Truth is very liable to he left-handed in history. – Alexandre Dumas
Lan Twohig cost his daddy six hits and a lifetime case of syphilis. His daddy paid the one and collected the other to and from Miss Molly Hipp on a bed of corn shucks spread in an open oxcart somewhere on the road between indianola and San Antonio. The year was 1842, the Texas Republic was young and healthy, and Ms. Hipp was neither. Lan Twohig’s daddy surely received the disease because when Molly Hipp died a year later her death was attributed to chronic syphilis and alcoholism, and possibly the .44 caliber hole above and slightly to the left of her nose.
In later years Lan, always more jolly than he had a right to be, joshed that he and his daddy had two things in common. Neither ever saw the other and each had stayed with Molly Hipp less than twenty minutes. Ms. Hipp carried Lan the usual term, then dropped him in the back room of a brothel beside San Pedro Creek in San Antonio. The midwife took Lan home after Molly looked on her new son and said tenderly, “Get rid of it.”
Lan lived out his first year among the midwife’s natural children. She passed him to pious nuns of San Juan Mission who doled him out to an Indian family within the mission compound. In his sixth year the nuns, feeling they could tolerate his wicked illegitimacy no longer, dealt him to a farming couple, Mattie Mae and John Golson, who worked 160 acres near Seguin, east of San Antonio. The Gol-sons were mediocre farmers and indifferent parents. But they gave him his first real clothing, cured his cornmush-induced malnutrition, and presented him with a name – Enoch – and a basic education in the community log school.
John didn’t last long enough for Lan to get used to him. The farmer died in the cold February of 1849. Mattie Mae became marm of the school. She was well beyond her prime, slit-mouthed, icy-eyed, a living beatitude in an old print dress who tut-tutted loudly at life’s crimes against her, of which there were many – but especially Lan. The nuns had told the Golsons of Lan’s corn shuck pedigree and Mattie Mae soon came to feel the small thin boy was a special cross sent to test her faith. She alternately prayed and beat the devil out of Lan. He endured her beatings and cascades of tuts because life, he believed, was like that. From his eighth year Mattie Mae taught him the value of hard work by renting him to neighboring farmers.
In 1855, Lan Twohig, then known as Enoch Golson, thirteen, small and thin but infused with an inner toughness, was alone again. Mattie Mae had tutted her last. Lan did not wait for fate to pitchfork him again but gathered his few possessions and Mrs. Golson’s life savings of $53, and took the nearest road south.
Where Lan roamed for the next forty years or so I do not know with any certainty. He became a cowboy, a Texas cowboy, which was the original model. The then-new profession was being created by men who practiced severe anonymity, and whose lives were less romantic and adventuresome than John Wayne has led us to believe. The cowboy, or “cow boy,’” as the term was written before he began riding Hollywood’s purple celluloid landscapes, was a kind of Cossack in the service of the prairie czars then building the American cattle industry. His forefathers were the Spanish Conquistadores, his cousins the mountainmen who first ventured into the West. And he was, writes Paul Horgan. “. . . the last of the clearly traditional characters [born] from the kind of land he worked in and the kind of work he did.”
He neither built nor explored nor populated the West but moved ever so briefly across it, as capricious and lonely as the blowing dust. Dime novelists and penny dreadful authors scribbled magniloquent lies about the cowboy for rapt Eastern readers, but saw him only in town, often ending long cattle drives with a few desperate hours of carousal before returning to a life of social desolation. Like a monk in a cloister, the cowboy served his god the rancher, and toiled at labors decidedly unglamorous. Moving often from ranch to ranch, the cowboy made few lasting friendships. He was untutored and ignorant. For endless months he lived on the range, burned in summer, frozen in winter, as punished as the cattle he attended. He slept on the ground under “henskin” blankets. He arose at 4 a.m. or earlier, and often was not asleep again until midnight. He was fed a constant diet of Arbuckle’s coffee, greasy stews, and beans- “Pecos strawberries.” His aches and sprains were treated with heavy coats of axle grease or prickly pear poultices. To stay awake during long nights of riding herd, he rubbed tobacco juice in his eyes. He lived in a society of men, and made love to the only available women, the ubiquitous “soiled doves” and “fallen angels,” on a seasonal basis, like an animal in heat. He smelled of the horse he rode, the cows he tended, and the dung of both. The cowboy was itinerant, illiterate, often profane, never profound – a harsh child. He hid his past behind such curious aliases as “Shanks” and “Pieface,” “Muley,” “Stormy” and “Joggy.” He observed no religion but the trinity of cow, horse and land. In each brief visit to a town he exploded with drunkenness and venery, exchanging six months’ wages for a few hours of release from his Trap-pist confinement. His was a “soulless, aimless” existence, wrote one of the few introspective cowboys who left the range world when he saw it for what it was.
