The Mystery of the Rusty Springs

Dictionary of Texisms:

            Talk the ears off a cow – what a long-winded speaker can do.

In Mrs. Kleiner’s class we were knee deep into Texas history, which can be fascinating if you don’t have a problem with violence. Texas history is pretty much just one killing after the other. Indians kill other Indians, Indians kill white settlers, white settlers kill Indians, Mexicans kill white settlers, white settlers kill Mexicans, white settlers kill each other over slavery, and that brings us to the present day. Also, six flags have flown over the sacred soil of Texas, which is where you get Six Flags Over Texas, our state’s version of Disneyland.

We had already gotten into the war for Texas independence. Mrs. Kleiner pointed out that both Houston and Austin were named for heroes of Texas history. That got me curious, so I raised my hand. “Who is Rusty Springs named for?” I asked.  I expected Mrs. Kleiner  would know, since she teaches this subject.

“Why Alec, what a great question,” she said. Something about the way she said “question” set off alarm bells. I had a feeling this was not good news. It wasn’t. “Why don’t you do some research and find out?” she said.

It sounded like she had answered a question with a question, but I wasn’t born yesterday. It wasn’t the sort of question that could be answered with a “no.”  It was an assignment.

She gave me one week to find the answer.

At supper I asked Mom if she knew the origins of the name Rusty Springs. “I never thought about it,” she said. “But someone must know.”  She chewed on a bit of hamburger patty. “So how do you plan to find out?” she asked.

“Maybe somebody older would know,” I said. “Grandpa, do you know?”

“Know what?”

“Where Rusty Springs got its name.”

“No idea,” he said. “But that’s a great question.”

“You teachers all think alike,” I said. No help coming from that quarter.

I thought about it for most of the next day, and then I hit upon an idea. I had seen a bunch of older men hanging around the courthouse downtown. Maybe they knew the history.  So on Saturday morning, I asked Mom to drop me downtown at the library while she shopped for groceries. But before going to the library, I walked two blocks over to the county courthouse, a square, white two-story building with four massive white columns across the front, just like an antebellum plantation. On the front porch were half a dozen men sitting in metal folding chairs. They all looked to be older than Grandpa, and a few looked older than dirt. With my spiral notebook in hand, I trotted up the stairs towards them.

“Well, hello there, Skeeter,” said a man in a green plaid shirt.

“Actually, my name is Alec,” I said.

“Well I’m pleased to meet you, Alec.  My name is Red.”

That struck me as funny, since Red was bald, but I kept that to myself. I must have given him an odd look, though, because he answered my unspoken question.

“My hair used to be red,” he explained, “back when I had some.”

“Must have been some time ago,” piped up a fat, grey-haired man wearing bright red suspenders. “You’ve been bald long as I’ve known you.”

“Why did you call me Skeeter?” I asked Red.

“‘Cuz you’re such a little thing.” I didn’t get it. “You’re not much bigger than a mosquito,” he said, only he said it “mus-KEET-er.”  He gave a little laugh. None of the other laughed. Maybe they had heard this one before.

“You look pretty bright,” Red went on. “I bet they call you Smart Alec.”  Again he laughed.

I rewarded him with my special, time-tested, close-mouthed grin, the one that means “I am pretending I have not already heard this same lame joke 100 billion times.”

“What you need, son?”  This from a thin fellow with a trim grey moustache. “You come see us because you’re thinking about retirement?”

This time all the men laughed. I didn’t get the joke.

“I’m trying to find out how Rusty Springs got its name.”

“Is this a school project?” asked the man with the moustache.

“Yes, sir, it is.”

“Well you have sure come to the right place,” said the man in the black suspenders. “Here,” he said, standing up, “you can sit yourself down right here and get the facts from them that knows.”

“And who might that be?” said Grey Moustache.

“Now don’t mind him,” said Black Suspenders. “Go on. Sit down.”

I sat.

“Now you mean to tell me you have looked high and low and haven’t come across the story of Rusty Springs?”

I nodded. ” Well now, I wasn’t there,” he said. “It was a little before my time, but here is what I’ve heard.”

“Look out, Sonny,” said Red. “You might be here awhile. Elmer can talk the ears off a cow.”

I opened my spiral notebook to a blank sheet of paper and grabbed a pencil.

“Now you be sure to write this down,” Black Suspenders said. “There was a wagon train of settlers coming across the trail and they camped out one night not too far from here – now this was back when the Comanches still roamed in these parts, and they didn’t take too kindly to seeing bunches of white folks farming on their hunting grounds, you see?  So first thing in the morning, these settlers wake up to a war party of Comanches charging at them on horses from every direction, whooping and hollering and shooting their bow and arrows and throwing their tomahawks and all kinds of general mayhem.  It was pretty nasty, so they say. The settlers finally chased them off after an hour or so, but not before the Indians made off with a bunch of their horses. So, after the settlers buried the dead and took care of the wounded, they realize they didn’t have enough horses to pull all their wagons anymore.”  He paused.

