Lone Star Sons Logo - CoverThe continuing episodes of my re-working of a certain classic Western adventure! Part One is here. Another adventure or two and I will have enough for the first Lone Star Sons YA adventure, which will be available in print and as an e-book sometime late this year.)

The goatherd from Laredo which Toby recollected had set up a small temporary steading not far from the spring, which bubbled clear water into a small rock-lined pool, and then trickled away for some distance before it subsided into the ooze, ending as a small green pocket-handkerchief of a marsh. The shallow declivity led into a larger arroyo, a dry stream bed, to judge from the evidence of tumbled gravel and bits and branches of trees and bushes polished into the semblance of ghost trees by the actions of water and sunshine. There were the prints of many hooved feet in the mud, not all of them goats. A cluster of spindly trees with sparse grey-green leaves shaded the tiny hut of upright beams plastered with mud and topped with rough thatch and more mud. A swift sinuous movement at the water’s edge drew Jim’s eye; the snake vanishing almost before he recognized it as such.
“A veritable garden of Eden, in this harsh country,” Albert Biddle noted. “But I note that there is a snake in it. And there is no Eve.”
“And the Adam is dead,” Jim observed in harsh tones, as he dismounted. “I suppose we must do our Christian duty. Do you think, Brother – we should have a chorus of grave-diggers follow us about, just to clear away those impediments? I feel as if we have arrived in the last act of Hamlet, strewn with corpses. Are you certain this is your acquaintance of last year?”
“There is only the one,” Toby remonstrated mildly, as he dismounted. “I am certain that is he. Armando – I recollect the outer robe… his wife had woven it for him.”
The body of the goatherd lay in the trampled space before the low hut – already some days past putrefaction in the dry desert air. The scavenger birds had done such damage that his features were no longer recognizable. The flesh and such congealed blood as there was had already dried to the consistency of morocco leather. Albert Biddle briefly held his gloved hand to his lips, his countenance grey with revulsion – and likely, Jim reflected – fighting the urge to vomit.
“Who has done this?” Albert Biddle asked, as Toby hunkered on his heels by the body. “Was it … Indians or bandits from Mexico?”
“There are the marks of shod horses,” Toby answered, after a moment. “So – not Indians, no; Armando was killed with a gun. They took his scalp, though.”
“Gallatin,” Jim said, from between clenched teeth. “Speak of the devil and he appears. “I have no doubt this is his work. Who else would have reason to kill a poor harmless goat-herder? Whoever it was, looks like the looted what little he had.”
“Perhaps,” Toby showed little of his own emotions but rather a calm detachment. “Other men take scalps for pay, Brother. We should water the horses well, and move on after burying him. I do not care for spending the night in this place, where his spirit may linger as well as anger towards his murderer.”
“You will have no argument from me,” Albert Biddle agreed. “I have little liking for this place, even if I do not believe in ghosts and hauntings… but …” he fell silent, suddenly cocking his head as if listening to something. “Listen … did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Jim began, but Toby swiftly held up a hand in warning.
“It sounds like a goat bleating,” Albert Biddle didn’t sound as if he was entirely convinced. “A little one. As if it is hungry or hurt.”
“That’s not a goat,” Toby answered. “It sounds like a baby … Armando had a woman in Laredo, I know…”
“Surely he could not have brought his wife out here!” Albert Biddle exclaimed, in disbelief, as Toby gestured for quiet again. Now Jim could hear the faint wailing sound, barely discernible over the stirring of the breeze in the sparse vegetation, the water bubbling from the ground, and the more ordinary sounds of birds calling to each other. “There – I think it’s coming from over yonder.”
He gestured towards the wider arroyo, scarcely believing there was cover enough in it to hide anything larger than a squirrel.
“Stay with the horses,” Jim ordered Albert Biddle. “Draw up a fresh canteen before you let them drink from the spring. Mr. Shaw and I will search …”
“No, I’m coming with you,” Albert Biddle was obstinate. “Three pairs of eyes are better than two.”
“As you wish,” Jim yielded with some reluctance. They tied up the three horses, reasoning that they might search more efficiently on foot … and that they would not be going very far anyway.

