We came across the arrow-festooned bodies half a day shy of Panther Gap. I saw
them first, riding scout as I was, and if there’d been time to lead the wagon
train aside without anyone else spotting them, I surely would. Nothing drowns
the enthusiasm of prairie pilgrims quicker than the prospect of sudden and
Next to the bodies lay the
remains of a Conestoga wagon. The canopy was reduced to ashes and the wheels
charred down to the iron. Steamer trunks had been upended, and gaily-colored
dresses decorated the sagebrush.
Glory be, Davy said, I believe things are about to get
I grimaced. Davy’s never satisfied when
things are peaceful. He craves adventure, romance and public acclaim. Maybe I
would, too, if I’d been fifty years dead and reduced to a voice in some hapless
descendant’s head. Davy, you see, is my grandpappy, a man I never knew in the
flesh. To most folk, he’s a hero who died defending the Alamo
way back in 1836, twenty years afore I was born. But to me, he’s just a voice
that never shuts up. I was a happy-go-lucky lad of thirteen when he took a mind
to start haunting me, and he’s been on the job ever since.
lucky for you, or you’d still be swillin’ moonshine in some Tennessee canebrake.
I sat my paint and stared gloomily down
at the wagon, recalling those pleasant days of my youth. There was nothing to
do now but wait for the rest of the train to catch up. They’d all have to stop
and gawk, wasting a good hour of daylight.
The wagon box still gave off heat, and
wisps of smoke trailed into the gentle prairie wind. The faces of the dead man
and woman still had some color.
Two hours ago, Davy said. Maybe less. And their attackers
Davy’s handy at times, I must admit. When
it comes to such matters as tracking and reading Indian sign, he has no peer.
More frequently, of course, he’s about as helpful as a case of poison ivy.
The wagons pulled up one at time behind
me, each batch of travelers hopping down to wail and cuss and cry. Several
dropped to their knees and emptied themselves of breakfast.
comin’,” someone shouted, “and bustin’ leather!”
Sure enough, two horsemen came galloping
full tilt across the plain from the west. They thundered in on a cloud of dust,
faces white with fear. “Apaches!” one barked. He tore a battered derby from his
head and slapped it against his leg. “They’re massing in Panther Gap, just
a-waitin’ for you!”
“Must be a hundred of the devils,” the
other wheezed. “Painted for war and bristling with weapons.” He placed his grey
rebel cap over his heart and nodded at the bodies before us. “Them poor souls
didn’t stand a chance.”
The wagonmaster, a stocky German with a
bristling black beard propped his hands on his hips and squinted up at me.
“What do you think, Mr. Scout?”
I considered. We had twenty-three wagons,
many infested with women and children. There might be thirty men who could
shoulder a rifle, but they were farmers and shopkeepers, not fighters. I’d bet
half of them had never fired a weapon at a human. “The next nearest route
around these mountains is Gila Gorge, a day and a half to the north. I hate to
lose the time, but don’t see much choice.”
Shameful, Davy said. A Crockett shyin’ away from a few
The wagonmaster’s daughter, a
rosy-cheeked little blonde named Annamarie, had joined him, and now gazed at me
with frank disappointment.
I took this as a good sign. She’d been
flashing her pretty eyes at me since we left Omaha, and had lately begun posing such
questions as did I prefer apple pie or strawberry, and did I most admire her
hair in braids or bun.
Davy’d been trying for years to marry me
off and start me on the road to respectability, and this was just the sort of
gal he favored. I, quite naturally, was equally determined to avoid such
entanglements, and had every intention of dying a bachelor.
A wide-shouldered man in a battered old
cavalry hat now strode forward and engaged the wagonmaster in quiet
conversation. This fellow was one of the few non-immigrants with the train. He
claimed to be a reporter from back East, making his first trek west in search
of colorful newspaper copy. He seemed agreeable enough, but I’d steered clear
of him, being allergic to seeing my name in print. Fame was another curse Davy
craved to foist upon me, while I, being of a shy and retiring nature, preferred
to toil in obscurity.
