Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(This is the second part of the latest adventure of Jim Reade, Texas Ranger and Toby Shaw, his friend and Delaware Indian guide, in the days of the Texas Republic. This adventure has them searching for a cattle rancher missing on return from driving a herd of cattle along the Opelousas Trace to New Orleans. The Trace was once a well-traveled road through central Texas – and Jim Reade’s father has warned him that there was once a lot of skullduggery going on in the borderlands between Texas and Louisiana…)

On the senior Mr. Reade’s advice and contrivance, Clay and Jim clothed themselves in a logical rationale for their journey, upon setting out from Galveston; Clay as one heir to a wealthy man with a large plantation near Baton Rouge, traveling to New Orleans to secure his rightful portion of the estate. Jim accompanied him in the guise of being Clay’s lawyer, and Toby his own manservant. His father, getting well into the spirit of things, ransacked his old office papers and supplied them with an old copy of a genuine will which would bear out this story, and wrote a series of letters on paper stained with tea and once dry, rubbed around the folds with a cloth until they looked suitably well-traveled.
“You are suspiciously adept at this, Pa,” Jim observed, the night before their departure. His father grinned, mischievous as an old elf as he packed the various documents away in a leather envelope secured with woven tape.
“I have a devious turn of mind, my boy – sharpened by three years in Perote. It occurred to me that you must be able to substantiate your story when you are asked questions, or if someone searches your belonging for confirmation.” For a moment his father’s face appeared immeasurably old, lined with weariness and worry. “I do this for the security of your life, and those who travel with you. I would not loose another son in the service of Texas, my boy. You deal often in double-dealing, in searching out treachery and deceit – no, nothing of what you or your trusty friend has said to me has betrayed your commission to me – this I have deduced from what little you have said to me in confidence. It appears to me that the peril lies in returning from New Orleans. You should remain secure with this stratagem, thin as it seems. You are not on the return journey with a fat purse … that, I fear is what has proven a death warrant for many. But you go east, hoping to return with such – and perhaps someone’s unseemly interest might reveal the solution to this mystery. Be careful, son – you are most dear to me and to your mother.”
“I know, Pa,” Jim had answered, touched by the care that his father took in considering their mission, and for his own safety.

When they set off the next day, the flat leather envelop was packed in his saddlebags. His father had also written a letter to a friend in Liberty whose brother owned a livery stable; upon reaching that town, they might travel swift and certain. The elder Reade also provided more letters of introduction to certain of his friends and acquaintances in Liberty and the towns to the east. Mrs. Reade provided a haversack of food; dried-apple turnovers, a thick slab of fruitcake, bread and cheese, bestowing them on her son with a fond embrace and sniffled into a handkerchief as the three strode away towards the steamship landing.
Jim broke out the turnovers as they waited for the steamboat which would carry them across the lagoon, and then inland along the long meander of the Trinity River to Liberty.
“Mama made these for us, special,” he said. They ate in silence, as the morning fog thinned and a pale circle of sunlight broke through the overcast.
After a reflective nibble, Clay coughed and remarked, “No offense to your Mama, Jim – but these don’t taste so good. They’re missing something.”
“Sugar, likely,” Jim answered, with a sigh. “Mama isn’t any great shakes as a cook, but no one can tell her any different.”
“Tastes good to me,” Toby swallowed the last bite of his turnover and looked at the other two in considerable puzzlement. “I’m not particular.”
“You’ll eat things a dog would turn up its nose at,” Jim answered. “I’ll leave you the rest of them, then. Mama will love you like a son, when I tell her you liked her turnovers.”
“They’re good,” Toby shrugged, in deep puzzlement.
“To each his own,” Jim answered. “So … when we get to Liberty – Clay and I will ask around, casual-like, after Randall. Anyone seen him, talked to him – make it casual-like, as if you aren’t worried, Clay. Toby, you’ll do the same with the servants. Then we travel nice and slow, east along the trace – but every chance we have, we stop and talk to folk.”
“I understand,” Clay answered, impatient. “You’ve told me so, over and over.”
“Just making certain that we work it together,” Jim said. He had indeed gone over and over it. Being that it was so personal to Clay, while he and Toby were accustomed to working in concert, Jim took every chance he had to remind the younger man. “And we don’t tip off anyone who might know something … or have a guilty conscience about what they do know.”
Clay looked as if he were chewing hard on this, on a fact as tough and tasteless as one of Mrs. Reade’s unfortunate apple turnovers, as Jim added, “If it turns out that someone has been robbing and murdering travelers, you’re a man with a wife and child – and my Mama and Pa can’t loose themselves another son – nor can Mrs. Shaw. This is all of our lives, Clay – and any one that we talk to might be involved.”