“So what did they do?” I asked.

“Why, they had to leave some of the wagons behind. So they unloaded all their belongings off three of the wagons and piled in all they could fit into in the wagons they had left, then they pulled up stakes and rode on down the trail. But them three wagons stayed right where they left them, along with all the stuff there wasn’t room for.  They stayed right there until the wood just rotted out, and all that was left was the metal nails, just rusting in the sun and rain. Nails and bedsprings, of course. The settlers didn’t have room for all the beds, so they left some bedsprings behind. Now the Comanche was some clever Indians. They used every part of the buffalo, and I mean every part – meat, fur, bones, teeth – nothing went to waste – but they didn’t have no use for bedsprings, seeing as they preferred to sleep on the ground. So those wagons and those bedsprings stayed right where they were, and they got rained on, and pretty soon, they started to rust.

“Now many years later, long after the Comanches had been cleared out, people started to settle around here, and they needed a name for it, so they just said, we’ll just name it for those old wrecks of wagons sitting out there, and those old bedsprings. And that’s how it came to be Rusty Springs.”

I was writing it all down. “What year was the Indian attack?”

“Year? Well, I don’t recall exact dates and such, but I’m pretty sure it was around the time of the Alamo.”

I closed my notebook and was about to go when another man spoke.

“That’s a nice story, Wilbert, but I heard it another way.” The speaker was wearing a white shirt, a bolo tie, and a straw hat.

“I heard,” he continued, “that the town was founded by the first white man to homestead in these parts, a fellow by the name of Obadiah Rusty.”

“I heard that myself once,” said Red, “but then I also heard it was something about the water. You know, like there was some ore in the ground and the spring looked all rusty-like.”

“Oh for the love of God!” It was Grey Moustache. “This poor boy’s trying to write a research paper. He ain’t come here to judge no liars contest.”

Red and Wilbert and Black Suspenders took offense at Grey Moustache insinuating that every word they uttered was not the God’s Honest Truth, and while they were defending their truthfulness, I slipped away unnoticed and headed back to the library, which was no more help, and where Mom picked me up an hour later.  She knew me well enough to see I was frustrated so she let me marinate in my own juices on the ride home.

At supper it was Grandpa who started probing.

“How is that research project coming along?” he asked.

“I’m stuck.”

“What do you mean stuck?”

“I couldn’t find anything in the library,” I said. “I also talked to some men at the courthouse, and they gave me three different stories. I don’t know which one to believe.”

Mom and Grandpa between them plied me with questions until they got the full report of my courthouse interviews.

Grandpa swiped a napkin across his mouth and leaned back. “What a bunch of low-life, good-for-nothing pond scum,” he pronounced. “I hate to say it, Alec, but you’ve been had. You have been played like a two-dollar ukulele.”

“I was afraid of that.”

Mom tried to be consoling. “It was a good idea to ask them, Sweetie. That shows a lot of initiative on your part. It’s too bad they had a bad attitude about it.”

“It makes me angry to see them take advantage of you like that,” Grandpa said. “I ought to go teach them a thing or two about respect.

“By the way,” he added, “that story about the bedsprings is bogus for sure.  Settlers wouldn’t have had bedsprings. They hadn’t been invented yet. That’s an anachronism.”

“A what?”

“An anachronism. Means out of time.  Shakespeare writes a play about Julius Caesar, and there’s a clock striking the hour. Only the ancient Romans didn’t have clocks, because they hadn’t been invented yet. They used sundials to tell time. So the clock is an anachronism.”

“Daddy,” said Mom, “I’ve even heard some people say you’re an anachronism.” She gave me a sly wink.

“Yeah, well, that may be so,” he mumbled, and went back to his supper.

Mrs. Kleiner got her report. I did the best I could with what I had. I wrote that no one alive today seems to know how Rusty Springs got its name, but that there are several theories. I told the story about the settlers’ bedsprings, and I pointed out that that was an anachronism because I thought that word would impress her.  I said that story was probably a legend, which I thought was being generous towards a bald-faced lie. I mentioned the Obadiah Rusty theory but noted that his name does not appear in any reference books of Texas history. Finally, I mentioned the metal ore in the water, and said that was the most likely, but it was just a theory too.

Mrs. Kleiner never mentioned it again. I wonder if she even read it. Maybe she forgot she had assigned it.

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