Authors: James J. Griffin
Tags: #coming of age, #series, #texas ranger, #ya fiction, #western adventure, #western action, #western classic, #painted pony books, #lone star ranger
It was two hours before sunset the next day
when they reached the Ranger encampment, which was situated in a
hollow at a bend of the San Saba.
“There it is, Nate. Home, for the next
couple of months, at least. Seems like everyone’s in from the
field. Look it over.”
The camp consisted of a number of tents
surrounding a firepit. Off to the left was a rope corral which
contained the Rangers’ horses, along with several pack mules. Next
to that was a canvas topped-wagon, which evidently held supplies.
Four men were posted as sentries on high points around the camp.
Since the river ran a bit deeper here, large cottonwood and
towering cypress trees provided welcome shade. One of the men was
emerging from the brush, buttoning his pants, apparently having
just relieved himself. Four men were playing cards in front of one
of the tents. Others were mending clothes or tack, while a few were
stretched out on the ground, dozing. At the river two men were on
the bank washing clothes, while three more were in the water,
“What d’ya think, Nate?”
Nate grunted and arched his back to work out
“Does this mean we won’t have to do any more
ridin’ for a while?”
“Most likely. But it’s the Rangers, so I
can’t make any promises.”
“Then let’s get down there.” Nate urged his
“Hold up a minute, pard,” Jeb called after
him, spurring Dudley to keep up.
As they neared the camp, one of the sentries
challenged them. He was a grizzled old man with a week’s worth of
gray stubble coating his jaw.
“Hold it right there. Don’t make a move, or
I’ll put bullets right through your gizzards. State your
“Shorty, you know who I am. Can’t you see
the badge I’m wearin’? It’s me, Jeb Rollins,” Jeb answered.
“Don’t know any such thing. And who’s the
young whippersnapper with you?”
“Him? He’s Nate Stewart. Gonna be ridin’
with us for a spell, mebbe.”
“What about the hombre all wrapped up like a
birthday present and tied belly-down over his horse? Who’s he?”
“Horse thief. I’m hopin’ mebbe someone here
can tell us who he is. Cap’n Dave in camp?”
“He’s around somewhere.”
“Good. Now you gonna let us pass or
“I reckon. Go on in.”
“That hombre sure is a nasty old coot,” Nate
said, once they were out of earshot.
“Shorty? He’s not so bad. Name’s Shorty
Beach. Been a Ranger a long time, since before the War, in fact.
Sure, he’s cantankerous, but you get in a fight and you want Shorty
As they rode through the camp, Jeb exchanged
greetings and nods with his fellow Rangers. Lieutenant Bob Berkeley
came out from his tent.
“Jeb. I wondered who was ridin’ in. ’Bout
time you got back. But what’s Nate doin’ with you? I thought he was
goin’ back East.”
“His plans changed,” Jeb answered. “Where’s
Cap’n Dave? I need to talk to him. After that, I can explain things
“He’s in his tent, takin’ care of paperwork.
Third one down on the left. He’ll be plumb glad to see you. He was
worried about you.”
“Good. You mind takin’ this body off my
hands? Hombre tried to steal our horses last night. I didn’t
recognize him, and he had nothin’ on him with his name. I’m hopin’
mebbe one of you boys know who he is. Have everyone take a look at
him, then we’ll plant him.”
“Bob, did you find the men who murdered my
family?” Nate asked.
“No, we didn’t,” Bob admitted. “They gave us
the slip. We did find your father’s cattle. They sold ’em to a
rancher a few miles from your place. He had a bill of sale. Since
your father hadn’t branded his cows, we had no way to prove they
were his, and not the men who stole them. Same thing happened to
Sam Maverick, who owned a large ranch. He refused to brand his herd
and got rustled blind. His name’s now stuck to any unbranded cow,
and range law says any unbranded cow belongs to the first man who
brands it. They’re called mavericks. We did get a good description
of those men from the rancher, though. Trailed ’em a bit further,
but lost their tracks in the badlands. I’m sorry, son.”
“Lemme guess. The leader was a skinny dude,
with pale blue eyes and real light hair. Dressed real fancy, and
wore matched pearl-handled Colts. One of the others was a
half-breed,” Jeb said.
“That’s right. How’d you know that?” Bob
Jeb proceeded to tell him about the
confrontation in the Dusty Trail.
“Sounds like you did a fine job, Nate,” Bob
praised once Jeb concluded his story.
“We’d better go see Cap’n Quincy now,” Jeb
said. “Bob. We’ll talk some more later.”
