ADOBE WALLS, TEXAS
trike a match in a darkened room. Watch the light flare and consume the wooden stick between your fingers. Let it burn. Listen hard and you'll faintly hear that tiny blaze crackle with a youthful recklessness. Tongues of fire twist; smoke twines away in tendrils. Before the flame scorches your flesh, extinguish itâgodlikeâwith a casual breath. Now, look closely. An ember remains in that stick-man's blackened, misshapen head. It pulses and glows and rages ever weaker to beat back the invading darkness. It is at once heroic and pathetic. And when finally it dies, that spark doesn't merely dwindle and fade. It goes out with a last sudden surge; a final hopeless stab at existence.
I have lived my life like that match. Rubbed hard against the rough essence of human brutality, I burst forth and lashed out and burned things. I left scars and corpses in my fiery wake. But one comes to regret the loss of that which he burns, and so, in time, the blistering heat of my youthful ire settled into a warmth that drew souls near where once my anger had driven them away. I became a light that guides and beckons; a willful incandescence of goodness. My occasional tantrums flared ever less frequently, and life rewarded me with a measure of steady radiance.
Still, I must have seared the fingertips of the Great Mystery, for my fire has all but gone out now, and I am that light in the head of that bent and blackened match stick. I am almost out of time, yet I refuse to go easily into the unknown.
I am a fugitive from France. I escaped long ago to a frontier that has now vanished under my very feet. I go by many names, but you can call me Plenty Man, the name given to me by my Comanche brother, Kills Something. Yes, I knew Kit Carson. I knew Peta Nocona, and his son, Quanah Parker. Various generals and governorsâyes, I crossed their paths.
The battles? Valverde â¦ Glorieta Pass â¦ Adobe Walls â¦ Horrible, bloody affairs, marked by tragic magnificence. I went and witnessed them. I often wish I had not, yet I wouldn't have refused to go, even knowing what I now know. Sometimesâon those dreadful nights when the moon is bad and the nightmares torment meâI wish that one of the tens of thousands of bullets that swarmed in those clashes would have taken my life with a quick coup de grÃ¢ce. Other times, I thank the Creator that I survived to know the joys I have since known.
But I am talking in vague generalities now, and you want to hear an actual story, don't you? Come, sit under my shade tree while I fashion this rawhide into a headstall for my yearling filly. I will build it while you listen. My time grows ever shorter, and I must make things with my hands while I make talk with you, else I should lament the wasted hours along with all my other regrets.
I see there are those among you who have met me before. You have heard my tales of old Fort Adobe and the Bent brothersâCharles and William. Of Kit Carson before he ever dreamed he would make brevet brigadier. Of the last real mountain men and plainsmenâThomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, Uncle Dick Wootton, Jim Bridger, John Hatcher â¦ Good Lord, can you believe I actually knew them; rode with them; stood in their shadows? And what of the worst of the whiskey traders, Bill “Snakehead” Jackson? And of my accidental enemy, the Mescalero Apache chief Lame Deer? Do not think that I have forgotten telling some of you those stories. True tales, though they have passed through the lips of a renowned liar. I have not forgotten. My memory remains flawless.
Certainly you do not expect me to repeat those things I have already told. No one wants to hear an old man's same tired stories over and over. Besides, the nature of a story, earnestly told, urges the listener to believe with the first telling, to wonder at the second, to question the third, suspect the fourth, reject the fifth, lose count after the sixth, then scoff, deride, ridicule â¦
So, for those who know me now for the first time, you must come around again some other day, and I will conjure all those memories anew. I have many stories yet to impart, and I will begin with something new to your earsâ
of you. I am older than almost any three of you combined. Certainly I can spin a yarn or two from my busy life that none of you has heard me tell.
“Spin a yarn.”
I should not blame you all for getting up to leave this very moment. I promise from now on to avoid such clichÃ©. Spin a yarn, indeed.
So, after William Bent and I and Kit Carson and Lucien Maxwell and Peg Leg Smith and Lucas “Goddamn” Murray and the others blew Fort Adobe to the winds, some of the ruins remained. The fort was well built, after all, of adobe bricks, the walls three feet thick at the ground. Comancheros came from New Mexico and made some repairs on the walls so that the place could once again be used as a trading post and rampart. Look yonder toward that bend in the creek. That is where the ruins of the fort stood. The ruins, after a time, came to be known as “Adobe Walls.” Yes, there were two battles there, but we must all be patient, for there is much to tell. The first battle? Kit Carson's last. Some say he won. Some say he lost. Win or lose, it was his greatest fight. Kit was my friend, though I opposed him in that fight, for I had gone Comanche. He never held it against me.
