Authors: Joe R. Lansdale
Tags: #joe r. lansdale, #Western, #Texas, #Literary
Black Hat Jack
Copyright © 2014 by Joe R. Lansdale.
All rights reserved.
Dust jacket and interior illustrations Copyright © 2014 by Ken Laager. All rights reserved.
Interior design Copyright © 2014 by
Desert Isle Design, LLC. All rights reserved.
Electronic Edition ISBN
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
For Turon Tanner
Black Hat Jack and me had been riding at night, trying to take in the cooler weather, avoid the sunlight, but mostly avoid being seen. That was almost queered when Jack said he smelled Comanche. I had known Jack a while now, and I had learned that when he said he could smell a bear, a buffalo, a Comanche, or a ground hog fart, then he most likely could.
We got down off our horses, bit their ears and pulled at their necks and they lay down for us. It was a pretty bright night, and that fretted me some, I assure you. Them horses, some fairly tall grass, and tumble weed and some Texas dirt, was about all that was between us and them. I took off my hat and tossed it aside so as to get smaller.
They wasn’t right on us, maybe twenty-five feet away, and we could see them good, crossing in the moonlight. Must have been twenty of them. More than enough to ride down on us and lose a few, but still take us and do what they like to do to them that cross their lands. Story was they ran the Apache pretty much out of Texas, and let me tell you, if there’s someone that can run an Apache, you best take heed of them.
So there we was lying down behind them horses, our teeth clamped on a horse ear, which is not tasty at all, though horses themselves are pretty good to eat if you cook them right. The horse I had on the ground was a fellow I called Satan. He wasn’t the original horse I called Satan, as I had to eat him, (which is what made me an expert on the eating of horse) but this one was pretty good, black as the one I had before, and about of the same spirit, though less mischievous. He would even come when I whistled. If he was in the mood.
I’m tempted to tell you a story or two about the original Satan, but I suppose what you want to hear about is the Comanche and what happened to us. Since I’m here telling you about it, and I’m not going to talk about Satan the First, I guess there’s no use telling the old joke about the frontiersman who sat down with some tenderfoots and told them about the time he got out on the trail and was surrounded by twenty Indians at each of the four directions, mean and nasty and angry and well-armed. But I’m going to tell it anyway.
They was coming down on him in a rush, and all he had was a pistol with six shots in it. He’d tell the story like that, warming it up like he was tossing a log on the fire, saying what them Indians was wearing, talking about the scalps flapping from where they hung on their horses, or on spears or such, and then he’d say how he fired all six shots, and knew he wasn’t going to have time to reload. He’d pause in his story then, stop and light his pipe, or scratch his balls, or some such, and wait for the inevitable question.
“What happened?” a tenderfoot would ask.
To which the frontiersman, leaning forward in earnest, stretching out the moment, would say, “Why I got kilt, of course.”
Only this night wasn’t no joke. I was seeing if I could smell them Indians, but I couldn’t. All I could smell was wet horse ear. I kept my teeth clamped on it without biting so hard the horse got angry and started tossing its head and trying to stand up, just firm like to suggest it might be a good idea if it laid still. Some people taught dogs to do that, jump up and grab a horse by the nose or the ear, and bring him down. That was quite a jump, but we wasn’t dogs and this wasn’t a joke. Them was real live Comanche braves.
We lay there quiet and watched them ride by, wrapped in buffalo robes, scalps dangling from their bridles. Those robes were a little heavy for the June weather during the day, but at night it could get a shade nippy. I had on my heavy coat for that matter, and so did Jack, though mine was woolen and his was buckskin lined with wool. Jack also had on a hat made of buffalo hide that had fold down ear flaps. It was black as the devil’s shadow and he always wore it, snow or shine, and that’s how he got his name. He had been a mountain man and was now a hunter and sometime scout for the army, but though he looked the part, with beaded moccasins and such, he was always good about his grooming. He got rid of lice and fleas promptly in both hair and beard, and would bathe and soap up, wearing his red flannel long handles as he did. He liked to keep those clean too.
After the Comanche had gone on, we still laid there and didn’t move. It was like we had been planted in that ground and was just waiting for a rain so we, as seeds, could burst up out of the ground, mounted and ready to ride.
After a time, Black Hat Jack let go of his horse’s ear, and that horse stood right up, and Jack swung into the saddle. I did the same. We started trotting slowly in the direction we had been going, which wasn’t the direction them Comanches was heading.
“That was close,” I said.
“Comanches riding in a group like that are out to raid, and this is a good night for it. I got no idea where they’re going, but they got plans, or hopes, or maybe they’re just traveling like us. Sometimes a Comanche can seem to be doing one thing and he’s doing another. In other words, I know some shit about Comanche, but I don’t know all the shit there is to know about them. No one does. Not even the Comanche themselves.”
I, of course, knew all this, as I wasn’t exactly attending my first goat roping. I had been all about the business of Indians before, but it was good to have Jack with me. He was a man you’d want at your back you got in a fight. He even treated me good, and him a white man. Or at least whiter than me. My figure was he was some Indian, and probably some Irish or Swede, and a whole lot of horse’s ass. He was a hulk, had somewhat dark skin and those hard, sharp features of an Indian. I don’t even know what his last name was. I’d never asked. I always called him Jack, and some called him Black Hat Jack, and time has washed his name from history a bit, as I tell this, but there was a time when he was as well known as Liver Eat’n Johnson, Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, and Buffalo Bill. Well, maybe not as much as Buffalo Bill.