The newspaperman stepped forward and
addressed the crowd. “Most of you folk know me by now. My name is Robert
Napier, and I’m a correspondent for the New York Evening Post. I’ve made
this trip because I’ve great respect for the human character. The hardy and
determined settlers of the West have proven they are capable of extraordinary
acts of courage. I’m certain every last one of you is equally capable.”
Napier’s steely blue eyes threw
off sparks as he spoke. The folks of the train absorbed his words with rapt
attention, all except Miss Annamarie, who gazed at him with doe-eyed
“Our esteemed wagonmaster has just
revealed a secret which you may find heartening.” He gave a dramatic wave in my
direction. “This quiet giant who serves as our trail guide, known to us only as
Scout, is actually Mr. Dave Crockett, true-blooded grandson of the greatest
Indian fighter this country has ever known. This, ladies and gentleman, is a
man who grins at danger. Old Davy Crockett had no quit in him, and our brave
scout doesn’t either. I say we give Mr. Crockett a vote of confidence and
follow him straight through Panther Gap!”
After a moment of silence, someone in the
rear shouted, “Go get ‘em, Davy! Give them redskins hell!”
Others clapped and cheered, and for a
moment the air rung with bloodthirsty approval. When the racket finally dimmed,
the wagonmaster threw up his hands and declared, “I am a farmer, not a fighter.
I bow to the wisdom of Mr. Crockett.”
All eyes now swung to me, and the crowd’s
fervor pressed against me like a living thing.
Go ahead, Davy said. ‘Bout time you claimed your place as
an American hero.
I gazed down at Annamarie, who looked at
me with such adoration she seemed about to swoon.
“Nah,” I said. “We’re takin’ the safe
route through Gila Gorge.”
camped that night beside a small stream. Within the ring of wagons, the usual
campfire blazed, and the center of attention was reporter Robert Napier. I
stood in the shadow of a wagon, craving a jug of Tennessee corn liquor.
can still hardly credit it,” Napier told the pilgrims. “The actual flesh and
blood of Davy Crockett turning tail from an Indian fight. We can only assume he
has good reason.”
charitable sentiment, Davy said. But
saving all their hides, I replied. How can that be wrong?
at Napier’s side sat Miss Annamarie. The way she clung to him was irksome until
I considered she was no longer doing that to me. I was well rid of her, I
reasoned, and planned to stay that way.
I rode with Custer at Gettysburg,”
Napier continued, “he led us straight at the enemy, sweeping them all before
I thought, that strategy worked miracles at the Little Bighorn.
of the immigrants, a big scar-faced bruiser named Helmut, threw his tin cup
into the fire. “Perhaps we follow the wrong man, Herr Napier. Perhaps you
should lead us.”
big German stood, one I’d heard called Gregor. “I agree. This Crockett has
shown the yellow streak and is no longer of consequence.”
waved them off. “I now do my fighting with my pen. Besides, it’s premature to
be calling Mr. Crockett yellow. He may yet redeem himself.”
smacked a fist into his palm. “Redeem himself, hell! He’s a craven coward, and
I will tell him to his face.”
stepped into the firelight. “Now’s your chance. My face is right here.”
folks gasped. Some swore. All looked to me, then back to Helmut. The big German
puffed up his chest, stepped back from the fire and stomped in my direction.
Ten feet off he stopped, sizing me up. “Gregor,” he said over his shoulder,
“you have much to say as well, yes?”
looked uncertain. Then, evidently feeling everyone’s eyes upon him, said, “That
is correct,” and advanced from the opposite direction.
is what comes of bein’ timid, Davy
said. You always have to prove yourself.
liked you better when you were dead.
two Germans stopped, one on each side, just out of reach. Both looked bigger up
close. Almost as big as me.
said, Now’s your chance to impress that gal.
I grimaced. “Look, gents. No need to spill blood over
this. I’ll accept your humble apologies.”
