Sean Murphy and Ezra Woodpacker rode into Laredo trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. This was very difficult for the two seasoned Texas Rangers, since they couldn't look relaxed, even though they were. Their gaze was never still, but darted back and forth to every potential danger point, from the mouth of a narrow alley to the bell tower of the town hall. With the left hand holding the reins and the right hand resting near the gun butt, they looked like they were not waiting for trouble, but looking for it.
They were both slim and tall, with the squint in the eyes from too much time in the direct sun, the very ideal of the dime-novel Texan. Not unusual for the time nor the place, they both were wearing sombreros resting lightly on their heads, tipped to get the maximum shade from the broad brim, but not so much to restrict their vision.
They showed the signs of hard riding and several days without shaving or a bath, particularly noticeable if you happened to be downwind. The reason for their appearance was obvious in the corpse tied to the horse that Ezra was leading, for there were several bullet exit wounds visible on the man's shirt back. Close observation would also show a bit of blood on the bandage wrapped around Sean's left hand.
The men were headed for the Ranger office in the next block and were anxious to get there, as they anticipated a couple of days off as soon as they deposited the corpse and made their report. This summer of 1875 was just too damned hot and they both needed a break.
They tied off their horses at the hitching rail in front of the office and wearily climbed the two steps to reach the wooden sidewalk. Ezra commented, as they entered the office lobby, "I'm gittin' too old for this shit! I need a rest."
A voice from the back of the lobby remarked, "Ezra, how can ya be getting too old? Ya're only 26 years old!"
"I know, cap'n, but this six days of steady ridin' at full tilt is as hard on me as it is on my hoss."
"Maybe it's your hoss that needs the rest!"
"We both do, that's fer sure!" moaned Ezra, while Sean just grinned at his friend and partner and the man went through his ritual of complaining about how tough his life was and that he needed a rest. No matter how easy or how hard the assignment had been, Ezra always talked like this as they reported back to Captain Johnson.
"Well, Sean, I supposed ya caught up with Shifty Jones, or ya would still be on the trail."
"Yeah, cap'n. Old Shifty is out there lyin' over his saddle with three bullets through his chest. We caught up to him four days ago near Albertville. We had to shoot him when he wouldn't give up. Some people are just too stubborn fer their own good."
"OK, then. Write up yer report and take a couple of days off. Ya both need a bath, sumpthin' fierce!"
The captain sent a man out to take care of Shifty Jones' body and the horses while Sean and Ezra struggled with writing their reports. It only took them about an hour to write the one-paragraph report of the pursuit and killing of the murderer and rapist they had been chasing.
When finished, they left their rifles in the office while they grabbed some clean clothes and headed for the barber shop for a hot bath, shave, and haircut. On their way to the saloon, they dropped their dirty clothes off at the laundry and said that they would pick them up tomorrow.
It was almost a race to see who could get to the bar first and order his beer. The beer wasn't cold, but it was cool and wet, and tasted mighty good after spending all that time on the trail, never knowing when you might get shot at. They leaned their backs against the bar and looked around the saloon for any signs of trouble; they were NEVER completely on vacation.
Sean was the one who spotted the card sharp palming cards at the poker table. He poked Ezra in the ribs with his elbow and moved nonchalantly over behind the cheating poker player. He was completely relaxed with Ezra covering his back as he spoke quietly into the sharp's ear, "Ya better drop outa this game afore someone else sees ya palmin' those cards."
The sharp jumped at this and turned to see who was accusing him of cheating. The steely blue eyes staring back gave the sharp no choice but to stand up and excuse himself from the game. Sean nodded to the rest of the players and began wandering around the room, Ezra at his side. "Ya better watch yer back fer a while, ole buddy, 'cuz that there sharp didn't take kindly to yer gentle voice of reason."
"Yeah, I know, but I just ain't up to gittin' involved with another shootin' so soon after Shifty Jones if I kin avoid it. And that there sharp was bound to git caught; he jus' wasn't that good."
The two friends lazed around the saloon for about an hour and headed back to the Ranger barracks for supper. After supper, they were so tired that they just went to bed.
The next morning, as was their habit, they both woke up at dawn, dressed, and shuffled off to a breakfast of ham, eggs, grits, and biscuits. Now, fully awake, they wondered what they were going to do with themselves until Captain Johnson came up with an assignment for them. About 2 hours after breakfast, they went into the captain's office and asked if there was anything they could do.
"I wondered how long it was goin' to take fer ya two yahoos to git bored. Ya actually lasted a little longer than I expected. Well, I got a job fer ya ifen ya want it. What do ya say?"
"Sure, cap'n. Ezra an' I will take anythin' ya got. We're goin' crazy with nothin' ta do."
