The Devil and Strap Buckner
by Nathaniel Alston Taylor
The Coming Empire: 2,000 Miles in Texas on Horseback
A mile above the ferry, I entered a charming valley leading from the west. It was a succession of farms. The song of the plowman was merry in the air, and there was an odor of newly-turned soil, which showed just a tint of the coloring matter of the Colorado, proving that the mighty river had invaded the valley with its backwater. Gentle slopes and eminences and detached groves of oak looked upon this pleasant valley from either side. Through the middle of it flowed a small stream known as Buckner’s Creek. The invariable cotton bale was piled in every yard, awaiting the pleasure of the farmer to be converted into gold.
Strap Buckner, by Edmond Amateis
I had ridden a few miles up this attractive valley when a young horseman cantered up by my side, traveling the same direction. He was dressed in faultless neatness, but there was something in his Byron collar and the little blue ribbon about his neck, as well as his large, bright, black eyes, which seemed to say that the sunny hill-sides, the shady forests, the murmuring river and the blue distances were to him a delight and love. A soft felt hat sat jauntily on his head, but did not conceal his broad, pale brow. I said involuntarily as he checked his prancing steed beside me and bowed politely, “A young gentleman and a scholar!” His steed, handsomely caparisoned, glossy with kind handling and abundant provender, gay with exuberant spirit, seemed meet companion for his rider, and proud of the burden he bore.
After an interchange of courtesies and some pleasant conversation, I asked him why the sparkling brook was called Buckner’s Creek, and why it had not been named for some water-nymph, who, in the mythological days, must have chosen it for her haunt; or for some Indian princess with a musical name who had lived and loved on its banks?
“Ah,” said he, turning upon me with his beaming eyes, which grew larger and brighter, “and thereby hangs a tale—a tale of the olden time. And as I perceive that you are one who loves knowledge and light, whose delight is to know, I will tell you if you have the patience to hear me.”
I thanked him and begged him to proceed.
He continued: You must know then, that this vale in which you are riding, is one that has witnessed a strange company and remarkable events. There is not one foot of this soil beneath your feet, which, had it a tongue to speak, could not a tale unfold that would harrow up your young heart. Even the zephyrs, as I fancy, occasionally lisp it with their airy tongues. In the olden time there came to Texas with Austin, who you are aware, brought “the first three hundred” Americans who founded this great commonwealth, a youth whose name was Strap Buckner. Where he was born, whence his lineage, or why he bore the name of Strap the records do not tell; whether he was so christened at the front, or because he was a stalwart, strapping youth. Certain it is, he was of giant stature, and of the strength of ten lions, and he used it as ten lions. His hair was of the redness of flame, as robust as the mane of a charger, and his face, it was freckled. He was of a kindly nature, as most men of giant strength are, but he had a pride in his strength which grew ungovernable. With no provocation whatever, he knocked men down with the kindest intention and no purpose to harm them. He would enter a circle of gentlemen with a smiling visage, and knock them all down; and when any received bruised or broken limbs, he nursed them with more than the tenderness of a mother, and with a degree of enthusiasm as if his whole heart was bent on restoring them to health as soon as practicable, in order that he might enjoy the pleasure of knocking them down again. Indeed, he nursed them with the enthusiasm of true genius which fires itself onward to the fulfillment of some great aspiration; and his genius was to knock men down. He knocked down Austin’s whole colony at least three times over, including the great and good Austin himself.
He could plant a blow with his fist so strongly that it was merry pastime with him to knock a yearling bull stark dead; and even the frontlet of a full grown animal could not withstand him. In those days a huge black bull appeared mysteriously in Austin’s colony, who by his ferocity became a terror to the settlement, and was known by the dread name of Noche. Strap challenged this bull to single combat, and invited the colony to witness the encounter. When the day came the entire colony looked from their doors and windows, being afraid to go out; every one, probably, praying that both Strap and the bull would be slain. He threw a red blanket over his shoulder, and walked on the prairie with the air of a hero who goes forth to meet a mighty foeman. He bore no weapon what-ever. When the bull perceived Strap, he tossed his tail aloft and switched it hither and thither, pawed the earth, and emitted a roar of thunder. Strap imitated him, and pawed and roared also; which perceiving, the bull came toward him like a thunderbolt clothed in tempest and terror. Strap received him with a blow on his frontlet from his bare fist, which sent him staggering back upon his haunches, and the blood flowed from his smoking nostrils. Recovering from his surprise, Noche, to the astonishment of all, turned tail and fled away, bellowing. He was never more seen in those parts.
Strap’s fame greatly arose, insomuch that men looked upon him with awe, and maidens and strong women pined in secret admiration. He became a great hunter, using no weapon but his fist and an iron pestle or mace, which he threw with the accuracy of rifle aim when the prey refused him encounter in close quarters. The wildcat and the bear emigrated, and the buffalo bade a lasting farewell to the lowlands.