No American character endured like the cowboy, though the cowboy of Hollywood and Zane Grey was nothing like the reality. The cowboy lasted little longer than The West, perhaps as many as a score of years. Behind him came the men with hoes and plows and wives. The cowboy scorned the new arrivals, but the farmer lasted; the cowboy did not.
So it must have been for Lan Twohig.
Like many cowboys, Lan buried his past by changing his name. His final and lasting name came, he said, from an old man, Albert Twohig, and Landers, a foreman for Shanghai Pierce. Lan said he rode with Pierce in South Texas, and immediately after the Civil War helped the rancher move a cow herd to New Orleans. Pierce and his friend Captain Richard King, whose ranch would become the world’s largest, were a pair of those feral Caesars then building the cattle industry. Pierce was a huge man whose voice, cowboys said, could be heard a mile distant. He became a legend with antics like, during a late-in-life trip abroad, trying to visit the Pope unannounced. Swiss guards forced him out of the Vatican with drawn bayonets.
Nothing ever said of the Texas, longhorn was an exaggeration. Like every mean and marvelous thing in Texas, it came from the malignant brush country – the brasada – above the Rio Grande. It was a tortuous Eden, a savage wilderness without relief from the Nueces River to the Mexican border. Every living thing inside fought for its place. There were mesquite, both bush and tree, with dirklike thorns, and the Spanish dagger, walls of prickly pear cactus which to O. Henry seemed like “.. .large, fat hands,” yellow blooming huisache, and the cat-claw called by Mexicans “Wait-A-Min-ute” because it grabbed and held. Either dusted with fine gray blowing sand or, as Horgan wrote, “Beaten by deluges that hissed as they first struck the hot ground,” the brush country was a haven for nature’s misanthropes – the quill-backed peccary, the rattlesnake, the longhorn.
The brasada was a maze of interlocking thickets enclosing small clearings. There were meandering paths worn to dust by animals but many dead-ended and few men knew a safe route. It was for this barbarism of a land that the first cowboys, who were Mexicans, devised leather leggings called chaps. Without protection, the brush would claw a man to pieces.
In its brush country sanctuary, the longhorn was an evil thing. Evolved from stray Moorish cattle, the longhorn, J. Frank Dobie wrote, was the “parody of a cow.” It had elk legs, could out-run a horse, was bony, high at the shoulders, low at the tail, shaggy-haired, gaunt-rumped, had a goat-limber neck holding a massive head from which grew horns curved like scimitars, In the wild state, cowboys claimed, the longhom lived on wind and gravel. An adult bull weighed twelve hundred pounds or more of muscle and bone; a few stood as tall as a man on horseback. Angered or wounded, it feared nothing. Once provoked, it would attack anything, even the black bears that once roamed Texas. Should its victim escape, the longhorn followed in-defatigably with its nose to the ground sniffing the trail like a wolf. The wild longhorn bull had no herd instinct, but kept a few wives for which it was a fierce champion. At sunset it called its family together for the night and its bellow, heard by cowboys camped in the brasada, was fearsome, chilling – the roar of a true wild beast.
