Another, what will be considerably longer, fix fic. None of the other chapters are going to be quite as HUGE as this one, though there will be a lot of time between updates (I am a busy beaver this semester) and I want each chapter to be a satisfying read on its own. This follows up 'Oh How Bright the Path' in some ways, and uses elements and facts from the Portis novel while generally following the 2010 movie canon.
NOTE: Everything LaBoeuf writes about in the letters of this chapter really did happen to the detachment of Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion Company C at Ysleta, El Paso County, later the made main body of Company A, between the years of 1878 and 1881. And to the Texas Rangers in general.
("Time just gets away from us.")
The envelope had what appeared to be a coffee stain on its upper right corner. Or else that was liquor, I could not quite be sure.
I inspected it more closely.
The vowels of Dardanelle, Yell County were smudged somewhat. I lifted it surreptitiously under my nose to detect the faint scent of Bull Durham smoking tobacco. I had found the envelope tucked between a letter from the Woodson Brothers in Little Rock, and another from the Vicksburg & Gulf Steamship Company.
It was postmarked from Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, El Paso County, Texas.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Ms. Ross?"
I glanced up through the service window.
The post office clerk stood there with his fingers tented and brow pinched. He was a short, balding man, a prominent overbite to match his somewhat overbearing manner. I write the honorific out as Ms. because that is how he said it, though I had only turned fifteen at the beginning of the month and was yet some years away from securing my spinster status.
But he was also one of the few people in Dardanelle who had mastered the skill of staring at my face while speaking to me, rather than at my pinned-up sleeve. I understood that the rest of them did not do this on purpose and admittedly the sight took some getting used to, but it was something I had grown quickly tired of.
"No. That will be all, Mr. Hughes. Thank you."
I tucked the mail beneath my arm and walked out.
The street had been churned to mud by the March rains, and it was about two miles down this road from the center of town to our farm. I found the walk invigorating, pleasant enough in the mild air, though my boots became stuck very often in the slurry. I had not yet found a horse accommodating enough to let me mount him from the right side, which of course it would be necessary for me to do.
I arrived home to find two others enjoying the spring day. My brother was sitting on the front porch of our ranch house, sharing some oat bread rolls and a hoop of cheese with another round-faced boy whose name I did not remember at the time. Little Frank sat up straighter when I came into the yard. He was only three years and some months my junior, really, but still tried to put on that guileless, innocent expression you do not see in most children past the age of six.
"Frank, what are you doing home from school?"
He swallowed a mouthful of food and pondered his answer. "I forgot my lunch pail."
"No, you did not. I handed it to you this morning."
I must tell you that lying did not suit my brother's character in the slightest. He had inherited our mother's almost painful honesty and could not have told a decent fib to save himself. So rather than dig the grave any deeper, he dropped his eyes right then and muttered, "That dried-up old stickler Ms. Brandonnberg sent me home."
Privately I thought Linnea Brandonnberg something of a "stickler" myself. She had been the schoolteacher here in Dardanelle for going on five years now, yet still flew into a perennial passion over the fact that her male students had better things to do during the harvest and planting seasons than sit inside doing arithmetic. A formal education is valuable enough, yes, but it is my personal opinion that work ethic is to be held above all else. One learns principally by doing rather, not watching.
I had no plans of telling Frank this for the moment.
"And why did she send you home?"
The other boy, who had been content with stuffing our bread into his face until now, decided to speak up. "Because Frank don't take no guff offa no skirts, that's why."
"Tom, you are a big fat-headed snitch!" Frank elbowed his friend hard in the ribs. The boy nearly choked. "Keep your mouth shut."
"But it's true! She sassed you for not reciting the passage right, then you said real quiet-like, 'I don't take no guff offa no skirts.' You're the one who should keep his mouth shut, not me!"
"Well, that gray-haired alligator gar shouldn't have gotten so mad in the first place. I had the words close enough, didn't I?"
"I told you you did."
I watched this exchange with mounting irritation. I had remembered the other boy's name now. He was Thomas Cain, who lived with his aunt and uncle further down the river. I raised my voice to cut through their cajoling.
"What was the passage you did not memorize, Frank?"
Reminded of my unwelcome presence, his expression soured again. "John 15:13."
"That is a central tenements of the Lord's teachings."
"Yeah, yeah. That's about what Ms. Brandonnberg told me in front of everybody. In about the same words, too."
"How did you quote it?"
Frank, clearly in distress and not a little embarrassed now, gave a sigh and delivered the line with as much exasperation as possible. "'Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for a friend.'"
"That is likely the Webster translation," I sniffed. "And do you have it correctly, now?"
His next words were even more colorless, if that was at all possible. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend.'"
Tom had been watching me with wide-set green eyes, and scrunched his face up in distaste. "Aw, they're practically the same anyhow. I think Frank was close enough not for you to be splitting hairs over it, Mattie."
"And which piece of Scripture did you mangle, Thomas Cain?" I realized that both of them were spattered with black mud all the way from their shirtsleeves down to their trousers. "Not that Linnea Brandonnberg is in any want of reasons for your expulsion."
"Oh. Tom put a frog in Ms. Brandonnberg's desk after she yelled at me. We'd been saving it in a jar for a special occasion," Frank answered, in a way that was almost boasting. "And he said he likes Mama's bread better than the stuff his aunt makes."
Tom nodded and took a large bite to prove his point. Those oats had cost me two dollars a pound at the store. "Mm-hmm. Hers tastes like tree bark."
"Tom, you never ate tree bark in your life."
"No. But I have eaten grass, and dirt, and bugs, and I figure tree bark would taste about like a good mix of the three."
"Joseph Atkinson dared us both twenty cents to eat those," Frank confided to me, as though he had forgotten who his audience was. His dark hair was disheveled. His up-turned nose, a feature we had in common, gave a sniff that I took to be the first sign of a cold.
Tom grinned. "And we got his nickels right enough, didn't we, Frank?"
"Go home, Thomas," I ordered. "And Frank, wash yourself up before you track that into the house. I will deal with you later. A man who does not know his Holy Scripture backwards and forwards is easy prey for vice."
"Well," Frank grumbled as he got to his feet, "Papa would have said I got it close enough."
Thomas, meanwhile, had pocketed the rest of the bread rolls. As he made ready to leave, he said in a voice low enough that he likely did not think I could hear him, "Frank Ross don't take no guff offa no skirts."
Frank snorted, turning away to walk towards the side yard. "Shut it, Tom. You're going to get me in real trouble some time."
They parted ways.
I stood on the porch until Thomas had passed through our front gate, my glare on his back all the while and my boots heavy on the weather-beaten boards.
I went inside.
Papa's office was a narrow room on the ground floor, towards the front of our house so that visitors would not be tempted to snoop. Its walls were sage green above wainscot paneling. A small cast-iron stove, which had also served as his bill incinerator, squatted in the corner. The room's only furniture was a hoop-back chair and a Carlton House desk kept with military precision. Its single westward facing window had no curtains.
I stood at this one window for a moment and observed my brother as he made a sopping mess of himself at the water pump. Hair, face, back and legs were all given their turn beneath bursts of cold groundwater as it shot from the iron spigot. Our dog Samson came running up to lap at the puddles created, and became rather soaked himself. Frank laughed.
Then I sat down at the desk and began sorting through our mail.
This was accomplished by placing one side of each envelope under a heavy book, to hold it in place as I slit it open. Apparently it requires two hands to work a letter opener in the ordinary fashion. And to braid hair, and peel apples, and roll cigarettes, and lace boots.
It is interesting, all of the things you do not think about under ordinary circumstances.
The letter from Howard and John Woodson detailed potential buyers for our cotton this coming year, most of them big textile mills in New England, and confirmed that they would be paid a three percent commission at season's end. Most planters after the war between the States only allowed two and a half percent to be taken out. Papa had always been generous in his business dealings.
The other envelopes contained a check from Mr. Matthew Richards, in exchange for the hundred acres of land I had sold him once I realized we could not afford the workers needed to harvest it, and a Bill of Lading from the captain of a Vicksburg & Gulf steamboat. This formally acknowledged that he had received our small freight of bell beans, a winter cover crop Papa had thought of trying to replenish the soil, and would deliver it on schedule. I had already sent a dock warrant on ahead to Pine Bluff.
Finally I came to the letter from El Paso and slit it wide.
More of that tobacco smell puffed out when I did. I shook the envelope a few times until its contents fell onto the desk.
The handwriting was squared and pragmatic. Words marched across the page in a way reminiscent of posts in a fence.
20 February 1878
I am writing because my attempts to reach Cogburn through the U.S Marshal's office at Ft. Smith have been unsuccessful. I would give him his portion of the reward that is due – one third of the Bibbs family's $1500 for Chelmsford/Chaney dead, in keeping with the particulars of our agreement.
The additional state bounty put up by Gov. Hubbard stipulated that Chaney be brought back alive, so we will not be seeing any of that. If you have information as to Cogburn's whereabouts you would do well in relaying it to me.