About this time also Strap became addicted to strong drink and grew boisterous, to such a degree that people shunned him in spite of his kindly nature. No man would meet him alone; but when he was seen approaching, men would shut themselves up in their houses, or collect in knots, all with guns and pistols cocked. Strap now reasoned with himself and determined he would seek other fields of glory. Said he to himself reflectively, “It is ever thus. When a man of genius appears in the world he may be recognized by this infallible sign: That all the dunces are immediately in confederacy against him.” So, early on a bright spring morning he arose, and throwing his bundle of rainment over his left shoulder, and bearing his iron pestle in his right hand, he turned his back upon the unappreciative community. The people stood at their doors and windows—the men and the women, the boys and the girls—and watched him departing and with one voice exclaimed, “Fare thee well, Strap Buckner, and joy go with thee and with thy house!” Strap turned, and in the kindness of his heart exclaimed, “Fare thee well, San Felipe! Sweet be thy cradled slumbers! I go to meet Noche, who has sent me a challenge through the air. Sleep in security, San Felipe; for Strap Buckner watches over thy slumbers.” And in the kindness of his heart he brushes a tear from his eye, and strode rapidly away.
He travelled west over the great plains. It would be long to tell you his many strange adventures by the way. After days of wonders, Strap reached the site where Lagrange now is, and to his surprise found a solitary trading house, where Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall exchanged beads and liquor with the Indians for furs and skins, and for horses they might steal. He liked the country greatly, and whiskey being accessible, he determined to abide in these quarters. On the first day of his arrival, he knocked down both Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall, but he did it so handsomely and with such an air of unspeakable kindness, that they could conceive no offense. Before a week had elapsed he had knocked down every Indian brave who dwelt within ten miles around; and finally he knocked down the great king himself, Tuleahcahoma, in the presence of the queen, Muchalatota, and the fair princess, Tulipita. He gained such renown among the Indians that they called him Kokulblothetopoff; that is to say: the Red Son of Blue Thunder. The great king held him in such reverence that he presented him with a grey horse with a bob-tail, which though ugly and lank to look at, was famed as the swiftest horse known to all the Indians; and he offered him the fair Princess Tulipita in marriage. The Princess he rejected, because he prized his strength above all things, and forbore to waste any of it for woman, though a fair princes. Tulipita sobbed in silence, and let concealment, like the worm in the bud, feed on her copper cheeks.
Now, this great king and his powerful tribe dwelt in this fair valley in which you ride. Strap saw it, and he loved the beautiful land. He resolved to settle within it, being persuaded thereto partly, no doubt, by the sight of the swarming population whom he might pound, and observing that should he become thirsty, his swift grey nag would quickly bear him where he might imbibe his fill. He chose yon lovely site, and there built his residence of cedar posts. He procured a jug of whiskey and set up housekeeping, an object of great reverence to his neighbors. Daily he went forth and knocked down many Indian with great grace. At last they conceived that they did not like this, and they determined to abandon the vale. On a dark night they silently stole away, and next morning Strap found himself desolate and alone. When he beheld the deserted valley, but yesterday teeming with braves and fair maidens, he wept in the kindness of his heart. “Other friends,” said he, “have left me before. Such is the common penalty of greatness. The great mountains stand in isolation; their heads are clothed in clouds and thunder; their brows are encircled with glittering coronets of ice. They never shake hands, and know no sweet familiarities. They live in cold, solitary grandeur. Thus whom the gods make great they make miserable, in that their greatness lifts them into solitude. Men and women shun me for my greatness, and the bolts of heaven most frequently pierce the sides of the greatest mountains. It is their greatness that invites the shafts.” And he wept salt tears in the fullness of his great heart.
Two days he pondered on his greatness and his misery, and the struggle between his genius and his better spirit was terrible! You know, sir, that of all the forces that exist, genius is the most subtle, the most unquiet and the most powerful. He who hath it, hath a heaving ocean or a volcano in his breast. It is nursed and strengthened by opposition, as the eagle scorns the mountain tops which have said to him, “Hither shalt thou soar, but no higher!” Pinching penury and gaunt sickness cannot prevail against it; nay, not even a mother-in-law hath force to quench it. It is like unto measles and small-pox, for when once implanted in a man, it will break forth and have its course. He that hath a genius must needs let it work; else it will prove his ruin. You can conceive then, sir, how terrible was the struggle between Strap and his genius which was to knock men down. His bosom heaved and his eyes rolled. His cabin shook in the agony of the conflict, as his genius got the upper hand. “Ah,” thundered his genius, “who would not prefer greatness in misery to happiness in littleness? Who will say that the little tomtit that catches flies under the leaves of the honeysuckle, is not happier than the proud eagle that bathes its wings in lightning and converses with the thunder? And yet, what eagle would exchange with the poor tomtit? Who so poor in spirit? The wretchedness that greatness brings is its badge of honor and the glorious plume of superiority, in which the great spirit should rejoice. Wear thy plumes and be proud of them! Do the polar storms that beat upon the icebergs melt them? No! They enlarge them; they strengthen them; and by them are more appallingly beautiful under the dancing aurora. The great iceberg decays under the stupid airs of the tropics, that bear butterflies and bugs. Shame upon your coward thought!”
