Read Streets of Laredo: A Novel Online

Authors: Larry McMurtry

Tags: #Outlaws, #West (U.S.), #Cowboys - West (U.S.), #Western Stories, #Westerns, #General, #Literary, #Sagas, #Historical, #Outlaws - West (U.S.), #Fiction, #Texas

Streets of Laredo: A Novel

BOOK: Streets of Laredo: A Novel
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STREETS OF LAREDO

 

by Larry McMurtry

 

Part I A Salaried Man

 

"Most train robbers ain't smart, which is a lucky thing for the railroads," Call said.

 

"Five smart train robbers could bust every railroad in this country." "This young Mexican is smart," Brookshire said, but before he could elaborate, the wind lifted his hat right off his head. He was forced to chase it--not the first time he had been forced to chase his hat since arriving in Amarillo. He had taken to ramming his hat down on his head nearly to his eyebrows, but the Texas winds were of a different order than the winds he had been accustomed to in Brooklyn, where he lived. Somehow, time after time, the Texas winds lifted his hat. Before he could even get a hand up to grab it, there it went.

 

It was just a common fedora; but on the other hand, it was his only hat, and it was not his custom to go through life bareheaded, at least not while he was conducting business for the railroad. Colonel Terry would not have approved. Brookshire was only a salaried man, and he could not afford to ignore Colonel Terry's preferences in such matters.

 

This time the hat rode the wind like a fat bird --it had a twenty-yard lead on its owner before it hit the ground, and when it did hit, it rolled rapidly along the gritty street.

 

Fortunately for Brookshire, a wagon was parked to the south of the station, and the hat eventually lodged against one of the wagon wheels. He strolled over and picked it up, trying to appear nonchalant, though in fact, he was more than a little out of sorts.

 

At the behest of his superiors--Colonel Terry in particular; Colonel Terry, the president of the railroad, was the only superior who counted--Brookshire had journeyed all the way from New York to hire a bandit killer.

 

Brookshire was an accountant. Hiring bandit killers wasn't his line of work, but the man who normally handled the task, Big Johnny Roberts, had accidentally swallowed a wine cork and choked to death, just as he was about to depart for Texas. From Colonel Terry's point of view, it was a nuisance; he took a look around the office and before Brookshire knew it, he was on a train going west, in Johnny Roberts's stead. In his years with the railroad, he had performed a number of services, but never in a place where his hat blew off every time he turned a corner. Having to chase his hat was an aggravation, but the real reason he was out of sorts was because he wasn't at all impressed with the killer he had been instructed to hire.

 

About the best thing Brookshire could find to say for the small, weary-looking man standing in front of the little shack of a depot, a saddle and a duffle roll stacked beside him, was that he had been punctual. He had ridden in at dawn, hitching his sorrel mare outside the hotel precisely at seven a.m., the time agreed upon. Still, Brookshire had barely been able to conceal his shock when he saw how old the man was. Of course, Brookshire was aware of his reputation: no one in the West had a reputation to equal Woodrow Call's. In Brookshire's view, reputation did not catch bandits--at least it didn't catch bandits who covered country as rapidly as young Joey Garza. The young Mexican was said to be only nineteen years old, whereas Captain Call, from the look of him, was edging seventy.

 

Nonetheless, Brookshire had been ordered to hire Woodrow Call and no one else. More than that, he had been entrusted with a fancy, engraved Colt revolver which Colonel Terry had sent along as a special gift.

 

To Brookshire's dismay, Captain Call scarcely glanced at the gun. He didn't even bother to lift it out of its rosewood box. He didn't twirl the chamber or admire the fine engraving.

 

"Thanks, but I'll pass," he said. He seemed more grateful for the coffee. Of course, it was wintry, and the old Ranger was only wearing a light coat.

 

"Good Lord, what will I tell Colonel Terry?" Brookshire asked. "This gun probably cost him five hundred dollars. This engraving is handwork. It don't come cheap." "Why, the Colonel can keep it himself, then," Call said. "I appreciate the thought, but I've no place to keep a fancy weapon.

 

I'd have to deposit it in a bank, and I prefer to avoid banks.