Sgt. LaBoeuf, Representing Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion Detachment of Co. C
I needed to read this letter over several times. Not because it was at all difficult to decipher, no, but because it took that amount of time for me to get a proper feel for its tone. I flipped it over, then right-side up again. It was written in pencil on what I guessed to be newsprint.
From the back of the house, I heard Frank come plodding through the door and start pulling off his boots in the kitchen. Victoria's hoarse, questioning voice called out from the bedroom we shared. Mama, I figured, was with her, or else in bed herself.
Opening a drawer, I snatched up a leaf of foolscap paper. One corner of it was set beneath the book, because I could not use my left hand to keep it in place.
I drew out a pen. Plunged it into the blue ink well.
The steel nib made slicing, decisive noises as it turned copperplate loops across the page.
Friday, March 22nd, 1878
Dear Sgt. LaBoeuf, Representing Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion Detachment of Co. C,
Whenever I propose to go about extracting information from a former acquaintance, I at least have the decency to exchange a few pleasantries before the arm-twisting can begin in earnest. Texans, I gather, do not receive any kind of instruction regarding this social practice. Therefore I am speaking for the both of us when I ask: What cheer?
It is quiet here in Arkansas. I am anticipating a good season for cotton. The Farmer's Almanac predicts there will be no early frosts this year, and of course frost is enough to turn any crop from fair to strict low middling condition overnight. How does this letter find you? Yours finds my family well enough, though Victoria has a cough and Mama will sometimes spend afternoons in bed if I let her. Frank is being a nuisance. Our dog bit Mr. DuBois in the ankle last Thursday, which I take as further evidence that he is an uncommonly excellent judge of character: the dog, that is. Not the banker. As you can see, these questions are not so difficult to ask, or answer.
Basic civilities now attended to, I will tell you what I have been able to gather about Rooster from Mr. Chen Lee and my own personal inquiries. Here is what happened.
Three weeks after our return from the Indian Territory in early December, the Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn shot Odus Wharton dead in Fort Gibson. You may recall Wharton as that man who broke jail in Fort Smith, the one they had on trial. (It is a pity you missed Lawyer Goudy having it out with Rooster on the witness stand. It was an entertaining thing to watch.) Wharton was a convicted man, a fugitive besides, but Rooster also killed two men who were with him and this drew enough criticism that he was pressed by Chief Deputy Upham to surrender his badge. He has since relocated to San Antonio and is working for the stockmen's association as a range detective. Along with the rest of my hundred dollar reward, Rooster has received a personal check for two hundred dollars from Lawyer Daggett. I am pleased to hear you are making good on your agreement as well.
I find his relocation to Texas odd; during one of our conversations, Rooster had mentioned disliking the territory. He said there is an average of six trees per hundred square miles out there, and everything that grows has got barbs all over it. I had thought maybe he would go to Illinois. His son Horace and first wife are purportedly there. But then, there is no telling what is in the minds or hearts of men.
Yours Most Respectfully,
I ended this signature with a harsh stab, peeved that there were no dipping or curling letters in my name where a flourish might be added.
The papers were waved about until the ink dried, folded up into somewhat uneven fourths, then slipped into an envelope which I held open with two fingers.
Then I rose from my seat and went to give Victoria a spoonful of the cough syrup I had made, a rather frightful tonic gotten from onion juice and sugar left to sit in a jar. It was an old farm recipe and very effective. Mama got out of bed with some prodding on my part. I found her curled up under a quilt she had gotten as a wedding present.
I mailed the letter three days later – the postage rate back then, as I recall, was $0.02 per half ounce – and forgot about it.
29 April 1878
Because you insist on knowing, I will oblige you – your letter finds me short-tempered, and indecisive as to whether I should beat myself senseless against a hitching post or toss back a bottle of Prvt. Rutherford's whiskey to achieve a similar result. That is cheer for you these days.
Last June, an El Paso judge by the name of Howard – also referred to by certain individuals as the Greased Pig – took it upon himself to privatize several salt lakes near the Guadalupe Mountains. Previously, residents from along the Rio Grande had been able to take wagon loads of salt from the deposits there and haul it off to be sold. They did this whenever they pleased and free of charge, as there was no claim on the land and so no owner to pay charges to. No doubt you read about all this in the newspapers, but I must explain so you understand my situation.
Because Greased Pigs will do as Greased Pigs will do, Howard saw the opportunity and used his contacts in Austin to buy up some land certificates. He demanded any further access to the salt lakes occur only through business with him. As you can imagine, this set Mexicans and settlers on both sides of the river in an uproar. A number of people were killed. Purportedly it was over the salt, but of course it was really over who ought to have owned the land, and who really did own the land, and who could decide which was which.
I returned from detached service in mid December – in time to hear of 2nd Lt. Tays shaming our battalion, to say nothing of the Ranger troop as a whole, when he chose to surrender Howard and those two bondsmen to Barela's firing squad at San Elizario rather than fight outnumbered. Even pigs do not deserve being handed over to their deaths like that. Prvt. Marsh put it best when he said the only difference between Lt. Tays and a skunk is that a skunk has a white streak down his back. I would add that I have never seen Tay's bare back for myself, so he may not even have this in his favor.
Howard's death pretty well ended the fighting itself. Gov. Hubbard had Maj. Jones organize a board along with colonels King and Lewis. They conferred on March 16. They concluded the state had lost close to $31000 all told, but more importantly decided that Mexico was to honor extradition papers for fugitives and make reparations for the damage inflicted by rioters. Also that those who had been involved in the revolt be delivered for trial in Texas.
Now it may surprise you to learn I speak some patchy Spanish. My father spent time in Santa Fe during his youth, back before he was elected to the legislature of Lamar County. He made a go at teaching the language to my siblings and myself, with varied results. A while back I made the mistake of letting this information slip to Prvt. Lloyd, and I suspect it was that squirrel-headed cuss who gave my name up to Maj. Jones.
So that is why I have been tossed along the frontier from Saragossa to Ft. Quitman during this previous month - to aid negotiations. My tongue still gives me trouble on occasion and leads to some muddled pronunciation. When he was done laughing, I found out that one old caballero with whom I had been arguing for a good half hour spoke perfect English.
But do not think I have forgotten our friend Cogburn. I have sent his $500 to San Antonio along with a package – this contained a prickly pear cactus, and a note both welcoming him to the state and saying you had mentioned how awful fond he was of it.
Tuesday, May 16th, 1878
Dear LaBoeuf, the Tongue-Tied Caballero,
I have enclosed a recent issue of The National Temperance Advocate, of which I am an avid reader, and recommend consulting it should you think about reaching for the liquor cabinet again. My grandmother is right in saying men will live like billy goats if left to their own devices.
And they will fight over salt, too, as it would seem. Those sorts of conflicts must not be construed to be anything but what they are, which is wasteful foolishness.
How thoughtful of you to send Rooster a gift along with his money. You are taking further steps towards a lasting friendship: though I was never able to understand why such enmity grew up betwixt you two in the first place. It seems to me you should have been "pards" from the beginning. Besides a striking similarity in lifestyles, you have a shared predilection for making your jobs sound much harder than they actually are. You are acting as a diplomat. There is nothing so trying in it. When I say I have hired on a tenant family and set aside 30 acres for them to work, or that we must finish planting cotton by the end of this month if we are to have a harvest come September, I simply say the thing and let my listener infer its relative difficulty.
For your addled tongue, I will refer you to the following as a daily exercise: "There sits those thousand thinkers thinking how three thoughtless thieves got through." It ought to keep you busy for a piece.
Yours Most Respectfully,
Post Script: I gleaned from a minor article in the Galveston Daily News (Sam Levy of Levy's Wholesale Mercantile hails from down there, and gets it specially delivered) that your skunkish companion Tays is retiring from the Ranger force. Perhaps this will alleviate your suffering some.
6 July 1878
For once the Galveston Daily has gotten it right. Our detachment at Ysleta will receive a new lieutenant by the summer of next year. In the meantime, commanding duties are to be divided between Sgt. Ludwick and I. Tays himself went off to enter the customs service.
I will not respond to your goading remarks about lifestyle or occupation. With this lethargic mail system, any returning quip I make would have long lost its edge by the time it reached you. But the Texas & Pacific is expected to come through El Paso – or else the Southern Pacific, whichever railway gets here first. We are looking forward to the race – within four years. Then mail will not take a month or more to achieve its postmarked destination.
Though the heat is another reason everything moves slowly this time of year. It gets so hot at midday that if you go out riding, you must stop intermittently to soak your horse's bit in cold water – or else the metal will burn his tongue. That is why most traveling is done by night during the summer. There is such light from the moon and stars that you can see your own shadow, so the dark presents no real disadvantage.
And to those in the southern states who provide the consolation that what we have here is a 'dry' heat, I always recommend sticking their heads into a brick oven.
Saturday, August 10th, 1878
Dear LaBoeuf, Tall Tale Teller Extraordinaire,
You are exaggerating about the horse's bits, I think. I have come to understand that this inclination towards grandiose storytelling can be found in all Texans. I was once told by Aaron Walker, who is the deputy in Russellville and passed a few years driving cattle up the Shawnee, that whenever the chuck wagon ran out of salt he would lick the horse's sweat from his saddle instead. I expect you also carved the Rio Grande out with a stick and take women who ride giant catfish for your paramours.