"OK. Well, there's some cattle rustlin' goin' on up near Eagle Pass. Remember, ifen ya cross the Rio Grand into Mexico, you've got no legal right to be there an' I can't back ya up, officially. So, be careful. Y'all are crazy enough to git into all kinds of trouble, so don't!"
Relieved at having something to do, Sean and Ezra grabbed their rifles and rushed to saddle up before the captain changed his mind. They loaded a pack horse with supplies and headed out; the pack horse was trained to follow without a lead rope, so they could move much more freely.
Five days later, they pulled into Eagle Pass and looked up the town marshal. They introduced themselves and told him they had been sent to take care of some rustlers. "How bad is the problem, anyway?"
"It's real bad. I can't tell fer shor, but I think that it must be Mexicans, 'cuz the cattle seem to disappear across the river. Course, it could be Anglos jus fakin' to be Mexicans."
"When was the last rustlin' and where was it?"
"The last time was last night at a ranch about 5 miles north of here. If ya want, we can go take a look right now."
The ride took about an hour. They were riding along the river and came to a ford that was really chopped up from so many cattle using it at one time. There must have been over 200 cattle in the herd, and the ground was so messed up, it was impossible to tell how many horsemen there had been with the herd, but it could easily take a dozen men to get that many cattle safely across the river.
Ezra turned to the marshal and said, "We're goin' to follow the cattle fer a while. We'll understand ifen you don't want to come with us."
The two men started to ford the river, but the marshal hesitated. Then, grinning, he hurried to catch up to the two Rangers. The river was over 200 yards wide along here and they didn't have a clear view of the other bank, so they were not certain just where the cattle came out. But they must have come out along here, somewhere, because there was too much chance of quicksand just to drive the cattle either upstream or downstream. The recognized fords were the only safe places to be walking along on the river bed, any place else could get you killed real quick.
They found the place where the cattle left the river and followed the obvious trail west, away from the river for about a mile, then it swung north, more or less parallel to the river for about four miles. That was where they found the stolen cattle, guarded by four Anglo cowboys.
The three men backed off a little bit and discussed what they should do. The obvious choice was to recapture the cattle and return them to their rightful owner, but that would do nothing to stop the rustling. Another alternative was to keep an eye on the cattle and see where they went from here. All three men agreed that this was the better option, so the marshal went back to town for camping supplies while the two Rangers stayed to watch over the herd.
It was already dark by the time the marshal returned. Their supper consisted of some sandwiches and a jug of coffee brought by the marshal; they didn't want to build a campfire because of the risk of discovery by the rustlers. A watch schedule was worked out and they turned in for the night.
The next morning brought on a cold breakfast of some ham slices and the last of the cold coffee from the night before. Not much happened for a couple of hours, then a carriage showed up, guarded by four Mexican bodyguards. An elderly man in very rich garb was comfortably ensconced in the carriage with a beautiful young lady at his side. He removed her hand from inside his pants as the four cowboys rode up.
Unfortunately, the lawmen were just too far away to hear what was said, but it was obvious that some instructions were given by the elderly man to the cowboys. The cowboys returned to the herd and the carriage drove off; as it was doing so, the beautiful young woman slipped her hand back inside the elderly man's pants.
Later that day, five vaqueros showed up and the cattle were herded off to the west. The four cowboys disappeared toward the river and were seen no more that day. The lawmen broke camp and followed the cattle at a discrete distance so as not to be spotted by the vaqueros driving them. The cattle were driven to a range already occupied by other cattle and mixed in with them. This would make the brand on the stolen cattle very hard to spot unless an observer was looking specifically for a certain brand.
"This looks like a bigger operation than we expected," remarked Sean.
"Yeah, we're gonna need help from the Mexicans with this," answered Ezra.
"Look, I want to help you Rangers, but this is way out of my territory. I don't know what I can do."
"It's out of our territory, too. Marshal, ya go back to town and do what ya usually do. Ezra and I will ride down to Piedras Negras and talk to the authorities about this mess."
"OK. Y'all keep the campin' stuff and I'll see ya in a few days. So long."
"So long, marshal, and thanks."
The ride to Peidras Negras was quickly done and the two Rangers went to the local alcaide's office. Both men spoke excellent Spanish, actually more educated-sounding than their colloquial English. They went up the clerk sitting at a desk in the lobby and Ezra asked, in Spanish, "Good day, sir. May we speak to the alcaide, please?"
"He is out right now, but should be back in about 10 minutes. Would you care to wait?"
"Yes, thank you. We will wait out on the porch where we can smoke."
The two rangers were standing on the porch, smoking cigars, when they were startled to see an obviously official-type man walk into the lobby accompanied by the elderly man they had seen that morning with the stolen cattle. They casually strolled back into the lobby after discarding their cigars and wandered over near the two men to see if they could get a hint as to what was going on.
