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Authors: Ralph Compton

Across the Rio Colorado

BOOK: Across the Rio Colorado
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W
hile Texas statehood was many bloody years away, there were Mexican land grants available along the Brazos and Colorado Rivers. Through the efforts of Stephen Austin—a Missourian—a farmer could claim 277 acres, while a rancher was eligible for 4,615 acres. In the land-hungry east, land prices had reached an unheard-of dollar and twenty-five cents an acre. Thus many Americans became Mexican citizens, immigrating to south central Texas, where land was available for only a few cents an acre.
But it was perilous times. Traveling from St. Joseph or St. Louis, the trail led right through Indian Territory, a haven for hostile Indians and renegades of every stripe. Texas itself was little better, for it was the home of the dreaded Comanche Indians. But nothing slowed the quest for Texas land, and men drawn to the frontier surged forth to meet its demands.
While the immigrants themselves were whang-leather-tough, an even hardier breed was necessary to freight in goods over the treacherous trails, supplying the needs of these early settlers. Early caravans consisted of pack mules, but as the demand increased, there were trains of lumbering freight wagons. Teamsters riding the high
boxes were armed with several revolvers, a long knife, and a Sharps .50 caliber rifle. These men fought Indians, outlaws, and occasionally, one another.
Wherever men went—to Colorado, Montana, or California to dig for gold, or to the Republic of Texas to farm or raise cattle—the traders with their pack mules or wagons always followed. These buccaneers who rode the high boxes took commerce to the western plains, because the potential rewards seemed worth the risk, but there had to be more. It was a time, in a changing land, that called forth men of courage. Some earned fame, some an unmarked grave beside a lonely trail, but all shared an epic American frontier that once was, but now lives only in the pages of American history.
St. Louis, Missouri. April 11, 1837.

D
raw, damn you!”
John Burke was just nineteen, and had spent the afternoon in the Emerald Dragon, a dive on the St. Louis waterfront.
“Put the gun away, John,” said Chance McQuade.
There had been bad blood between the Burkes and the McQuades since that day in St. Joe, when Andy—Andrew Burke's eldest son—had drawn on Chance McQuade. Chance had been forced to kill Andy to save his own life, but the Burkes hadn't forgotten.
“You're a coward,” Burke shouted, his voice trembling.
“You know better,” said Chance quietly. “I'll draw against you only if I have to.”
“By God, you got to,” Burke shouted, clawing at his gun.
He was quick, but not quick enough. McQuade waited until he had the weapon clear of the holster. He then drew and fired once. Burke stumbled back against the batwing doors and fell into the saloon. Men had quickly gathered from several other saloons, all shouting questions. McQuade said nothing, waiting for the sheriff. When the lawman arrived, he had a shotgun under his arm and a wad
of plug in his jaw. He was dressed like a farmer, in a red flannel shirt, overalls, and rough-out boots.
“Who drawed first?” he demanded.
“The dead man,” somebody said.
“Anybody see it any different?” the sheriff asked.
When there was no response, he turned to McQuade.
“I'm rulin' it self-defense. I'm Isaac Seaborn. Who are you?”.
“Chance McQuade.”
“You ever see this hombre before he drawed on you?”
“Yes,” said McQuade. “We're both from St. Joe. Three years ago, one of his brothers drew on me, and I was forced to kill him.”
“I'd take it as a favor if you'd move on,” the sheriff said. “Nothin' personal.”
“Yes,” McQuade said, “I understand. I'm looking for a job as a teamster or guide, and then I'll be leaving.”
Before the sheriff or the men who had gathered could question him further, McQuade continued along the boardwalk. While he was sure his encounter with John Burke had been nothing more than a stroke of bad luck, he suspected the rest of the Burkes, including old Andrew, were somewhere in town.
Chance McQuade was thirty-two years old, with black hair and gray eyes, and had grown up in St. Joseph, Missouri. In 1821, William Becknell had opened a trade route into Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, and twenty-year-old McQuade had ridden with him. In the years that had followed, Chance McQuade had become a seasoned frontiersman. He had ridden the high box, freighting goods through Indian Territory into Texas, and from Kansas City to trading posts in Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming.
