Trails to the Sacred

by Brantley Hargrove

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Julie Chapman

Archer County, TX. – As my Explorer bounces along a gravel road that seems headed for nowhere, it kicks up a cloud of dust that swirls across the rocky mesas, dried out ravines and gangly mesquite thickets of this hardscrabble landscape.

When the dust clears, I find myself at a crossroads bordering two locally famous ranches in this part of Texas: The Prideauxs, who were the first family to settle in this county, and the McMurtrys, who raised a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of western epics.

The stark landscape stretched out in front of me looks harsh, hostile, deadly. Buzzards wheel overhead. The bleached bones of dead cattle lay in dried out ravines. Red boulders shaped like tombstones conceal rattlesnakes and scorpions. But for Larry McMurtry, this
parched land is fertile ground for his literary imagination, and has produced one of the West’s most acclaimed storytellers.

As I look across this arid terrain, I sense that this place will become my physical passageway into both the history of the region and the fecund mind of its most famous living writer.

I step out of my dust-covered truck and crawl under a barbed-wire fence. It feels like I’m stepping back 150 years – crossing a threshold into the Old West described so vividly in his novels – a wild frontier teeming with herds of buffalo and savage Indians who once chased the great beasts up and down the plains. I peer across the rocky prairie, feeling
certain I’ll spot a band of Indians and Texas Rangers engaged in the sort of mortal combat I found on the pages of Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon or some other hair-raising western novel penned by McMurtry. I’m alone, afraid and feeling like an arrow could pierce my backside at any moment. I clutch my only companion, a book written by nearby rancher and historian, Jack Loftin. His book, which points out the location of historical landmarks, serves as my compass into this terrifying terrain. I walk across it as I would a minefield, fearing that a rattlesnake, coiled beneath some rock, may
strike me at any moment.

Scanning the cruel landscape ahead, I see a marching procession of telephone poles and a few scattered oil wells. But these weatherworn vestiges of civilization do nothing to ease my anxiety. In fact, they only heighten it. If a rattler bit me, it might be months before some oil well service worker would discover my remains.

I open Loftin’s book, looking across the tops of prickly pear and chaparral, looking for landmarks that reveal the actual site of the first and biggest battle fought by the Texas Rangers. Sweat trickles down my face. But a chill comes over me as I visualize 1st Lt. A.B. Vanbenthuysen standing atop a steep, shrub-crowned hill, and, below him, a party of 17 Texas Rangers. They are lean and trail weary. Since October 13, 1837, they’ve tracked an elusive band of marauding Indians from Fort Smith in Bell County, near Austin, to this unsettled territory in what is now Archer County, a stone’s throw away from the West Fork of the Trinity River. The war party terrorized white settlers from the Navasota River area around College Station to the headwaters of the Trinity River. They cut a swath through the middle of Texas, unchallenged, stealing cattle and horses, killing settlers, burning settlements and raping women. The Rangers were sent to track the
raiders down and, if possible, run them into the ground.

By November 10, the Rangers had tracked down a party of 165 Keechi Indians, although, as history would later show, the Keechis were probably not the responsible party. Lt. Vanbenthuysen raises his hand to his brow, shielding his eyes from the glare of the midday sun. He faces northeast. To the north is another knob, about a third the size, but very similar to the one on which he stands. To the south is a herd of buffalo, drinking from the Trinity and grazing on the thick coat of buffalo grass. Their humped backs form a thick, undulating carpet spread out across the prairie. But then his gaze catches something peculiar, something unnatural. He’s sees little splashes of white against the dense, wiry brown coats of the buffalo. Feathers. He probably thinks to himself, buffalo don’t have feathers.

A Keechi chief crouches behind the buffalo herd, his warriors at his side. What he doesn’t know is that his war bonnet has given his tribesmen away.

Jack Loftin, a 77-year-old cattle rancher, has not set foot on this desolate land in seven years – not since he mapped it, studied it and walked across it more times than he can now remember to research a bloody battle that took place here for his history book, Trails Through Archer. It took him the better part of a decade to identify the exact location of the battle scene and recreate it in his book, with the help of historical archives, county records and interviews with the Prideauxs’ descendants.

Loftin’s investigation revealed that the battle took place near the smaller, boulder-crusted knob rising out of the scrub brush and cactus like a towering teepee. Loftin calls it “the stone house”. It was a place where Indian braves and medicine men sat silently, holding their arms up towards the endless West Texas sky, searching for answers to deal with
their misery – the encroachment on their hunting grounds, the death of their people. To the Indians, this was a sacred place; a place where they believed the Great Spirits would shield them against the White Man’s bullets. Here they believed they could fight, and win.

