Authors: Joe R. Lansdale
Tags: #joe r. lansdale, #Western, #Texas, #Literary
Some years later when I was working as a Marshal for Hanging Judge Isaac Parker, I was walking along a boardwalk in Fort Smith, Arkansas, proudly wearing my marshal badge, and who do I see but Happy Collins. He looked up and seen me at the same time. He smiled, and I smiled, and we threw our hands out and shook.
“Why Nat, you black son-of-a-shit-eating dog, how you been?”
“Better than you, I Have A Hand In My Ass, you horse-humping excuse for a white Indian.”
We laughed and he invited me into the saloon for a drink, forgetting I wasn’t exactly welcome inside. As a marshal, even a black one, I had some perks, but I didn’t take advantage of them much, and besides, I didn’t drink. I was still a sarsaparilla man.
“Someone has let you tote a badge?” he asked.
“Judge Parker don’t care about color,” I said.
“I mean why would they let you tote a badge. That’s like asking me to be a banker.”
It was all lame stuff, but we enjoyed it. Finally he went in the saloon, got a bottle of whisky and a bottle of sarsaparilla for me, and came out. We walked off to where there was a big oak on the edge of town, sat down there and talked while we sipped from our bottles.
“So what you been doing all this time?” I asked.
“These last three years were what you might call eventful,” Happy said. “After Adobe Walls, I managed to brave up enough to go back to the Cheyenne. I mean, I waited until I heard they was near whipped in spirit, you know, and that White Shield, my father-in-law, had forgiven me. He had banished me because White Eagle said he should. Now on account of White Eagle being nothing but a lying asshole, he welcomed me back. You know, the Comanche and the Cheyenne gave White Eagle a new name after Adobe Walls. I ain’t exactly sure how it shakes out, even though I speak both languages pretty good, but it’s something like Wolf Pussy, or Coyote Ass, or Wolf Shit, Wolf Turd, maybe. Whatever it is, it’s not meant as a term of endearment. He gets kicked a lot and women throw horse shit at him. I seen them do it. Thing was, though, even having been welcomed back into the fold, I didn’t stay long. My wife, White Shield’s daughter, damn if she wasn’t humping the hell out of a brave in the short time I was gone. I think she had done him so good he had gone cross-eyed. I sure didn’t remember his eyes being like that when I left out of there on the run. Anyway, I got back into camp, I come to suspect it had been going on all along and I had been a fool. I rolled up my blankets and went back to white folks, and have been miserable ever since. I liked being an Indian. You know a thing I miss, though I don’t say it too much? It’s boiled dog. I guess anyone can kill and skin and boil a dog, but my woman could do it better than anyone I ever knew. I’ve whacked a few pups on my own, skinned them and boiled them, but it just isn’t the same. Shit, Nat. I ain’t nothing but a lazy scoundrel and secret dog boiler in white society. Out there among the Cheyenne I was respected for not stooping to woman’s work. Hey, whatever happened to Jack?”
I told him.
“Oh damn, Nat. I didn’t know.”
“He was a brave one,” I said.
“He was at that,” Happy said. “I knew him and knew of him for a long time. Lot of people hated him, but there wasn’t many didn’t respect him. Or if they they didn’t, they didn’t let on to his face.”
He drank more of the bottle, and we talked for awhile longer, until I realized all we had between us was that day at Adobe Walls. I made excuses, one of which was that it was best I not be seen with a drunk, and then I stood up and so did he.
While he was laughing at my joke about him being a drunk, I stuck out my hand, and we shook. He had tears in his eyes as we parted. I don’t know if it was the whisky, or memory of that day, or if Happy was just the crying type.
It was another two years before I pulled off my badge and rode out to Adobe Walls. I still had Satan, and he was still one hell of a runner, but he couldn’t run as long or as far as before. He had gotten old. But, in a short burst, there still wasn’t a horse alive that could beat him.
