On the Texas frontier black and white families face danger together.
August 1, 1866
The sound of gunfire echoed off the flats to the man lying prone on the lip of the ridge. He raised a spyglass to his eye, and swept it across the trees and meadows below. Seeing nothing, he put it down, revealing a black patch over one eye, while the remaining one was a piercing sky blue.
He was lean and weatherbeaten with a full salt and pepper beard that placed him in his middle years, something of a rarity on the frontier where men tended to die young. He wore hard-used doeskin trousers and a loose overshirt of lindsey-woolsey along with a wide-brimmed black Mexican hat.
Something moved about a quarter of a mile away near the creek that flowed out of the canyon where he'd built his cabin. His eye, keen as a raptor's, caught the movement. He peered into the spyglass again.
"What is it, Fritz? Can you see anything?" The anxious voice of Erna Koehler was muted, just barely audible to her husband lying beside her.
Erna Koehler was a type familiar to the frontier. A small, thin woman in her forties, she appeared gaunt, but not with ill health. Instead, she gave the impression of being made of cured and hardened rawhide. She dressed in a simple one piece dress that draped loosely from her shoulders. Her hair was put up into a careless bun to keep it away from her seamed face.
"Hush, woman! I'll tell you as soon as I...there, there's one of the Comanch' running through that little clearing down by the lower pool on the creek. They got somebody pinned down there. I can make out a spring wagon on the lip of the creek."
"What can we...," she paused and amended, "What will we do to help?" Erna asked with simple grace.
Fritz marveled anew at the strength of character and personal courage of the wife he brought to this savage land many years before. The simplicity of the question over-reached the problems of whether they "could" or "should" do something, and placed their family fortunes, nay, its very existence, into the balance without a whimper or any hesitation.
"You're a good 'un, Old Woman," Fritz said softly, and Erna dug her elbow into his side in appreciation. "I don't think this band of Comanches got firearms, or we'd have heard more firing."
"Or less," noted Erna, grimly acknowledging the killing efficiency of the tribe General Sherman called the finest light cavalry in the world.
"Blaammm!" The sound of a large caliber, muzzle-loading rifle boomed across the sotol and mesquite.
"You stay here with the rifles. I'll take the Colts. I reckon I can get down pretty close to them on my horse without the red devils seeing me. They're goin' to be watching those poor folks they got surrounded down by the wagon."
Fritz rose from the ground and helped Erna to her feet. He looked at her and put some hope in his voice. "I don't think there's too many of them. Maybe I can charge through their lines and..." Fritz's voice trailed off as he realized the flimsiness of the plan. He shrugged and walked over to the mare. She was ground-reined and standing quietly alert, as though she knew she was going to be asked to do something important.
"You be careful, Old Man, or you'll fall off that horse, and I'll have no one to warm the covers at night."
Both of them knew who would be warming Erna's bed if this desperate plan failed. Their eyes met briefly, then Fritz awkwardly brushed at his eye before returning to his spyglass for a last look. Must've got something in it, he thought. Yes, Erna had been everything a settler on the Texas frontier could have hoped for in a wife.
He slammed the spyglass closed. It was time. Fritz checked the loads in his Walker Colts, and swung into the saddle. He leaned down, touched Erna's cheek one last time, and smiled. Then he settled himself in the saddle and jammed his hat down firmly on his head.
"If we have to come runnin' Erna, you shoot straight and don't mistake me for no Comanche," he joked. "But if I don't come back, you got the other pistol for what you need to do." A wordless compact passed between them. Without another word Fritz rode slowly off the escarpment and toward the sounds of war whoops, riding on the air like buzzards circling a kill.
"Please Gott, you bring my Old Man home," whispered Erna--once she knew Fritz could no longer hear her.
Fritz trailed the mare slowly through the cactus and heavy brush, trying to stay in the softest ground possible to muffle her hoofsteps. At last, he reached the edge of the wide clearing and then halted while still in the thick brush.
From behind the creek bank, in the wagon's shadow, a dark form popped up and snapped off a shot at something to Fritz's right. A burst of derisive war cries from the brush on both sides of him signaled a miss. But they also told him he couldn't stay hidden in that position very long without been discovered.
"Halloo the wagon! I'm Comin' in! Yeeeaaaaaaaaaaaah!" Fritz shouted as he spurred the mare.
He put the reins in his teeth and, gripping his pistols in both hands, charged toward the creek and the wagon. Briefly, on either side of his straining mount, he saw startled figures springing from behind cover. Bending low over the running horse's mane, he snapped off shots at either side. A hit would be an impossibly lucky break, but he hoped to create confusion and keep the Comanches' heads down. The welcome sound of a rifle shot, covering fire from the wagon, reached his ears as he thundered through the tall buffalo grass toward safety.
The creek bank loomed up in front of his running horse. Without reining up, Fritz jumped the mare blindly into the creek bed, heedless of possible obstructions. Their headlong fall stopped abruptly as the mare's belly was ripped open by a cypress stob on a piece of deadwood. Fritz tumbled, head over heels, to the stony ground. He was briefly winded, but staggered to his feet and looked wildly around.
To his amazement, his spectacular entry was reflected by the startled and surprised looks of three black faces. He barely registered the other occupants of the creekbed before the agonized whinnies of the mare's death throes claimed his attention. He swung around without pause for regret, pulled the trigger, and put a bullet into the mare's head. From behind him came a chuckle.
"Lawzy, 'Tonia, I do believe this white man came to visit and don't plan to leave. He done shot his horse."
