Comanche moon, p.1
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       Comanche Moon, p.1

         Part #4 of Lonesome Dove series by Larry McMurtry
Comanche Moon


  By Larry McMurtry

  Book I

  Captain Inish Scull liked to boast that he had never been thwarted in pursuit--as he liked to put it--of a felonious foe, whether Spanish, savage, or white.

  "Nor do I expect to have to make an exception in the present instance," he told his twelve rangers. "If you've got any sacking with you, tie it around your horses' heads. I've known cold sleet like this to freeze a horse's eyelids, and that's not good. These horses will need smooth use of their eyelids tomorrow, when the sun comes out and we run these thieving Comanches to ground." Captain Scull was a short man, but forceful. Some of the men called him Old Nails, due to his habit of casually picking his teeth with a horseshoe nail--sometimes, if his ire rose suddenly, he would actually spit the nail at whoever he was talking to.

  "This'll be good," Augustus said, to his friend Woodrow Call. The cold was intense and the sleet constant, cutting their faces as they drove on north. All the rangers' beards were iced hard; some complained that they were without sensation, either in hands or feet or both. But, on the llano, it wasn't yet full dark; in the night it would undoubtedly get colder, with what consequences for men and morale no one could say. A normal commander would have made camp and ordered up a roaring campfire, but Inish Scull was not a normal commander. "I'm a Texas Ranger and by God I range," he said often. "I despise a red thief like the devil despises virtue. If I have to range night and day to check their thieving iniquity, then I'll range night and day." "Bible and sword," he usually added. "Bible and sword." At the moment no red thieves were in sight; nothing was in sight except the sleet that sliced across the formless plain. Woodrow Call, Augustus McCrae, and the troop of cold, tired, dejected rangers were uncomfortably aware, though, that they were only a few yards from the western edge of the Palo Duro Canyon. It was Call's belief that Kicking Wolf, the Comanche horse thief they were pursuing, had most likely slipped down into the canyon on some old trail. Inish Scull might be pursuing Indians that were below and behind him, in which case the rangers might ride all night into the freezing sleet for nothing.

  "What'll be good, Gus?" Woodrow Call inquired of his friend Augustus. The two rode close together as they had through their years as rangers.

  Augustus McCrae didn't fear the cold night ahead, but he did dread it, as any man with a liking for normal comforts would. The cold wind had been searing their faces for two days, singing down at them from the northern prairies. Gus would have liked a little rest, but he knew Captain Scull too well to expect to get any while their felonious foe was still ahead of them.

  "What'll be good?" Call asked again. Gus McCrae was always making puzzling comments and then forgetting to provide any explanation.

  "Kicking Wolf's never been caught, and the Captain's never been run off from," Gus said.

  "That's going to change, for one of them. Who would you bet on, Woodrow, if we were to wager--Old Nails, or Kicking Wolf?" "I wouldn't bet against the Captain, even if I thought he was wrong," Call said. "He's the Captain." "I know, but the man's got no sense about weather," Augustus remarked. "Look at him.

  His damn beard's nothing but a sheet of brown ice, but the fool keeps spitting tobacco juice right into this wind." Woodrow Call made no response to the remark. Gus was over-talkative, and always had been. Unless in violent combat, he was rarely silent for more than two minutes at a stretch, besides which, he felt free to criticize everything from the Captain's way with tobacco to Call's haircuts.

  It was true, though, that Captain Scull was in the habit of spitting his tobacco juice directly in front of him, regardless of wind speed or direction, the result being that his garments were often stained with tobacco juice to an extent that shocked most ladies and even offended some men. In fact, the wife of Governor e. m. Pease had recently caused something of a scandal by turning Captain Scull back at her door, just before a banquet, on account of his poor appearance.

  "Inish, you'll drip on my lace tablecloth.

  Go clean yourself up," Mrs. Pease told the Captain--it was considered a bold thing to say to the man who was generally regarded as the most competent Texas Ranger ever to take the field.