Took the old trail out there, come to where I thought was about where me and Jack had found that dead man, scalped and cut up. There wasn’t any more wild Indians about, least not in packs. The Comanche had all gone tame, or so it was said. I didn’t see a single buffalo. It was if that hunter and the Comanche and the buffalo had never been.
When I came to Adobe Walls, I tied Satan off to a broken pole sticking out of one of the walls, and went inside where we’d had the fight. A lot of people had camped there. There was all manner of things thrown around, piles of shit here and there, where lazy assholes hadn’t bothered to go outside. The roof was long gone. There was only the sky.
I stood at the window where Billy Dixon had made his shot. Over the years there was them that doubted it, and them that said he made it from the loft, but there wasn’t any loft. And he didn’t make that shot from the roof. I know. I was there and seen him shoot.
There was them among the Indians and the whites who said, yeah, he made that shot, but the Indian didn’t die. He got hit in the elbow, or just got the breath knocked out of him by that long shot, and he lived. I doubt it. I seen him fall, and I have seen too many dead things drop; that shot killed him, I am certain.
Looking out the window at that rise near a mile away, I was overcome with emotion. Had Billy not taken that shot, them Comanche might have worried us down like a dog nipping at a wounded animal, worried us plumb to death. Thank goodness he took the shot. That shot had let them know White Shield’s magic was no good.
But I hadn’t really come out to see Adobe Walls. Oh, that was part of it, but there was more to it. I had ridden this way remembering those nights Millie and I had together. They hadn’t meant that much to either of us in the long run, but we had been young and bold and I wondered now if she was a school marm. Not that I planned to look her up.
But even those memories of her wasn’t why I had really come.
It was Jack.
Shadows were growing long by the time I reached the wallow where the three of us had fought the Kiowa. Actually, the wallow had filled in a lot, mostly with grass. The grass was long and green there, and where Jack had fallen, not too far from it, there was a greater growth of grass, and there was blue bonnets and yellow flowers. The ground was rich there. Climbing off Satan’s back I looked over that spot, turned my head and looked to where we had seen that trail of Indians traveling along, defeated not only that day, but forever. The prairie went on and on except where it was blocked by great rises of red and rust-colored rock. The sky, though beginning to darken, was so blue it near made me weep. Clouds tufted like cotton balls against it and there was a flock of birds racing across it. A light wind blew. I took in a deep breath. I felt as if I was taking in one of the last free breaths there would ever be.
I let go of Satan’s bridle, because unlike in the past, he was now willing to stand and wait for me, having finally decided I was someone worth knowing and would supply him with grain. I strolled over to where Jack had fallen, got down on my hands and knees and plundered through the grass. I turned up bits of rawhide and finally a skull, or what was left of it. The top of it had been bashed in and where there should have been a left eye socket there was only a big hole that spread from socket to nose gap. There was smaller splits in the bone at the back of the skull—knife or hatchet strikes.
I prowled about some more, found more bones. Not many. Weather, animals and time had hauled the others away. I gathered up what I could, pushed down a swathe of grass with my foot and laid the bones on top of it. There was a small shovel in my gear. I got that and dug a hole that would hold all the bones. I put them in it and pushed the dirt back into the hole.
When that was done I stood up and tossed my head back and howled like a wolf. Why? I have no idea, but it sure felt good. I went back to Satan and pulled a short board I had brought out from a bag strapped across the side of his saddle. I had prepared it before coming. Carved into it, the carving filled with white paint, I had put:
BLACK HAT JACK.
HE DIED LIKE A MAN. RIGHT AFTER
THE SECOND BATTLE OF ADOBE WALLS.
I didn’t have any dates on it, but I thought that better somehow. Besides, I had no idea when he was born, no hint of his age. Jack would have liked it simple. I sat there until the shadows widened and the clouds was no longer visible, and there was only the stars and the moon.
I rode by moonlight back to Adobe Walls and camped there, in the store part with Satan in there with me. I took off his saddle and blanket and curried him and gave him grain. I hobbled him, though I felt he would be willing to stay with me now, even though the night.
