Captain King of Texas: The Man Who Made the King Ranch
For four years TOM LEA, the artist and author of El Paso, has been absorbed in writing and illustrating his incomparable two-volume history of the King Ranch. His hero is Richard King, son of an Irish immigrant, who shipped south as a stowaway in his twelfth year; who made his reputation as a steamboater on the Rio Grande, and who came ashore in his late twenties to become a cattle baron oj Texas. Two friends figured significantly in his early careen Mifflin Kenedy, his Quaker partner, and Lt. Got. Robert E. Gee, Second Cavalry, USA. then serving on the Mexican border. This is the first of two installments.
by TOM LEA
IN THE year 1853 when Richard King paid $300 for his first parcel of land, the settlers who had come to Texas from the east and north were farming, not ranching. To be sure, Texans north of the Nueces River had used a branding iron as early as 1832; they had driven range cattle to markets; but they were by heritage tillers of arable lands, woodsmen, dwellers amidst trees. They had no experience in, or tradition for, the handling of great herds upon great prairies. Now here came a big-shouldered, strong-minded steamboat captain, not yet thirty, but already a man of mark along the wilderness readies of the Rio Grande. He was buying 15,500 empty acres of grassland in the Wild Horse Desert at a little less than two cents an acre. To acquire it was easier than to ranch it.
For his cattle he turned naturally to the south, to the haciendas where the cattle were; and for his herdsmen he hired vaqueros, not only for a skill but for a wisdom possessed from long living with the traits of the land and the livestock. Then to this basic Latin material for ranching, he added an Anglo-Saxon dynamic, a new thought. Ranching was not a subsistence, it was a business. It was a financial enterprise, susceptible to an organized efficiency. It could be engaged in not merely for a way of life, but for a systematic yield of profit. Ranching and steamboating were the same; only the materials differed. To improve a method of harvesting grass was as strong a challenge to Richard King as the design of a better steamboat for the risky Rio Grande,
Of course the problem of water was as crucial to a rancher as it was to a riverman. One of the first acts of Rancher King after he had title to a parcel of land was to augment its available water for livestock by raising a rough dirt dam across the bed of Tranquitas Creek. When the stream ran with rain, its flow was impounded; the lake thus formed made the only place between the Nueces and the Arroyo Colorado where a thousand head of horses or cattle could be watered at one time. The building of tanks by dirt dams across dry creek beds was a common practice on Mexican haciendas where peon labor was plentiful and cheap, but King’s tank on the Tranquitas was the first such “engineering" improvement between Brownsville and Corpus Christi. It represented an investment of capital and it hinted early at the enterprise a steamboater could demonstrate in creating the pattern for a ranch. He entered into his creation as a long-term venture without prospect of immediate profit-taking of any kind, and it was characteristic of King’s systematic mode of thought that he made his place ready for livestock, plenty of livestock, before he did much about stocking.
The earliest entry on the purchase of cattle is dated January 12, 1854, “for 42 cows taken in by Juan Cantú, $208.00, with 20% duties, charges and expense on same, $54.60,”indicating that cows were selling at about five dollars a head somewhere near the border in Mexico, and that they cost about six and a quarter dollars a head delivered at King’s Santa Gertrudis ranch. The account book reveals that in 1854 King paid out the surprising total of $12,275.79, a sum considerable enough to indicate that the riverman had scraped from the river all the cash he had, and probably some he borrowed, to risk on the future of his rancho.
When Richard King took his 22-year-old bride to the Santa Gertrudis in December of 1854, she was delighted rather than dismayed by the untenanted wilderness of the Wild Horse Desert. She was the daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman from Vermont, who had come to Texas by way of Missouri and Tennessee, to establish the first Protestant Church on all the length of the Rio Grande. At the first, sight of her brown ewes, the big-fisted riverinan had been smitten, but it had taken him four years to win her cultivated hand. Nearly six decades later, Henrietta King wrote, “When I came as a bride in 1854, the little ranch home then — a mere jacal as Mexicans would call it—was our abode for many months until our main ranch dwelling was completed. But I doubt if it falls to the lot of many a bride to have had so happy a honeymoon. On horseback we roamed the broad prairies. When I grew tired my husband would spread a Mexican blanket for me and then I would take my siesta under the shade of the mesquile tree. ... I remember that my pantry was so small my large platters were fastened to the walls outside. In those days large venison roasts were our favorite viands.”