The longhorn was never domesticated. It was chased down, dragged to corrals, herded, branded, conditioned to a gentler environment, but never tamed. Man and longhorn at best held an uneasy peace. Herded on the unfenced ranches of Southwest Texas, the longhorn foraged on sweet grasses, multiplied, spread over Texas, and became an industry. Soon after the Civil War, when Northerners cried for meat, ranchers began driving their longhorns to Kansas railheads. “Them longhorns,” said an Oklahoma rancher of this century, “could live on nothing, and you could drive them to market and it didn’t hurt ’em because they wasn’t any good to begin with.” The longhorn’s meat was tough and gamy, but it was beef and northern palates complained little.
The era of cattle drives lasted less than a dozen years. Railroads came to Texas. Barbed wire enclosed land. Foreign cattle, the Herefords and Angus, with fat bodies and stubby legs, were introduced. By the late 1880’s, most longhorns had been bred away, though a rancher might keep a dozen for old times’ sake. In distant reaches of Texas, a few wild long-horns survived, but they were eventually killed by cowboys to protect the pure-blooded cows. Soon, like the cowboys, they were no more.
Late in life, Lan Twohig was a windy man, given to bragging, so his claim of invincibility in the brasada perhaps was untrue. He said he was the best man ever to chase longhorns in the brush, better even than the Mexicans who felt a mythical kinship with the wild cattle. Lan bragged he feared nothing the bush land offered. He entered with a short rope and a pistol, on foot if the bull had come to a fighting place. He was a sure roper with the braided lariat and quick enough to escape the longhorn’s charge.
Other cowboys went in pairs, even by fours, to chase down the worst of the bulls. Lan went alone. He had an innate grasp on the longhorn’s soul. He could track them even in the rocky stretches that left no hoofprints, intuitively following the correct trail. He knew their habits, their instincts for escape. He knew the moment they would turn and fight and he was ready with the rope or, when necessary, the pistol. A long-horn had no secrets from Lan. He knew how it would charge, how low or high the horns would be carried, how the animal hooked, how it turned, how desperately it would struggle against the cowboy.
Lan remembered the brasada and its fierce longhorns as the best time of his life.
He sold the live cattle to ranchers, skinned the dead ones, and occasionally worked on ranches. Mostly, Lan was just a cowboy. In 1867, he rode with one of the first cattle drives to Kansas and later accompanied four other herds before growing weary of the trail. He wandered from ranch to ranch, cowboy-ing for the Double Moon, the G-4 near Marfa, the Rocking C in the Panhandle. Lan saw little cash money, was usually alone, never married. In the late 1880’s, he went beyond the Pecos to become the sole gringo cowboy on Moody’s place. I do not know Moody’s other name but he operated a ranch above the Rio Grande, probably on the eastern fringe of the Big Bend.
Lan, in those years, was economical in stature, manner and speech. His eyes were blue over a flattish nose. He had graying thin hair, a weather-pinehed face and morning aches, but Lan was quick in his movements, hard and strong for his size.
In 1892, at fifty, Lan was too old for ranch life but he had nowhere else to go. In that year, he fought his last longhorn. At dawn on a sunless autumn day, he prepared to face the bull, remembering the earlier better times, the brasada, the excitement of the brush and wild longhorns.
Two days before, Lan had seen the bull longhorn, a blue dun with red flanks and huge flared horns. It lured three cows and a heifer from a pasture near ranch headquarters, took them running into the hills.
He went after it, ignoring Moody’s advice to take other cowboys with him. He found prints in a sandy wash south of the ranchhouse and tracked his bull south and eastward, deeper into the brush, finally crossing Muke Water Creek. From the shadows of a cottonwood grove he saw the heifer beside a mesquite thicket.
Through the night, Lan watched the bushy fortress, saw the bull move the cows into a steep-sided gully. The gully dead-ended against a hill. The wash was filled with brush, thick with mesquite and cactus. Lan knew the bull had its nest within that thorny citadel.