Loftin’s account of the ferocious battle is gripping. After Vanbenthuysen spots the band of Keechis from atop the larger stone house, he and his Rangers are already itching for a fight. But they are also outnumbered. A hard-charging ruffian by the name of Felix McClusky sneaks up on a lone Keechi and attempts to dispatch him quickly and quietly. But the Indian doesn’t cooperate. McClusky finds himself tangled up in a knife fight that would leave the brave’s body, now carrion for the vultures circling overhead, slashed on the prairie floor. With the Keechis watching the Rangers’ every move, McClusky steals a plug of tobacco from the body. Vanbenthuysen reprimands him for attacking the Indians before he gave the order. But McClusky continues to thump his chest, as if he had single handedly subdued the Keechis.

“I’d kill any Injun for a plug o’ tobacco,” he barks back at Vanbenthuysen, well within earshot of the Keechi.

One of the Rangers, Wesley Nicholson, climbs a tree, waving a white flag, hoping to blunt the tribe’s fury. But the Keechis aren’t mollified by the gesture. They want revenge. The Indian warriors swarm the Rangers. Outnumbered and under siege, the Rangers are forced to do the unthinkable; they abandon their horses and supplies and retreat to a nearby ravine, scrambling for cover behind rocks and mesquite trees under a withering hail of arrows. Pinned down, a few Rangers place their hats on the ends of their rifle barrels in a ruse to get the Indians to waste arrows. Their hats were soon skewered with arrowheads, according to Loftin.

As the Rangers dig in for a long siege, the Keechi grow restless. They hatch a plan to flush the Rangers out by setting ablaze the thick coat of straw-colored buffalo grass in a ring around the ravine. They plan to smoke them out or burn them alive. Loftin says this was a strategic mistake.

“The Indians saved the Rangers by settin’ the fire and makin’ cover for ‘em,” grins Loftin.

Led by Vanbenthuysen, the Rangers charge headlong into the smoke, stumbling upon Indians and firing on them within arm’s reach. As they grope through the suffocating cloud, six Rangers and 65 Keechis have already inhaled their last breaths as bullets, arrows and blades cut their flesh. After two hours of close-quarter fighting,

Vanbenthuysen and six other rangers find cover in a nearby thicket of post oak, mesquite and shrubs. The surviving Rangers walk for 17 days and 200 miles to the Sabine River settlement with neither food nor blankets.

The Keechis suffer the loss of their chief and many warriors. Rather than pursue the fleeing Rangers, the remaining tribesmen gather the horses and supplies, and in a time honored ritual, scalp and mutilate the bodies of their fallen enemies.

As Loftin hobbles across the battle scene, looking for landmarks that pinpoint the carnage, I suddenly realize the extent to which McMurtry’s fiction is simply a reenactment of bloody scenes played out on this desolate land. I remember the passage in Lonesome Dove where Pea Eye, a simple, skinny ex-Ranger who rode with Captains Call and McCrae, reminisces about an engagement he calls the “Stone House fight,” a reference to the place I’m standing on where the actual battle took place.

In McMurtry’s novel, Pea Eye, Gus and Call are besieged by the Keechi in the same place as VanBenthuysen and his Rangers. They’re forced into a ravine for cover. Soon the acrid breath of a grass fire plume flushes them out. The real exchange ensues beneath the cloud, with gun smoke belching forth and lead hissing, drowning out the twang of bowstrings and the muted whoosh of arrows slicing the air. Like the ill-fated Rangers in the vicinity of the stone houses, Gus is armed with a .50 caliber Henry lever-action rifle.

In his prose, McMurtry’s imagination never strays far from the truth.

The less talk the Captain had to listen to, the better humor he was in, whereas Gus was just the opposite. He’d rattle off five or six different questions and opinions, running them all together like so many unbranded cattle—it made it hard to pick out one and think about it carefully and slowly, the only ways Pea Eye liked to think. At such times his only recourse was to pretend the questions had hit him in his deaf ear, the left one, which hadn’t really worked well since the day of their big fight with the Keechis—what they called the Stone House fight. It had been pure confusion, since the Indians had been smart enough to fire the prairie grass, smoking things up so badly that no one could see six feet ahead. They kept bumping into Indians in the smoke and having to shoot pointblank; a Ranger right next to Pea had spotted one and fired too close to Pea’s ear.

