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Andy Pickard had often considered leaving the Texas Rangers. His young wife, Bethel, had been urging him to take up the more stable life of a stockman, or even a storekeeper—anything that would keep him close to home. Now he almost wished he had given in to her, for his sergeant had assigned him to hunt down a lowly sneak thief. Not only that, but he was sending a stranger with Andy in the search.
It seemed a waste of two Rangers' time to trail after the likes of Jasper Biggs when murderers and horse thieves roamed the land. But Sergeant Ryker had wearied of hearing complaints about the man's petty larceny. He said, "We need to slam the cell door on this chicken-stealin' tramp. I'm sendin' Logan Daggett with you. Do you know him?"
"Never met him," Andy said without enthusiasm, "but I've heard of him. I reckon everybody has."
Daggett had a long record with the Rangers, not all of it positive. Stories indicated that he had a short fuse and was given to sudden violence. He considered consequences later, if at all.
By contrast, Andy liked to think things through before jumping into deep water, weighing the costs against the gain. After giving most of his youth to Ranger service, he felt he was due a little extra consideration. He said, "It'd suit me better to ride with somebody I know, like Len Tanner."
His comment appeared to annoy the sergeant. He was used to a quick "Yes, sir," when he gave an order. "I've sent Tanner off on another job. Daggett just got into camp last night, so he's available."
Andy said, "They say he's too quick to go on the fight."
Ryker's narrowed eyes hinted at sarcasm. "And you've sometimes been a little slow about it. I figure you should be a good team, makin' up for each other's weaknesses."
In Andy's view, Jasper Biggs was a two-bit night-prowling scavenger. He said, "This looks like a job for some deputy sheriff to do in his spare time. It shouldn't take two of us. I could handle it by myself, easy."
"If you could locate him. But he's at home down in those Llano River oak and cedar thickets. Logan is a good tracker, and I've seen that you're not."
Andy admitted, "There's things I do better."
"Most of Logan's service has been up on the plains. Lately he got into an unpleasant incident at Tascosa. Took a bullet in his leg. They transferred him down here so he wouldn't take another in the back."
An unpleasant incident. That did not bode well, Andy thought. He wondered what Daggett had done, but he would not ask. "Which of us will be in charge?"
Andy thought of Bethel. This might be the time to quit, as she had long wanted. She would fret about him the whole time he was gone. Anyway, this seemed too piddling a mission for someone with his record of service. Maybe it was a sign that they were gradually edging him out. The state's money counters were always trying to cut expenses.
Ryker recognized Andy's reluctance. He said, "This'll give your bride a chance to rest. She probably gets more sleep when she has her bed to herself."
Andy's face warmed. What went on between him and Bethel was personal. They had bought a modest parcel of land on the Guadalupe River near Kerrville, and she had been pressing him to build a house on it so they could be together all the time. But he wanted to give her something better than a one-room shack. He wanted a livestock operation large enough to provide her a comfortable living. He was managing to bank some of his Ranger wages and an occasional reward, but the process of accumulation was slower than he liked.
He doubted there would be much, if any, reward for Biggs. The man's crimes were more nuisance than hardship for his victims, though Ryker said he had recently been discovered burglarizing a farm house at night. He had struck the owner with a chunk of stove wood before escaping into the dark.
"It's the first time I've heard of him resorting' to violence," the sergeant said. "It may mean he's gone a little crazy. Hermits like him are usually halfway down that hill anyhow. We've got to bring him in before he hurts somebody real bad."
That put a different complexion on the situation. Andy had assumed Biggs was simply lazy, though he probably worked harder at his minor thievery than if he had a conventional job, and gained less for his efforts. Even other men of the outlaw stripe looked down on him for his limited ambition.
Andy was headquartered in a company tent camp on the San Saba River near Fort Cavetto. He spent his off time, limited though it was, with Bethel in a small frame house he rented at the edge of the village. She heard his horse and came out to stand on the front step, a wisp of a woman still in her mid-twenties. The wind tugged gently at her brown hair and ruffed the apron tied around her narrow waist. Looking at her after an absence took his breath away. Leaving her was always difficult.
She had developed an uncanny knack of reading his mind. With a slight tone of impatience she asked, "How long will you be gone this time?"
That was a question he could seldom answer with certainty. Some assignments were short. Others dragged on and on. He said, "No longer than I have to. I'd be obliged for something' to eat before I report back to camp." He paused, striving for his most persuasive voice. "No telling' when I'll get another meal that's half as good as what you fix."
Despite herself, she allowed a tiny smile to escape. She still reacted warmly to compliments. "Tie up your horse, and I'll see what scraps I can find in the kitchen." She tiptoed, inviting a kiss.
While bustling about the small iron stove, she asked, "Who are they sending you after this time? Is he somebody I should worry about?"
He said, "He's a grubby, low-life thief who lives like a coyote down in the thickets. They claim he's too much of a coward to be dangerous."