It was Toby, of course – with his senses finely attuned to the wilderness who found the shallow cave, carved by the force of a sudden and long-ago flood; not so much a cave, but a hollow at the base of a crumbling clay and stone arroyo bank. The wailing came from there, the huddle of cloth and human forms veiled by a pile of weathered dry sticks, tossed up by that long-ago flood. A woman lay there, half-covered in a dust-colored blanket roughly woven in natural sheep wool. An infant lay in her slack arms; a young woman but in the throes of sickness so near to mortal that she appeared as old as Dona Elvira in the house of the muleteer Gonzales in Bexar. The child wailed in renewed energy, a tiny thing with a red face and an incongruous tuft of black hair. The coppery stink of fresh blood and bodily fluids hung in the air.
“Dear god,” Albert Biddle exclaimed, as Toby sank onto his heels, close enough to touch the woman’s fever-flushed cheek. He drew back his hand with a startled exclamation.
“She burns as in a fire,” Toby said. “I think the birthing has gone ill with her, although the child seems strong enough.”
“What can we do?” Albert Biddle demanded; no, the fine Yankee clerk and gentleman would never have had to deal with this before. Jim was fairly certain of that.
At those words, the woman’s eyes opened, struggled to remain open, as if she was about to spend the last of her strength.
“Gracias a Dios que estás aquí …mi hijo tiene que vivir.”
Toby answered in the same tongue, gentle words to sooth and comfort. “She says to us,” he added over his shoulder. “Thanks to God that we have come. Her son must live.”
“She was … is Armando’s wife?” Jim ventured, and Toby nodded. The woman whispered again, with a feeble gesture of pushing the infant towards Toby.
“Prométeme que va a llevar a mi hijo a mi hermana Graciela … en Laredo. San Agustin plaza. Prométeme …”
“She says that we must take him, to Laredo. She has a sister with a house on San Agustin square. We must promise.”
“Yes, certainly we will take the child,” Albert Biddle said, adding, in a lower voice, “As if we would leave a child out here for the wild animals. Ask her what his name is.”
“Usted debe ser padrinos de mi hijo. Dale a él su nombre.”
“She says that we are to be his godfathers and name him in the manner of Christians, with holy water blessed by the priest of San Augustin. She has some … the priest gave it to her when she and Armando left Laredo a month ago.”
With these words, the woman’s voice failed, and her dark-shadowed eyes closed. There was a slender horsehair cord around her neck. With a hand which trembled with weakness, she took the cord at her breast and pulled it free of her shift. There was a tiny glass vial and a silver crucifix affixed to the cord
“Oh does she?” To his embarrassment, Jim’s voice came out as a squeak of dismay; he had little to do with children save for Daniel’s boys, and nothing at all to do with infants. Now this one seemed to be munching on his tiny fist – quiet for the moment, although his dark eyes glared with an accusatory scowl. Only Albert Biddle seemed suddenly equal to the occasion. He stooped in the narrow shelter of the cave and took the infant in capable hands – yes, it was unmistakably a boy. The birth-cord attached to its stomach was still fresh, although it seemed the woman had been able to tie and cut it short.
“Give me the bottle,” Albert Biddle worried the tiny cork loose in one hand, as he held the infant in the other. Toby and Jim looked on in horrified fascination. “By the authority of those powers spiritual and temporal invested in me as an agent of the United States of America, I baptize thee, James Alfred Toby, into that faith practiced by your parents – Papist I suppose. In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti, amen,” he added, sprinkling a drop or two three times on the tiny head at each phrase. “There. That’s done.” The infant thus named appeared quite unimpressed by the ceremony and gave every indication of beginning to wail again, but his mother smiled.
“Prométeme…” she whispered, one last time, the expression on her face one of gratitude, but in that moment life departed altogether. The three young men looked at each other in shocked silence.
“Her spirit is gone,” Toby observed, somewhat unnecessarily, as Albert Biddle made the gesture of crossing himself in the old-fashioned manner of the Catholics in Bexar. Catching Jim’s eye, he added, “Episcopalian, but I was raised in the old form. Well, what do we do now?”
“We round up one of Armando’s goats,” Toby answered, rising to his feet with some difficulty in the cramped space. “A suckling female; there should be some, close by the water.”