On a trip upriver during the fall of 1856, Captain King made the acquaintance of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, Second Cavalry, USA, a visiting officer of the Army present at Ringgold barracks to sit on a court-martial in session there.
Colonel Lee was no stranger to the Rio Grande, though it had been nine years since he had last seen it. Since his last ride along the muddy current of the border river, Robert E. Lee had smelled smoke of battle in the Valley of Mexico, built fortifications at Baltimore, been Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and, as a prominent career soldier commanding two squadrons of a line regiment, returned for a second tour of duty in Texas.
A man of Lee’s perceptive mind doubtless had questions to ask about the borderland and the people he had encountered nearly a decade before, and he doubtless found no man to provide him with more incisive answers than the Captain King he found on the riverboat Ranchero. King commanded Lee’s interest, then his lasting regard and respect; Lee’s character and bearing had such impact upon King that, the friendship of Robert E. Lee was a proud possession of, and an influence upon, Richard King for the rest of his life.
Lee’s very character made him a mentor. His background of agrarian estate made him also a knowledgeable advisor on land and livestock. Lee was impressed by the illimitable grass, confident that wilderness pastures ought to be developed to sustain huge and profitable herds. He said so to King. Though in private letters the polished Virginian wrote sometimes of the frontier’s dreary rawness, he was convinced of the future of the land, and he felt its power.
One thing Lee told King the rancher never forgot. It came to be a cornerstone in the structure of King’s business. Lee said, “Buy land; and never sell”
And in another manner Lee left his mark on the ranch itself. Not only as a warrior but as an engineer, Lee had an eye for terrain. There is every reason to believe that he was asked for advice upon the subject and that he did choose the site on the high ground for the building of the permanent ranch home at the Santa Gertrud is headquarters. From the first meeting, Lee summoned from King an especial esteem. And it is certain that whenever in the course of his duties Robert E. Lee stopped at the Santa Gertrud is, Henrietta King heaped high with “viands” the very largest, of her “large platters.”
AFTER a long honeymoon on the Santa Gertrudis ranch, the Kings moved into a cottage in Brownsville next door to the Kenedys. Mifflin Kenedy was a Pennsylvania Quaker, seven years older than King, whom King had first met in 1843. It was Kenedy who had induced King to come to Texas, and King’s partnership with Kenedy, first in steamboating and later in ranching, lasted until 1870. Of all of King’s partners, Kenedy was the closest and most esteemed.
The Kings divided their time between the cottage in Brownsville and the ranch. Their trips were interrupted in the spring of 1856 by the arrival of their first child, a daughter whom they named after Henrietta.
Not long after the birth of little Nettie, Henrietta and the baby began journeying with the captain to the ranch. Travelers were often waylaid on the dangerous road; the Kings usually made the trip in a heavy coach guarded by outriders. At times the King family risked the 124 lonely miles without entourage, and upon one occasion, at least, trouble came close.
On an evening, probably late in 1856, when the Kings were making camp by the side of the road, a lone Mexican appeared from the brush and asked permission to join camp for the night. King gave permission and sent him out for wood. As the captain bent over, lighting twigs to start a fire, his wife tended the baby on a blanket spread by the coach. Henrietta King looked up, suddenly frightened in the dusk, and called out, “Captain King! Behind you! ” With the practiced twist of a veteran riverfront brawler, King swept back both his powerful hands and grabbed tight — to an arm holding a knife. He jerked swinging the whole weight of his assailant overhead, slamming him to the ground with the knife arm twisted helpless. In that time and in that place most men would have killed the would-be assassin. King only told him — with emphasis not hard to imagine — to get out of camp and stay out.
In a country “menaced by hostile Indians and roving bandits” Mrs. King once suffered a fright within the very walls of the adobe jacal at Santa Gertrudis. Nettie was an infant, in a cradle by the door. Her mother, alone and busy setting out loaves of freshly baked bread at the back of the room, turned to see a half-naked Indian standing silent on the threshold. When Mrs. King faced him, he jumped to the cradle and stood over it, brandishing a club. With his other hand he pointed at the bread, grimacing that he wanted it. Iron-nerved Mrs. King gave him all the bread he could carry; he stalked wordless from the door and disappeared.