"They say it's the cowards you have to watch the most. They come at you when you're not looking."
He said, "I always watch out for myself." He started to add that it was not in his plan for her to become a widow, but he left the thought unspoken. It might cause her to worry more, knowing that such a notion had even crossed his mind.
She baked biscuits, fried a thick slice of ham, and heated beans left over from yesterday. He could hardly take his eyes from her while she worked. Mentally he cursed Biggs for causing him to leave. But if not for Biggs, he would be going out to hunt for someone else. The desk-bound accountants in Austin could not abide seeing a Ranger idle.
Finished eating, he carried his plate and utensils to a tin pan on top of the cabinet. There, not entirely by accident, he bumped against Bethel as she put away the leftover biscuits. He folded his arms around her tiny waist. "I don't want to go," he said.
She smiled. "Then stay a while. Tell them your horse broke the bridle reins and ran away."
"He's too well trained. He never does that."
"I could run him off."
"He'd come right back."
Mischief sparkled in her eyes. "Then just lie to them a little."
He tightened his hold and kissed her. "I can do that."
Andy rode back into Ranger camp in time for supper. He found Ryker waiting, standing beside a dark-skinned, muscular man whose full mustache was mostly dark but speckled with gray. Logan Daggett stood half a head taller than Andy, and broader across the shoulders.
Ryker asked, "Did you leave her happy?"
Andy said, "I tried to."
Ryker introduced him to Daggett, then said, "Andy's got him a young wife. It's hard to juggle Ranger duty with a new marriage. You're not married, are you?"
Daggett answered solemnly, "Was once." It was clear that he did not intend to expand on that statement, and Ryker did not press the question.
Daggett asked Andy, "This man Biggs, do you know him?"
"Saw him one time, is all."
Biggs had been picked up in a Ranger sweep through the oak and cedar thickets along the Llano River and its tributaries. Like a little fish tossed back into the water, he was accorded scant notice compared to men whose names were written in the Rangers' fugitive books for serious breaches of the law. He was released with a strong suggestion that he henceforth seek honest employment, and in some distant state. He had not, of course.
Andy said, "The last I heard, he was living' in the brush." The thickets were a haven for men who sought solitude.
Daggett said, "I hate that brushy country. Always makes me feel closed in. I like the open plains, where a man don't feel like he's been' smothered to death."
As they saddled fresh horses, Andy noticed that Daggett had a pronounced limp. The Ranger swore under his breath as he put his weight on the right leg and lifted his left foot to the stirrup. The wound was still giving him pain.
Andy asked him, "Are you sure you're up to the ride?"
Daggett reacted negatively to the question. He said, "Never show them any weakness, or they'll come and get you."
They set out southeastward on a wagon road that led toward the town of Junction on the Llano River. A Ranger pack mule followed as it had been trained to do. Daggett hardly spoke. Andy wondered what was going on behind those hooded eyes, but Daggett gave him no clue. Andy introduced him to the Kimble County sheriff. The lawman was mildly amused by their mission. He said, "Biggs is just a train' no-account footpad. I'm surprised they'd waste your time with him."
Andy said, "A chigger bite is train', too, but after a while it itches to where you've got to scratch it."
Daggett said grimly, "A little bug needs squashing' same as a big one."
The sheriff said, "There's not a chicken roost or a smoke house in three counties that's safe from Biggs. They tell me he's got several places back in the brush where he holes up. He changes dens oftener than he changes clothes."
Daggett declared, "Even a coyote leaves tracks."
"Most people figure Biggs's petty pilfering' is a normal cost of living' in these hills, like property taxes. I just had a complaint from a goat rancher down close to Peg leg Crossing'. You might start from there."
Andy said, "Biggs is stealing' goats now? Sounds like he's comin' up in the world."
"He takes a kid goat now and then to eat. Mostly he lives off of the land. There's hogs runnin' free in the thickets, and wild turkeys and such. He'll break into a store occasionally. One thing he never steals is soap. Last time I had him in jail, it took two days to air out the place."
Andy glanced at Daggett. "Sounds like we just have to follow our noses."
Daggett gave no hint of a smile.
The sheriff drew a rough map of the roads and trails he knew about but cautioned, "Some people who live down there are careful not to invite company. If they have to cross a road, they'll stop and wipe out their tracks. Was I you, I'd watch my back."
Andy said, "Sounds like the whole bunch deserve to be in jail."
Daggett added, "Or dead."
The sheriff frowned. "Maybe so, but we have to respect people's rights. We can't allow the law to be worse than the outlaw."
Daggett said, "An outlaw ought to not have any rights."
A buildup of clouds suggested rain. Though experience told Andy that was unlikely, he did not want to camp in the open. He asked the sheriff, "Be all right if we sleep in the jail tonight? The Austin money counters hate to pay for a cot in the wagon yard, much less for a room in a hotel."