“That was the day the Indians got away with their horses, which made Captain Call about as mad as Pea had ever seen him. It meant that they had to walk down the Brazos for nearly two hundred miles, worrying about what would happen if the Comanches discovered they were afoot. Pea Eye hadn’t noticed he was half dead until they walked
most of the way out.” (Lonesome Dove, p 11)

“He (McMurtry) could’a took my book and wrote (Lonesome Dove),” says, Loftin. “Not that I’m the only one with the information.”

And that’s just fine with him. The rancher turned historian appreciates that many of McMurtry’s novels are rooted in the harsh reality of the Old West, weaving authentic detail of the landscape, its inhabitants and its history into true-to-life narratives.

“He probably read everything he could get his hands on, and then some.”

Loftin stops talking for a moment to catch his breath. We are knee deep in sage and buffalo grass and blazing a winding path around copses of mesquite and patches of prickly pear that are the familiar landscape of McMurtry’s novels. A scrubby chaparral rakes Loftin’s jeans, which are tucked loosely into his boots. He’s looking for the rocky ground where Keechi chieftains huddled over stone mixing bowls, or metates and ground up roots and herbs to make good medicines for the next raid. He says it should be nestled between two ancient looking live oaks to the west of the smaller stone house.

But at the moment the exact location is eluding him. The sun is hidden behind a gauzy veil of clouds, forcing him to seek other points of reference. He seems to think it’s just beyond the next clump of trees, or maybe the next one or the one after that. For the old rancher, locating the important landmarks of his history books is becoming more difficult
each year.

Still, he shuffles forward, torso swaying like the pendulum of a clock as he stiffly transfers weight from foot to foot, determined to locate the Indian holy ground. His old bones and muscles curse him. Yet his blue eyes still sparkle with the lust of adventure, the quest to find the exact location where the Keechi counted coup on more Rangers than
had ever been killed in any one engagement.

He stops for a moment, removes his cap and scratches his head, digging his crooked, arthritic fingers into his silvery white hair. He purses his lips against his remaining teeth, looking a little embarrassed.

“Damn,” he curses, “we got turned around.”

Things are beginning to look a little too familiar. Up ahead is a ridge, on top of which are the Keechi dancing grounds – a collection of scorched looking patches of land about ten feet in diameter, littered with shiny, gunmetal black hematites. Before a battle or raid, the warriors whooped and danced wildly on the bald, iron ore coated ground. This is the
same place where we began looking for the Indian holy ground. It appears we have walked a big circle around the sacred spot.

Loftin decides to follow a line of telephone poles running through a cleared swath in the mesquite far into the horizon, hoping this route will bring us close enough to the battle scene.

But now his confidence in locating the site is dissipating like morning dew in the desert. Landmarks like the old post oak or a washed out road that once directed him to the site have eroded in the muddy miasma of old age and time. We move several miles deeper into the mesquite thicket, making several circuitous loops, until we find the large metate.
It’s about 18 inches wide and cloven into several pieces by the force of water, freezing and expanding in tiny crevices. But the smaller one is missing. They should be 15 feet apart and aligned southwest to northeast proportionally, like the large and small stone houses. Loftin fears it has been taken.

He’s visibly distressed and bewildered. He scurries around the thicket, hands propped against his bent knees, eyes roving the ground. He kept the exact location of the metates a secret, fearing the sacred stones might be stolen or end up in a glass case in some museum, the magic in them dispelled, their spirit disturbed. “I didn’t want a whole bunch
of people knowin’ about ‘em,” says Loftin, as much to himself as to me. But now it is gone. The totem to the two knobs has been halved. Whatever medicine they may have wielded scattered into an unknowable void.

Preserving the sacred stones in their original state is Loftin’s way of keeping the Old West alive. He has spent a lifetime locating the forgotten sites of local history, and narrating the stories of the characters that inhabit them. Loftin has scattered 477 historical markers across seven West Texas counties since 1970, with hand carved inscriptions etched into huge slabs of sandstone found locally. Some of the markers, like the one for Fort Cureton, a Texas Frontier Battalion outpost on the Trinity charged with protecting settlers, can be found on his own ranch. Among the men stationed at Cureton were the famous Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight, the real life characters who became
McMurtry’s fictional ones – Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. The marker reads: Fort Cureton CSA (Confederate States of America) 1861-1864. Another marker located a few miles away from his ranch marks the site where two unheralded Texas Rangers fell. Their names are unknown. The inscription reads: Graves of two Texas Rangers killed
here and 4 mile N.W. in 1860.

