Published on Thursday, January 20, 2010
Off to War
By Charles D. Phillips
When the three Texas Rangers walked into the small cantina in Matamoros, just across the river from Brownsville, they were already well on the way to drunk. Two of them were talking in the loud voices of men who think they inhabit a special place in this world.
After the youngest, a boy somewhere in his teens, purchased a jug of tequila, the three sat at a table near the entry. The two older men continued holding forth for their younger companion.
"Hell," said the largest, who looked to be the bull of the herd, "I tell you that was somethin'. We left San Antone' at a flat-out gallop, driving our mounts hard, and I mean hard. We didn't slow down 'til we'd run them Dutchmen down. They had a seven day head start, and when we caught up with them they's only 90 mile, can you believe it, only 90 mile from Fredericksburg. They'd just got down near to the Nueces. They's 60 or 70 of them German Unionists runnin' fer Mexico to hide out 'cause of The War, and they's just moseyin' along like they's just out for a Sunday ride. They mighta hurried up a bit if they knew us Rangers and some of Sibley's cavalry stationed in San Antone' was on their trail. When we caught up to 'em, you know what? That bunch of squareheads had set their overnight camp in a low place, sorta like a big ol' dried up buffalo wallow. The cavalry had themselves a few Caddo injun scouts. They kilt their pickets real silent-like just 'fore sun-up. Come the light, we hit that camp like a cyclone. We rode in with a pistol in each hand and our reins 'twixt our teeth. Went through them damned traitors like they's butter, and we's a hot Bowie knife."
The other older Ranger chimed in at that point, "I think Jesse here musta kilt half them that was done in. He was like some revengin' angel sent by ol' Jeff Davis hisself. I mean I done my share, but Jesse was like a sharp sickle cutting through dried up stalks. You shouda seen it, boy. It was one helluva thing."
After adding his bit to the story, the Ranger turned toward the bar and yelled, "Hey, Pancho, we need us some more of that Meskin whiskey. Git us another jug over here 'fore we decide to come git it ourselves and kick your Meskin ass for bein' so damn slow."
Jurian Becker sat at his usual table at the rear of the cantina and looked closely at the trio. The two older men were probably in their late 20s or early 30s. They both had longish, greasy hair and unkempt beards. They wore trail-weary hats with the brims turned down all around, badly worn boots, and two revolvers. From the look on the face of the youngest one when he glanced at his companions or watched how others responded to these big men with their pistols and loud mouths, it was obvious he took great pride in being out with these men.
When they mentioned the Nueces, Jurian had begun to pay attention. He knew that he should take a jug and go to his room. But, Hans Krieger, a friend from Fredericksburg came through Matamoros a few weeks ago headed for Monterrey. He'd brought the story of The Nueces Massacre.
Some of those older "squareheads" were men whose fields Jurian had worked as a boy and young man. He'd gone to the few years of school available in central Texas with some of the younger men. He knew those men and their families like he knew his own.
Escaping conscription into the Kaiser's army and the violence of war were why many families in Fredericksburg left Germany for Texas in the first place. In addition, their attitudes toward slavery were shaped by the servitude their families had long paid to the land-owning German aristocracy. Crossing the ocean hadn't changed their attitudes. So when faced with conscription into the Confederate Army, these men left their homes for refuge in another country, this time it was to be Mexico.
Krieger also brought the bad news that one of the men who died in the massacre was Leopold Bayer, a close friend of Jurian's. Leopold was Jurian's age and had a daughter at home with a pony that needed gentling. Jurian had promised him that he would work that pony for him. Leopold hewed as close as he could to the straight and narrow. He worked himself to exhaustion so his family had what they needed. When Jurian's father had taken ill, Leopold unselfishly and unstintingly helped Jurian and his brother with the family's crops. Leopold, Hans told him, was one of the wounded the Rebs executed after the battle. They took all the prisoners into a stand of trees and shot them. The Rebs hung the men who escaped during the battle but were captured later.
Leopold was just another corpse rotting out by the Nueces. His family was mourning, and the Rebs weren't even allowing the families to recover the remains of their loved ones. Had circumstances been a bit different, Jurian might've been among those men. The building tension over the war had pushed him to the border months before his neighbors, with their wives and their land, considered leaving.
Jurian leaned back in his chair and turned slightly to the side. Beneath the tabletop, he drew each of his Colts, checking their loads. Jurian then rose, walked to the bar, and picked up a jug of tequila and a glass.
Estaban, the owner and bartender looked at Jurian, held up his hands with the palms outward and shook his head from side to side. He didn't want trouble in his place. Moving closer to him, Jurian said under his breath, "Son asesinos solamente y nada mas!" They're nothing but damned assassins, Estaban. Jurian moved toward the newcomer's table.
