Authors: Larry D. Sweazy
It was past midnight when the knock came at the
door. Lyle barely stirred, and Josiah, a light sleeper himself, was glad that the boy had not been woken up. The knock was more of a tap than anything else, and when it came again, he was certain someone wanted to see him and would refuse to give up until he went to the door.
He hitched up his long johns, grabbed the Peacemaker off of the bureau, and padded to the door as quietly as he could.
After finding Josiah home, Ofelia had returned home to Little Mexico hours earlier. Everything was in its place and cleaned for the day, as it was every evening before Ofelia departed.
“Who is it?” Josiah said, loud enough for the person on the other side of the door to hear.
“It is me, seÃ±or, Juan Carlos. Juan Carlos MontegnÃ©.”
Josiah didn't immediately open the door, even though Juan Carlos was a trusted friend. “How do I know it is you?”
“It is your friend, seÃ±or, Scrap Elliot. He is in trouble, and I have come for you to help him.”
Josiah reached for the doorknob but still did not entirely trust the voice beyond the door, even though it sounded like Juan Carlos.
The last he had known, Juan Carlos was still in South Texas, living in a small fishing village outside of Corpus Christi. But it had been a month since he'd seen Juan Carlos there himself, and there was no doubt that with the old Mexican, change came quickly. For as long as Josiah had known Juan Carlos, he had always been a vagabond, edging the shadows, much like a possum wandering from one place to the next.
The last Josiah had heard, Scrap Elliot, a fellow Ranger and a partner in the company, was still in South Texas, too, riding with Captain Leander McNelly, taking on Juan Cortina. Or, at the very least, pushing the incursion back into Mexico.
“When did Scrap come back to Austin?” Josiah said.
“Only yesterday, seÃ±or, back with the rest of the company, and trouble found him very quickly. He is in jail for the killing of a whore.”
Josiah opened the door then. He smiled slightly at the sight of his friend, then jerked his head, motioning for Juan Carlos to come inside. Happiness was not exactly what Josiah felt, considering the news he'd just been told.
It was not known to anyone how old Juan Carlos really was, but his hair was white as the snow on top of a mountain, contrasting even more brilliantly against his dark brown skin. Juan Carlos was half-Mexican and was the half brother of Hiram Fikes, Pearl's dead father and Josiah's former captain. Still able but less spry after taking a bullet near the gut in Brackett, Texas, several months prior, Juan Carlos operated in a variety of different capacities but most often as a spy for the Rangers. At least he had when his brother was alive, and more recently for Captain McNelly.
Josiah looked up and down the street to make sure Juan Carlos was alone, then closed the door softly and locked it.
Juan Carlos stood in the center of the room, a little hunched over, a natural stance not indicating pain or trouble, dressed in near rags, with no knife or gun showing. There was no question that the man was armed, just not visibly. Juan Carlos liked to fade into the crowd and not be noticed. He had saved Josiah's life on more than one occasion and had more fighting skills, and gun talents, than any one man ought to have a right to. The fool who mistook Juan Carlos for a weak old man would end up a dead fool if he pushed him around or bullied him, or anyone he cared about.
“What are you afraid of, SeÃ±or Josiah?” Juan Carlos asked, his voice low in tone, aware of Josiah's situation with Lyle.
“Nothing.” Josiah laid the Peacemaker on the table in the kitchen. “Tell me about Elliot.”
“Afraid of nothing? Certainly you do not expect me to believe that? Treating a friend like a stranger at the door? Life in the city has made you a nervous man, Josiah Wolfe. I am surprised by the change in you.”
“It's not the city that has made me nervous.” Josiah glanced unconsciously to the back room where Lyle slept.
“You fear for the safety of your son.” It was not a question but a statement.
Josiah stared at the old Mexican, not acknowledging whether he was right or wrong. “I have made enemies everywhere I have gone, Juan Carlos, you know that. I can't be too careful.”
, SeÃ±or Josiah, Cortina would like nothing more than to see you dead. But he has been driven deeper into Mexico by McNelly and the other company of Rangers that joined him there.”
“They will go after Cortina regardless of the border.”
Juan Carlos hunched his shoulders. “It is no longer my concern. I followed McNelly's company home to see my niece. Is she well?”
“I asked about Elliot.” Josiah sat down at the table after lighting a hurricane lamp. The room immediately smelled of coal oil. “You said he killed a whore? That doesn't sound like something he would be involved in. Elliot's always ready for a fight, but with a man not a woman. He's scared of his own shadow around them. Even whores.”
“That is why I am here, seÃ±or.”
“And this is not a ruse? After everything that has happened, I'm a little suspicious of what Juan Cortina is capable of.”
