Yesterday nature had been quarrelsome. Dark and chilly clouds had scudded ominously inland from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening a drenching cold rain across the gently rolling prairie land and dense forests that stretched westward beyond the flat coastal plain of Texas. An angry wind had lashed the trees, whipping away new leaves still the pale green of early spring. Michael Lewis had pulled his bay horse into the deep woods in search of protection, but the trees had offered only partial shelter from winter’s final revolt against the changing of the season.
He had slept fitfully last night, for an old nightmare he hoped he had finally put behind him had crept back like a thief in the darkness. He had awakened wide-eyed to the sound of his own voice crying out. Afterward he had lain cold and trembling, trying to rewrap his thin woolen blanket around his shoulders in a way that would shut out the chill. But the chill came more from within than from without, and no blanket was thick enough to shield him from a memory too cruel to die.
Today Nature smiled. The skies had cleared. The sun was pleasantly warm, and he had taken off his old woolen coat, remnant of another time back in Tennessee. The wind had dropped to a soft and kindly breeze that carried the hopeful scent of new grass, the sweetness of wild flowers coming to blossom, and at times the slightest salty hint of the Gulf many long miles eastward. Michael had lived close to Nature all of his twenty-five years; he accepted her blessings with the same equanimity that he endured her torments. Nature had to be taken as she was, for nothing a man could do would change her. The works of men, however, need not be accepted without question, and Michael never had. So now he wandered here, far west of the American settlements, hoping the solitude would give him peace, would help him put down old angers, old ghosts.
Michael Lewis was a tall man, with strong arms and shoulders, though he had a gaunt and hungry look about him, as if he seldom had enough to eat, seldom got a full night’s sleep. Comfort was but an occasional acquaintance, and plenty was a stranger. From the hills of Tennessee to the first American colony in Texas, his next meal had often depended upon the long-barreled rifle he carried. He seldom failed to hit what he saw over the sights, but there were times the rifle stayed cold when game was scarce and he found nothing at which to aim. The shadow of want was often upon him when he left home and hearth for the challenge of unknown lands.
Days behind him waited his French-Spanish wife Marie and a young son Michael had named Mordecai after his father, long since buried. By now Marie probably worried that he might have met with misfortune, for the few days intended had stretched to many. He knew he should be turning back. But the devils which had driven him here had come along with him, and he did not know how to shake free of their torment. It had to do with this land, this Texas, which he had visited with the first Mordecai Lewis almost a decade ago. It had been a forbidden land then, property of the Spanish crown. No longer forbidden, at least by law, it could still at times be forbidding.
This was a Texas which belonged to a newly independent Mexico but had guardedly opened its doors to limited numbers of American settlers under a young Missouri empresario, Stephen F. Austin. An older Austin named Moses, who had lived under Spanish rule when Spain had owned Missouri, had appealed to colonial authorities in San Antonio de Bexar. He had argued that despite its great size and potential, the interior of Texas had attracted only some two thousand Spanish inhabitants. Even these few were constantly endangered by Indian depredation. As bad or worse were nagging incursions by illegal land seekers who relentlessly pushed across the boundary from Louisiana. For a century or so these had been mostly French. Now that the Louisiana Purchase had transferred a vast region to the United States, they were American in the main. How much better it would be, Austin had reasoned, that legal immigrants be allowed to establish a deterrent to the filibusters and illegal squatters, as well as placing a buffer between the few isolated old Spanish settlements and the Indians who roamed wild and free to the west and north. To that argument he found Spanish ears receptive. If Indians had to kill someone, let it be Americans, the authorities decided.