No roughness discouraged the captain’s wife from residence at the ranch. As the headquarters grew, the roughness gradually diminished. The date of the Kings’ removal from the adobe jacal to the comfortable quarters called the “original ranch house is not known, but it was sometime between late in 1857 and early in 1859. The location of the building, chosen by Lee, was the site upon which the present great house at the ranch now stands. The “original” was low and rambling, built of frame, with an attic or half second-story and an inviting, bannistered front gallery. The dining room and kitchen, built of stone to avoid the hazard of fire, formed a separate building at the rear and were connected with the living quarters by an unroofed walkway open to the weather. A little to the north of this main house was the stone-built commissary and store, together with a kitchen, eating space, and sleeping quarters for extra hands, teamsters, and those who came seeking work at the ranch. By the commissary stood a watchtower, and a men’s dormitory for buyers, visitors, and chance travelers. Farther to the north were stables, corrals, carriage and wagon sheds, a busy blacksmith s shop, and a rough line of small houses where ranch employees lived with their families.
Ranch operation remained primitive. Land itself had value only when it had water. At that time, before the incursion of the mesquite which made brush jungle of much of the country a few decades later, this land was in great part rolling prairie, its treeless open vistas only infrequently broken by modes of live oak, laurel, and scattered basques of mesquite. Ranching was simply the ownership of branded herds roughly controlled on unfenced prairie near a possessed supply of scarce and precious water. The only cattle a rancher owned were cattle half-wild, quick and fierce, armed with long horns and hard to handle. The only horses a rancher owned were subject to the wildness of open ranging; to be held under herd and used, they had to be incessantly guarded against the feral influence and example of running bands of untamed mustangs. The only herdsmen a rancher hired to work such herds of half-wild cattle and horses were half-wild men, tough centaurs working for wages to the jing of big-roweled spurs and the sing of rawhide lariats. Herds brought their natural increase as the seasons passed; and as the numbers of livestock grew, it became evident that King’s policy of upbreeding horse stock with the blood of good studs, and of choosing only the best available Mexican bulls and range cows for his breed herd, was producing animals of noticeable quality.
Captain King had a sportsman’s interest, in fast and fine horseflesh, but beyond that, he had clear business reasons for the emphasis he placed on horse and mule raising in the early days at the Santa Gertrudis. He not only needed horses and mules for his own ranch work and for M. Kenedy & Co.’s wagon train business: he found such a constant demand for good stock, especially from the Army, that the sale of horses and mules was in fact the steadiest source of ranch income. The market for cattle was not so dependable. At that time the most profitable outlet was the sale of breeding stock, rather than beef. By the end of the 1850’s, King was finding a fair market for good range cows, at from $12 to $18 a head, but beeves were in far less demand. The records are missing, yet there are good reasons to believe that King drove some of his beef herds to markets as far away as New Orleans.
As MEN looked about them in the year 1860, there were bodings of violence. Rising far to the north and east of the Rio Grande, a black and stormfilled cloud shadowed the land. Studying it, men used the words “Secession and “Civil War. The two rivermen, Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, were not blind to the waters ahead il the black cloud spilled its deluge. Like two good boatmen, they readied their craft for the roiling chutes and snags of flood time.
Foreseeing the impossibility of replacing M. Kenedy & Co.’s steamers if war came, and aware of the role they might be able to play at a divided country’s border port, members of the firm look careful inventory; Mifflin Kenedy went to Pittsburgh to order for immediate construction and delivery another big boat. At the same time he placed orders for two additional upriver mudskimmers, the Mustang and the James Hale, for future delivery, so that if hostilities opened, the firm would command at flotilla of seven steamboats operating on a strategic border. During the latter half of 1860, the business of hauling tratde goods along the Rio Grande was very good. So was the prospect of handing materials for war.
Yet the boats were only one consideration in making ready for a looming storm. The ranching operation on the Santa Gertrudis needed shoring up to meet the rigors of the business weather ahead. Captains King and Kenedy doubtless had discussed it often; in November of 1860 they became partners not only on the river but on the ranch. The new arrangement created a ranching firm styled R. King & Co., established on the fifth day of December, I860. The shares in R. King & Co. were divided three ways: three eighths to Richard King, three eighths to Mifflin Kenedy, and two eighths to James Walworth, another canny riverm an who had already invested in King’s ranching enterprise.
With this organization among friends thus strongly knit, the three steamboat skippers eyed the increasing portents of rough water ahead and divided their watches. Walworth, busy with the political aspects of the storm, became a Cameron County delegate to the Texas convention for secession. Kenedy stayed in Brownsville, close by the river, manipulating the boats of M. Kenedy & Co. with a sharp weather eye. King had moved his family from the Elizabeth Street cottage to the Santa Gertrudis, where all the Kings could be on deck while the captain made the ranch shipshape under the approaching cloud.
