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No one wants you to tamper with a legend, especially by telling the truth. Over the years I have often been asked what I know of the Texas legend of Stonehill town, and of the man the Mexicans came to call the Hawk, the man who killed that town in vengeance.
I have found it convenient to live with the legend, for that is what people want to hear. The legend is mostly true, as far as it goes. But recently, feeling the growing weight of my years and knowing I may soon be learning the answers to other great mysteries, I have felt some need to set down the rest of the story as I know it. The truth will do no great injury to the legend, for the legend has a life of its own and will outlive both the truth and the teller.
Though I have lived out my graying years near what little remains of old Stonehill town, I do not often go there. Walking in the grass where her streets used to be, I can hear the wind whisper secrets through the sagging buildings that time has not yet crushed, and I imagine I hear ghosts of the years long gone rustling through her ruins. A chill comes upon me yet when I stand at the spot where he sat on his horse, looking down upon a boy who lay there in silence. I can see him shaking his fist in a black anger and shouting to all who could hear him that he would kill Stonehill town as mercilessly as it had murdered his son.
I prefer to remember Stonehill as I first saw it, the great freight wagons and the lumbering Mexican oxcarts challenging one another for space in the narrow streets, the busy clamor of a vital people searching for glory and riches that existed only in their dreams. They lived in hardship and squalor, and sometimes they died in a hostile wilderness, alone and afraid. But the leaders of the country told them this was necessary to the fulfillment of their manifest destiny. They accepted it, most of them, and never turned back. Good men, bad men, and those in between, they differed in many ways. But in one respect they were mostly much alike. They were people of ambition and nerve, and hunger.
I well remember my first meeting with Thomas Canfield in the old port town of Indianola. You won't find the place on a map; it was destroyed in later years by one of those killer hurricanes that occasionally roars in from the Gulf of Mexico to erase all trace of man and his works.
It was only a small town with perhaps one or two permanent stone buildings when I landed there off of the merchant vessel James Callahan in the winter of 1854-55. I was the youngest of several sons on a small cotton farm along the Mississippi delta in Louisiana. My parents were too poor to have slaves, so they had children instead. My limited schooling gave me enough skill with ciphers to understand that my share of the family holdings would not long shield me from starvation once I left the protective roof. At seventeen I put all my personal belongings upon my back, hired as a crewman on a boat hauling a load of cotton, and shortly found myself exploring the wonders of New Orleans. I found much there to interest and no little to tempt a boy whose pockets are empty, as mine soon were. I further discovered that few people would hire even a strong and willing white boy for wages when they had slaves to do the heavy lifting without pay. I also found people in general agreement that Texas was a wondrous land where money lay in the streets, just waiting for someone to pick it up. At first opportunity I hired as a laborer on the James Callahan, which was hauling manufactured goods to Texas and would be bringing cotton back.
It did not take me long to decide that a seaman's life was not cut to my frame, for I spent more time at the rail than at my work. The captain probably would have fired me had we not already passed over the bar and were well out to sea. Once the sickness passed, he saw to it that I made up for the lost time. It was, all in all, a miserable passage. We ran into one major winter storm that brought me fear of a type I had never known; I was certain I would soon drown in that cold, terrible water. But I was not so lucky, for all I did was become deathly ill from an attack of the grippe, brought on by working on deck soaked to the skin. I wished mightily that I could die and end the misery. But my protecting angel had remained in New Orleans.
Even at the beginning I had intended to remain a sailor only long enough to reach Texas, and my experiences on shipboard only served to deepen my resolve in this direction. I felt duty-bound to remain with the crew long enough to see the cargo unloaded, but I felt no such duty toward seeing the waiting cotton bales carried aboard. I took my pay from the captain's reluctant hands and quickly found how meager it was when I tried to convert it into the necessities of life ashore. It took much less time to spend than to earn.
Indianola offered no employment to such as I, and no money was lying in the streets. If there had ever been, the constant stream of humanity passing through had picked it up and made off with it long before I had my chance. I decided the fortune, if there was one, must lie somewhere inland.
I ate little and slept beneath a wharf while awaiting my chance. Even for a boy whose main concern was a hungry belly, there was much to marvel over. It was my first time to see the big Mexican oxcarts, their wooden wheels as high as a man's shoulder. The axles were crude and squealed in pain when not well greased, so that the carts' coming was known before they broke into view. The Mexicans themselves were a curiosity to melittle men, most of them, rattling away in a foreign tongue that made no sense in my ear. I had heard Cajun French, but I could find no similarity between that and the quick-fire Spanish these people spoke. I was fascinated by their wide sombreros, by the great jingling spurs worn by the horsemen.
