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"Elmer Kelton is to Texas what Mark Twain was to the Mississippi River."—Jory Sherman, author of The Barons of Texas
Recently votes the Greatest Western Writer of All Time by the Western Writers of America, Kelton creates characters more complex than L'Amour's....Kelton adds surprisingly strong elements of humanity, remorse, reversals of character, and terrific nobility of the "red devils". Wonderfully satisfying, sophisticated, unsentimental, superbly crafted, and full of a whopping good humor out of Twain. Hard to beat."—Kirkus Reviews
Texas Gulf Coast, August 1840
He was Comanche, and he was known among the People as Buffalo Caller. Once in a time of hunger, when he was a fledgling on one of his first hunts, the older and more experienced men had ridden their horses to exhaustion without scaring up so much as one lone, lame bull. But Buffalo Caller, riding alone, had heard a faint and distant bellow. He had responded in the voice of a buffalo, and the buffalo had answered him. The calls led him to a small herd in a hidden canyon.
It was not buffalo he hunted now. He scouted as a wolf for the largest assembly of raiders the Penateka band had ever put together, moving to strike the land-greedy, hair-faced American settlers of Texas. Beside him against the Texans rode Swift as the Antelope, so named for his fleetness of foot.
Buffalo Caller tingled with excitement over the sights he was about to behold. He had never seen an ocean or even a boat, so it strained his imagination to visualize what old men had described around their campfires. If the veterans had not let fanciful dreams overcome the realities of memory, those wonders lay no more than half a day's horseback journey ahead of him. It was claimed that the great water stretched so far one could not see all the way across. None of the People had ever ventured out upon it to determine how far it extended, for they were of the land, not of the sea. It was said that white men's boats might travel for many days without touching shore and that fish larger than horses lived in the dark and frightening depths.
Buffalo Caller doubted much of what he had heard. It sounded typical of the white teibos' lies. He had forded many rivers, and he had visited lakes wider than the rivers, but none were so wide that he could not see the opposite side.
Where he rode now was far to the south and east of the short-grass prairie and the limestone hill hunting grounds he was accustomed to roaming. A journey of many days had brought the massive Comanche war column into a gently rolling land of sandy soil and tall, summer-cured grass much different from the higher, drier land the Penatekas claimed as home. The hot, humid wind carried a smell foreign to his experience and left a faint suggestion of salt upon his lips. Summer heat sent sweat rolling down from beneath his buffalo-horn headdress and into his paint-streaked face, burning his eyes.
The foreignness of this land made him uneasy despite the persistent gnawing of curiosity. Though he wanted to see the great water for himself, he would be relieved when they finished what they came to do so they could return to country more suited to his experience.
What they were about was vengeance, blood for blood. In the early spring many tribal leaders and warriors had met with white chiefs in San Antonio de Béjar's council house to discuss an earlier agreement by the Comanches to free all their captives. Some had reconsidered the promise and balked, holding out for stronger terms. Talk had led to quarrel, and quarrel to the loosing of arrows and an explosion of gunfire. When the smoke drifted away, more than thirty Indians lay dead and dying in the council house and in the foul dirt of San Antonio's narrow streets.
In retaliation the People had killed most of the remaining white captives, but those had not bled enough to wash away the stain of the San Antonio disaster. The indignant Penatekas had undertaken this huge punitive expedition, carrying them far beyond their normal range, all the way eastward to the Gulf of Mexico. He did not know how many of the People were on this grand adventure. He had attempted to count them on his fingers and thumbs, but the task overwhelmed him. They were so many that they defied his understanding of numbers. Their horses left the grass beaten down and the ground scarred in their wake like the slow passage of a large buffalo herd. Though the object was war, many women and children had come along to watch and cheer as their warriors carried calamity to the white enemy.