At dawn, Lan stood before the green wall, lightly holding his horse, Buck, listening to the silence. An aimless wind riffled the slender mesquite leaves. Lan tied on his chaps. He dropped a coiled rope over the saddle horn. He mounted. The hardness of his rifle, stuffed into a leather scabbard, pushed against his right leg.
All right, old bull, let’s me and you do it.
Lan gently touched the horse’s flanks. They entered the wash.
The path was dark, cool and dusty. Lan followed the trail straight for a dozen steps, turned sharply right, circled a mesquite trunk. The path became a thin line deeper into the gully. Fifty feet. He was forced to dismount as the tree ceiling lowered. He scraped cactus and the thorny catclaw clutched at him. A gray lizard hung to a mesquite limb, frightened and unmoving. On the right, the brush was thinner and Lan could see the gully’s brown wall. He found fresh cow dung and once he rubbed his hand across the bark of a tree to which clung red hairs. He smiled.
The trail wandered on through the brush. Lan rode when he could, walked when he could not. The coiled rope was held lightly in his right hand. He watched everywhere, his eyes never still. Above, Lan could see the beige sky.
The brush thinned. Ahead was a clearing, small, oval-shaped, twenty feet wide. He stood at its edge, shadowed by a tree. The trail led around the clearing’s perimeter. Lan listened, tensed. Across the open space, he heard movement in the brush, then silence again. He sat easy on Buck for a long time, waiting. Finally, Lan impatiently urged the horse into the opening, rode slowly across and disappeared again into the green thicket. The path was broader, and he rode a hundred feet before having to dismount again beside a mound of cactus.
The cry came suddenly, loud and fierce, frighteningly intense. Lan whirled. Behind! The bull came out and waited for me to be trapped inside! Ahead, he heard the cows calling to the bull. Buck skittered, his teeth grinding the bit, and Lan swung into the saddle, already pulling on the rifle, dropping the looped rope over the horn. He could hear the outlaw bull thrashing in the brush, still bellowing, charging, exploding into the clearing. Buck was at full gallop as man and horse sped into the sandy open space. The bull was in the middle, mouth agape and frothy, the head bent low, horns carried right atilt like a drawn bow. Its feet beat the dust into clouds.
The bull’s charge startled Buck and the horse jumped to the right as horns came up in a blur, thrown like sabers. A horn struck Lan’s left leg above the knee, pierced the chaps’ thick leather. It entered his flesh and ripped away. The horn scraped along the thick saddle and sliced a line on Buck’s flank. Blood flowed instantly from the long wound.
Buck’s momentum carried them across the clearing as Lan reined hard. The horse stumbled in the turn and fell to its knees, its hooves punching up showers of sand. The bull was about, charging once more. Lan twisted his body and fired. The bullet entered along the bull’s back, high on the rump. The horse was rising from its knees. Lan fired again as the longhorn struck horse and rider.
Later Lan would remember the sound of the impact. Buck’s scream of ag-ony, horns breaking through the horse’s body, the stench of the animal and the pain. He could never forget the pain.
The bull plunged into the horse. One horn ripped the stomach, the other broke through the bones in the chest and rib cage, pushed upward to lodge against the spine. The longhorn lifted horse and rider into the air and for a long moment held them motionless before the weight became too much. They crashed to the ground, and the bloody, dusty arena was quiet. Lan was unconscious.
Much later the pain woke him, and he screamed. He was on his right side, still in the saddle. Buck’s body lay on his right leg. His left leg was pinned between the bull’s head, gleaming with red blood, and the horse’s heaving stomach. The horns were inside Buck. Lan’s ankle was broken.
Enraged, the bull bellowed, stamped its hind feet, and butted hard against its enemy. Its horns locked to Buck’s body, the bull could not disengage itself, could not rise. With each thrust of the head against Lan’s leg, the cowboy cried aloud. Finally, he passed into unconsciousness. During the long day, Lan passed out a dozen times. The bull would not cease trying to escape and each time it thrashed at the horse, the pain drove Lan into insensibility.
