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Santa Onna Longhorn #1
That’s pretty much what it turned out to be over Friday evening in South Texas. When my daughter returned from briskly walking the dogs before dawn Saturday morning, she told me that the grass crackled underfoot. We set out for Goliad just after sunrise, expecting to spend a chilly day selling books in the open-air. Well, the pavilions set up around the edge of Courthouse Square in Goliad were all essentially in the open-air too. We took along our heaviest coats, extra blankets, bundled Nemo in a doggy overcoat, and I made a vain search for my gloves.
Courthouse Square
To our good fortune and relief, Estelle Zermeno, who has set up Miss Ruby’s Author Corral ever since I’ve been coming to Goliad for the Christmas event, had located an last-minute indoor venue for us – the premises of a closed restaurant, right on the square; a restored historic building with a bathroom, parking around in back and heat. Alas, that was about the last good bit of news about the day. Two scheduled authors had called off appearing, due to the cold and potentially dangerous drive, so it was down to four authors and a handful of friends.
Random Streetcorner
We had shelter at least, but the other vendors were out in the miserable cold – and to add to the misery, there were very few people come out to shop or cheer for Santa. On the good side of that, I got a very good picture of Santa-onna-longhorn, and his military escort, but there seemed to be only about two dozen children and their parents, where ordinarily there would have been hundreds. No posse of cowboys escorting Santa, hardly anyone with a Christmas-dressed dog for the afternoon dog costume contest. I believe I only had four or five potential customers come and look at my books all day.
Garlanded Cow and Urns
We packed it up by 1:30, when a light drizzle began falling, and it was so cold that we were afraid it would turn to ice, somewhere along the road back to San Antonio. I am certain that if we had been outside as well, we wouldn’t have stood it for even that long. There were just no customers at all; this marks the very first time that I came away from an event like this without having made a single sale – and I don’t think I was the only one, not by a long shot.

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.)

25. August 2013 · Comments Off on Reflections · Categories: Domestic · Tags: , , ,

It’s been a strange week, all in all – for a number of different reasons, several of which brought me around to thinking of my father. There is a lot of Dad in the character of Vati, in the Adelsverein Trilogy – the free-thinking, scientific interests, and how he pushed all of us to excel, although not the absent-mindedness, and gnome-like appearance. Physically, Dad looked actually rather like Papa, in Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart – tall and fair, with broad shoulders, rather like the actor Vince Morrow in his prime. Dad passed away on the day after Christmas, 2010, a week short of his 80th birthday. Between one week and the next he was fine, and then suddenly semi-paralyzed, and in the hospital, being operated on for a subdural hematoma. Between the next week and the week after he was recovering … and then not doing so well – that he was in a comas, but only temporary. On Christmas Eve, everyone assured us Dad was fine; the problem would be sorted out soon … but on the day after Christmas, my brother called, and said there was nothing that they could do. Last Rites had been performed, although Dad always insisted that he was an agnostic. I have wondered since if the hospital staff kept Dad going in life-support just to get through Christmas Day. There was an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H with just that very plot.
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29. March 2013 · Comments Off on The Mason County Hoodoo War – Part 3 · Categories: Old West · Tags: , ,

Scott Cooley, who lived for revenge on those who had a part in the murder of his foster-father, Tim Williamson, made a kind of headquarters with his violent and disreputable friends in Loyal Valley. George Gladden had a place there – he, like many other participants in the feud – was a small rancher with a reputation as being handy with a gun. A few weeks after the murder of Deputy Whorle, Cooley’s gang targeted Peter Bader, who was reported to have been in the lynch mob who ambushed Tim Williamson on the road between the Lehmburg ranch and Mason, and had fired the final shot killing Tim Williamson. Unfortunately, Cooley and Johnny Ringo hit Peter Bader’s brother Carl, instead – gunning him down in his own field where he had been working. Whether this was deliberate or a case of mistaken identity is a matter undecided – but by committing this murder, Cooley had thrown a rock into a hornets’ nest. The Clark faction responded by attempting to draw out the Cooley gang to Mason. Sheriff Clark convinced – or hired – a local gambler named Jim Cheney to try and talk the Cooley gang into coming to Mason.