Mexican allies guided them, for they knew the route. They knew how to pick their way through the sparsely settled region and avoid detection until time for the great force to loose its thunder and lightning. Buffalo Caller understood that the Americans had won this land from the Mexicans in a fierce war. Mexico wanted to take it back and had sent emissaries to the tribes, promising many good things in return for their aid. Buffalo Caller cared nothing for Mexico, for the first raid in which he had ridden had been against Mexicans. He had fought them often and had killed many. But he welcomed any chance to strike the Texans. A temporary alliance with a former adversary was justifiable if it promised victory over an enemy hated even more.
Antelope pulled up on his rawhide reins. "The wind brings the smell of smoke." He raised his head, sniffing, testing.
Antelope was notoriously subject to quick judgments and quick action without considering where they might lead. Buffalo Caller smelled only dust, for the ground was so dry it had cracked open in places. The soil would all be up and moving on the wind were it not bound by a heavy stand of brittle grass, the result of last spring's rains. He drew the skin taut at the edge of his right eye, trying to sharpen his vision. He decided Antelope was right, this time. "I think I see a house. It is beyond the timber, there."
His companion thumped the heels of his moccasins against his mount's ribs, putting him into a trot. "If they have horses, we shall take them."
Buffalo Caller feared that Antelope's zeal would make him forget their real mission. "Taking horses is not what you and I have been sent to do."
The principal concern so far had been to avoid premature detection as the army of warriors moved along. The wolves were to overtake and kill any whites who might observe their passage before the trap was sprung. That precaution seemed less important now because scouts had reported that the town of Victoria lay only a short distance ahead. The Americans would soon know of the column's coming. One Mexican guide had lived in Victoria until the Texans drove him out, and he itched for retribution. Victoria had been chosen as the first target.
Buffalo Caller recognized Antelope's determination. He relented, knowing Antelope would do whatever he wanted, regardless of advice to the contrary. "If we find horses, there is no reason they should not be ours". He set his dun horse into a trot that matched Antelope's pace.
Antelope grunted. "If we find any teibos, we will take their scalps as well as their horses." His taste for vengeance was strong. A brother's blood had soaked into the floor of the San Antonio council house.
"So long as we do not leave our own."
Emerging from a small patch of timber, they saw a man afoot in a cornfield, wielding a curved knife to cut heads from the stalks, tossing them into the bed of a wagon drawn by two horses. His back turned, he did not see the warriors' approach.
Antelope said, "You take the horses. I will take the man."
Not until he heard the hooves did the farmer turn. He wasted a long moment frozen in startled disbelief as the two Comanches rushed down upon him; then he ran for the rail fence. Antelope's arrow struck him in the middle of his back. He fell forward onto his face. The warrior leaped from his horse, vaulted over the low fence and knelt beside the dying man, slicing a patch of scalp with his knife. Buffalo Caller saw no need for undue haste. He climbed over the fence and cut the two horses loose from the wagon. They were docile. What human beings did to one another concerned them little.
Antelope raised the bloody trophy for Buffalo Caller to observe, then looked toward the log cabin. "There may be others."
Whoever was at the house might have a rifle or shotgun. Buffalo Caller saw none here. This was far from normal Comanche range, and the once-formidable Karankawas native to this region had been reduced to a pitiable scattered few. The farmer probably had seen no reason to burden himself with a weapon in the field. "We have the horses. That is what we came for."
Antelope insisted, "If you leave one wasp, it will rebuild the nest."
"But if they fire upon us, we must leave. We can do no good for anyone if we are dead." It was not that he feared death. A warrior who died in battle was promised a happy afterlife. But the life he was living here gave him pleasure, for he was yet young, and so were his two wives. He would enjoy this life as long as he could. The next would endure forever, so he was in no hurry to begin it.
They approached by way of the barn, larger than the cabin and built of rough boards instead of logs. His gaze was focused on the house, for if there was to be trouble it would come from there. Antelope touched his arm and pointed in silence. Beneath a roof that extended beyond the barn, a woman sat on a stool, milking a cow. Like the man, she faced away from the Indians and was unaware of them.