Strap’s countenance grew strangely flushed, and a dark light gleamed in his impatient eyes. It was his genius startled and indignant. He arose with a proud air, admiringly gazed upon his enormous fist, and groaned deeply for the presence of someone whom he might knock down. A sweet gentleness stole into and beamed from his eyes as he placed himself in the attitude of one who would strike. His genius possessed him.
And now his better spirit spoke in a soft voice: “Ah, Strap, hast thou not glory enough? Is not thy brow already rich with laurels? Hast thou not knocked down many times nearly every man in Texas—even the great Austin and the mighty king, Tuleahcahoma? Shall the great man never see rest? It is the voice of the betrayer that would lure you away from the repose you have nobly won. Under thine own vine and fig tree, live with gentle Peace, and she shall bathe thy brow with kisses. Men shall honor thee as they pass, and maidens shall wreathe garlands and sing songs for thee. Heed not the voice of the betrayer. Thou hast glory enough. Seek gentle Peace, who shall encircle her pleasant arms about thee and bathe thy brow with kisses.”
Strap fell on his back and said imploringly, “Come gentle Peace, encircle thy pleasant arms about me and bathe my brow with kisses. My laurels are sufficient and the great man shall have repose. With thee, gentle Peace, will I live and love!” He rose and walked across his room, his face beaming with a gentleness and meekness and benignity which were extremely beautiful to behold; like the countenance of the Angel of Light beaming forth from behind the retreating clouds. Said he, “I have fought the great fight, and the victory is won! Future ages will applaud Strap Buckner for the greatness he forbore to pluck, even more than for that which he plucked. I retire from arms in the midst of glorious triumph. Come, gentle Peace; encircle me in thy pleasant arms, and bathe my brow in kisses! Ah!” And he again fell back upon his back. It is said that his eyes looked liquorish.
What a pity it is that there is a devil that always follows the tracks of the Angel of Light, and sows thorns and snakes where that one has sown blessings!
He felt a thirst, and he reached forth his hand for his jug, but he found it empty. “Ah!” said he, “this will not do. I must pour a libation to gentle Peace.” He called his swift grey nag, the gift of the mighty King Tuleahcahoma, and holding his jug in one hand and the rein in the other, hied away; his long red hair streaming like a meteor behind him. When he rose upon the east bank of the Colorado, as fate would have it, he saw twenty-two Indian braves, who having exchanged their skins for whiskey and trinkets, were having a gay dance under the boughs of an oak. In their elastic motions their fat bellies and broad breasts were exposed, and glittered in the sun; the sight of which caused light to beam on Strap’s countenance, as if all the kindness in the world had suddenly taken possession of his heart. He smiled a sweet smile, like an ardent lover contemplating his darling, or the old grey goose smiling on the gander. He dismounted, and stepping lightly into the circle of braves, knocked them all down. He then turned to each one and bowed with exquisite grace, and the gentleness of his countenance was sweet. You see how treacherous genius is, and how feeble are the best efforts to withstand it! He that hath a genius must needs let it work. Lightly he stepped into the trading-house, smiling as the dawn, carrying his clenched fists before him. He met Bob Turket at the door, and instantly knocked him down. His eyes sparkled, his genius was aglow. Bill Smotherall, beholding the light of his countenance, essayed to escape, but a powerful blow overtook him between the shoulders and felled him face downward on the floor. A clock, in the form of a fat knight with walling eyes and portly belly, ticked on the counter. His genius was in eruption. He let fly at the portly knight, and the clock flew into a hundred pieces. He jumped upon the counter and flapped his elbows against his flanks, and crowed a crow which rang among the hills and forests of the Colorado. His genius for the first time had overcome and pushed aside his kindness of heart; for never before, in all his achievements, had he uttered a note of triumph. I fear me it was a mark of the decadence of his noble spirit.
But all of this perhaps had not been so bad had he not now resorted to that treacherous fluid which men put into their mouths to steal away their brains. Perchance in his next moments of seclusion and meditation his better spirit would have revisited him, and with the tender voice of reproval and monition led him by the right way. But the sad, one false step! It seemed Fate had ordained it otherwise. Calling for his jug, he ordered it filled with the fatal fluid, and seizing a quart measure, he drank at on draught all it would hold. Instantly, as might be supposed, his genius broke all bounds; it raged. Filling the quart measure with water, he made with its contents a wet ring on the floor, in the centre of which he leaped like a savage beast. He smote the air with his fists and exclaimed in a loud voice, “Behold in me, Bob Turket, Bill Smotherall, and ye red men of the forest and prairie—behold in me the champion of the world! I defy all that live. I waver my swift grey nag, the gift of the mighty King Tuleahcahoma. Who will take the wager? Yea, I defy the veritable old Devil himself—him of the cloven hoof and tawny hide. Black imp of hell, thou Satanas, I defy thee!”