Helmut and Gregor exchanged glances. “Yellow,” Helmut
said. “Yellow as a buttercup.”
lips moved as he counted, “Ein, schwei, drei…” Then both
men charged at once.
roundhouse right sailed straight for my jaw. Gregor swung a left from his knees
on course to bust my brisket. Spreading my arms, I stepped slightly back,
slightly to the side and grasped the shoulders of their woolen jackets. I
yanked. Helmut’s fist smacked into Gregor’s cheek just as Gregor buried his
knuckles in Helmut’s kidneys.
men staggered. I rapped their heads together, put Helmut down with a right
cross and lifted Gregor off his feet with a left uppercut. He came down hard on
Helmut and stayed there.
see these men to bed,” I said, careful not to breathe hard. “We hit the trail
proof enough for you? I asked Davy.
me you have to prove yourself to.
hell it isn’t.
covered the distance to Gila Gorge without incident. The immigrants were
subdued, but offered no further complaints. Napier, too, was quiet, perhaps
regretting the comments that had sparked the previous night’s trouble. Even
Davy had nothing to say.
as I topped a rise, spotting the gorge in the shallow valley half a mile away,
Davy came alive.
the train here. Somethin’ fishy
be. What’s the harm in checking?
suspicious, but had no answer. I shrugged.
take that newspaper rascal with you.
by his hat, he was a cavalry officer.
He’ll at least know which end of a rifle the bullets come from.
wagonmaster didn’t like it, and neither did anyone else. I didn’t blame them.
It felt like one of Davy’s schemes. But if there really were redskins down
there, it was better to know now than when we were halfway through the gorge.
me?” Napier wanted to know.
Custer stories. If we meet a hundred Injuns, you can tell them about his
exploits at Gettysburg.
They’ll die laughing.”
grinned. “I guess I deserve that.”
night wasn’t your fault,” I said. “Those Germans have been itchin’ to test me
since we left Nebraska.”
sashayed up as we were gathering our weapons. “Why do you have to take Robert?
Is it because you’re jealous?”
I spoke without looking at her. “I’m just being careful. I want the whole lot
of you safe in California
and out of my hair.”
stomped a foot. “Does that include me? Can you honestly say you’d rather never
see me again?”
paused, an answer on my tongue.
lie, boy. You’ll regret it.
looked into her bright green eyes. “Honesty’s overrated.” I turned to Napier.
“You ready, Cap’n?”
looked at me queerly. “How’d you know I was a captain?”
inner demon told me.”
grasped either side of Napier’s collar, pulled herself up and kissed him full
on the lips. I turned to cinch my saddle.
kiss could have been yours.
hardly. Nothing is ever really mine.
Gorge sat in a shallow valley, with cliffs of red siltstone overlooking a thin,
slow-moving stream. It was a serviceable pass for wagons, but also one of
nature’s most perfect spots for an ambush. At Davy’s urging, I led Napier back
half a mile to where we could climb atop the plateau and approach from the
south. If there were Apaches lying in wait, they’d never expect us from that
which do you prefer,” I asked as we climbed, “apple or strawberry?”
you seem wise as Solomon,” Napier said, “and sometimes you’re mad as a March
hare. Are you really Davy Crockett’s grandson?”
to believe?” I found the notion flattering.
really. You do resemble his portraits. But most men would be flaunting that
kinship, not hiding it.”
certain relative’s been filling my head with Davy stories all my life,” I said.
“I can’t bear to hear them from strangers. Besides, once folks hear my name,
they expect me to play the hero.”
winced. “I get your drift. Sorry.”
on top of the cliff, I half expected to find a warrior acting as lookout, but
the sole sign of life was one of those dried-up critters that gave the gorge
its name. I began to wonder if Davy was losing his touch.
moved carefully along the plateau, careful to avoid loose rocks. Nearing the
gorge, we went to hands and knees, then slithered on our bellies until we could
peer over the edge. Ninety feet below, the small stream snaked peacefully
through the narrow gap. But hiding amidst escarpments on both sides of the
gorge were rough-looking men with rifles.
aren’t Apaches,” Napier hissed. “They’re outlaws.”
are you playing at? I asked Davy. You said they were redskins.
said no such thing. I sensed
trouble, not what flavor.
grimaced. “I count at least twenty. And the way they’re entrenched, we’ll never
get at them.”
was right. These prairie pirates had good cover, and were high enough that we
couldn’t attack from the ground. We might pick off a couple from up here, but
once we’d tipped our hand they’d shift to new cover.