Cheney was only able to find George Gladden and Mose Baird; whatever he said to them convinced them to set out on the road between Loyal Valley and Mason. The two of them had just reached John Keller’s general store on the river-crossing just east of Mason – and there they spotted Sheriff Clark waiting, just outside the store. Clark’s men opened fire on the two from behind a stone wall. Both of them badly wounded, they still managed to escape a little way up the road, with the ambushers in hot pursuit. But Mose Baird died of his wounds and Peter Bader – whose brother had been murdered by Cooley and Johnny Ringo – wanted to finish off George Gladden. John Keller, the storekeeper, refused to countenance this, and store he’d kill anyone who’d shoot the wounded man. Peter Bader contented himself by merely cutting a gold ring from the hand of the dead Mose Baird. Perhaps this brief incident best illuminates the bitterness of the Hoodoo war; that some men on either side fully embraced savagery, while others drew back, horrified.

By late September, the situation had degenerated to the point where a company of Rangers was dispatched to Mason, under the command of Major John B. Jones, to restore order. By that time, there was none to speak of in Mason County. Sheriff Clark and a good number of his allies had forted up in Keller’s store, after rumors that Cooley’s band was intent on burning out the German settlers of Mason. Cooley and his band were already in Mason, too. They had tried to intimidate an Irish storekeeper, David Doole, into helping him. Armed with a shotgun, Doole refused; he was on good terms with many of the local Germans. Rebuffed, Cooley and his friends holed up a short distance down the street in Tom Gamel’s saloon on the west side of town – that Tom Gamel, who had been part of that first rustler-hunting posse early in the year, and who had broken with Clark and recruited friends of his own. In the meantime, Johnny Ringo and another of Cooley’s band paid a visit on Jim Cheney, who had led George Gladden and Mose Baird into the ambush at Keller’s store. Cheney invited them to share breakfast with him, apparently certain that his part in the matter wasn’t known. Johnny Ringo shot him down.

Gunfire also erupted in the streets of Mason: Dan Hoerster, the elected brands inspector, his brother-in-law, and third man were shot at, while riding down Main Street towards Gamel’s saloon, although they had been warned of the presence of the Cooley gang. Dan Hoerster fell, and the other two took refuge in the local hotel and fired back, to the horror of guests. Major Jones and his Ranger company arrived in the aftermath of this latest outrage, and began searching for Cooley and his friends. The major had his own problems; he had no cooperation from either side, with Anglo against German, each convinced that he was sympathetic to the other side. Worse still, a number of his own Rangers were former comrades of Scott Cooley – and finally the major called them to order and issued an ultimatum. Any who couldn’t find it in themselves to hunt for Cooley would be granted an honorable discharge from service. Three of the Rangers accepted the offer. The hunt for Cooley and the others continued – and in December, Cooley and Johnny Ringo were taken captive by the sheriff of neighboring Burnet County. Hearing that friends of theirs might break them out of the Burnet County Jail, the sheriff wisely sent them to custody in another and more secure jurisdiction.

With the apprehension of Cooley, the violence tapered off, although there was one last vengeance murder; that of Peter Bader. He had been hiding out in Llano County, but early in January of 1876, George Gladden and John Baird ambushed him on the road between Llano and Castell. With grim satisfaction, John Baird cut his brother Mose’s gold ring off Peter Bader’s hand.