To Austin, once wealthy but broken by a national money panic, Texas had seemed a promised land. Like an earlier Moses, he had not lived to see his promised land become reality. His son Stephen, frail in body but possessed of a dogged patience and steely determination, had taken up the lantern lighted by his father’s dream. It had been a twisting, thorny path. Just as the colony was driving its first stakes into the ground, Mexico had thrown off the domination of the Spanish crown and declared itself free, as the United States had severed its ties to England two generations before. The young Austin had faced the formidable challenge of doing over with the new government of Mexico all that he and his father had accomplished with the old colonial leadership. Through nerve, statesmanship, and a stubborn refusal to accept half a loaf, he had gradually established a friendly, if sometimes uneasy, relationship with at least some of the powers in Bexar and Mexico City. He had been granted a region some one hundred twenty miles square, extending northwestward from the Gulf of Mexico. His Old Three Hundred colonists were firmly entrenched in this new land, mostly along the two major rivers, the Brazos and the Colorado. Others were gradually coming in overland and by sea, breaking the prairie sod, chopping away at the forests, transforming the wilderness into some resemblance of the places they had left behind them in the old states.
Texas was accepting more and more newcomers, some under Austin, many under other empresarios who followed the path Austin had blazed.
Part of what troubled Michael Lewis was this, for he had seen the same forces at work during his youth back in Tennessee. He had loved the woods and the wild open spaces where a man afoot or on horseback could travel for hours, even days, and see no mark of another human. Little by little he had watched the woods hacked away, the open spaces surrendered to the plow, the game decimated or driven off. Now those forces were here, repeating in this virgin land the pattern of the whole western migration. And Michael, though he did not like it, had been a party to the process.
Back yonder, many days’ ride behind him, he owned a grant of land, guaranteed by a paper which carried the flourish of Stephen F. Austin. Over the last three years he had gradually enlarged his field, turning under the ancient prairie sod, bringing up the rich black soil built through untold ages of nature’s annual cycle: growth, decay, and regrowth. He should be at home now, plowing out the winter weeds, planting the seed for a new year’s crops. He knew many would call him an idler, a shiftless leatherstocking tramping in the woods when good Christian men were at work in their fields, living up to their responsibilities.
But in Michael’s veins pulsed the blood of a father who had been a leatherstocking in his own time, a product of the canebrake and wood, a man whose hands fit more easily upon the rifle than upon the plow. Mordecai Lewis had grown fitful when he spent too many days in the fields, too many nights within the confines of his cabin. His eyes would turn west toward new lands that lay somewhere beyond sight. His westering ways had brought him finally to a violent death and an unmarked grave in an alien country far from home.
Yesterday Michael had bent down over a clear-running stream for a drink of water. The angular, bearded face he saw reflected back at him did not appear to be his own; it was his father’s.
That, as much as the oppressive weather, had been at the root of his nightmare; that and a small company of Mexican soldiers who had innocently ridden by Michael’s farm. Their unexpected appearance had swept his mind back to another time, other soldiers. After a fruitless inner struggle to put down the ghosts, he kissed Marie and the boy good-bye and rode west up the Colorado River, looking for he knew not what. He was not sure he would even know when he found it.
He was at the edge of the wood when he saw the wolf, working a zigzag pattern through the old winter-dried grass, sniffing at the ground for scent of a rabbit or other prey. Michael’s hand tightened instinctively on the long rifle that lay across his lap. Then it relaxed, for there would be no point in killing the wolf. It was too far west to be any threat to Marie’s priceless little flock of chickens, or even to Michael’s few calves. Here it could do no harm beyond that which Nature had appointed as its duty, controlling the increase of prey animals that otherwise might multiply beyond the ability of the land to sustain them. So Michael felt no threat from the wolf and saw no reason that he should be any threat to it.
He drew gently on the reins and stopped, his attention riveted to the graceful movement of the gray predator, its coat still winter-rough, its ribs spare of flesh because food had been scant through the cold months. The wolf caught his scent and jerked its head up, holding its nose into the breeze. Finding Michael, it stood still as a stone for a full minute, perhaps more, watching him. This was a region in which men---white men, anyway---did not often invade. The wolf was probably accustomed to wild horses, so it saw the bay as no threat. It exhibited caution but no particular fear. Curiosity satisfied, it went on about its business of searching for a meal.
Michael felt an instinctive kinship to the wolf, for at heart he was a hunter, a creature of the wild. Circumstances forced him to take on the trappings of the civilized man, to build his cabin and farm his land, to try to be a husband to his wife and a father to his child. But beneath the surface, fighting for escape, was a man who would be grateful to live in a state of nature if circumstances would but allow.
