I was packing the tin in those days, just a small five-pointed star with two words stamped into it, but that little hunk of metal cast a bigger shadow than I ever did, and proud I was to wear it, making me one of twenty-six Arizona Rangers, who never had to prove their right to be called "man" not even in the toughest of the outlaw dives in the territory.
I hadn't come to the badge natural—come to think of it, none of us had. Each of us blazed his own trail through the trackless desert of life on the frontier. Me, growing up as I did in the rough country of the Tonto, among solitary cattlemen and sheepherders, with our neighbors being hard-driving rustlers and black-bearded outlaws and sometimes which was which depended on the day of the week, my schoolyard friends were proudly tough, my enemies were the same, and anyone who couldn't handle himself well enough to fist his way to respect was beaten down—and when I say beaten down, I don't mean with fists. No one wasted a bruised knuckle on a girlie-boy. We just left them to shrink within themselves until they dropped out of school and moved on.
Most of us figured we'd follow the trail of our father, none of us being too finicky about something city folks called "the law." My real education didn't come from musty books but from my schoolmates. Some of my best friends were the boys who taught me their father's trick of hobbling a wet calf, not yet weaned, so it couldn't keep up with its mama and could be stolen and fresh branded easy, or how a man could learn the hidden springs in the Chiricahua Mountains and trail his "borrowed" herd all the way to Mexico without meeting any unfriendly opposition, or how a red-hot running iron was all an artist of the Mesquite needed to transform a "Rafter C" into a ready-for-sale "Diamond O", all useful knowledge for a fellow growing to manhood in a country free of juries, judges and such impediments to a free life.
The real outlaws were standoffish a bit, but once they knew you were a friend of their son, they were the most generous, warmhearted men you'd ever know. And the stories I learned from their sons riding home from school made me anxious to apprentice myself as a horse thief, cattle rustler, even stage robber before I turned fourteen.
One difference between outlaws and rustlers I could tell: outlaws were all straight-shooters, at least in their home range. If an outlaw gave you his hand on something, you could consider it done. Rustlers were some shiftier. But still, they were good neighbors. The only time one of them practiced his trade on some local cattle, he got visited by the others of his kind and given a week to leave the country. Maybe they have a bad reputation to some folks, but in those days, there was more honesty in the Tonto rough country than in some towns I could name.
It was spring, a month before school was out for the chores of summer when my two best buddies told me how they planned to show their fathers that they were grown up by making a raid on a sheep ranch. They talked me into joining them. Well, they didn't have to talk too hard, it being a real manly adventure and them being the boys I looked up to in the schoolyard. But I had the bad luck—maybe the good luck, the way it turned out—of getting my arm broke in a fall in the barn the week before we was to leave. Laid me up a month, and by then Bobby and Frank had become "guests" of the territorial penitentiary at Yuma.
That was the year, Pa sold off all his herd and moved us to town. Maybe he did it to change my associates, he never said. At first, I hated town. I missed the freedom of riding horseback to school, of doing good, honest farm chores out in the fresh air of the country. Even cleaning out the fragrant muck in the stable was pleasanter to the nostrils then the mixed-up odors of town life. Add to that all the petty "thou shalt not's" adults dreamed up to stifle any spirit of freedom among us kids and I learned to hate city life before I'd been there a week.
Not that the schoolyard was much different. Right from the start, me and the other boys were sniffing each other and by the second week, a kid called Butch figured it was time to show me who ran things. He waited until school was out and I knew what was up when the other boys didn't run off home like usual. But I had been sizing him up too. A year's growth he had on me, not bigger as much as heftier, and the way the other boys deferred to him, I had quickly known I'd have to put him in the dirt sooner or later.
Miss Rogers was watching from the schoolhouse window but she knew there was more growing up in what we was about to do than in hearing her spout about someone dumping tea in Boston Harbor. Butch didn't waste time with words to give me a chance to kowtow to him. He knew what he wanted and my fists were hungry too. I dropped into a fighting crouch and motioned him toward me.
For the next half hour, the dust in the schoolyard got a good deal of rearranging, the blood dripping from my nose not settling it too much, and I got bruised where it showed and where it didn't. There was cheering for him—no kid would dare cheer against him—which powered my own efforts, knowing others were measuring the force of my fists and making their own plans to "get to know me better". We was going on half an hour and I could see he was nearing his limits. Two or maybe three more good punches and he'd be down and calling "uncle". Problem was I was plum spent, it never having taken me that long to flatten anybody in the Tonto. And so it ended.
When I got home, my Pa looked at my torn shirt and ask only one question: "who won?