By the end of that year, the Hoodoo War was over, save in memories and nightmares for those who had participated in it or were merely witnesses. Those participants with the bloodiest hands found it expedient to leave Mason County for good. Sherriff Clark, indicted on charges of complicity in the disappearance of suspected Cooley gang members, resigned his position after the charges were dropped and vanished without a trace. Johnny Ringo, charged and acquitted in the murder of Jim Cheney, and John Baird also both departed at speed, and turned up in New Mexico, where they both came to violent and unhappy ends. Scott Cooley, who had suffered a mysterious and chronic illness which medical authorities of the time called ‘brain fever’ died very suddenly from a bout of it, in the fall of that year. The only man convicted by a court of law in any of the Hoodoo War murders was George Gladden, sentenced to prison for the murder of Peter Bader.

And there it all ended, although many prominent and otherwise respectable men had doubtless been part of the masked lynch mobs. The Mason County courthouse burned, early in 1877, destroying just about all the written records associated with the feud. A long-time Mason resident and descendent of early settlers told me that upon the burning of all the records, the city fathers decided mutually to draw a line under the whole matter and call it a day. I am fairly certain, though – that no rustler or honest rancher – took a casual attitude towards absconding with Mason County cattle for a long time afterwards.

01. June 2012 · Comments Off on Old Time General Store · Categories: Domestic, Old West · Tags: , ,

Visiting the Bergheim General Store and Post Office is a bit like going back in time to what a general mercantile over a hundred years ago. The Bergheim General Store is itself 109 years old; it stocks a a little bit of everything, and everything in it’s place on densely-packed on the shelves. The aisles are narrow, much of the place is erratically lit — in places with neon beer signs. No where is there any shred of conventional 20th century marketing wisdom … nor does there need to be, as there doesn’t seem to be any other retail outlet for ten or fifteen miles in any direction save for the gas station quickie-mart about a block away. So it is the best source for catfish bait, a couple of potatoes, soft drinks, jeans, work cloves, odd bits of hardware, cured sausage, vegetable seeds, a quart of milk and a pair of pliers for all those people who don’t want to drive to Boerne or Bulverde for it. Four generations of the same family have been running the place since 1903, so it’s pretty safe to say that they know what they are doing. Aside from having electricity and air conditioning introduced sometime in the last 109 years, the inside is pretty much as it was when built: plain narrow-board floors, plain whitewashed/painted stone walls. It’s a trip back in time – and I found it very useful in visualing the various general stores that the Becker and Richter families started at the end of the Civil War. And there will be more in the next book, too – about Magda and Hansi’s commercial ventures. I don’t know when I’ll have The Quivera Trail done, but it’s up to eight chapters this week.

21. February 2012 · Comments Off on Mr. Cannon-Ball Was Not His Friend · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , ,

Thomas William Ward was born in Ireland of English parents in  1807, and at the age of 21 took ship and emigrated to America. He  settled in New Orleans, which by that time had passed from French to  Spanish, back to French and finally landed in American hands thanks to  the Louisiana Purchase. There he took up the study of architecture and  engineering – this being a time when an intelligent and striving young  man could engage in a course of study and hang out a shingle to practice  it professionally shortly thereafter. However, Thomas Ward was diverted from his  studies early in October, 1835 by an excited and well-attended meeting  in a large coffee-room at Banks’ Arcade on Magazine Street. Matters  between the Anglo settlers in Texas and the central Mexican governing  authority – helmed by the so-called Napoleon of the West, General  Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – had come to a frothy boil. Bad feelings  between the Texian and Tejano settlers of Texas, who were of generally  federalist (semi-autonomous) sympathies had been building against the  centralist (conservative and authoritarian) faction. These developments  were followed with close and passionate attention by political junkies  in the United States.

Nowhere did interest run as high as it did in those cities along the  Mississippi River basin. On the evening of October 13, 1835, Adolphus  Sterne – the alcade (mayor) of Nacogdoches – offered weapons for the  first fifty volunteers who would fight for Texas. A hundred and twenty  volunteers signed up before the evening was over, and Thomas Ward was  among them. They formed into two companies, and were apparently  equipped and outfitted from various sources: the armory of the local  militia organization, donations from the public, and ransacking local  haberdashers for sufficient uniform-appearing clothing. They wore grey  jackets and pants, with a smooth leather forage cap; the color grey  being chosen for utility on the prairies. The two companies traveled  separately from New Orleans, but eventually met up at San Antonio de  Bexar, where they became part of the Army of Texas.