I had heard, of course, about the two wars the Texans had fought against Mexico, and I had assumed those were long since over. They were not, except in name. The Texas freight wagons came lumbering into town, many hauling bales of cotton and general farm produce to be shipped back to the other states for money. I sensed the enmity which flared between these people and the little men of the brown-leather skin. Around the wharf I heard casual talk about a "cart war," a rivalry between the Mexican cartmen and the gringo wagoners over the freight business between the ports and inland markets such as San Antonio. I heard it said that many men had died or disappeared on those long, dusty trails that wound through the brush country, men of both persuasions.
On my second day I saw a Mexican and a Texan meet with knives in hand after a wagon and a cart hung wheels on an Indianola street. Nobody in the crowd moved to stop the fight until it became clear the Mexican was about to win. Then a broad-shouldered Texan with red beard and long rusty-colored hair swung a singletree and clubbed the Mexican to the ground. I was satisfied the cart driver was dead, but friends carried him away. Later I saw the little man sitting up beside a campfire, his head swathed in dirty bandages. I decided they were a hardy lot, these Texas people, whether light-skinned or dark.
On inquiry I found that the red-bearded man was named Branch Isom. He bossed a string of wagons that was loading goods I had helped carry off of the James Callahan. It was said he would be taking them to San Antonio by way of Stonehill. I had never heard of Stone-hill, and San Antonio sounded considerably more romantic, Perhaps it was there that money lay in the streets. I went to his camp and found him sitting on a bedroll, leaning his back against the huge rear wheel of a freight wagon. He held a cup of coffee in one hand and an open whisky bottle in the other, taking a sip of each in its own turn. A coldness in his eyes made me hesitate in my last steps.
I said, "Mr. Isom, I am Reed Sawyer."
No change came in his eyes. He studied me in cold silence, then asked, "Is there any reason that should be of interest to me?"
"I would like a job with your wagons to San Antonio."
He scowled. "I suppose you'd expect to be paid for it."
"Only what is customary. I was paid fifty cents a day, meals and a bunk on the ship. With your wagons there would be only the meals."
His voice was as cold as his eyes. "You don't look healthy to me. You've probably got some disease you'd spread to everybody in the crew."
"I had the grippe on board. I am over that now. I am strong. I can do my share of the work."
He laughed, but it was not the kind of warm, friendly laugh you like to hear. "There are people in this port who would pay me to take them along, and they'd work for nothing. Why should I pay you? Get away from here, boy, before I sic my dogs on you."
I saw the dogs, big ugly gray brutes of uncertain ancestry. They looked as if they would chew a man's legs off on command. A chill ran up my back. I turned without saying more and walked away from Isom's camp. The smell of the coffee and the cooking food went with me, for I had not eaten all day. I bought a fish from a man on the beach, roasted it over an open fire, then slept in my accustomed damp place beneath the wharf.
It was the next morning that the Polanders arrived. They came up the trail from Galveston. I learned later that they had been with a larger group of mixed Europeans who had landed there but had been delayed in Galveston by fever, so that the main body went ahead without them. Now, after having buried one or two of their party they had come on, bound for a settlement already laid out for them many days' journey inland.
They seemed as strange to me in their own way as the Mexicans. Having had little time for the study of geography, I had only the vaguest knowledge of the various European countries' names, much less their locations. For all I knew, Poland was a part of Africa. Mostly I looked at the women, particularly the young ones. At seventeen, I found it particularly interesting that they wore the shortest skirts I had seen except in the drinking halls of New Orleans. The skirts ended above the ankles, a scandalous sight. The better people of Indianola were quick to decide that these were loose women, for only that sort would flaunt themselves so. Some of the immigrant women wore wooden shoes, and most had black felt hats with wide brims.
People were laughing and pointing, but somehow I was stirred to pity, not laughter. These immigrants looked as hungry and poor as I was myself. At least I had the advantage of being able to speak with the people around me. These Polanders talked in a tongue that no one in Indianola seemed able to understand. They tried making signs but had scant success even with that. I could only imagine how they had made themselves understood well enough in Galveston that they hired Mexican cartmen to haul their belongings. In four big two-wheeled carts were piled trunks and a few feather-beds and some wooden farm implements they had brought from the old country.
Branch Isom came along to watch the show, he and some of his wagon men. It was obvious he had little regard for the foreigners. He had even less when he saw they were using Mexican cartmen. "Birds of a feather," he grumbled. "Dumb heathens, there's not one of them that understands English."
A man at his side said, "I wonder if they understand dag."