Concerning the package that should accompany this letter: our tenant and his wife gave me a pair of deerskin gloves to compensate for coming up short on their rent. As they have promised to give a fourth of their cotton crop after this season's harvest (fourth being the regular portion to give – corn is farmed in thirds) and I know they are honest Christian people who make good on such promises, I let them keep their money and took only the gloves. They are too large to fit Little Frank or myself. Perhaps you can make use of them: after adding some frivolous tassels, of course.
Yours Most Respectfully,
19 October 1878
The deerskin gloves are appreciated. We have been helping to put up fences for some farmers and thick hide is good against the barbed wire. Our official job is to patrol for 'fence cutters', a title the free grass men have been earning for themselves lately, but we usually do this by shifts and in the meantime help repair damaged stretches of fence.
The gloves are also well-suited for handling my rattlesnake lasso, which I might as well admit to owning – seeing as how you are convinced I am one of those ridiculous caricatures, created first by our national press during the Mexican War and currently running amok in dime novels.
Wednesday, November 27th, 1878
Dear LaBoeuf, Wrangler of the Open Range,
I do not see you as a caricature. I see you for exactly what you are and take great care in addressing you as such. It is no special treatment on my part. I do it with everyone. And in case you do not believe this, I will share the following example.
This Tuesday I greeted my first (and very likely last) marriage suitor. He was a Mr. Edward Woodson, nephew to the Woodson Brothers who are our cotton factors over in Little Rock. He was very frank with me; he said that in spite of the fact that I am two social stations above a sharecropper, young yet, and even with my being "physically incomplete" besides, if I were willing to take his name my family's financial struggles would be at an end.
I thanked him for his honesty and responded likewise.
I told him finances are in fact in respectable condition. Our harvest this year was 120 pounds of cotton per acre (that is one-quarter of a single 480 pound bale, where most planters only muster up one-fifth), which with our 350 acres of land and cotton selling at ten cents per pound should have meant an earning of $4,200 dollars, or $4,074 once the factor's commission was paid. Furthermore, I pointed out to Mr. Woodson that he would know this better than anyone: as it was clear he and his uncles had given me $4,053 at season's end. Which meant they had put aside a 3.5% commission for themselves, instead of 3% as has been our long-standing agreement. And if he thought he could nickel and dime my family out of our bread money before attempting an outright land grab, then I was left with a choice of either breaking his head with an iron skillet or simply shooting him dead where he stood. As he could see, I still had a hand and arm enough for those activities.
(Needless to say, that I have since made plans to move our business to another factor.)
I also told the young Mr. Edward Woodson he had a nose like a potato. No woman with an ounce of brains in her head would marry a nose like that. Mama agreed with me afterward. I told him this because he carried himself with the ostentatious bearing of someone who had never heard an honest remark about his appearance in his life, and because that is really what it looked like.
And if you had a nose resembling a potato, or a root vegetable of any kind for that matter, I would tell you so too.
Yours Most Respectfully,
I had not been sure what to make of the little package Mr. Hughes passed me through the service window.
My walk home confirmed that it was something hard, dense, cold even through the stiff brown paper it was wrapped up in. I inspected the bundle for a few concentrated moments, standing in the office with rainwater puddling around my feet. It must have cost a hefty sum in postage.
Then I left the package to sit there waiting for me, next to a typewriter that now took up part of the space.
I went outside to feed our pigs. Victoria assisted me at the trough, tossing bread crusts and extra potato peels to a sow she claimed was especially friendly. Of course I knew very well that pigs are friendly to anyone who feeds them, but did not tell her so. Victoria inquired as to what my favorite hymnal was. She had not gotten me a gift, she explained soberly, but to pass the time she would like to sing me something. I told her I was partial to "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms", and this was sung on mostly warbling notes as we pestered brooding chickens for their eggs. Our breath eddied out of us in frozen huffs, like smoke, our slickers adhering to our shoulders and arms under the heavy, hissing rain.
Frank came out to join us in cleaning the horse's stalls. I assigned myself the task of standing in the loft and hefting the damp, sweet-smelling hay down into their waiting hands below. I needed to grasp the pitchfork very high up, with the rest of the handle tucked under my arm, in order to achieve the right leverage. The labor quickly made my back and shoulders start to burn, so I doubled my efforts. Victoria continued singing.
She also offered to comb my hair once we had gone inside and asked if she could braid it, the way I had used to for her when I had possessed the hands with which to do it. She stood on a chair behind me, humming loudly, until the comb's wooden teeth became caught in a large tangle somewhere at the middle of my back. Then she began to cry, and cry, and did not cease to cry until I had rubbed a bit of soap on the comb and worked it through myself. Mama made a small ginger spice cake which we split into four even slices (but not five, as we had mistakenly done last year) after supper.
I have always thought birthdays to be something of an unnecessary fuss.
When I returned to the office later that night, oil lamp in hand, I was carrying a pair of scissors in my pocket. These were used to snip clumsily away at heavy strings that bound the package, and then tear through the pleated paper its insides were padded with. I believe that sort of paper is most often used these days for stuffing fancy hats.
Folding the paper aside, I saw what the package contained.
It was a gun.
A letter was tucked inside, as well, and spare bullets pattered down around my feet as I withdrew it.
20 January 1879
This is a Colt .38 New Line Revolver. I won it from Prvt. Lloyd in a game of five-card stud - thus exacting my revenge for the Salt War diplomacy incident - but I already own two revolvers and this piece would benefit me little out here due to its size and caliber. It is not a hand-held cannon like your father's .44 Dragoon was, but neither is it to be treated like one of those foolish .22 pepper-box pistols ladies carry in their garters. It will take the vinegar out of who or whatever you aim at and operates the way any other single-action firearm does.
When threatening to shoot a man dead where he stands, you must first ascertain that you are equipped to do the job right.
Shells continued to roll their way across the floor and into the dark.
I turned the gun over, scrutinizing its purposeful design. The barrel could not have been more than four inches long, the steel all glossed over with a striking blued finish. It had a concealed spur-style trigger and rosewood grips.
I composed my response several days later.
Wednesday, March 5th , 1879
Dear LaBoeuf, Five-Card Stud Champion of the Southwest,
You should understand that I do not care a thing in the world for guns. I merely thought that particular threat would best convey to Mr. Woodson how serious I was. (I have decided to follow in the wake of other cotton planters by taking my business to a furnishing merchant instead. This is a grim but necessary prospect.) Your Colt .38 is currently in a box underneath my bed, and with any luck that is where it will stay. I would also like to know how it is you came to be so informed on the subject of where ladies carry their derringers.
Nevertheless, your gift was a timely one. I am writing this letter on my newly acquired Sholes and Glidden typewriter. It was a birthday present from Mama and Little Frank. He clipped an advertisement for it out of a Bannerman catalog last year, and together they have been saving up ever since. (Really they bought it second-hand from Mr. Douglas down at the depot.) It is a splendid device with many noisy keys. They inspire in one the temptation to type out utter nonsense just to hear them.
Yours Most Respectfully,
Post Script: In truth I know Little Frank is quickly getting to be taller than I am and cannot rightfully be considered little anymore. That is just what we called him when I was younger, because then my father was also "Frank" and it made things easier for Mama when she was yelling after one or the other.
5 May 1879
It does not matter whether you care a thing for guns or not. At our present moment in history they are a part of life, and it is always better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it. I recently purchased some .45-70 Springfield Trapdoor rifles to outfit several Tiguas I have recruited to be scouts – many think and speak of the Pueblo Indians as being all one tribe, but in fact they are many living in proximity. These men know the territory far better than any of us could ever hope to. On foot they can keep up with an ordinary cavalryman, and in the mountains they can out-march him.
Sgt. Ludwick expressed some concern over the expense of these rifles. He reminded me that Gen. Terrazas' Indian infantry gets along fine with Remington muskets. I asked Sgt. Ludwick if he would consider sending any regular officer into a hostile situation, armed only with a rusty old blunderbuss whose recoil would do almost as much damage to the man shooting it as the man being shot at. Sgt. Ludwick said no, he would not. But it did not matter either way. The guns were paid for with a portion of the Bibbs' reward money that I had saved.
As for the matter with your brother – my own older brothers were named Isaiah and Jeremiah, respectively, but were called Issy and Jerms by our sister Danielle until they were both grown men. They despised it. Refer to your brother by his usual title for as long as he will tolerate, and then for a while beyond that. That is where the fun lies.
Wednesday, July 9th, 1879
Dear LaBoeuf, Brother to Hebrew Prophets and Dispenser of Sage Advice,
I am astonished to hear that you saved any of the Bibbs money. Whatever are you planning to do with the rest of it? I thought by now it would have all been spent on buckskin jackets, stovepipe boots, half-bent Dublin pipes and flat-crowned Stetson hats. I had imagined you made it a point to own several identical ones of each.