They took part in  the Texian siege of Bexar and those Mexican troops garrisoned there  under General Cos – who had come into Texas earlier in the year to  reinforce Mexican control of a wayward province. Thomas W. Ward was  serving as an artillery officer by then; a military specialty which men  with a bent for the mathematical and mechanical seemed to gravitate  towards. The Texians and volunteers fought their way into San Antonio by  December, led by an old settler and soldier of fortune named Ben Milam.  Milam was killed at the height of the fighting to take the town by a Mexican sharp-shooter,  and Thomas Ward was severely injured; one leg was taken off by an errant  cannon-ball. The enduring legend is that Milam was buried with Ward’s  amputated leg together in the same grave. Was this a misfortune – or a  bit of good luck for Thomas Ward?

Not very much discouraged or sidelined, Thomas Ward returned to New  Orleans to recuperate – and to be fitted with a wooden prosthesis. He  would be known as “Pegleg” Ward for the remainder of his life. He came  back to Texas in the spring of 1836, escaping  the fate of many of his  fellow ‘Greys’ – many of who were among the defenders of the Alamo,  their company standard being one of those trophies captured there by  Santa Anna. Others of the ‘Greys’ were participants in the ill-fated  Matamoros expedition, or became part of Colonel James Fannin’s garrison  at the presidio La Bahia, and executed by order of Santa Anna after the  defeat at Coleto Creek.

Thomas Ward was commissioned as a colonel and served during the  remainder of the war for independence. Upon the return of peace – or a  condition closely resembling it – he settled in the new-established city  of Houston, and returned to the trade of architect and building  contractor. He was hired to build a capitol building in Houston – one of  several, for  over the life of the Republic of Texas, the actual  seat of government became rather peripatetic. When the second  President of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, moved the capitol to  Waterloo-on-the-Colorado – soon to be called Austin – in 1839, Thomas  Ward relocated there, serving variously as chief clerk for the House of  Representatives, as mayor of Austin and as commissioner of the General  Land Office. As fortune would have it, during an observance of the victory  at San Jacinto in April of 1841, Thomas Ward had another bit of bad  luck. In setting off a celebratory shot, the cannon misfired, and the  explosion took off his right arm. (I swear – I am not making this up!)  To add to cannon-related indignities heaped upon him, in the following  year, he was involved in the Archives War. Local inn-keeper, Angelina  Eberly fired off yet another cannon in to alert the citizens of Austin that  President Sam Houston’s men were trying to remove the official national  archives from the Land Office building. (Either it was not loaded with anything but black powder, or she missed hitting anything substantial.)

Fortunately, Thomas Ward emerged unscathed from this imbroglio. I  think it would have been plain to everyone by this time that Mr.  Cannon-ball was most definitely not his friend. He married, fought  against Texas secession in the bitter year of 1860, served another term  as Mayor of Austin, as U.S. Counsel to Panama, and lived to 1872 – a very  good age, considering all that he had been through.

(Thomas Ward appears  briefly as a character, along with Angelina Eberly and some other characters from early Austin, in Deep in the Heart.)

It might be a bit overused as an axiom, that civil wars are the bloodiest – or maybe it just seems that way because it seems to be so terribly personal. This is not some outsider, some foreigner, some alien stranger invading our neighborhood, destroying our towns and slaughtering – but our own countrymen, who speak the same language and usually share a culture and background, if not the same blood.

Just so was our own Civil War. To read of the wanton brutality and the wholesale slaughter and destruction, and the enthusiasm and energy which went into the dismemberment of our own country, and to know that many of those who led the fight had been comrades and allies not fifteen years before is to realize what a monumental tragedy it was. No wonder Abraham Lincoln looks about twenty years older, comparing photographs of him taken in 1861 and 1865. He was a melancholy and sensitive man; one wonders how the weight of the responsibility and the events of those years in office did not crush him utterly. The war over which he was able to exercise control was ghastly enough – the war on the fringes, fought by partisans in Kansas and Missouri – achieved abysmal depths of senseless brutality.

