Authors: Elmer Kelton
Tags: #Texas Rangers, #Western Stories, #Vendetta, #Texas, #Fiction
For the last twelve or fifteen miles Andy Pickard and Farley Brackett had ridden in almost total silence. One ignored his partner, and the other tried to. They talked no more than the surefooted little Mexican pack mule that followed them across the Texas hill country’s rocky ground. That suited Andy fine, for Farley was unlikely to say anything he wanted to listen to.
Andy speculated that the Ranger captain might have been sore at him for some reason, detailing him with dour Farley Brackett on this locate-and-arrest mission. The captain had said, “Brackett’s a man I’d like to have beside me in a fight, but be damned if I’d want him for company before and after.”
Farley usually looked as if he had just come back from a funeral. The captain had probably been glad to get him out of camp for two or three days and let the sunshine in.
Andy had to squint, riding directly into the setting sun. “Fixin’ to be sundown pretty quick.”
Farley grunted as if to say he could see that for himself and he resented the break in silence.
Night was going to catch them before they reached the Leach place. That was all right with Andy. He liked a little low-level excitement, but he had no interest in getting killed. He said, “We’d make too good a target ridin’ up in broad daylight anyway. Captain told us those folks are apt to put up a fight if we don’t catch them off guard.”
Farley’s eyes were as grim as the muzzle of a shotgun. “Anybody is liable to put up a fight when they’re lookin’ at a stretch in the penitentiary. These people ain’t bright, but even a fool can sight down a gun barrel and kill you.”
Andy and Farley carried a warrant for the arrest of one Joseph Bransford on a charge of robbery and attempted murder. He had ambushed a stock farmer back in Colorado County, leaving him for dead after taking money the farmer had collected for selling a team of mules. The captain had received a tip that Bransford was hiding out north of the Llano River on a hardscrabble homestead operated by his sister and her husband, Abner Leach. Leach claimed to be a farmer, but he was suspected of operating a way station for stolen livestock. No one had been able to prove it to the satisfaction of a jury.
So far as the captain could determine, Leach was not currently wanted by the law despite his shady reputation. However, it was probably only a matter of time before he was caught knee-deep in some ill-conceived activity that would put his name on the Rangers’ fugitive list.
Farley said, “If we was to shoot them both, the taxpayers wouldn’t have to foot the cost of a trial.”
Coming from some people, that would be considered idle talk. In Farley’s case, Andy doubted it was idle. “There’s no charges out against Leach.”
“There will be sooner or later. Shoot him now and we’ll save some squatter from gettin’ his livestock stolen.”
Andy could see a certain twisted logic in Farley’s view of summary justice, but it went against many stern lectures peace officers like Rusty Shannon had preached to him about the importance of law, about the presumption of innocence until guilt was proven. He wished he had Rusty with him now instead of Farley. “Rangers don’t go around shootin’ prisoners.”
“Wake up and look around you, boy. Sometimes justice gets served out in the brush, where there’s no witnesses. No petty-foggin’ lawyers, no bought-off jury. Time you get a few more years on you, you’ll know what I mean.”
Farley had touched a sore spot. Andy was evidently the youngest man in the company, though nobody knew his age. The best guess was twenty years or a little more. Indians had killed his father and mother when he was small and had carried him off to raise as their own. Circumstances had thrust him back into Texan hands about the time his voice began to change. He had had to learn English all over again and stumble along on the white man’s road, learning the hard way by trial and error—lots of error. Even with Rusty Shannon’s guidance, it had been a rough road to follow after knowing only the ways of the Comanche.
He was keenly aware that he still looked young to be riding with the Rangers. He had recently tried growing a mustache in an effort to appear older. He had shaved it off after three weeks because it looked pathetically thin and weak.
Farley had remarked, “Old men try to look young, and young men try to look like their daddies. They’re all lyin’ to theirselves.”
Andy was aware that an element of truth existed behind Farley’s talk about shooting prisoners. He had heard whispered stories about outlaws shot “trying to escape.” If a man was considered dangerous, it was safer to carry him in dead. And a quick burial was cheaper on the county. No criminal ever climbed out of the grave to file an appeal.
Many people were afraid of Farley Brackett, with cause. He had come home from the Yankee war with a long scar on his face and a deeper one etched into his soul. During Reconstruction years he had become a scourge to the federally backed authorities. The unionist state police had chased him often but had learned from bitter experience not to get close enough to catch him.
Once the old-time Texans regained political control of their state, transgressions against the former government had been forgiven, even applauded. The reorganized Rangers had been glad to have Farley join their ranks. He knew how men on the dodge thought and acted because he had been one. Andy thought he still had the shifty wolf eyes of a fugitive.
In the fading light of dusk Andy could make out a dim wagon trail. “You sure these tracks lead to the Leach place?”
Farley grumped, “Of course I’m sure. I’m always sure. I came this way before, huntin’ a pal of Leach’s that stuck up a Dutchman over in Friedrichsburg. Leach tried to point me onto the wrong trail. I ought to’ve shot him when I had the chance. We wouldn’t have anybody to worry about now but Bransford.”