Wasn’t nobody as well known as he was, except maybe Wild Bill Hickok. I had known Wild Bill some and could appreciate that he wasn’t all legend and no sand. Actually, same could be said of all them I mentioned, though Buffalo Bill was the least shy among us about lying and maybe the one with the largest hole in his bag of sand, cause he used lying for more than just entertainment. He made a living out of bragging, and it made me a little jealous.
Lying was something you was supposed to do up to a point. It was the sign of a real frontiersman, someone who had been around. And I have learned myself how to do it, and I have gotten my lessons from the best, like Black Hat Jack. He could lie like a preacher, and look as sincere as a politician wanting your vote, a banker wanting your dollar, or a whore that has just told you how fine you was, even if you was the twelfth in line that day.
But at the core of it Jack was honest. Stood up for his friends, and he was a straight shot when it come to a rifle, though not as good as me with pistols, and a straight shooter with words when he wasn’t yarning, and maybe as good as me there. I do stretch the truth a little, though I want to assure you I ain’t doing that now. This is all the truth as it happened without any stretching of facts, though some of the facts are a little hard to remember, and therefore have to be filled in some. I don’t consider a fill a stretch.
Another thing about Jack, wasn’t no one knew how old he was. He carried himself like he might be forty at the top, but his wrinkled face, his thin, gray hair, marked him up at about sixty or more. That said, I never heard him complain about hard or cold ground or bad weather or shitty food, though there was one exception as he made quite a point to me that he wouldn’t eat mash potatoes unless he was held down and they was shoved down his throat. I don’t know what he had against mash potatoes, but the feelings didn’t extend to the tater in its truer form, as he would eat those raw, or baked for that matter, certainly fried up in buffalo grease, or lard or butter, but the mash potato had somewhere along the line hurt his feelings, and he hadn’t never gotten over it.
We was riding along after our close call, and then we seen something lying out on the ground. It was like a mound of light-colored dirt with sticks in it, but that wasn’t what it was. When we got up on it we seen it was a man. He was naked and stretched out, tied down. It was clear the Comanche had been at him. They had probably started on him during the daylight and had worked on him most of the day. Stakes were driven in the ground at his hands and feet, and his arms and legs had been stretched out and tied off to them with rawhide. They had fastened a rawhide band around his balls, and when it shrunk the balls swelled up and burst open. Black Jack said they had used wet rawhide and let the sun dry it. I had once been wrapped up in a fresh killed cow skin, wetted down and left to dry, and not by no Indians. I had barely escaped that one, but I hadn’t gotten out of that hide before the sunlight tightened it and I began to feel it squashing me like a mouse between two bricks. I was lucky that day. Some folks I knew come up on me and cut me out of it.
This fellow, he hadn’t been so lucky. He had been worked over elsewhere too, had his eyes poked out and something stuck up his nose, and his mouth was wide open and full of dried blood, which my guess was from having his tongue cut out. His beard had been skinned in spots, and trips of skin had been peeled from the top of his chest all the way down to his groin. His stomach had been cut open and his guts was pulled out and placed on a fire that was burned out now and was nothing but blackened sticks. Those guts was still attached to him; they had cooked them while he was still alive, and on top of it all he had been scalped. Like I said, you didn’t want to get caught out there in the wild with the Comanche, and that’s the reason so many frontiersmen saved the last bullet for themselves, or for someone they cared about.
It’s hard to imagine such things sitting in your house all comfortable, and the frontier having been cleared out a few years back, but that’s how it was back then, and that’s how you would do if you were smart; you’d use your last bullet for yourself.
“It’s a buffalo hunter, I bet you,” Jack said. “Comanche don’t like them especially, killing off all their food for the hides. They wouldn’t like them much better if they took the meat, but seeing that meat rotting out there, just the hides and maybe the tongues taken away, it sets a Comanche’s teeth on edge. I ain’t fond of it neither.”
“Ain’t we hired out to hunt buffalo?” I said.
“We are, but I’m not proud of it. Billy Dixon, who’s the one told me about these herds out near Adobe Walls, said he hated doing it, but it was either leave them be and be proud of yourself, or make a dollar, and the dollar won. That cleared things up with him, but I got to tell you, more of them I’ve killed, more I think about it, it’s getting a lot more murky to me. I ain’t got nothing against them Indians, none of them, though I will admit to being less fond of the Comanche than others, but they’re just doing what they need to do to survive.”
“Ain’t that what we’re doing?”
“Reckon so, but I don’t feel noble about it. Dollars I make doing this, well, son, they don’t shine. I think I am one of a whole pack of worthless son-of-a-bitches, and though I like you and find you better than most, you have to be included. All us humans are fouled on both ends. One we shit out of, and the other we talk shit out of. If god was fair about things, he would have already smashed the shit out of all of us. I know I’m full of it, and I suspect you are. Thing is, just when I think I’m done with it from either end, I fill up with it all over again.”
That’s how Jack was. He was going to die a philosopher, not a Christian.
We didn’t have a shovel, but we used our knives to dig a grave, taking turns in case we got too deep in our work, so to speak, and not see something creeping up on us, like an Indian. The ground was hard, but we got a grave dug that could hold that dead man down under. Parts of him we found in the grass, skin and the like, we put that in there with him.
When he was packed away, wearing a coat of dirt, we got back on our horses and rode on. I had never been to Adobe Walls, which was our destination, in the north top of Texas. We was to meet up with Billy Dixon and the others Jack knew. Jack had been there before, and knew the way. Once he’d been to a place he claimed he could always go back. I was a pretty good tracker, and wasn’t bad with direction, but I was beat out by a lot of others, and especially Jack. I figured you could have blindfolded him, ridden him on a horse over the Rockies, pushed him off his horse and broke his leg, and somehow he’d known the direction to crawl to get back to you and cut your throat, and he would never have to take off the blindfold.