Kansas had been a particularly hot center of strife even before Southern artillery opened fire on Ft. Sumter. In an attempt to kick the can of ‘free state-slave state’ a little farther down the road, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 left the decision of whether those to states be enrolled as free or slave to those who settled there. And from that moment on, each side of the free-soil/slave-state debate enthusiastically aided and abetted the settling of Kansas with settlers who were adherents of one side or the other. The ‘Border Ruffians’, from slave-permitting Missouri, and the free-soil ‘Jayhawkers’ were already at each others’ throats from 1855 on. The first sack of Lawrence, the caning on the floor of the senate by Preston Brooks of South Carolina of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, John Brown’s raid on Pottawatomie –  the Civil War began to simmer in Kansas. Back east, they needed a while to get up to full speed, when it began to boil in earnest. In Kansas, partisan bands were all ready to ride – and to plunder and exterminate.

The most brutally effective of the pro-Confederate bands in Kansas was led by an Ohio-born former schoolteacher and teamster named William Clark Quantrill. He seems to have had an unsavory reputation even before the war, being associated with a number of unexplained murders and thefts in the Utah territory while working briefly there as a teamster and free-lance gambler. The eventual co-leader of his band, William ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson had a similar pre-war reputation for horse thievery and murder, and a penchant for scalping his victims. He was reputed to wear a necklace of Yankee scalps into action – most people reading of his antics and behavior today would unhesitatingly call him a  psychopath and a war criminal.

By 1862, Quantrill and his men were considered outlaws by the Union authorities in Kansas – and Confederate commanders in Texas didn’t have all that much higher an opinion, especially after the Sack of Lawrence. Say what you would about Texas Confederates like General Henry McCulloch; he may have been a tough old Texas fighter – of Indians, Mexicans, bandits and whoever else was handy – but he was still a gentleman. Plundering a civilian town, burning it to the ground and executing civilian men and boys wholesale was not Henry McCulloch’s cup of tea. Neither was executing soldiers who had surrendered, as Quantrill’s men did after a fight with Union solders at Baxter Springs – but here was Quantrill and his men, looking for a place to rest and recoup, to purchase horses and generally get a break after a hard year of partisan war-fighting in Kansas. They had made Kansas too hot to hold them, and McCulloch was perennially short of men to guard the far Texas frontier against reoccurring Indian raids and to round up draft evaders and deserters. To the general commanding the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy forces, Quantrill’s appearance was a gift and McCulloch was ordered to make use of him to the fullest.

Although Quantrill and Anderson’s men mostly confined their Texas activities to Grayson and Fannin Counties, they left some bloody fingerprints in the Hill Country, too. Elements of their group were participants in the hangerbande or the ‘hanging-band’ – masked vigilantes who terrorized Gillespie and Kendall Counties by summarily lynching known and suspected pro-Unionists. It was often said bitterly after the war that the hangerbande killed more settlers there than the Indians ever did. Early in the spring of 1864, the hanging-band visited the Grape Creek settlement, a loose community of farms a few miles east of Fredericksburg. A man named Peter Burg, the owner of a fine herd of horses, was shot in the back and his horses confiscated. Three other men; William Feller, John Blank and Henry Kirchner were simply taken from their houses, taken as they sat with their families at the supper table. Kirchner’s house was searched and nearly $200 dollars in silver coin taken by Quantrill’s horse-buyer. It was rumored that Blank had recently received a letter from someone in Mexico.  Feller lived on a tract of land adjoining Kirchners and both had been involved in a land dispute with pro-Confederate sympathizers. These and other atrocities outraged the Hill Country German settlers  – more than that, similar depredations and robberies outraged Henry McCulloch and other Texas military commanders. Still, they were fighting on the Confederate side; perhaps they could go and do so where there weren’t any civilians to plunder and murder? McCulloch tried to send them to Corpus Christi, to stiffen the coastal defense. No luck with that, although McCulloch did his best to be rid of these uncomfortable allies.

