The winter of 1876 was the hardest Bill Sayles could remember in all his years in Texas. He had come from Tennessee with his father and older brother at the age of fifteen, just in time to ride scout for Sam Houston in the fight for independence from Santa Anna's Mexico. That had been forty-five years ago, but Sayles was willing to concede that this particular winter might just seem the most severe because he was getting long in the tooth. There was something about being on the wrong side of three-score years that forced him to accept that he was not quite the man he used to be. Even so, this was a winter to remember.
Several blue northers had come sweeping down from Canada, freezing rivers clean down to the bottom and causing trees to shatter. When in Waco, where his Ranger company was headquartered, Sayles often visited the White Elephant Saloon to enjoy a bottle of Old Overholt, Abe Lincoln's whiskey of choice. Prior to his departure for the state prison at Huntsville, he had been in the saloon when a cowboy down from Kansas swore he had been an eyewitness to a whole herd of cattle frozen dead in their tracks along the banks of the Smoky Hill River. Sayles didn't doubt that a cow could freeze to death. He had seen the same thing happen to a few men in his time. But why the cattle the cowboy had seen would not lie down to die intrigued him for days.
Sayles didn't mind the forest at all—except in one respect. He had grown accustomed to the more open plains and prairies west of the Brazos, where a man could see trouble coming even if trouble was trying to sneak up on him, assuming he was experienced in reading the signs. The same could not be said for these piney woods. A whole band of cutthroats could conceal themselves in the gloom and the undergrowth not a pistol-shot away. "Be just my luck," he murmured, "that after surviving Santa Anna, Cortina, and that damned Comanche shaman Isatai, I'd be put down by some down-on-his-luck highwayman." He was addressing the coyote dun under his saddle, as he was wont to do, since the horse would sometimes snort and nod when it heard its owner's voice. It was like they were having a conversation. The dun didn't acknowledge him this time, though.
As he rode down the narrow snow-packed road winding through the forest, a bay horse trailing on a long lead, Sayles mused that there were plenty of men down on their luck these days, ever since the Panic of 1873. Being one who had been content to live off the modest wages of a Texas Ranger his entire adult life, Sayles knew little about things like a gold standard, or how cheap silver could result in devalued government greenbacks, leading to the failure of numerous business enterprises, such as railroads, which could not pay their creditors with the same nearly worthless paper money they paid their employees—before laying off those employees. Thousands of men had come to Texas after the war to work on the iron roads sprouting up all over the place, only to be stranded stone-broke by the financial crisis. More than a few of these men had turned to crime. The deep and in places almost impenetrable forests of East Texas sheltered a good many such desperadoes.
Sayles had wondered if the man he was riding to the state prison to fetch had turned to outlawry on account of what had befallen the economy. All his Captain had told him was that Jake Eddings had been sentenced to fifteen years by a judge in Cameron for his part in a stagecoach holdup in which the driver of the coach had been shot and killed. It was said that the killer had been Eddings's partner, who had chosen to end his life in a hail of bullets courtesy of a posse that had run the two men down rather than face the hangman's noose. Hearing this, Sayles was a little surprised that Eddings had escaped hanging too, since details like which member of an outlaw gang had committed murder were usually ignored by a frontier judge and jury. The Captain was of the opinion that Eddings had the silver tongue of his lawyer, a Temple Hanley by name, to thank for him still being above snakes.
It was Hanley, surmised The Captain, who was responsible for the order from Governor Coke that Eddings be delivered to Cameron so that he could be present when his young son was buried. "Never heard tell of such," The Captain had said, when he handed the job over to Sayles in his cluttered Waco office, with its walls papered over with maps and a pall of gray smoke hanging over the battered kneehole desk. The smoke was produced by the lighted Mexican cheroot Sayles was chewing on. "There was that Tonkawa, Yellow Wolf, the one who murdered a farmer and his wife over at Brown's Mill, then defiled and killed their two daughters. As I recall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs asked the governor to let Yellow Wolf visit his family before the Tonkawas were relocated to Indian Territory. But that time the governor said hell no." The Captain shrugged. He wasn't angry or upset by this peculiar turn of events, just surprised.
Sayles stood there in front of the desk, arms folded, listening and not saying a word, feeling sick to his stomach and trying not to show it. Hearing that Eddings had lost his son made his blood run cold. But it was The Captain's recounting of the murders committed by Yellow Wolf that affected him the most. He couldn't be sure if The Captain even knew or had forgotten about the fate of his own family or just assumed that a Ranger like Bill Sayles had too much hard bark on him to be troubled by hearing tales of loved ones lost. He was resentful, but his creased, leathery features betrayed nothing. He didn't much care for The Captain. Having served under legends like Jack Hays and Ben McCulloch, Sayles held other Rangers he worked with these days to very high standards and usually found them wanting.
In the two and a half days it took him to make the ride to Huntsville, Sayles had plenty of time to get over his resentment, and even managed to stow in the back of his mind the painful memories woken by his talk with The Captain. Mostly he kept himself occupied by ruminating on the changing times. The Waco Indians, the Tonkawa, even the peaceful Caddo bands had been moved north in the Indian Territory. The Quahada Comanche chief Quanah Parker had surrendered and been relocated to Fort Sill in Oklahoma following the Second Battle of Adobe Walls and the Red River War. The buffalo of the southern plains were nearly wiped out and that, coupled with cholera and smallpox epidemics, had played a major factor in the collapse of the once great tribe that had been the chief antagonists of the Texas Rangers for the past thirty years. Not since the Second Cortina War in 1861 had the Mexicans posed much of a threat, apart from occasional horse-stealing raids. The Civil War hadn't brought much fighting to Texas soil. So the Comanches had been the greatest foe Texas had ever had to face. And now they too had been herded onto reservations north of the Red River.
