We started in late June—too late to be crossing the plains, as some of the waterholes would be dried up, and in the northern reaches the grass would be dead when we got there. But it couldn’t be helped. There was delay after delay. Most of us were under twenty-five and I was by no means the youngest one on the trip. Bachman had weaseled out. Well, not really. He had taken sick and just wasn’t well enough to go. I visited him before I left and really rubbed it in. When I returned, it was his turn.
It started out as a lark, even though there was lots of work. We soldiers were expected to work by smoothing out the trail, cutting the river banks, removing rocks and stumps, etc. As there was no real soldiering to do this early in the trip, I didn’t mind. As we traveled north, we came across the site of Bird’s Creek Battle and I thought again of Bachman and how rough he said that fight was. I had never really fought Indians, but I was pretty sure I could handle myself when the time came—if it came.
I guess I should have seen the signs of disaster early on, when we started throwing away supplies and eating up the beef. And then there was the disparaging of General MacLeod. I can’t say I liked him much myself, but a commander had better have the respect of his men—especially if they’re volunteers—and MacLeod didn’t. I think he got the job because he was Lamar’s brother-in-law or some kind of kin. Of course, that doesn’t make him a bad leader—but it doesn’t increase his standing in the eyes of his men, either. I had signed on for the duration, though, and I was young, tough, and ready for anything. How bad could it get?
Pretty bad, as it turned out. We were heading straight north on somebody’s recommendation—I don’t remember whose. The idea was to strike the Red River, then follow it west to it’s headwaters in the mountains of New Mexico. There were a couple of problems with this. First, no one had been from Austin to the Red. Oh, I think somebody had claimed he had, but he was pretty fuzzy on the details. The other problem is that the Red does not rise in the mountains of New Mexico. This was one of those suppositions for which the Anglo world is so famous. The Mexican-Spanish-Indian world knew it didn’t rise in the mountains, but who was listening to them? It really wasn’t an issue, though, for by the time we stumbled onto the Red River, we were too petered out to do much about it.
As we headed north, we hit what is now called the Cross Timbers. It is a patch of woods and hills separated from similar areas to the east. It fell to the soldiers to make a road for the wagons through it, and I can tell you it was rough country! This delayed us even more and the wagons suffered. The Brit Falconer took lunar observations and figured us a couple hundred miles east of where we should be. He wasn’t confident in his findings, though, so they were disregarded. The thing is, we could have avoided this whole mess of woods, hills, and rocks, if we had stuck to the high ground between the Brazos and the Colorado.
While I’m talking about Falconer, I’ve got to tell you this. He wasn’t all that old—40 or so—when he came to Texas, which was just in time for this trip, but to my young eyes he seemed ancient. He was a good fellow, I suppose. Curious about everything, and funny as hell—though usually not intentionally. It was generally in the way he said things.
Like the time he walked up to the freighter and wanted to know where the man’s master was. Now, thanks to Bachman, I had learned that the word we Americans use for the guy we work for—“boss”—was Dutch, ands essentially meant the same as the English word “master”. After we whipped the Brits we just didn’t like using that word (though we certainly encouraged the slaves to use it) so we took the Dutch term. It didn’t make us sound so subservient. Of course, the English still used their word, and Falconer walked up to this burly freighter and said, “I say, good fellow, can you tell me where your master is?”
The freighter turned to face this Englishman and for a minute I really thought he was going to kill him right there. He looked him up and down for what seemed like five minutes while his fists clenched and unclenched. He finally determined the fancy fellow didn’t mean any harm, so he just growled, “The son of a bitch ain’t been borned yet!” and went back to working on his wagon. Those of us that were standing around nearly died laughing—even Falconer’s buddy Kendall. Maybe Kendall explained the finer points of American and Texan idioms, or maybe Falconer was just a quick study, but he never tried that again.
Anyway we finally emerged from the Cross Timbers, regrouped (we had gotten pretty spread out) and headed northwest to the Red, which we found within a few days. Or so we thought. There was a young Tejano with us named Juan Carlos Lopez, only he didn’t usually tell anyone the Lopez part, since that was part of Santa Anna’s name, and usually just went by Juan Carlos or Carlos. I had gotten to know him pretty well and liked him. He was a little younger than me and liked to talk a lot. I guess he took up with me since I was close to his age and could speak Spanish. As I say he talked a lot, but I always suspected he played a little fast and loose with the truth. Generally, those kinds of folks don’t hurt anything, but this time it did—well, sort of.
When we struck that river northwest of the timbers, Carlos—who had told anyone who would listen that he had spent time with Comancheros in New Mexico—identified it as the Red River so we began to follow it. Before long, it swung to the southwest, and we knew the Red did not do that. One of the men crossed a ridge to the south, headed for a river. He returned the next day, reporting that the waters of that stream were clear and sweet—not muddy and brackish as we knew the river south of the Red would be. It must be the Brazos, and we were on the wrong river.
