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Frontier Land

"Only five feet," said Ken. "But it's a solid five feet. Got 14 rattles on its butt." And after getting blasted six times, only one visible hole in its hide. That was a damn fine taxidermist. When I asked Ken if he grew up here in Llano, he said, Lord no, he was a Yankee -- he was born and raised 33 miles north of Llano in San Saba. "My grandfather came to Texas in the early 1900s, left Mississippi on a fast horse." He paused for dramatic effect. "And there was a question about the ownership of the horse." My leg had the feeling it was being pulled. Historians who study Texas face the same problem. As Fehrenbach wrote in Lone Star, "There are several versions (as with almost every event in Texas history . . .) . . . because the veterans of these gaudy times widely embellished or told different tales."

I took my leave of the man who may or may not have been the grandson of a horse thief, and headed out, clutching my barbecue-to-go. Texans have been barbecuing whole steers since before the Civil War. After the war, Hill Country ranchers such as Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving started driving their beeves to the new markets in the North.

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)

Rounding up cattle and driving them called for can-do men who could be depended on to work alone, who didn't have a great need for conversation and could shoot straight to fight off Comanches. I think of those men and I can't help it, I think of that iconic Hollywood American a lot of us carry around in the back of our heads -- tall, lean and white, the man of few words, the loner with the apple pie moral code, the good guy who doesn't go looking for trouble but stands his ground when trouble finds him. History's real-life cowboys fit the icon in some ways, but, in others, the fit was none too comfortable. Once the average cowboy finished the drive up North and got paid, he was looking for trouble, blowing his money in saloons and refighting the Civil War. He often wound up in jail or dead.

In the end, the Comanches weren't beaten by either cowboys or Scotch-Irish settlers. It was the buffalo hunters who did them in. In the 1870s, the slaughter sparked the last of the great Indian wars -- the Comanche way of life depended on both raiding and buffalo, and they knew good and well that if half the equation was doomed, so were they. By 1875, it was all over.

I ate my barbecued steer by the side of the road south of town, in the long grass beneath an oak. A tin-roofed Baptist church, closed up, for sale, bleached in the sun behind me, its congregation moved on. A herd of Harleys roared by. The wind shushed the grass; it hummed in the branches of the oak. The barbecue was vinegary-sweet and smoky.

The day before, I had stopped in at a cafe where the ladies' room was hung with publicity shots of Hollywood cowboys. As I looked up from washing my hands, there they were in the mirror, watching me from the opposite wall with their level gazes. They were men of few words, those silver screen straight-shooters, those can-do loners, not looking for trouble but willing to stand their ground in that ladies' room if trouble found them.

The real-life, open-range, cattle-driving cowboys rode off into the sunset not long after the Comanches. All those windmills and barbed-wire fences I'd been passing mile after mile had made it possible to water livestock and keep them in one place. As I drove along Highway 16 daydreaming about the open-range cowboys of the Great American West, I was actually daydreaming about a small slice of time, no more than 30 years, in a small slice of one state, along the 98th meridian in the Hill Country of Texas.

THE WHOLE TRIP STARTED WEST OF DALLAS AND JUST EAST OF HIGHWAY 16 in the town of Mineral Wells. Some of the locals up here call this part of Texas the Northern Hill Country. Others call it the Forgotten Hill Country, in part because most visitors don't make it up this far. But maybe also because it's not part of the myth, it's not the Wild West we choose to remember. I almost forgot about it myself once I got a few miles south of here and saw those coyotes. After all, harmless little Mineral Wells, Tex., wasn't built by driving people out; it boomed by drawing people in with the promise that they'd feel better. Its streets never ran with blood. Just water. Crazy water.

"It helps acid reflux," said George, his voice echoing off the damp, encircling wall. "I drink it after meals." Below us the water in the old cistern winked darkly. "Also works as a laxative."

"Good to know," I said.

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