Many of the sandstone boulders suffer the same fate as the missing stone mixing bowl. These stone markers, which Loftin labors over for hours, are stolen, damaged or destroyed by vandalism and the ravages of the West Texas winds and rains. Since Loftin erected the markers and is often the only one who knows their locations, he assumes responsibility for repairing and preserving what is tantamount to a vast and unsung graveyard of obscure history. And he does it on his own time, at his own expense.

“He fixes ‘em back,” says Marie Loftin, his wife. “Some of ‘em he knows the location, but no one else does.”

At the Loftin house, the kitchen is suffused with the heavy scent of simmering beef. It’s a utilitarian house that resembles the sort of frontier dwelling you might expect to be used as a bunkhouse for cowboys. There isn’t much room to spare, and the kitchen seems to take up most of it. During a day’s worth of mending fences, castrating, vaccinating, or feeding, a hot meal is just about the most important thing done in the house. A screen porch whose plywood floors have slowly bowed over the years covers the front and back of the house. I remember when I first came to the Loftin ranch I made the mistake of knocking on the door of the front screen porch. From within I heard a man yell, “Come round the back.” As I made my way to the rear of the house, I heard a screen door squeak open and saw only Loftin’s arm, holding it for me. It was 7:00 a.m. It looked like he had only recently woken up. I imagined he didn’t need an alarm clock. He woke like a rooster with the dawn. His hair was mussed and his shirttail untucked.

“Howdy,” he said, “here in the country, we come round the back.”

When I walked inside, I was struck by the small size of the house. I had expected something much grander from a man rich in land with quite a bit of money squirreled away, from what I’d heard. But I felt like I’d stepped back about 100 years, aside from the television. All about manuscripts and history books piled high. A percolator gurgled and popped on the counter by the sink, and above it a window with a view of a pasture of green grazer and rusty red sage. It was a place where one could forget what century it was.

Loftin bought the house in 1940 for $1,800. The original family homestead was a log cabin, a typical pioneer shelter when the Loftins settled in Archer County in 1877. Eventually the cabin fell into disrepair and his great grandfather moved the family to Archer City. But Loftin wanted to live on the land he tended. After a tornado barely missed the house and slid it five feet off of its foundation when his first born was only an infant, he set to fortifying it to stand up to windy West Texas specifications. And since working rock is something Loftin loves to do, he surrounded the bottom half with mortar
and stone found around the ranch.

The Loftin’s, like the McMurtrys, are among the original pioneer families who settled Archer County. In fact, the Loftin’s were the third family to settle here. Though the prairie at that time was far from settled. Indians still moved through the land. Rustlers stole cattle. Coyotes and ink black pumas killed a large percentage of livestock, especially the young and infirm.

Not much has changed it would seem. Loftin says modern day rustlers are still a problem as beef prices are on the rise. And he estimates he loses at least five percent of his calves to predators on the 2500 acres of land he ranches by himself. Land he hopes to pass to his children and grandchildren when he’s gone.

Loftin reclines in an old wooden chair at the dinner table. He’s tired by today’s long walk, but satisfied by the steak and mashed potatoes and gravy he just inhaled. As I look at him, marveling at the vigor still in this old man’s limbs when he should be in his dotage, I see the toll a life of backbreaking ranching has taken. Beneath those dancing blue eyes sag puffy bags of flesh. A few fingers slant in different directions from old breaks and arthritis and his arms are covered with old and recently healed over scars. Loftin says it’s getting harder and harder each year to tend to the ranch and his lifelong labor of love, but he’ll “keep at it for a while”.

“Come on outside with me,” he says, rising slowly from the chair with a grunt and grabbing his cap off the deep freezer. “I wanna show you somethin’.”

After lunch, he led me out to the pasture next to his house. An expanse of sage and buffalo grass carved out of the characteristic scrub and mesquite stretched towards the horizon. As we trudged through wet, knee high grass, the soil beneath it, soggy from last night’s shower, slurped and sucked at our boots. I wondered why he was leading me out into the middle of a muddy field. There were no significant landmarks that I could see. Finally, we came upon a piece of bedrock the size of a tractor tire peeking out of the mud. He pointed at two ruts, about four feet apart, running parallel to each other across the rock.

“See them ruts,” he said. “The Marcy Trail ran through here. Wagon wheels carved those ruts into the bedrock.”