There were five Kings in the family that made its home in the ranch house on the Santa Gertrudis the year the Civil War came. A very blue-eyed sister to little Nettie had arrived in Brownsville on April 13, 1838, and had been given the name of Ella Morse King. Then, almost at the very time of the move away from Elizabeth Street, a son was born on December 15, 1860, to Henrietta and Richard King. They named him Richard King II; when he had children of his own he would tell them that he was “born in a stagecoach while mother was hurrying to Brownsville.” The captain’s joy in a son and namesake is easy to imagine.
MORE than a month before the gunfire at Sumter, Texas had proclaimed in convention at Austin — in spite of dissenting voices — its secession from the Union. Two weeks before that, awaiting no proclamation, Ranger Ben McCulloch, as military commander representing the Rebel convention, had led an armed force into San Antonio. Confronted by it, the antique Major General D. E. Twiggs, of Rebel sympathies himself, had surrendered the entire United States Army Department of Texas to poker-faced Ben McCulloch without a shot. McCulloch’s motley men, carrying loaded frontier rifles, had invested the government arsenal, taken possession of its stores. By the hurried terms agreed upon in Twiggs’ bloodless capitulation to rebellion, loyal United States troops stationed in the state had been allowed “all necessaries for a march out of Texas” and had been promised an unmolested exit.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, arriving by Army ambulance in San Antonio on the afternoon of McCulloch’s coup, looking about the Plaza in surprise, had inquired, “Whose are these men?”
“They are McCulloch’s,” he was told. “General Twiggs surrendered everything to the State this morning.”
Lee’s eyes filled with tears. “Has it come so soon as this?” Robert E. Lee asked.
While a wartime economy gripped at the border but no warring arrived, Captain King spent most of his time on the Santa Gertrudis. The livestock affairs of the ranch were complex enough to demand the constant care of a hard-driving ranch boss. In 1861, R. King & Co. owned something like twenty thousand head of cattle and three thousand head of horses. Military demands stimulated trade in horses and mules; these were ready assets throughout the war, while a market for cattle dropped nearly to nothing.
By late in the year 1861, the seaports of the Confederacy had felt the first choke of the Union blockade. At the same time, thousands of autumnbrown fields, which had been tended through summer-green by hundreds of thousands of strong black hands, stood harvested of thousands of millions of fluffy white bolls. In country sheds, in city warehouses, and out in the pale November sunlight at the gin yards, the South’s baled cotton crop of the war year 1861 waited, with the world waiting for it, and with no accustomed way to go.
Then across Texas on rough roads leading to Mexico, on long inland ways around the tightening coastal blockade, came wagons, a few at first like pathfinders, then a growing tide of rumbling wagons and creaking oxcarts carrying cotton to merchants standing on neutral ground offering foreign gold for the South’s packed bales of white fluff.
The maintenance of a huge textile industry across an ocean at Lancashire, Bremen, and Lyons depended upon that fluff. When its delivery was threatened by blockade, the powerful tentacles of trade had reached out, quick to seize at a neutral port where cotton might be delivered to neutral ships and sail, evading the stoppage of the American blockade. Entrepreneurs, brokers, agents, and consuls from Europe had not been long in arriving at Matamoros, that Mexican town with the ancient aroma of devious and extravagant profit, to grease channels for a commerce which could offer gold or fabricated materials of war in exchange for cotton. To initiate this trade, European cargo ships had begun to anchor off the mouth of the Rio Grande in open waters just south of the river. The mouth of the Rio Grande became the Confederacy’s back door.
Captain King stood plan led by fate in the middle of that door. The road the cotton took came across his pastures to the very threshold of his house on the Santa Gertrudis and moved to the decks of his steamboats on the Rio Grande. Captain King did not go to war: the war came to him. It sought, him at home. He fought his part of it on strenuous but familiar ground. By March, 1862, the ranch headquarters at the Santa Gertrudis was an official receiving, storage, and shipping point, for the bales arriving from East Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and finally as far as Missouri.
Sometime in the spring of 1862, the steamers of M. Kenedy & Co. went behind a front of Mexican ownership and registry which placed titles in the names of some of the firm’s Mexican friends and business connections at Matamoros. Flying the Mexican flag, without change in crew personnel or in supervision by Mifflin Kenedy, who soon had a secretive office operating in Matamoros, the boats began a boomtime business hauling cotton under the noses of the Union blockaders.