Stepping back slightly, Estaban reached under the bar. He eased a sawed off double-barreled shotgun to the bar top. Remaining behind the bar, he positioned himself just to the side of the shotgun, which was now concealed behind an array of mugs and glasses. He didn't want a gun battle in his cantina. Being unarmed in the midst of a gun battle was something he wanted even less.
Besides, over the months Jurian had stayed in the casita behind his cantina, Estaban had come to consider the lanky Texan with his long blonde hair and his buckskin clothes, a friend. If Jurian Becker was bent on making a play, then Estaban would back him. Estaban sent his son, who was cleaning one of the tables, back into the kitchen with orders not to let any of the family come out front until he came back for them.
Jurian reached the Rangers' table. He put down the jug and said, "Name's not Pancho, but I don't mind hustling up drinks for some Texas Rangers, especially for Rangers who've seen themselves some real action."
"And who might you be, Mister," asked Jesse, who it seemed truly was the big dog of the bunch.
"I'm Jake Baker, and I'd be honored if you'd call me Jake and share this jug with me. I'm just another Texan purty far from home. From what your riding buddy said, I take it you're Jesse. But, who're these other fellas?"
Jesse Randall looked at his companions, nodded, and then he looked hard at Jurian and said, "You a Texan, and you don't look like no cripple. You come down to Mexico to keep outa The War, Baker? You like them squarehead deserters, but jest a bit quicker?"
Jurian turned to the big man, looked directly at him, smiled, and said, "Don't get all riled up on me. I'm in Matamoros 'cause I do my business here. You know all that beef you troopers eat and them horses you keep breakin' down real regular? Somebody's got to find you more beef and new mounts. That's what I do. I take stock from the big haciendas down here in Mexico and move it up to Texas so yor Commissary officers got somethin' to feed you and somethin' for you to ride."
"So, you're a horse thief and a cattle rustler. You know, in Texas me and these boys here would be obliged to hang ya," said Randall.
Jurian continued smiling and said, "Well, you mighta noticed we ain't in Texas, so I guess my neck's safe for tonight. And just so's I'll know, how 'bout you tell me when was the last time you Rangers hung a Texian for stealing Meskin cattle to fill Confederate bellies?"
The big man looked at the man he knew as Jake Baker for a moment, burst out laughing, and slapped the table. "True 'nough! By golly, true 'nough. They's rustlin', and then they's rustlin'. We Rangers do know the diff'rence."
With the tension eased, introductions began. Jesse pointed a thumb at the man next to him. "Well, that feller with the raggedy-assed moustache is 'Dirty Dave' Burstock, and the pup who just joined up to be a Ranger is 'Young Bob,' Bob Throckmorton. I'm 'Big Jesse' Randall. We's all out of San Antone'. Now, why don't you push that jug this way, and we'll all drink to cheap Meskin beef?"
After he drank some tequila, Jurian said, "I'd sure like to hear some more about that dust-up on the Nueces. That sounds like some kinda serious fighting."
Though Jesse had been telling much of that tale so far, Dave picked up the story. "Well, like Jesse said, we come up on their sentries and them Caddos kilt 'em without no noise at all. Then, just as the Sun was coming up behind us, we drew our pistols, made ourselves up into two lines, one behind t'other, kicked our horses, and rode through that camp like the devil his own self. We shot everything that moved. We pulled up on the high ground to the other side of the camp, spread out, and started pickin'em off with our long guns. Like Jesse said, they's camped in a low place, so it was ducks in a barrel. We killed us a couple dozen more that way and probably wounded just as many."
"You lose many men," asked Jurian?
"Oh, 'bout a dozen killed or wounded, I guess. Them Dutchmen did some fightin', but it weren't too long 'fore they run off or give up. All toll' we had us about a dozen or so prisoners after it was all over."
"Some of 'em musta been wounded, too. What'd you boys do with all of 'em?"
It was Jesse's time to speak again. "They's runnin' from conscription and they duty. So they's all deserters and traitors. Deserters get shot or hanged, wounded or not, surrendered or not. We down here in Brownsville hopin' to catch us a few more deserters and hang they asses 'fore they can git 'cross the border. We's fightin' a war here, Jake."
"It surely is a war, Jesse, and you Rangers are right in the thick of all the killin' and hangin' in Texas." The two men smelled unwashed and trail dirty. After what they'd done, Jurian thought they should smell of rotting flesh and stink of the fires of Hell.
Young Bob maintained his goofy, drunken grin. If the three of them left the cantina, in a little while the boy would be on his knees puking up his guts against the wall of some adobe building. His two heroes would laugh at him. Then, they'd tell all the other men in their company how Young Bob just couldn't hold his liquor.
Jurian desperately wanted to kill the two Rangers who had been at the Nueces, and he knew how he'd do it. Before leaning back and drawing both revolvers, he'd "clumsily" tip the tequila jug over in the middle of the table to attract their attention. He'd then put a bullet in the brainpan of each of the men bracketing him, while they stared at the spilling tequila. Young Bob wouldn't even realize what was happening until Jurian's bullets flew across the table into his chest.