Those ugly gray curs had followed. The man sicced them onto the oxen that pulled the lead cart. Trapped in crude and heavy wooden yokes, the poor brutes kicked at the dogs and then tried to run. They only succeeded in dragging the cart into a ditch. It tipped over, spilling trunks and wooden plows and bedding onto the ground. The strange-looking foreigners went running after, trying to spare their goods further damage. They chunked rocks at the dogs and whipped them with sticks until the pair gave up and retreated to their master.
It was then that Thomas Canfield rode up. He seemed to appear from nowhere, sitting on a long-legged, beautifully built sorrel horse in the middle of the street. He was a tall man, not blocky and stout like Isom but well built just the same. He was then only in his early twenties but already mature in features, his bearing proud. He was clearly a man sure where he was going and unwilling to waste time along the way.
He said sternly, "Isom, do you want to talk some business, or had you rather bedevil a bunch of poor foreigners who have already had hell enough?"
Isom turned. His manner showed that this man on horseback was one he respected, though I also got the idea he did not particularly like him. "Hello, Canfield. What business could I possibly have with you?"
"That depends on how willing you are to talk price. Some goods came for me on that last ship out of New Orleans. I want them hauled to Stonehill."
The dogs stood by Isom's legs, their tongues hanging out. They still looked toward the ditched cart, considering the peril of renewed assault. One of them decided to try and started back toward the cart. Isom said sharply, "Here, dogs! Stay here." They obeyed. Isom had a voice that commanded obedience of man or beast. "What kind of goods?" he asked.
Canfield said, "Farm implements."
The foreigners did not understand the talk. It came to me later, when I took time to think about it, that they thought Thomas Canfield had come to their rescue and had ordered Isom to halt the harassment. One of the young womenjust a girl, reallylooked at Canfield with open admiration. In a minute Canfield caught the look, and he stared back at the girl.
Isom said, "Farm implements are heavy. I'll have to look at the load before we can figure."
Canfield didn't hear him; he was distracted by the girl. So was I. It was her ankles which got my attention at first. Growing up, I had had to take it on faith that girls even had ankles. But she had a pleasant face, too, and soft brown eyes that reminded me of a doe. Her full attention was devoted to Canfield, and his to her.
Isom repeated himself. Canfield nodded. They started together toward the wharf, Canfield still riding that big sorrel, Isom walking with the dogs behind him.
None of the American people helped the foreigners get the cart out of the ditch. Most simply went on about their business. In a few minutes some Mexican cartmen came along, and the Mexicans who were with the Polanders called on them for help. They had to finish unloading the heavy goods out of the cart. In a bit they manuevered the oxen up and got the big wooden wheels back on flat ground. Then all of the Polanders, women as well as the men, set in to loading their goods back into place. I stayed out of it at first because I didn't figure it was any of my business, but then I started thinking that if I helped I might be invited to share a meal with somebody. I didn't know what kind of food Mexicans or Polanders ate, but anything was better than fish roasted on a stick over an open fire, which was all I had had for three days. I pitched in and helped lift the heavy trunks and the wooden plows. Not until later did I realize I wouldn't recognize an invitation to supper if they gave me one. I never knew there were so many strange languages in one place.
One thing most people don't realize is that Texas was a mixed lot of humanity in those days. There seems to be a mistaken impression that early Texas had just two kinds of people: leftover Mexicans and Bible-reading, whisky-drinking, rifle-shooting, English-speaking immigrants from Tennessee. In truth, it wasn't like that at all. Texas drew people from all over the world because it was so big, and it had so much land to offer. It was considered a place for starting anew, no matter what fate had dealt to each person before. All kinds of people moved to Texas. Wherever you went, you found settlements of Germans, Swedes, Irish, French, Czechs. It was a Babel without a tower. It was a melting pot that never quite melted.
I didn't find a soul in the party that I could talk with, so I stood off to one side, looking hungry and waiting to see what might happen. In a little while Thomas Canfield rode back from the wharf with a grim look on his face. I assumed Isom had asked him more than he had expected to haul his goods. Canfield headed directly up to the Polanders and spoke to the Mexican cartmen who had come along and helped reload the cart. I could tell he was struggling with the language. In later years he could talk Spanish like a native. But even when I first saw him, he was able to understand and make himself understood.
In a little he was accompanied back toward the wharf by a couple of Mexicans. Branch Isom stood in front of a dramshop watching, his face clouded and angry. When Canfield returned he was followed by two smiling Mexican freighters. Isom turned and went into the dramshop, slamming the door against the wintry chill blowing in off the water.
Canfield rode by the Polanders, tipped his low-crowned hat and said, "Good morning." The voice was slow and Southern. The people didn't know what he said, but he spoke in a kindly way, so they smiled. Especially the girl.
I decided if he was feeling so good, it was time for me to present myself and hope for better than I had received at the hands of Branch Isom. I said, "Mister, could I talk to you?"