In late 1862, Richard King labored under the responsibility of maintaining his own guard for the ranch, for the cotton stored there, and for his family. “The disturbances of the time” — that phrase ancient to the Wild Horse Desert—had not yet become disturbing enough to keep Henrietta and the children from the captain’s side. As the more disturbing year of 1863 dawned, Nettie King was almost seven years old, Ella was nearly five, young Richard was two — and there was a baby sister at the ranch house built on the rise above the creek. A little girl had been born there on the twenty-ninth day of April, 1862. Part of her name was a memorial to the place where she was born; she was Alice Gertrudis King, with brown eyes like her mother’s.
THE new year 1863 found South Texas seared by months of drought. The road across the prairies was a tan ribbon of dust. Powdery clouds of it rose from under the churning hooves of twentymule teams pulling tall wagons toward the horizon in the south. There were a dozen bales—six thousand pounds of cotton — piled on each rocking, dust-coated wagon bed. As the months of the year 1863 advanced, men and animals suffered increasingly along the lint-marked road. Drought shallowed the water in the Rio Grande and brought further concern to Captain King. His partner Kenedy reported from Brownsville that the Mustang and the James Hale were navigating upriver with greatest difficulty; cotton which made its way on the Rio Grande City road to the border had to be ferried laboriously across to Camargo and carted down the Mexican side of the river to where a steamer could lade. It finally became necessary to move most upriver freight by wagon, oxcart, or muleback along the droughty river roads. The organization and supervision of these M. Kenedy & Co. overland cargo trains fell mainly to Captain King and made it necessary for him to leave the ranch often.
Important business was afoot. At Brownsville the partners of M. Kenedy & Co. were negotiating a contract which would make them suppliers to the entire Confederate force stationed on the border; the contract was signed April 28, 1863. To finance these supplies the agreement called for a delivery by the government to the three partners of M. Kenedy & Co. — King, Kenedy, and Charles Stillman— of five hundred bales of cotton per month for six months. At their going price the three thousand bales to be delivered would be worth a total of something like $900,000— in gold, not in Confederate notes, which at the time had already depreciated to four for one. If the government managed to deliver all three thousand bales and the proceeds were entirely expended on supplies, the contract on the stipulated cost-plus percentages would bring about a fifth of the cotton value: $180,000, or possibly $60,000 for each partner. This rough estimate — no records survive to make any figures more exact — would not include added profits such as those derived from furnishing Santa Gertrudis beef, horses, and mules as supply items, or receipts from the transportation charges for moving the cotton. Regardless of the exact proceeds in prospect for Captain King that war year of 1863, the contract he signed was for a big operation offering a big reward.
If the sum involved was large, so was the toil to earn it. The contract venture demanded of Richard King the sweat of his brow, for it was he who took charge of finding and delivering enough cotton branded CSA to cover the costs of the supplies the quartermaster called for. His task might well have been impossible had not new cotton regulations come in force during 1863 whereby the Confederate government impressed cotton, taking a tithe of one bale in ten.
Through that summer and fall of 1863, Captain King was a hard roust er of government cotton, pulling it from depots farther north in Texas to the cotton station on the Santa Gertrudis and pushing it from there through the dust of a droughtwithered wilderness south to the river. His partner Kenedy hustled the bales into Mexico, where he and his partner Stillman sold it and moved it, on the decks of their steamboats flying the Mexican flag, to t he waiting holds of the ships anchored off Bagdad. And the supplies the troops needed came steadily to the stores of Quartermaster Russell at Brovvnsville, on schedule.
Bad times were on the way. Textile operators in New England understood the importance of an unplugged leak in a blockade, and the governors of the New England states had persuaded President Lincoln that the leak at the mouth of the Rio Grande must be forcibly plugged.
A Union invasion of the Rio Grande and the capture of Brownsville on November 6, 1863, put Richard King, his ranch, his cotton and contracting affairs, his steamboats, everything he had, including his life, into jeopardy. Although Union occupation slowed Confederate commerce across the Rio Grande, it could not halt it. The measure to have ended it decisively would have been a real blockade of the neutral flag vessels plying from the neutral waters off the Bagdad beach, but this drastic step was one the Lincoln government could not afford to take. With the port at the mouth of the river still open to neutral shipping, the principal effect of the Union presence on the Lower Rio Grande was simply a diversion of the cotton trains westward to Laredo and Eagle Pass for a crossing to Mexico farther up the river beyond the reach of Union capture. Once upon Mexican soil, cotton moved without Union interference through the market at Matamoros to the ships at Bagdad.