"He did," I admitted. "This time."
It was the last two words my Pa cared about. It is no character flaw to lose a fight; it's giving up that demeans a man.
I didn't tell my Pa how the fight went, the times I had Butch down, the blood spattering from his nose for a change, or how satisfying his whoosh of air was the time I buried my fist in his belly. That would seem like bragging and he'd just remind me that I lost.
I also didn't tell Pa about the one thing that surprised me the most, that had never happened in fights on the Tonto. What I was finally down, and struggling uselessly to get up, Butch was standing over me with a broad grin, like I'd seen before, like I'd given kids I had put in the dirt, but different somehow.
"You're the dirtiest fighter I ever seen," he told me, even though I had never done anything different from the fights in the Tonto. Then he reached his hand down to help me up. "That was fun," he told me. I wasn't so sure about it being fun, not yet, especially since I was already thinking about next time. Then he put his arm around my shoulders. "You and me, Joe. We're going to be best friends."
Funny thing is, he was right. The only thing bad—maybe you'll say good—was that there was no more schoolyard fighting. The two of us could have taken any three or four of the others and they knew it. And I wasn't even his acolyte, like sometimes you saw in the Tonto. Him and me were equals right from the start.
At first, I missed the fighting, measuring myself against other boys was a big part of our path to manhood, or so we told ourselves on the Tonto. But something else was happening, something I didn't understand right away. I was spending more time in the school room sneaking a peek at the girls. They were changing too, in a way more obvious at first glance. And town girls turned out to be less impressed with the solid crack of a boy's knuckles against someone's jaw than they were about the gentleness of his hands in theirs. I was learning all sorts of unexpected things about becoming a man.
One thing I did not know about Butch, not for three or four weeks, something that likely would have put the kibosh on any idea we could be friends. Then one Saturday, after some of us had been playing this Eastern game called baseball we swung by his house. His mother brought out the milk and cookies and it seemed the end of a good day, but then his father walked in and I wanted to be somewhere else right quick. Pinned to Mr. Bradley's shirt was the badge of a Deputy Sheriff, a black-mark for sure on Butch if I had known it. But by then, we were such good friends, I forgave him for the sins of his father.
In time I saw his pa didn't seem like such a bad sort at all. Maybe not as carefree as some of the rustlers back home, maybe not as glamorous as the outlaws. But when you got to know him, Mr. Bradley wasn't much different from the men of the Mesquite's. Oh, he had his ways about him, things he approved of and things he didn't approve of, and they were not the same as Mr. Jennings or Mr. Piper back in the Tonto, but once he knew you were a friend of his son, he was warm and generous.
I was learning about a new way of looking at life. Maybe it was Mr. Bradley, maybe it was being in town where I could see how folks relied on each other, but somehow the glamour of "making a withdrawal" seemed different when you knew people who put their own money in banks. I began to think rustling and robbing wasn't the only way to make a living.
Then, finally, schooling was out for good. What I had always yearned for—being a man on my own—had come and I had to choose which fork on the trail I would ride. Turn one way and ride back to the Tonto and a familiar life of freedom. Turn the other and make myself into a "civilized" man.
Should I stay in town and get a job as night man mucking out the stables at McCutcheon's livery? Spend my days at Olson's Drygoods packing store shelves and sweeping the sidewalk? Or could I apprentice myself to a saw and a hammer and try to teach myself to pound nails for a living? And never again see the wide-open sky uncluttered by storefronts, never smell the fresh sage unpolluted by town stink?
I knew I could go back to the country. I knew for certain that Mr. Jennings or Mr. Piper or one of the other men would welcome me into their crew, or I could aim one step lower and sign onto one of the rustler outfits, taking part of my share in cows and build up my own herd, following a natural track, one that had been there for me from birth. The carefree life of a robber promised less work but My pa had drilled into me that work was what earned a man his space on this earth. Some nights, lying in my blankets, going back to the Tonto seemed mighty fine. But other nights I thought about Mary Jo at the school, and the things she said about country folks were not the way I wanted to be seen by her.
The freedom of the Tonto was part of me—the free, open spaces, where a man got his dinner with his rifle and lived with the elements of God's world, the cowman's world, the rustler's world, a world where a handshake and a straightforward meeting of the eyes was the measure of a man.
But I was also partly of the town, now, where I'd been transformed from a boy to a man, a world where freedom yielded to duty, where a man earned respect not with his fists, but with steady, dependable work that others could rely upon. In towns there was friendship based on a deeper relationship than sweat and muscle power.
