CHAPTER ONE: The Carlos Rancho on the San Antonio River, State of Texas, 1882.
A dying man he was, but not one possessed by strange dreams faintly perceived, or as yet so diminished in his faculties that he failed to understand that his life was about to end. He had stopped trying to reassure his wife, Tomasita, now crying in the parlor next to his bedroom. During their long life together, she was the one who had brought comfort to him, whenever he was wise enough to accept it. He could recall her crying only one time before, when his friend John Bower had died, so long ago now that Carlos de la Garza, even with his clarity intact, had to struggle to remember John Bower’s face. Partners, friends, enemies, divided by loyalty and interest during that foolish revolution.
Carlos found the strength to raise himself up against the headboard of his four-poster bed. He gazed through the heavy glass panes of his house above the river. A softness that comes with fond thoughts came across his face, because out there on those plains and on the trails along the river he had ridden generations of fine horses.
He sighed, and closed his eyes. At least it had been a short revolution. A few imperceptible turns of the globe, and Mexican rule was gone. Carlos had fought on the losing side without ever participating in a losing fight. When the revolution ended in 1836, many Anglos resented his part in the fighting between Goliad and the coast. Some wanted to take his land, destroy his property, and run him out of the country. But in the end it was they who came running to him, to the safety of his rancho when the Indians came near. Now most of the Anglos were dead, those who had fought with him and against him back then. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen one of the old Anglos—oh yes, yes he could, that rascal who everyone had thought was dead. Two years ago that was, at the funeral for the man’s wife. Carlos would not have seen the old Anglo then had it not been for the relationship between Tomasita and the Anglo’s now departed wife. Carlos should remember her name, but the nieces and cousins had multiplied so fast, and so long ago, that their names and even the fact that some shared his blood no longer seemed to matter.
He adjusted himself in the bed, knowing before he did so that the change of position would not relieve the pain from an old wound, unrelated to his now-failing heart that was causing his lungs to fill with fluid. It was thirty years since a small dirty stone-shaved flint, a damned bird point he was sure, had penetrated to the joint of his left hip, where a fragment of it still resided, there to ache, to throb, to make every stride an effort and every horseback ride a test of his resolve.
He berated himself as he had done before for not seeing the Karankawa who had loosed the arrow a half-second before the filthy thing had struck him. For filthy it must have been. The warrior was covered with mud and alligator grease to keep mosquitoes at bay. In the first months after the injury, whenever Carlos dreamed of the fight, he saw the arrow coming at him from the side, and from just a little behind him, a missile bearing alligator grease and imbedding something of that creature’s voraciousness inside his body, at the crucial juncture of his major joints, and those damned prehistoric juices had never ceased their tormenting flow.
The warrior was the next to last Karankawa Carlos killed that day. When the arrow had torn into his hip, he was not aware of the pain but was so furious that he twisted around in the saddle and pulled hard on the shaft to remove it from his body. He pulled so hard that the shaft snapped in two; Carlos tumbled off the mare and landed sprawled on the prairie, with the feathered end of the shaft still in his left hand. His rifle, on half cock, landed two feet away, the ornate stock parallel to his head and the barrel pointing down toward the arrow. Grabbing it, he just managed to get off a shot that killed the warrior as he notched another arrow into his bow.
Now the Karankawas were gone, struck off the planet like old, useless lizards or giant rumbling beasts that had, people said, once roamed over this ground. Good riddance he thought, with a single, emphatic nod . Only a few Comanches were left now, and those were confined to the high country and desolate canyons far to the north and west. He had hunted them too in his time. Not long after the revolution, they came plundering around the Carlos Crossing, threatening even the coastal towns, and Carlos took in Anglos and Tejanos alike, to protect them, just as he had done before that strange rebellion, and many other times since then. He had to admit, those Comanches were wonderful horsemen. The best—or almost the best, not so good, he told himself, as he was when he was riding his Fuerza.
At the thought of the mare, Carlos felt emotion concentrating near his eyes, found himself blinking once, twice, three times quickly, but still no tears. The same skirmish that brought him the bird-point arrow had brought Fuerza a musket ball in the chest. The Indians had tried to steal her away when Carlos fell from the saddle, but she had reared up and struck at them, her front hooves airborne and in continual furious extension of her defiance to be touched and much less ridden by anyone other than himself. At close range, in full retreat, turning only long enough to fire off the ancient British musket from his hip, another young Karankawa had shot her just at the point where her heavy neck muscles converged with her chest. She had fallen suddenly. Carlos could not believe it, even now, how quickly she had fallen. He was so stunned by her collapse that he almost forgot to draw his pistol and kill the young warrior before he could disappear over the bluff and slink away along the river bottom to escape with his sorry companions. If only I had stayed in the saddle! Carlos saw yet again the whole painful sequence in his mind. The great horseman– felled by an arrow point used mostly to kill prairie chickens and unwary, waddling geese.
At least Fuerza was not young when she was killed, well over twenty years old. He should have left her at the rancho that day, at peace in her corral; but something in her had sensed that he was going out on another hunt for Indians, and she had run over to the railing and whinnied angrily as he stood ready to mount a strong bay stallion that had already been saddled for him to ride.
Now, looking out his clear window panes, he thought: A good death for Fuerza. Quick, after a long, full life.