Yours Most Respectfully,
Post Script: Little Frank sends his regards.
16 August 1879
You have seriously misconceived the allotted space a Ranger is given for his possessions. Barracks do not lend themselves to owning duplicates of anything. Everything I have may be fitted easily into several saddlebags on a strong bay horse.
Which is not to say everyone at this station heeds the rule – certainly not Lt. Baylor. Our detachment of Co. C received its new commanding officer, one 1st Lt. George Wythe Baylor out of San Antonio, three days ago. He arrived along with his wife, two daughters, sister-in-law, six escort Rangers from Co. D, some household furniture, a square piano, a violin, and a coop of game chickens.
Baylor won recognition for his service with the 2nd Calvary Regiment of the Arizona Brigade, but had been farming cabbages in the Nueces Canyon when he asked Gov. Roberts for a Ranger position. His war record and political endorsements qualified him for a place of leadership, and there was only one vacancy.
Lt. Baylor strikes me as an old-time frontier gentleman. He has especially lauded my recruitment of the Tigua scouts. He is a combat-tested solider and, according to Sgt. Gillett who arrived with him, a superb marksman. I believe he will prove himself to be a man of 'true grit', as you would say.
Tuesday, September 16th, 1879
Dear LaBoeuf, Judge of True Grit and Gentlemanly Qualities Alike,
I do not understand why anyone would elect to haul a piano the six hundred or so miles it must be from San Antonio to El Paso. Mama used to play the piano, but she left that behind in Monterey, California when she married Papa because it would have been beastly to transport. We are not a particularly musical family, though Mama and Victoria are fond of singing and even some dancing. I have never cared much for either myself.
Most Respectfully Yours,
There was something different about the next letter that came.
It took me a moment to realize what. It was enclosed in an envelope that felt to be made either of royal or some other heavy-stock paper. A seal had been applied, with something close to assiduousness, and I spent my walk home pondering the care and time that had been given it.
The postmark was still El Paso, Texas. The handwriting and the newsprint paper, I discovered upon opening the letter, were the same: though it was in pen rather than pencil.
I settled down into my hoop-back chair and held the letter up to a shaft of cold light as I read.
20 November 1879
I have not written for some time. For that I, apologize. It has been restless here since the beginning of October. An awful thing happened recently.
In late September, the Apache chief Victorio – who is a far better commander than old Geronimo ever was, in my own opinion – quit the Mescalero Reservation along with 40 warriors, and a number of women and children. For this I cannot fault him. The land out there is poor and hates both the seed and the plow. He fought off cavalry units that tried cornering him in the Black Range before crossing into Mexico. We have stayed clear of there since the Salt Wars, figuring we would not be welcome, and planned to continue doing so.
The upset began when a band of 18 others, riding out to join their leader, raided across our sector and attacked a group of hay cutters just north of the La Quadria stage station. Lt. Baylor received permission to follow across the international border from Capt. Gregorio Garcia – he and Garcia fought Yankees together in '61 and are fast friends. The ensuing chase took us some hundred miles all told and resulted in nothing.
Next we heard of Victorio was on November 8. His band had grown to around 100 by then and he had taken to the Candelaria Hills, where he made plans to obtain fresh horses from a settlement near San Jose. He chose his position like you would expect a military-minded man to. It provided him with a clear view of the main road, which passes from the Santa Maria river to Juarez through the Candelarias. The hills are called this because of how they rise out of an otherwise flat horizon – in the sun, their color puts your mind on tallow wax. The road passes around the northern side of these formations and at a certain point winds between two tall peaks.
Victorio sent 6 or 7 of his men to a small village called Carrizal, where they cut loose a string of ponies. The Mexican townsmen went off with a group of 15 in hopes of recovering their animals. They struck the trail of Victorio's warriors, which of course brought them up the main road and through the narrow mountain pass. Once there, they were caught up in an ambuscade and killed down to the last man. A party of 35 others struck out when their companions failed to return. They met the same fate. We were called to the site soon after this and arrived with some volunteers from Paso del Norte.
The 50 dead men we found there in the Candelarias were too many to carry back, with the number of horses we had, but to leave them lying out in the desert for another day would have meant letting them be picked to the bone by scavengers. So Lt. Baylor ordered that we bury them, which is to say that we buried almost the entire male population of Carrizal there on the road to Juarez. The earth is dry and it was hard going, with us using stones or gun stocks to make the graves deep enough. Most men had their hands turned raw with blistering. Again my thanks for the gloves.
Back at the border town, the people thanked Lt. Baylor and the rest of us for doing it – they said they would gladly help our battalion any time aid was needed or asked. They said we would "make a good stand-off fight" together.
I laid this letter down on the desk.
A necklace chain was drawn out from inside my shirtwaist. From the end of it swung one of Papa's California gold pieces, which I had gotten a small hole bored through. The other piece had been given for Mama to keep. I watched the gold flash as it turned lazily about, first left, then right, then around again before stilling. My face was reflected in its polished surface. It was a tiny and distorted image, but one that accurately mirrored my frown nonetheless.
LaBoeuf had found the gold piece in Tom Chaney's boot as he was preparing the body for its transport to Texas. He had returned it to me while I was recovering in Dr. Medill's house at Fort Smith.
I tucked the chain back under my collar, pulled up a sheet of paper and wrote the following:
Monday, January 12th, 1880
Dear LaBoeuf, Whose Experience the Prophet Ezekiel Would Well Understand,
In dark times you must keep close the words of Deuteronomy 33:27; "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." Or arm, in my specific and more marginalized case.
Yours Most Respectfully,
I sent it the same day.
10 February 1880
I told myself I would not write you again unless I had some more favorable piece of news to share, and I figure this is fitting enough. Anyway, it was unusual.
Recently, 2 men called us away on a rescue mission. We had first met them in early January – they had introduced themselves as Andrews and Wiseall, mining engineers who stopped by Ysleta on their way to San Antonio. They had with them a few horses, a wagon of modern firearms and other goods, and an English shepherd dog. Against our advice they chose to travel by way of the old Butterfield stagecoach route, instead of taking the safer one around Fort Davis. They got about as far as Crow Flats, where they made camp at one of the abandoned stage stations, before some thieves came by and made off with their horses. You see where ignoring us got them.
Stranded, they then chose to turn around and make the 100 mile walk to Ysleta – at that point, it was the second-closest town. The other was Pecos, 75 miles distant, but that would have meant crossing mountains. The journey took them some 15 days and left them more dead then alive once they finally got here. You will find that most people out in this country have a strong aversion to walking places they ought to be riding. But both men were still coherent enough to demand that we go back for their cargo, and their dog.
Sgt. Gillett and I left with 8 other men, Andrews and Wiseall accompanying. When we reached the station, the dog challenged us from a position he had selected atop the north wall. He gave Prvt. Marsh a good bite in the arm and I was spared a similar fate only by throwing the beast a piece of jerky. His temper was not unreasonable. For over two weeks he had fought off coyotes, eaten what foodstuffs his owners left behind, and in general held down the place with as much resolve as Travis at the Alamo. The dog's mood changed quickly when he realized two of the riders with us were his old friends, come back for him – no doubt he spent those two weeks thinking he had been forgotten.
The other officers and I were glad to see the dog delivered to his owners safely. Being that we are used to dealing with things only in their aftermath, it was a welcome change.
The dog also ate my week's ration of beans. I could not really begrudge him for it.
Thursday, April 8th, 1880
Dear LaBoeuf, Hero to Canis Familiaris Everywhere,
I can well understand the thoughts that dog must have been entertaining. No doubt I had similar ones, when I was under the impression you and Rooster had left me in the hands of Ned Pepper's gang. I assure you said thoughts were not of a particularly kind or docile nature.
While by now you must realize I am not one of those fragile-constituted women who insists on having news softened before it is presented to her, I would nevertheless like to return the favor of a peculiar story.
We own a pig. We used to own several, but I sold the rest and have only had my hand stayed in disposing of this one because Victoria has made it something of a pet. Early Tuesday morning, I had gathered up a bucket of bean snips, peels and such for the morning slop, and was going out to feed Clarabelle. That is the pig's name. I heard a shout, as well as a distressed noise from one of our horses, so that picked my pace up to a run: and what should I enter the barn to find but a horse thief, caught in the act of unlatching our mare Gertrude's stall. Victoria names all of the animals here. I advanced and got his attention by yelling something, I cannot remember what, in the exact instant he spun around to notice me.
We discovered together that in a contest of swiftness between a man with a gun and a woman with a slop bucket, it is the one whose weapon cannot become jammed inside its holster who emerges victorious. I swung the bucket a hard right and knocked him stupid upside the head. He fell backwards into the mud and sat there dazed. You can imagine my surprise when I recognized him; it was an old schoolmate of my brother's named Thomas Cain. Frank considers him a friend, or at least he did when they were young, but I have always figured him for trash and here was indisputable proof of it.
