The Astounding Bigfoot Wallace — Part One

Yes, Bigfoot Wallace was really a gigantic figure in the old days of the Southwest, when individual prowess and courage meant so much in the development of the frontier. Wallace was well qualified to rank with the more widely known Indian fighters, such as Wetzel, Kenton, Boone, Kit Carson, and Buffalo Bill – if you might call the last an Indian fighter, one of the most over-rated and over-advertised figures west of the Mississippi.

— Letter from REH to Lovecraft, circa October 1931

The Texas Rangers, like the Mounties, have become a legend. Their best known fictional icon is the Lone Ranger, who before he donned the mask and began using silver bullets, belonged to that doughty band and was one of a posse ambushed by outlaws. The sole survivor, he was accordingly the Lone Ranger.

Tales of the Texas Rangers, like The Lone Ranger, began as a radio serial and later became a TV series. Interestingly, it was presented more as a police procedural drama with a western flavor than a horse opera. It featured a fictional Texas Ranger, Jace Pearson. There was also a comic book, Jace Pearson’s Texas Rangers. The consultant for the series was the very real – and extraordinary – Captain Manuel T. Gonzaullas, one of the Ranger Division’s real life legends. Since his nickname was “The Lone Wolf,” he might even have contributed something to the origins of the Lone Ranger.

(There was also Walker – Texas Ranger with Chuck Norris, about which the less said the better. It did provide one good use, though. In the funny Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights – the Legend of Ricky Bobby the none-too-bright racing car driver names his two obstreperous brats Walker and Texas Ranger.)

Captain Gonzaullas served in the Rangers in the twentieth century. Bigfoot Wallace, another brave and famous member of the corps, came much earlier; he was among the first Texas Rangers. Robert E. Howard wrote a good deal about him in his letters, and also mentioned him in his story, “The Valley of the Lost.” The protagonist, Reynolds, at one point remembers the story of a band of Kiowas who settled in the accursed valley of the title, after “fleeing the vengeance of Bigfoot Wallace and his rangers.” Their story didn’t have a happy ending. Nor did that of six white brothers who had settled there, or that of Reynolds himself. The Kiowas would have done better to stand and face Wallace, hard man though he was.

He came by it honestly. According to REH, he was a namesake and “direct descendant of William Wallace of Scotland,” hero of the movie Braveheart. The original William Wallace also believed in killing his enemies where he found them – in his case, the English. The Texan frontier of the 1840s and the Anglo-Scottish border of the thirteenth century were regions which had a good deal in common for no-holds-barred violence, raiding war parties and gory feuds. Nor were Comanches, Kiowas and Lipans too dissimilar to the Kerrs or Musgraves.

Wallace had his exploits recorded by a “quondam messmate” of his, John C. Duval, in Georgia in 1870. Duval modestly admitted to a “rather limited education,” but remarked that his work could claim “at least one merit, not often found in similar publications; it is not a compilation of imaginary scenes and incidents, concocted in the brain of one who never was beyond the sound of a dinner-bell in his life … told, as well as my memory serves me, in his own language.”

Duval’s account begins, “William A. Wallace was born in Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia, in the year 1816. He went to Texas in 1836, a few months after the Battle of San Jacinto, for the purpose, he says, of taking pay out of the Mexicans for the murder of his brother and his cousin, Major Wallace, both of whom fell at ‘Fannin’s Massacre.’ He says he believes accounts with them are now about square.”

“Fannin’s Massacre,” also known as the “Goliad Massacre,” occurred in 1836. Over 300 captured Texans under the command of Colonel James Fannin, were shot by the direct orders of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. Those not immediately killed by the bullets were clubbed or knifed to death. Colonel Fannin was the last to be executed. Even his request to be shot in the heart and not the face was ignored.