But I have gotten too far ahead of myself already. Please, the second battle of Adobe Walls? That will have to wait for another telling. Get comfortable. You must want more than simply to hear an old man reminisce. You must want to understand. Relax, now. This will take a while. I have work to occupy my hands, and you have time to listen. I am ninety-nine years old. You cannot hurry me along, my friends.
I will begin with my adoptive Comanche family. Burnt Belly
was my grandfather and mentor in the ways of making medicine. Kills Something was my brother. I married his sister, Hidden Water. There was a day, long ago now, when I stood over there where the Adobe Walls sheltered me from the winter wind, and learned to make arrows. I will start my tale there. Oh, this place was different then. Fresh tracks of buffalo marked the Crossing on the Canadian River. Panthers screamed in the wooded ravines. Comanche lodge poles dragged tracks where now your automobiles rut the roads. In those days they called me “Plenty Man.”
he dogwood spoke to me, saying,
Instantly, I ceased to pull the hand-split stick of wood through the groove I had made in the adobe brick. I turned the straight shaft of the arrow-to-be in my hand, and listened. Again, I felt the wood speak.
“Yes â¦ Now â¦ Straight.”
Burnt Belly had said this would happen if I listened with a pure heart. I had heard only two words, but one of them, the Comanche
meant both “yes” and “now,” and somehow I understood. I could hardly expect a piece of split dogwood to speak to me in complete sentences, but it had spoken, nonetheless.
I looked down the length of the shaft and found it perfectly straight as I turned it slowly between my fingers. For a moment, I regretted that I had never built a violin. There had been a time, years ago, as a boy in France, when I had yearned to hear a great spruce speak to me, saying, “My wood, well planed and smoothed by your hand, will carry a fine tone.” But instead of apprenticing under the master luthiers in Italy, I had murdered my fencing instructor, stolen my music teacher's left-handed Stradivarius, and stowed away on a packet bound for America.
Not that the swordsman, Segarelli, did not deserve to die, for he had raped a girl I thought I loved. And the wretched drunk, Buhler, was never worthy of an instrument such as the Stradivarius. So I had murdered the one, and robbed the other, and fled to a new continent. Now, I was a fugitive, living among the Comanches at the Crossing of the Canadian River in the Panhandle of Texas, where no Texan dared to tread.
I felt the smoothness of the dogwood arrow shaft I had just finished straightening, smelled the aroma of the wood. Perhaps I would never build a violin, but I was making a fine hunting arrow. I had already finished making my bow of Osage orange, strung with a bowstring of buffalo sinew, split and twisted. I had collected the best turkey feathers with which to fletch the shafts of my arrows. I had fashioned razor-sharp points from hoop iron taken from an old whiskey cask. But this was the first time I had heard the voice of a dogwood arrow shaft speak, and I was moved to the point that my skin puckered with gooseflesh, and it wasn't due to the cold.
I looked toward my lodge, and saw my young wife, Hidden Water, languishing in the sunshine with her friends. Her friends worked hard on the hide of the buffalo I had shot only yesterday. They had staked it to the ground and were scraping away bits of flesh which they tossed to a pack of dogs that sat obediently nearby, keen-eyed, waiting for the next morsel. Hidden Water herself stooped over the hide and pretended to help, but she never let labor bring much perspiration to her smooth, dusky skin. In the ways of love, however, she had energy to spare, and used her beauty and wiles much to my liking. Her hair hung thick, shiny, and straight about her shoulders. She could toss that hair in the throes of lovemaking and make it whip about my neck like a horse's tail. Her hips were round and her ankles trim. Her forearms, instead of rippling with twisted muscle like most Comanche women, looked like the smooth marble limbs of sculpted Roman angels.
She tossed her black hair and looked toward me. All three women burst into laughter. They were talking about me. I had thought I might walk over to the lodge, and tell her that I had heard the dogwood speak, but I knew she wouldn't appreciate it. She would probably try to ridicule me in front of her
friends, as she was wont to do, for she knew she could get away with it. I would tell her about the words of the dogwood tonight, when we were alone in the lodge.
