The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939



"WHAT is it, Jim?" I inquired of our guide, whom I saw suddenly pause a short distance in advance of me, and then dismount from his horse, as if for the purpose of more thoroughly examining the ground.

"It 's a fresh Comanche trail," replied Jim, "made since sunrise, and headed toward the river, too."

Riding up, I dismounted, and, kneeling upon [illustration - A Comanche family traveling.] the ground, closely examined the tracks before me, while Jim continued, looking around him:

"They 're on the war-path, too, sure 's shootin'."

As I could discover nothing myself but the tracks made by a number of unshod horses' feet, which had apparently followed one another in single file over the prairie, leaving a long, sinuous, snake-like trail behind them, I said:

"I can certainly see the tracks plainly enough; but how do you know that they were made since sunrise by a party of Comanches who are on the war-path?"

"Yer see them spears of grass?" replied Jim. "Wall, there was a heavy dew last night, war n't there? Now, if them spears of grass had been trod down afore sunrise, you 'd a-found little particles of sand a-clingin' to 'em; but, yer see, they 're as clean as a whistle, which shows that they was made after the dew dried off. As to their bein Comanches, the print of this moccasin shows that plain enough; an' it 's fair to reckon they 're on the war-path, cause they haint got their families with 'em."

"But how do you know their families are not with them?" interrupted I.

"Because there a'nt no signs of their lodge-poles. Yer see," explained Jim, "Injuns alus carry their lodge-poles when their families travel with 'em; an' as they fasten 'em to the sides of their horses, the ends drag on the ground, leavin' a mark behind 'em; an' as there a'nt no mark here, it 's plain they 're travelin' without 'em, and that 's a pretty sartin sign they 're on the warpath."

"If such is the case, what had we better do, Jim ?" inquired I.

"Do? Why there a'nt but one thing to do,
an' that is to look out for 'em. If they surprise us now, 't will be our own fault," relpied Jim.

"Can you tell how many there are in the party?" asked I.

"There's ten or a dozen of 'em, anyway," responded the guide, curtly.

"Then it's very evident we don't want to encounter them, and had better keep out of their sight," said I.

"Bless your soul," responded Jim, "do you suppose they a'nt seen us? Why, ten to one, they're lookin' at us this very minute, and know our movements as well as we do ourselves."

"How looking at us? There is n't a creature of any kind in sight except our own party," continued I, closely scanning the country with my glasses.

"Wal, we can see nobody, that's sartin; but for all that, you may depend upon it they've seen us, for the Comanches never travel without having some one on the watch. That's the reason Injun trails alwuz cross the highest ground, instead of followin' the valleys. Yer see this trail heads for that high mesathere; and more'n as likely as not, there's an Injun lyin' in the grass up there, a-watchin' ev'ry movement we make—or, at any rate, it's safe to calculate there is."

Now, this was anything but pleasant news for me, who had hoped to reach the Rio Grande, whither we were bound, without meeting any of the bands of hostile Indians with which Western Texas at that time swarmed.

I had been a resident of Texas some years, and had recently been induced by some newly-arrived friends from the East to embark with them in the enterprise of stocking a ranche situated upon the head-waters of the Guadaloupe River: and, for the purpose of procuring the necessary animals to cross it, we had decided upon a trip into Mexico, crossing the Rio Grande at or near Eagle Pass.

We had procured the services of Jim Davis, one of Ben McCullough's celebrated band of Texan rangers, to accompany us as scout or guide. We had left San Antonio five days before, and, at the time my story opens, were crossing the country lying between Fort Inge and the Rio Grande, still four days' journey distant.

Being the only one of the party, except the guide, who had had any experience upon the plains, the information just received was anything but pleasant, for I felt a good deal of anxiety as to what might ensue if we were attacked.

The remainder of our party, with the pack-mules, having by this time overtaken us, Jim and myself rode along in silence, keeping a sharp lookout, but seeing nothing to alarm us.

We had left the recently-discovered trail far to the south, and I was congratulating myself upon our fortunate escape, when, suddenly, Jim called my attention to a dark object upon the top of a hill some distance in advance of us.

I gave it a glance, and said: "Well, what is it?"

"An Injun on hossback," was the short, positive answer.

I immediately brought my glasses to bear, and could distinctly see that it was indeed an Indian, sitting upon his horse as motionless as a statue.

"What can he be doing there?" was my inquiry.

"I reckon from the feller's position he wants us to understand he's friendly, and perhaps he wants to do a little beggin' on his own account, or may be he's a spy or a Lipan," replied Jim. "When we git near enough, I'll ask him who he is."

