Ghost Man’s Trail — Part One

Robert E. Howard was nothing if not versatile. He wrote boxing stories, oriental adventure, detective stories, horror, westerns, pioneered heroic fantasy – and the weird western genre.  “The Horror From the Mound,” “The Dead Remember,” “The Man on the Ground” and “The Valley of the Lost” are examples. And there is the current springboard, “Old Garfield’s Heart,” firmly in the weird western genre and rooted in REH’s much-loved southwest, Texas particularly. Its background includes the Comanche Wars, Ewen Cameron and Jack Hays’ exploits, San Jacinto, the Lipan tribe, and Coronado’s expedition.

The “Old Garfield” of the title is a tough Texas pioneer, “the first white man to settle” in the narrator’s part of the country. He’s inexplicably – by natural means – long-lived and vital, despite his great age. The narrator’s grandfather had arrived in 1870, and according to him Jim Garfield had been living in his log cabin then, and has not perceptibly aged since. (The story was published in 1933. It mentions “a bootleg joint” so it is clearly set during Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties or early ‘thirties.)

Garfield claims to have fought at the Battle of San Jacinto (1836) and been with Ewen Cameron on the ill-fated Mier Expedition (1842), which ended with the captured Texans being forced to hold a death lottery, drawing from a pot of mixed black and white beans. Cameron drew a white one and should have been spared, but in Garfield’s words, “The Mexicans shot him. Damn ‘em!”  He rode with Texas Ranger captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays (REH spells it “Hayes”), probably against the Comanches and almost certainly in the Mexican-American war of 1846-48. Garfield might also have been at the Battle of Plum Creek in 1840. That was actually more of a running fight, with Comanches under Chief Buffalo Hump trying to get back to their West Texas home ground with an immense amount of plunder they were reluctant to leave behind – the reason they were overtaken.

Garfield turns out to be long-lived and notably hard to kill because of the assistance of a mysterious Lipan Indian known as Ghost Man. Garfield tells the local medico that Ghost Man was, or is, “the Lipan priest of the Gods of Night” and also refers to him as a “witch-doctor.” He adds that the Lipans “dwelt in this country before the Comanches came down from the Staked Plains and drove ‘em south across the Rio Grande. I was a friend to ‘em.”

The narrator’s grandfather verifies part of that account. He assures his grandson that in the early 1870s, he and Garfield were in a fight against a raiding party of Comanches, and Garfield took a thrust from a lance that ripped through his chest and split his heart. “Nobody could live after a wound like that.”

An old Indian suddenly appeared, making the peace sign, and for some reason none of them could explain, the white men didn’t shoot him, even though their blood was hot and raging after the fight. The Indian – Ghost Man – asserted that he was an old friend of Garfield’s and wanted to help him. Although that seemed well beyond possibility, they allowed him to try, and in the morning “Jim Garfield came walkin’ out of the mesquite, pale and haggard, but alive.”  His terrible wound had closed and begun to heal. And like the narrator’s grandfather, the local doctor, whose next birthday will be his fiftieth, says that he has known Garfield all his life, and “he hasn’t aged a bit.”

Garfield explains that he first met Ghost Man on the Rio Grande, when he (Garfield) was riding with Ewen Cameron. He had saved Ghost Man’s life from the Mexicans once. Whether that was really the case, or whether Ghost Man was truly alive – or dead – as ordinary human beings understand the terms, is uncertain. Still it appears he had cause to be grateful to Garfield, and came when Garfield needed him.

It doesn’t seem certain that Ghost Man was really a Lipan, either. My post “Silver and Steel: Bowie’s Mine” discusses the Lipans, and just as REH’s weird western story says, the Lipans were driven from the southern Great Plains by the Comanches. They played a considerable part in Texas history during the 18th century, when the area was ruled by Spain. The Lipans were briefly allied with the Spanish against their Comanche enemies, but that relationship soon fell apart.

It’s interesting that Garfield mentions the Pueblos. The Native American Pueblo culture covered the area where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado join. Part of the original Lipans’ home was in New Mexico. The Pueblo culture was ancient. And Ghost Man was far older than even Garfield, as the story makes clear. Garfield says, knowing he won’t be believed, “I’ll tell you this much – Ghost Man knew Coronado.”

Francisco Vazquez de Coronado was a conquistador who led an expedition in 1540-42 from Mexico through (what are now the states of) Arizona, New Mexico and northern Texas into Kansas. If Ghost Man knew Coronado, then he was at least three hundred years old when Jim Garfield first met him. At least. Not surprisingly, the doctor reacts with a testy, “Crazy as a loon!”

Coronado’s expedition was a landmark in the history of the southwest. It began as a search for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. Coronado, governor of the province of new Galicia, had sent Friar Marcos de Niza on an expedition from Compostela. Niza came back excitedly telling stories of a fabulous golden city atop a high hill, apparently as large as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had been, and wealthy beyond belief.

Wealthy, eh?  Gold, eh?  Ahhhhhh . . .

Coronado and his friend the Viceroy invested money of their own in an expedition to find Cibola. Coronado led it, wanting to make sure of his share of the loot, no doubt. He left Compostela in February of 1540. The expedition was sizeable; four hundred Spanish soldiers, about 1500 Mexican Indians, four Franciscan monks and a number of slaves.

Coronado headed pretty much due north into modern Arizona. He divided his expedition into smaller groups, and timed their progress so that the water and grazing along the arid route would have replenished itself by the time the next band arrived. He also left the weakest and slowest behind to garrison his supply points, while he pressed on hard, dreaming of golden prizes.