To be continued.

Three Gentlemen Adventurers – 1

“It feels good to have General Sam back in the governor’s chair,” Jack Hays remarked, in a rare moment of political frankness, as he and Jim took their leisure at one of the many cantinas along the main plaza in the heart of old San Antonio de Bexar. In the cool of the evening, there were tables and benches under the shade of trees outside, where men could sit and drink, and observe the passing world, as the western sky went from a cloud-streaked orange and purple to velvet-darkness, spangled with stars. “He might be a cagy, close-mouthed old ruffian, but I always thought that I could trust him, ‘cause he knew what he was doing. With Lamar, I was always a little worried that he was making it up as he went along.”

“Gen’ral Sam is all for annexation,” Jim mused. “But Lamar always thought we could go it alone. If those Yankees didn’t want us, then why not go it alone? I favored him on that account.”

“Leave it to the General,” Jack Hays advised. His eyes went across the darkening plaza, still filled with people, lit by lanterns and the warm candle-light shining out from windows and doors, and by old-fashioned torches in iron holders. Several Indian women sat on a blanket opposite, an array of finely-worked baskets laid out for display. Toby hunkered on his heels, talking to them; they were laughing at what he was saying, although an older and grey-haired woman looked upon him with some severity. “The ladies’ delight of the Delaware nation,” Jack added with wry affection. “I shall regret it very much when he – or you marry, although I would wish you well in that. There are things that I can only send a single young fellow to do.”

“Speaking of which,” Jim hinted broadly and Jack grinned. “No long journey involved in this one. This matter is centered right here in Bexar.” “Do tell,” Jim settled back into his chair, prepared to be – if not amused, at least intrigued. Jack continued, “You’ve been in and out of Bexar plenty of times; did you ever notice the old Casa Wilkinson? It’s down Soledad beyond the Veramendi Palace.”

“Tall stone wall, topped with broken bottle glass, a garden behind and barred windows that look like they haven’t been opened since I was in small-clothes?” Jim ventured.

Jack nodded. “That would be the one – it’s was closed up when the old General died. His heirs have squabbled over the property for twenty years since. None of them wanted to come out to the back of nowhere – but by god, they didn’t want anyone else to have it. I’ve always wondered why Wilkinson ventured out here, anyway. He was getting up there in age, by then. Guess he figured that he had double-crossed so many people in his lifetime he’d best have a nice out-of-the way burrow to lay low in.”

“That General Wilkinson?” Jim asked, astonished. “Who fought under Washington against Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne and then tried to set Gates and Washington against each other? Took against Mad Anthony Wayne after the Cross-Timbers fight… informed on Aaron Burr after being in league with him? My own father always said that Wilkinson was as slippery as a greased snake, and so crooked that he couldn’t walk down the street without meeting himself on the other side coming the opposite way.”

“That same General Wilkinson, yes,” Jack agreed, with a glint of good humor in his eye. “Who was altogether too friendly with the Spanish governor of New Orleans; it’s whispered that he likely was in the pay of the Spanish at the time. Maybe the British as well, just for good measure. He wanted a land grant in Texas for himself – went to Mexico City to get it, and died there, twenty years ago and a bit. But he had this house here – lived in it for a time. His man of business bought it for him, back in the earlies.”