“You are in no danger that I know of,” Juan Carlos said.
“That's good to know. But my troubles are far from cured even if Juan Cortina is hundreds of miles away. I faced down his last bounty hunter, and I'm sure there will be more. Following you, or using Elliot as a way to lure me out in the open, would not be beneath them.”
“Ah,” Juan Carlos said, “but very unwise since you are not alone.”
“I'm sure it would be.” Josiah acknowledged Juan Carlos's prowess with weapons and his fighting skill, bringing a smile to the old man's face.
“You still have troubles to face of your own. Elliot is like a bull running loose, looking for whatever he can find to break. It has caught up with him now. But I thought you should know. No matter what I think of the
, I believe if you were in need of his help, he would come to your side.”
Josiah nodded. “He's done so in the past. I owe him my life, but I can't let it show or his head swells even bigger than it already is.”
Scrap Elliot was not much over the age of twenty years old, and Josiah had not known him prior to joining up with the Frontier Battalion in May of 1874. It had been at the start of the new Rangers, the official Rangers, organized by Governor Coke to quell the Comanche raids and restore faith and order in what was the corrupt State Police system. By all accounts, the organization had been successful, and the Comanche were nearly defeated, or at least on the run into Indian Territory.
It seemed that whenever there'd been a mission, Josiah had been paired with Elliot. The boy was one of the best shots Josiah had ever seen, and a fine horseman, too. But he was brash, quick-mouthed, and a hothead, always looking, as Juan Carlos had pointed out, for nothing but trouble.
“The Rangers came into town early this evening,” Juan Carlos said.
Josiah didn't say anything, but he was relieved at the news, glad that he would be able to face Captain McNelly after the latest incident and find out what his status with the Rangers was once and for all.
“I followed at a distance,” Juan Carlos continued. “It was time for me to leave the seashore. There was too much sadness there for me to bear. And it was no longer safe for me. Mexicans are being killed for no other reason than the color of their skin, and the words that escape their tongues. I could not hide behind my Anglo blood. It shows itself poorly. Besides, the village was convinced I had brought them trouble, a curse on their way of life. The fish had abandoned them, and my presence was to blame, or so they said.”
After Cortina had raided Corpus Christi earlier in the month, several vigilantes got together, calling themselves minute groups, to protect the city. They were nothing but thugs looking for reasons to kill Mexicans. The uprising, as well as the raid, was the main reason Governor Coke and the adjunct general, William Steele had sent McNelly's company of Rangers to South Texas in the first place and then followed up with the Frontier Battalion, doubling the punch against Cortina.
Prior to that, after Josiah had left the Frontier Battalion and joined McNelly's company, he had been assigned to the city to serve as a spy, to arrange contacts, so they could get a better understanding of the cattle rustling operations taking place and Cortina's full intentions. Lyle had taken sick, and Josiah had come home, followed by a killer enticed by Cortina's bounty. Josiah killed the man, but as far as he knew, the bounty was still valid. The only woman, as far as Josiah knew, that Juan Carlos had loved had been killed during the raidsâand Josiah had been there, had made a bad decision that had led to the woman's death. He didn't think Juan Carlos would ever forgive him, but he had, or seemed to at least.
“I'm glad to see you,” Josiah said. There was no use offering up another apology. He had said he was sorry to the man more times than he could count.
“I am glad to be back in Austin. After dismounting, a few of the boys went off looking for a saloon. They stopped at the Easy Nickel,” Juan Carlos said.
“I know that place.” The saloon was a couple of blocks from Miss Amelia's house. “It can be a little rough for a boy like Scrap.”
“I do not know the details, but I heard screams. Then I saw Scrap Elliot running down the street with blood on his hands; he was wide-eyed and pale, like a man gone loco. Suddenly, there were deputies around. They ran after him, cornered him, then took him to jail. I went asking around, but all I could find out was that the Ranger had killed a whore in the back of the Easy Nickel. It seemed very strange to me, seÃ±or.”
Josiah felt numb. He could not imagine Scrap Elliot laying a violent hand on a woman. “There is nothing I can do now. I'll go down to the jail first thing in the morning.”
Juan Carlos nodded and headed to the door.
“You can stay here if you want,” Josiah said.
Juan Carlos smiled, nodded, then slipped out the door into the darkness, disappearing, like he always didÂ .Â .Â . as if he had never existed in the first place.
After a moment, after the silence had completely returned to the small house, Josiah wasn't sure if he was awake or asleep, if he had dreamed the whole conversation with Juan Carlos or not.