  "Ma'am, I'm a poor ruffian, I fear I'm a stranger to lacy gear," Inish Scull had replied, an untruth certainly, for it was well known that he had left a life of wealth and ease in Boston to ranger on the Western frontier. It was even said that he was a graduate of Harvard College; Woodrow Call, for one, believed it, for the Captain was very particular in his speech and invariably read books around the campfire, on the nights when he was disposed to allow a campfire. His wife, Inez, a Birmingham belle, was so beautiful at forty that no man in the troop, or, for that matter, in Austin, could resist stealing glances at her.

  It was now full dusk. Call could barely see Augustus, and Augustus was only a yard or two away. He could not see Captain Scull at all, though he had been attempting to follow directly behind him. Fortunately, though, he could hear Captain Scull's great warhorse, Hector, an animal that stood a full eighteen hands high and weighed more than any two of the other horses in the troop. Hector was just ahead, crunching steadily through the sleet. In the winter Hector's coat grew so long and shaggy that the Indians called him the Buffalo Horse, both because of his shagginess and because of his great strength.

  So far as Call knew, Hector was the most powerful animal in Texas, a match in strength for bull, bear, or buffalo. Weather meant nothing to him: often on freezing mornings they would see Captain Scull rubbing his hands together in front of Hector's nose, warming them on his hot breath. Hector was slow and heavy, of course--many a horse could run off and leave him.

  Even mules could outrun him--but then, sooner or later, the mule or the pony would tire and Hector would keep coming, his big feet crunching grass, or splashing through mud, or churning up clouds of snow. On some long pursuits the men would change mounts two or three times, but Hector was the Captain's only horse.

  Twice he had been hit by arrows and once shot in the flank by Ahumado, a felonious foe more hated by Captain Scull than either Kicking Wolf or Buffalo Hump.

  Ahumado, known as the Black Vaquero, was a master of ambush; he had shot down at the Captain from a tiny pocket of a cave, in a sheer cliff in Mexico. Though Ahumado had hit the Captain in the shoulder, causing him to bleed profusely, Captain Scull had insisted that Hector be looked at first. Once recovered, Inish Scull's ire was such that he had tried to persuade Governor Pease to redcl war on Mexico; or, failing that, to let him drag a brace of cannon over a thousand miles of desert to blast Ahumado out of his stronghold in the Yellow Cliffs.

  "Cannons--y want to take cannons across half of Mexico?" the astonished governor asked. "After one bandit? Why, that would be a damnable expense. The legislature would never stand for it, sir." "Then I resign, and damn the goddamn legislature!" Inish Scull had said. "I won't be denied my vengeance on the black villain who shot my horse!" The Governor stood firm, however. After a week of heavy tippling, the Captain-- to everyone's relief--had quietly resumed his command. It was the opinion of everyone in Texas that the whole frontier would have been lost had Captain Inish Scull chosen to stay resigned.

  Now Call could just see, as the sleet thinned a little, the white clouds of Hector's breath.

  "Crowd close now," he said, turning to the weary rangers. "Gus and me will keep up with Hector, but you'll have to keep up with us. Don't veer to the right, whatever you do. The canyon's to the right, and the drop is sheer." "Sheer--t means straight down to doom," Augustus said to the men. He remembered the first time he and Woodrow had skirted the Palo Duro, after foolishly signing up for an ill-planned expedition whose aim had been to capture Santa Fe and annex Nuevo Mexico. That time the whole troop, more than one hundred men, had to scramble o
ver the edge of the canyon to escape a blazing ring of grass, set afire by Buffalo Hump's Comanches. Many of the men and most of the horses had fallen to their deaths.

  But, on that occasion at least, they had made their scramble in daylight and had run for the cliffso over firm prairie. Now it was dusk on a winter's night, with no cover, poor visibility, and ground so slick that it was hard even to travel at a steady clip. A slip on the edge of the canyon would send a man straight into space.

  "You didn't loan me that sacking--don't you have any?" Augustus asked.

  "I have mine--where's yours?" Call asked.