“All right. See you in a while.” Bob took
the mare’s reins and led her away. Jeb and Nate rode up to the
captain’s tent and dismounted.
“I’ll take care of you soon as I’m finished
talkin’ with Cap’n Dave, Dudley,” Jeb promised his horse. He dug a
leftover biscuit out of his saddlebag and broke it in half. He gave
one piece to Dudley, and the other to Nate for Red. They dropped
their reins to ground-hitch the mounts.
Captain Quincy’s tent flap was open to catch
any vagrant breeze which might provide a bit of relief from the
blistering mid-summer heat.
“Cap’n Quincy?” Jeb called. “It’s Jeb
“Been expectin’ you,” Quincy answered.
“C’mon in, Jeb.”
Jeb and Nate ducked inside the tent. Quincy
was seated at a folding table, with several reports in front of
him. He dipped his pen in an inkwell, then signed the last paper
and set it aside.
“Welcome back, Ranger. Who’s this you’ve got
“Cap’n, this here’s Nate Stewart. I’m sure
Lieutenant Bob’s already told you about the attack on his ranch and
the murder of his family. Nate, Captain David Quincy.”
Quincy stood up to shake Nate’s hand. He was
tall and husky, in his late forties. Sun and wind wrinkles
encircled his frosty blue eyes, and his sandy hair was tending to
“Pleased to meet you, Nate.”
“Same here, sir.”
“Just ‘Captain’, or ‘Captain Dave’. We’re
don’t stand much on formality in the Rangers. Now, I was told you
were headed to family back East, Nate, so why are you here
“Let me explain that, Cap’n,” Jeb said. He
proceeded to describe how Nate had decided to remain in Texas, and
what had transpired during the confrontation and gunfight with the
Stevenson gang in the Dusty Trail Saloon.
“So I thought mebbe the Rangers could use
another man,” Jeb concluded.
“I see,” Quincy said. “Exactly how old are
“He’s sixteen,” Jeb answered, before Nate
“Sixteen? That’s a mite too young to join
the Rangers. Man has to be eighteen to sign on with the
“Heck, Cap’n, Hoot Harrison’s no more’n
sixteen and we all know it,” Jeb protested. “He claims to be
eighteen, but he dang for sure ain’t. And there’s been Rangers as
young as fourteen, even younger.”
“I know that. I don’t need a lesson in
Ranger history,” Quincy answered. “But that was back in the early
days, when the Rangers were a volunteer organization.”
“Look, Nate’s not askin’ to be put on as a
full Ranger right away,” Jeb answered. “He’s willin’ to prove
himself first. All he wants is that chance. I thought mebbe he
could be taken on as George’s assistant, helpin’ with the cookin’
and camp chores, and as a general all-around helper for the men.
Meantime, he can be learnin’ everythin’ he needs to know about
Rangerin’. What d’ya say?”
Quincy looked at Nate.
“You’d really like to be a Ranger, son?”
“I believe I would, Cap’n.”
“I see. Do you have any type of experience
at all? How good a shot are you?”
“I don’t know,” Nate admitted. “I haven’t
really fired a gun.”
“Hmm. What about close quarter fighting? Do
you know how to use your fists?”
“Only had a few fistfights with my brother
and my friends back in Wilmington, and those weren’t much. More
like shovin’ matches.”
“So, it’s clear you wouldn’t know how to use
a knife, either. What about tracking?”
“Jeb’s been teaching me about that on our
“And he’s picked up on that real quick,
Cap’n,” Jeb said. “I’d wager he’ll be one of the best trackers in
the Rangers, given a little time. He’s good at readin’ sign,
“Still, he’s awfully green. It appears he
isn’t all that used to riding, either. Rangers spend most of their
time in the saddle. You know that.”
Nate was standing spraddle-legged, trying to
lessen the aches in his back, butt, legs, and groin from two days
of hard riding.
“Sure he is, Cap’n. I’ll admit that, and so
will Nate. But all of us were, at one time. And don’t forget—Nate,
here, saved me from a bullet in my guts when he took on that
outlaw. He never flinched when that horse thief we brought in took
a shot at us, and his bullet barely missed Nate’s head. And he
never once complained about the steady ridin’. He’s a man to ride
the river with.”
“I’d do my best to be a good Ranger,” Nate
added. “All I’m asking is the chance to prove myself.”
Quincy rubbed his jaw. He pulled his pipe
from his vest pocket, filled it with tobacco, tamped that down, and
lit it. He took a long draw on the pipe, then blew a ring of smoke
toward the tent’s ceiling before answering.