* * *

It amused Jim, observing Toby wide-eyed upon observing the operation of the little steamboat, the Mary Clifton, whose twin paddle-wheels threshed busily against the current, doodling along like a particularly single-minded ant, from a crude landing on one side of the river to another on the opposite side a few miles upstream. Three or four drummers searching out mercantile customers along the way shared the passenger accommodations with the three of them and a family heading home to their plantation residence on the river north of Liberty. The decks of the Mary Clifton were piled high with barrels and crates of goods, and cut wood to feed the insatiable furnace which heated the boilers. Jim tried explaining how it worked – diagraming how the force of steam moved the turning wheels by drawing with a piece of charcoal on the wooden deck at their feet, but Toby laughed.
“How can something I cannot even see move something heavier than a man can lift?”
“A high wind can uproot a tall tree,” Jim answered, and Toby shook his head.
“It is not the same thing – the wind is a thing sent by the Great Spirit,” he said. Jim gave it up.

Trinity proved to be a busy little town, already growing beyond the few streets that had been marked out following the war for independence. Jim and his friends had little trouble finding his father’s friend and presenting him with the letter. Although it was mid-day, and the friend urged them to remain overnight, Jim knew very well that Clay was impatient to begin searching in earnest. With thanks, they saddled two horses, and a riding mule, and followed the track east of town, the sun beating down on them from overhead, veiled now and again by a fast-moving cloud. It was warm in the sun, but chill in the shade, in a way which threatened an uncomfortable cold night once the sun set.
The trace slashed a muddy gouge across the landscape, set with thickets of trees and threaded with streamlets and ponds, even after a hot summer. Those many ruts left by wagon-wheels were also filled with water, even after summer. The landscape did not present the same endless prospect of wilderness – that which had become so familiar to Jim. This was the settled country, covered with a patchwork confection of cotton fields, acres of corn with their tassels now brown and withered. Distant chimneys set up threads of smoke, and the geometric angles of rooftops caught the sunlight in their angles – the shake shingles new and pale, or weathered gray with age, clustered in groups – houses and barns, sheds and slave-quarters. They passed and were passed by other travelers and herds of cattle supervised by attentive drovers – Jim felt sometimes as if the Trace was as busy and well-traveled as the old streets of Bexar. At first, he nominated to himself the task of casual conversation with those whom they met, making certain that Clay listened and took heed of the answers, as well as the questions asked with such casual and apparently innocent intent.
As the three continued in a gentle rambling pace towards the Sabine, the answers at first did not give any cause for unease; no, the travelers whom were casually asked regarding meeting one Randall Huff had answers in the negative, cheerfully and openly given. To Jim this indicated a clear conscience and no knowledge of any skullduggery. This changed, at a point that Jim reckoned was about halfway between Liberty and Tevis Bluff – which was now called Beaumont City, although everyone cheerfully acknowledged that it wasn’t anywhere near being a city of any sort. Halfway through the day, they paused in a farmyard a little away from the Trace, where the farmer and one of his Negro field hands were sharpening scythes, dulled by a morning spent cutting hay. The usual pleasantries having been exchanged, the farmer invited them to share in the midday meal, in exchange for the latest gossip from Liberty and news from the broader world. Jim explained the purpose of their journey and casually asked if Randall Huff of Bastrop had passed the time of day a bit ago, on his return from New Orleans.
“Can’t say I recollect the name,” the farmer answered, scratching his jaw. The bristles on it made a rasping sound, and the field hand bent to turning the grindstone again, remarking,
“Could be that Squire Yoakhum, over t’ Pine Island Bayou might have word … las’ o’ folk pass through ‘dere …” but his master scowled and the last works the hand spoke were muffled and half-heard under the noise of the grindstone. ‘Iffen dey is lucky’ was what Jim thought he heard, but he might have been mistaken. He was not mistaken in the angry look which the farmer directed towards his slave for speaking out of turn, but there was also another momentary expression on the farmer’s face – a look of fear. Yoakum – that was the name that his father had mentioned, the one scion of a family of notorious robbers who had turned respectable. Well, if Pa has doubts about the one good Yoakum, maybe others did as well. Lots of folk pass through there – if they’re lucky; I’m certain that’s what that field hand meant to say.
Over the meal, eaten in the breezeway of the farmhouse, with the farmer’s wife and daughters proudly spreading their humble plank table with every bounty at their command, Jim tried casually to bring the conversation around to Squire Yoakum. To no avail; this time the farmer and his wife exchanged a look, and the wife said,