"Sure, if you don't mind wakin' up with a sore back. Pick what ever cell you want. One bed is about as hard as another."
The jail held two prisoners. Daggett gave each of them a critical study through the bars. "What're they in for?" he asked.
The sheriff shrugged. "Nothin' serious. They took on too much brave-maker last night. They're still too red-eyed to be turned loose. They might get run over by a freight wagon or somethin'."
Daggett said without sympathy, "A man ought to have better control of himself."
The sheriff's admonition about the hard bed proved to be no exaggeration. Andy awakened with an ache in his shoulders. He worked his arms until the tension eased.
If Daggett felt any pain, he accepted it stoically, without conversation. He walked in circles a few minutes until his leg gained stability and his limp became less severe.
A deputy brought breakfast for the two Rangers and the prisoners, who seemed more than ready to put something in their stomachs besides cheap whiskey. The sheriff watched Andy finish his coffee. He asked, "Are you-all sure you wouldn't like for me to send a deputy with you, one who knows the country?"
Andy said, "Thanks, but I've been in those thickets before. I don't think Biggs will be much of a problem, once we find him."
"That's the catch... findin' him."
Andy doubted that they would be lucky enough simply to stumble upon a man who had a dozen hiding places. They would have to ask questions of people who had no reason to want to help a peace officer, and try to read more into their words than they intended to let slip.
Daggett finished his breakfast quickly and headed toward the door without saying anything. Andy still had eggs on his plate, but he said reluctantly, "I'm comin'." He held on to a biscuit as they went out to retrieve their horses. It irritated him to be rushed unnecessarily. Five minutes one way or the other was unlikely to make much difference. But he gathered that patience was not one of Daggett's strong points.
Making it into a bit of a contest, he saddled up in a hurry. He was determined to be on horse back before Daggett. The sheriff's deputy tied a pack on their little Mexican mule, which followed dutifully as the Rangers rode out through the open corral gate. It had been trained well.
Daggett said, "Since you've been in the thickets before, I'll let you lead the way."
Let me? Andy bristled at the older man's assumption of authority. He tried not to let his resentment show. They had to work together.
Late in the morning they stopped at the small ranch of a man who had never shown up on the fugitive lists and had always been cooperative with law enforcement officers, up to a point. The rancher wore no gun, which in itself said something about his effort to maintain neutrality. He said, "Jasper Biggs? No, ain't seen him lately, but I missed a ham out of my smoke house a few nights ago. I figure he's been around. Lost a layin' hen, too, right off of the nest."
Andy asked, "Are you sure it wasn't a coyote that got the chicken?"
"Not unless a coyote has learned to wear boots."
"Do you know whichaway he went?"
"I made it a point not to follow his tracks. I figure a chicken or a ham now and again are a cheap price to pay for peace with my neighbors. Even a lunkhead like Jasper has got a few friends."
Daggett's voice was critical. "If enough honest people would speak up on the side of the law, things would change."
The rancher said, "Maybe, but I wouldn't want to stand on a platform wavin' the flag and find that I was out there all by myself. A man could get hurt."
The rancher invited the Rangers to stay for dinner. Seeing that Daggett wanted to move on, Andy perversely said, "We'd be tickled to break bread with you." Unlike Daggett, he took no offense over the rancher's attitude. He understood the man's thinking.
After the meal, the rancher picked his teeth while he watched Andy tighten his cinch. He said, "I can't afford to tell you Rangers anything straight out, but if I was to give you advice, I'd tell you to travel east. You won't have the afternoon sun in your eyes."
"Much obliged," Andy said. The rancher had just told him more than he had expected to hear. "That's just where we'd intended to go."
Andy assumed that any tracks Biggs left would have disappeared by now. He was not tracker enough to have followed them anyway. But Daggett looked around for a minute and announced, "He went off yonderway." He pointed eastward.
"Are you sure?"
"His trail is plain enough. Can't you see it?"
Andy did not want to admit that he had not, and still couldn't. But Sergeant Ryker had mentioned that Daggett was a good tracker. Maybe he would be useful enough to offset his dour manner.
Andy said, "I'll bet his hideout is somewhere around here. I doubt he'd walk far to steal one chicken."
Daggett shook his head. "You can't be sure with people like that. They think different from us normal folks."
The trail faded out, leaving Daggett frustrated and discussing Biggs's antecedents under his breath. The Rangers came after a while to a wagon road and a ramshackle country store, half hidden by live-oak timber. Andy knew the place. The structure was of rough-sawed lumber, never painted. Cedar bark still clung to a hitching post in front. One saddled horse stood switching flies. A couple more horses lazed in a corral out back, shaded by a large oak.
Excerpted from Texas Standoff by Elmer Kelton.
Copyright © 2010 by The Estate Of Elmer Kelton.
Published in 2010 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book New York.
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.