Circumstances forged two main keys for the maintenance of that traffle: the Confederate cavalry troops of Major Santos Benavides who protected the cotton crossings upriver, and Richard King who kept the cotton moving in that direction. The Union commander at Brownsville was aware of these keys and tried to destroy them.
Upriver expeditions of Union forces, never large, were never successful. Drought conditions aborted the dispatch of large bodies of troops to the interior, both on the shoaly river and on the parched roads. When Union detachments tried to penetrate far from their base at Brownsville, they were frustrated by their problems of supply and by their ineffectiveness in the face of Benavides’ vastly superior mobility coupled with his complete knowledge of every trail and every water hole over every reach of the Wild Horse Desert.
THERE days before Christmas, a rider reined a sweated horse at the ranch headquarters gate. The rider wanted to see Captain King. He was a friend.
“Captain,” the friend said when they were alone, “tonight a troop of Yankees are coming to your ranch. I know this. They say they are coming to arrest you. I came to tell you.”
The old border grapevine —information gathered by friends from the river, the towns, the lonely roads, the enemy camps — was dependable. The captain had to decide, fast.
He had no force on the ranch to resist a troop of cavalry; he might have had, but that day he was caught without it. Earlier in the year he had helped raise a mounted company of Confederate home guards to patrol the ranches and roads of the vicinity. Composed mostly of his own hardriding Kineños and commanded by his own ranch foreman, Captain James Richardson, the company was not large but it was well-mounted and it could fight. The day King needed it most, it was away on other business.
In the circumstances, armed resistance was risky anyway. He thought of his ranch people, his own wife, his children, their grandfather, Hiram Chamberlain. Henrietta was seven months pregnant; a quick flight from the Santa Gertrudis, over rough and exposed roads with four little children, invited tragedy. On the other hand, his family and all his noncombatant ranch people stood a good chance of being left unmolested in the security of their home if he himself was away when the enemy came and the ranch offered no resistance to search. It seemed to be a chance he must take.
While the best horse he had was being saddled, Captain King sent for the faithful ranch hand Francisco Alvarado, the man who had built the first rough shacks at the cow camp a decade before.
“Alal, van pacá, Francisco,” the captain said, very quietly. “Francisco, you go and sleep at my house and take care of my family. I have to leave now and I don’t know when I can return.
When the captain had spoken to his family, he came out of the house with his black hat pulled down shading his eyes, and he walked to where his horse stood saddled, with the guns.
“You take care of my family,” the captain said. His black beard moved as he spoke. The two men who were to ride with him were mounted, waiting. The captain swung to the saddle and his people watched the horsemen ride out the gate. The road they took wound through shadow toward the darkening line where the winter sky met the earth in the south, toward the river.
Francisco Alvarado went into the house of the captain. La Madama told him secretly why the dueño had gone, and what might happen. She told him to be careful, and to let her know if he saw anything.
Nightfall came. La Madama herself placed a cot in the hall where Francisco Alvarado could rest while he watched. It was a long night.
In the silence of dim daybreak many hooves clattered. There were far yells, then the pop of a shot. Francisco Alvarado heard the wooden wall splinter and a bullet whine. Rifles opened fire with a cracking loud rattle. Francisco Alvarado jumped unarmed to the door and threw it open. He stepped into the ghost light on the covered porch in front of the open door and he shouted with the bull strength of his lungs. “Don’t fire on this house! There is a family here —”
A ball smashed into him and he fell dead on the boards of the porch floor. Booted soldiers, their blue coals black in the dawnlight, scuffed across the porch with cocked guns, into the open door. At an officer’s command, men lifted up and carried the body of Francisco Alvarado through the door, into the parlor, laid it in front of the fireplace, lit a lamp — and saw they had not killed the man they came for.
Pointing guns, troopers shoved past the white defiant face of the pregnant, woman, past the stonegray face of the old man standing ramrod straight and silent at the woman’s side. A child cried in another room. The wife and sons of Francisco Alvarado came to bend down over his body in the lamplight.