He glanced at me in surprise. I realized he thought I was one of the Polanders. "You speak English?" he asked.
"That's all I talk," I told him. "These aren't my people."
"I didn't mean to offend you. They look like a decent sort. It isn't their fault they were born somewhere else."
In those days nearly everybody in Texas except the Mexicans had been born somewhere else, but most of them not quite so far away as the Polanders.
I said, "I take it you're going inland. I was wondering if I could travel with you? I'll work at anything."
He looked me over carefully. "You have kin that you're going to?"
"I've got nobody here. I'm looking for work to do, and a place to go to away from this coast. This is a feverish country, and poor."
"Anyplace is a poor country when you've got no money. I judge you have none?"
"Very little," I admitted. "But I have a good back and willing hands."
He wanted to know where my gun was, and I told him I owned none. I couldn't tell whether that pleased him or worried him. It was a little of both, I think.
"Well," he said finally, "I can't guarantee that you'll find any work where I'm going, but you're welcome to come with me. I don't suppose you have a horse?"
I barely owned a pair of shoes.
As he rode up the street, I followed him afoot. Branch Isom stepped out of the dramshop with a bottle in his hand. His face was half as red as his hair and his beard. "Hold up, Canfield," he said.
Thomas Canfield pulled the sorrel to a stop. His manner was that of a man doing something because he chose to, not because he had been ordered to. "I don't believe we have any business, Isom."
"Yes, we do. You've hired those Mexican cartmen."
"They bid the haul for half what you asked me."
"They're Mexicans. I'm white."
"My freight has no eyes to tell the difference. But my wallet knows when I take only half as much out of it."
"You can't expect a white man to work that cheap."
I was tempted to remind Isom that he had expected me not only to work for nothing but to pay for the privilege. I held my tongue, confident that Thomas Canfield could maintain his side of the conversation. Canfield said, "The deal has been made. Next time you want to do business with me, Isom, don't try to get rich all at one time."
Isom took the advice as a challenge. "If you shipped with me, I'd guarantee protection for your goods. You ship with those Mexicans at your own risk."
"That sounds like a threat."
"No threat. I am only pointing out to you that there has been trouble on the trails: Mexican, cart trains have been burned, and the shippers took a loss."
"White men's wagons have been burned too."
"Not mine. And mine are not going to be,"
"Neither are my goods, Isom." His voice dropped a little, so that I strained to hear him. "I'll kill the man who tries."
He and Isom stared at each other with a look that was near hatred. Without anybody framing it in words, a challenge had been flung, and answered. Isom shrugged. "You're twenty-one."
Canfield nodded. "And a few years more."
Isom went back into the dramshop, the bottle in his hand. Canfield stared after him a moment, then turned to me as I walked up even with his horse. "You heard all that, Reed Sawyer?"
I told him I had. He said, "You may want to reconsider going with me."
"He didn't say he was going to do anything."
"Yes, he did. You were only listening to his words."
"I still want to go," I said. "I've been in this town long enough."
"Do you know how to use a gun?"
In truth, my poor marksmanship had been a source of shame to my father, for to most farm boys in Louisiana handling a rifle was second nature; it was a boy's job to keep meat in the house. I did not admit to my shortcoming. I said, "I grew up with a rifle in my hand."
"Then I'll provide you one."
I followed him to his camp, such as it was. He had staked a packhorse on grass at the edge of the little town. In camp waited a Mexican man several years older than Canfield. "Meet Amadeo Fernandez," Canfield said to me. I shook hands with the Mexican and said I was pleased to know him. He answered in Spanish. He smiled, so I knew at least that he was not cursing me. That was the only way I could have known the difference.
I made some comment to the effect that if I had known few people in Texas spoke English I might have chosen to go elsewhere. It was the first time I saw Canfield smile. Smiling was not a thing he did often, then or later in his life. He said, "The truth is the truth no matter what language it is spoken in. And a lie is a lie."
In the pack, spread out on the ground, was some flour for bread, some coffee beans, grease, and smoked pork. I hungered for the pork, but to my chagrin Canfield did not touch it. He said, "I had Amadeo buy us some fish. It has been a long time since I have had fresh saltwater fish."
Having contributed nothing toward the meal, I could ill afford to be critical. But I ate rather more of the bread than of the fish.
I felt it was not politic to ask questions about his business. He volunteered a little information, however, as we ate. He said he owned land north and east of Stonehill. He was farming part of it, raising cattle on the rest. His parents had moved to that region soon after the Mexican War and had broken out one of the first fields. Thomas was a good farmer, but his preference lay in other directions. He had gone west into Indian country with a party of horse hunters, capturing wild mustangs to bring back to the settlements for sale and trade. With his share of the profits he had bought the first land of his own. Later he went back into the Comanche hunting grounds with hired Mexicans and took more wild horses. This time the profit was his. He added more land to his holdings.
