MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER WAS Sam Morgan Holland, a drover who trailed cows up the Chisholm from San Antonio to Kansas. Most of his life Greatgrandpa Sam fought whiskey and Indians and cow thieves and with some regularity watched gully washers or dry lightning spook his herds over half of Oklahoma Territory.
Whether it was because of busthead whiskey or just the bad luck to have lost everything he ever worked for, he railed at God and the human race for years and shot five or six men in gun duels. Then one morning, cold sober, he hung his chaps and clothes and Navy Colt revolvers on a tree and was baptized by immersion in the Guadalupe River. But Greatgrandpa Sam found no peace. He sat each Sunday on the mourners’ bench at the front of the congregation in a mud-chinked Baptist church, filled with an unrelieved misery he couldn’t explain. One month later he decided to ride to San Antonio and kill his desire for whiskey in the only way he knew, and that was to drink until he murdered all the warring voices inside his head.
On the trail he met a hollow-eyed preacher whose face had been branded with red-hot horseshoes by Comanches north of the Cimarron. The preacher made Sam kneel with him in a brush arbor, then unexpectedly grasped Sam’s head in his hands and ordained him. Without speaking again he propped his Bible against Sam’s rolled slicker and disappeared over a hill into a dust cloud and left no tracks on the other side.
For the rest of his life, Great-grandpa Sam preached out of the saddle in the same cow camps his herds had trampled into shredded canvas and splintered wagon boards when he was a drover.
His son, Hackberry, who was also known in our family as Grandpa Big Bud, was a Texas Ranger who chased Pancho Villa into Old Mexico. As a young lawman he locked John Wesley Hardin in the county jail and was still wearing a badge decades later when he stuffed Clyde Barrow headfirst down a trash can in a part of Dallas once known as “The Bog.”
But Grandpa Big Bud always made sure you knew he was not at Arcadia, Louisiana, when Bonnie Parker and Clyde were trapped inside their car by Texas Rangers and sawed apart with Browning automatic rifles and Thompson .45 submachine guns.
“You don’t figure they had it coming?” I once asked him.
“People forget they wasn’t much more than kids. You cain’t take a kid down without shooting him a hundred times, you’re a pisspoor Ranger in my view,” he said.
My grandfather and his father were both violent men. Their eyes were possessed of a peculiar unfocused light that soldiers call the thousand-yard stare, and the ghosts of the men they had killed visited them in their sleep and stood in attendance by their deathbeds. When I was a young police officer in Houston, I swore their legacy would never be mine.
But if there are drunkards in your family, the chances are you will drink from the same cup as they. The war that can flare in your breast with each dawn doesn’t always have to come from a charcoal-lined barrel.
I LIVED ALONE in a three-story late-Victorian house built of purple brick, twenty miles from the little town of Deaf Smith, the county seat. The house had a second-story veranda and a wide, screened-in gallery, the woodwork painted a gleaming white. The front and back yards were enclosed by poplar trees and myrtle bushes and the flower beds planted with red and yellow roses.
I made sun tea in big jars on the gallery, grilled steaks for friends under the chinaberry tree in the backyard, and sometimes cane-fished with a bunch of Mexican children in the two-acre tank, or lake, at the back of my farm. But at night my footsteps rang off the oak and mahogany woodwork inside my house like stones dropped down an empty well.
The ghosts of my ancestors did not visit me. The ghost of another man did. His name was L.Q. Navarro. In life he was the most handsome man I ever knew, with jet black hair and wide shoulders and skin as brown and smooth as newly dyed leather. When he appeared to me he wore the clothes he had died in, a dark pinstriped suit and dusty boots, a floppy gray Stetson, a white shirt that glowed like electrified snow. His hand-tooled gunbelt and holstered revolver hung on his thigh like a silly afterthought. Through the top buttonhole of his shirt he had inserted the stem of a scarlet rose.
Sometimes he disappeared into sunlight, his form breaking into millions of golden particles. At other times I did pro bono work on hopeless defenses, and my spectral visitor declared a temporary amnesty and waited patiently each night by himself among the mesquite trees and blackjack oaks on a distant hillside.
The phone rang at 10 A.M. on a Sunday morning in April.
“They got my boy in the jailhouse. I want him out,” the voice said.
“Is that you, Vernon?”
“No, it’s the nigger in the woodpile.”
Vernon Smothers, the worst business mistake in my life. He farmed seventy acres of my land on shares, and I had reached a point where I was almost willing to pay him not to come to work.
“What’s he charged with?” I asked.
I could hear Vernon chewing on something—a piece of hard candy, perhaps. I could almost see the knotted thoughts in his eyes as he looked for the trap he always found in other people’s words.
“He was drunk again. Down by the river.”
“Call a bondsman.”
“They made up some lies . . . They’re saying he raped a girl down there.”
“Where’s the girl?”
“At the hospital. She ain’t conscious so she cain’t say who done it. That means they ain’t got no case. Ain’t that right?”
“I want a promise from you . . . If I get him out, don’t you dare put your hand on him.”
“How about you just mind your own goddamn business, then?” he said, and hung up.
THE COUNTY COURTHOUSE was built of sandstone, surrounded by a high-banked green lawn and live-oak trees whose tops touched the third story. The jailer was named Harley Sweet and his mouth always hung partly open while you spoke, as though he were patiently trying to understand your train of thought. But he was not an understanding man. When he was a deputy sheriff, many black and Mexican men in his custody never reached the jail. Nor thereafter did they stay on the same sidewalk as he when they saw him coming in their direction.
