The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Destroyer of Myths

They must have made an exotic couple, the small, sandy headed Anglo-Celtic boy from Northeast Texas and the tiny, dark-haired, Brooklyn-born Jewish girl---a contrast made doubly odd by the fact that they were on the lam, hiding from the girl's husband and the authorities so she would not lose custody of her three-year-old daughter. Exotic or not, it was a match that would last until his death some forty-odd years later.

William Humphrey was born in Clarksville, the seat of Red River County Texas, on June 18, 1924 and died on August 20, 1997. He studied at both Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas in Austin, but never completed a degree at either institution. He left Texas for good in 1944 and made his home in Hudson, New York, for the bulk of his remaining years. He taught for a decade and a half at Bard College where he mentored several well known playwrights. The author of thirteen books, one of which was nominated for a National Book Award, he is considered both a minor novelist and a "mere" regionalist. He was neither, facts that he realized and which led, understandably, to some bitterness on his part.

The major event in his life was the death of his larger-than-life father when he was thirteen. According to Humphrey, his mother awakened him in the middle of the night with the news, thus beginning what he called "an anguish that would never end." It was also the end of his peaceful, bucolic life in East Texas. A month later the small family moved to Dallas. Humphrey did not return to Clarksville even for a short visit for thirty-two years. Nevertheless, critics have noted that while he spent the bulk of his life in the North with occasional year-long sojourns in Europe, the creative core of his work was firmly rooted in the first thirteen years of his life and in the social patterns and rituals of Northeast Texas, which is culturally very much a part of the South. In a letter dated 9 August, 1958 he said, "I think of myself as a southerner, my characters as southerners, not westerners, and this is what one can expect to find in Clarksville."

At college he became enamored of the German language, applied himself quite diligently to its study, and grew quite fluent. In the early 1940s, at the insistence of friends, he made his one and only visit to a nightclub, where he was thoroughly out of place. But the evening was redeemed when he recognized the great German novelist Thomas Mann, winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize, who was also less than enchanted with his surroundings. Humphrey approached Mann, was invited to sit at his table, and the pair engaged in an animated two-hour conversation from which they both emerged happy and more than a little drunk.

While still an unpublished young writer, he was helped by Texas novelist Katherine Ann Porter, who became a close friend. One annoyance he mentioned often was that critics frequently compared him to Faulkner. Humphrey was fond of pointing out that both he and the great Mississippi novelist had been born into the small town Southern cotton culture only three hundred miles and a few years apart in time, and that it was no miracle that they would write about some of the same things.

His first novel, Home From The Hill, which was his best and most successful book, was made into a film and released in 1960. It was directed by Vincente Minnelli and starred Robert Mitchum, Eleanor Parker, George Peppard, George Hamilton, Everett Sloane, and Luana Patten. As one might expect from Hollywood, several changes are made to the plotline and the story is given a happy ending. However, the thing was filmed in the Clarksville area, and is well worth watching.

Next came The Ordways, which was less successful. In the decades to come he would write some of the finest short stories to ever flow from the pen of an American author, yet the recognition that he craved eluded him and his bitterness grew as the years sped by.

Something of a malcontent, he was known to have a prickly temperament. Early in his career, his work was actually solicited by a famous editor at The New Yorker---no mean complement for a young writer. However, the editor made the mistake of writing to Humphrey that, "We would like to add you to our stable." Humphrey sent back a one sentence reply: "I am not a horse." Luckily for both, this breach was repaired and several of his better stories would eventually appear in that prestigious journal. A decade or so later, his editor on Home From The Hill marked a sentence and said, "This sticks out like a sore thumb." Humphrey replied, "I told you that when you put it in there, you idiot!!"