"All kinds of people are coming into this country," he said. "You saw those Polanders. A San Antonio priest bought property for them to break out and work, over past Stonehill. Some of them haven't brought any equipment. There's no one to buy it from where they're going, no one but me. I've been ordering farm implements shipped from New Orleans and reselling them to new farmers. Whatever I can make, I'll put into more land."
I ventured, "You must be a big man up there."
"Not yet. But I will be."
By next morning (he Mexican cartmen had enough freight to fill out their loads. One of those big carts, drawn by two yokes of oxen, could haul up to five thousand pounds. The four Mexicans who had been carrying goods for the Polanders joined at the end of the line, Canfield talked worriedly in Spanish to Amadeo Fernandez. Together they rode back to where the foreigners waited. I followed at a respectful distance and listened to the arguments. I knew none of the language but surmised from the hand motions that the Polanders and their Mexican freighters intended to go along. Canfield was trying to tell them this cart train carried special danger, but he did not convince the four Mexicans. The Polanders listened in worried silence, understanding neither English nor Spanish. Finally a man came out of a warehouse and began speaking to them in still another language, which I learned was German. A couple of the Polanders understood that fairly well. So Spanish was translated into English through Canfield, then into German and finally, for the good of all the group, into the Silesian dialect spoken by the Polanders.
I could only imagine how much was lost or distorted through all the translations.
I began to think I should give Texas just a little more of my time, and if conditions did not improve I would move on to a more promising locale where everyone spoke my language.
At the time I thought the immigrants simply did not understand the seriousness of the situation. Later I learned they had already been through so much hell that the prospect of a little more caused no terror for them.
Canfield was looking at the girl. Talking to her was hopeless, but he tried. "I wish I could make you understand. You ought not to be on this trip."
She only smiled. It was not for the women to make the decisions anyway, not in those times or among the European immigrants. Canfield had no authority over the cart train; he was simply a shipper. But he would see his goods protected. I was to learn that when he felt something belonged to him, whether people or land or cattle, he would fly into the face of the devil to protect it.
Branch Isom and his wagons were still in Indianola when the cart train pulled out onto the well-beaten road. The wagoners had not yet gotten a full load, but a merchant vessel had docked late the night before and they would probably receive enough freight from it to finish out.
Isom stood in front of the dramshop with three of his teamsters as the last of the Mexican cartmen goaded his oxen into movement with the Polanders' goods. I was still afoot, of course, but so were the other people. Even the cart drivers walked most of the time. Thomas Canfield and Fernandez were on horseback, the Mexican leading the packhorse.
I looked back at Isom and said to Canfield, "At least they will be well behind us."
Canfield shook his head. "They have mule teams, not oxen. They will catch up."
It took most of that first day to get up out of the lowlying, swampy coastal lands and onto higher, drier ground. Though it was winter, the sun was strong and the air muggy. I found myself sweating, and I feared lapsing back into the fever that had plagued me on the ship. But as we worked our way up into a drier elevation I began to feel better and take more interest in the life I saw around me. We were passing through a country already partially settled, much of the better land broken for cultivation. This was the fallow time for most of it. The farmers we saw were mostly breaking out new land to go into crops the following spring. Though the great high-wheeled carts were still a curiosity to me, I noted that the people we passed paid little or no attention to them. But the Polanders were another matter. People stared and whispered as the strange procession of immigrants passed. I knew most people were fascinated as I had been by their clothes, particularly those of the women. A boy of ten or twelve, riding bareback on a shaggy mule in the direction opposite our line of travel, watched with open mouth as the Polanders passed. He turned the mule around and whipped it into a lope back the way he had come. A mile or so down the road we passed a couple of crude farmhouses built of logs. At least a dozen people stood in front, the boy among them. They looked at the immigrants as if they had been a circus parade.
I was bringing up the rear afoot. Canfield and Fernandez had ridden up front somewhere. A couple of the farmers edged closer and closer and looked me over carefully. Finally deciding I was of another breed than the Polanders, they fell in beside me.
"What kind of queer varmints are those?" the older one asked me.
I told him I understood they were Polanders but added that I didn't rightly know what a Polander was. All I knew for certain was that they had come from the other side of the big water.
"What are they good for?" he wanted to know.
I told him I supposed they were farmers inasmuch as I had seen some wooden plows. But I hadn't been able to talk to them, so I didn't really know.
