Alexander Sweet's Visit to Luling

About noon we arrived in Luling, which, a short time ago was the terminus of the San Antonio Railroad, and it remained so for almost a year. It was a type of the town created by the railroads in their progress through Texas. Its history would read like a chapter from the biography of the man with the wonderful lamp, -- its site, one day the feeding-ground of the jackass-rabbit and the home of the coyote; a month hence, a wooden town of a thousand inhabitants. Where then the rattlesnake aired his poisonous fangs, now the denizen of the music-hall exhibits her equally dangerous blandishments. Then the wild beasts of the field, as their instincts and necessities taught them, made war on each other with the weapons nature furnished: now human beasts (gamblers and roughs), prompted by the devil and bad whiskey, destroy each other with the deadly derringer and the murderous bowie-knife.

In one short month the howling wilderness is transformed, by the nervous energy and resistless enterprise of the railroad pioneer, into a town of a hundred houses, where beer is sold, billiards are played, the gentle tiger is bucked, and the strange woman holds her court; where the scattered ragments of the Third Commandment darken the air, and the sound of the pistol shot is monotonously frequent, — a pandemonium of vice, folly, and sin, where the struggle for gold, and the viler passions of men, blot out the better part of man’s nature, — a place where a drink of whiskey costs twenty-five cents, a poor cup of straight coffee the same amount, and a badly cooked dinner, served on a rough pine table without a cloth, costs a dollar, — a spot where all manner of trades and professions are represented, where the bedbug luxuriates, and even the book-agent lurketh around, with his brazen check burnished more elaborately than usual, to meet the exigencies of the situation. So moves the car of progress; so the "star of empire westward takes its way," and civilization’s march is onward toward the gateway of the setting sun. This condition of things is merely the fore runner of the true civilization, — the darkness before the dawn, disorder before order, chaos before creation.

The men and women who constitute the society of such places merely prepare the way for better men and women. They are as rude, as barbarous, and more degraded than the savage. The ancient heathen worshipped wooden images, and sacrificed their bodies under the wheels of Juggernaut’s car: these worship perishable gold, adore filthy greenbacks, and sacrifice their souls in pursuit of the pleasure that money can buy.

Walking up the straggling streets, we find the houses in irregular rows, and fronting on the streets at every possible angle of incidence. The houses are mostly of the dry-goods box style of architecture, the fronts covered with roughly painted signs for the purpose of letting the world know the proprietor’s business, and how badly he can spell. Here is a restaurant where the owner advertises "Squar Meals at Resonable Figgers, and Bord by the Day or Weak;" next, a Chinese laundry; then a beer-saloon; across the street a gun-shop; next to it a saloon; then a bakery, a saloon, another saloon with billiards, a lumber-yard, a dance-house, a restaurant, a free-and-easy, a saloon, a shooting-gallery, a faro-bank, a grocery, a saloon and hotel, a ten-pin alley, a concert-hall; and so on to the end of the street. Queer and suggestive signs some of these whiskey-dens have, -- The Sunset," "The How-Come-You-So," "The Panther’s Den ;" and on one, in a North-Texas town, is inscribed the legend, "Road-to-Ruin Saloon —Ice-cold Beer 5 cts. a Skooner."

While passing the Dew-Drop-Inn saloon, we were startled by several pistol-shots being fired in quick succession inside the house, and only a few feet from us. Assuming a safe position behind a convenient cotton-bale, we awaited the development of events. A loud-talking crowd was in the saloon. The crash of glass, and the fragments of billiard-cues that came whizzing out of the door, indicated that somebody was raising Gehenna inside. As the shooting ceased, the crowd came pouring out, carrying the limp form of a man who was shot in the leg, had a bullet in his left lung, and was bleeding profusely from a knife-cut on the neck. Inquiry elicited the information that he was a cowboy, who, being on a "high lonesome," entered the saloon, and incontinently began discharging his six-shooter at the lamps and mirrors behind the bar. This, it seems, is a favorite pastime with the high-spirited cattle-kings in their moments of enthusiasm. The role had been enacted, however, with such frequency, of late, that it began to pall on the taste of the spectators. What was at first a tragedy, exciting and dramatic, was now but a vapid piece of very weak comedy of questionable taste and doubtful propriety. So thought the barkeeper; and he emphasized his views by placing a few bullets where he thought they would do the most good, and have the most mollifying effect. The wounds were fatal. The playful cowboy died, and, as a bystander remarked, "never knew what hurt him."

The barkeeper was never tried. In less than twenty-four hours this "difficulty," as it was called, passed out of the public mind in the light of a fresh and more interesting incident of a like character, where two men were killed, and one woman dangerously wounded.

So long as a town remains the terminus of a railroad in Western Texas, it presents the characteristics described. The roughest of wild frontiersmen and desperadoes congregate there. It is what is called, in the classic vernacular of the country, "a hoorah place." As soon as the terminus is located ten or twelve miles farther west, a new town springs up, the rowdy element moves out of the old one, half of the houses are moved off to the new town, and the place, wrecked and dismantled, is left to the few people who came to stay. It is then that the real progress and civilization begins. Brick houses take the place of the wooden ones carried away; the bulletholes in the doors and shutters are filled with putty; the brazen noise of the music-hall is hushed, and in its stead the voice of the Methodist circuit-rider is heard singing the songs of Zion.

In the hotel where we were stopping, there was a guest whose name, as the register showed, was Joseph P. Maxwell, but who was better known among his associates and the people of the town as "Monte Joe." He had been in Luling about three months. No one knew where he came from, and no one cared to know. He had stepped off the train one morning, had registered at the hotel, and in three days afterwards was on speaking terms with one-half of the male population of the place.

In a town like Luling, society was not exacting. A stranger was not required to exhibit credentials, nor to state who his grandfather was, as a condition of entrée into society. In fact, society was of a mixed character, -- if it had any character at all, -- and could not afford to be particular. Monte Joe was handsome, well dressed, and of genial manners. He brought a blue-eyed, sunny-haired child with him, -- his daughter, -- a smiling, laughing, little fairy, who captured the hearts of all who knew her. In her presence the cares of life vanished; and the people felt, as they listened to her joyous, childish prattle, that, after all, this world was not such a vale of tears as they had thought it was.

Little May saw but the rosy-hued side of the clouds that encircled her life. She loved the bright sunshine, the birds, and the flowers; she loved music and pictures: but above all, and with a greater and stronger love, she loved her father, Monte Joe the gambler. These two, father and daughter, seemed to live for each other, and in the light of their mutual love.

Joe’s face had a worn, sad look, except when he was playing with the child. Then there was a soft, happy light in his eyes, and a womanly look on his handsome face. When he got excited at the gambling-table, and swore, or when he was insulted or annoyed, -- then the sadness and womanliness vanished, and his eyes gave evidence of the devil within.