Humphrey saw himself as a destroyer of myths---the myth of the hunter, the myth of the frontier, the myth of the Southern aristocrat. If there was any myth that ran like a thread through the whole corpus of his work, it is the myth of community. According to Ashby Bland Crowder, his literary biographer, the true themes are are isolation and suffering: "Humphrey writes about pain. That he does it in prose of great beauty does not mute the impact." He goes on to say:

"The fate that Humphrey's characters face over and over again is that they must live with great loss. In one way or another they lose someone or something that they value greatly---a father, a son, a brother, a wife, a friend, God, confidence, integrity, authenticity, freedom, respect, home. Whatever the loss, 'the grieving heart grieves all alone, in unabridgeable isolation.'"

Humphrey was a reclusive and intensely private person. Even his death is shrouded in some degree of mystery. The cause of his passing has been given variously as cancer, the ravages of alcoholism, and heart failure. A tiny man, when he breathed his last on August 20, 1997 he was reputed to have weighed only 77 pounds.

Yet one wonders. Despite his rejection of the "myth of community," he was buried, at his own insistence, in a plot he had bought years earlier for his wife and himself in the Clarksville City Cemetery. It was, he said, his desire to "lie in peace near the old Hanging Tree and hear the courthouse clock strike the hour until the coming of Judgment Day." The prodigal son had come home at last.

Note: much is available about Humphrey on the web, and I firmly expect his critical stock to rise. If you have not read him, you should. "Home From The Hill" is a good place to start. And do not forget some of his exquisitely-crafted short stories.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Down These Mean Streets...

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness."

Thus Raymond Thornton Chandler described the ideal crime novel protagonist in his most famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1945.

Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888, but was raised largely in England and received a classical education at Dulwich College, London. He fought in World War One, came home to America, and settled in Los Angeles, which was to be the scene of practically all his fiction. He married a woman eighteen years his senior, and after having drunk himself out of a good job as the director of a oil company, he started writing detective fiction for pulp magazines like Mask and Black Cat Thus began the unlikely career of our greatest crime novelist. Or if not our greatest crime novelist, then certainly our most talented prose stylist to write in the crime fiction genre.

In a career that spanned almost thirty years, his output was limited to six novels and about two dozen stories. His first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), introduced the iconic Phillip Marlowe, who was to be his protagonist for the remainder of his literary career.

Marlowe, a former investigator for the L.A County District Attorney's office who was fired for insubordination, is a sardonic and somewhat bitter man with high ethical standards. Here, in a continuation of the essay cited above, Chandler describes him better than I possibly could:

"The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without
saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him."

Marlowe inspired a whole spate of imitations, none of whom have survived the test of time largely because, while their creators caught the sarcasm, they missed the depth of character and profound sense of decency that motivated Chandler's protagonist. These cynical, cardboard-like figures, more shadow than substance, were ably satirized by William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch with his hilarious Clem Snide, who, acting in a fashion characteristic of this lesser breed, described himself as a "private asshole."

Several of Chandler's novels have been made into films, some more than once. To my mind, the best of the lot is the 1946 version of The Big Sleep staring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood, with Howard Hawks directing and the great Southern novelist William Faulkner as lead scriptwriter. This was Hawks first shot at film noir, and he stuck to the obvious and didn't try to get overly arty, an approach more directors might consider.

But Chandler was not the first crime novelist to write in the realistic vein. He highly valued Dashiell Hammett as the first major writer to break away from the English cozy sort of mystery as exemplified by Dorothy Sayers and A.A. Milne. Here what he said of that transition:

"Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.

"Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes."

Chandler was much valued as a stylist by Truman Capote, who did much to rekindle interest in his work for a whole new generation of readers back in the 1960s. The simple vividness of Chandler's prose is apparent in this selection below from his short story, "Red Wind" which was published in 1938:

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

Or his description of twentieth century America from "The Simple Art of Murder":

"The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule cities and almost rule nations, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge."

And from The Long Goodbye:

"When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is."

If you haven't read Chandler, you should. His books have never been out of print, and his stock continues to rise with literary critics. The full text of his essay on murder can be found here.
I will leave it to Chandler, speaking once again of the ideal crime novel protagonist, to close.