The two warriors slipped down from their horses and moved toward a log fence that separated them from the barn. Buffalo Caller climbed to the top and swung his legs over. A log cracked beneath his weight. Startled. the woman looked around, saw him, and jumped to her feet, spilling the bucket of milk. With a cry of fear, she ran to the barn door and turned, a pitchfork in her hands.
Buffalo Caller had never seen a pitchfork and did not know what use it was meant for, but he recognized that the sharp steel tines could pierce like a lance. She made a threatening gesture, thrusting the fork toward him. She shouted, but her words meant nothing. White people's talk was like the grunting of their stinking pigs.
He entertained the thought of taking her along, for his wives would welcome a slave woman to life some of labor's weight from their shoulders. Too, he had never taken a teibo woman into his blankets, and he wondered how different one might be. But she came at him with the pitchfork, and he had no choice. He fitted an arrow to the bowstring and drove it into her heart. She died quickly, with little sound and little struggle.
He had noticed from the first that her hair was reddish, like the hair of a buffalo calf. He knelt over her and lifted a strand of it, wondering if she might have colored it somehow. But none of the color came off on his fingers, so he decided it was natural. It would be a great curiosity when he showed it to his friends. He made a wide circle with the keen blade of his knife, wanting to keep as much of the hair as he could. He placed his foot on her back and pulled on the scalp. It tore free with a sucking sound.
He heard a movement in the barn and turned quickly, bringing another arrow out of the quiver. He stopped, for in the doorway stood a small boy with hair redder than his mother's Buffalo Caller could only stare.
Antelope spoke from behind him. "Are you frightened of a baby? I will kill him for you if you are afraid."
"I am not afraid, but I have never seen hair of such a color, not on a human being." He recognized that the Americans were humans, though of a lesser order. The Comanches were the real people, the True Human Beings.
Antelope said, "The Texans have hair of all colors." He brought out his knife and moved toward the child.
Buffalo Caller blocked his path. "My wives have given me only girl babies so far. I will take this boy for a son."
"And carry him into the fight? He will be a burden."
"But I can teach him to be a good hunter. He could keep us from hunger when we are old."
"A white-skinned Penateka with hair like fire? Who ever saw such a thing?"
"The buffalo will not care about the color of his hair."
The People had often taken Mexican children and raised them as their own. Captives helped offset the death rate caused by war and by accidents during the hunt. Since Americans had begun moving into Penateka lands, a sprinkling of lighter-skinned children had also appeared in the lodges. Most who survived the trauma of the first weeks would assimilate into the tribe. In time a majority would forget their past lives and become as Comanche-born.
Antelope argued, "We should kill him. The color of his hair is like blood. It could sour our medicine."
"What has hair to do with medicine?"
The boy looked in bewilderment at his mother's body. He whimpered as Buffalo Caller picked him up and tucked him under his right arm.
Antelope said, "I cannot tolerate a squalling child." He touched the handle of his bloodstained knife. "If he cries, I will cut his throat."
Buffalo Caller shifted the boy to his left arm and drew his own knife. "You will have to cut mine first." It was unthinkable that one of People might kill another, but he would inflict grievous pain with the blade if Antelope made it necessary.
His companion backed off. "Then do not let him cry."
"This one is too brave to cry. Now let us go. We do not want to miss the big fight."
"First I will burn the house." Antelope's eyes pinched in warning. "If you are wise, you will kill that red-haired boy."
Buffalo Caller tightened his hold on the youngster. "Go on. Set your fire."
• • •
Buffalo Caller had seen white-man towns before. He had visited San Antonio in his early youth, riding boldly up and down its streets, challenging any and all to come out and fight him. It was a way of demonstrating his bravery to other young men in the event any might have doubted it. No townsman had accepted the challenge face-to-face, but Buffalo Caller proudly bore the scar of a bullet would inflicted by some coward who hid inside a doorway to shoot him. When he painted himself for ceremony or battle he always made a black circle around the scar so everyone would see and know that bullets did not easily kill him. For a fighter, scars were marks of honor.