one of the niches across the stream I spotted a fellow in a grey rebel cap
jawing with one in a battered derby. The two who’d warned us away from Panther
Gap. I’d been hornswoggled. My cheeks burned with embarrassment.
said, “What are they after?”
life savings and worldly possessions of every last pilgrim on that train.”
how do we stop them?”
question. If I had the wisdom of Solomon, I’d have an answer.
take that as a request. Get back
to the train and I’ll fill you in on the way.
one liked the plan, including me. I considered it one of the goofiest schemes
Davy had ever uncorked, but I’d be danged if I’d turn tail and drag these
pilgrims back to Panther Gap. I’d get ‘em through here or die trying.
immigrants threw such a tizzy I knew I’d have a mutiny unless I took drastic
measures. So I did the thing I’d most hoped to avoid. I played the Crockett
may not like me,” I told all and sundry, “and I can’t blame you much. But
you’ve all heard of Davy Crockett, and know he was a man to be trusted. Well,
the blood of Davy Crockett flows strong in my veins, and sometimes I even imagine
he’s offering me advice. ‘Be sure you’re right,’ he tells me, ‘then go ahead.’
This here is one of those times. I’m sure I’m right, and old Davy wants you to
go ahead and follow me. What do you say?”
plastered on a confident grin and prayed I wouldn’t be struck by lightning. The
Germans exchanged skeptical looks until Robert Napier jumped out front and
raised a fist in the air. “For Davy Crockett!” he shouted. “Let’s do it for
right!” Annamarie yelled. “For Davy!”
chimed in. Soon the whole mob was roaring so loud I feared the outlaws would
hear. Some enthusiastic jasper even bellowed, “Remember the Alamo!”
everyone fired up, it didn’t take more than a couple hours to get things set.
When all was ready I climbed aboard my paint and threw them a salute.
“Remember, just play your parts and don’t come no closer than the ridge of the
valley. Once through this gorge the route should be free and clear all the way
gave a ragged cheer, I put spurs to my paint, and the show was on.
first thing those outlaws seen was me bustin’ over the ridge, ridin’
hell-for-leather toward the gorge. When they poked their heads up to gawk I
pretended to see them for the first time and begun waving my Stetson.
“Apaches!” I roared. “Hot on my tail!”
of the outlaws had rifles fixed on me, but were so surprised they didn’t think
to shoot. I raced between the walls of the gorge and leapt from my horse just
as a fierce and terrible racket issued from the ridge behind me. It sounded as
if an army of demons had been loosed upon the earth.
the outlaws stared slack-jawed up at the ridgeline, I clambered up into the
rocks and collapsed among a large group of them. Among these were Rebel Cap and
caught the wagons a mile back,” I gasped. “Butchered every last soul in the
snatched a glance back up the valley. The sight was all I’d hoped and more. At
least thirty naked savages sat their horses on the ridge, waving their rifles
and screeching like wildcats. From a distance, red dust passed for skin color,
axle grease hid their blonde hair, and rouge and iodine served as warpaint. I
just hoped the outlaws wouldn’t hear them shouting Remember the Alamo!
they almost butchered you, too,” Derby
said. He bent and plucked the .45 from my holster, but neglected the Winchester pressed beneath
coughed, clutching my chest to make the most of the calf’s blood soaking my
shirt. “That’s a fact,” I said, “I’m done for.” And as punctuation, I slumped
over, playing dead.
hightail it!” barked a voice of authority.
watched slit-eyed as the outlaws jumped from their perches into the streambed
and rushed toward the rear of the gorge. When the last had gone I rose to a
crouch and peered down at them, now out in the open. Someone in the distance
shouted, “The horses! Those devils must have run ‘em off!”
into the rocks! It’s our only chance!”
levered a shell into my rifle and aimed it at the outlaws. “Not so fast, gents.
It happens those red devils yonder are friends of mine. Kindly drop your
weapons into the stream and I’ll persuade them to spare you.”