 

"I generally depend on the rifle, not the pistol," he added. "If you're close enough to a killer to be in reach of a pistol bullet, then generally you're too close." "Good Lord," Brookshire said, again. He knew Colonel Terry well enough to know that he wasn't going to be pleased when told that his gift had not been wanted. Colonel Terry hadn't been a colonel for nothing, either. Having such an expensive present rejected by a fellow who just looked like an old cowpoke would undoubtedly put him in a temper, in which case Brookshire and anyone else who happened to be in the office would have to scramble to keep their jobs.

 

Call saw that the man was upset--he supposed, really, that he ought to accept the gun.

 

That would be the polite thing. But in the past few years, governors and presidents of railroads and senators and rich men were always offering him fancy weapons, or expensive saddles, or the use of their railroad cars, or even fine horses--and always, something in him resisted.

 

For one thing, he despised fancy gear. He rode a plain saddle, and all that he required in a weapon was that it be reliable and accurate.

 

For another thing, he had never met a governor or a president of a railroad or a senator or a rich man that he liked or felt comfortable with. Why place himself in some arrogant fool's debt for the sake of a gun he'd never shoot nor probably even load?

 

Only a few days before, Call and Charles Goodnight had discussed the matter of gifts from the rich and powerful. It had been the day, in fact, that Goodnight had ridden out to the little line cabin he let Call use when he was between jobs, and handed Call the telegram asking him to meet a Mr. Ned Brookshire in Amarillo at seven a.m., in the lobby of the best hotel.

 

Goodnight himself was famous; probably as famous as a cattleman could get. He had also been offered twenty-five or thirty engraved Winchesters in recent years, but, like Call, he was skeptical of the rich and powerful and seldom felt comfortable in their company.

 

Throughout most of their lives, which had only occasionally intersected, Woodrow Call and Charles Goodnight had not exactly gotten along. Somehow in the old days, the Indian-fighting days, they had rubbed one another the wrong way almost every time they met. Even now, they did not exactly consider themselves friends. Once a week or so, when Goodnight was around his home ranch, he had formed the habit of riding out to the little line cabin to check on his guest, the famous Texas Ranger.

 

The shack sat not far from the north rim of the Palo Duro Canyon. Often the two men would sit, largely in silence, looking down into the canyon until dusk and then darkness filled it.

 

In the dusk and shadows they saw their history; in the fading afterlight they saw the fallen: the Rangers, the Indians, the cowboys.

 

"Let a man give you a fancy gun and he'll tell everybody in five counties that he's your friend, when in fact, you may despise him," Goodnight said, spitting. "I don't number too many rich fools among my friends--how about you?" "I have not had a friend for several years," Call said. Only after he said it did it occur to him that the remark might sound a little odd--as if he were asking for sympathy.

 

"Of course, there's Pea and there's Bol," he added, hastily. "Bol's out of his head, but I count him a friend." "Oh, your cook, I think he fed me once," Goodnight said. "If he's out of his head, how do you keep up with him?" "I left him with a family in San Antonio," Call said. "When I get a job down near the border I sometimes put him on his mule and take him with me. There's another family in Nuevo Laredo I can board him with when it comes time to do the work.

 

"He enjoys a little travel," Call added.

 

"He's still got his memories--he just can't put any two of them together." "Hell, I can barely sort out two memories myself," Goodnight said. "It's what I get for living too long. My head fills up and sloshes over, like a damn bucket.

 

Whatever sloshes out is lost. I doubt I still know half of what I knew when I was fifty years old." "You take too many train trips," Call observed, in a mild tone.

 

"I thought we were talking about my bad memory," Goodnight said, squinting at him. "What's train travel got to do with it?" "All this traveling by train weakens the memory --it's bound to," Call said. "A man that travels horseback needs to remember where the water holes are, but a man that rides in a train can forget about water holes, because trains don't drink." Goodnight let that observation soak in for a few minutes.

 

"I was never lost, night or day," he said finally. "How about you?" "I got turned around once, in Mexico," Call said. "It was a cloudy night. My horse fell and got up pointed in the wrong direction. I was yawny that night and didn't notice till morning." "Was you mad at the horse when you did notice?" Goodnight asked.