He would remember pieces of the day. Once he dimly saw the cows and heifer grazing quietly across the clearing. Sometime, he did not know when, he was aware that Buck was dead. In another moment of consciousness he remembered the rifle. He swiveled his head until he saw it behind him, two feet beyond his reach. He could not see the rope.
He awoke in dim twilight to find the bull unmoving. It breathed hoarsely, no longer seeking escape. He could smell the blood, feel it beneath him, feel it caked on his clothing. He saw the rivulet of congealed blood leading to a blackened hole in the bull’s rump. Lan’s mouth was dry, his tongue swollen. His eyes were gritty with sand. He slept.
Lan awoke in the cool darkness, remembering the knife in his right pocket, beneath the dead weight of the horse. He tried to reach the knife. The bull tensed its legs, snorted once but did not move. Lan could not force his hand beneath the weight and he clawed at the ground with his fingers. He pulled away sand and earth, burrowing farther and farther underneath until he could feel the edge of the chaps, then more, and he touched the pocket. His fingers inched inside, grasped the material and pulled, slowly drawing out the pocket, dragging along the knife in its bottom. Then he had the knife between two fingers. He grabbed and held it tightly.
Just a pocketknife, but sharp enough. He opened the long blade, grasped the hilt. He swung with his left hand, striking at the bull’s head. The blade broke against the longhorn’s skull and, angered, the bull lunged forward. Lan screamed and the pain sent him away.
The moon was out, bright and full, above the clearing. Lan awoke. The pain in his upper leg where the horn had torn through was less but his ankle throbbed. The bull was still and quiet. He cursed the animal, himself, the knife-blade’s weakness. He felt again for the knife and found it near his head. He opened the remaining smaller blade. Lan had another way, one he did not like. He would release the bull. He plunged the knife into Buck’s flank, and began cutting.
The bull bunched its muscles in fear but did not move.
Lan took a long time to cut away Buck’s side. His hand was slippery with blood. He cut back, deeper and lower, between the horse’s legs, and ran his hand into the dark cavity. He could feel the horn. The bull was pulling then, helping the man free him. Lan placed the knife blade beside the horntip to cut deeper into Buck. The longhorn pulled. Lan heard the ripping sound, felt the horn move. The bull backed and the right horn tore out, free again, the blunt hard head lifted from Lan’s leg. The bull shook itself, rose on its forelegs and backed away, sliding out the left horn.
it stumbled once, moving awkwardly in a circle. The bull lifted its head, swung the massive, bloody horns, limbering exhausted neck muscles. It stopped across the clearing and lowered its head again, staring at Lan. Lan began digging beneath Buck’s body with the knife.
He dug twenty minutes to loosen and pull away enough dirt for a trench. Now with most of the horse’s weight on the edges of the furrow, Lan cut the tiestrings and belt of his chaps, pushing hard on the saddle. His right foot slid out of its boot. He reached behind, grabbed a mesquite bush and pulled, slowly dragging himself from under the horse. He was free and lay for a moment, breathing deeply. He raised his head and looked across the clearing at the bull. The longhorn watched Lan.
Lan held his useless left leg and grimaced as he pivoted on his hip. He felt for the rifle, wrapped his fingers around the barrel and pulled it to him. He worked the lever and the small noise alerted the bull. It raised its head and moved right, its eyes never leaving Lan. Lan turned again on his stomach, facing the bull. He lay the rifle across Buck’s back.
He could see the bull clearly in the bright moonlight, the dull, dark patches of blood, the black eyes, the horns rising from the slab head. The bull stood stiff-legged, breathing hoarsely. A muscle rippled skin across its back. It lifted a front hoof, set it hard into the dirt. Lan aimed, sighting down the barrel at the dark flat head. He tightened his finger against the trigger.
He did not shoot but held still, one eye closed, the other unblinking, staring over the gunsight. The bull waited. Lan pulled the rifle butt tighter into his shoulder. He held his eyes shut and caught his breath. He looked away again at the bull with pain. He looked again at the bull standing a dozen steps away in the thin moonlight.