The rising sun burned the back of Josiah's eyelids,
forcing him awake. Sleep had been fitful, and he didn't feel rested at all. It was like he'd been fighting something, or someone, all night long, even though he couldn't remember a thing. No ghosts, no voices from the past whispering in his earâjust sore muscles and the feeling like he'd been awake for days instead of asleep for hours.
There was no question that Josiah was troubled by Juan Carlos's visit, and more than worried about Scrapâeven though, given the tenuous nature of their friendship, he felt odd about that concern. Sometimes it felt to Josiah like he was more a surrogate father to Scrap than a friend or sergeant.
He sat up on the edge of his bed, wiped his eyes, took a deep breath, and then froze with panic at a sudden realization. Lyle's bed was empty, the covers twisted and rolled about. There was no sign of the little boy. Worse yet, the Peacemaker on the bureau was gone.
Fear careened through Josiah's veins like a blast of dynamite blowing open a new mine shaft.
“Lyle!” he hollered out, dashing into the front room of the house without one more thought, reacting to what he saw, instead of thinking. “Lyle!” he screamed again.
Lyle was sitting in the middle of the room. His eyes wide open, obviously startled by his father's screams. The little boy froze, like a rabbit trying to camouflage itself in the woods, unmoving at the hint of the first cry of a hawk.
“What is the matter, SeÃ±or Josiah?” Ofelia asked, annoyed by Josiah's sudden outburst, wiping her hands on her apron and rushing over to Lyle, who was now on the verge of tears.
Ofelia was at least thirty years older than Josiah. Old enough to be his mother. She was about five feet tall, and round as an October pumpkin. Her black hair was shiny, with streaks of silver zigzagging through it, and her face was almost always happy. Her wide brown eyes were more forgiving than judgmental, and she usually laughed a lot, and rarely spoke ill of anyoneâeven those who held a prejudice against her because she was a Mexican.
Josiah had known Ofelia since he was a little boy. She had been a
, a midwife, in and around Tyler and Seerville. She had delivered all three of his daughters, and Lyle, too, into the world. Now she was much more than a
; she was treated as a member of Josiah's small family. She was all that remained of his past, and he trusted her with the care and welfare of his most prized possession: Lyle Wolfe himself.
“Where is my gun?” Josiah demanded. “Lyle, what have you done with my gun? It was on the bureau when I went to bed, and now it's gone.” It was Josiah's turn to act like a bull, cut loose from the herd, bucking wildly in search of a target to pierce with its horns.
The first two things that Josiah realized, after taking a deep breath, and taking in the circumstance he'd found himself in, was that Lyle was just fine and that he had slept much later than he'd thought. His heart was racing so fast he thought it was about to jump out of his chest.
The welcome smell of frying bacon hit his nose, but he was still panicked; his gun was nowhere in sight.
Ofelia had reached for Lyle with a surprising amount of grace and speed, pulling him into her arms before one tear could fall from the boy's eyes to the floor. “You have scared him. What are you thinking, yelling at the top of your lungs?”
“Where is my gun?” Josiah demanded, as he stopped in the middle of the room, about three feet from Ofelia and Lyle.
The depth of his voice echoed off the tight walls of the house, making it seem much louder than it really was. Still, he was perturbed, and scared. Though he was relieved to see his son and Ofelia in the house, acting as if nothing was amiss, the gun not a worry, or even a thought.
“I have put it away, SeÃ±or Josiah. You are not in a camp of rowdy vaqueros, where you can just
dejar las cosas laicos
.” There was no mistaking the tone in Ofelia's voice. She was reprimanding Josiah. Her voice was harsh, but there was still a softness to it, a line of anger she would not allow herself to cross, though he could see she was really having to restrain herself.
Josiah glared at Ofelia. She knew full well that he did not understand her languageÂ .Â .Â . and had no interest in learning. Lyle, on the other hand, could speak Mexican just as well as he could speak English. An advantage, to Josiah's thinking, when it came to growing up in the city.
Ofelia patted Lyle's back and drew a deep breath. “You cannot leave things laying about, SeÃ±or Josiah. Lyle knows no
, no rules, about such things as guns. You are not here enough for him to understand that. The
does not mean life and death to him. It means he is just like you if he carries it around. There are other ways for him to
, to, um, how you say it? Mimic you?”
Josiah recoiled unconsciously. Ofelia was right.
I am sorry, SeÃ±or Josiah,” Ofelia continued. “I do not mean to step out of place. I came into the house this morning, and you both were sleeping. I put the
away. I should have asked you before now to be aware because Lyle is getting into everythingâand I can hardly keep up with him. He
es rÃ pido
. Very fast for this old woman.”
Lyle peered sheepishly over Ofelia's shoulder. “I din't do it, Papa.”