"If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Walker Percy

At the urging of my friend Terry Cowan I am reading Love In The Ruins by Southern novelist Walker Percy (May 28, 1916 – May 10, 1990), and it is turning out to be a delightful literary adventure. It is the sort of thing that might have resulted had Hunter S. Thompson been both civilized and educated.

Percy was scientifically trained and received his medical degree, yet by the time he had finished his formal education he became convinced that science was utterly incapable of explaining the real mysteries of human existence.

Rather than wear myself out writing a parallel description of what Terry has written, I have decided to follow T.S. Eliot's advice and steal liberally from what my friend posted on his blog found here.

"Love in the Ruins, published in 1971, is a futuristic pre or mid-apocalyptical novel. The age is one of random, inexplicable violence, though in this death-denying culture, the mere mention of the word "funeral" causes embarrassment. The utter banality of American life has broken down every defense. Life revolves around the golf course, which can now be played even at night. Jesus Christ is described as "The Greatest Pro of Them All." The Pro-Am is kicked-off with a "Bible Brunch" and a performance by the Christian Kaydettes. The biggest event in the liturgical calendar is now "Property Rights Sunday." The Catholic Church split into 3 factions: 1. the American Catholic Church (the A.C.C.) based in Cicero, IL which preaches property rights and neighborhood integrity and plays the Star-Spangled Banner at the elevation of the Host, 2. the Dutch schismatics who "believed in relevance, but not God," and 3. the Roman Catholic remnant, where the "monks are beginning to collect books again."

"Politically, the old divisions hold: the conservatives are now the Knotheads (the businessmen), and the liberals the Leftpapas (the federal bureaucrats and the therapists and scientists). On Sunday mornings, the Knotheads go to church and the Leftpapas go on bird-watching expeditions into the woods, hoping against hope of spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker. But other than that, the lives of each group are much the same.

"Therapy is the rule of the day, and pervades every aspect of daily life. Older Americans are shipped off to Tucson or Tampa. If they give any trouble there, they are shuttled off to clinics for more therapy. If this is unsuccessful, the oldsters are sent to the Happy Isles of Georgia, a way-station to self-euthanization.

"The nation as a whole has undergone periodic unrest and riots. The Automobile Age, as it is known, is now a fond memory. There are still cars on the roads, but when they break down, they are just left, as there is now no one to repair them (or anything else.) The nation has been bogged down for the last 16 years in a civil war in Ecuador. All the while, the vines and sumac steadily encroach from the swamps and bayous.

"And everyone pretends that all this is normal--except, that is, for the protagonist, a lapsed Catholic by the name of Dr. Thomas More. He alone, seemingly, realizes the spiritual malaise, and recognizes the swings between pure abstract thought and violence. He seeks to "cure" mankind through his invention, the lapsometer, and believes he can "save the terrible God-blessed Americans from themselves." He hopes his device can perhaps bridge "the dread chasm between body and mind that has sundered the soul of Western man for five hundred years.'"

Early on Percy gets to the heart of the matter: that attitude historians call "the myth of American exceptionalism," which is nothing less than the commonly held belief that we are somehow special in that the forces of economics and history do not apply to us:

"Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself....Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward.?"

And later:

"Even now, late as it is, nobody can really believe that it didn't work after all. The U.S.A. didn't work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? that the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer."

Sound familiar? It should. It seems that Percy was astute in his analysis of the American character---so astute, in fact, that his writing was remarkably prescient.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Faulkner of The Crime Novel

If you haven't read James Lee Burke but have an interest in mystery & crime fiction, you have one of the more pleasurable experiences in contemporary literature waiting for you.

Burke was born in Houston in 1936 and was raised in Houston and southern Louisiana. Between then and now he earned a master's degree in English and journalism and worked variously as a petroleum landman, a social worker, a surveyor, and a college English teacher and survived alcoholism. Along the way he acquired a Chinese-American wife named Pearl and sired four high-achieving children including his daughter Alafair who is both a law professor and a published crime novelist. He and his wife, who have been married forty-eight years, divide their year, living in homes in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana.