Scarcely had he uttered these words when a singular murmuring sound issued from the forests of the Colorado, which, growing louder and louder, at last seemed to quiver under the whole heavens. Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall looked at one another, speechless and pale. The braves gathered about the door stricken with terror, gazing with startling eyeballs now into the forests of the Colorado, now at Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall, and now upon the champion of the world. Said the great Medicine Man, sounding his big bongbooree, “It is—it is—it is he! The Great Father of the Red Son of Blue Thunder has descended from the clouds. He cometh to aid his great son, Kokulblothetopoff, who raiseth his mighty fists to the skies, and bringeth them down again. Red sons of the forest and prairie, the Wahconda calls ye away!” The great Medicine Man hung his big bongbooree over his back, and sped away like a turkey that is afraid. He leapt rocks and fallen logs in his flight. Twenty-one Indian braves, all in a row, sped behind him like twenty-one turkeys that are afraid. And they leapt rocks and fallen logs as they fled. Evaserunt or re, abierunt or re!
Out spake Bob Turket: “Mighty champion of the world, norate to us what is that!”
The champion of the world, still occupying the center of the ring, responded, “It is not the Great Father of the Red Son of Blue Thunder; it is not the Wahconda calling the red sons of the forest and prairie to hie hence. I know that familiar voice: it is Noche—the dread Noche! He sent me a challenge through the air, and behold, he comes! I conquered him once before, and I will conquer him again. Black, dread Noche, I defy thee! I fling thy challenge back upon they grizzly frontlet!”
The singular murmuring sound again issued from the deep forest of the Colorado, growing louder and louder, till the everlasting hills trembled with the reverberation, and the great oaks bowed their heads. It articulated distinctly, according to the true report of Bob Turket: “Ah, Strap,—ah, Strap! Remember, Strap, remember!”
Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall fell upon their faces, exclaiming, “Mighty champion of the world, depart hence! And thy memorialists will ever pray!”
The champion seized his jug by the handle, and pouring out a quart measure of the treacherous liquid, imbibed it at a single draught. He then mounted his swift grey nag and sped away with the fury of a whirlwind. Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall watched him as he passed out of view, and then listened to the rapid clatter of hoofs till they died away in the distance, but durst not venture out of their doors. They relate, in their true report, that as the champion rode away, a strange creature in the dread form of a red monkey leapt up behind him and rode away with him. They relate further, that this strange creature turned full upon them, and placing his thumb upon his nose, made at them the sign of derision. Be all this as it may, when Strap reached his cabin and stripped his nag, he observed abundant scratches and blood upon the haunches, as if they had been stricken with the claws of a wild beast. He entered his cabin.
La Noche Triste
Night was rapidly falling, and rolling clouds involved the heaven in pitchy blackness. Sulphurous vapors scudded below the clouds whose black bosoms were riven with bolts of lightning, and fearful thunder resounded through the deserted vale. A storm and rain burst upon the cabin with terrible fury, and the champion was compelled to bar his door to stay the invasion. Then in the midst of the wild tumult of the elements he proceeded to cook his supper of hoe-cake and bacon. The bacon sizzled deliciously, and the hoe-cake grew to a rich brown. When all was ready, he spread his table, and was invoking an earnest blessing on him who invented fried bacon and hoe-cake, when suddenly an impetuous blast of the tempest blew open one of his windows with violence. Strap raised his eyes and saw two fiery balls, about four inches apart, staring at him through the open window. They were motionless, but stared with an intense and sinister expression, as if they meant mischief, and never doubted their power to inflict it. “Ah,” said Strap, “Ocelot—wild-cat—hast thou come to interview me? or wouldst thou forget thy sorrows in a sip from my jolly jug? or wouldst thou take a little fried bacon and hoe-cake? or is the tempest too much for thy glossy skin, and thou comest to implore refuge with me under my roof? Truly, I might accord thee all of these and feel myself blessed to do it, but thy glaring, infernal eyes betray thee, and say that thou wouldst return villainy for these mercies. Take thee to my warm couch and sleep with thee—to find my throat cut in the morning, and the warm blood sucked from my veins? Ocelot, seek the hospitality of fools! Speed thee away! What! Starest still? and redoublest the fury in thine eyes? Wouldst fight? Then take this!”
He plucked a stone from his hearth and threw it with all his might at the glaring balls, but it missed its mark and they did not move.