It made a man wonder if soon there would even be a need for the Rangers. From that day over fifty years ago when impresario Stephen F. Austin had formed a small group of mounted militia charged with defending the Anglo colonies from Indian raids, the Texas Rangers had fought to defend the frontier. These days, though, as far as Sayles was concerned, he and his compadres were just glorified lawmen dealing with common outlaws. This job The Captain had given him was a case in point. Escorting an inmate to a funeral and back to prison again was a far cry from being in hot pursuit of Comanche raiders. Sayles figured he ought to be glad that the threat to the settlers on the Texas frontier posed by the Comanche had been dealt with. But the truth was he knew he was going to miss the passion of the hunt. Things were never going to be the same.
The road he took through the tall gloom of the forest was a narrow one, covered with ice-encrusted snow. Throughout the day he saw no sign of human passage save for the track left by several wagons pulled by mule teams coming out of the woods to turn east in the direction of Huntsville. Taking into account the scattering of wood debris on the road, he surmised they belonged to woodcutters, probably hauling firewood, and that made him think he was nearly to his destination, since Huntsville woodcutting crews would have no reason to venture very far into the forest. Soon the road rose into rolling clay hills. The timber thinned out and small homesteads began to appear. In the distance he could see a pall of chimney smoke marking the location of the town.
The seat of Walker County, Huntsville was on its way to recovering from the economic disruptions that had followed the War Between the States thanks in large part to cotton and lumber and the arrival of the International and Great Southern Railroad. Even so, the broad streets between rows of tightly packed false-front buildings were nearly empty; anybody who didn't need to be outside was behind closed doors and curtained windows striving to stay warm. The smell of wood smoke was strong, carried by the blustery, bone-chilling wind channeled down the streets. This at least diminished the pungent effluvium produced by so many people living together in one place. He had a sense of smell that was more sensitive than most. He had heard Bigfoot Wallace claim that living a life of danger day in and day out would heighten all of a man's senses, and while the legendary Bigfoot was renowned for his hyperbole, Sayles had felt there was something to what Wallace said. Sayles understood why folks congregated like this—for the sake of commerce and work, companionship and safety—but he hadn't needed to rely on a town for any of that, at least for any length of time.
Pausing at an intersection to take a long look around before heading south for the state prison, Sayles stood in the stirrups a bit just to ease aching bones as memories assailed him. "Real shame about Callie Owen," he murmured, talking to the coyote dun. "She was quite a gal." Ears turning, the horse whickered in response. A pensive smile touched the corners of the Ranger's mouth. Callie had been a lady of ill repute when he had first met her, back in the Republic years, a wild and wanton woman-child who wore her "shame" like a badge of honor. Sayles had visited her fairly often back then, in the years after he had served as scout and courier during the fight for Texas independence, and before his company had been mustered into service to the United States Army as guides and guerrilla fighters in the Mexican War. He had gladly paid a dollar a poke and sometimes added another dollar, in the hope of making her remember him. Two dollars was no small thing when you earned thirty dollars a month and had to pay for your own room and board and your mount's too, but Callie Owen was worth it.
He had been a brash and lively young man in his twenties back in those days and Callie made him feel like he hung the moon, to such an extent that one day, emboldened by a strong dose of liquid bravemaker, he proposed to her. She turned him down, of course. Spurned and heartbroken, he could never bring himself to show his face again, though often he longed for her touch. Only when he was older did he realize that women like Callie made every man they did business with feel special. The yellow fever epidemic of '67 had taken her. She died a respectable woman, happily married to a storekeeper.
Sayles hadn't learned of Callie Owen's passing until four years later, when he had come to Huntsville after a personal friend, Leander McNelly, captain of the newly formed state police, was shot and wounded when local sympathizers smuggled weapons into the local jail to arm three men who had been convicted of the murder of a freedman. The killers escaped and even though a militia unit was dispatched to Walker County, and a state of martial law existed for two months, justice was never served. The state police were disbanded soon after. McNelly and thirty-five other men who had served in that short-lived unit were enlisted into the Texas Rangers. Due to professional rivalry, Sayles hadn't been sorry to see the state police go. But now he was sorry, figuring that this job he had been given was one better suited to the glorified lawmen of McNelly's old bunch than it was to a Texas Ranger.
Stopping at the telegraph office in the small railroad depot—telegraph lines generally followed the iron roads where possible—he had a message sent to the Cameron lawyer, Temple Hanley. have eddings. be there third day. ranger sayles. He added the "Ranger" since he wasn't sure The Captain would bother wiring Hanley to let him know who was bringing his former client to Cameron. Then he rode south about a mile to the prison. He had last seen it two decades ago, when it had been but a few years old. It looked much different than he remembered. Outside the prison walls near the West Gate was a massive three-story red-brick building with ward, dewey & co. painted on a front window. Sayles moved on to the gate. A prison guard in forage cap and overcoat who was leaning on the gate straightened up and approached him, unsmiling and steely-eyed. "State your business, mister."
Sayles winced as he stiffly swung down out of the saddle. It was a courtesy to the guard, as he was of the opinion that remaining mounted when talking to a person on foot was discourteous. "Sayles. Texas Ranger," he said, matter-of-factly. "I'm here to see Goree."
Read the rest of Christmas in the Lone Star State available from St. Martin's Paperback.
Copyright © 2016 Jason Manning.
JASON MANNING was born and continues to live in Texas. He has been writing bestselling westerns since 1979, including The Judge series, the Gordon Hawkes novels, the Barlow novels, and the Ethan Payne trilogy. As an historian, Manning has taught at Stephen F. Austin State University, Southern Illinois University, and Montgomery College in Texas. His website The Eighties Club is widely regarded as an excellent resource on the history and pop culture of the 1980s.
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