  "I don't know if mine will stretch for two horses." Augustus did not reply. In fact, he had been in a whore's tent near Fort Belknap when the news came that Kicking Wolf had run off twenty horses from a ranch near Albany.

  Gus had barely had time to pull his pants on before the rangers were in the saddle and on the move.

  It had been a warmish day, and he was sweaty from his exertions with the whore--the notion that four days later he would be in a sleet storm at dusk on the Palo Duro, a storm so bad that his horse's eyelids were in danger of freezing, had never crossed his mind. Most pursuits of Comanche or Kiowa lasted a day or two at most-- usually the Indians would stop to feast on stolen horseflesh, laying themselves open to attack.

  Kicking Wolf, of course, had always been superior when it came to making off with Texas horses. On the errant Santa Fe expedition, when Call and Augustus had been green rangers, not yet twenty years old, Kicking Wolf had stolen a sizable number of horses from them, just before the Comanches set the grass fire that had trapped the whole troop and forced them into the very canyon they were skirting now.

  "I plumb forgot my sacking," Gus admitted--he didn't mention the whore.

  "You can have my sacking," Call said. "I don't intend to ride a blind horse, sleet or no sleet." Horses were apt to slip or step in holes even when they could see where they were going.

  To be riding a blind horse over slippery footing on the edge of a canyon seemed to him to be asking for worse trouble than frozen eyelids.

  While Augustus was adjusting Call's piece of rough sacking over his horse's eyes, Long Bill Coleman came trotting up beside them. Long Bill had been with them on the Santa Fe expedition, after which, due to the rigors he had endured on their march as captives across the Jornada del Muerto, he had given up rangering in favor of carpentry, a change of profession that only lasted a few months, thanks to Bill Coleman's inability to drive a nail straight or saw a plank evenly.

  After six months of bent nails and crookedly sawn planks, Long Bill gave up on town trades forever and rejoined the ranger troop.

  "It's night, ain't we stopping, Gus?" Long Bill asked.

  "Do we look like we're stopped?" Gus replied, a little testily. Long Bill had the boresome habit of asking questions to which the answers were obvious.

  "If we were stopping there'd be a campfire," Gus added, growing more and more annoyed with Long Bill for his thoughtless habits. "Do you see a campfire, sir?" "No, and don't you be sirring me, you dern yapper," Long Bill said. "All I was asking is how long it will be before we have a chance to get warm." "Shush," Call said. "You two can argue some other time. I hear something." He drew rein, as did Gus. The rangers behind crowded close. Soon they all heard what Call heard: a wild, echoing war cry from somewhere in the dark, sleety canyon below. The war cry was repeated, and then repeated again. There was one voice at first, but then other voices joined in--Call, who liked to be precise in such matters, thought he counted at least seven voices echoing up from the canyon. He could not be sure, though--the canyon ran with echoes, and the gusts of north wind snatched the war cries, muffling some and bringing others closer.

  "They're mocking us," Call said. "They know we can't chase 'em down a cliff in the dark--not in this weather. They're mocking us, boys." "It's nothing but extremes around this damn Palo Duro Canyon," Long Bill remarked. "Last time we was here we nearly got cooked, and this time we're half froze." "I guess your mouth ain't froze, you're still asking them dumb questions," Gus observed.

  "I wonder if the Captain heard that?" Call said. "The Captain's a little deaf." "Not that deaf, he ain't," Gus said. "When he wants to hear something, he hears it. When he don't want to hear it, you might as well save your breath." "What'd you ever say to the Captain that he didn't want to hear?" Call asked, dismounting.

  He intended to make careful approach to the canyon edge and see if he could spot any campfires down below them. If there was evidence of a sizable camp of Comanches, perhaps Captain Scull could be persuaded to make camp and wait for a chance to attack.