"Foreigners," he said with a snort. "Every time we look up there's another kind of foreigners passing by. Germans, Frenchies, SwedersGod knows what all. We no sooner taken this land away from those Indians and Mexicans than all these foreigners start coming in. You watch, they'll be taking it away from us one of these days."
From what I had heard Texas still had more than enough land for everybody, but I judged he didn't care to hear that.
Through the day we passed other freight outfits coming from the interior, headed down to Indianola and Galveston. When they were Mexican oxcart trains there was a great deal of laughing and yelling between their men and ours. When they were American wagons, the hatred that passed from one side to the other was so thick and heavy you could almost reach out and touch it. I had never realized how long it took to get over a war, even after the battles had stopped.
Canfield said the hatred had come first, before the wars, and it would last a long time yet because people on both sides kept studying on the differences between themselves. They didn't pay much attention to the ways they were alike. Each one was convinced the other was inferior. They all talked to the same God, but they saw Him differently and were sure He was on their side alone.
All the Mexicans I had seen up to then were the ones on this train and a few in Indianola. To me they were still as strange as the Polanders. The difference in languages stood like a stone will between us. I asked Canfield how he got along with them to the extent that he even rode with one, that he let them freight his goods for him when white men were available to do it.
"I learned a lot from Amadeo," he said. "He worked for my father, and now he works for me. Sure, some Mexicans will lie to you. So will Branch Isom. Some of them will cheat you. So will Branch Isom. Some of them will even kill you if there's a profit in it. So will Branch Isom. So where's the big difference?"
Late that evening the Mexicans reached a place they wanted to camp. They found another cart train there ahead of them, coming down toward the coast. Both trains camped together to double their defense. I could tell there was a considerable amount of excited talk between the Mexicans of the two outfits, but of course I couldn't understand a word of it. As we fixed ourselves a little supper out of the goods in Canfield's pack he told me there was talk of a cart train being raided a couple of days' journey ahead. The attack had been driven off, but there had been some loss of life and a couple of carts burned.
Attempted robbery was the reason which went down in official records, but the cartmen knew robbery was no issue. This was part of a sustained warfare between Mexican and American freighters for supremacy on the trail. Many San Antonio merchants favored the Mexicans because they charged less for making the haul. The Mexicans had less investment in equipment and were willing to live by lower standards. Americans needed more money because of their higher investments and their higher expectations. The issues were simple. Only the solution was difficult. Canfield said he expected the outcome would be decided more on the basis of force than of equity.
In the long run, he added, most conflicts are.
We were under no obligation to help the cartmen stand guard, and it was clear that those of the coast-bound train did not trust Canfield or me. One of the first Mexican words I learned to recognize was gringo, spoken like a curse. But Canfield and I each took a turn anyway, with Amadeo filling out the last part of the night. Nothing happened except a fight between Canfield's horse and one of the others. The sorrel quickly established dominance.
We were on the trail soon after sunup, the great carts creaking and squealing. A couple of the Polanders seemed to have trouble getting started. A woman of middle age was supported by younger women until a teamster made motions for her to be placed in a cart, where she could ride. I gathered that she had survived the fevera common complaint along the coastand she had not yet regained her strength. Canfield rode to the cart and helped lift the woman into it. He received a smile from the pretty girl for his efforts. I suspected that had been his object in the first place.
One of the cartmen had a lean brown dog. As the day wore on, the dog spent most of its time with the Polanders, who talked to him in their strange language and patted him on the head. He wagged his tail and seemed to understand them perfectly well.
I brought up the rear, carrying a long-barreled muzzle-loading rifle Canfield had lent me. Toward noon I began hearing a racket behind us and saw a wagon train gradually catching up. A horseman rode well out in front of it As he neared I recognized Branch Isom's red beard, and the two bad dogs trailing along on either side of him. We pulled off the trail for nooning, and Isom brought his wagons past. He looked us over with hard eyes and said nothing. Not a word was spoken by anyone on either his train or ours. The only communication was between Isom's two dogs and the brown one which belonged to our train. They had a snarling match that led to a moment of tooth-snapping conflict. Isom rode back and popped a whip over the dogs' heads. His two pulled out of the fight and followed him, though they looked back and continued the quarrel so long as they were within range.
One of the cartmen patted the brown dog and spoke approvingly for his bravery in battle. He would have lost if the fight had been allowed to go on much longer, but it would have been to superior numbers, not to superior gallantry. The pretty immigrant girl got something out of a cart and smeared it on the dog's wounds, talking softly in words the dog seemed to understand even though I did not.
While we rested, one of the immigrant men came to me and began talking. He pointed to my rifle and made motions I could not decipher until finally he mimed the act of pulling a bow-string. I realized he was asking if there was a chance we might encounter Indians. I didn't know.
