In 1875, nearly forty years after the Mexican War, Mexicans and Texans are still spilling blood over ownership of the Nueces Strip--a hot, dry stretch of coastal prairie that bushwackers and horse thieves have turned into a lawless hell.
Captain L.H. McNelly, a complex and determined Confederate veteran, is brought into the Nueces Strip for one purpose: to keep the peace. His measures are harsh and controversial--but McNelly wasn't sent in to be popular. In this boilerpot of killing and racial hatred, can any man bring lasting peace?
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Elmer Kelton (1926-2009) was the award-winning author of more than forty novels, including The Time It Never Rained, Other Men's Horses, Texas Standoff and Hard Trail to Follow. He grew up on a ranch near Crane, Texas, and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. His first novel, Hot Iron, was published in 1956. Among his awards have been seven Spurs from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. His novel The Good Old Boys was made into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones. In addition to his novels, Kelton worked as an agricultural journalist for 42 years, and served in the infantry in World War II. He died in 2009.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
One THEY RODE HORSEBACK UP AUSTIN'S broad main thoroughfare toward the forbidding antebellum structure which now, ten years after the Civil War, was being denounced in the legislature as the worst firetrap and eyesore in Texas--the capitol building. There were two riders, a big man with a broad-brimmed Mexican border hat and a little man with a short brown beard. A vague military look--something sensed as much as seen, something about the way he carried himself--made it plain that the smaller man was the one in charge. He rode up almost to the steps and swung down from the saddle. He paused a moment, his thin shoulders pinching as he coughed into one hand. His face was pale and sickly, but his piercing eyes saw all there was to see and gave a hint that behind them a keen mind was running with the whistle tied down. He handed the reins tothe big man and said: "Stay close, Sergeant. I have no idea how long I'll be with the governor." Two men idled on the steps, puffing cigars and arguing about an item in a newspaper. One looked up, frowning. "It's McNelly." He spoke in a voice the little man could not miss. "McNelly?" The other snorted. "Ain't he the one used to work for them damned carpetbag State Police?" McNelly gave no appearance of hearing until the big man took an angry stride toward the loafers. He turned and said, "No, Sergeant. There'll be no brawling on the capitol steps. They didn't say anything, and you didn't hear it." The sergeant glared at the idlers but did not question the order. "Yes, sir, Captain." He watched Captain McNelly march into the building and out of sight. The loafers felt that the order was their protection. One said, "The sergeant don't sound like a carpetbagger to me. Does he to you, Wilse?" "Naw, he don't. Where you from, Sergeant?" Anger stained the big man's face. He ignored the question until it was thrown at him a second time. "Arkansas," he replied curtly. "Arkansas. Well, now, I wouldn't hardly think there'd be no carpetbaggers from Arkansas. I don't see any uniform, either. What kind of a sergeant are you, anyway?" "Ranger sergeant. Texas Rangers." "A Texas Ranger from Arkansas. That does beat all, don't it, Wilse? A carpetbag Texas Ranger sergeant from Arkansas." The sergeant put one booted foot forward, caught himself and stepped back, glancing up at the open windows as if certain the captain would see him. Crisply he declared, "War's been over for ten years. There's no such of a thing anymore as a carpetbagger. Somethin' else, Captain never was one. The man who says differentis a low-down, yellow-bellied liar. And he hasn't got the guts to come to the Ranger camp tonight and meet me out past the picket line." "If a man was to come around, who would you send out to fight him? That consumptive-looking captain of yours?" The sergeant moved forward, fists up. The loafer jumped to his feet. "Remember your orders, Sergeant." The sergeant's eyes narrowed, and his voice went quiet, the way the air sometimes does just before a storm breaks loose. "I'll remember my orders. But I'll also remember you two. And if you're not on the picket line tonight to find me, I'll be around tomorrow to find you." He looked as if he could drive a nail with his bare hand. The loafers decided they were moths too close to the flame. He watched, the color still high in his broad face, as the two retreated down the dirt street and disappeared into the open door of a saloon. He led the horses to a shady place and loosened the cinches, then squatted on the ground. There he could watch both the door of the capitol building and the door of the saloon. He would be here a long time, more than likely, but the captain had said wait. When a man followed McNelly, he learned to rest every time he got the chance, for sometimes there was no rest at all. For a little man, Captain had the devil's own endurance, except when he was suffering one of his spells. The sergeant half dozed in the gentle warmth of the spring morning, but every movement at the capitol door caught his eye. He was sure the loafers had not left the saloon, either. After perhaps two hours, he saw the familiar gaunt figure pass through the doorway and start down the long steps, back straight, thin shoulders held proud. The sergeantled the horses forward. He could tell McNelly was troubled by the way he chewed his unlighted cigar. The sergeant boiled with curiosity, but a man never asked the captain unnecessary questions. If Captain wanted something known, he would tell it. If he chose to keep it to himself, all hell couldn't prize it out of him. His men learned to watch him and take their cue from his actions. If he ate a good supper, they knew they could figure on sleeping. If he drank coffee and munched a little hardtack, they knew a night ride was coming up, for Captain believed a man traveled best when he rode with his belly lank. Captain asked, "Do you have any business in Austin that needs settling before we leave, Sergeant?" The sergeant hadn't known they were going anywhere, but then, he doubted the governor had called McNelly in to talk about the old days of the Confederacy. "That depends, sir. I take it we'll be gone before tonight?" "My orders are to leave when I'm ready. And I'm ready." The sergeant frowned. "Well, sir, there is one little piece of business I ought to take care of. Won't be but a minute or two. I have a small debt that needs settlin' in that saloon." "All right, but no drinking. We've got to ride." "No drinkin', sir." The sergeant dismounted. He held the reins awkwardly until the captain silently reached out for them. Under no circumstances would the sergeant have presumed to ask Captain to hold his horse. He walked into the saloon. Two minutes later he was back smiling, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand against his shirt. In his left hand he held several black cigars. "For you, Captain. Compliments of the bartender." "Thank you, Sergeant. Debt all paid?" "Paid in full, sir." He knew better than to ask where they were going. But there were ways of fishing for an answer. "Spring like this, it could still get chilly up in North Texas. Somebody stole my coat. Reckon I ought to buy me a new one, sir?" "We're not heading north." The little captain's sharp eyes held a rare glint of dark humor, and the sergeant knew McNelly saw through him. "We're going south." "I didn't mean to pry, Captain." "You had just as well know. I find the rumor is out anyway. The governor has authorized me to recruit new men and build up my force for a cleanup job. It'll be a dirty one." The sergeant struggled against his curiosity, but he couldn't keep it from showing. The captain could see. "We're going all the way to the Rio Grande. Our orders are to clean up the Nueces Strip." Copyright © 1968, 1996 by Elmer Kelton
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