He raised the rifle barrel and fired.
And then he slept, and perhaps dreamed, for he remembered a bull crying deeply and fiercely somewhere in the brush.
Lan awoke beside Muke Water Creek, out of the bright sun. Moody knelt beside him.
“Got to wonderin’ ’bout you,” Moody said softly. “Came to look. I sent a hand back for the wagon.”
Lan’s lips were swollen, his tongue heavy and thick. His wounds had been cleaned with creek water. He hurt all over.
“It was a bull. Moody,” Lan whispered hoarsely. “Like I said, old wild bull.”
“You didn’t get him?”
“I shot high, scared him off. Told him we’d do it again ’nother day.”
Lan smiled, and slept again.
For the remainder of his life Lan walked with a cane. Never again was he an active cowboy. He stayed with Moody, working around the ranch, bossing the Mexicans. Five months after Moody found Lan in the gully, the rancher rode in with a pair of horns.
“Got somethin’ for you,” Moody said. “Your outlaw’s horns. Found him dead a mile above the creek.”
“Sure it’s him?”
“How many bull outlaws we got? It’s him. Dead a month, maybe. Been pretty well picked over but the hide’s still plain. Dun with red flanks. It’s your old bull.”
Lan mounted the horns on polished mesquite wood and hung them above the fireplace. He often spent long evenings thinking of the bull.
Moody died in 1903. Lan moved to San Antonio, then went north to Fort Worth where he worked in the slaughter houses and traded cattle on the side for extra money. When he had time Lan loafed with other cowmen in the Metropolitan Hotel’s regal lobby. The hotel was showing its age and one day would become a part-time whorehouse, but in 1905 it was the gathering place for cattlemen come to town. There Lan and his cronies drank too much and told lies of their youth. Lan often spoke of the bull in the gully. Some cowmen professed to believe every word of Lan’s tale but many did not, even when he showed the horns for proof, pointing out the cuts made by his broken knife.
In the fall of that year, Lan sat on the leather couch in the Metropolitan’s airy lobby and told again of the bull outlaw he had fought in ’92. He had an audience of old men, among them Will Drannon who, with Kit Carson, had guided Fremont to California in ’45, and ancient Uncle Tuf-fy Thomas, one of the first cowboys up the trail to Kansas. Tuffy later would repent and become a fiery Baptist before dying but then he was a highly successful drunk around town. Others in the lobby gathered as Lan Twohig spoke of the bull.
“… and I jus’ told that old bull we’d do it “nother day,” Lan concluded. He paused dramatically to question his audience, “Do you know why I didn’t kill that old bull . . .?” He ordinarily answered his own question, but that day, a voice responded loudly, “Yes!”
All heads turned to the speaker. He was a young man, almost six feet tall, built squarely. His nose and ears were prominent, but blended smoothly with the olive complexion, deep black eyes, and infectious smile. He wore a heavy dark suit, a striped shirt partially covered by a vest, and fluffy red bow tie, the costume of a drummer.
Irritated by the interruption, Lan Two-hig demanded. “Well, s’pose you just tell us why . . .”
The young man smiled broadly, enjoying himself.
“Because he was a mean sonofabitch, and you were a mean sonofabitch and mean sonofabitches respect each other,” he answered.
He laughed loudly and the others, even Lan, joined in. Lan liked that answer, would appropriate it for future use. Still laughing, the young man left the lobby, walked quickly into Rusk Street, his shoulders hunched against the brisk autumn wind. He would meet Lan Twohig again, in a year or two, and the old cowboy would show him the horns. The young man, a consummate salesman, would persuade Lan to sell him the horns.
That day, Lan Twohig watched the young man leave, and asked, “Who’s he?”
“Name’s Amon Carter,” answered Will Drannon. “Sells them streetcar cards.”
“Knows his sonofabitches, don’t he?”
Truth is very liable to he left-handed in history. – Alexandre Dumas