I stood there with my bucket and told him he should be ashamed of himself. Was this behavior how he repaid his uncle, after the care that had been given him all these years? I told Thomas I ought to notify the authorities, which of course put him into a contrite sort of mood. The horses his farm keeps are worth twice what ours are, and are twice in number besides, so I refreshed his memory on the story of the rich man who seized the poor man's one ewe lamb. That was enough to turn King David from his sinful ways, anyhow, and it ought to have been enough for Thomas Cain.
I also told him how I had once met a stock thief who got his fingers cut off, just prior to being stabbed in the heart by someone he considered a comrade. That, if you remember, was Moon and Quincy. I put down my bucket and turned to fix the latch on Gertrude's stall. When I did this Thomas saw his chance, swayed to his feet, and took off running.
I did not end by reporting the Cain boy to Sheriff Quinn (J.W Quinn is the lawman over in Russellville. Our own sheriff has gotten on in years and is fixing for retirement). It would bring a great deal of shame upon his uncle, who is a prominent member of our church, and he is just a foolish boy after all.
Yours Most Respectfully,
10 July 1880
Your adeptness at dispatching thieves with slop buckets would have come in handy these past few days, I think.
Last year 2 outlaws from New Mexico by the names of Jesse Evans and John Selman decided they would try their luck in Texas, crossed into the Davis Mountains, and dropped out of sight of the law. Turns out, they had set up a butcher shop in Ft. Davis – which Selman ran while calling himself 'Captain John Tyson', and Evans kept supplied with stolen livestock. An unsuspecting citizen could very well end up paying overprice for a side of his own cow. The gall of these men is unbelievable.
On May 19, Evans and 3 companions robbed the Sender and Siebenborn Store for $930 and scurried off. That is what rats do, scurry. When local authorities were unsuccessful in catching them for over a month, the Rangers at Ysleta were summoned along with a group of nine men from Capt. Robert's Co. D camp near Ft. McKavett, headed up by Sgt. Sieker. We received information that the Evans bunch had been spotted on the road to Presidio del Norte. It was 85 miles hard riding before we caught up with them near the Chinati Mountains, at which point both we and our horses were pretty well winded.
The outlaws opened fire at the same time we did, and they withdrew up a steep rock slope with plans of sniping away at us from higher ground. I had the hat blasted right off of my head - I am no longer sorry it was a size too large. I saw one of the men lean out to shoot again and fired off twice with my revolver. The first went wide, but the second one caused him to jerk back and behind cover again. Several minutes later, the gun battle ended with Evans surrendering - turns out it was him that I hit. My second shot had gotten him in the right arm, and he was cursing a blue streak at me the whole way back. I ought to have taken a page from Cogburn's book and shot him in the lip instead.
We realized after the outlaws surrendered that a man from Co. D, Prvt. George Bingham, had been struck in the heart with a bullet from the Winchester rifle Evans was carrying. Sgt. Sieker had killed one of the outlaws during our skirmish, but stated that had he known about Bingham at the time he would have killed them all. He was very upset.
Evans will likely draw at least a 10 year sentence at Hunstville Penitentiary for killing a peace officer, but Selman is expected to walk for what I think are reasons of laziness on the part of the sheriff in Shackelford County. The sheriff said evidence to convict Selman had vanished. That, as you may know, is what happens if you do not see to the law for yourself.
Major Jones has since decided that Ft. Davis needs its own Ranger unit, so Lt. Nevill was ordered to establish a detachment of Company E there. The prisoners were taken back to Ft. McKavett, rather than Lt. Baylor here at Ysleta. If there is one fault I can find in our lieutenant, it is that he is a somewhat poor disciplinarian. He trusts all men at a glance and hates to see anyone in trouble. I do not know how he would react to the news that Sgt. Gillett is courting his eldest daughter.
Wednesday, August 18th, 1880
Dear LaBoeuf, Who Has Probably Raided His Surplus Stock of Hats by Now,
You would be very surprised where robbers can turn up these days. I learned this recently. Here is what happened.
Yesterday, I was in a disagreement with Mr. DuBois the banker. There is no bank in Dardanelle, much to my chagrin, nor in all of Yell County for that matter. Our townsmen apparently thought that the building of a hardware store, a wagon and implement business, and several hotels was more important. (There is a vacant building near the post office but they are asking $1000 for it.) So for financial matters one most go the four miles over to Russellville in Pope County, across the river.
I took out a loan at the beginning of the planting season, to replace our plow after the old one had its blade bent on a rock. Mr. DuBois reminded me, in what I imagine he believed to be a tactful fashion, that I ought to have repaid it long ago. Debt was owed, and he would have it; Mr. DuBois is the sort who likes to bear men down more with his fluency than the strength of his reasoning. He has been pestering me about this for some time and his interest rates leave much to be desired. Under normal circumstances I would have been more cordial in my reply, but he spoke in such an insinuating sort of way that I informed Mr. DuBois of the following:
It is assumed that 'debt' is the money owed by a debtor, and the word is often used to mean such. This is erroneous. Debt is defined under the laws of commerce as the debtor's personal duty to pay back any money loaned. Every person who borrows money incurs a debt, or personal obligation. The essence of an obligation is not in that it makes any specific goods the property of another, but rather it binds that person to give you something.
That is to say, no particular money in the debtor's possession rightfully belongs to the creditor. None of it is pledged to him. All money continues to be absolute property of the debtor: as per the Mutumm nature of commercial loans, and not Commodata, in that they are transfers of property. It is all very simple. Therefore Mr. DuBois had no right to claim any of my money for himself, or even say such a thing as "debt was owned", and I would get the loan paid off to him in due time.
I concluded by stating that the books of Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Presbyterian church law all prohibit a man from charging interest, so he should not be getting any ideas about increasing his current rate. It is truly astonishing, the degree to which people believe they can horn-swoggle a woman simply because she has no father to direct her finances.
Our confrontation may have escalated from there, but Mr. DuBois Sr. came out of his office and with some joking and light conversation put his son in a better mood. Abraham DuBois is a polite, good-humored man and I cannot understand where Issac DuBois' sour disposition originates from.
Yours Most Respectfully,
13 September 1880
I am just now beginning to grasp the dire straits that unsuspecting men enter when doing business with you.
I believe it was that Francis Bacon man who said something along the lines, 'Testimony is like the shot of a long bow, which owes its efficacy to the force of the shooter – while argument is like the shot of a cross bow, equally forcible whether discharged by a giant or a dwarf.'
We both know which one is your weapon of choice.
Friday, October 1st, 1880
Dear LaBoeuf, Who Has At Last Learned That 'He Who Hath Knowledge Spareth His Words',
You did not grasp the thing before? I am sorry. From this point on I will make a concerted effort to be clearer. And you should mind that while Frank is now taller than me, I am of average height and therefore not considered a dwarf by any standard of measurement.
Yours Most Respectfully,
28 October 1880
This letter, like you, will be short. I do not know when I will be able to write again.
We have for several weeks been entertaining Victorio the Apache in a seven-league game of manhunt, along with Col. Terrazas and his Indian infantry out of Mexico, and United States cavalry under Lts. Shaffer, Manney and Col. Grierson. The instigator for this was that a U.S troop, several stage drivers and their passengers were all killed between the areas of Eagle Springs and Quitman Canyon.
Last week Col. Terrazas' soldiers attacked Victorio and his forces in the Pinos Mountains, a confrontation during which Victorio himself was killed. We were not present for the battle.
Twelve of Victorio's warriors had deserted the main force about a week earlier, taking along with them four Indian women and four children, and have been harassing small groups of soldiers, isolated herders, and travelers on the transcontinental road. No word yet as to whether or not we will be pursuing them into the mountains, but we are keeping prepared.
Which we do not as a detachment of Company C, but rather as the main body of Frontier Battalion Company A. Major Jones – though he is properly called Adjutant General Jones now – informed us in a letter that our detachment had been mustered back into the main force, with Captain George Baylor commanding.
I wrote no reply to that one.
"Mattie! Hey! Mattie!"
Victoria rushed into Hatchet and Gimlet's Hardware Store, waving a thin yellow strip of paper about in her gloved hand. I glanced up from an advertisement for mechanical cotton pickers. The idea of the contraption sounded promising, but I foresaw too many hidden problems occurring with the rotating spindles.
She waved the paper with such enthusiasm that I feared it would rip. "We got a telegram!"
"I see that." I directed my attention to Frank, who followed in behind her with a stack of mail in one over-sized hand and a ten pound bag of feed in the other. I had sent them over to Sam Levy's Mercantile and the post office.
"Mr. Hughes just gave it to us," he explained. His voice cracked between tenor and baritone as he spoke. "It is for you."
Victoria was impatiently rubbing out creases in the paper, over the words 'ATTN MATTIE ROSS.' I plucked the long strip from her hands and read what the receiving operator had transcribed.
VICTORIO WARRIORS ATTACKED STAGECOACH IN QUITMAN COUNTY STOP RANGERS GIVING PURSUIT INTO EAGLE MOUNTAINS STOP WILL WEAR GLOVES FOR COLD WEATHER STOP SIGNED LABOEUF STOP
"Who is it from?" Victoria asked. Then, tilting her chin up a few degrees, she explained, "I would have read it for myself, but Frank said that was nosy."