There was some firewood and kindling someone had hauled in, and I used that to make a nice fire as the wind was turning chill. I had a cold dinner of jerky and water. I had chosen the store for the night because the idea of lying down in the saloon where I had been holed up against them Comanche didn’t appeal to me. It was silly, but that’s how I felt. Above me was only sky, and that made me feel less cramped. The walls about me cut the wind. I was glad of that and glad for my fire, as there was much wind that night. It came howling across the prairie and down from the high rocks and moaned all night.
When I awoke the sun was not yet up. The fire had died down, so I took a stick and stirred it up and put on more wood so I could boil coffee and bake biscuits in my little pan. They didn’t bake too good because I was in a hurry. I ate and drank, put out my fire and saddled Satan.
I took my time. The wind was still now. The sky was starting to lighten.
I thought about riding back to where Jack had fallen, one last time. But I didn’t. I knew it didn’t matter. It mattered not at all. Me and Satan went north east.
The Second Battle of Adobe Walls really happened, though I have used the fiction writer’s privilege of telling it my way. Bat Masterson was really there, as were a few of the other characters. And Billy Dixon did take that shot, and its effect on the Comanche is as I described. Many of the events mentioned happened, though as with most Western history, there are considerable conflicts as to who did what and when and who was there and who was not, and so on. You finally have to decide on what seems the most real and lie about the rest of it, which is the bread of butter of a story writer. I have done that freely.
Blacks in the west have been mostly ignored until late. They took part in many great historical events, and did much of the Indian fighting as part of the Ninth and Tenth cavalry. Racism kept their accomplishments under wraps until recently. I know nothing of a black man being at Adobe Walls, but they were at many Western events, and there sure could have been someone like Nat there. History for African-Americans is growing richer. For Nat’s background I read slave and ex-slave narratives, and a considerable number of historical tomes, as well as the remembrances of those who had lived through those times and wrote about it.
As described in the story, African-Americans got a better shake out west, as the tradition there was more of a wait and see before deciding a person’s worth. This was not always the case, of course, but it was preferred by many African-Americans to the slave states, and by many, to the northern states, which were not always comfortable for the dark of skin either. Many famous mountain men and deputy marshals for Judge Isaac Parker were black. One of the most famous deputy marshals was Bass Reeves. The list of accomplishments by people of color is long and varied. There isn’t room for all of it here, but I hope you will be encouraged to find out more. It’s there if you look for it.
Finally, though real historical characters are mentioned in this story, this is my version of events, and even the real characters are not meant to be represented in an exact and accurate manner. They have become mythology, and I have played with that mythology, attempting like all story tellers, and tall-tale advocates, to give them their own sweet myths.
A last note. Western language was colorful and varied. I have tried to capture it here, though I haven’t made any attempt for it to be on the money, but Nat’s use of was instead of were was common for many. Even now, listening to pure East Texas accents, I find them variable. Not just the sound of the voice but the use of the words.
My father was born in 1909, and memory of him, and stories he told me that were told to him, are very much alive here. Not any exact story, but the tradition of story telling, which when he was in the right mood to do, could be riveting. I also got the feeling when listening to him that I was hearing an authentic voice not much removed from the era he was talking about, stories passed down to him by kith and kin. I am keeping the tradition alive.
I should also add that though there have been two other stories about this character, and there will be a forthcoming novel, the time lines don’t entirely jibe. I wasn’t sure what was what when I first started writing about Nat. I have also changed his speech patterns a bit for this novella and for that forthcoming novel.
As for history, I love it and care about it and have researched all manner of things, but as I said, I have not hesitated to shift certain things slightly when I felt it was in service of the story. Also, for those who are highly knowledgeable about guns, I want to thank you in the past for sending me a lot of contradicting, expert information. I should add that I appreciate your support, but if you feel that I have made an error here concerning any weapon or any piece of history, well, keep it to yourself.
Joe R. Lansdale
January 1, 2014