I put the dogwood shaft away in the quiver I had made of fox fur tanned with deer brains. I chose the next shaft, and stroked it smoothly through the groove I had made in the adobe brick. This was a pleasant day and a good place to work. The sun shone bright on my shoulders, warming me against the chill of the Crazy MoonâNovember. What was left of the northwest corner of old Fort Adobe provided a welcome windbreak from the chill norther that had blown in two sleeps ago. I knew this particular adobe brick with the arrow-straightening groove in it as one I had molded and put in place myself. I don't know how I could remember such a thing, except to say that my memory is just perfect. I had not built Fort Adobe single-handedly, of course. William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain had hauled a whole crew of adobe masons all the way from Taos for the construction of the trading post. But, somehow, of the thousands of mud bricks, I could remember each individual brick I had made and mudded into place. A person who will listen to the soil of the earth can know it, as I knew those bricks.
Now nothing remained of the fort but the corners and the thick bases, ranging from knee high to head high. William Bent and I had destroyed the rest with a great black powder blast to keep the army from condemning it under the right of eminent domain, and quartering troops here to make war against our friends the Comanches. It had hurt, destroying the trading post I had built and loved. But it had brought me much esteem among the Comanches, for they understood that I had sought to protect them from the bluecoats. They had known, also, how much I loved that fort. Yet I had destroyed it for the good of the Comanche nation. Now, I had become one of the few white men who could live among and bring trade goods to the Comanches, and in such a way I made my living. I wore breechclout, leggings, and deerskin shirt decorated with dyed porcupine quill work. I had taken an Indian wife. I had learned to make arrows, and to hear the voice of the dogwood.
“The wood speaks to you.”
I turned instantly, startled. It took me a moment to find
Burnt Belly, for the sound of his voice never seemed to come from the direction of his mouth. Then I saw him sitting against the remnants of an adobe wall, the slick flesh of the lightning scar slashed across his chest shining in the sunlight. He wore only his breechclout and moccasins, for the cold did not concern Burnt Belly very much. Somehow, he had slipped inside the walls unseen to me. He had a way of appearing like that. It was said that he could make himself invisible.
“Yes,” I said. “I heard it a moment ago. It said,
“This I know. You heard it with your heart, Plenty Man. The same way you heard my voice just now.”
I simply smiled and nodded. I could never quite determine if Burnt Belly possessed mystic powers, or was simply the best magician and ventriloquist, and the most persuasive liar, I had ever known. He was also a healer who claimed the plants spoke to him, telling him of their curative qualities. He said the lightning had instilled this power in him. One thing was certain. Burnt Belly had survived the bolt from aboveâthe glance of the Thunderbird. Nothing else could make a scar like that.
“I have been in council with the elders,” he said.
My shoulders slumped, for I could guess what this meant. I had so wanted to finish making my arrows, so that I could go buffalo hunting with a bow and quiver full of projectiles made by my own hand. “What wisdom have the spirits granted the elders?”
“The young warriors will grow restless as the winter passes. They will tire of hunting, and then they will want to raid. They will demand firewater before they take the warpath. They will trade many robes and horses for it.”
I turned and halfheartedly stroked my arrow shaft through the straightening groove in the adobe. “When do they want the firewater?”
Burnt Belly chuckled. “Yesterday.”
I, too, chuckled. It was my place among Shaved Head's village of the Quahadi band of the True Humans to bring firewater and other, more pragmatical trade goods. It was a role I accepted. While other bands and other tribes went to trading posts and towns to barter, the Quahadis had remained more
aloof. The towns and trading posts of white men harbored evil influences and deadly diseases. I was able to live among the Comanches only because I protected them from such dangers, and brought the white man's trade to them, on their own soil. When the elders sent me for trade goods, I rode immediately, and without complaint.
Yes, I was a whiskey trader. In this I took little pride, but my mentor, William Bent, had explained it to me: “It wasn't you and me that first brung whiskey to the Indians, Mr. Greenwood. But somebody did, and now they're gonna have it one way or the other, and I'd just as soon it was you and me sellin' it to them, rather than some cutthroat. It's a necessary evil. Just mind you don't let it get more evil than necessary.”
