A good yarn
I knew Texan author Joe R Lansdale from his enjoyable Hap and Leonard stories but was reminded by reading Kim Newman’s Western Movies (review of that soon), to which Mr Lansdale wrote the foreword, that he also wrote Westerns. And just at that coincidental moment, a kind nephew gave me one for Christmas, Black Hat Jack.
It didn’t take long to read. It’s little more than a novella really. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s an account of the so-called Second Battle of Adobe Walls, in the Texas Panhandle just north of the Canadian River. That was in 1874 – not the Kit Carson fight in 1864 but the one ten years later, between about 30 buffalo hunters and possibly 700 mostly Comanche fighters, with some Cheyenne and Kiowa, urged on by Comanche medicine man Isatai’I, who promised that the attackers would be immune to bullets, and the famous Quanah Parker.
The buffalo hunters were there, slaughtering the bison, in defiance of the Medicine Lodge Treaty (1867) which reserved the area between the Arkansas River and the Canadian as Indian hunting grounds. But this is often glossed over in accounts, and Lansdale doesn’t mention it either.
A rough settlement had sprung up to service the perhaps 250 hunters in the area, with two stores, a corral, a sod saloon, owned by one James Hanrahan, and the smithy of a certain Tom O’Keefe. The Indians perceived this settlement and the buffalo hunting it supported as a serious threat.
The most famous white men present (there was also a woman, the wife of cook William Olds, depicted by Lansdale as a drunken harridan) were the scout, hunter and later sheriff Billy Dixon (1850, so 24 at the time – 1913) and a twenty-year-old Bat Masterson.
The Indians’ first attack almost succeeded. They were close enough to hammer on the doors and windows of the buildings with their rifle butts. At such close quarters, the hunters’ long-range rifles were useless, and they were fighting with pistols and Henry and Winchester lever-action rifles. After the initial attack was driven back, however, the white men were able to keep the Indians at a distance with their large-caliber, long-range buffalo guns. There were nine men in Hanrahan’s saloon, including Masterson and Dixon, 11 in one of the stores, and seven in the other. The fight lasted five days.
It was Dixon who took the famous shot with a borrowed .50-90 Sharps, hitting a mounted Comanche on a ridge above the Walls at 1500 yards, knocking him off his horse and so dispiriting the Indians (they had come seriously to doubt the immunity from bullets malarkey) that they withdrew. Dixon left a detailed account of the fight, which Lansdale has certainly read.
Four hunters were killed, including Olds, who accidentally shot himself while descending a ladder. The number of Indian casualties is unknown because they carried away many of their dead and wounded. According to Dixon, Quanah was wounded.
Later in the summer, a troop of cavalry, with Masterson and Dixon as scouts, made it back to Adobe Walls, where a dozen men were still holed up. The killing had not entirely ended. One civilian was lanced by Indians while looking for wild plums along the Canadian River. The soldiers and remaining men left Adobe Walls, heading south to join General Nelson A Miles’s main command. The Indians then burned the settlement to the ground.
Lansdale tells the tale with gusto, in the vernacular of the time and place. The story is recounted in the first person by Nat Love. We’ve mentioned this entertaining character before on this blog, the African-American cowboy and rodeo star who wrote a ‘vigorous’ autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself, published in 1907 (which Lansdale has also certainly read). In fact Love was not, as far as we know (and we can be pretty certain!) at Adobe Walls. He did go to Dodge City, Kansas, the base of the Adobe Walls hunters, where he found work as a cowboy with cattle drivers from the Duval Ranch, on the Palo Duro River in the Panhandle. There, according to his autobiography, he fought cattle rustlers and suffered through atrocious weather. He trained himself to become an expert marksman and cowboy, for which he earned from his co-workers the nickname ‘Red River Dick’. But in 1872, well before the battle, he moved to Arizona, and in 1876 was up in Deadwood.
But it doesn’t matter; as Lansdale says in an Author’s Note, “You finally have to decide on what seems to be the most real and lie about the rest of it, which is the bread and butter of a story writer. I have done that freely.”
It’s like what I often say about Western movies. They may be vaguely ‘historical’ in setting but they are entertainments, not documentaries, and you shouldn’t watch them expecting accuracy and fidelity to actual facts.
Anyway, if you like a quick Western novel now and then, you’ll do very well with this one. It’s snappily written, races along and is full of vim.