They followed the wagon tracks until Andy saw lamplight ahead. “Looks like we’ve found the cabin.”
“It never was lost. I knew where it was at.”
“I guess we’ll wait till they’re asleep, then bust in?”
Farley assumed command by right of seniority and age. He looked at Andy as if the suggestion were the dumbest thing he had ever heard. “No, we’ll make a dry camp and wait for mornin’. Bust in now and we’d have Bransford and Leach both to fight. That ain’t countin’ the woman, but I expect she’ll just scream, faint, and fall down.”
Andy argued, “In the mornin’ they’ll all be awake.”
“We’ll wait till the men are separated so we can handle them one at a time. Last time I was here, Leach came out about daylight to milk. We’ll surprise him at the cow lot.”
“He’ll give up when he sees we’re fixin’ to burn the cabin down around him.”
“Or he’ll come out shootin’.”
“Good. We can finish him off legal and proper.”
Andy protested, “We can’t burn a cabin with a woman in it.”
“She’ll come out soon as her skirts start smokin’. With people like them, you don’t ask permission or beg their pardon.”
“I doubt the adjutant general would approve of it.”
“The adjutant general!” Farley snorted. “Sittin’ comfortable at a desk in Austin, writin’ rules like he was dealin’ with law-abidin’ citizens. Out here the owl hoots in the daytime same as at night, and things look a lot different.”
They moved back to the far side of a cedar-crowned hill where they could build a small fire without its being seen from the cabin. Farley commanded, “Cook us somethin’ fit to eat.”
Andy started to say, You’re a private same as me, but changed his mind. The day might come when he had a showdown with Farley, but it would have to be over something more important than this. He took a pack from the back of the mule while Farley coaxed a small pile of dead wood into a blaze. Andy wished he had some of the dried buffalo meat that Comanches carried on long rides or the pemmican they made by pounding dried meat, berries, and nuts together. He preferred it over fatback broiled on the end of a stick. But he would settle for fatback because that was what he and Farley had brought, that and cold biscuits dried hard enough to drive a nail.
He knew no fat Rangers.
Water from their canteens yielded a cup of coffee apiece. Farley sat back, stretching his long legs, and slowly sipped his coffee as he might nurse a shot of whiskey. He seemed to withdraw into some private part of his mind, as distant as if he were back in the company headquarters camp on the San Saba River.
Andy broke a long silence. “I wish Rusty was with us.” Rusty Shannon had taken charge of Andy when he was separated from the Comanches. He had become like an older brother.
“What’s the matter, Badger Boy? You need a nursemaid?”
Farley took perverse pleasure in using the English version of the name by which the Comanches had known Andy. He was like some malevolent shaman who could summon up a dark and rumbling cloud from a bright and sunny sky.
Andy said, “Rusty always knows what to do.”
“He’s not a Ranger anymore, and it’s probably a good thing. He always allowed the other feller too much of an edge. Sooner or later he’d get himself killed takin’ pity on people that have got no pity comin’ to them.”
That was one thing Farley could never be accused of, Andy thought. “Rusty had pity on me when I needed help. And God knows I caused him trouble enough for a while.”
Rusty had taken Andy into his log-cabin home on the Colorado River. He had managed to maintain his patience while Andy made the slow and painful transition from Comanche life. Andy had run away more than once, trying to return to his adoptive Indian family. He had fistfought boys for miles around when they ridiculed him for the Indian braids he refused to cut and the moccasins he wore instead of shoes.
The braids were gone now, and so were the moccasins. He wanted to fit in, to be the kind of Ranger Rusty had been. But he retained a remnant of Indian upbringing. It would probably always be there.
Drinking his bitter coffee, he lapsed into silence, pondering tomorrow and wishing he were as sure of himself as Farley seemed to be.
Morning was a long time in coming. Andy lay awake most of the night, visualizing the expected confrontation, imagining the worst that might happen. He pictured Leach’s woman lying dead after the smoke cleared, much as he had seen his white mother dead years ago. It was one of his earliest memories, long suppressed because it was so terrible. The image still returned from time to time like a nightmare that would not wait for the night.
Farley seemed to harbor no misgivings. Andy listened to him snoring peacefully.
The stars still glittered when Farley came out from beneath his blanket. He looked up at them to get a rough notion of time. “We’d better be gettin’ ourselves in position before daylight. Leach wakes up the rooster.”
Andy was hungry. “Hadn’t we ought to fix some breakfast first?”
“When we’re done we’ll make Leach’s woman cook us a proper meal.”
“Thought you were goin’ to burn her cabin down.”
“They raise pigs. We’ll catch us a juicy shoat and have her roast it over the coals.”
Andy started to pack the mule. Farley stopped him. “Don’t you know a stupid mule is liable to smell feed and go in there brayin’ his head off? We’ll leave him here and pick him up when the job is done.”