“Ah, thou art brave,” said he, “and my hand is unsteady. Wouldst beard me in my den? Then let me try thee with my pestle!” With that he seized his iron mace and strode with it uplifted to the window. He drew back to plant the blow of a giant between the glaring balls. The blow fell, but it struck only against the window-sill, with such force that it sank half through the heart of oak. The balls evaded it and disappeared in the outer darkness. Strap then barred the window more firmly than before, and sat down to sup.
He was chewing a lengthy piece of bacon, whose ends protruded from each corner of his mouth, when a blinding flash of lightning fell, accompanied with a burst of thunder so close and violent that it seemed the ancient hills were riven from their foundations and were tottering to their fall. For a moment Strap felt himself stunned with the flame and concussion. “Bless me,” said he, “now has the Father given us enough of lightning and dire thunder! But what, ye gods, is this?”
He beheld, dancing on the floor before him, a remarkable black figure, with insolent eyes of fiery redness. It was the shape of a man, but was not three feet high, had two red horns on its head; and its feet, which were large, were cloven like the hoofs of a bull. Its nose was prominent and hooked like the beak of an eagle, and its face was gaunt and thin. Though so small of stature, its visage was hard and wrinkled, and showed age and infinite villiany. As it danced before him, it placed the thumb of the right hand against its nose and made at Strap the insulting sign of derision; but it spake not.
Strap was amazed, but he was not overcome. He let the long piece of bacon drop from his mouth. “Is this a creation of the heat-oppressed brain?” said he; “a pencilling on my mind of the jolly artist who dwells in yon jug? Whilst thou dancest, let me ponder. I wake, I know; I have my faculties, I know. May the mind under control such fantastic forms create?” His soliloquy was cut short by the singular object ceasing to dance, and stepping by Strap’s side, taking a seat unbid in a chair upon the hearth. As it did so, its stature commenced growing, and did not stop till it had grown to twice its original proportions. It drew from between its legs a long tail, with a hard pronged point, which Strap had not observed before, and twirled it over so that the point fell over on Strap’s knee. This disgusted Strap. He hastily pushed his chair away to the opposite corner of the hearth, and observed, “Keep thy prolongation to thyself, strange visitor!”
“Skin for skin,” said the figure, resting his elbow on his knee and his chin between his thumb and index finger on the right hand, and regarding Strap with keen interest. At the same time he twirled his tail over again with such force and accurate aim that the sharp point of it struck deeply into the mantlepiece, and there it hung fixed.
“What might thy name be?” said Strap, “who visitest me at this unseemly hour? Speak! thy name and thy business!”
“Skin for skin,” said the object.
“Skin for skin! Hast thou no other name on the night’s Plutonian shore?”
“Sir,” said the object, rising from the chair and extracting his tail from the mantle-piece, advancing a step toward Strap, “men call me by many names. Thou hast called me black imp of hell, thou Satanas! So be it. Skin for skin! Thou hast challenged me to duel, and has wagered upon the results thy swift grey nag, the gift of the mighty King Tuleahcahoma. Thrice has thou challenged, and thrice have I accepted. I come to meet thee now, or to fling thy challenge into thy teeth; to pull thy ruddy beard.”
He seized his tail in his right hand, and held it like a javelin about to thrust. Strap gazed upon this singular instrument, and meditatively spake: “Good Sir Devil, take a seat. Wouldst thou attack a gentleman in his cups? None but a thief and coward would do that. Put thy prolongation away, I prithee. Leave me to my sleep and restoration, and I will meet thee man to man. To-morrow morning at nine o’clock will I meet thee.”
The Devil advanced again saying, “Give us thy hand, Strap Buckner; skin for skin: to-morrow morn at nine o’clock under yon oaks that overlook thy dwelling from the south.” They clasped hands and shook them heartily. “Now,” said he, “will I leave thee to sleep and restoration. Truly, he hath neither courage nor honor who would attack a gentleman in his cups.
Strap then sang:
“Then wilt thou be gone, love;
Wilt thou be gone, love—
Be gone, love, from me?”
And the Devil sang:
The Devil then stepped toward the door. Strap moved forward to unbar it to let him out, but the Devil made a bound for the keyhole, and passed through, tail and all, in the twinkling of an eye. As he did so he filled the room with a strong odor of brimstone, insomuch that the champion was compelled to hold his nose. “No wonder,” said he, “since he was squeezed so tight. Pull me through a keyhole and I dare say I would not leave a less odorous report.” He then for a moment, threw open the window to the tempest, and burned a few cotton rags to deodorize the room; which, having done, he sat quietly by his table and ate a hearty repast of hoe-cake and bacon.