Two of his crime novels have been made into movies: Heaven's Prisoners (with Alec Baldwin & Mary Start Masterson), and In The Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, which starred Tommy Lee Jones & Mary Steenburgen. Both Baldwin and Jones played Dave Robicheaux, Burke's conflicted, alcoholic Cajun deputy sheriff/protagonist.

And those are the bare bones of the man's life, other than the fact that he holds a record of sorts: his novel, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was rejected by one hundred and eleven separate and distinct publishers only to be brought out at last by Louisiana State University Press. Six months after its inception, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, thus proving that the American publishing industry is largely run by idiots.

I will not belabor the issue other than to say that in his Robicheaux books, Burke paints a picture of a place (southern Louisiana) and a people unlike anything else ever seen in print. He also has a second series, the Billy Bob Holland books, whose protagonist, Holland, is a retired Texas Ranger-turned lawyer. While they are well worth reading and very entertaining, it is the Robucheaux series that his magnum opus. Burke has attracted a wide readership outside the world of literature and has been the subject of laudatory newspaper pieces by such diverse figures as noted University of South Carolina history professor Clyde Wilson, the editor of the John C. Calhoun papers, and political columnist Charlie Reese. Reese's piece can be found here.

Each of the Robicheaux books can be read independently without reference to the earlier volumes for background. However, they are best read in order because great changes occur in the protagonist's life. This snippet from Jolie Blon's Bounce will give you some idea of the man's style:

"I wanted to drive deep into the Atchafalaya Swamp, past the confines of reason, into the past... on the tree-flooded alluvial rim of the world, where the tides and the course of the sun were the only measures of time and all you had to do was release yourself from the prison of restraint, just snip loose the stitches that sewed your skin to the hairshirt of normalcy."
A complete list of Burke's works can be found at his website here.

A couple of years after 9/11, the ancient and venerable magazine The Nation asked several American writers for articles on their home states. Burke's contribution can be found here, and it will give you some idea of the magic this man can do with words.
If you like crime novels or just love good strong Southern fiction, I urge you to give him a try.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

William Shakespeare, Pulp Writer

If that title didn't get your attention, I don't know what would. But Shakespeare was, in many respects, a pulp writer, and he was, in most respects, a commercial writer.
He wrote to make money. Which goes hand-in-glove with a point I want to make.

The facts of Shakespeare's life are too readily available to repeat them here. Suffice to say that he was a professional actor who owned part of a theater company that operated in a very competitive environment. Apparently he thought that he could do better than the plays commercially available, and about 1590 he began
to write. And make no mistake: all his plays were written for a popular audience. Not only that, he often padded his texts to increase their length. London theater audiences were very volatile, and could riot and damage a theater if they did not think they were getting their money's worth. To this end, Shakespeare included plenty of bawdy comedy, outlandish fight scenes, grotesque puns, obscene buffooneries, spilled blood and limitless gore--in short, all the Ramboesque departures from "good taste" the movies are accused of today.

My point being that the greatest writer in the English language was very much a part of the entertainment industry and that he wrote for a popular audience. And he was subject to much of the same same sort of derisive criticism one hears of Hollywood in modern times. In Shakespeare's day, snobbish young Oxbridge pecksniffs used to come out to the London theaters to laugh at how the "ignorant" playwrights of the era violated the dramatic "unities." Why, everyone knew that the action of a tragedy had to take place in the space of a single day! The great Aristotle had said so! I'm sure Shakespeare was laughing all the way to the bank. He invested wisely and retired wealthy, and along the way gave us some of the greatest poetry ever to grace our language.

These days, in this country at least, there exists a vast divide between those books that are considered literary fiction and those that are dismissed as "popular" entertainment. This was not always the case. At least up through the early 1960s, our best literary writers had a wide audience and it was not uncommon for books by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck to be found on the bestseller lists.