He met crushing disappointment. After passing Sulfur Springs and crossing the mountains, he reached Cibola – or what he’d hoped would be his goal – and found the glorious city of de Niza’s fantasies to be a complex of mud pueblos inhabited by Zuni Indians. Marcos de Niza was sent back in disgrace for a liar. If he hadn’t been’a cleric, Coronado probably would have lopped his head in fury. But he didn’t abandon the idea of finding fabulously wealthy cities, just kept hoping they lay further on.

Running into trouble over food and water in that harsh country, he used the conquistadors’ usual solution – gatecrashed the nearest village and demanded what he wanted at sword’s point, then attacked all out if he met resistance. The Zuni community of Hawikuh, on the Arizona-New Mexico border, was one community to suffer such treatment. Coronado was wounded, and his expedition stayed at Hawikuh for weeks while he recovered. He sent out scouting parties to explore the country so as not to waste the time completely.

The first one, led by Pedro de Tovar, headed northwest into Hopi country. The Hopi denied them entrance to their villages also, and were put to the sword as the Zuni had been. The second scouting party, under Garcia Lopez, went looking for the large river the Hopi had spoken about, and found it – the Colorado – along with the Grand Canyon. They were the first Europeans to have seen it. Their main interest in the river was to use it as a route for a supply fleet, but the descent was too difficult. Later one of Coronado’s soldiers, Hernando de Alvarado, led two dozen other Spaniards and an unknown number of their Mexican allies, guided by a Pecos Indian the Spaniards called “Whiskers” because of his moustache, into the Rio Grande valley. From about a dozen Tiwa pueblos around the Rio Grande, the Spaniards extorted food and clothing, as well as raping when it suited them. The Tiwa killed a few score of their horses and other livestock in retaliation, after which Coronado declared war and slaughtered the pueblos’ defenders, burning about thirty alive at the stake.

Coronado was still obsessed by the cities of gold. The Indians he encountered, who had heard what kind of men the Spaniards were and how they acted, naturally got rid of them as quickly as possible by telling them, “Yes, my lord, oh yes, fabulously rich cities, gold and gems, about a month’s journey away!”  They doubtless hoped the Spaniards would get lost and perish. An Indian guide the Spaniards nicknamed “The Turk” evidently tried hard to bring this about. He spun Coronado a yarn about yet another civilization of unbelievable riches, called Quivira, which lay – again – far to the east. The king of this land drank from golden cups hanging from the trees in his gardens. Coronado followed this fantasy into the Great Plains, leading more than a thousand Spaniards and Mexicans. “The Turk” guided them into the Texas panhandle. The flat, featureless steppe of the Llano Estacado was certainly a good place to lose even a large expedition. The Spaniards were amazed by the immense herds of buffalo they encountered, and a group of nomadic Teya buffalo hunters “blew the whistle” on the Turk by telling the Spaniards they were headed in the wrong direction – that Quivira lay northward.

Coronado had probably been suspicious of “The Turk’s” trustworthiness already. He sent most of his men back to New Mexico and personally continued on into modern Kansas with only forty Spanish soldiers and priests, an unspecified number of Mexican Indians, and “The Turk.” After travelling for a month, he reached the Arkansas River, near present-day Dodge City. He found nothing in the region but naked Indians, thatched villages, and fields of corn, squash and beans. Coronado’s disappointment must have been acute. Before turning back to New Mexico, he ordered “The Turk” garroted.

Examining those events in the light of REH’s fiction, we could ask, might “The Turk” have been Ghost Man, the sorcerer from the story “Old Garfield’s Heart?”  Howard assures us through Garfield’s lips that “Ghost Man knew Coronado.”  Being strangled with a Spanish cord might not have been the end of so supernatural a person, one who could even borrow the heart of a god on request. Garfield said as much when questioned.

I dunno whether he’s alive or dead. I dunno whether he was alive when he came to me after the fight on Locust Creek, or even if he was alive when I knowed him in the southern country. Alive as we understand life, I mean … Ghost man was – that’s all I can say – alive or dead, I don’t know, but he was. What’s more, he is.

It’s possible that Coronado paid dearly for his rough treatment of the Pueblo peoples, and for his treatment of “The Turk” (Ghost Man?).  In the spring of 1542 he was badly hurt in a fall from his horse. His expedition had failed, he lost the money he had invested, and eventually was bankrupt. He also faced charges over his massacres on the quest for Cibola – and a Spaniard in the 16th century had to go a long way in knocking Indians around before his superiors decided he’d overstepped the mark. Twelve years after that crippling fall from his horse, Coronado died of disease in Mexico City.

It may be that Ghost Man’s curse had followed him that long.

What were Ghost Man’s origins, then?  Garfield, in REH’s story, refers to him as “the Lipan chief,” “the Lipan priest of the Gods of Night” and “a witch-doctor of the Lipans.” Possibly he was, when Jim Garfield first encountered him on the Rio Grande in the 1840s, on the Mier Expedition. But Garfield also tells Doc Blaine, “The Lipans were kin to the Apaches, and the Apaches learnt curious things from the Pueblos.”  If Ghost Man had been extant for three hundred years at the time he met Garfield, he might have been older yet.

Often enough the word “pueblo” brings to mind images of poor adobe villages inhabited by primitive farmers, and some pueblo communities were, but others were impressive. The history of that culture went back centuries, even in Coronado’s time. The Pueblos’ earliest inhabitants, in fact, have been given the Navajo name “Anasazi” – the Ancient People. And the most remarkable Anasazi settlement was the one at Chaco Canyon, on the Colorado Plateau in the north-western corner of New Mexico.

It’s this blogger’s hypothesis that Ghost Man grew to manhood and developed his supernatural abilities there.

Art Credits: “Old Garfield’s Heart” by Jim & Ruth Keegan, “I am Crow” by Kirby Sattler.

Read Part Two