“So, why is this matter and man a concern at this moment – since he has been dead nearly as long as either of us have been alive, and Texas no longer a Spanish possession?” Jim asked. Yes, he had to hand it to Jack – he did come up with some interesting conundrums. Or missions, as he liked to call them.

“There’s something about that house,” Jack answered. “Or maybe in the house … suddenly, upon the estate finally being settled for good and all, a lot of interesting – and interested – foreigners are coming to Bexar – all with innocent expressions on their faces and asking urgent questions regarding – about the freehold, the cost of purchasing it for owners unknown, the condition of the house and outbuildings. Likely we’ll see some of them tonight, and I’ll point them out to you. You know, if you sat here long enough, you’d see everyone that you know in the world pass by … and by jingo, there goes the first of them.” Jack jerked his chin in the direction of burly, blunt-featured man walking purposefully towards a temporary stage lit by many lanterns erected against the wall of the Council House, attended by three or four men and as many women, all seeming to vie for his attention. The quiet gravity of his haberdashery was rather spoiled by a flamboyant waist-coat and brilliantly colored neck-cloth.

“English, by the look of his suit,” Jim ventured and Jack nodded. “Name is Bernard Vibart-Jones. His ostensible purpose in coming here is to give dramatic and comic recitations, which he has been doing to standing crowds for the last week or so. I’ll have to admit – he’s very good at that. He’ll have the hair standing up on the back of your neck and the next minute, rolling on the floor laughing. He’s a hail-fellow-well-met, and very popular, seemingly. Spends evenings after his performances in the taps and taverns, buying drinks for all and encouraging people to tell him their stories. He is … rather cagy about how long his engagement here will last, though.” Jack’s gaze sharpened, upon noting another young man, very young and dressed in the sober clothes of a clerk or even an apprentice lawyer. He had been sitting at a table set outside the door of another drinking establishment, farther along the plaza; alone and toying in a desultory manner with a neglected tankard. Without any impression of fuss or hurry, he tossed some coins on the tabletop, and sauntered off towards the crowd gathering at the open-air stage. Obviously he intended to be among the amused or hair-raised audience. “What do you think, Jim?”

“Yankee … not rich, not poor either. One of those milk-water professions,” Jim added, serenely unaffected by the awareness that he had himself been one of those milk-water clerks not so long past. “Hasn’t been here long enough – or agreeable enough to settle in. No weapons on him that I can see. Come here to do business his employer’s bidding, not set a course of his own.”

“Very good, Jim,” Jack allowed a brief and amused expression to reveal itself. “Albert Biddle, of Hartford, Connecticut. He is a clerk – or apprentice lawyer in a firm established in that fair city. He at least has the virtue of being straight-forward in his reason for coming here. The person for whom he acts – officially nameless – wants to purchase the Casa Wilkinson for eccentric reasons of their own. Master Biddle is merely their errand-boy … or so is the pretense.”

“And?” Jim asked, for Jack appeared to be ironical in that regard.

“He’s just too un-subservient for an errand-boy,” Jack answered, as Albert Biddle wended a purposeful way towards the Council House. “I am in luck tonight – and so are you, for there goes the third of our mysterious trio of foreigners with an interest in the Casa Wilkinson – also looking for entertainment this lovely evening.”

“Looks like a Mex.” Jim observed as soon as he picked out the man whom Jack meant; this one a casual loafer among those promenading along the edges of the Plaza on this evening. The Mexican women who tended their kettles of red-bean, beef and chili-pepper stew all called to him invitingly, but he shook his head and walked on. This man was even more elegantly-clad than the Englishman, although all in faultlessly-tailored black, and he carried a cane. His features gave the lie to the elegance of his attire, and Jim thought that in rougher clothing and less careful barbering, this last man wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Ranger company. “A rough customer, I’d say – looking beyond the haberdashery.”