This began to change in the 1960s. I believe part of the reason for this was the vast influx of the Boomer generation into colleges. Prior to this time, a writer had to cultivate a fairly wide readership in order to make any money or get any recognition. With the rapid growth in the size of college classes, and with state universities quadrupling their enrolments in this decade, it became possible for a writer to have a captive audience of students who were required to buy his books merely by pitching his work to the academic critics who determined what was read in college courses.

Then there was the rising popularity of the avant garde with popular, wide circulation magazines like Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker in which such pretentious frauds as Susan Sontag whooped it up for inaccessible writers like William Burroughs, Antonin Artaud, and Andre Robbe Grillet. The obscure became the darling plaything of the so-called literary intelligentsia while storytelling fell by the wayside as archaic and vulgar hangovers from an earlier and less enlightened era. Along about the same time and for reasons I can't begin to understand, some of our best writers turned their talents away from fiction and moved toward what can only be called impressionistic journalism. An example of this is Truman Capote. One of the last books by a major literary writer that I can recall that achieved blockbuster status was his In Cold Blood, a novel-like account of a brutal quadruple Kansas murder and its aftermath that was greeted as a "non-fiction novel." Capote himself hyped this work as a new type of reportage, which he, with characteristic pomposity, pronounced in the French fashion as "rey-por-tage." Since the death of the author, who was a pathological liar of the first water, it has come to light that several of the key scenes and conversations he recounted in his published narrative never occurred. In short, Capote left us with a sort of literary morphodite that is neither true crime nor truly fiction. It is, however, a thrilling and brilliant account that is well worth reading, whatever it is. But In Cold Blood was the beginning of a trend followed by many of our other best writers, including Norman Mailer (The Executioner's Song, Oswald's Tale) and Don DeLillo (Falling Man, Libra), in which the authors wrote fiction-like accounts of true events in a way that blended the subjectivity of literature with the objectivity of newspaper reporting. This has, in my opinion, been a destructive trend in many ways for much fine talent has been wasted in areas where it should not have been spent.

Then came literary critics like Derrida, Foucalt, le Man and others, and with them came the critical schools of postmodernism, deconstructionism, textual analysis, and on and on. These preposterous oafs all sought, in one way or another, to prove that (A.) nothing means anything in literature & (B.) all past literary efforts had been the tools of oppression directed toward the downtrodden of the world. Yes. that's right, friends and neighbors: Shakespeare/Faulkner/Hemingway/Cather/et al. weren't writing to entrance and entertain; they were writing to oppress women, blacks, gays, Muslims, Moors, lesbians, Amerindians, Africans, Tasmanians, Blogdovians, Wachovians, Malmutes, Tasmutes, Transmutes, Piutes, Flems, Waloons, and bridge players--just take your pick from a bulging, K-Mart grab-bag of late 20th century trendy victimology. It seems strange to me that people drawn to the study of literature would spend their lives trashing the very writers one would think they should love. But taking human nature into account, I suppose it is no great wonder that we enjoy a surplus of the bright-eyed and ambitious who would eagerly fellatiate a baboon in Macy's window if it would earn them a little attention or help them build a career. Such is the state of utter whoredom one finds in the world of contemporary literary studies.

So is literature dead? Far from it, according to several college English teachers of my acquaintance. However, they tell me that the truly vital work these days is to be found in genre literature---crime novels, science fiction, erotic romance, etc., and they expect a rebirth of true quality any day now. So in the interregnum, get yourself some James Lee Burke, Robert A. Heinlein, or Melinda M. Snodgrass. Meanwhile, for those of you who can afford the airfare, Hamlet is playing this spring at the restored Globe Theater in London---as it still is here and there all over the world.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beyond The Last Divide

Texas Ranger Captain John R. Hughes (1855-1947) at the far right---the model for Zane Grey's Lone Ranger.

One might ask what a Texas Ranger Captain has to do with literature. Bear with me, for good writing is where you find it.