Quantrill and Anderson had a falling out, about the time of the Grape Creek murders, and when Anderson indicated to McCulloch that he would testify against Quantrill as regards certain heinous crimes, the old Indian fighter hardly wasted time. He called for Quantrill to come to his HQ for a meeting, asked him to put his weapons on the table and informed him that he was under arrest.  But as soon as McCulloch’s back was turned, Quantrill grabbed his weapons, shouted to his friends that they were all liable to be under arrest and departed at speed and in a cloud of dust, heading north and back to Kansas. One imagines that Henry McCulloch was glad to be rid of them one way or another. Certainly they were not pursued with much enthusiasm, although their savage reputation may have had quite a lot to do with that.

Quantrill came to a sticky end, shortly afterwards – in Kentucky, having added Missouri to the list of places which he had made too hot to hold him. Elements of his wartime band lingered on, in the form of the James gang. But they in turn came to a sticky end in Northfield, Minnesota – the last little drop of blood from Bleeding Kansas.

 The summer of 1860 culminated a decade of increasingly bitter polarization among the citizens of the still-United States over the question of slavery, or as the common polite euphemism had it; “our peculiar institution.”  At a period within living memory of older citizens, slavery once appeared as if it were something that would wither away as it became less and less profitable, and more and more disapproved of by practically everyone. But the invention of the cotton gin to process cotton fiber mechanically made large-scale agricultural production profitable, relighting the fire under a moribund industry. The possibility of permitting the institution of chattel slavery in the newly acquired territories in the West during the 1840s turned the heat up to a simmer. It came to a full rolling boil after California was admitted as a free state in 1850 . . . but at a cost of stiffening the Fugitive Slave Laws. And as a prominent senator, Jesse Hart Benton lamented subsequently, the matter of slavery popped up everywhere, as ubiquitous as the biblical plague of frogs. Attitudes hardened on both sides, and within a space of a few years advocates for slavery and abolitionists alike had all the encouragement they needed to readily believe the worst of each other.

Texas was not immune to all this, of course. Of the populated western states at the time,Texas was closer in sympathy to the South in the matter of slavery. Most settlers who come from the United States had come from where it had been permitted, and many had brought their human property with them, or felt no particular objection to the institution itself. In point of fact, slaves were never particularly numerous: the largest number held by a single Texas slave-owner on the eve of the Civil War numbered around 300, and this instance was very much a singular exception; most owned far fewer.  Only a portion of the state was favorable to the sort of mass-agricultural production that depended upon a slave workforce. In truth while there were few abolitionists, there were  many whose enthusiasm for the practice of chattel slavery was particularly restrained especially in those parts of  North Texas which had been settled from northern states, in the Hill Country and San Antonio, similarly settled by Germans and other Europeans.

One of the subtle and tragic side-effects that the hardening of attitudes had on the South was to intensify the “closing-in” of attitudes and culture towards contrary opinions. As disapproval of slavery heightened in the North and in Europe, Southern partisans became increasingly defensive, less inclined to brook any kind of criticism of the South and its institutions, peculiar or otherwise. By degrees the South became inimical to outsiders bearing the contrary ideas that progress is made of. Those who were aware of the simple fact that ideas, money, innovation, and new immigrants were pouring into the Northern states at rates far outstripping those into the South tended to brood resentfully about it, and cling to their traditions ever more tightly.  Always touchy about points of honor and insult,  some kind of nadir  was reached in 1854 on the floor of the US Senate when  a Southern Representative, Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Charles Sumner following a fiercely abolitionist speech by the latter.  Brooks was presented with all sorts of fancy canes to commemorate the occasion, while Senator Sumner was months recovering from the brutal beating.