Every cranny of the house was searched. Probing sabers ran through the mattresses of beds. Alien hands did not spare the personal effects in the pregnant woman’s room.
Unable to find their man, the troopers turned their search into a ribald plunder of the house where he lived. Men rode horses through all the downstairs. They smashed mirrors, china, and windows, and wrecked furniture. They grabbed clothes from trunks, coverings from beds, hauling out what they fancied and could carry.
Horses and mules were rounded up for a drive. All adult males caught on the ranch — four AngloAmericans and many Kineños — were thrown into a prison pen. A lieutenant came to take Hiram Chamberlain.
“You don’t want me.” There was ice in the eyes of the Rebel from Vermont. “I am an old man of sixty-seven and a minister of the gospel.”
“I will speak to the captain,” the lieutenant said, backing down. He did not take Hiram Chamberlain.
The raiders held the ranch until Christmas Eve. They left in a sudden great hurry, without loading any captured cotton, when unidentified horsemen were reported in the vicinity. Before the raiders rode away, Hiram Chamberlain was summoned to the Yankee captain.
“You tell King that if one bale of cotton is carried away from here or burned, I will hold him responsible with his life,” the leader blustered. “Colonel Davis is in camp at the Bóveda below here and some more troops will be paying you a visit soon. When they do, you are going to think all hell has broke loose —”
The brag was empty. Richardson’s company or a part of it arrived at the ranch that night or next morning. Hiram Chamberlain wrote later, “Friends came to our aid.”
Day dawned bitter cold to light a sorry Christmas at the Santa Gertrudis. Henrietta King was helped into a coach, with her father and her children. Not knowing where her captain might be or how he fared that day, knowing only the look of the fresh earth over the grave of Francisco Alvarado and the havoc in her house, she felt, the wheels begin to move carrying her away. The coach with its outriders took the turn of the road north, away from the border, to the Nueces.
At the home of friends in the town of San Patricio beyond the Nueces, on the twenty-second day of February, 1864, Henrietta King gave birth to a healthy and strong baby boy. Remembering a scene, with the lamplit body of a brave servant stretched on the hearth of her violated house, remembering a soldier who pointed out the place for the foundation stones of that house — perhaps remembering a letter, asking her so long ago if she could feel a soldier’s blood circling in her own veins—Henrietta King from childbed flung her own defiance. She named the boy she held in her arms Robert E. Lee King.
As soon as she was able to travel, she went with her father and her five children in a coach over the long road to the safety of the city of San Antonio, to wait there while her captain fought his war and her war to the finish the Lord had in store.
Her captain was not idle. What it had cost him in spirit, to ride from his ranch leaving the protection of his family to others, he never said. But that, ride to the river marked an arrival of full maturity in the personality of Richard King. A formidableness, by which men ever after remembered him, at this time entered into the look of his eyes and changed the set of his massive 39-year-old shoulders. During the next eighteen months, while the Confederacy died slowly of its accumulating wounds, Rebel Agent King was a rough and tough rider in rough and tough times. The sun burned his face dark so that his pale eyes seemed paler. The black broad-brimmed slouch hat he wore turned gray with dust. The dirt of the roads in the wind coated his scuffed boots, rusted his sweaty clothes, ground into his worn spur leathers, gritted his lengthening black beard. Never averse to broaching a barrel or a bottle, he damped his Wild Horse Desert gullet with whiskey when he found it and the time. He kept the cotton trains rolling past Yankee patrols and brigands, fought thieves that stole his cattle and horses, delivered bed and supplies to Confederate troops, and served for a while as a private soldier, with blood in his eye, in Richardson’s company of black-hatted Rebel centaurs.
During the last months of the Civil War, after the retaking of Brownsville by Confederate troops led by Colonel Rip Ford, Richard King was in a position to recoup any losses he may have suffered during the Union occupation of Brownsville, and to make a great deal of money besides. He did it buying and selling cotton, supplying Confederate troops, running wagon trains and steamboats. He rode a tide of good fortune during a tragedy of war. He rode it in plain view, unlike many of the border operators around him, and all men understood clearly he was a Rebel who trimmed no loyalty for any expediency’s sake. He was as ready to take a risk as he was to take a reward, He took both. The Civil War did two things to Richard King. It gave him one of the most formidable characters on the frontier. And it brought him the big stake, in gold from Matamoros, which enabled him not merely to weather hard times of reconstruction after the war but to make the ranch on the Santa Gertrudis into the great enterprise it finally became.