And still it was better than the Old States, where unless you were son of a plantation owner, there was nothing to be had but the gleanings. Let the records show that the better classes, the Austins and Houstons, were all content to remain citizens of Mexico so long as they could keep their land. Their descendants have waged wars of propaganda to clear their names and have them declared Founders of Texas. In truth it was only the men like my father, who had nothing, who pushed Texas into war.
Like every able-bodied Scotsman, he did his part in the rout at San Jacinto and after the war worked as a blacksmith, gunsmith, and surveyor. He was tall and easy to talk to. He had a straight back and hard hands and people felt safe around him, which proved, for most of them, to be an illusion.
My father was not religious and I attribute my heathen ways to him. Still, he was the sort of man who felt the breath of the pale rider close on his neck. He did not believe in time to waste. We first lived at Bastrop, raising corn, sorghum, and hogs, clearing land until the new settlers came in, those who waited until the Indian dangers had passed, then arrived with their lawyers to challenge the deeds and titles of those who had civilized the country and vanquished the red man. These first Texans had purchased their holdings with the original human currency and most could neither read nor write. By the age of ten I had dug four graves. The faintest sound of galloping hooves would wake the entire family, and by the time the news arrived -- some neighbor cut up like a Thanksgiving shoat -- my father had checked his loads and then he and the messenger would disappear into the night. The brave die young: that is the Comanche saying, but it was true of the first Anglos as well.
During the ten years Texas stood alone as a nation, the government was desperate for settlers, especially those with money. And through some invisible telegraph the message went back to the Old States -- this area is safe now. In 1844 the first stranger arrived at our gate: a barbershop shingle, store-bought clothes, a lady-broke sorrel. He asked for grain as his horse would founder on grass. A horse that could not eat grass -- I had never heard of such a thing.
Two months later, the Smithwicks' title was challenged and then the Hornsbys and MacLeods were bought out at a pittance. By then there were more lawyers in Texas, per capita, than any other place on the continent and within a few years all the original settlers had lost their land and been driven west again, back into Indian country. The gentler classes who had stolen the land were already plotting a war to protect their blacks; the South would be cursed but Texas, a child of the West, would emerge unscathed.
In the meantime a campaign was launched against my mother, a Castilian of the old line, dark skinned but finely featured, it was claimed by the new settlers that she was octoroon. The plantation gentleman took pride in his eye for such things.
By 1846 we had moved past the line of settlement, to my father's headright on the Pedernales. It was Comanche hunting grounds. The trees had never heard an ax, and the land and all the animals who lived upon it were fat and slick. Grass up to the chest, the soil deep and black in the bottoms, and even the steepest hillsides overrun with wildflowers. It was not the dry rocky place it is today.
Wild Spanish cattle were easily acquired with a rope -- within a year we had a hundred head. Hogs and mustang horses were also for the taking. There were deer, turkey, bear, squirrel, the occasional buffalo, turtles and fish from the river, ducks, plums and mustang grapes, bee trees and persimmons -- the country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today. The only problem was keeping your scalp attached.
From "The Son" by Philipp Meyer. Copyright © 2013 by Philipp Meyer. Reprinted by courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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