Even more than criticism, Southerners feared a slave insurrection, and any whisper of such met with a hard and brutal reaction. John Brown’s abortive 1859 raid on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry sealed the conviction into the minds of Southerners that the abolitionists wished for exactly that.

When mysterious fires razed half of downtown Denton, parts of Waxahatchie,  a large chunk of the center of Dallas, and a grocery store in Pilot Point during the hottest summer in local memory,  it took no great leap  of imagination for anti-abolitionists to place blame for mysterious fires squarely on the usual suspects and their vile plots. Residents were especially jumpy in Dallas, where two Methodist preachers had been publicly flogged and thrown out of town the previous year. The editor of the local Dallas newspaper, one Charles Pryor wrote to the editors of newspapers across the state, (including the editor of the Austin  Gazette who was chairman of the state Democratic Party) claiming, “It was determined by certain abolitionist preachers, who were expelled from the country last year, to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas, and when it was reduced to a helpless condition, a general revolt of slaves, aided by the white men of the North in our midst, was to come off on the day of election in August.”

The panic was on, then, all across Texas: Committees of Public Safety were formed, as so-called abolitionist plotters were sought high, low,  behind every privy and under every bed, and lynched on the slightest suspicion. Conservative estimates  place the number of dead, both black and white,  at least thirty and possibly up to a hundred, while the newspapers breathlessly poured fuel on the fires . . . metaphorically speaking, of course . . . by expounding on the cruel depredations the abolitionists had planned for the helpless citizens of Texas. When the presidential election campaign began in late summer, Southern-rights extremists seamlessly laid the blame for the so-called plot on the nominee and political party favored by the Northern Free-States; Republican Abraham Lincoln. Texas seceded in the wake of his election, the way to the Confederacy smoothed by rumor, panic and editorial pages.

 It turns out that the fires were most likely caused by the spontaneous ignition of boxes of new patent phosphorous matches, which had just then gone on the market, and the usually hot summer. But speculation and conspiracy theories are always more attractive than prosaic explanations for unsettling and mysterious events . . . and were so then as now.

(For your enjoyment – a selected chapter from the soon-to-be-released sequel to Daughter of Texas. Advance orders for autographed copies are being taken now, through my website catalog page.)

Chapter 19 – The Last of the Lone Star

 In the morning, Margaret rose at the usual hour, when the sky had just begun to pale in the east, and it was yet too early for the rooster to begin setting up a ruckus in the chicken pen. She had a house full of guests, even though most of them had not spent the night. One of the last things that Hetty had done before retiring for the night was to have Mose move the dining table back into the room where it normally resided, and return all the household chairs to their usual places. Margaret viewed the now-empty hall with a sigh, for the temporary glory that it had housed on the previous day – now, to see to breakfast for those guests who had remained. That breakfast should be every bit as good as the supper on Christmas night – for Margaret would not allow any diminution of her hospitality. She tied on her kitchen apron and walked into the kitchen, where she halted just inside the door, arrested by the expressions on the faces of the three within. Hetty bristled with unspoken irritation, even as she paused in rolling out the dough for the first batch of breakfast biscuits, Mose – who stood by the stove with an empty metal hot-water canister in each of his huge hands – had a nervous and apprehensive expression on his dark and usually uncommunicative face. Carl sat at the end of the kitchen table, interrupted in the act of wolfing down a plate of bacon, sausage and hash made from the leftovers of last night’s feast. He looked nearly as nervous as Mose, and his expression – especially as Margaret appeared in the doorway – appeared to be as guilty as a small child caught in the midst of some awful mischief, mischief for which he was certain to be punished.

Margaret took in each countenance in a lighting-flash, apprehended that something had happened in her household, and demanded, “What is the matter, then?”

Mose answered, in his thick and barely articulate mumble, “I took de hot watter to de gennelmun rooms, mam  . . .  an’ de Gen’ral, he still ‘sleep, mam  . . .  but he don’ chop down de bedpos’, mam.”