The whiskey trader Bill Snakehead Jackson had once claimed the valley of the Canadian as his own. His policy was to get the Indians so stinking drunk that he could divest them of their goods, right down to their lodges and the innocence of their daughters. By some divine stroke of luck, I had killed Snakehead in a duel four years ago. Now, the Canadian Valley was my region. I liked it that way, and so did the Comanches, not to mention their allies, the Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches. Still, I was a whiskey peddler on top of being a murderer, a thief, and a liar, and I had to live with all of that.
Worse yet, I was a genius, and I am a genius still. This is nothing to boast of, for I have, all my life, wasted my intellect. Oh, I have lived life to the bursting point, and enjoyed many selfish and thrilling adventures, but I have squandered the powers of my brain. Had I been able to avoid murder, theft, and the fugitive's lot, I might have gifted the world with a fine violin, a poem, a scientific treatise, a cure, a discovery, a symphony. As it stands, I have benefited few. I have failed in holding peace among the nations. I have created nothing that will last long after I die. Even my beloved Fort Adobe lies in ruins. I have helped to slaughter the buffalo. I have succeeded only in ransoming a few captives from the Indians, and returning them to their families. I speak thirteen languages, but in them I have nothing profound to say.
But enough of my bellyaching. You will tire of that all too soon.
“I will bridle my best pony for the long trail, and leave this camp before the sun has moved one fist across the sky,” I said to Burnt Belly.
The aged shaman nodded, and rose from the ground like a much younger man. “It is the best day to go. The moon rises full tonight. I know your medicine, Plenty Man. You do not sleep when the moon stays full. You will travel far, and return in two moons, when it is good for the young warriors to ride south and raid.”
I replied. “But after the full moon I will need dogbane and moccasin flower to help me sleep at night, or I will fall into one of my trances.”
“I will give you some, in trade for something I need.”
“What is it you need?”
“Bring me some
whiskey. I know you add water to weaken the cheap whiskey you bring for the young braves. This is good. But I want some real whiskey with spirit. I do not want it to taste like the piss of a coyote, and I do not want it weakened with water. You know I never swallow the whiskey, so there is no need to weaken it. I spit it into the sacred embers of cedar, and seek visions in its flames. A small horn of fine whiskey will do.”
I raised an eyebrow and grinned at the old man. “The young braves must not know that I weaken their firewater.”
“I would not tell, even under the worst tortures of the most evil Pawnee squaw,” he said. “Now, I want to loan you something.” He approached me, an old scarred man in breechclout and moccasins. “You have been making your arrows, and I know you want to finish. That groove in the dried mud wall is a good idea, for it is made of earth, and the earth knows the language of the wood, for they have lived together since the days when animals spoke and walked about like two-leggeds. But on the trail, if you want to straighten arrows, you need a small stone with a groove. I have brought one for you to use while you are on your journey.”
Here, Burnt Belly showed me both palms, empty. Now he raised his hands, clapped once, and revealed a grooved stone that had somehow appeared in his right hand. I knew a few sleight-of-hand tricks that I used to influence the Indians, but
how Burnt Belly pulled off his magic, I will never know. That stone, the size of a turkey egg, appeared from nowhere.
“I will return it,” I said, the astonishment plain on my face.
“I go now to prepare the dogbane and moccasin flower,” he said.
WITHIN THE HOUR, I had caught and saddled my best trail ponyâa sorrel paint stallion possessed of a smooth trot and ample endurance. His name was Major, for he had been given to me by Major James Henry Carleton for serving as his scout on a campaign against some marauding Mescalero Apaches. I had helped Major Carleton capture the camp of the renegades, and the paint horse I now rode had been the finest horse taken in the victory.
I first named the horse Major Carleton, but later began to simply call him “Major.” Eventuallyâdiscovering the peculiar mischievous nature of this animalâI would come to think of him as Major-Pain-in-the-Ass. At times, however, owing to his good behavior, I would brevet him General Nuisance, but sooner or later he would always get busted back down to Major.
He was a stallion, but his demeanor was gentle, unless a mare in heat happened to be upwind. Rather than unruliness, it was his curiosity that got him into trouble. I believe that Major thought he was part human. He habitually watched what people did with their hands, then would try the same things with his mouth. He possessed incredible dexterity in his lips and teeth. He could untie himselfâand other horsesâand open gates, often letting stock escape.