Cap glowered at me. “He’s only one man. He can’t stop us all.” He leaped for a
break in the rocks and was halfway up when a rifle barked from across the
gorge. Rebel Cap toppled back into the stream and lay twitching.
the power of the press,” said Robert Napier, bracing the outlaws with another
rifle. Per Davy’s plan, he’d descended the far side of the plateau to scatter
their horses, then crossed the gorge while they were distracted by our
outlaws groused and growled, but seemed about to surrender when something
caught their attention on the ridge.
chanced a look. One of the wagon horses came lumbering down the slope, a
hapless immigrant clinging fretfully to its mane. As the animal reached the
water and began to drink, the painted German promptly fell into the stream. It
was my sparring partner Helmut.
on the ridge, other horses snorted, reared, and followed the first to water. A
good half of the imitation Indians tumbled off into the dust.
no Apaches!” Derby
shouted. “They’re wagontrainers!”
plan you had, I told Davy.
bellyaching and shoot.
outlaws were already on the attack. Bullets zinged past my ears, spanging off
the rocks, and one ventilated my Stetson.
view of the streambed was now limited, but I fired fast and furious and was
rewarded with yelps of pain. Napier kept up a steady fire too, then his rifle
suddenly went silent. I glanced across to see him slumped against the rocks.
was now up to me, and a peek over the side told me they were pressed against
the rock wall below, massing for an assault. I patted my pocket and found I was
out of shells.
this is it, I told Davy. But I’m going down swinging, just like you. Better
luck with your next descendant.
over the rocks, I dropped into the streambed and poured my last rounds into two
surprised outlaws. I rushed at the others, flailing my rifle like a club. Three
more went down, but I felt bullets plow into my leg and shoulder. Someone
ripped the rifle from my hands. My fists hammered flesh, and I heard bones
breaking, some of them doubtless my own. A red mist swam before my eyes as I
lit into my enemies tooth and nail. I punched and jabbed and kicked and clawed
and bit until a great weight pressed against me and the world went black.
this is what it’s like, I thought, to die.
up, Davy said. You got company.
blinked, unable to focus. I had a sensation of floating, but it was a bumpy,
this heaven, I asked, or hell?
little of both,” said the voice of Robert Napier. “It’s Nevada.”
poor dear.” This one sounded like Annamarie. “He’s still delirious.”
hands stroked my face, and I got my eyes working. Annamarie bent over me, her
face close to mine. “You did it, Dave. You got us through the gorge. You were
took my bearings. I lay on a feather mattress in the back of a wagon, wheels
creaking as it rumbled over the prairie. Napier sat on a steamer trunk, a
bloodstained cloth wrapped about his head.
figured I was dead.”
said, “So did we. But once we pulled you out from under that pile of outlaws,
we were more concerned for your sanity. For the past two days you’ve been
raving and cursing at someone named ‘Davy.’ Talking to your grandpap, maybe?”
not,” I lied. “Once had a mule by that name.”
Napier said. “In any case, you’ll be pleased to know most of those outlaws had
prices on their heads. When my write-up reaches New York you’ll be nigh as famous as your
grandfather. I believe I feel a series of dime novels coming on.”
bent lower, her lips brushing my cheek. I tried to push her off, but found one
arm in a sling and the other in a cast of mud-plaster. Dang near every inch of
me was bandaged up tight. “You’re going to love California,” Annamarie said sweetly. “I’ll
see to that personally.”
not sure how you finagled this, I told Davy, but rest assured I’ll get you for
‘til you recover from your wounds. And
by then you’ll likely be hitched.
knew all this would happen.
knew there weren’t no Apaches at Panther Gap. The tracks around that burnt-out wagon were all shod, and the
arrows in those pilgrims were Sioux and Shoshone.
you knew Derby
and Rebel Cap were steering us into a trap.
you put all these immigrants at risk just to make me a hero.
they was never in real danger. They
had you to protect them. Like it or not, boy, you’re a Crockett through
and through, and Crocketts never quit.
out a roar that nearly blew Annamarie out of the wagon.
poor dear!” she exclaimed. “He’s endured such agony for us.”
grinned down at me. “There’s something peculiar about you, Crockett, but I
can’t quite put my finger on it.”
can’t put my finger on it, either,” I said bitterly. “If I could, I’d poke it
in the eye.”