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Frontier Land

What does 40 years of that do to a people?

THE DAY BEFORE I ARRIVED IN FREDERICKSBURG I was 40 miles back up Highway 16, rolling past the windmills and horses and cattle that dotted the waving grass, past the nearly invisible fences of barbed wire. Official state road signs remind Texans to Drive Friendly. In the Hill Country at least, they hardly seemed to need the reminder. Whenever I came up on slower drivers on the two-lane highway, they'd ease halfway onto the shoulder to make it easier for me to pass. It happened so consistently I got to where I was doing it, too, just to fit in.

Driving friendly, I rolled into the town of Llano, population 3,325, which greeted me with a banner slung over the road -- "WelCOME HUNTers" -- both greeting and command, all in one. Not being in possession of a weapon, I hunted up lunch at Laird's, home of Ken's Real Pit Bar-B-Q. The place looked like it used to be a house, white stucco with a Southwest-style porch.

Mineral Wells, Texas. (Sarah Ross Wauters)

_____Fall Travel Issue_____
Party Line (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
The Roads Less Traveled (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)

Inside was quiet, a deer head gazing out over the tables from one wall, a fat rattlesnake hide sporting a bullet hole on another. Texas flag handkerchiefs had been knotted into valances at the windows. In the open kitchen, a compact man with a sun-creased face served up lunch. This was Ken.

"When was this house built?" I asked, just making conversation.

"Eighteen nineties," Ken Laird said. "Folks want me to put it on the National Historic Register, but I don't want to give the government the right to tell me what to do with my property." He loaded four thick slabs of barbecued beef into a bag for me, along with potato salad, beans and two slices of Wonder Bread. "Way I figure it, the government don't owe me nothing, and I don't owe the government nothing. 'Cept my taxes."

I pointed at his window treatments. "Who did your decorating?"

"That would be my wife, Esther. She's good at that sort of thing. She's the head honcho. All I know is barbecue."

"She shoot the snake, too?"

"Naw, that would be me." And he proceeded to tell the story of how he was driving out the pasture road one day to cut wood for his barbecue and he saw this snake, which he shot five times with his 5mm Magnum and once with his .270 before it finally gave up and died. I looked up at the snakeskin in awe. "How long is it?"

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