Canfield said, "No Indians. They're a long way west." Evidently his meaning was understood, for the Polander seemed relieved.
I said, "These people are in for a lot of trouble if they've go to go through this every time they want to talk to anybody."
Canfield said, "They'll get with their own and stay with their own. There'll be a few who will learn enough English to get by, and those will take care of the rest. I've sold plows to some Germans, and that's the way they've done it. These immigrants don't scatter amongst us much; they stay close together and lean on one another. They'll make it."
Watching these people, the language difference a barrier between us, I could only guess at what they had left behind them, what they had been through to get here. Later, when the barriers began to break down, I would learn that the Polanders were something like the Israelites of the Bible, made slaves in their own country and finally driven out. They had been conquered and divided up by the Prussians and others and their lands had been taken away from them until they faced the proposition of leaving or starving. There had been a few Polanders in Texas at the time of the revolution from Mexico, and some had been executed on Santa Anna's orders after the fight at Goliad. A few were with Sam Houston when he won the battle of San Jacinto. These wrote letters home, and so over the next few years they kept drawing in friends and family until they had several small communities spread across the country. The stories about money lying in the streets had probably reached Silesia too, just as they had reached Louisiana.
I doubted they were any more disappointed than I was to find out how little money existed in Texas, and none of it lying in the streets. They had chosen a hard time to come. Actually, it was always hard times in Texas. The rich you could count on one hand. The poor you found in multitudes.
Late in the day the Mexicans began stepping out on the trail and looking forward. The capitán rode back and visited with Amadeo, then the two spurred their horses and rode far out ahead, beyond sight. A while before dark they were back, disappointed. Canfield said they had hoped to meet another cart train coming down the trail so they could camp together for mutual protection, but they had found none. Now they could not put off camping any longer; it would soon be night.
The Polanders would probably have helped with guard duty if they had been asked, but no one knew how to ask them. So far as we could tell, they had not a single weapon with them. They had not been accustomed to owning or using them in the old country; the Prussians would not have allowed it. We two gringos and the Mexicans divided the guard duty between us. I had not thought about it until Canfield mentioned it, for I was not used to having to consider such things, but the capitán had camped the train m a broad, open area. If the moon was again bright and cold as the night before, we would have good visibility.
Because I could talk to no one else, I took Canfield as my example and copied whatever he did. He was concerned but not really fearful. I could not say the same for myself. I had never held a gun in my hands for possible use against another human. I asked, "Do you have to do this all the time?" It crossed my mind that I was still only two days' walk from the coast.
Canfield said, "When I was a boy we saw a few Indians, but they've all been pushed west. Once we're home nobody will bother us. But the trail is always a place to be watchful. Especially as long as this cart war goes on."
It seemed to me it would have been the better part of valor to have shipped his goods with Isom or some other wagon man no matter what the rate had been. I said as much.
Canfield told me sternly, "In this country you must never show a feather. Give up to them once and you're beaten." Through the years to come I was to learn just how deeply he believed that. Once challenged, cost was no factor to him. He never showed a feather.
The night chill closed upon us as soon as the sun dropped out of sight. When the people spread their blankets to sleep, one of the immigrants threw fresh wood upon their campfire. Canfield quickly dragged it back out of the flames. He tried to explain that for safety's sake it was better to keep a dark camp. I don't think he quite conveyed the message, but he had such a commanding way about him that no one presented any challenge.
I took the first watch. I doubted I could have slept anyway. Thomas Canfield seemed able to command himself even in the matter of sleeping, for within a few minutes after he rolled up in his blankets he was gone. It took Amadeo Fernandez a bit longer. I sat hunched with my coat on and my blanket wrapped around my shoulders, my bare hands stiff and cold on the steel barrel of the rifle. There was no danger of my falling asleep on duty. I was chilled to the bone.
I had no way of telling time and had not learned to follow the stars. I listened for the Mexicans who stood watch farther up the line of carts. When at last I heard them changing guard, I got up, trembling from the cold, and carefully awakened Canfield. He wasted no time yawning. He seemed to know where he was and what he had to do from the moment he opened his eyes. He got up and went about it in a quiet, businesslike manner. I lay down on the spot he had vacated, hoping he had warmed the ground. He had not. I shivered a long time before I dropped off to sleep.
When I awakened it was suddenly and to the sound of shots. I flung the blanket away and fumbled in panic for the rifle. I saw flashes of fire and vague movements out in the night. I heard men shouting and horses running. I had never realized how quickly a man could fire and then recharge a muzzle-loading rifle until I saw Thomas Canfield do it.
My heart pounded and skipped. I shouted, "What do I shoot at?"
He replied, "Anything that moves out there. We've got no friends past the cart line."