“Spanish. An all-wool and yard-wide proper Spanish grandee,” Jack answered with a glint of amusement. “Don Esteban Saldivar, Caballero de Tarragona. I have no idea what part of Spain that is in. But he presented his papers and some very imposing letters of reference … and he also has an interest in the Casa Wilkinson. He has even taken a set of rooms in the residencia which backs onto a portion of the Casa. By curious coincidence, there are whispers in that quarter of town that the Casa is now haunted. Mysterious lights seen flickering behind shuttered windows, noises and the sounds of footsteps, so on and so forth.”

“How long has that been going on?” Jim bit back his own amusement. There were so many stories circulating in the Mexican quarter of Bexar about ghosts, visions and odd creatures seen from the corner of an eye. Not even the Anglos could be entirely skeptical.

“There were always stories about the Casa,” Jack answered. “But they have taken on a new urgency in the last fortnight or so. I’m tasking you with finding out what our three gentlemen are looking for.”

“And taking it from them?” Jim didn’t like the sound of that at all. Jack smiled.

“Maybe. Whatever the old General hid there is at least thirty years old. The chances of it proving embarrassing to a living soul here in Texas are likely pretty small … at the very least, make certain they don’t run across each others’ trap-lines and cause trouble for General Sam with their governments. Use your own good judgment, you and Toby. Just get these three gentlemen out of here without messing up General Sam’s campaign for annexation.”

“I think I’ll begin by sending Toby to scout the Casa, while the three gentlemen are otherwise occupied,” Jim decided at once and Jack nodded in agreement. “And then see if I can scrape some acquaintance with them, one by one.”

“You’d best hurry,” Jack added with a grin. “Vibart-Jones starts his performance in ten minutes.” A quick consultation with Toby, who quickly rose at Jim’s approach, and they each set off in on their separate scouts; Toby to the maze of alleys and tall windowless walls which had accreted on and around Soledad as a particular sea-snail gathered ornaments to its shell, and Jim to the stage and the crowd gathering in similar but human fashion to the stage set against the blank wall of the Council House. Jim marveled – and not for the first time – how varied was any ordinary crowd of citizens of Bexar; rough-clad Texians like himself, elbow to elbow with soberly-dressed Yankee merchants, flamboyant Bejarenos in black trimmed with silver buttons and lace, with vivid silk sashes around their waists, their ladies in brilliantly-colored silk skirts and chemise bodices which showed off their shoulders and arms, Indians of every tribe and degree of undress, and buckskin-clad hunters spitting tobacco juice onto the dusty ground. A pale cloud of cigarillo and pipe smoke hovered over the gathering, for many of the ladies smoked as well … a crowd in any other place must be a dull and pallid gathering by comparison. Edging with casual care among the others, Jim stood elbow to elbow with Albert Biddle as the evening performance opened.

Vibart-Jones was introduced with much fulsome praise and assurance that he had performed before the varied crowned heads of Europe by an older man in a rakish suit and a lamentable waistcoat, at such length that the part of the crowd most fluent in English began to shift and mutter, while the impatient to cat-call and jeer. “I expect him to be the performing marvel of the age, if the least part of this is true. Allow me to introduce myself – James Reade, Esquire – of this town.” Jim ventured to Biddle, who rose at the bait and introduced himself, much to Jim’s gratification

“He treads the boards very fairly – and I have certainly seen worse where I come from. Albert Biddle – also Esquire. I believe, good sir, we practice the same vocation.”

“Thought you sounded like an easterner,” Jim hoped he wasn’t overdoing it. “So you have seen the bard of the Plaza del Armas before?”

“Last night,” Biddle admitted, with a touch of wry humor, “For the oldest city in Texas there is not all that much to do … and it’s too cold to swim in the river, which is what I am told is a primary diversion on summer evenings here.”