I looked down at my sister.
Her cheeks were burned pink from the cold. She was wearing a canvas coat that had fit me very long time ago and was missing a button. We shared the same eye color, but her hair curled a great deal more than mine. I could clearly predict a future full of unscrupulous suitors in need of winnowing. She was ten years younger than I: there had been another baby born between Frank and Victoria who had not lived more than a few months.
"It is from Mr. LaBoeuf." I handed it over for her to inspect again. "It seems even Morse Code has no effect on his loquaciousness."
"Are we going to answer it?" Victoria turned to Frank, as if expecting him to know. "Who is this Victorio person? Why is Mr. LaBoeuf chasing him?"
We did not have a separate telegraph station, as some towns did in those days. Telegrams to and from Dardanelle were processed by Mr. Lawler in a small room at the back of the post office. He had recently installed a Dutch door, and I pushed its upper half open with my elbow to find him at his desk. The big telegraph machine was making its insectile clicks and buzzes as he fed a roll of paper tape in. Behind me, I heard Frank stoop and lift Victoria up to see.
"Mr. Lawler," I said by way of greeting.
He turned. Mr. Trigg Lawler wore glasses and had a great deal of bushy orange hair. "Hello, Miss Ross. Did you receive your telegram alright?"
"I did, thank you." I held the yellow paper up. "When was this sent?"
Mr. Lawler got up from his desk and walked over. The sleeves of his suit were rubbed thin at the elbows. "It arrived here today, but it was sent up from El Paso on the fourteenth. It had to go through the offices at Fort Davis, San Angelo and Dallas first." He grinned around his cigar. "I have never gotten one from somewhere that remote before. It is amazing. What hath God wrought, indeed."
"I want to send a response."
"Say please," came Victoria's whispering reminder. Frank guffawed.
I frowned at them both over my shoulder. "I want to send a response, please."
Mr. Lawler cleaned his glasses with a corner of shirt tail. "You can try, but it might not get through. I heard Indians have been cutting the military telegraph lines down there for a few months. Messy business."
"I am not surprised. Victorio the Apache was a military-minded man," I informed Mr. Lawler. "I would like to try anyway."
He raised his bushy eyebrows, but handed me a piece of paper and a pencil. Frank held it in place as I wrote my intended message out.
ATTN SGT LABOEUF:
DO NOT GET SELF KILLED STOP WOULD BE RUDE STOP YOURS MATTIE STOP
I handed the paper off to Mr. Lawler. It was January 16th, 1881.
It is not commonplace for news out of El Paso to end up in the Galveston Daily newspaper. But then it is not commonplace for what history would later designate as the last "real Indian fight" in the state of Texas to take place, either.
Even then, the article I read over Sam Levy's shoulder was a short one.
Its information had purportedly come from the mouth of Lieutenant Charles L. Nevill of Frontier Battalion Company E, who had joined together with Captain George Baylor and fourteen of his Company A El Paso Rangers (because that is all the article referred to them as) before ascending into the Devil Mountains and losing contact with the outside world for five days.
They had come upon the rogue band of Mescalero Apaches at dawn on January 29th. In the ensuing fight, eight people had died. But the idiot reporter had either forgotten - not bothered to learn, not been permitted to disclose - who they were, or even what side they had fought and perished for.
Saturday, February 20th, 1881
Dear LaBoeuf, Whose Epitaph I Have Decided Will Read 'Here Lieth a Sagebrush Oaf',
Surely you must realize that I cannot have information relayed to me through dreams. I am not the prophet Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Daniel. Either I have some news of you, or else I give you up for dead and attend to the job of arranging your proper Christian burial: a task I sincerely doubt anyone in your salty outfit can manage.
Yours Most Respectfully,
I read this letter over once and found it distasteful. Twice over, it seemed pleading. I moved to raise the paper up before me and tear it in two.
And was surprised when only one hand rose to do my bidding.
Irritated with myself at having made such a foolish mistake after so long, I crushed the page up and went to kick the office's glowing cast-iron stove open. My letter was tossed in. Fire licked its edges black before the whole thing shriveled up on itself and crumbled to a pale gray dust.
And things went on, as they are wont to do.
The state of Kansas passed a law prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages. Mama sold all of her muslin dresses, including the white one that had been Papa's favorite.
Ferdinand De Lessep's company began work on a canal down in Panama, and everyone said that it would not and could not be finished. Victoria's barn cat Luanne had three kittens. The market price of cotton dropped to five cents a pound, near the lowest it had ever been, while the tariff duty rose to forty-five percent.
Upon my insistence, Frank secured a job for himself moving crates down at the steamship docks for wages of $1.75 a day. My furnishing merchant advanced supplies for our tenants on credit. James A. Garfield was inaugurated as the 20th President of the United States. I turned eighteen. In the month of March, Arkansas received five and a half inches of rain.
My mother always hesitated at the office door before walking in.
She had not started doing this until a few months after Papa died. At first, I think she needed those seconds just to soundly convince herself that she would not, in fact, find her husband sitting in his usual place at the desk. By now it was likely force of habit.
Then she leaned around the corner, the rest of her thin body following shortly behind.
I waited for her to speak first. I was doing our bookkeeping and had gotten distracted in adding up living expenses. Breadstuffs at $13.75, meats, $7.62.
"Mattie?" she said mildly. "There is a letter here for you. Matthew Richards just dropped by on his way home with it. Mr. Hughes told him that you have not picked up the mail in several days."
I nodded but went on writing. Dairy and farming expenses, $12.68. Soap, starch, pepper, salt, etc., $3.50. Sundries, $1.12.
"It is from that Texas Ranger of yours, I think. That is what the postmark says."
My pen stopped.
I straightened up and turned my head towards her. Mama was holding the little envelope out in her left hand; I noticed she had still not taken off her wedding ring. It was very likely that she never would.
"I make no claims of ownership on Mr. LaBoeuf," was my answer. I quickly added the numbers up and subtracted it from our income. "Just leave it on the desk, please."
But she kept a hold of the letter, moved closer and offered it out for me to take. "You do not speak about him very much."
"I do not think about him very much, either. One usually follows the other."
"Well. He seems to enjoy your letters, at least."
I turned my whole body towards her this time.
It was a damp day, cold for late April. Mama was wearing a cherry-colored shawl that made her face look paler by comparison. Her dark hair, jetted all through with silver now, was done up into a clever French twist and held in place with a wooden comb. She had sold her tortoiseshell ones to buy a new pair of work boots for Frank.
Let down from its confines, I knew my mother's hair would tumble almost to her hips. Papa had liked to brush it before they retired for the evening.
When I was young I had occasionally peered in through the door at them and told myself I would grow my hair long like that, so that one day my own husband could stand there combing the spider-silk threads. Neither of us would speak, no, but if our eyes chanced to meet in the gilt-frame mirror we would both smile.
I had since left off such silly imaginings, of course. And my hair had become much more straggly as I got older.
I set my pen down and accepted the letter.
"I believe Mr. LaBoeuf keeps the correspondence up largely as a way to stave off boredom." The envelope was sliced open in my usual chirurgical way. "There is nothing to look at down there but scrub-brush and dust. I would be writing regular letters to me, as well, if I lived a hundred miles from the nearest running water and green grass."
Mama cocked her head.
"Oh, I don't know. I have always found Texas country to be pretty enough. Your father and I traveled across it on our way back from California, you know, just after we were married. All of the wildflowers were in season."
I let the letter drop out into my lap. Only one page.
"What kind of flowers were they?"
"Mostly little azure ones. With petals that turned themselves outward, like on those wide-brimmed sun hats city women wear." Mama's hands made a delicate spreading gesture to pantomime the petal's shape. "They are called bluebonnets. They bloom everywhere in the spring."
"I would most likely be allergic to them."
I unfolded the letter and read it.
10 April 1881
It may surprise you to learn that you are no longer writing to 1st Sergeant LaBoeuf of Frontier Battalion Co. A at Ysleta del Sur Pablo in El Paso County – without vanity, I may say that you are now addressing 2nd Lieutenant LaBoeuf of Frontier Battalion Co. B, at Hackberry Springs in Mitchell County under Capt. Marsh. Marsh is retiring soon and will be replaced by a man named Sam A. McMurry.
Company B was recently chosen for the job of shepherding the Texas & Pacific railway through the Trans-Pecos. Their aim is to meet the Southern Pacific at a junction in Sierra Blanca, east of El Paso. Capt. Baylor recommended me to Adjutant General Jones as someone who knows the more western territories, brought the detachment of Co. C through a peaceful year, and for my services in tracking Chelmsford. The transfer itself was my own suggestion.
Once McMurry takes charge we will be reorganized at Colorado City, which is also in Mitchell County but is a more appropriate location for our headquarters.
In the middle of the page was drawn a crude map displaying the state of Texas as it was dotted by camps, forts, towns, and a few wriggling lines for the rivers and railroads. Mitchell County was west of Abilene on the Colorado River.