“What?” Margaret demanded, and Mose only looked more stolid. “He chop down de bedpos’, mam. Gen’ral Sam,” as Carl said, with an air of someone trying to placate an unappeasable fury, “He took an ax to the bedposts, M’grete. He  . . .  got a little merry last night, I guess – after you had gone to bed. Some of the others . . .  well, there was bottles bein’ passed. I didn’t think he would take to your best bedstead, though.”

Hetty looked from Margaret’s face to that of her brother, and the hapless Mose, and murmured, “Mother Mary save him, she’s got her Maeve face on, for certain.”

“There wasn’t anything I could do, M’grete,” Carl temporized, even as Mose returned to filling the canisters from the hot water reservoir at the side of the vast cook stove. ”He’s the General. I did not think you would object to the men getting a little merry on Christmas. You had wine with dinner, after all, M’grete.”

“I do not object to the drinking of alcohol under my roof,” Margaret answered, in a voice tight with suppressed fury. “I object when men drink of it to excess. And I object most strenuously to barbarous conduct, after they have drunk to excess. Little Brother, Mose. You may bring up the hot water later – for a now, each of you fetch a bucket of cold  . . .  from the spring-house, please.  . . .  Then all of you come with me.”

“I just put the biscuits in…” Hetty began to protest, but Margaret cut her off with a few curt words, as Mose and Carl obeyed. “This will not take a moment.”

The heels of Margaret shoes made a brisk tattoo on the floor, echoing in the hall as she swept imperiously up the staircase, in her fury outdistancing all of her acolytes. At the top of the stairs, the door to the best guest room stood slightly ajar: Mose had not closed it entirely on his departure. Margaret waited for the two men to climb the stairs, Hetty puffing in their wake. She took a deep breath, Mose’s words having prepared her for the worst. Well, now she knew why she had dreamed of someone chopping wood during the night. She opened the door all the way; oh, no. The room smelt faintly of stale drink, underlaid with odor of sweat and male toiletries. The slave man’s words and her own imagination had not prepared her for what she now saw. General Sam lay snoring in the middle of the bed, on top of the counterpane with his boots and coat cast carelessly aside on the floor amid splinters and roughly-hacked chunks of cherry-wood. All four of the tall and gracefully carved bedposts were roughly hewn down, almost level with the head and footboard. Margaret felt sickened by the intensity of her anger: her best bed, purchased at such a cost, from the earnings of hers and Hetty’s labor – a beautifully-wrought and cherished thing, deliberately mutilated. Behind her, Hetty gasped, horrified alike. They had both taken such pride in the new furniture, in the look of their best guest room. Now, Margaret was certain she would never look at it again, in quite the same way, now that it had been so desecrated.

“Carlchen,” she said, and her voice shook. “And Mose. I want you to waken the General with the cold water. And once he is awake, assist him in resuming his clothing. Assemble his luggage, too. Carlchen, you will see him conveyed to Mrs. Eberly’s without delay.” Carl hesitated, and Mose looked between them, and to the ruined bed with General Sam snoring in deep sleep.

“B’foa breakfast?” Mose ventured, and Margaret snapped.

“Yes. The water, Carlchen – it is how one rouses drunks, is it not?” Shrugging, Carl carried his bucket to one side of the bed, Mose to the other. They hoisted the buckets to chest-level, poised to pour them out onto the sleeping General Sam, while Margaret watched, hawk-eyed. “Now!”  More »

I suppose it does seem a little like magic, this storytelling thing. Explaining it even to yourself – much less to other people usually results in bafflement. Like the old joke about dissecting humor being like dissecting a frog – by the time you are done, there is nothing but a bit of a mess and confusion and the frog is dead anyway. My parents, as practical and hard-headed people,  were as puzzled by this aptitude as anyone else – they couldn’t for the life of them figure out how I came by the gift of spinning an enthralling story, of creating people on a page and making them so interesting and endearing that eventually they became quite invested in my characters.  More »