Estaban and he would clean up the mess and dump the bodies in the river. When they came in, the Rangers cleared the cantina of other customers. Every border resident knew that when you mixed tequila and Los Rinches de Tejas, you had a brew that was often lethal to anyone with dark skin. So, there'd be no witnesses.
Jurian looked across the table and said, "Bob, how old are you, boy? You kinda young for a Ranger?"
Bob said, "Hell, I'm full growed and sixteen, Mister. My Daddy, Big Bob, was a Ranger 'til he got kilt by Apaches. Now, I'm aiming to make a Ranger, just like him."
Jurian looked at Young Bob and knew that when he killed those two, he had to kill the boy. If left alive, the kid would tell a story that would bring dozens of wild-eyed Rangers across the border screaming for revenge and killing anyone who got in their way or anyone they decided might need killing.
But, the boy hadn't shot men rolled up in their bedrolls or gunned down bootless, hatless, and terrified men running for cover. He hadn't marched or carried wounded men into the trees and killed them in cold-blood. He hadn't hung anyone who just wanted to get home. Tomorrow or the next day, he might do all that, or worse, but just now the boy was as innocent as Leopold had been that night by the Nueces. He was a boy trying to honor his father's memory by becoming a Ranger. Jurian knew he couldn't bring himself to kill the boy for the sins of his companions.
With that decision made, Jurian stood and said, "Well, Young Bob, you ought to think real hard on what you just heard. That story sure tells you a lot about the kind of men you're riding the river with. As for me, I've had my fill of tequila and talking about killin'. You boys enjoy yourselves. That jug's on me. Who knows, Dave Burstock and Jesse Randall out of San Antone,' we might meet up somewhere farther down the trail? I gotta say I truly hope we do."
With those words, he touched the brim of his hat, moved away from the table and started down the hallway to the back of the building and his casita. Estaban returned his shotgun to its place beneath the bar. He then followed Jurian down the hallway and said, "What was that? You go to that table ready to do killin', and then you buy them a jug? I not complainin'. I glad you no kill anyone, especially Los Rinches. That can mean all kin' of troubles."
"It was the kid," said Jurian. "There's too many mommas crying these days over dead young boys like him. I just didn't feel like addin' to the count." He turned and continued back toward his casita.
Estaban returned to the bar, waiting patiently for three Texas Rangers to leave. If he were Jurian, he would've killed all three. You find a den of rattlers in your corral. You don't just kill the old snakes. You kill them all 'cause you know what the young ones will become. A boy fool enough to sit at the feet of snakes like those two Rinches would become just like them. But, Jurian, Estaban knew, had his own rules about such things.
Two days later Jurian packed the gear he hadn't sold and boarded a ship bound for New Orleans. In New Orleans, a former judge from Brownsville-a Union man named Davis-was recruiting Texans for the First Texas Cavalry of the United States Army.
Since his encounter with the Rangers, Jurian had thought of little besides what happened up on the Nueces. Jurian couldn't kill those two Rebs who'd helped slaughter his friends. If he returned to central Texas to take his revenge, then he'd jeopardize all his family left in Fredericksburg.
But, he'd discovered he couldn't continue as if what happened was somehow too distant to affect how he lived his life. He'd been deeply saddened when he heard about the murders on the Nueces. But, it wasn't until he confronted face-to-face the cruelty and the callousness of those who did those murders that he discovered sadness wasn't enough.
Jurian didn't decide to take a stand about the Union and slavery. Those things were just words to him. He'd decided to go to Louisiana because of Leopold and his daughter's pony, the empty place that Leopold's death left in his family's hearts, and the empty places in the hearts of all those families he knew. If avenging them meant Union and abolition, then Union and abolition it was.
Jurian also decided to keep the name he'd given to the Rangers. Jurian Becker was a cattle rustler and a horse thief. He'd sold stock to the Union Army and to the Rebs. The other hard men along the river knew Jurian as The Flyin' Dutchman, a man you could ride the river with, and a man you trifled with at your own risk. One morning, in early January of 1863, The Flyin' Dutchman was buried. That same morning, Jake Baker walked up a ship's gangway and headed off to war.
Charles D. Phillips is a native Texan and a public health professional living and teaching in College Station, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Flashshot, flashquake, HeavyGlow, Long Story Short, the Angler, Static Movement, Smokebox, Toasted Cheese, and the Vestal Review. His Old West short stories have appeared in The Copperfield Review, Short Barrel Fiction, and Rope and Wire. His short fiction was nominated for StorySouths 2009 Million Writer Award, the Pushcart Prize, 2009 and for inclusion in the Best of the Web, 2009.