The column crossed a creek north of Victoria and paused while warriors took time to paint themselves and their mounts for battle. The paint carried strong medicine and helped ward off bullets. Buffalo Caller had turned his small captive over to the care of his younger wife, Whippoorwill. While women and children waited, the warriors split to make a circle around the town. Buffalo Called saw no sign that the raiders' approach had aroused alarm. That surprised him. He could only surmise that the column had been mistaken for something other than what it was. It was known that members of the Lipan tribe sometimes visited the town for friendly barter, and Mexican horse traders came occasionally with large caballadas to barter or sell.
A shout from one of the chiefs traveled quickly around the circle, picked up and relayed by other voices. The charge began with high-pitched yelling and a thunder of hoofbeats as warriors urged their horses into a run. Not until then did the town's citizens begin to realize they were under attack. The first resistance was a scattering of gunfire from buildings on the outskirts. That resistance soon mushroomed into desperate firing from the more central part of town. Warriors and horses began to falter and fall. Despite the Texans' slowness to recognize their danger, they put up a strong and costly defense.
Buffalo Caller brought his horse to a quick stop after a bullet passed his ear, singing like a locust, then whining off the stone wall of a house. He saw his companions beginning to pull back. It seemed prudent to follow. Only someone who had yet to prove his valor or who valued glory above life would willingly plunge into a hailstorm of bullets fired by determined men hidden behind walls that arrows could not penetrate.
He did not have to prove his courage anew. This was not a day he would choose to die. There was yet much he had not seen.
Someone shouted that horses had been found just outside of town. Buffalo Caller withdrew from the siege. Though he had come for blood vengeance on the Americans, he would also be pleased to take their horses.
He was amazed at the number. Mexicans had been loose-herding several hundred on the prairie before recognizing their danger and fleeing into the protection of the town. Buffalo Caller guessed they had brought the horses to trade or sell. He would not have expected this welcome bonanza. With enthusiasm he pitched into the rounding up of these horses and many others from nearby farms. By the time the gathering was done, the horse and mule herd had grown to tremendous proportions. Moving, it raised a towering cloud of dust, like an early-spring windstorm out of the west. Even if the invaders were to turn back now, this had been a most profitable venture.
Others in the band had killed several men unfortunate enough to fall into their path and had stolen a white woman and her baby. After camping along a creek that night, they continued on their way, driving the great band of captured horses and mules. They came upon two men in a wagon, killing one but somehow losing the other despite a diligent search.
The white woman's baby began to cry. The impatient Antelope wrested it from its mother's arms and impaled it on a spear. The baby quivered and died while the woman screamed.
Buffalo Caller thought that a regrettable waste. The child might have grown up to be useful. He did not feel pity for mother or child, however. Both were Texan, and pity on an enemy was a dangerous indulgence for a warrior. An enemy spared was an enemy who might have to be faced again another day.
Linnville was a small but prosperous seaport, its several warehouses holding goods brought in by ship for wagon and cart transport to such inland towns as San Antonio and Nacogdoches.
As had been the case at Victoria, the townspeople took little notice of the approaching warriors. Buffalo Caller guessed the huge horse and mule herd had misled them into assuming the visitors were traders like the Mexicans at Victoria, bringing animals to barter or sell.
Citizens of the town began to shout and scream as they belatedly recognized the disaster thundering down upon them. They were too late to mount a defense the way those in Victoria had done. By dozens they scrambled toward the shore. Men, women, and children ran in desperation. They piled into small boats to the wooden pier and frantically rowed away into the sea.
Farther out, Buffalo Caller saw what appeared to be a large house floating, a curl of black smoke rising from its tall chimney. Beyond the steamship, he could see nothing but water and more water, endless to the horizon, reflection the sunlight and burning his eyes. He stared in wonder. People had told him of such strange things, wooden houses that sat atop the water, but he had never quite believed them.