As we approached, the guide raised his hand, with the palm open outward, and moved it rapidly across and in front of his face several times. This signal was immediately responded to by the Indian, who made a peculiar motion with his hand, similar to that made by a snake in crawling through the grass.

"He's a Comanche," said the guide. "Yer see," continued he, "all the different tribes have a sign by which they're known. I asked him who he was, and his answer said, 'Comanche,' which means 'snake,' and that wrigglin' motion is the sign of their tribe. I don't s'pose you call that telegraphin', don't yer?"

Immediately upon the Indian's noticing and answering Jim's signal, he started toward us at a furious pace.

"That doesn't look very friendly, does it, Jim?" inquired I, placing my hand on my revolver.

"Don't touch yer shootin' irons," said Jim; "that's alwuz their way of meetin' strangers."

By this time, the Indian, making a most graceful circuit, approached to within about thirty feet of us, and then suddenly reined in his horse, and halted.

The guide rode forward and shook hands with him, and, after a few moments' conversation, motioned for us to come forward, when a general handshaking ensued.

This ceremony completed, the guide informed us that the Indian was a messenger from "Chiquito," the chief of a small band of Comanches, now encamped upon the head-waters of the Leona, some four or five miles to the south, and that he professed to be a great friend of the whites, and was desirious that we should visit him at his camp.

I found that my friends were both inclined to go, and so informed the guide that we would be governed by his opinion in the matter.


"Wal," said Jim, "I reckon we may as well go; may be a visit will git the good-will of the old feller —an' it can't hurt us, no how."

At a motion from the Indian, we started, and, after riding some distance, came to a magnificent grove of pecan-trees; passing through which, we came in sight of the camp, a group of conical huts (instead of the usual skin lodge), constructed of poles set in the ground and bent over to a common center at the top, which framework was wattled with hunches of long tulle and grass.

When we first saw them there appeared to be an angry discussion going on between a dozen or more of the Indians, one of whom, a large and powerfully-built Indian, about fifty years of age, the guide informed me, was Chiquito, their chief. He was dressed in a tight-fitting jacket, with leggings and moccasins, from each outer seam of which there was suspended a long, loose fringe. Upon his head was a close-fitting cap of bearskin, covered with a profusion of eagles' feathers, so arranged as to stand erect in a circle over the top of his head. His face, from which every particle of hair had been carefully eradicated, was striped in an odd and fantastic manner with different-colored pigments, in which white and yellow largely predominated; the place usually occupied by the eyebrows and lashes being painted a bright vermilion.

Around his neck hung two necklaces; one made of bears' toes, eagles' claws and deer hoofs; the other of brass balls, such as are sometimes used to tip the horns of cattle, and two similar ones hung pendent from his ears. Over his shoulders, and sweeping the ground, in regal style, was carelessly flung a large buffalo rug, gaudily painted and embroidered with beads and porcupine quills, while in a belt around his waist hung a singular-looking hatchet, or tomahawk. In his right hand he held the usual Comanche spear.

The balance of the group were also arrayed in gaudy rugs and fancy "stroudings," which, with their grotesquely-painted faces, gave them a most hideous appearance.

The entire party wore their hair long and flowing over their shoulders, while each carried in his hand an ugly-looking spear.

As we approached them Chiquito stepped forward, and extending a hand ornamented with finger-nails an inch long, grunted out, in execrable Spanish, "Mi Chiquito, bueno amigo," or, "I am Chiquito, a good friend."

We all dismounted, and, after shaking hands with each one, seated ourselves upon the grass, and the guide then informed Chiquito that we had visited [illustration - The Chief, Chiquito] him at his request, and desired to know his pleasure. The chief gave us to understand that, notwithstanding we had always been friendly to the whites, he was very poor, and required many things to make him comfortable, such as blankets, tobacco, with fire-arms to shoot game, and particularly powder and shot, and anything else we had to spare.

While this modest demand was being made the braves gathered around us, persisting in making
the most minute examination of our dress, fire-arms, equipments and baggage, evincing their satisfaction at what they saw by a series of grunts, at the same time manifesting a decided disposition to appropriate any articles that particularly struck their fancy. They even cut some of the buttons off of poor Griffith's coat.

Jim informed Chiquito that we were a party traveling for pleasure, and had nothing whatever with us to spare, except powder and balls to our enemies; and as he utterly refused to present the chief with anything save one blanket, we all arose, and bidding the Indians "buenos dios," we made the best of our way out of camp.