One would think that, placed in such a remarkable circumstance—the most remarkable that man was ever placed in—he would have given loose rein to his fancy, and indulged in gloomy soliloquies. But he did not. He knew that these things consume oxygen and wear away the tissues of the flesh, producing languor and prostration. Said he, “I have nothing to do but husband my strength and meet the inevitable.” After supping he walked his cabin an hour to promote digestion, and by exercise to force out through the pores of the skin the treacherous fluid which he had drunken at the trading-house. He then sank upon his couch and slept as soundly as an infant. I know not how true it is, but it is said that smiles played around his lips all night. The more I think of him, the more I am carried away in admiration of his sublime character. Truly, the world has seen few such extraordinary men. Had he lived in antiquity he would have been a god, and temples would have been erected in his honor. I know not which is the more unfortunate, he that comes too soon, or he that comes too late into the world. Suffice it to say that either must pass through the world misunderstood and misrepresented—alone, and quite friendless. He who lives in advance of his time has few companions. Fortune grant that such be not my fate! Laurels that come after one is under the sod and flourish over his grave, are well enough, but give me a few while I live; and thoughts of those that may not come at all are intolerable.
The Day of Events
Day had dawned, but its light struggled almost in vain with the storm which still held carnival in the valley. Strap rose refreshed and vigorous, and the blood ran rosily and merrily through his manly form. The light of battle illuminated his countenance. Rather would I have taken him for some conquering knight of old, who after resting from his great exploits, was about to receive the smiles and kisses of his lady-love, than one who puts on his armor for combat—the most dreadful that mortal ever engaged in. First, he took a shower-bath in the slanting storm of rain, whose myriads of big drops fell upon him like rattling musketry. During ten minutes he turned his broad, naked back to it, till the skin glittered like rosy velvet under the pelting; ten minutes he received it on his manly front, standing like a statue with both arms extended; the lightning flashing, and the bolts of thunder bursting around him; then he turned his right flank, then his left. Forty minutes were thus passed in the shower-bath furnished by the warring elements, charged with ammonia and subtle electricity. He entered the cabin and forty more minutes were spent in rubbing the glowing flesh with a mat woven from the shaggy moss of the forest. Which having done, he stood in the centre of the room, the most glorious picture of perfect manhood ever seen in the world. As he surveyed himself, his bosom swelled with exultation. Said he, “Is not this a picture for the Queen of the Amazons to look upon? Would not the magnificent Aphrodite give half her immortality to encircle this manly form one moment with her glowing locks?” Ah me, it distresses me to think that such noble manhood should pass from this earth without increase! Ah, Strap, it was thy greatest fault to have denied the world and love what was their due!
He breakfasted on the remnants of the hoe-cake and bacon left from the night’s repast, first warming them in a pan. The merry jug stood near, inviting him to taste its amber fluid, but he turned away from it with a look of reproach. “I will embrace thee when I return,” said he, “if so be it fortune favor. Thou art good for him who putteth off his armor, but ill luck to him who girdeth it on.” Donning his garment of buckskin, he said, “The hour arrives!”
Taking his iron limb in his right hand, the only aid he asked from art, this matchless hero stepped out into the storm, and made fast the door behind him. The tempest smote upon his noble brow; the clouds saluted him with a salvo of thunder, and the lightning garlanded his locks. He called his swift nag, the gift of the great Tuleahcahoma, who came, and he fixed his saddle upon him, whereupon he mounted and rode away to war.
He had advanced but a few paces when the Infernal Fiend, in the form of a skinny, ugly dwarf appeared before him, dancing a jig, but he did not make the insulting sign of derision. He bowed politely and said, “Hail to thee, Strap Buckner! I see that thou art as good as thy word, and a man of honor. Receive my obeisance to a man of courage! I will lead and thou wilt follow.”
“I dare follow where the Foul Fiend leadeth,” said Strap. And both moved onward through the storm, the Fiend in advance. A white flame of lightning illuminated the valley, and when Strap looked again the Fiend had disappeared, but in place of him a long, black cat hopped along by his side and looked in his face and mewed. “Ah, Ocelot,” said he, “dost thou encounter the tempest yet? Better betake thee to thy hollow tree, lest thy furs be rubbed the wrong way.” Again the blinding lightning came, and the thunder rent the air and reverberated through the vale. When Strap looked again the mewing cat had disappeared, but in place of it a spry Skye terrier tripped along by his side, and looked into his face with a frisky, silly look. “Ah,” said Strap, “Skye terrier, dost thou like the tempest? Better haste thee to the trading house and catch rats under the smeltering skins, lest the tempest pick thee up and blow thee away.” Again the thunder detonated and the lightning lit the vale. Strap looked and the Skye terrier had gone, but a huge black bear was walking by his side, turning to look at him with a grin. “Ah,” said Strap, “this is the history and the panorama of nature; the lesser forms and the lower develop into the bigger forms and the higher. Shall I see, then, in a few minutes what it has taken Old Time myriads of ages to evolve? What philosopher has ever been so blest? Dost thou like the flood, Bruin? Better take thee to thy cave in the rocks and eat acorns. Who knows but thy spouse may play thee false whilst thou art absent in the tempest—she believing or professing thee lost and dead?”