  "I asked him for a five-dollar advance on my wages, one time," Augustus said. "He could have said no, but he didn't say anything. He just acted as if I wasn't there." "You shouldn't have asked in the first place," Call said. "Wages are supposed to last till payday." "I had expenses," Gus said, knowing well that it was pointless to discuss financial problems with his frugal friend. Woodrow Call rarely even spent up his wages in the course of a month, whereas Gus never failed to spend his to the last penny, or perhaps even a few dollars beyond the last penny. Something always tempted him: if it wasn't just a pretty whore it might be a new six-shooter, a fine vest, or even just a better grade of whiskey, which, in most of the places he bought whiskey, just meant a liquor mild enough that it wouldn't immediately take the hide off a skunk.

  Before they could discuss the matter further, they heard sleet crunching just ahead, and suddenly the great horse Hector, his shaggy coat steaming, loomed over them. Captain Inish Scull hadn't stopped, but at least he had turned.

  "Why are we halted, Mr. Call?" he asked. "I didn't request a halt." "No sir, but we heard a passel of whooping, down in the canyon," Call said. "I thought I'd look and see if I could spot the Comanche camp." "Of course there's a camp, Mr. Call, but they're the wrong Comanches," Captain Scull said. "That's Buffalo Hump down there--we're after Kicking Wolf, if you'll remember.

  He's our horse thief." As usual, Captain Scull spoke with complete assurance. They had only been on the edge of the Palo Duro a few minutes, and it was too dark to see much, even if the sleet would have let them. Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf, though rivals, often raided together: how did the Captain know that one was camped in the canyon and the other ranging somewhere ahead?

  They had a gifted scout, to be sure, a Kickapoo named Famous Shoes, but Famous Shoes had been gone for two days and had made no report.

  "That's Buffalo Hump's main camp down there, Mr. Call," Inish Scull said.

  "We're no match for him--we're only thirteen men, and anyway it's Kicking Wolf I want. I expect to overtake him on the Canadian River about sunup day after tomorrow, if there is a sunup day after tomorrow." "Why, sir, there's always sunup," Long Bill Coleman said--he was a little jolted by the Captain's remark, and the reason he was jolted was that his large wife, Pearl--the one town trade he hadn't abandoned--was convinced on religious grounds that the world would end in the near future.

  Pearl's view was that the Almighty would soon pour hot lava over the world, as a response to human wickedness. Now they were beside the Palo Duro Canyon, a big, mysterious hole in the ground--what if it suddenly filled up with hot lava and overflowed onto the world? Cold as he was, the prospect of the world ending in a flood of hot lava did not appeal to Long Bill at all. The fact that Captain Scull had questioned whether there would be a sunup had the effect of making him nervous. He had never met a man as learned as Captain Scull--if the Captain had some reason to doubt the likelihood of future sunrises, then there might be something to Pearl's apprehension, after all.

  "Oh, I'm confident the sun will do its duty, and the planets as well," Captain Scull said.

  "The sun will be there, where it should be. Whether we will see it is another matter, Mr. Coleman." Gus McCrae found the remark curious.

  If the sun was where it should be, of course they would see it.

  "Captain, if the sun's there, why wouldn't we see
it?" he asked.

  "Well, it could be cloudy weather--I expect it will be," Captain Scull said. "That's one reason we might not see sunup. Another reason is that we all might be dead. Beware the pale horse, the Bible says." Inish Scull let that remark soak in--it amused him to say such things to his untutored and uncomprehending men. Then he turned his horse.

  "Don't be peeking into canyons unless I tell you to, Mr. Call," he said. "It's icy footing, and too dark for accurate observation anyway." Call was irked by the Captain's tone. Of course he knew it was icy footing. But he said nothing--"then Inish Scull had turned his great horse and gone clomping away, into the night. There was no one to say anything to, except Augustus and Long Bill. After one more glance into the darkening canyon, he got back on his horse and followed his captain north.

  "Gun In The Water is with them," Blue Duck said. "Gun In The Water and the other one --Silver Hair McCrae." Buffalo Hump sat on a deerskin near his campfire. He was under an overhanging rock, which held the heat of the campfire while protecting him from the driving sleet. He was splitting the leg bone of a buffalo. When splitting a bone he was particular and careful--he did not want to lose any of the buttery marrow. Most men were impatient, young men especially. When they attempted the old tasks, they took little care.

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