Some riders carried torches. Though they held them high, the flickering light showed the horses a little. Somewhere up the line I heard a man scream, and I saw a torch thrown into one of the carts. Behind me the immigrant women were crying, huddling together.
From out of the night a shape lunged at me, and I raised my rifle. It was close range, but I missed. Canfield was busy reloading. The horseman spurred into me, knocking me down and making me lose my hold on the rifle. The rider hurled a blazing torch into the nearest cart, one which held immigrant goods. A Polander jumped onto the cart and grabbed the torch, flinging it back into the horseman's face as the man fired a pistol. The horse squealed in panic at the blaze and whirled around while the man cursed. Canfield finished loading his rifle, brought it to his shoulder and fired. The man was driven back in his saddle. The horse broke into a run. The rider slid over its rump and landed roughly on the ground. Instantly Canfield was kneeling over him, a long hunting knife in his hand, the point pressing against the man's throat.
"You move," he said, "and I'll kill you."
The man groaned. The rifle ball had taken him hard.
Canfield glared at me as he reloaded his rifle. "I thought you said you could shoot."
I had no answer for that and did not try one.
"Watch him, then," Canfield said tersely and turned his attention back to the men out there in the moonlight. He called a time or two for Amadeo. Both of us had lost sight of the Mexican.
The shooting died. The raiders pulled back, for they had flung their torches and had found the defense too strong. Down the line, one cart blazed. Despairing of putting out the fire, several Mexicans grabbed the tongue and pulled the vehicle away from the others to prevent its fire from spreading. Canfield said with concern, "I'm going to see if that's one of the carts carrying my goods."
The wounded raider kept groaning. I did not know what to do about him, so I did nothing except watch.
One of the Polanders touched my shoulder and pointed to the other side of the carts. He said something I did not understand except that the word "Mexican" somehow came out of it. I handed another Polander my rifle and pointed to the wounded man, hoping he understood that I meant for him to stand guard. He took the weapon nervously. Following the older man's repeated beckoning, I found two of the immigrant women kneeling over a fallen Amadeo. They spoke softly, trying to comfort him. He probably did not hear them. As little experience as I had had with that sort of thing, I sensed he was dying. I touched him and felt the stickiness of warm blood and came near being sick. I brought my hand quickly away, as if I had stuck it into fire. In the excitement I had forgotten about the cold, but suddenly it came back to me, and I was trembling all over.
Canfield called me. I responded with what voice I could muster. He came around the cart, knelt quickly and called Amadeo's name. The Mexican's breathing was spaced in ragged patches, and in a few moments it stopped. Canfield talked softly in Spanish, gently shaking the man as if he thought he could force breath back into the body. Finally he pushed to his feet and walked back to where the wounded raider lay. Canfield towered over him with fury in his face.
The man pleaded, "Help me."
Canfield looked at me. "Go relight one of those torches at that cart fire and bring it here so I can see."
I did. He held the torch over the man's face. "I know you," he said accusingly. 'I've seen you in Stonehill. You're with Isom's train, aren't you?"
The man cried, "I'm bleeding to death. Help me."
"Tell me first," Canfield insisted. "It was Isom who led this raid, wasn't it?"
One of the Mexican cartmen dropped to one knee to tear the clothing away from the wound deep in the raider's shoulder. Canfield pushed the man to one side. He said something in Spanish, then said for my benefit and the prisoner's, "We'll treat you when you've told me what I want to know. Till then, nobody touches you."
"I'll die," the man cried weakly.
"Then die," Canfield said. His voice was as cold as the night. "It's up to you."
He stood over the man, a terrible look on his face. I saw a ferocity I had never seen anywhere before. Slowly the Mexicans began gathering around. They talked quietly among themselves, and I heard a word that I later learned described the look they saw in his eyes: gavilán. The hawk.
At that moment I think Thomas Canfield might have killed anyone who had stepped in to thwart what he was doing. I suddenly found that I was a little afraid of him, a feeling I never quite lost. There was a look about him thenand I saw it again at times through the yearsthat turned my blood cold.
It was, for a little while, a contest of wills between Canfield and the wounded gringo. Finally, as it would always be, it was the other man who gave up first. He lifted his hand a little way, pleadingly, and whispered, "I'll tell. Help me."
"Tell first," Canfield said.
The man tried, but he had waited too long. The strength was gone from him, and his voice. His lips moved, but no discernible words came. Canfield knelt and grabbed the man's collar. He shook him. "Louder! Tell me! Was it Isom?"
He had won the contest, but the victory cost him a price he had not intended to pay. The man died without telling him what he wanted to know. Canfield stood over the dead raider and cursed him for taking the life of a better man.
Copyright © 1981 by Elmer Kelton