“Nate, I believe I can take a chance on you.
You’ll have to work hard, but if you’re as good a man as Jeb
claims, that’s good enough for me.”
“I won’t let you down, Cap’n.”
“And you’ll let us know when he’s ready to
be a full-time Ranger, right, Cap’n?” Jeb asked. “I know that’ll be
some time down the road, mebbe a year or more.”
let me know when he’s
ready, Jeb. Lieutenant Berkeley’s patrol just rode in yesterday.
They’ve had a tough ride, so I’m giving them a week’s rest before
they head out again, you with them, of course. In fact, all the men
have been out for longer than usual, so unless somethin’ comes up,
I’m gonna keep everyone in camp for a few days. The men and horses
are plumb worn out, in no shape to take on a bunch of renegades or
Comanch’. Rest and a chance to lick our wounds will do everyone
some good, includin’ me. In that time, I want you to give Nate,
here, as much training as possible. Before you leave, I expect you
to report that Nate is well on the way to becomin’ a Ranger. I
don’t expect him to be ready to go out on patrol for at least a
month, probably longer’n that, but I want him to get as much
learning as possible before you ride out with Bob again. That’ll be
your job. Nate, are you ready to be sworn in as a probationary
“I sure am, yessir..”
“Just ‘Captain’, Nate. Remember, this is the
Texas Rangers, not the United States Army,” Quincy scolded. He
smiled to take the sting out of his words.
“Yes sir, I mean, Cap’n. I’m sorry. Jeb told
me that too. I keep forgettin’.”
“That’s better. Now, I’ll swear you in and
prepare your enlistment papers. Don’t worry about your age. I’ll
just put down ‘Birth Date Unknown’. That’s bendin’ the rules a bit,
but the Rangers are notorious for bending rules until they almost
break. Once we’re finished you can care for your horse, then head
for your tent. There’s an extra bunk in Jim Kelly’s tent, so you’ll
take that one. You’ll be bunkin’ with Jim, Dan Morton, and Hoot
Harrison. I’d suggest you get some rest, mebbe clean up a bit in
the river. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the men at
“Thanks, Cap’n. I won’t let you down.”
“I’m countin’ on that, son.”
Nate’s papers were signed and he was sworn
in. After accepting congratulations from Captain Quincy, he and Jeb
headed for their tents.
“Jeb, I ain’t sixteen, and you know it,”
Nate whispered. “And that horse thief’s bullet didn’t come all that
close to me.”
“Shush. Never say a word about that again.
Far as anyone around here knows, you’re sixteen.”
“What about Bob and the others?”
“They’ll keep our secret,” Jeb promised.
“Now let’s go see if anyone knew who that horse thief was, then
grab some shut-eye before supper.”
No one recognized the horse thief, so he was
buried in an unmarked grave just outside the camp, with a brief
prayer said for the salvation of his soul by Captain Quincy. After
caring for their horses and washing up a bit, Jeb and Nate spent
the next hour catching up on some much needed sleep. They were
jolted from their rest by the clanging of an iron spoon on a cast
iron pot and the cook’s yell.
“Come and get it before I toss it in the
river for the fishes!”
“He means that too, Nate,” Hoot said from
his bunk. “We’d better hurry.” He and the other members of
Lieutenant Berkeley’s patrol had been happy to see Nate, and
greeted him warmly. All were pleased at his decision to stay in
Supper was the usual bacon, biscuits, and
beans, along with strong black coffee. Nate was finally getting
used to the bitter brew. Once everyone had their plates full and
found seats on logs or sat cross-legged on the ground Captain
Quincy called for silence.
“Men, as usual I want to thank the Good Lord
for our supper this evening. Amen.”
“Now, I’m sure you’ve all noticed there’s a
new young man in our midst,” he continued.
“We’re Rangers,” Ed Jennings said. “We’d
better have noticed him.”
The rest of the men laughed.
“Besides, he eats so much you, can’t hardly
miss him in the chuck line,” Dan Morton added, again to laughter.
“That’s enough. Men, the new man is Nate
Stewart. He lost his home and family to outlaws outside San Saba a
few days back. I know most of you have already heard that story.
And since all of you in Bob’s patrol have already met him, there’s
no need to introduce you men again. For the rest, Nate, our cook is
George Bayfield. He’s a retired Ranger who can still put up a fight
when he needs to. George, Nate’s gonna be your assistant while he’s
being trained and we decide if he’ll cut it as a Ranger.”