John Hughes was born in Illinois and came to Texas on his own when he was about fifteen after having been a horse trader in the Indian Territory. In 1886 a gang of rustlers stole several horses from his own and neighboring ranches. Hughes tracked the men for two months and recovered the horses after killing two of the thieves. This exploit earned him the attention of Ranger Ira Aten. The next year, Aten asked Hughes to help him track down Judd Roberts, a brutal convicted murderer who had escaped from the authorities in Central Texas. When the pair accosted Roberts in Kansas, a gunfight ensued and Roberts was killed. That fall Aten succeeded in convincing Hughes to join the Rangers, an association that was to continue until his retirement in 1915.

By 1893 Hughes had risen to sergeant in Company D of the famed Frontier Battalion, Late that same year he was promoted to head the company after the murder of its captain, Frank Jones. In 1901 the Frontier Battalion was abolished and the Ranger Force was reorganized into four companies. Hughes was appointed once more to head Company D, which was to be headquartered in Brownsville in deep South Texas and had the task of patrolling the Texas/Mexican border. A quick study, he soon became fluent in Spanish and cultivated an extensive network of informants on both sides of the Rio Grande. He also had good relationships with the Mexican police, and it was during the early years of the 20th century that he became know on both sides of the river as the "Border Boss." Historian Bill O'Neal, in his authoritative Encyclopedia Of Western Gunfighters, credits Hughes with eight official killings in the line of duty. I suspect that there were more. On several occasions he vanished into Mexico with murder warrants on American criminals who had fled across the border, only to reappear some weeks later with no official report ever filed.

He was known as an easygoing man with a robust sense of humor and was very popular with the men under him. He always cautioned his men to use prudence and common sense. His favorite maxim was said to be, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." I suspect that the modern-day Ramboesque school of law enforcement exemplified by John Wayne/Sylvester Stallone movies would have disgusted him.

After the 1901 reorganization, Rangers were required to make a formal report for each complaint they received. Around 1903 Hughes got a telegram telling him that some ruffian was hoorawing the town up at Eagle Pass and the local authorities couldn't handle him. Eagle Pass was quite a ways upriver, and the trip took several days. When Hughes returned, he made what is probably the most famous police report in Texas history. I can see him in my mind's eye sitting at an old-time roll-top desk, writing with the stub of a pencil by the dim light of a kerosene lamp. Down at the lower corner of the form the Rangers were provided was a blank marked "Disposition," which meant how was the complaint disposed of---arrest, etc. Perhaps it was Hughes' famous sense of humor that lead him to do what he did with this space. Or perhaps he really thought the word "Disposition" referred to the subject's temperament. At any rate, this is what he wrote:

"Mean as hell. Had to kill him."

Given the context, if that isn't literary, I don't know what would be.

Captain Hughes never married, though he was engaged in his early years. His fiance died of typhoid fever in one of the periodic epidemics of that terrible disease that swept through the country in the 19th century. Each year, on what would have been their wedding day, he traveled back to Rockport to put flowers on her grave.

Somewhere along in his later life, Hughes penned what I consider the only example of cowboy/frontier verse that rises to the level of literature. I say that because, unlike the authors of so much of what passed for poetry in the western anthologies of that era, Hughes didn't strain for high-toned imagery and Homeric metaphor. Instead, he wrote four simple lines that embody the authentic thoughts of an authentic man of this time and place.

"When my old soul hunts range and rest
Beyond the last divide,
Just plant me in some strip of West
That's sunny, lone and wide.
Let cattle rub the headstone round;
Let coyotes wail their kin
Let horses come and paw the mound,
But don't you fence it in."

In 1947, suffering from a half dozen disorders and wracked with pain, yet still too tough to die, Hughes took his own life with the same old single action Colt he'd used to dispatch so many desperados. His funeral was held on a fine, sunny day in late spring. The old man was the last of the frontier Rangers, and his passing marked the end of an age. As might be expected, the services attracted a considerable crowd. And as might also be expected, the politicians flocked round his coffin and said all the Rotarian things that politicians say at such times. After the long-winded tributes were finished, he was laid to rest in the State Cemetery in Austin, which is surrounded by a tall fence of iron bars.