“You want to see Lucas Smothers, do you? We feed at twelve-thirty. Better come back after then,” he said. He slapped a fly on his desk with a horse quirt. He looked at me, slack-jawed, his eyes indolent, waiting God knows for what.
“If that’s the way you want it, Harley. But from this moment on, he’d better not be questioned unless I’m present.”
“You’re representing him?”
He got up from his desk, opened a door with a frosted glass window in it, and went inside an adjoining office. He came back with a handful of Polaroid pictures and dropped them on his desk.
“Check out the artwork. That’s what she looked like when he got finished with her. She had semen in her vagina and he had it inside his britches. She had skin under her fingernails and he has scratches on his body. I cain’t imagine what the lab will say. You can really pick your cases, Billy Bob,” he said.
“Where was she?”
“Thirty yards from where he was passed out.” He started to drink out of his coffee cup, then set it back down. His silver snap-button cowboy shirt shimmered with light. “Oh hell, you want to spend your Sunday morning with a kid cain’t tell the difference between shit and bean dip, I’ll call upstairs. You know where the elevator’s at.”
WHEN OTHER BOYS in high school played baseball or ran track, Lucas Smothers played the guitar. Then the mandolin, banjo, and Dobro. He hung in black nightclubs, went to camp meetings just for the music, and ran away from home to hear Bill Monroe in Wichita, Kansas. He could tell you almost any detail about the careers of country musicians whose names belonged to a working-class era in America’s musical history that had disappeared with five-cent Wurlitzer jukeboxes—Hank and Lefty, Kitty Wells, Bob Wills, the Light Crust Dough Boys, Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana, Moon Mullican, Texas Ruby.
His hands were a miracle to watch on a stringed instrument. But in his father’s eyes, they, like Lucas himself, were not good for anything of value.
When he was sixteen Vernon caught him playing triple-neck steel in a beer joint in Lampasas and beat him so unmercifully with a razor strop in the front yard that a passing truck driver climbed out of his cab and pinned Vernon’s arms to his sides until the boy could run next door.
Lucas sat shirtless in blue jeans and a pair of scuffed cowboy boots on the edge of a bunk in a narrow cell layered with jailhouse graffiti. His face was gray with hangover and fear, his reddish blond hair spongy with sweat. His snap-button western shirt lay at his feet. It had blue-and-white checks in it, and white cloth in the shoulders with tiny gold trumpets stitched in it. He had paid forty dollars for the shirt when he had first joined the band at Shorty’s.
“How you feel?” I asked, after the turnkey locked the solid iron door behind me.
“Not too good.” His wrists were thick, his wide hands cupped on top of his knees. “They tell you about the girl . . . I mean, like how’s she doing?”
“She’s in bad shape, Lucas. What happened?”
“I don’t know. We left Shorty’s, you know, that joint on the river. We was kind of making out in my truck . . . I remember taking off my britches, then I don’t remember nothing else.”
I sat down next to him on the bunk. It was made of cast iron and suspended from the wall by chains. A thin mattress covered with brown and yellow stains fit inside the rectangular rim. I picked up his hands in mine and turned them over, then pressed my thumb along his finger joints, all the time watching for a flinch in his face.
“A lady’s going to come here this afternoon to photograph your hands. In the meantime don’t you do anything to bruise them,” I said. “Who’s the girl?”
“Her name’s Roseanne. That’s all she told me. She come in with a mess of other people. They run off and left her and then her and me got to knocking back shots. I wouldn’t rape nobody, Mr. Holland. I wouldn’t beat up a girl, either,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“You don’t remember what you did, Lucas . . . Look at me. Don’t sign anything, don’t answer any of their questions, don’t make a statement, no matter what they promise you. You with me?”
“My father got you to come down here?”
His blue eyes lingered on mine. They were bloodshot and full of pain, but I could see them trying to reach inside my mind.
“You need a friend. We all do at one time or another,” I said.
“I ain’t smart but I ain’t stupid, either, Mr. Holland. I know about you and my mother. I don’t study on it. It ain’t no big deal to me.”
I stood up from the bunk and looked out the window. Down the street people were coming out of a brick church with a white steeple, and seeds from cottonwood trees were blowing in the wind and I could smell chicken frying in the back of a restaurant.
“You want me to represent you?” I said.
“Yes, sir, I’d sure appreciate it.”
He stared emptily at the floor and didn’t look up again.
I STOPPED AT Harley’s office downstairs.
“I’ll be back for his arraignment,” I said.
“Why’d he have to beat the shit out of her?”
“I guess he didn’t top her, either. She probably artificially inseminated herself.”
“Why don’t you shut up, Harley?”
He rubbed his chin with the ball of his thumb, a smile at the corner of his mouth, his eyes wandering indolently over my face.
Outside, as I got into my Avalon, I saw him crossing the courthouse lawn toward me, the sunlight through the trees freckling on his face. I closed my car door and waited. He leaned one arm on the roof, a dark loop of sweat under his armpit, and smiled down at me, his words gathering in his mouth.
“You sure know how to stick it up a fellow’s snout, Billy Bob. I’ll surely give you that, yessir. But at least I ain’t killed my best friend and I don’t know anybody else who has. Have a good day,” he said.
Excerpted from Cimarron Rose
by James Lee Burke
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are
provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.