The wolf moved on. Michael watched, hoping to see it scare up a rabbit, for he could feel its hunger, its need. He had a hunger of his own, a hunger civilization would not allow him to satisfy.
He saw the wolf pull up short again, two hundred yards away, and he thought for a moment it had found the scent it sought. But the animal watched something hidden from Michael by a jutting edge of the forest. It crouched, retreated several paces, then halted to look again.
Michael saw them as they came around the outer edge of the irregular wood; half a dozen men on horseback. At a glance he knew they were Indians. He had no idea of their tribe, for he had not seen enough of Texas Indians to have any clear notion of their tribal characteristics. It would not matter anyway if they were of violent intent. Tawakoni, Karankawa, Waco, or Tonkawa: one could kill a man as dead as another. Comanche---perhaps these were Comanche. He was far enough west to be in their hunting grounds. That horseback tribe preyed mercilessly upon the Mexican settlers around Bexar and beyond but so far had professed a wary friendliness toward the light-skinned new American invaders, perhaps still trying to figure out just what manner of human they were.
It was too late to escape discovery. Michael was fifty yards beyond the forest, and a sudden movement back to cover would only draw their attention that much sooner. Any defensive advantage the trees could give him would be temporary at best. He might just as well stand his ground.
They had seen the wolf, for they drew their horses into a line and halted, watching the animal move through the grass. As it had done for Michael, it stopped and stared at them for a moment, then changed course just enough to angle past them without going into actual retreat.
Proud little bastard, Michael thought. It ain’t just about to turn tail and run.
It had no reason to run. Michael had heard it said that most Indians held the wolf in some reverence. Many thought it a guiding spirit. Few would do it harm, fearing they might run afoul of some supernatural malevolence.
The Indians watched the wolf until it had moved well past. Only then did one of them notice Michael, sitting on his horse some three hundred yards away. The warrior raised a hand, and the others turned their heads. Michael trembled to a chill that ran down his back. It was a struggle not to turn and run. To do so would only insure that they would come and take him. To stand defiant would require all the nerve he could muster, from as deeply as he could reach, but it might also save his life.
The warriors clustered together, holding a quick council, then surged forward, pushing their horses into a trot. They were a wild, barbaric sight, bows in their hands, feathers in their hair jiggling up and down to the rhythm of their horses’ movements. Michael lifted the long rifle enough that they would surely see it. He checked the pan to be certain it held powder to set off a shot. One shot was all he would have time for.
The Indians slowed and spread a little as they neared him. He continued to hold the rifle high but forced down a strong impulse to aim at one of the riders. He pointed the muzzle over their heads.
They halted at perhaps thirty paces. Their horses were curious about his bay, as the riders were curious about Michael, but the Indians did not move closer. They studied Michael with keen eyes, so keen that he had a feeling they knew he had eaten squirrel for breakfast. He could hear their voices as they talked about him in low tones, though he had no sense of the words or their meaning. He could not tell whether they intended to declare friendship or to kill him.
After a few tense minutes they decided to do neither, exactly. A young warrior in the center, who carried himself like a leader, rode a few feet beyond the others. He spoke words Michael had no way of understanding. It took all of his resolve not to lower the muzzle of the rifle and center it on a small leather pouch the man wore about his neck. At length the Indian raised his bow to arm’s length, shouted and pulled his horse about. As he rode through the ragged line, the others turned and followed.
Michael suspected they had intentionally put him through a test of nerve, and he had passed it to their satisfaction. After a moment he felt his lungs ache and realized he was still holding his breath. He expelled it, then took several long, deep breaths to compensate. He lowered the rifle and found his hands wet, his mouth dry.
The wolf circled back toward him. Watching, he felt that kinship again. He knew the Indians had felt it too.
Brothers to the wolf. It struck him that kinship to the wolf gave him a kinship to the Indians as well.
He turned back, finally, and pointed his horse toward the settlement, days to the east. He would follow the river, and it would lead him home.
He had been far enough west, this time. There would be other times.
Copyright © 2006 by Elmer Kelton