Hello friends and neighbors in Mason and surrounding counties. Attention! Be a vic-tor, not a vic-tim! We will be having a beginners’ concealed-handgun class this coming Wednesday . . . at Keller’s Riverside Store on the beautiful Llano River. . . . We will attempt to teach you all the necessary information you need to obtain your CHL, and hopefully when you can use your weapon to defend yourself if the need arises. . . . The cost for the course is $100. We accept cash, checks, credit cards, gold and silver, and used guns. . . . If you are a socialist liberal and/or voted for the current campaigner-in-chief, please do not take this class. You have already proven that you cannot make a knowledgeable and prudent decision as required under the law. Also, if you are a non-Christian Arab or Moslem, I will not teach you the class.
Crockett Keller, the proprietor of Keller’s Riverside Store, speaks with a calm voice. He is not joking, and he is not hysterical. He is quite serious about teaching his neighbors how to defend themselves legally, and he is prudent enough not to wish to share his skills with the enemies of his country (liberals) or of his religion (Muslims).
I wish I had him for my neighbor—or perhaps Joe Horn, who in 2007 called the police in Pasadena, Texas, when he saw two burglars breaking into his neighbor’s house. Unwilling to wait for the arrival of the forces of public order, Horn shot and killed the burglars, who were getting away. They proved to be Afro-Colombian drug dealers with interesting criminal records. They also had a bag of loot they had taken from the neighbor’s house. Texas permits householders to shoot the invaders of home and property, and Horn justified his action on the grounds that his neighbor had asked him to watch the house. Pundits have naturally tried to convert a case of home defense into a race crime, but the grand jury, after hearing testimony for two weeks, brought in a no-bill. In Texas, normal people still believe in the common-law principle that a man’s home is his castle.
Neither Joe Horn nor Crockett Keller is advocating a return to the days of the Wild West. Both understand that a home invader constitutes a threat not merely to property but to life and liberty. In Texas—and a few other places in the South and West—there is still enough sanity left in normal people to preserve the foundations of civilized life.
I have not been to the store on the beautiful Llano River, but we must have been close last year when my wife and I drove from Amarillo to Fredericksburg. This is the lovely Texas Hill Country, carpeted in spring with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush. My wife unwittingly violated Texas law by picking a few roadside flowers. We stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast as the guests of our friends Clark and Alice Welder, and the next day we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Luckenbach, the one-horse town bought by the legendary Hondo Crouch and immortalized by every Texas outlaw from Waylon Jennings to Jerry Jeff Walker.
There is more than a little show business in Jerry Jeff (born in Oneonta, New York) and his friends, but there is also enough reality in their troubled lives to justify the term outlaws. I do not suppose there is another state in the Union where even in jest a word like outlaw could be worn as a badge of honor among decent hardworking people. Musically, the best expression of this sentiment is Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” When Van Zandt sang his song, his voice broken by insanity and abuse, the effect was heartbreaking, though Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard will do in a pinch. “Pancho was a bandit boys / His horse was fast as polished steel / Wore his gun outside his pants / For all the honest world to feel.”
An outlaw is not simply a troublemaker or a criminal. An outlaw is someone who has been officially put outside the protection of the law. “Wanted, Dead or Alive,” as the posters used to say. The most famous outlaw in Texas history was probably John Wesley Hardin. Hardin was schooled in violence by the Reconstruction measures designed to keep Texans subservient to the glorious victorious Union.
As his name suggests, John Wesley was the son of a Methodist preacher, but his parents taught him and his brothers a moral code that is closer to the Pentateuch than to the Gospels: “Our parents had taught us from our infancy to be honest, truthful, and brave, and we were taught that no brave boy would let another call him a liar with impunity . . . ”
Young Wes was a chip off this Anglo-Celtic block: In elementary school, he stabbed a fellow student in a fight over a girl, and at the age of 15 he killed a former slave who, he said, had first taunted him and then threatened his life. Considering the state of Texas justice during Reconstruction, Hardin was not exaggerating when he wrote, “To be tried at that time for the killing of a negro meant certain death at the hands of a court, backed by Northern bayonets.”