Again on the road, I asked Jim if it was not singular that the Indians did not include whisky in their demands, and was told by him that the Comanches were an exceedingly temperate tribe, it being rare to find one of them who drank intoxicating liquor.

"We a'nt a-goin' to git off scot free though; see ef we do," remarked Jim. "We shall hev trouble with them varmints yet, sure 's shootin'! Old Chiquito looked blacker'n a thunder-cloud when I told him we had n't got nothin' for him. Injuns is sarpents, any how; and we shall see what we shall."

We encamped that night at Elm Creek, about haf-way between Fort Inge and the Rio Grande, and had hardly been on the road a half hour the next morning when we discovered a party of Indians riding furiously toward us, evidently with hostile intent. We hastily rode to the summit of a small hill, and, dismounting, waited, rifles in hand, for the attack.

The country was an open, rolling prairie, especially well adapted for the manoevering of their horses. As they approached we could count ten in the party, armed with bows and arrows, as well as spears; but as each of us was armed with a rifle, we felt that we need not fear their superiority of numbers.

I could not but admire the daring bravery with which they came thundering over the turf towrd us, each man sitting erect and as firm in his saddle as though a part of the animal he rode. Their faces, breasts, and arms were striped with yellow and black paint, presenting a singular contrast to the gaudy trappings of their horses and the bright colors of their "stroudings."

When within easy range, Jim gave the word, and the next instant four rifles belched forth their flame and smoke, when, as if by a stroke of a necromancer's wand, every Indian disappeared from our sight as the terrible Comanche war-whoop smote upon our ears. Sounding like the yell of so many fiends, and, in spite of our best endeavors, almost curdling the blood in our veins, while a flight of arrows fell around us, slightly wounding one of our horses. Another volley from our rifles, followed by another shower of arrows, accompanied by the most demoniacal yells and screeches, so startled and frightened our animals that it was with the greatest difficulty that we kept them from breaking loose and stampeding all over the plain.

While the apparently riderless horses of the Comanches were circling around us, each circuit bringing them nearer and nearer, Jim raised his rifle and fired. I saw one of their horses stumble and fall to the ground, and a moment after, its rider leap hurriedly up and as suddenly disappear just as a third flight of arrows assailed us from beneath the horses' necks.

"Them's what they're after," said Jim; as, in spite of our best exertions, two of our animals succeeded in breaking loose and dashed madly over the plain, followed by the entire party of Comanches, yelling and screeching after them like so many demons.

"Wal," exclaimed the guide, "the Injuns is gone, an' so be the horses! We'll have ter ride an' tie between here an' the Grande, sure's shootin'."

"Can't we follow them and get the animals back?" asked Blossom.

"Foller 'em! We might as well foller a streak of greased lightnin'," said Jim. "We may thank our stars that we've got off as well as we have, and let well enough alone. I would n't give five cents for our chance when I seed them fellers comin' down on us so; ten to four's a good many, when the four has their animals to look out for. I knew we could n't fight em on hossback, 'cause, yer see, them fellers is the best hossmen in the world. Did n't yer see how they dropped on to the sides of their hosses an' fired from under their necks? I've seen a dozen of 'em fight that way, and there's no way of touchin' 'em without fust killin' their hosses. Come, Jedge, let's go and look at that critter out there; I've a notion I've seen him afore."

We walked out to where the animal lay, and recognized it at once as the horse ridden by Chiquito's messenger, thus removing any doubts that might have existed relative to Chiquito's friendship for the whites.

We deemed it advisable to return to where we were encamped the night previous, as the loss of our animals would require us to travel so slowly it would be impossible to reach water that night. Before we had been in camp two hours we descried, slowly winding over the plain from the direction of the river, the white tops of six wagons, which proved to be a Government train in charge of
Lieut. Holabird, en route from Fort Duncan to Fort Inge for commissary stores. Of course we were greatly delighted to see the soldiers, for although we did not expect to be attacked again by Chiquito's Indians, it would be well for us to have a little military support if they should conclude to come after our two remaining horses.

The Lieutenant treated us very kindly, and, as he found he could spare a horse or two, he very generously loaned us a couple of animals to enable us to resume our journey. After we had been thus reinforced and encouraged, we parted from our new-found friends and reached the Rio Grande on the afternoon of the second day.

Three weeks later, upon our return to the river from the interior with the stock we had purchased, we learned that Chiquito's braves had been severely punished by a party sent out from Fort Duncan for that purpose; news that we were not very sorry to hear.