hadn’t really been very big. “Dad! Dad!”
No answer came. Lanham saw the reason before she did. He saw the crumpled figure lying in the yard.
Zoe screamed and jumped to the ground, turning her horse loose to stand or to run, whichever he chose. He would have run from the smoke had Bonifacio not spurred in and taken the reins. Lanham handed him his own and walked to the girl. She knelt by her father, trying to shake him to consciousness. Lanham could tell by looking that it was useless. Griffin Daingerfield was dead. There must have been a dozen bulletholes in his back.
There’ll be some in the front, too, I expect, Lanham thought gravely. He wouldn’t have shown them his back until he fell.
Bonifacio tied the horses and came trotting. Lanham turned and shook his head. Bonifacio crossed himself and went to try to comfort Vincente.
Lanham looked toward the big house and saw the old man’s crutch lying there in front of it. He could see the wink of brass cartridge cases, scattered about. Griffin had made it to here without his crutch, probably firing his rifle all the way. The rifle was not in sight. The raiders undoubtedly had taken it.
Lanham’s eyes went to fire as he looked helplessly down at the sobbing girl. Damn it all, what can a man say? What can he do? That luck of mine, rubbing off again.
Pale, Bonifacio stood with sombrero in his hand beside the quietly grieving Vincente. He looked as awkward and lost as Lanham felt, for he wasn’t doing Vincente any good and didn’t know how to start.
Bonifacio suddenly stiffened and looked at Lanham. He came trotting, the sombrero still in his hands. Lanham reached to his hip for the reassuring feel of his pistol, for the thought hit him that Bonifacio had seen something.
But Bonifacio had thought of something. “Caporál, I just remembered. We have not seen Hilario.”
Hilario Gomez was an old retainer who had already been a graying vaquero when Griffin Daingerfield had first come into this country. Gomez had worked for him, helped him establish himself here. Too old now to ride or to do heavy work, Hilario mostly hung around the place, doing minor fix-up jobs and giving freely of his advice, telling the hands such as Vincente and Bonifacio that nowhere today did one find vaqueros like those of old, like those he had ridden with in the days of his youth.
Bonifacio trotted around the yard, shouting, “Hilario! Hilario!”
Lanham’s first thought was that the viejo might have run away at sight of the Cortinistas. But he rejected that idea, for despite the differences in their upbringing and their viewpoints, Hilario and Griffin had been much alike. Neither ever turned his back on trouble. If anything, they had seemed to thrive on a certain amount of it, so long as it did not come in excess. Lanham joined Bonifacio in the search.
They found the vaquero lying against a corral fence near a smouldering barn. His old cotton shirt was stained with blood, and his eyes were glazed, but breath still came erratically. “Quién es?” he gasped. Who is it?
“He hears us,” Lanham told Bonifacio, “but he can’t see us.” He spoke in Spanish to the old man, who had stoutly refused to learn English. “Be not afraid, uncle. It is Lanham and Bonifacio. We have come to help you.”
“María … el patrón…” The words came through grinding pain.
No use lying to him, Lanham thought. “Only you are still alive.” And not by very much, either.
He turned Hilario over gently and saw the two bullet wounds in the thin chest. Anyone else would have died, he thought. But they had raised them tough in Hilario’s day, like the mesquite and the cactus. “Bonifacio, let’s carry him down into the yard, to the shade. I doubt there’s anything left to treat him with, but we’ll look.”
Carefully they lifted the old man, trying not to hurt him any more than they could help. They set him down beneath the broad, sheltering cover of a brush arbor that the bandidos somehow hadn’t bothered to burn. Lanham tore the shirt away and grimaced. The bullets were still in there. He had nothing to extract them with except a pocketknife, and that would surely kill the old man. Small chance he had of living anyway.
In a hoarse voice Hilario started trying to tell what had happened. “Hush, Hilario,” Lanham said. “Don’t waste yourself talking. Save your strength.”
The old man paid him no mind. It occurred to Lanham that he never had; Hilario regarded the younger generation—Mexican or Anglo—with no more than a quiet tolerance. He kept on talking, telling how it had been. The raiders had caught him unawares. In the old days they would not have done it, he said, but nowadays his ears had been failing him, and he was occupied with cleaning the picket-built barn. They had been upon him before he had known they were in the country. He had had no weapon, other than the pitchfork in his hands. He had run at them with that, but he had not taken three steps before they brought him down.