Again the blinding lightning came, and the thunder shook the vale. When Strap looked again the bear had gone, but an enormous bull, black as night, strode before him, his tail tossed over his back, and the valley trembled as he strode. “Ah,” said Strap, “this is Noche, I perceive; my old friend Noche, who knows that I am his innocent friend. How is thy frontlet, Noche? Hast thou had the screw-worms picked out of thy wounds, and hast thy nose ceased bleeding? Better betake thee to a pretty, protected nook, and eat cowslips and make calves for an honest milk-maid. Pretty work for thee, Noche; and thou exposest thyself to the tempest, and from choice? I dare say the milk-maid has broken a joint of thy tail that thou carriest it on thy back, and thy females have kicked thee out, an unprofitable drone, to starve from unkindness.” Again the blinding lightning came with such sudden vehemence that it smote sorely on Strap’s eyes and the thunder shook the vale to the solid granite below. “Bless me,” said Strap, “another such as this, I fear me, will burst the balls.” When he had recovered his sight, Noche had departed, but in his stead the Fiend in stately form marched before him—stately, all save his tail, which he transported behind him, curved up round like a fish-hook. He looked back, and placing his index finger on his nose, licked out his tongue and laughed. “Ha!” said Strap, “laughest thou! He laughest best who laughest last.” His heart swelled with the affront, and it was with great ado that he could help seizing the Fiend’s tail by the apex of the hook and crushing it off with one blow of his pestle.
They had now reached the foot of the upland that looks into the vale. Silently they ascended to a cluster of noble oaks, venerable with mossy beard. The green sward was rich around them, and the plateau was level and smooth. Rather seemed it a place for fairies to dance under the moonlight than for Fiend and hero to meet in the struggle of death. As they looked around, both spake: “Now is the hour and here the place.” Strap dismounted and turning his grey nag loose, with the bridle slipped over his head, said to him, “Charge thyself with grass, whilst I charge myself with the Devil. Prosper my work like thine!” The grey nag wagged his bobtail, and said, “I charge.” Without a tremor of nerve, without an air of fear or air of boast, this matchless hero confronted the Fiend. As he did so, this latter meanly commenced to grow, and ceased not to grow till he had achieved such stature that his head was a hundred and ninety feet in the air, and he was eighty feet in girth. His tail grew in correspondence, till, seizing it, he gave it a twirl, and the point struck the bosom of a black cloud with such force that it penetrated it and stuck there. As he had a right to do, Strap complained of this injustice. Said he: “Foul Fiend, thou art no fair man to ask me to fight with thee on unequal terms. If thou choosest such terms, I brand thee villainous coward.”
The Fiend looked down from his lofty stature, and with a voice that confused all living things within a vast circumference, said, “Put aside thy iron limb, thy mace, thy pestle, and I will accommodate me to thy size. Skin for skin!” Strap tossed his pestle aside, whereat the Fiend commenced shrinking, and ceased not to shrink till he had shrunken to Strap’s size—all save his tail, which still remained hitched to the bosom of the cloud. He now took position before Strap in the attitude of a boxer, and Strap took position before him in the same attitude. He kept his eye on Strap, and Strap kept his eye on him, either guarding against any advantage of a cheat by the other. The Fiend now drew back for a pass at Strap, but just at that moment the black cloud in which his tail was hitched was rapidly passing beyond its length, and it drew the Devil backwards and upwards with great force, causing him exceeding great pain at the point of its juncture with the body. The air suddenly became impregnated with a fearful odor of brimstone. Now had he but used the advantage which offered itself to him, what infinite fame would be his! Ah, me, it pains my heart to think of the weaknesses and fatal mistakes that good men commit under a false sense of honor. As the cloud was dragging the Fiend backward and upward, nearly paralyzed with pain, how easily Strap could have taken a stone and crushed him withal, or his pestle and split his brains withal! Instead of this, under a false sense of honor, and in the kindness of his heart he proffered the Fiend assistance to unhitch his tail! Ah, me! I nearly faint with despair while relating it. The Devil leaped up in the air and rolled himself up in the coils of his tail till he had reached the cloud, and there, with the help of claws and hoofs and horns, succeeded at last in unhitching it. Immediately, back he sprang, and stood before Strap in the attitude of a boxer. My heart sinks within me to relate it. Honor with the Devil. What a wanton weakness!