Josiah felt himself deflate. He had acted comfortably in his own home, unaware that Lyle, who was almost four, had the strength now to carry off the gunÂ .Â .Â . and possibly, pull the trigger. Just the thought made him shiver with fear and dread.
There were never guns lying around his own home as a child, not that he could remember anyway.
He was not allowed to touch his father's long gun that stood by the door, guarding and protecting the family, albeit coldly and silently; it would provoke a hard slap to the hand if it
touched. Only once, when his father was too sick to hunt, was Josiah allowed to take the long gun out of the house. And then, it was stolen by a Comanche, never to be seen again. Josiah was lucky he wasn't stolen, too, another Cynthia Ann Parker story. It seemed that the memory of guns was prolific and, at times, painful to him. And now he was giving his son a set of memories, different but the same. But hopefully not as dangerous. It was a lesson learnedÂ .Â .Â . not as hard as it could have been.
“You're right, Ofelia, I don't know what I was thinking. It won't happen again.”
Ofelia nodded and let Lyle slide down out of her grip.
Josiah stood back, smiled, and opened his arms. Lyle only hesitated for a second, then ran as fast as he could to his father, jumping into the air so Josiah would catch him in a big hug.
*Â *Â *
The jail was several blocks away from Josiah's
house, and he had chosen to walk, instead of pulling Clipper out of the livery. Spring air washed around him comfortably. The fresh fragrance of opportunity was seemingly everywhere, like someone had kicked over an aromatic keg of sweet-smelling liquid that had soaked thoroughly and completely into the rutted dirt streets of Austin.
The sky was clear of clouds, a perfect blue that looked like the ocean had been cast upward and turned upside down, the waves and tides shaken out of it in the process.
It was nearly noon, and the sun hung steady overhead, under no threats and beaming proudly of the season it had brought forth. The day was as perfect as one could ask for; the only matter altering Josiah's mood was the one at hand: finding out exactly what kind of trouble Scrap Elliot had gotten himself into. The trouble with the gun was past; he'd not put Lyle in harm's way again. Not if he could help it.
Josiah pulled his Stetson down to shield his eyes from the sun and to avoid the gaze of any of the passersby, hoping to avoid any undue recognition, or nasty snickers. His tolerance for such things was still low after his outing with Pearl the day before.
It didn't take long to walk to the jail. It stood between Guadalupe and San Antonio streets and between West Third and West Fourth streetsâfour blocks off Congress Avenue.
Ask for directions from anyone, and you'd likely be told it was on the Old Courthouse block, since this was the second jail Austin had seen built since the city had come into existence. The first one had burned down in 1855.
The jail was two storeys tall, constructed of local brick, and could hold up to thirty-four prisoners, and also held a residence for the Travis County sheriff, Rory Farnsworth himself.
Two square turrets bounded the building, one on each side, and the jail was often called the “Black Hole of Calcutta,” like the dungeon in India where a hundred British prisoners died in one night several years before. That grisly tale had somehow made its way to Texas and settled as a moniker for the jail. Josiah didn't know why.
It looked like a fortress, a brooding gray building with water stains seeping downward from the roof that seemed like long, dried, black tears. There were no trees, no plants growing up and around the place. It looked like nothing could, or wanted to, live on the grounds.
As it sat in the shadow of the courthouse, a white stone building that gleamed in the spring sunlight, there was no questioning that the jail had been treated with neglect and disregard by those inside and out.
It was a dangerous place. More dangerous than any saloon on a Friday night. The reputation of prisoners walking into the Black Hole on their own two feet but leaving in a pine box was well earned and caused a great deal of worry for Josiah.
He was very aware of the hard life in the jail.
It had been his charge, well over a year ago, to bring in Juan Carlos, for a crime he committed in the name of saving a man's lifeâJosiah'sâand as a matter of fairness, when the time came to turn his head, Josiah had done so.
Juan Carlos escaped before entering the jail. The Mexican's only real crime had been the color of his skin and the accent on the end of his tongue. The sheriff in San Antonio had finally dropped those charges, at the strong urging of Captain McNelly, allowing Juan Carlos to come and go freely, though he still chose to lead a secretive life. The Mexican didn't trust the destruction of the writ, or the Anglos who put the pen to paper.
To further validate Josiah's dread of entering the jail, he found it odd that a kettle of turkey vultures were circling overhead. The birds surely smelled a chance to tear at the meat of something dead, or at least were encouraged by the opportunity of doing so relatively soon.
The sight of the death eaters, with long, black, shadowy wings, slowed Josiah in his tracks, and he sure hoped he wasn't too late. He hoped Scrap Elliot hadn't already met his maker in the violent confines of the Black Hole, the Travis County jail.