Hardin attached himself to the family of Creed Taylor, while it was engaged in perhaps the most violent blood feud in Texas history. Billy Sutton and his allies had thrown in their lot with the Reconstruction government and its mercenary thugs known as the State Police. When Pitkin Taylor, a former Ranger and Indian fighter, tried to prosecute Bill Sutton for the murder of his two sons-in-law, who had been arrested on trumped-up charges and summarily murdered, Sutton and his friends tricked Pitkin into coming out of his house by ringing one of his cowbells. When he emerged from the house, they shot him down.
During the funeral, Billy Sutton and his friends staged a drunken celebration nearby, shouting obscenities and shooting off guns. It was then and there, according to Taylor cousin Jack Hays Day, that young Jim Taylor, Pitkin’s son, comforted his weeping mother: “Do not weep, mother. I will wash my hands in old Bill Sutton’s blood.”
Wes Hardin joined the Taylors and apparently took part in several shootings. In the course of a very complicated series of revenge attacks, Hardin got into a drunken fracas in Comanche, Texas, in which he killed a sheriff’s deputy (out of his jurisdiction). In response a lynch mob executed three men, including Hardin’s brother Joe, though none of them had been charged with any crime.
Hardin believed that the boys did not suffer the prescribed swift death by broken neck: They were, he claimed, slowly strangulated in a deliberate act of cruelty. Standing over Joe’s grave, John Wesley Hardin swore an oath.
I swore to avenge my brother’s death, and could I but tell you what I have done in that way without laying myself liable, you would think I kept my pledge well. While I write this, I say from the deepest depths of my heart that my desire for revenge is not satisfied, and if I live another year, I promise my friends and my God to make another of my brother’s murderers bite the dust. Just as long as I can find one of them and know for certain that he participated in the murder of my brother, just that and nothing more, right there, be the consequences what they may, I propose to take life.
Dueling and feuding are the most striking examples of the American tendency, noted early on by Tocqueville, to meet challenges and settle problems personally or through families and communities, without invoking the assistance of government. People brought up in the traditions of absolutist monarchies (England and France, for example) are horrified by the American propensity to take the law into our own hands. It is a bit more complicated than that.
Before there were nation-states and empires, before Roman law or civil law, men lived in clans and villages, where the law was rooted in custom and kinship. Blood-revenge is the law of the Pentateuch, and while Jews and Christians have learned a better lesson, that vengeance belongs to the Lord and to the rulers—good and bad—He has set over us, they should not forget that the roots of justice lie in a man’s duty to defend himself, his home, and his community and to inflict punishment on those who harm their lives, liberty, or property.
Think of justice as a commodity like food. If there were a shortage of eggs or vegetables, families would step in and plant a garden and raise chickens. When there is a justice shortage, something similar will happen, so long as there are men left who care about what happens to their families.
In that terrible old world that operated on such principles as personal honor, chastity, and marital fidelity, many states acknowledged an injured husband’s right to kill, under certain well-defined circumstances, an adulterous wife and her lover. Well-intentioned Roman emperors attempted to eliminate or circumscribe this right, but they largely failed, and the legal principle of iustus dolor justified honor killings in Italy down to 1981.
This so-called unwritten law endured until recently in many parts of the world, including Texas, whose penal code (down to 1974) declared that a homicide was justifiable “when committed by the husband upon one taken in the act of adultery with the wife, provided the killing takes place before the parties to the act have separated.”
Even though the killing of an adulterous wife is no longer legal in Texas, some men have received lighter sentences when juries believed they acted under the influence of a sudden passion. In 2003, an Arlington husband found his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. When the wife had the presence of mind to cry “rape,” her husband shot the lover. The grand jury refused to indict the husband for murder but did indict his wife for inciting a manslaughter. The wife received a five-year sentence.
Although I think that, on the whole, men should not shoot their adulterous spouses, I also think that, on the whole, no decent society should punish them if they do. Many, perhaps most, people in Texas understand this. Civilized law and order is vastly preferable to lynch-law honor killings, but when there is no one else to rely on, a man has to rely on himself.
Let us give John Wesley the last word on the quality that used to distinguish Americans from the quieter peoples of the earth: “I wish to tell my readers that if there is any power to save a man, woman, or child from harm, outside the power of the Living God, it is this thing called pluck.”
Leave a Reply