Assuming I was too dense to figure it out for myself, LaBoeuf had also sketched a much less detailed Arkansas off to the right and crossed the whole map with two lines. One stretched from El Paso to Dardanelle and marked the spanned distance to be over nine hundred miles. A second told me that the distance from Hackberry Springs to Dardanelle, in contrast, was closer to six hundred. Why he had done this I could not fathom.
This was the Ranger company crucial in the hunting of outlaw Sam Bass and his gang three years ago, and I am glad to be serving in it. But do not get it into your head that one company is greater or lesser than the other because of alphabetic arrangement. That is just how the frontier was partitioned in '74. Headquarters is in Austin, but that is all desk work and no man enters the Rangers intent on doing that.
"What does it say?" Mama asked. She was looking at me with one of her sad, anxious expressions.
Some ugly little barb of a retort rose quickly in my throat.
Then I looked at the silver hairs around her face, the silver wedding ring on her long pianist's hand. I had given her that red shawl for her twenty-fifth birthday, I realized, the year I was seven. Mama had been seventeen when Papa married her. She was thirty-five now.
I folded the letter back up in neat little quarters and slipped it into a pigeonhole along with all of LaBoeuf's letters, which were tied up together with some twine.
"Nothing," I replied. "It does not say anything. Thank you for bringing it, Mama."
20 July 1881
Our Adjutant General John B. Jones, formerly Major Jones, died two days ago. Jones' health had been failing him for some time, but I think most of us expected that grand old stooge to live forever. His efforts were essential in transforming the Rangers from a scattered collection of Indian fighters into professional lawmen and it will be impossible for Gov. Roberts to replace him.
Though I believe my own men would do an adequate job, if put to the task.
There are 20 of us in the company – 18 regular officers, myself, and the new captain McMurry. We are stretched pretty thin with a number like this, even with detachments camped over several neighboring counties. We are expected to manage things from here all the way up into the Panhandle, which as I am sure you know is quite a large area.
Capt. McMurry is a terse, stoic man. I heard he once drew three aces in succession during a poker game and never turned a hair. He is a peace officer determined to enforce the law with no more gun-play than essential. I believe he will also show himself to be a man of 'true grit.'
The sergeant is a man named Sam Platt. I will swear under solemn oath that he would charge into Hell armed only with a bucket of water – or pig slop – if he thought it necessary. He has also demonstrated an odd sense of humor. We were recently discussing what ought to be done about the fence cutters, who as the ranges are being progressively closed in are growing progressively greater in number. There has even been talk of using what Sgt. Ira Aten of Co. D termed 'dinamite booms' in his letters to the quartermaster – once Aten had procured some packages for himself, this spelling error was corrected to be 'dynamite'.
Obviously this was in jest, but I asked Platt what he thought of it. He replied, never once cracking a smile,"If such a thing is possible, I don't want to kill these rascals and have any more deadly enemies on my trail than I have already got." I find I must concur on that point. It would be nice to see old age if I am allowed it.
Another man here is Prvt. Britton. His full name is James M. Britton, but everyone calls him 'Grude' for reasons I cannot quite understand. He is our company's youngest officer, at nineteen, and as something of a veteran I am expected to accompany him on assignments as often as possible. That is how you learn, of course, by observing. Britton has a girl back in Dallas whom he writes poetry for. I have been read excerpts of this and it is atrocious.
15 August 1881
I asked about this with a clerk at the post office and learned that you did indeed receive my last two letters alright. I was wondering if maybe they had gotten turned back along their route.
The conclusion I am to draw from this is that you have joined up with some band of outlaws or another and run off – this is a much more feasible explanation than others I have weighed, principally that you intend to ignore my correspondence.
I had heard news that the Rangers of Co. F chased outlaws Will and Lizzy Garrett all the way to Texarkana before losing their trail – they are believed to have crossed the Red River into Arkansas, so perhaps you have fallen in with that pair and gotten yourself a name like Rattler Mattie or the One Armed Bandit. You would probably want companions of notoriety, and there is a $500 dollar reward on each of them.
I sincerely hope you have not done this. Because then I will be obliged to go after you, and I suspect it would take a fearsome amount of manpower to hunt you down. I like my fellow officers here and would rather not risk their safety in such a venture.
The next letter was extraordinary.
This was not because of the way it was sealed up, presented, or anything slipped in along with the letter itself. It was extraordinary because of the force with which it seemed to have been written, as if any stopping or raising the pen from the paper (because this one, also, was in pen) would mean a loss of critical momentum.
Words were written, crossed out in several places. Big slash marks were made over some of them, but for the most part I could see what had first been said before it was struck through with what was meant.
I had not waited to reach my office before opening this one.
I had instead elected to open it while going up the front walk, tearing the paper rather indelicately with my teeth, and now the thud of my congress shoes halted there on the porch.
2 September 1881
I have just realized that I never told you how things ended in mountains with the Mescalero Apaches. I will correct this error now.
Here, as you say, is what happened.
We trailed the band from the Eagle Mountains through Eagle Springs, and eventually into the Sierra Diablos. We came upon them very early on the morning of January 29. The fight that broke out could not have lasted more than a few minutes.
I know you are familiar with what happens in a gunfight. It is noise enough to cave your head in. Everything is smoke and fire. With thick coats against the cold, and we were up high enough for there to be snow on the ground, you can hardly tell anybody apart. I cannot even half remember what I did during that span of a time, except I do recall clearly thinking how cold the gun barrel in my hands was even through the gloves. Odd thoughts pass in and out of your mind at times like that.
When the firing ceased we discovered that four of the warriors had been killed - as well as two of the women, and two of the children who had been with them. The rest scattered.
As we were hurrying down the mountainside we caught sight of a child half-hidden by the rocks. I motioned for her to stay put. She obeyed. When I had climbed down all the way to where the child was, I discovered it was an Apache girl around three years of age or so. Her foot was hurt but she did not seem afraid.
We went first to Ft. Davis, to the post hospital there. None of us spoke much. There we left the two surviving women – one of them had been shot in the hand – the baby she had with her, and the girl. On the return trip the girl had insisted on riding with me. All the while she seemed to take an interest in my appearance. I thought at first that it was because Indian men do not wear beards or mustaches, but it developed later that in fact she had never met a person with blue eyes before. She also liked fiddling with the tassels on my coat. I gave it to her. It fit about as well as a collapsed tent, but she may find some use for it as a blanket.
I made no move to go inside, and instead stood there in the fall afternoon looking down at heavy, black letters as they formed heavy, black words. My thumb rubbed over the paper to find it was newsprint, as always. A marvel the page had not torn.
There was suddenly a loud, metallic bang that seemed to have come from the cotton house, and my ear turned towards the noise. I heard Frank let off something that sounded like a curse, and Victoria as she followed this with a stern scolding.
I walked to the end of the porch, letter in hand, and looked out. Far off, hired hands could be seen picking their way down along the rows of cotton. Their tanned, bowing backs were shiny with sweat.
There were a few more bangs, sputters that came in rapid succession, and this quickly leveled out into brassy, rattling roar. Frank and Victoria gave simultaneous shouts of triumph. I had sold our cow to a livestock auctioneer and used the money to purchase Frank an Armington & Sims shaft-governed engine, at his request. He had concocted some idea about running a belt from its flywheel to the cylinder of our cotton gin, to make it turn faster. Like Papa, his head was full of schemes. He been a good part of two days at fixing the small engine's boiler.
Mama, standing in the side yard, looked up towards the cotton house as well.
She was hanging laundry. She had hiked the skirt of her dress up and tucked them into her apron band. I could see the strong, blue-veined tendons at the backs of her knees. Four or five wooden clothespins were held in her mouth. Her hair was a long braid that fell down her back. As she moved to hang our sheets and clothing, her shoulder blades parted and met like the wings of a small butterfly.
Victoria and Frank had by now broken out into celebratory song, hollering "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" over the grinding noise of the cotton gin.
("The old church bell will peal with joy, Hurrah! Hurrah! To welcome home our darling boy, Hurrah! Hurrah!")
Very likely they were swinging each other around by the elbows, too, making complete fools of themselves.
Soon I would go to join them in feeding rough bolls through the gin, packing it into the baler after that. There had been a time when there were enough workers to help us at that task, of course. And with ginning the cotton, and even hanging the laundry if we had wished it. I knew this would be another poor year. A storm in late August had caused much of our crop to turn dingy and brown.
("The laurel wreath is ready now, to place upon his loyal brow, And we'll all feel glad when Johnny comes marching home!")
Mama glanced from the cotton house over to the porch, noticed me standing there. She waved in greeting. Her shapeless cotton dress was white with little blue flowers on it. A strand of her graying hair had escaped the braid, and it clung damply to her cheek. I raised my good arm to wave back.
And I stared down at the letter again: which had been written to me by a man I knew to be a proud buffoon, one who nevertheless had always tried the hardest he could to do the best that he was able.
In the cotton house, Frank and Victoria were still carrying on. I had not been aware that the song had so many verses.
("Get ready for the jubilee, Hurrah! Hurrah! We'll give the hero three times three, Hurrah! Hurrah!")