My Pa wasn't much for living my life for me. All he said was "every time you shave, you'll look in the mirror. Make sure you like the man you see."
So, I had to decide: which world would I live in? The open honest frankness of the Mesquite? Or the duty and dependency of city life. What kind of man would I be? The biggest question any man has to answer.
Somewhere along the line, one day while Butch and me was playing catch, Mr. Bradley asked Butch if he had looked into the forest ranger job. It was the first I had heard about it, and if I'd known the ways of adults better, I'd have figured he was really talking to me. Likely he knew one suggestion from an adult, and I'd do just the opposite. But what he told Butch, about riding the open country, sleeping under the stars, having fresh-caught trout for breakfast, all things I knew Butch had no interest in, got my juices flowing.
I put my name in, with Deputy Bradley's letter, and I got the job and rode off to begin the adventure we call life.. Before long, I was a forest ranger wandering the Black Mesa Forest, the White Mountains and the Black Mountains from Flagstaff to New Mexico line, feasting my eyes on the thick close-standing firs and blue spruce, the wide groves of white Aspen, with clearings in the valleys, streams with trout almost ready to leap into my frypan, the forest thick with black-tailed deer, mule deer, buck-tailed deer, this was my country.
There was parts of the job Mr. Bradley hadn't mentioned. Bookkeeping, first of all. Then there was the hassle of cajoling ranchers into paying their fees for grazing stock on public forest land, and soon I learned that forest fires didn't put themselves out, but demanded a lot of my time, energy, and urgency. Somehow, without knowing it, I was learning my wages came with work, but soon I was starting to feel a satisfaction every time I cajoled rancher Purvis into paying back fees, or organized a group of cowhands to put out a range fire before it got out of hand. And I was seeing other things, too. Though I hadn't thought of it when I signed up, outlaws, men like Black Jack Ketchum and his gang, spent some time on the Mesa, but that's a story for a different time.
I guess that's what readied me for my next move. The governor had decided that the territory, filling up as it was, could no longer rely on county sheriffs to track down criminals who could easily cross from one county to the next and leave the local law behind. Arizona needed a group of men not fenced in by county boundaries. That's how the Arizona Rangers came into being, twenty-six men to carry law and order into the Mesquite.
By then, I had become part civilized. The outlaws I encountered as a forest ranger, away from their home range, didn't seem as friendly and natural as my old neighbors on the Tonto, and the victims—I had begun to call them that—lived in a world with different rules. I guess I was beginning to see them as better rules.
Not that I was harkening for a town marshal job, where I'd spend my time jiggling store handles and running in drunks. Even a job as Deputy Sheriff was too town-confining for me. But Rangers would work on horseback, covering the whole state, and, it was quietly understood, would not be too fastidious about territorial or even national borders. By then I'd come to see that bringing in rustlers and robbers was a higher calling than collecting grazing fees.
So, riding down to Douglas where the new Rangers were headquartered was a natural step and before long, I had met Capt. Rynning, raised my hand and become "Ranger Number 13".
In one way I was a mite uneducated to be a Ranger. Others had life experiences that prepared them well for our work. Like Johnny Brooks, who'd learned all the rustling tricks outwitting lawmen while he drove his own stolen herds from Arizona to Mexico, swapping for Mexican beef, and driving them back. Like he told Capt. Rynning, there was money to be made both ways. Men like Johnny knew the ways of rustlers and, often as not, knew a rustler's move even before he did himself.
Others had their own stories of life in lawless Arizona, strong men of the back country who were confident enough in themselves and their skills that they didn't spend gun powder when it wasn't needed. What they all shared was a toughness, an ability to act quickly on their own, and the instincts to sniff out a trail across deserts and mountains for days without losing their prey.
Likely if you asked any of them why they "reformed", they'd just say they moved on to a better job. But not one of them ever disgraced their Ranger badge or betrayed their Ranger oath.
Even though I didn't have their "diverse experience with the law," Cpt Rynning saw that I knew the Tonto and Black Mesa better than most, that I was adept at trailing through the Mesquite, and so I bought my own qualifications.
We Rangers did all kinds of work, from chasing a Mexican gang that stole the mules from a Southern Pacific construction camp down into Mexico, to rounding up Chinese who had illegally entered from Mexico, to disarming saloons of heavy-drinking cowboys before things took their natural course.
But mostly, the Rangers were created to bring law to the Mesquite. Rustlers were our meat and potatoes, sometimes tracking gangs driving their stolen beef to the mining district of Colorado where butchers needed beef, sometimes to New Mexico to fatten up a rancher's herd, and sometimes just trailing after a loner who figured he'd be too small fry to justify the work of us tracking.