“The Squire, he and the missus, they’re too high-and-mighty to have any truck with us.” She put down a dish of plum cobbler down on the plank table with an expression which hinted she would have liked to put it down with somewhat more force on another target.
“Matty, you just hush, now,” the farmer had the same expression on his face as he had before at mention of Yoakum; anger with an underlay of fear. “He’s an important man, round these parts,” the farmer added. His wife sniffed, answering, “At least visitors may say what they please of our hospitality when they have departed from our roof – there are some who cannot say the same of the Yoakums’!” At a growl from her husband, Matty slapped down a clean serving spoon next to the cobbler and snapped, “Well, then – help yourselves. I’ve got the washing to finish.” She nodded briskly at her guests and vanished inside the house. Jim and Clay helped themselves to cobbler at a nod from their host, made some limping conversation and excused themselves as soon as possible. Toby had shared the same meal with the handful of family slaves in the farmyard, sitting under a nearby tree with their plates in their laps.
“That was … interesting,” Jim remarked, as soon as they had retrieved their horses and were well away and out of earshot. “What did you pick up from the slaves, Toby – it sounded as if they knew more and were more willing to speak.”
“An earful,” Toby answered, “As slaves they have little to loose. And I would have had even more, save that Old Daddy Sam’s youngest daughter was trailing the hem of her garment and making inviting eyes at me all the while. I had hard put to keep out of her clutches and pay attention to what was said.”
Jim chuckled. “The delight of the fair of every race; I believe Mr. Shaw’s hopeful lovers would line the Trace from here to New Orleans and back again, all blowing kisses and throwing rose petals and love tokens at him. It’s a gift, but now and again an inconvenient one. What did they say of Mr. Yoakum, then – he seems to be a focus of interest hereabouts.”
“They spoke of him with interest … and fear,” Toby answered. “The main tale told, as if it were common knowledge in this place – that he had once stolen a Negro slave from his owner and his family … taken him away and sold him for a great profit to a new owner.” Toby looked as if he smelled an evil odor. “They spoke of it as if true, and the name and locality were pretty fairly agreed upon, too much to be a rumor. They were indignant. This Mr. Yoakum is not favored among the lowly, those who have an ear around every corner. It was said among the Moravians … and it was also a thing true among my people – that one might most truly take the measure of a man by observing how fairly he treats those who have little power and standing – as do the slaves in this place.”
“That might be true,” Clay nodded, with the sudden brightness on his face of one who who had never considered this quandary before. “Someone who will instantly call you out and plug you full of lead upon showing disrespect – well, you’ll be fair polite and considerate to that man, in public at least. To someone who cannot … that bears meditation, Mr. Shaw.”
Jim noted that was practically the first time that Clay had dignified Toby with the honorific. “Chivalry, Clay – it’s a difficult thing to practice in the larger world.”
“My ma always said the meek would inherit the earth – but then my pa would say all that meant was they’d get a patch of it big enough to be buried in. What else did they say about this Yoakum?” Clay answered, “The white folks seemed pretty nervous about him – but didn’t want to be heard saying anything contrary, almost as if he had the means to punish disrespect. “I ‘blieve Randall and I and some of the fellows passed the evening at his establishment on our way to New Orleans. We couldn’t fault his hospitality, and he seemed otherwise like a popular man.”
“That was what I thought,” Jim nodded agreement; Toby answered with a shrug, “Tales of ghosts and haunts, mostly – of lights moving in the woods around the Yoakum place, strange voices telling trespassers to run away. Stories as my grandmother told in order to frighten the children.”
“I wonder what else we shall hear from neighbors closer to the Yoakum place?” Clay mused.
“Depends on how good a friend they are to the Squire,” Jim answered. “Or how frightened they are of him.”
(To be continued)

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Nice. Atmospheric (totally a word). Do you put maps in your books? It would really help us non-native Texans.

  2. Celia

    Thanks, Pam – yes, maps would probably help a lot, in establishing where everything is in relation…

  3. Celia

    The amusing thing is that a lot of places in Texas were once called something else – especially in the time of this story. Austin was once called Waterloo, San Antonio was usually called Bexar, Houston didn’t exist at all in the earlies – although Harrisburg (now a subsumed suburb of it) did, Bastrop was called Mina (for a while) and many of the places that were significant at the time – like Copano, San Felipe and Indianola – now don’t even exist at all, except for the odd historical marker and/or preserved/reconstructed building!