Then I walked into the house, feet swinging out in long strides.
Went into my office, sat down at my desk, because they were both mine now and I could not clearly remember when I had started calling them that. I drew a pen out once more, plunged it into the ink well once more.
And with the same swift, twisting motions as the first time, I wrote the following.
Saturday, September 24th, 1881
I am writing to inform you of four things.
One: I have scarce ever heard or read the introductory words 'Without vanity I may say' but some vain thing immediately followed it. You should mind that, regardless of how your Texas title or trappings change, you will forever be an old clown.
Two: the outlaw siblings William and Elizabeth Garrett are touring the more southern Arkansas counties of Ouachita, Cleveland and Jefferson. I do not believe there is anything of interest to them here, though I will keep scalleywaggery open as a future endeavor merely on the prospect of being able to outwit you further.
Three: as fine as those deerskin gloves are, they cannot make warm the steel barrel of a gun that has been carried through a January cold. And, moreover, has not been fired.
Four: the term 'true grit' is not in fact one of my own making. Credit belongs to my Grandfather Spurling. Stalwart though I believe your commanding officer McMurry is, there are only two men I know of who deserve that particular distinction. The list does not currently have any openings.
Yours Most Respectfully,
("And let each one perform some part, to fill with joy the warrior's heart, And we'll all feel glad when Johnny comes marching home!")
14 October 1881
Mattie, Whose Opinions I Hold in Esteem Despite Their Typically Rude, Condescending and Overall Disrespectful Nature
I am replying to inform you of four things.
One – I am 36. That is perfectly middle-aged, and a long way from being spoon-fed castor oil or commiserating about the gout. Gov. Roberts decided that Jones' successor would be a gentleman out of Dallas named Gen. Wilburn - not Wilburt - King, a two-time legislator with a passion for thrift. With the present cutbacks, captains will need to be more selective about the men in their companies. Ideal is for an officer to be a good horseman, an accurate shot, and above all, young. I have often passed for 30 and will carry on doing so for as long as possible, permitting certain parties do not give me away. You, on the other hand, were likely born with the spirit of a 40 year old and have grown progressively more crotchety ever since.
Two – Upon further consideration, I believe you would not do well as part of an outlaw band. You would be subversive as an underling and tyrannical as a leader. But I did think Rattler Mattie was a suitable alias, and I am glad you have taken to it.
Three – The gloves I gave to the girl's mother. Her hand will bother her for years to come, and I have learned well the importance of keeping old injuries protected against the cold. The gloves are warm enough for that, I think.
Four – I have yet to meet another person so adept at handing out insults colored as compliments, and vice versa. It is an extraordinary talent and you ought to teach it to Capt. McMurry, who I believe is too easy-going on these men at times.
But thank you.
November 23rd, 1881
Dear LaBoeuf, Who Must Realize That He is No Longer a Rank Tenderfoot and Start Acting His Age,
I am sure your captain McMurry can handle complications in his own way.
As I read over your letters, though, I think more and more that there is some hidden design ultimately engined towards making me, in a fit of uncharacteristic soft-headedness, elect to visit your vast and dusty territory. Mama says there is a wildflower called the bluebonnet which grows by the thousands every spring, but I think this is partially sentimentality speaking on her part.
I am telling you, I will not do it.
Yours Most Respectfully,
5 January, 1882
I am expected to leave for a T&P railroad camp soon. You will not hear from me for a while. It is going to be a long few months – end-of-track settlements draw all manners of unsavory characters. The cars that transport currency, as any thinking man would guess, are an attractive target for robbers. Sgt. Platt and I agree that these new lines are going to be a drain on our forces. And headquarters was officially moved to Colorado City, if you are interested to know.
I have never had any plans of inviting you to this state. You would not be able to see its finer qualities, and even if you did you would not comment on them. In fact, I think you would go around purposefully seeking out negative things - I will admit that our trains do not always run on schedule, in part for the reasons I have mentioned - to prove yourself right.
But I will tell you that there are not thousands of bluebonnets, there are millions. You can ride for miles on a carpet of them. That is not what you call our Texan fondness for storytelling at work, that is the truth. And as Cogburn in particular should note, there is not a barb or briar to be seen.
I bet you would claim to be allergic to them.
P.S – Capt. McMurry has been making plans to obtain some mustangs from the territory, which I believe he is intent on turning into saddle-horses. I also suspect he has learned that I spent my years between the war and the Rangers by doing ranch work. No doubt I will be designated for the job of breaking and training them when I return.
I imagine that you yourself are still able to go about on horseback – I figure you would have to mount them from the right, but I cannot picture how you manage it without spooking the horse.
Monday, February 13th, 1882
Dear LaBoeuf, Bronco Buster,
Despite popular belief, horses do in fact allow themselves to be mounted from the right side. The only thing is that you must not hesitate, or give them any time to think the odd situation over.
Here are several other things I have discovered:
Eggs may be cracked and opened with one hand, if you keep the shell properly cupped inside your fingers. If you position things correctly on the keys of a typewriter you can go along at a rate of sixty words per minute. Every so often you will move to satisfy an itch and be surprised when you rake only air, though it happens much less now than at first. Hooks, buttons and straps are negotiable where laces and clasps are not. Bustles also require multiple arms for proper assembly, but it is nice not to go gadding about with fifteen pounds of metal clinging to one's person. If you cannot clasp two hands in prayer, the Lord will find it acceptable should you press one over your heart instead. Risking a few small cuts on the thumb, you can peel ginger root and potatoes. I have not yet figured out apples.
It is interesting, all of the things you do not think about under ordinary circumstances.
Yours Most Respectfully,
And the time passed.
The outlaw Jesse James was shot dead in St. Joseph, Missouri. Men were predicting a dry fall, which meant the shallow river banks would not be made navigable by steamboats until later in the season than usual. I turned nineteen. Robert Koch claimed to have discovered the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis. The lawyer J. Noble Daggett went to his birthplace of Helena, out in east Arkansas, with plans to run for County Commissioner. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died in March, Charles Robert Darwin in April. Frank turned sixteen. Victoria once again prevented me from selling Clarabelle, even if it meant she had to hobble about in shoes that pinched her feet.
One article in Sam Levy's Galveston Daily paper happened to catch my interest. On May 23rd, a prisoner at Huntsville Penitentiary named Evans walked off of a work detail and vanished, right from under the collective nose of his supervisors.
His name sounded somewhat familiar, and later it came to mind why. He was the cattle thief from Fort Davis, who had killed one of the Rangers trying to arrest him in the Chinati Mountains. LaBoeuf had shot him in the right arm.
I remember thinking it a pity he had not shot Evans in the left shoulder, instead, as there would have at least been an amusing hint of irony in that.
27 May 1882
I have decided that I despise the railway system. The locomotive is a hateful invention and breeds crime as much as it does civilization.
I have just returned from working the towns and railway camps out around the Trans-Pecos. The Texas & Pacific has officially been joined with the Southern Pacific at Sierra Blanca. It was all disorder out there. Being sometimes one or two hundred miles from the nearest courthouse, you must move in this sequence to maintain authority – commanding presence, verbal reprimanding, physical force, and as a last resort bending the barrel of a six-shooter over the dunce's head. Note that I say the barrel, not the butt. No one but an idiot changes ends with a pistol.
In April the holdup of a T&P express car brought three of us running up from a passenger coach to the station platform to exchange gunfire with the bandits. My hat was the only casualty.
P.S: I figured you would have devised some clever trick for the horses. Do you keep your hair in those two braids, still?
Yes, time does get away from you. Long prologue is LONG.
Not all of the chapters will be as heinously large as this one. But I wanted to do something different than just starting off several years later and bringing people up to speed, and at the same time make mention of the major characters (all of them have now been mentioned or introduced. ALL OF THEM) and plot points. And give you a sense of the bond between the members of Mattie's family, because that is something the rest of the story will hinge on.
Like I said before, everything LaBoeuf writes about is true. Yes, even the rescue of the shepherd dog, finding the child (though no sources say whether it was a boy or girl, so I took a creative liberty) and the disappearance of outlaw Jesse Evans from Hunstville Penitentiary on May 23rd of 1882. (A few internet sources say 1880, but text sources said 1882.)
History seems to have lost track of him after that: and where history drops off, I figure that fiction can begin.
Lucky we let his partner Selman go, though. Selman ended up turning to the side of the law, and was the El Paso constable who finally shot and killed famous murderer John Wesley Hardin.
I will probably end up publishing a bibliography along with the last chapter of this story, because I needed to consult an insane amount of sources just for this chapter alone and the trend will likely continue.
All of the calendar days on Mattie's letters are accurate. March 22nd of 1878 really was a Friday, February 13th of 1882 really was a Monday, and so on. The first bank in Yell County opened in 1895. 'Leaning on the Everlasting Arms' was not actually written until 1887, but I have fudged that bit of history because I CAN, gosh darn it.
But if anyone spotted any other anachronisms, please let me know!
If I have not bored you to tears by now, please stay tuned for Chapter One. And, as always, any questions, comments, suggestions or critiques are welcome.