 

"I was mad at myself," Call said.

 

"Well, this is a pointless conversation," Goodnight said, turning abruptly toward his horse. Without another word, he mounted and rode away. He had always been abrupt, Call reflected. When Charles Goodnight concluded that a conversation had overrun its point, he was apt to make a swift departure.

 

While Mr. Brookshire was walking back across the street, trying to whack the dust out of his fedora by hitting it against his leg, the train he and Call had been waiting for came in sight. It was the train that would, in time, deliver them to San Antonio.

 

Call was trying to think of a polite way to inform Mr. Brookshire that the fedora wouldn't do in a windy place like Texas. A hat that kept blowing off could lead to no end of trouble when dealing with a bandit as advanced as Joey Garza.

 

Even more, Call wished Brookshire could be persuaded just to go on back to New York, leaving him to deal with the young Mexican bandit alone.

 

Traveling across the West with errand boys such as Mr. Brookshire took considerably more energy than tracking the bandits themselves. Call had little to say to such men, but they invariably had much to say to him. Six hundred miles of Mr.

 

Brookshire's conversation was not something he looked forward to.

 

"This wind puts me in mind of Chicago," Brookshire said, when he returned to where Call was standing. He didn't bother putting his hat back on his head. Instead, he clutched it tightly in both hands.

 

"I've not visited Chicago," Call said, to be polite.

 

"The wind's not like this back home," Brookshire said. "Back home I can go for months without my hat blowing off my head a single time. I got off the train here yesterday, and I've been chasing my hat ever since." The train wheezed and screeched to a halt. When it had come to a full stop, Captain Call picked up his saddle and duffle roll.

 

Brookshire, to his surprise, suddenly found that he was feeling a little desperate--he felt that he didn't dare move. The wind had become even more severe, and he had the sickening sense that he, not his hat, was about to blow away. There wasn't a tree in sight that he could see: just endless plain. Unless he could roll up against a wagon wheel, as his hat had, there would be nothing to stop him for days, if he blew away. He knew it was an absurd feeling: grown men, especially heavy men such as himself, didn't just blow away. Yet the feeling persisted, and every time he happened to glance across the street and see nothing --nothing at all except grass and sky--the feeling got worse.

 

Call noticed that Brookshire had an odd look on his face. The man stood with his fedora clutched to his stomach, looking as if he were afraid to move, yet he was standing on perfectly level ground on a sunny winter day.

 

"Are you ill, Mr. Brookshire?" Call asked. After all, the man had been polite; he had agreed to Call's terms and had cheerfully paid for the coffee as well.

 

"I'd like to get on the train," Brookshire said. "I believe I'll soon perk up if I could just get on the train." "Why, here it is, right behind you," Call told him. "I assume you've got the tickets. We can step right on." "I'm afraid I've left my valise--you see, that's my problem," Brookshire admitted.

 

"Oh, at the hotel?" Call asked.

 

"Yes, it's right in the lobby," Brookshire said, looking at the ground. He did not feel it would be wise to look across the street again. It was when he looked across the street that the blowing-away sensation seized him the most fiercely.

 

"Well, the train just pulled in--it'll be here awhile, I expect," Call said. "You've got plenty of time to go get your valise." Then he looked again and realized that his traveling companion was having some sort of attack.

 

Brookshire was frozen, his eyes fixed on his feet. He didn't appear to be capable of moving--walking the hundred yards to the hotel was, for the moment, clearly beyond him.

 

"I can't do it," Brookshire muttered. "I can't do it. I'd just like to get on the train." He paused, his eyes still on his feet.

 

"What I'd like very much is to get on the train," he said, again.

 

Call immediately set down his saddle and duffle roll and took Mr. Brookshire's arm. The man was close to panic, and when a man was close to panic, discussion rarely helped.

 

"Here, I'll just escort you to your car," he said, holding Brookshire's arm. Brookshire took one small step, and then another. Soon Call had him situated in a railroad seat.

 

Brookshire's chest began to heave and the sweat poured off him, but at least, Call reckoned, the panic was broken.

 

"Just stay here and settle in," Call said.

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