When Carlos had identified the river as the Red, he was made guide of the expedition, which is another indication of what a sorry lot of explorers we were. When he was proven wrong, he was forgiven, seeing as how he was the only one who could even pretend to have an inkling of where we were. He identified some outcroppings as some he recognized, and some narrow places in the river as the “Angosturas”—a famous landmark in eastern New Mexico. We—and I use that term loosely—believed we had to be only about 75 miles from Santa Fe, so were ready to believe him. (In reality we were nearly 400 miles from the New Mexican settlements.)
To this day, I don’t know if Carlos really thought he knew what he was talking about or not, or just wanted to be important for a while. I guess he really thought so, because it would have been pretty stupid for a Spanish boy to intentionally mislead a bunch of Gringos. (Whoops, there I go again, using that word out of place.) When it became apparent that he was as clueless as the rest of us, he was afraid of recriminations, and slipped away one night. I can’t say as how I blame him, given the circumstances. And chances are that he met up with some Kiowas or Comanches—who all knew Spanish in some form—and made it into New Mexico. I hope so, for I liked him, even if he was a blowhard. (Come to think of it, he may have gotten into politics in New Mexico. He was certainly equipped for it.)
By now we were in one of those situations where you keep going because you think surely things can’t get worse—and then they do. As a matter of fact, if we had known what was coming, we would have enjoyed the night the ammunition wagon caught on fire as high good times and a great show of fireworks. Here we were, lost as hell, further from home than we had ever been in a trackless “desert”. We were running out of supplies and patience. We were being harassed by Indians. What could we do? We kept going. And then…there it was.
We had all heard of the Llano Estacado—the Staked Plains. Some folks said that it was called that because the early conquistadores had to drive stakes in the ground to see where they had been. That is incorrect. The Llano is a great plain considerably higher than the land around it. On certain approaches, it appears to be up on palisades—or stakes. This is certainly true south of the Canadian in New Mexico where Coronado and others first encountered it. It is also true on some of the eastern approaches—like where we found it.
Here we were with freight wagons loaded with goods we knew would sell in Santa Fe—everything from calomel, to violin strings, to combs and a clarinet—and here before us is a great wall of rock. I volunteered with a few others to scout the escarpment, which came to be known as the Caprock. There was no way in hell we were going to get wagons up it.
So what do we do now? We are in a mess and there is no way around it—no way to put a good face on it. We are on the eastern side of the Llano Estacado. We know the western side is in New Mexico, but we don’t know how far it is across it. We are dangerously low on supplies, including food and ammunition. We have been harassed by Indians, who are picking off stragglers. We have no way of getting the wagons up the escarpment, and even if we did, where the hell would we be? We were in a fix. But surely, this is the bottom isn’t it? If only it had been.
General MacLeod was truly at a loss, but to his credit, what could he do? He had little control left of his men, and didn’t know what to do anyway. We could turn back and go back to Austin with our tails between our legs. That wasn’t very appealing—and we knew how rough that road was. We camped at the confluence of a couple of streams. Even good water was hard to come by, most of it in this country being alkalai.
While we were camped here, I went out to scout and to hunt. I hadn’t gone far—still within sight of the camp, when I heard something whiz past my head. I turned to see an Indian nocking another arrow in his bow, so I spurred my horse and headed for camp, barely missing getting hit by another arrow or two. When I was safe in camp, one man came up to me and questioned me—totally serious—“Why didn’t you try to talk to him—maybe find out where we are?” I never cease to be amazed at the stupidity of the human race. I had barely made it back into camp with my hair on my head and this dumb jackass asks why I didn’t engage a Comanche in polite conversation.
Some of this was the result of Lamar’s harsh policies towards Indians and some of it was due to the natural tendency of any Texan to kill any Indian. Years earlier, the Comanches had come to a council in San Antonio. The idea was to exchange captives and try to work out some peace treaty. Somebody started shooting, and a number of the Comanche chiefs were killed. They retaliated by killing all their captives, and the war was on. From that time on Comanches, Kiowas and most other Indians--though they could be friendly to Americans--hated Texans. We were paying for that now.
You never could tell. A couple of guys, seeing some Indians a ways off, indicated they would like to parley. The Indians were obviously scornful of the expedition, and remarked to the men, “Su jefe es tonto” and refused to help. (As I said, Spanish was spoken and understood by most of the Plains Indians.) When the men returned to the camp, they repeated what the Indian said. I couldn’t help myself and said “Damned clever for a savage.” When those who didn’t speak Spanish understood that the Indian had said “Your leader is a fool” they laughed, too.
(We could laugh, but it was serious business. One group of a half-dozen or so went out to scout and hunt, got cut off by Indians, and were slaughtered to a man.)
General MacLeod finally called a council to determine what to do. All military logic goes against dividing your force while on the defensive, but we really had no choice. It was decided that one party of about a hundred men on horses would ascend to the Llano and try to reach the settlements in New Mexico. The others, numbering about 200, would stay with the wagons and wait for rescue.