“So what brings you here?” Jim hoped that he was not overdoing the appearance of casual innocence, but on observing a sudden glint of sharp intelligence in Mr. Biddle’s eye, be feared that he had. To save the moment, the compere gave way to the chief performer of the evening; Bernard Vibart-Jones stepped to the front of the stage, where a series of oil lanterns cast back their focused reflections on him. The actor bowed graciously to a patter of applause and cheers. In a pleasant light baritone, he complimented the audience and the folk of Bexar on the very warm welcome that he had received, and Mr. Biddle lowered his voice. “Mr. Reade, I believe we also practice the very same avocation – that of finding the answers to puzzles or missing items, to the benefit of the nations to which we owe allegiance.”

Damn the man – he was more than a simple clerk. Jim found his composure and his voice. “What gave me away?” he asked, and Biddle grinned. “Your answer just now. I only ventured a guess – but then I saw you in very earnest conversation with Captain Hays not ten minutes ago – and if he is not your republic’s spymaster, he makes an excellent pretense. I have seen the performance before – Mr. Reade, let us walk around the square together. I will tell you what I know – and of what Captain Hays has no doubt guessed in the matter of Wilkinson and his long-forgotten property here.”

(to be continued … of course.)

01. July 2013 · Comments Off on Rebooting the Lone Ranger · Categories: Old West, Random Book and Media Musings · Tags: , ,

Well, the early critical reviews are out and the knives are in: the latest movie remake of The Lone Ranger looks to be tanking like the Titanic,(the original ship, not James Cameron’s movie fantasy) although the some of the reviews posted at Rotten Tomatoes are favorable, most of them are entertainingly vicious. Jerry Bruckheimer again goes over the top from the high-dive with a half-gainer and a jackknife on the way down, all with the noisy special effects, Johnny Depp was promised that he could wear bizarre hair and a lot of makeup and it appears as if the ostensible lead character is just there…

There have been so many iterations of The Lone Ranger, on radio, television and in the movies, and each one added its conventions, characterization and images that now it has become a creaking tottering edifice built of clichés. No more growth is possible, just a recitation of the same old verities. I believe that we can do better by the old Wild West, and so I propose a very, very radical solution; to reboot the Lone Ranger by amputating it from the post Civil War never-never-land of mid-20th century imagining and transplanting it squarely back in pre-Civil War Texas, with forays perhaps into Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana, and to New Mexico – perhaps even as far as California. John Reid would be the sole survivor of a ranger unit ambushed and wiped out by – oh, whoever would be the villainous gang of the time; a scalp-hunting gang, villainous Comancheros, cattle and horse thieves from the Nueces Strip. Really, any sufficiently well-organized gang of baddies from the period would serve. He could even be a survivor of the Mier Expedition, escaped from Mexican custody and found near-death in the wilderness by Tonto … who could be a Lipan Apache or Tonkawa scout.

And thereafter, the two would roam the southwest as it was at that particular time, with attention to actual historical figures and facts. They could do all the fighting of evil-doers and injustice that the plot would require; a pair of fearless and adventurous friends. (Ix-nay on any suggestion of gayness, mostly because I’m damned tired of that particular character development.) Keep the horse named Silver, though. But lose the silver bullets, the white hat and the mask. Sorry – but the first is impractical, given the weapons of the time, second given the custom of the time … and in the days before wide circulation of photographs, you could be a total stranger once you were five miles away from where you lived and worked. One didn’t need a mask – in fact, in the real Wild West that would have made the lone Ranger even more noticeable. “Hey, who was that masked man? Did you ever see the like? Oh, I heard tell of him …” Whereas, sans mask: “Hey, who was that guy? Oh, just another saddle tramp, passing through; don’t pay him no mind…”Keep the sense of honor, though – the chivalry, the sharp-shooting and the unwillingness to kill, unless there was no other way. I know this seems radical – and loosing the mask might be seen as heretical – but the situation calls for radical steps. Look, this latest version had Tonto with a crow squatting on his head, so I believe we have reached the point where something must be done to resuscitate our popular cultural heroes.

(Crossposted at Chicagoboyz.net and at www.ncobrief.com)