A migrant trail running from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico cuts right through his land – the same trail that serves as the literary tapestry of McMurtry’s novels. In Lonesome Dove, July Johnson, a sheriff from Fort Smith, pursues Jake Spoon, a former Ranger and friend to Call and McCrae, into Texas. While gambling in Fort Smith, Spoon accidentally shot Johnson’s brother with a buffalo gun.

Soon after the young sheriff leaves for Texas, his lovelorn wife sets off after an old flame. Johnson’s inept but loyal deputy, Roscoe Brown, pursues him into Texas to give him the news of his escaped wife. Brown follows the Marcy Trail into Texas to find July and would have ridden through the Loftin ranch. He believes that the Marcy Trail, studied in his book Trails Through Archer, was one of the most heavily trafficked trails. Even more so than the Western, the Oregon or the Santa Fe Trail. And migrants were still traveling it when the Loftins arrived in Archer County. Before barbwire changed the Texas landscape forever.

“There’s a perfectly straight trail from Fort Smith into Texas,” Wilbarger said (to Johnson). “Captain Marcy laid it out. If that deputy can’t even stay on a road, I expect you ought to fire him” (Lonesome Dove, p 437).

Staring at the moss mottled slab of bedrock and the wagon tracks worn into it, the line I once thought so clearly delineated the difference between fiction and history appears as muddied as my boots. Kneeling down, I run my fingers along one of the ruts, now worn not only into the bedrock, but also into me. Nearby, a four-foot slab of sandstone leans against a rod iron stay. It reads:

Marcy Trail

Calif (arrow pointing west)

1777 miles
87 days

 

As I envision the weary migrants trundling across the bumpy prairie, their wood and iron wagon wheels clattering over the protruding bedrock, I see a connection between Loftin and McMurtry. The two aging writers, who are now becoming as much a part of history as the characters and times they wrote of, are fundamental spokes on the same wagon wheel, angling off in different directions.

Loftin is a man of the land, as connected to it and as unmovable as the live oak in his front yard, with roots sunk deeply within. He loves it and is compelled to tell its tales. He spends days carving inscriptions into 200 pound slabs of sandstone and plopping them down in pastures and along nameless dirt roads where no one is likely to see them.

“He was a mean old cuss,” Loftin chuckles of McMurtry’s grandfather. He’s been chairman of the Archer County Historical Commission since 1958, essentially the guardian of the region’s history. But more importantly, he’s the record keeper of a pioneer breed that has all but died off. Loftin is one of the last of his kind, and it’s that kinship that binds him to their memory. He says he feels an obligation to those who came before him. Those intrepid few who carved a livelihood out of so much uncertainty. He told me his father waged a lifelong war against cockleburs, a spiny nuisance that gets tangled up in a cow’s coat, something most ranchers don’t bother with. He and his father would spend hours digging up the yellow flowers that produce them. Loftin carries on this practice today. Not because of some overriding concern for the herd, but because his dad did it. He’s the only child of a rancher and is bound to carry on the way and the memory of a people that has almost disappeared.

“My folks got it by workin’ hard,” said Loftin. “That has a lot of meaning to me.”

McMurtry grew up only a few miles down a caliche road from the Loftins. His parents, his grandparents, his uncles – all cattlemen. Indeed, Larry McMurtry is the last living writer of the ranching pioneers. Perhaps that’s why his epic, Lonesome Dove, was so accessible and authentic. His story is the same as Loftin’s and every other pioneer, hoping to carve his piece out of the wildness and danger of the unsettled prairie. And like Loftin, McMurtry tells the tales of the West because that is who he is: a son of pioneers.

“They wouldn’t have survived if he wasn’t.”

Loftin’s eyes move proudly over the tracks, a little piece of history he can see from his screen porch. Without a word, he turns and waddles through the muck towards his house. As I watch my guide walking stiffly through his pasture, he tugs at his belt as his pants start to slip from his rotund belly. I can’t help but smile at the old rancher.

I pull out a dog-eared, paperback copy of Lonesome Dove and leaf through the pages until I get to the passage about the Marcy Trail. I feel a connection to the land, the history and literature that I’ve never experienced before. To me, Lonesome Dove is no longer just a book. It’s an elegy to the Old West that holds more truth than any history books. I read a few lines of McMurtry’s prose about this place and look down the trail. I swear I can see a wagon train snaking along the low hills, heading into the emptiness of the West Texas prairie.

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