He saw warriors kill a white man and drag two struggling women out of a boat, one white and one whose skin was black. They also captured a child.
Antelope shouted, "Too many are getting away." He forced his horse out into the surf, trying to catch one of the boats and its shrieking passengers. Buffalo Caller followed so far that the water rose up and soaked his moccasins, chilling his feet. He loosed a couple of arrows, but the boats bobbed like fallen leaves on the waves, and the stone-tipped shafts fell harmlessly into the gulf. He chose to waste no more, though Antelope kept trying. Buffalo Caller turned back, for the town lay open and defenseless, awaiting the raiders' pleasure. Several townspeople lay dead in the streets, caught and killed before they could reach the boats.
Buffalo Caller moved toward a large building a short distance from the docks. The Mexican guides had promised that the warehouses would be full of goods wondrous beyond imagination. The People could take whatever they wanted and be welcome to it. There was no shame in stealing from Texans, the biggest thieves of all.
Some of the boats went all the way out to the ship that lay offshore. Others stopped and simply floated along out of range, their passengers watching helplessly while the town fell to the invaders like wild plums dropping from a tree.
Warriors who had followed them into the surf turned back to begin a joyous plundering of homes and warehouses. Buffalo Caller entered a store and marveled at the variety of treasures it offered. He had tasted apples in San Antonio, and he found a barrelful here. He bit eagerly into one while he searched the store for other delights. On the shelves he found rolls of cloth, some plain, others in bright colors. Antelope joined him, shouting in glee as he yanked down a bolt of red material and began to unfold it, wrapping it around his shoulders and waist. He picked up a stovepipe hat and jammed it onto his head, bending the feather he wore tied into his braided black hair.
Buffalo Caller thought Antelope looked ridiculous. He would not trade his buffalo headdress for all the hats in the store. But he carried out an armload of cloth he was sure would please his wives. A long string of red ribbon stretched behind him.
He began smelling smoke. Other warriors were setting fire to houses as they finished their looting.
The Comanches celebrated high carnival, sacking and burning while frustrated townspeople witnessed the destruction from sanctuary far out on the water. Late in the afternoon, wearying warriors began to draw away. They had packed many of the captured horses and mules with goods taken from Linnville homes, stores, and warehouses. Buffalo Caller laughed at the sight of a mule with ribbons tied in its tail, kicking at a bolt of blue cloth that dragged in the dust behind. Many of the men wore white-man clothes and hats of various descriptions. The wind tugged at several open umbrellas. Antelope had placed a hat on his horse's head after cutting slits so it would fit over the ears. It was proper that the horse wear a Texan hat, he said, for it had been taken from a Texan corral west of San Antonio.
Hardly a building remained intact. Most not already burned to the ground were ablaze now as the raiders retreated. A heavy pall of dark smoke hung over the town. Linnville would be little but ashes and ruin when its citizens mustered courage to row back from the sea. Then they would know the true price of Texan treachery.
It mattered not that the people here probably had nothing to do with what happened in the San Antonio council house. They were white. In the eyes of the People, vengeance against one enemy was vengeance against all. They had no patience with individual responsibility, separating the guilty from the innocent. All their enemies were guilty.
Buffalo Caller noted that the head of the column was moving in a northwesterly direction. That pleased him. In a few days he would be back in the familiar and pleasant surroundings of his own country. He had gazed upon the big water once, had felt its wetness and tasted its salt. His own eyes had witnessed a great house that floated upon the sea. He had not seen the fish as large as horses, but he had seen enough. His curiosity was satisfied.
He thought of the boy he had taken and the pleasure a son would bring to his lodge, even one whose hair was red, It was time now to go home, to enjoy the fruits of conquest. It was time for dancing and celebration, for the proud telling of great and daring deeds.
Copyright © 1999 by Elmer Kelton
Posted June 6, 2010
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Posted October 25, 2009
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Posted November 26, 2010
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Posted March 27, 2010
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