In this year, the spring of 1837, McQuade had come to St. Louis in response to a story in a Kansas City newspaper. Rufus Hook, a wealthy businessman, had received a grant to build a town in south central Texas. For a fee, Hook had offered to secure grants for individuals, and had
already signed a hundred families who would settle along the Rio Colorado. Hook needed a wagon boss and guide. The man he chose would receive a grant of his own, as well as five hundred dollars. Chance McQuade knew the freighting business backwards, forwards, and upside down. He was quick with a pistol and deadly with a big Sharps .50 caliber. His body bore the evidence of many knife fights, and a large, ugly scar from a Comanche lance. He had bossed many wagon trains where the teamsters had been older than himself. Now he wanted a rancher's grant in Texas—4,615 acres—and the five hundred dollars Hook was willing to pay a wagon boss. Reaching the address given in the newspaper, he was amazed to find it no more than a hole in the wall, with a sign on the door that read
Hook Enterprises.
When he opened the door, a pale woman dressed in black looked at him from the desk where she sat.
“I'm here to see Rufus Hook,” said McQuade. “Is he here?”
“Perhaps,” she replied. “Who are you, and what do you want?”
“I'm Chance McQuade, and I'm here to become his wagon boss, taking that expedition into Texas.”
Before she could respond, a door to the next office opened. A heavy man—probably in his fifties—stepped out. He was dressed in a dark suit, boiled shirt, and string tie. But for a fringe above his ears, he was bald, and a cigar was clenched in his teeth.
“Get back to your work, Emma,” he said. He then turned to face McQuade. “I am Rufus Hook.”
He nodded toward the open door, and McQuade entered. He stood with his back to the wall, facing the desk. His trousers were dark homespun, his shirt red flannel, while his boots and Stetson were pure cowboy. On his left hip, butt-forward, he carried one of the first Colt revolvers manufactured in America. He said nothing, waiting for Hook to speak. There was no chair other than the
one behind Hook's desk. Hook sat down, discovered his cigar had gone out, and dropped it into a mug that sat on the desk.
“So you're my wagon boss,” he said. “In what ways are you qualified?”
“In every way that matters,” said McQuade.
“I heard a shot a few minutes ago. Did you have anything to do with that?”
“I did,” McQuade admitted, but volunteered nothing more.
“You don't talk much, do you?”
“Hook,” said McQuade, “if a man measures up, he don't have to talk. If he can't or won't stand tall, then nothin' he's got to say will ever make any difference. Is that land grant you're offerin' me a farmer's grant, or a rancher's grant?”
“I haven't offered you anything, yet,” Hook growled, “and if I do, it'll be my choice, not yours. You take a hell of a lot for granted, my friend.”
“I take nothing for granted,” said McQuade. “Whatever needs doin' with wagons and the teams, I can do, and I can do it better than anybody else. Now when I get your damned wagons to Texas, I want a rancher's grant. Do I get it or not? You have ten seconds.”
“Get the hell out of my office, McQuade,” Hook bawled. “Get out.”
McQuade stepped out, closing the door, but that was as far as he went. Emma stared at him in awe. In a matter of seconds, the door opened. Hook was about to shout after McQuade, when he became aware of McQuade standing there, a grin on his weathered face.
“Your ten seconds have run out,” said McQuade cheerfully.
Furious, Hook nodded toward his open office door, and McQuade again entered, closing it behind him. Hook wasted no time.
“I don't like pushy, smart-mouth men, McQuade, but time is short, and I'm forced to make an exception. There
is a wagon camp five miles west of town, on the south bank of the Missouri. Eventually there will be a hundred wagons. Your initial duty is to go there and inspect the wagons and the teams, doing whatever you must to make them trail-worthy. I want mules pulling the wagons. Any oxen must be led or driven. The journey is to begin on May first. At that time, you will acquire an additional twenty-one wagons. These and their contents belong to me.”
“And their contents will be exactly what?”
“You'll know soon enough,” said Hook. “For now, I believe you have your hands quite full.”
“What about my rancher's land grant and the five hundred dollars?”
“You'll receive both when you have taken these wagons safely to the Rio Colorado,” Hook replied. “I am supplying a cook and food for the journey. When you take the trail, you may take your meals with my teamsters. I have also engaged a dozen fighting men to assist you with sentry duty and the fighting of Indians. For anything I have overlooked, I have a line of credit at Stallworth's mercantile.”