I might give thee now the many rounds as they occurred, had I the heart—after Strap’s exhibition of folly—to do so. Suffice it to say that the battle raged with varying fortunes all day, till the Devil, having less honor and more wiles, grew again to monstrous size, and at last wore Strap out on the unequal terms, till the mighty champion sought quarter, crest-fallen and utterly overcome. The country for a great circuit round rang with the hideous noise of battle, and Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall and forty Indian braves stood on the bank of the river and hearkened to it, amazed. As night fell they saw a great grey horse riding through the air down the valley, with the dread form of a red monkey astride his back in front, and the form of an overpowered man dangling across him behind. The horse and riders lit on the top of yon cedar-covered mountain that looks down on Lagrange from the north and then all disappeared in the umbrageous forest. When morning came Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall and a thousand Indian braves crossed over the river and marched to Strap’s house, which they found as he had left it, deserted and closed. Looking about, they at last came to the spot where the dread encounter had occurred. The earth had been torn away to the bare rock, and on the rock were deep impressions of cloven hoofs and Strap’s feet. No earth has ever accumulated, and no green grass or tree has ever grown on that accursed spot since; but it remains, and will forever remain, in bleak deformity. A pile of gory hair and beard was found near, which they recognized as Strap’s. A broken cloven hoof they also found, which had a strange unearthly smell, and near it was Strap’s iron limb. This they religiously preserved, and bore it back on poles in solemn silence, and deposited it in his cabin through a crack. And they all wept aloud and shed salt tears, and the great Medicine Man sounded his big bongbooree.
Three months passed, and one morn as Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall were counting their skins, they were stricken with amazement to see Strap Buckner ride up before them on his swift grey nag, the gift of the mighty King Tuleahcahoma. He dismounted and stood before them, and they were the more amazed. And he looked distant and sad and solemn, as if he were contemplating things afar off. He spake to them not; but they fell on their faces before him, and said, “Mighty champion of the world, depart hence!” He said simply, “Skin for skin!”
“Mighty champion of the world,” replied they, “take all of our skins and depart hence!” He replied simply, “Skin for skin!” and mounting his grey nag, he crossed over the river and sadly and slowly rode away. Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall watched his departing, and counted no more skins that day.
Three months he dwelt in his cabin, and thrice weekly he visited the trading-house, where he walked about like one contemplating the dead, with a sad and distant air. He volunteered to speak to none, and the only response to every question was—“Skin for skin.” He was a changed man. He would drink no whiskey, and would knock no man down. Yet Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall and the Indian braves shrank from him with awe and dread, and the great Medicine Man, whenever he saw him, stopped and sounded his big bongbooree. Finally, one night, a great blue flame rose far above the valley, and cast a pale, deathly light over the land. Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall and ninety Indian braves watched it all night. On the top of the blue flame they beheld a great grey nag, and astride him sat the dread form of a red monkey, and behind the red monkey sat the form of a gigantic man waving a gigantic iron pestle, whereat the dread form of the red monkey seemed to cower. When morning arose, Bob Turket and Bill Smotherall and eleven hundred Indian braves crossed over the river and marched to Strap’s house. They found it in ashes and cinders. They stood around it in solemn silence, and with one accord wept aloud and spilt salt tears. The great Medicine Man sounded his big bongbooree.
Evasit, abiit! Since that mysterious and perhaps fatal night, he has never been seen in his proper person as in the olden time.
But still the enthusiast bards relate,
In memory of his gallant past,
That oft he is seen in gloom of state,
To ride his steed on the whirlwind blast.
He rises lowering on the view,
His red hair streaming from on high,
Clad in a garb of sulphurous blue,
Which casts a shade o’er his frenzied eye.
As he whirls like a god on his clouded path,
And shakes his locks and his iron limb,
He looks on none in the might of his wrath,
And he speaks to none though they speak to him.
Let no one scorn the friendly tale,
Or doubt unkind its shadowed truth,
For still the Buckner boys bewail
Their noble but mysterious youth.
He stands a talisman whose spell
Shall ne’er forget its generous sway;
And with his folk his name shall dwell—
A name not made to pass away.
“Yes, sir,” continued he, “often at night, when the tempest howls and the thunders roar, his form, or shadow or image, or whatever it be, is seen to stride this valley in which we ride, on his swift bob-tail nag, the gift of the mighty King Tuleahcahoma. I myself saw him distinctly, in our last great equinoctial storm, shoot down the valley with a sulphurous whirl and glare, and light on yonder cedar-covered mountain, whence he disappeared in the umbrageous forest. When a Buckner Creek baby cries, whether from pure perverseness or colic pains in the bowels, only say to him ‘Strap Buckner’ once, and he will forthwith scrooch up in his cradle, and you will hear no more from that baby for hours. Behold in Strap the tutelar divinity to whom all the cowboys lift up their emulation and prayers.”
“I perceive, sir,” said I, “that thou art a true poet, and I thank thee.”
“And I perceive, sir,” said he, “that thou art a true epilogue, and I thank thee. This is the road which bids me depart from thee. Should I meet thee again under favorable circumstances, and thine ear still thirsteth for knowledge, I will impart thee more. And now farewell.”
He turned his horse and departed away from me, as other friends have done before.