Greetings from Texas! I've been staying on my family's ranch in the heart of the Lone Star State for about two weeks now, and I already have about a month's worth of chigger bites—the little terrorists love the mulch on the vegetable garden, which I've been frantically laying with drip lines. As the river runs dry and wildfires rage, I'm starting to doubt Gov. Rick Perry's Prayer for Rain will seed the clouds. As for his prayers about the Republican presidential primary, who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways.
I've dropped in from San Francisco for two months to write about Perry and other outsized characters from the state where I grew up. And the ranch—located in the Hill Country at the confluence of the Blanco River and Blasingame Creek—is the perfect staging ground, equidistant from Austin and San Antonio as well as Dallas and Houston. Downsides include the half-hour drive to find organic greens or crusty bread, and internet that's slower than the armadillo living under the rusty ranch truck. But sometimes distance gives you perspective. For instance, I've been thinking a lot recently about the decaying log cabin out past the chicken coop and the beehives. It embodies a tale that's alternately presented either as a cold-blooded crime or one of the region's most famous showdowns. How you think about it might depend on your politics.
In the 1854, the family of Woodson Blasingame, a low-income subsistence farmer, built the cabin on land purchased from James Callahan, a land speculator and captain with the original Texas Rangers. Blasingame is thought by some to have sympathized with the area's progressive German community, while Callahan, the namesake of Callahan County, was a swashbuckling good 'ol boy best known for nearly causing another war with Mexico. "It took a lot to make him angry," says Tom McDonald, Callahan's great-great-great grandson, who is writing a book about him, "but when you did, you'd better get out of his way."
In late 1855, Callahan and a posse of nearly 100 Rangers pursued a band of Lipian Apache Indians out of the Hill Country and across the Rio Grande into Mexico. The Indians joined forces with local Mexicans and ambushed him, killing four of his men. The Rangers fought their way out and occupied the nearby Mexican town of Piedras Negras, where they looted food (and gold, according to one account) before burning it down and fleeing back across the border. The raid was widely praised in the local press, where it fed into support for the "Know Nothings," a nativist antecedent to the tea party. However, one progressive German-American paper in the area opposed it as illegal.