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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The New Year’s Shooting

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

“You boys drink beer?” the old man asked, his German accent heavy on that last word. “I’m buyin’.”

The oldest of the three men had just lost his brother to lung cancer. One of the “boys” was the recently departed’s son, the other the dead man’s son-in-law.

Having accomplished their mission of buying some eggs needed for the traditional post-passing family feed, enjoying a cold one or two didn’t seem like a bad idea on an otherwise bleak winter day. When they pulled into a Bastrop convenience store, the old man got out of the car and hobbled in to get a couple of six packs.

“I’m sho glad to get out of the house for a while,” the benefactor said when he got back in the vehicle, popping a top. He sat in the back seat, resting his beer can on the knee of his artificial leg so the cold wouldn’t bother him.

“This April, it’ll be 50 years since I’ve had this damn thing,” he said. “I was working at the rock quarry in New Braunfels, and it wouldn’t have happened if I’d gotten off a damn hour earlier. I was supposed to get off at 3 a.m., and it happened right before 2.”

He swallowed some more beer and didn’t finish the story. What happened was a railroad car had been backed up to take on a load of stone and he didn’t get out of the way in time.

Losing a leg slowed him down, but it hadn’t atrophied the pleasure he took in having a good time or telling a good tale. Like the time he nearly lost more than his leg during a once-annual event folks in Bastrop County referred to as The New Year’s Shooting. While the end-of-the-year celebration did involve the discharge of firearms, it wasn’t a “shooting” in the sense of hostile shots being fired. Well, there was that one time.

Back in 1917, the small Bastrop County community of String Prairie had a group of about 15 teenaged boys old enough to have acquired a taste for the homemade Mustang grape wine their German-American fathers put up every year, but not quite old enough to worry about the terrible war going on in Europe.

About 10 p.m. on that long-ago New Year’s Eve, the boys saddled their horses and rode to a central meeting point. As soon as they felt they had a quorum, they started riding from farm to farm, ringing bells, shooting fireworks and occasionally, the shotguns two of the older boys carried across their saddles. One of those older boys toting a scattergun was the now elderly fellow telling the story between sips of beer.

The String Prairie boys made a fearsome looking outfit, the old man recalled. Oldtimers in the county hadn’t seen anything like it since Reconstruction, when the governor had to call in the militia to quiet things down in nearby Cedar Creek when more malevalent night riders had trouble remembering the Civil War was over and their side had lost.

With the later-day teller of the tale in the lead, the boys trotted from farm house to farm house. When they arrived, they ringed the house with their horses and proceeded to make as much racket as they could in celebration of the New Year.

Local custom held that when the boys showed up, the residents would listen for a while and then step out on their porch to invite the celebrants in for one glass of wine and one cookie. The riders would then thank the host, wish them a happy and prosperous New Year and mount up to ride off to the next rural residence.

Full of holiday cheer and homemade wine, the young horsemen of the A-Cup-To-Their-Lips surrounded the next house on their circuit only to find all the lamps were out. But they knew the family was home because their buggy was in the barn.

As they had done at all the previous stops that night, the riders rang their bells, set off fire crackers and generally made as much noise as 15 tipsy teenage boys on the verge of manhood could make. Still, the house remained dark, its occupants obviously not in a social mood.

That’s when the narrator of the tale said he decided to let loose with a double-barrel load of birdshot in the general direction of the house. Having no intention of hurting anyone, his only interest lay in getting their attention and another glass of wine.

And it worked. Sort of. As the boys continued to whoop and holler, no one noticed the octagonal barrel of an old .30-30 slowly emerging from a quietly opened front door. Their first indication that their presence had been noted was a sudden blaze of orange flame as a hunk of lead whizzed within a few inches of the narrator’s head.

Clearly, the man of the house had no interest in sharing wine and cookies with a bunch of boozy kids ill-mannered enough to ignore the fact that he’d blacked out his house. While the boys may have let their horses run a little between houses earlier in the evening, their mass retreat looked something like a reverse cavalry charge as they scattered into the darkness before the farmer could get off another round in their direction.

© Mike Cox - December 28 , 2011 column
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