It is a cliche that the Old West was rough, a violent place. Texas, in the mid to late 1800s, was as bad a neighborhood as any. Nowadays, those days seem long ago and far away. Actually, they are neither…
My grandfather Holmes was born in April 1876, when the West was still a battleground. Custer and his men were killed two months later. Grandfather Holmes died in 1964, when I was 9 years old. On my mother’s side, my grandmother was still a very young girl living in Anadarko, Oklahoma, when Geronimo returned there for his first powow after being released from prison. By then, the old warrior was long past his battle days. But white folks were nervous– (who knows, the old gent might just rally young braves for one last charge!)– so they locked their doors that night. And in an antique Holmes family daybook (a diary, sort of), there are two one-line entries, in neat handwriting, dated February 1912 (99 years ago) and stating matter-of-factly:
February 2 Henry Lee killed Marshal Zumult
February 14 Sam Earl killed by Ed Whittaker
That’s all. No details given about how or why they were killed. And nothing is said about what happened (if anything) to Mr. Lee or Mr. Whittaker in consequence of the killings.
Texas is still marked with reminders of how violent it once was, and too often still is. In North Texas, on highway 114 near the village of Jean, there is a marker telling about the Little Creek Indian Fight, May 16, 1869. All day long (says the marker) a cattle roundup crew of 11 cowboys, including Dick the cook, held 57 Comanches at bay. (Who took time to count them?) Nine cowboys were wounded – three of those died.
The weather batters the land, and people still batter each other. A few years ago, whilst passing through Megargel, Texas, I saw where a 100-mph wind had recently knocked down a grain elevator, destroyed a trailer and knocked a large hole in the side of the already weather-worn city hall. That same evening, south of Graham, on FM 1287, which runs right into Possum Kingdom Lake, I stopped for dinner at a small bar and grill. I ordered blackened catfish and listened in on the local talk. The owner is a stout middle-aged woman who looks and sounds like she has seen the coarser side of life. She and a middle-age couple were talking about karaoke, who can do it well and who can’t. The owner’s opinion is that most folks can’t, although there was that one gal who did OK, a while back—she was pretty good. “But she must’ve been too flirty,” said the owner, matter-of-factly, “because her old man beat the hell out of her when she got home.”