One time, the Arizona Livestock Board reported a wave of cattle rustling going on before spring round-up. Capt. Rynning didn't give me no instructions, just told me to put an end to it. I signed on as a cowhand on one of the main outfits, but to tell truly, I was riding the range. When I spotted a solitary horseman leading a roped calf, my "rustler-detector" activated and I followed the rider from far enough back that he didn't see me. Finally, I lost sight of him when he dipped down into a little valley. By the time I got there, the rustler had vanished, but I found a small fenced off pasture with thirty or forty calves, all of them fresh-branded. I had my man.
Well, not so fast, Ranger 13. I knew the calves, their hides still healing from the branding iron, were the rightful property of neighboring ranchers. But what a Ranger knows from the tip of his boots to the crown of his Stetson and what a mixed jury of bartenders, store clerks, and such will agree to with no "reasonable doubt" didn't always f4it together. Not when the rustlers had been washed up, shaved, and wore a clean shirt to make them seem young and friendly.
Here's where all my eager listening to my schoolmates in the Tonto came into play. I told you how "hobbling" a calf was the technique rustlers favored. It worked fine most times—once the calf taught it itself to eat grass for supper and the burn mark had healed, it was just another yearling. But some of them calves I had found were still "wet." I decided maybe I could make use of my Tonto education.
What I did seems simple in the telling, but it took some persuading of the ranchers that they should round up their cows—no need to trouble the steers—and take them away from money-making grazing and drive them into a corral near town, the drive running down solid beef and therefore costing the rancher even more money. And all this on my unproven promise that they would get some of their calves back.
But working with my old Tonto memories, I had a plan. We turned them partially weaned calves loose among the cattle. Somehow, don't ask me how, among all the teats bulging with fresh milk, a calf knows which one birthed him and won't even stop for a taste from any one else. And so, we had proof even a jury couldn't ignore. All the calves carried a fresh brand registered to a man named Andy Longfellow, and a warrant for his arrest was in my hands by nightfall.
In the morning, a good supply of chuck rolled into my blanket and tied behind my saddle, I returned to Longfellow's holding pen to track down my rustler. Longfellow had several days lead on me, and there was no telling where he was going, but I was a Ranger, and on the trail, with nothing to do but follow it, through broken and timbered country, toward the Tonto Rim. A town sheriff like as not would have got himself lost, but riding through timber had been my life for years. So, on the third morning, I came in sight of a night camp with a man stooped over the fire getting ready for breakfast.
If any of you read them Dime Novels they pass around back East, you know what happened next. I pulled out my six-gun, galloped into camp shouting "hands up." He dove to one side, slapping leather as he slid away from me, punched a hole through my hat, and as the hot beans went back and forth, I saved the Territory the cost of a trial. The Rangers always get their man. That's what the books say.
Sorry to disappoint you. That ain't the Ranger way. What Capt. Rynning says is "one live outlaw is worth ten dead ones."
Understand that we Rangers didn't wear a uniform, and we packed our badge in our pocket, so when I "Hallo'd" the fire, and he looked up, what he saw was an itinerant rider with the promise of conversation over breakfast. He gave me a friendly wave in and when I reached the fire, he invited me to "stand down."
I slid to the ground, my horse between us. "Don't mind if I do," I said. "You Andy Longfellow?" When he looked up it was not the barrel of a gun he saw, it was the star of the Arizona Rangers, something outlaws had a good deal more respect for than someone else's bullet-spitter.
Once I had his sixgun in my belt and had emptied his Winchester of its cartridges, I motioned to his frypan. "You make enough batter for flapjacks for both of us, and I'll toss in some bacon." For the next half-hour we did the work of breakfasting, talking, as men will, about things of the range, reminiscing, I did, about growing up on the Tonto. Then we mounted up and started out on a trip he'd as soon not have made.
Come nightfall, we made camp like two traveling pards. I didn't tie him for the night, on his promise he wouldn't try to escape. He'd been fair caught, and took it like the man he was. That was the power of the Arizona Ranger badge. There's a lot of talk about "the Badmen of the West", and I guess some like Black Jack Ketchum truly were, but most were just fellows trying to eke out a living the way their pas had, not understanding that Arizona was changing.
In less time than we had expected, the Arizona Rangers had worked ourselves out of a job. Unlimited crime was a thing of the past, and the Mesquite was safe for ranchers and their herds. How had we done it? The old-fashioned way, filling the prisons, one outlaw at a time.
The old Arizona is only memory now, and I'm proud to have been part of making Arizona a modern state.