McQuade closed the door behind him, tipped his hat to Emma, and left the building. He didn't like Rufus Hook, but he relied on a philosophy that had served him well over the years. When a man hired on, he was being paid for his services, not necessarily to like the job or the man who had hired him. But putting likes and dislikes aside, there was a falseness about Rufus Hook, something that didn't ring true. The only thing about Hook that seemed honest was his obvious dislike for McQuade, and the only thing they were likely to have in common was their dislike for one another. McQuade decided he hadn't been told all he should know, that Hook was purposely keeping him in the dark, and he recalled a bit of scripture that suited the situation perfectly:
Men love darkness, for their deeds are evil.
All Chance McQuade had to show for a dozen years
of riding the high boxes was a bay horse, his saddle, bedroll, pistol, .50 caliber Sharps, and the clothes that he wore. He had no money for a night in a St. Louis hotel, so he rode along the river until he reached what had to be the wagon camp Rufus Hook had spoken of. He reined up, staggered by a veritable sea of humanity that revolved around what he estimated to be near the hundred wagons of which Rufus Hook had spoken. Most of the wagon canvas had weathered to varying shades of gray, and even from a distance, he could see where it had been patched. God only knew what might be the condition of the wagons themselves. Wheels ungreased for months—or never greased at all—invited broken axles, while improperly fitted iron tires would come loose, leading to splintered wheels. Dogs barked, cows bawled, children shouted, mules brayed, and above it all there was the roar of a big fifty. Half a dozen fires bloomed along the river bank, as women took advantage of the shallows to wash their clothing and blankets. A blanket had been spread on the ground, and men hunkered about it, shooting craps. Somewhere a rooster crowed. It reminded McQuade of a Green River rendezvous, without the trappers. Some of the men gathered as McQuade rode in. Mostly, their eyes were full of questions, but four of them regarded McQuade with open hostility.
“What'n hell are you doin' here, McQuade?”
Andrew Burke stood with his hands on his hips, sided by his three remaining sons, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
“I'm the wagon boss, Burke,” said McQuade. “All the way to the Rio Colorado.”
“You'll never live to see it,” Matthew Burke snarled.
“I likely won't, if I turn my back on you Burkes,” said McQuade. “None of you are handy at pullin' a gun against a man facing you, and that leaves just one way for you to go.”
“We've had a peaceful camp, up to now,” said a bearded man with a revolver stuck under his belt. “What's behind all this bull-of-the-woods talk?”
“This varmint, Chance McQuade, has shot and killed two of my sons,” Andrew Burke shouted. “He gunned down John, my youngest, not more'n two hours ago.”
“John wouldn't have it any other way,” said McQuade, “and he drew first.”
“He sure as hell did,” one of the onlookers said. “I was there. He was spoilin' for a fight.”
“For the record,” McQuade said, “three years ago in St. Joe, I shot Andy Burke when he drew on me. He was stinking drunk and slapping a woman around, which is the Burke style. I slapped him, givin' him a dose of his own medicine. He started the gunplay.”
A dozen men had gathered, most of them accompanied by their wives and children, and they looked unfavorably upon the Burkes. The bearded man with the pistol under his belt spoke again.
“I'm Ike Peyton, McQuade. You say you been hired as wagon boss?”
“I have,” said McQuade. “I've been ridin' the high box for twelve years, hauling goods into Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. I've fought Indians, outlaws, grizzlies, wolves, and some no-account varmints I thought was sidin' me. Between now and May first, I'll be helping you ready your wagons for the trail, and helping you to prepare for what's ahead.”
“Big talk,” Andrew Burke sneered. “McQuade's sold old Hook a bill of goods. There's not a thing he can do for us that we can't do for ourselves.”
“Let me remind all of you of something,” said McQuade, “especially you Burkes. I'm not costing any of you a thing. Nothing is at stake here except the Burkes' grudge against me. Are any of you wantin' to throw in with them, disliking me because I defended myself against a pair of damn fools who wouldn't have it any other way?”
“Hell, no,” a man shouted. “We likely got enough ahead of us, without fightin' among ourselves.”
There were shouts of approval, but McQuade's eyes
were on the Burkes. Their very manner told him it wasn't over. If he won the confidence of the rest of these people, that might prevent the Burkes from shooting him in the back. He could expect no more.
In the days that followed, more wagons drifted in, some of them bringing families from Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. Chance McQuade quickly learned that he couldn't inspect every wagon. He must enlist the help of other men he could trust. He had become friends with Ike Peyton, and it was to Ike that he spoke.
“Most of these wagons need work, Ike. I won't have time to personally inspect them all. Do you know some of these men well enough to ask them to help? A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If any wagon breaks down, the entire train grinds to a halt.”
BOOK: Across the Rio Colorado
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