As the general and the men resolved that this was the only course, the camp was named Camp Resolution. And future events would test our resolve to the fullest.
Captain Sutton was put in charge of the “Horse Party” as it came to be called. He was a friend of Bachman’s and I guess had heard and seen enough of me that he knew I was good on a horse and good with a gun, so I was one of the ones chosen. It didn’t hurt any that I could speak Spanish like a native, and could maybe even pull my Spanish pedigree if need be. It also didn’t hurt that I was young, wiry, tough, and small enough so as not to eat much or be a burden on a horse. (I don’t know why people think small guys don’t eat much—though God knows this trip sure provided practice in eating light..)
I was sure glad. I had gotten really tired of sitting around that camp waiting to be picked off by some eagle eyed Indian. We dried some meat, molded some bullets, packed some provisions, and headed out. Surely…surely we thought, it can’t possibly be far now to Santa Fe. Little did we know we would never see that city.
We ascended the Caprock and began to make our way across the plains. Now here, Sutton did some things that just didn’t seem right. Almost right away we began to cross some trails. There was one little creek in particular where the trail was worn enough to look like a damn turnpike. It seemed obvious to me that the trail would go somewhere. And since the creek ran toward the east, it seemed logical that following it to the west would be the thing to do. But I was just a dumb kid and kept my thought to myself.
Thinking back now at what that country looked like then…I count myself mightily blessed to have seen it. I wish I could have appreciated it more at the time, but the fact is we were close to starving and trying to get across the Llano as fast as possible. I could sure see why that old fable about driving stakes has lasted so long. Our hundred horses didn’t make a dent in the prairie.
We finally found the other side and descended below the Cap once more. This was rough country, and our rations had run out. We were reduced to eating snakes and lizards, wondering if we were going to starve to death right there. We finally stumbled upon some Comancheros on their way to the plains to trade with the Indians. At first they were terrified of us and we couldn’t figure out why. They finally realized we were peaceful—we were in no shape to be otherwise, even if we had wanted to be—and told us that they had no extra food, but just a few miles further on we would be in the eastern settlements. The people there would provide us with food.
We came to a little adobe and rock placed they called Trementina, which means Turpentine. There was a lot of scrub cedar in the area that they would boil to make turpentine, then take it to the trail where it would be shipped to the States. They also had hundreds—maybe thousands—of sheep. They may have sold wool to Santa Fe traders, too, I don’t know. When I saw those sheep all I could think of was mutton.
These people seemed terrified of us too, for a while. We told them we had just crossed the Llano and were nearly starving. They asked how long it had taken us, and when they found out it was two weeks they were astonished. “Tres o quarto dias, como máximo!” they said—“Three or four days, at the most!”—and they told of the trail that went down the creek of white dirt, or the Tierra Blanca. The way they described it, I knew where they were talking about, and I wanted to tell Captain Sutton “I told you so” but I was still a private, he was still a captain, and I had a mouth full of mutton.
Let’s see, how did I say that later?
“Our leader we called Captain Sutton
Of the Llano he didn’t know nuttin’
I would have called him a fool
But survival’s my rule
And my mouth was plum full of mutton
(You think some strange things sitting in a Mexican prison. I wonder if Ol’ Austin ever thought up limericks?)
While we were being fed, Sutton made arrangements to have a couple of the locals go back to rescue MacLeod and the others. Once again, I was called on for this duty. In some ways I wanted to stay with the others, but in some ways I sort of wanted to get off with these New Mexicans and talk to them on my own. I also had a keen desire to see the quick way across the Llano.
We ascended the Caprock southeast of a little mountain. My companions told me that this was where Coronado himself had approached the Llano. I told them I was a descendant of the old conquistador, but that didn’t impress them much. It seems almost everybody in New Mexico was descended from some conquistador, and in that part of the country you didn’t always brag about it. Just because a fellow had a Spanish name didn’t mean he wasn’t mostly Indian. When I told them I was also an Archibeque, that seemed to make a little impact on them. As a matter of fact, one of them knew some of the Santa Fe Archibeques—distant cousins, I suppose.
We reached the men left behind in three days, just like they had said. It was a good thing, too. They had decided we had been killed or starved to death or were within just a few days of heading back to Austin. I reckon later they wished they had.
Our guides said that the freight wagons would have to be destroyed. Kendall had gotten hurt and couldn’t ride or walk, so we figured out a way to get the light wagon he was riding in up the escarpment and then we were on our way. While we were traveling, I asked the New Mexicans why everyone seemed so scared of us. They told us that the governor, Manuel Armijo, had heard we were coming. He told the New Mexicans that we were an attacking force, and that we would kill their men, rape their women, and eat their babies. I laughed out loud at this. They stared back with stone faces. I stopped laughing and asked “Cierto, usted no cree esto!” (Surely you don’t believe this!)
They just shrugged and said “Quien sabe?”