Through the dust and the pain, he had seen Maria dragged out of her jacal. She had pulled free. Yipping and shouting like coyotes after a pullet, some of the men had grabbed her. Old Griffin had boiled out of the big house, dragging himself without the crutch, firing as rapidly as he could lever his rifle. He had died in a matter of moments. María had not died quickly, or easily. The old man had pulled himself to the corral fence, but that had been as far as he could move. He could only lie and listen.
Old Hilario’s sightless eyes wept bitter tears, and his gnarled hands clenched weakly as he went on about how different it would have been when he was a young man in all his strength, a man to make bandidos tremble for a hundred miles up and down the Rio. Lanham tried to quiet him, but Hilario talked until the last of his strength was gone. And with the last of his strength, the life ebbed out of him, too.
Bonifacio quietly crossed himself. “God was not looking this way today.” Shock lay in his eyes. “I can see why they would kill Hilario, for he came at them with the pitchfork. They hated the patrón for his blood. But why should they kill Maria? She could not hurt them, and she was of the same blood as they.”
“She lived on a gringo ranch. That made her one of us, not one of them.” Lanham carefully placed Hilario’s limp hands on his chest and smoothed what he could of the rumpled shirt. “Been thirty years since the war with Mexico. You’d think it was still on.”
Bonifacio said, “For some, it has never finished.”
Lanham’s eyes still burned. The smoke, he figured. He walked back to Vincente. The vaquero’s face was buried in his woman’s long black hair. Lanham touched the man’s shoulder. “Vincente, this won’t do you any good. We’ll go and fetch some help.”
Slowly Vincente’s head came up. His black eyes were wet, but behind the tears lay glowing coals. “There is no help for her. Is there any help for the patrón, or for Hilario?”
Lanham shook his head. “They have all gone together. There is no one to help now but la patrona … Zoe.”
Stricken, Vincente gazed at the lifeless olive face. When they killed Maria, they had murdered two, for she was carrying Vincente’s child. Vincente’s eyes were closed, and his voice was down almost to a whisper, but it carried thorns. “There will be no help for the ones who did this, caporál.”
Zoe Daingerfield left her father and staggered across to stand by the men. Tears streamed down her face, but vengeful anger was beginning to show. “What do you mean, Vincente?”
“We will go after them,” Vincente rasped. “We will kill them!”
Lanham’s fists were tight. “I wish we could.” But he saw little hope of it. Retribution had overtaken few of Cheno’s men. “There was a sizable bunch of them. By the tracks, maybe twenty. Even if we was to catch up to them, what could we do?”
“Slit every throat we could get our hands on.”
Bonifacio protested. “Against so many? We would not last three minutes.”
Vincente eased his wife’s body gently to the warm earth. He raised his eyes, his voice quivering with rage. “It will be a glorious three minutes. We will kill as many as we can.”
Zoe Daingerfield surprised Lanham most. “He’s right, Lanham. We’re wastin’ time.”
“They had a long start before we got here. We’ll have to ride like hell to catch them.”
“Zoe, you’re not goin’ anyplace. Leastways, not after them bandits. They’d do to you what they done to María.”
“They killed my father.”
“And they’d kill you without blinkin’ twice.”
Vincente began calculating. “They took the patrón’s horses. Likely they will want to take some of his cattle, too. If that be so, they cannot move fast. The patrona does not go; she stays here. But I go. Do you go with me, caporál? And you, Bonifacio?”
The bitterness of it all was flooding over Lanham now. “I’ll go.”
Bonifacio stared at the ground, trembling like a man beneath a noose. “My mother lives in Matamoros, and my brothers. If I went with you, el Cheno would slaughter my people like cattle.”
Vincente accepted the decision without rancor, though it was plain that Bonifacio’s worry was not altogether about his family. “Then you will take la patrona to safety. You will go to town and bring help.” Bonifacio nodded. “Your Maria and the patrón, they must not be left lying here. They must be buried. Shall we wait until you come back?”
Vincente took a final look at the tiny figure that had been Maria. “Do not wait for me. Perhaps I will never come back.”
Zoe caught Lanham’s hand. “I am not going with Bonifacio. My place is here, with Dad and Maria and Hilario. I will stay.” Lanham started to protest, but he saw something in her eyes, something like he had seen in Vincente’s. Zoe said, “Go, Lanham. Kill them! Kill as many as you can!”
Vincente swung into his big-horned Mexico saddle and spurred out without looking back. He headed straight south, with the tracks. Lanham Neal mounted as quickly as he could, but Vincente was already a hundred yards ahead of him. It took a long time for Lanham to catch up.
Captain’s Rangers copyright © 1968, 1996 by Elmer Stephen Kelton Estate
The Day the Cowboys Quit copyright © 1971 by Elmer Stephen Kelton Estate