The two Mexicans spoke together for a moment and went into the alcaide's private office and closed the door. Ezra walked up to the clerk and asked, "Was that the alcaide who just came in with the distinguished gentleman?"
"Yes, it was, and he will probably be busy for the rest of the day. You must come back some other time if you still want to see the alcaide."
"Very well, we will return another time. Good day and thank you for your assistance."
The two Rangers strolled out of the lobby as if they had no particular goal in mind, but, as soon as they were out of the sight of the clerk, they rushed around to the back of the building, looking for an open window where they might hear what transpired in the alcaide's office. They found such a window and stood to either side as they listened to the conversation going on inside.
"Senor Garza, I assure you that, in my position as alcaide of Peidras Negras, I would know if the Texas Rangers sent someone to investigate our little enterprise."
"Nevertheless, Senor Vega, my people reported seeing some Rangers arrive in Eagle Pass in the last few days."
"That may be so, but they have not been seen on this side of the Rio Grand."
"We must keep them out of Mexico until we are ready to drive our cattle to market. They can't hurt us as long as we are in Mexican territory, but we will be vulnerable as soon as we cross over into Texas."
"I still don't understand why you insist on driving the cattle to Kansas, instead of driving them to a market in Mexico. It would be so much safer."
"Yes, a market in Mexico would be safer, but the Kansas market pays so much more. In Mexico, we can only sell the cattle for their hides, but in Kansas, they will pay for the whole animal. We can get 15 to 20 times as much money in Kansas as we can get anywhere in Mexico. The profit difference is well worth the increased risk."
"Very well, I will not argue with you, since you are taking all of the risk. If something goes wrong, no one will know that I had anything to do with this venture. When do you plan to start your drive?"
"My men will make two more raids on Texas ranches and then we will drive the cattle north. I am not sure of the exact dates, but they will be within the next three weeks. I'll tell you when to look the other way. Now, I must go home, my mistress gets lonely without me to entertain her."
Sean motioned to Ezra and they moved away from the window to discuss this new revelation. "It's a damn good thin' that we didn't get a chance to introduce ourselves to the alcaide. Now, what do we do?"
After a moment of thought, Ezra said, "It looks to me like we need to talk to the federales. They've got the jurisdiction to handle this, if we can convince them that we know what we're talkin' about. They've got an office in Ciudad Acuna and I know the captain there."
"I think you're right. We can get there easy if we cross the river back into Texas and take the road to Del Rio. Then, we can cross back over the river and get there in less that two days."
Two days later, they rode into Ciudad Acuna and headed directly to the office of the Federal Judicial Police. Ezra went to the clerk in the lobby and said, in Spanish, "Good day, sir. I am Ezra Woodpacker. I am here to see my friend, Captain Jose Alvarez, if you please."
"Please be seated. I will ask if he can see you."
Before they could find a seat, the captain's door burst open and a hearty voice cried out in English, "EZRA, MY FRIEND, I AM SO GLAD TO SEE YOU!"
"Hello, Cap'n Alvarez. I'm glad to see you, too. I want you to meet my friend, Sean Murphy."
"Hello, Sean, please call me Jose, as I keep asking my friend Ezra to do. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, Ezra?"
"It's a delicate matter, Jose. Can we go in your office?"
"Certainly! Certainly! Come in and have a seat," the captain said as he ushered the two Rangers into his office and motioned them to seats. He closed the door and sat behind his desk.
After a few minutes of small talk, the captain asked of Ezra, "What is this delicate matter you wished to discuss with me?"
"We're not here officially, but we need yer help. There's a big rustlin' operation going on down at Eagle Pass. Texas cattle are bein' stolen and moved across the river to a ranch in Mexico. We can't go to the local alcaide, 'cuz he's part of the gang. The ring leader is a rancher named Garza."
"Surely you're mistaken about Senor Garza. He is well known in Coahuila State as a great philanthropist and a power in politics."
"No, we listened in on a conversation between Garza and the alcaide when they talked about the operation. Garza said that he was planning two more rustling raids in the next three weeks and then he planned to drive the cattle to market in Kansas, where he could get more money for them than he could get in Mexico."
"Ezra, I wish I could help, but here is nothing that I can do. Garza is too powerful for me to even investigate him. I would be fired if my superiors ever found out that I was even considering helping you. I will do whatever I can to help you, short of getting directly involved with investigating Senor Garza. I hope you understand my position."
"Yeah, Jose, we do understand. Politics can get in the way of justice on both sides of the river. We'll do what we can without yer help and not hold it against ya. If we visit ya again about this caper, it won't directly involve Garza. We'll just have to figure out something that we can do on our side of the river."