Fritz looked over at the speaker. He saw a short, compact, but powerful-looking black man, dressed in lindsey-woolsey shirt and pants and a straw hat. He was calmly reloading an old Hawken rifle while chewing on a buffalo grass stem. The broken-off end of an arrow protruded from a hole near his right shoulder blade while fresh blood oozed down his back.
Next to this apparition, somewhat protected from arrows by the creek bank over-hang, sat a young black woman who gave him a wan smile. She had a baby in a sling on her back. Her hands were busily engaged in reloading two smoothbore muskets on her lap.
Coming to his senses, Fritz leaped to the protection of the creek bank. He placed himself where he could cover the area behind the black man's vulnerable back. Then he began the laborious process to reload each cylinder of the Colts.
"Anyone else here?" asked Fritz, his eyes constantly roving, looking for some telltale movement.
"No one alive. My brother got kilt right off--took an arrow in the temple. Nevah knew what hit 'im, I 'spect. You got anyone else coming...," he paused and looked around hopefully, "...or you it? Then he smiled and said, "Not that it ain't mighty nice to see you, Mistah...Mistah?"
"Koehler, Fritz Koehler. I got my Erna up on the ridge near our house with a couple of rifles, but it was too far to shoot, so I come on down." He raised his Walker, aimed carefully, shot through a large pad of prickly pear cactus down the creek bed, and was rewarded with a yelp of pain.
"That so? I'm obliged." The grass stem spun in the black man's mouth and then stopped dead still as his finger tightened on the trigger.
"Blaaammm!" The Hawken spoke with authority.
"Hah! Got one. Well, this is my missus, Antonia, my baby boy, California, and my name is Pompey. I'm mighty pleased to meet you, Mistah Kellah, Sir."
The men looked at each other and burst out laughing, aware of the absurdity of formal introductions in such strange and dangerous circumstances.
The battle, like many nameless skirmishes on the frontier, ended shortly when the war party of Comanches withdrew. Whether they quit because of the losses sustained, Fritz's unexpected reinforcement, or the approach of darkness, was impossible to know.
Shortly after dark, the light of a full moon let the small party of defenders move up the creek and into the canyon that cut into the escarpment. There, a worried, but relieved, Erna, was introduced to their guests. While Antonia fed baby California, Erna took charge of Pompey and cut out the arrow and bandaged the wound. The frontier had a way of forging friendships through common perils and shared tasks.
One evening, some days later, the two men, black and white, lay at their ease in hammocks stretched between the giant oaks on the escarpment's edge. Idly, but carefully, scanning the terrain below for danger or interest, they conducted a desultory argument. Erna and Antonia hovered nearby on a pallet with the baby, shucking corn for supper, but listening to the two men talk about their future.
"Pompey, I just don't understand why you want to go on to California. It's too late in the season, and you ain't got enough supplies. Besides, that wound in your back still needs care and rest."
"I know, Fritz, but all my life I been hearin' about California. Since we been free, it's all that been on my mind. They say you can jus' put your hands in the streams and pick up gold--or you can homestead on land that'll grow anything." He paused. "Mostly, it's a long way from ol' Marse Ledbetter and the plantation."
"Pompey, you got to know that's just so much bunkum, most all the gold's been claimed long ago. More importantly, it won't be long till the Comanche moon. They'll be comin' down this way to winter. It'd be suicide to ride out on the Llano Estacado with a one-mule spring wagon and a wife and child. Especially with you still hurt! Why can't you stay here and work with me and my son Martin when he gets back?"
"Beggin' your pardon, Mistah Kellah, but I don' know as I wants to work for another white man."
The atmosphere grew tense. Both men knew the change to "Mistah Kellah" represented a reminder of the past. Pompey stared at Fritz, challenging him to reply.
"I never said work for me, Pompey. I said work with us." He waved at the far horizon. "There's more land here than I'll ever need. If you decide to stay, you're welcome to whatever farm land you need down on the flats. This is goin' to be a fine place to live one of these days. You can be part of it."
Silence fell between the two men while shadows lengthened under the oaks draped with Spanish moss. The women hushed their quiet buzz of conversation. The stillness was broken by a plaintive call of a whippoorwill.
Finally, Fritz rose and stretched. "Well, you two think on't. We'll be glad to have you as neighbors. Erna, let's go get the vittles on the fire." The Koehlers quietly withdrew to their cabin.
Pompey Ledbetter rose and looked out over the purpling flats below. Antonia moved up beside him with baby California nestled snugly on her hip. He put his arm around her and remained silent, thinking about his dream of California-the dream that had sustained him and named his child.
"Pompey?" she questioned. She placed a hand on his arm and turned him to face her.
He knew the doubt in Antonia's voice bespoke her fears of the long and arduous trail ahead of them if they continued to California. If they fell into danger, where else in this savage land would they find another family ready to risk their lives for poor black folks?
Pompey looked over the land below the ridge--watered by the spring-fed creek and covered with a flowered carpet of Bluebonnets and Indian Paint Brushes--and imagined a farm house beneath the oaks near where his brother was buried.
Somehow, that grave made a difference. He'd earned the right to that land. It would take work. Unlike California, there was no gold here, ready for the taking. But in his heart he knew all the gold in California was already spoken for. And while there might be dangers ahead, they could be faced with confidence, knowing they'd have neighbors who'd support them.
"We'll stay, girl." She quickly kissed him so he waggled a finger at her and added, "But every first-born boy child in this here fam'ly is still gonna be named California."
They smiled together, realizing now that their dream--of freedom in a mythical land to the West--was just a dream after all. They carried the spirit of freedom within themselves--and it would grow in Texas as well as anywhere.