Bigfoot Wallace’s own words, as recorded by Duval, declare that he came out to Texas in 1837, as an Irishman would say, “green as a red blackberry.” He found a job with a surveying expedition, the single greenhorn in the party. He had “brought from Virginia a good rifle, a pair of Derringer pistols and a Bowie knife (that you know was before the days of six-shooters).” The party consisted of sixteen men altogether. Wallace killed his first deer early in the trip. When they stopped at a little settlement called Burnt Boot, and Wallace went to the home of a family named Benson to see if he could purchase some vegetables, Mrs. Benson came to the door with a gun in her hand and told him harshly to “stand.” Wallace says dryly, “She was a tall, raw-boned, hard-favored woman … and I stood!”

Well, I always kind of thought the realities weren’t much like Little House on the Prairie. Her suspicious reception of Wallace had reason behind it. According to her, a group of Tonk Indians, dressed as white men, had gained entry to a house not two miles away, only a week before, “and killed and sculped the whole family.” When Wallace told the lady they were going up to the headwaters of the Brazos to survey lands, she said, “You’ll be luckier than ‘most everybody else that has gone up there, if you’ll need more than six feet apiece before you get back.”

For Wallace, her prediction nearly came true. He went off to explore on his own, found a grove of pecan trees laden with fine nuts, and was eating some when a band of twelve or fifteen mounted Indians caught sight of him and gave enthusiastic chase. He threw them all off his trail by taking to country that a horse couldn’t cover, knowing he was a good runner, but one stubborn, persistent brave kept after him. “The perseverance of this rascal in following me up so long, ‘stirred my gall,’ and I resolved to make him pay dearly for it, if I could,” said Wallace. He did make him pay. He shot him.

After that, lost, he survived alone in rough country for a while in a way that reminds me of Esau Cairn’s early adventures on Almuric. REH had a lot of Texas background to draw upon for stories like that. Then he (Wallace) found himself suddenly surrounded by Indians, and seeing there was no chance in a fight, he surrendered and was bound and taken to their camp. He regretted not making a last stand then; but in the camp he was brought food by an old squaw he described as being “wrinkled and ugly as a witch, but with something benevolent and kind in her features.” He was right about her character, it seems, because when the braves were getting ready to burn him at the stake, the old squaw rushed through the crowd, protesting vehemently, and tossed the wood for the human barbecue here, there and everywhere. After a while she’d persuaded the majority to her way of thinking, for, as Wallace learned later, she had lost one of her sons in a fight with a neighboring tribe, and by their customs she had a right to claim a substitute.

She still had one blood son living, “Lobo-Lusti-Hadjo” or “Black Wolf” by name, now Wallace’s brother, and according to Wallace he did prove a brother to him, so long as he lived with the tribe, which was about three months; and when the time came, he helped Wallace escape and return to his own people. Wallace said he had met few men anywhere that he liked better; that Black Wolf was “as brave as the bravest, with nothing cruel or bloodthirsty in his disposition” and good to his aged mother besides.

Wallace didn’t always get along so well with red men, or they with him. He describes how in the fall of 1842, “the Indians were worse on the frontiers than they had ever been before, or since … you couldn’t stake a horse out at night … a fellow’s scalp wasn’t safe on his head five minutes …” Accordingly, a company of about forty men, Wallace among them, headed in pursuit of the next raiding party that appeared. It was on that journey that Bigfoot Wallace found himself in mortal combat, one on one, with a huge Indian, hand to hand. Neither of them had friends near. As Robert E. Howard describes the fight:

No white man in the Southwest could match Wallace in hand-to-hand fighting, but this red-man was quick as a cougar and strong as a bull. Not as heavy as Wallace, he was nearly as tall, and, clad only in a loin-cloth, and covered with bear’s oil, he was illusive and hard to grapple as a great serpent. It was man to man, blade to blade, the terrible strength and ferocity of the giant white man matched against the cruel craft and wiry agility of the savage, with all his primitive knowledge of foul crippling holds and twists. Back and forth they reeled, close-clinched; now rolling and tumbling on the ground, tearing and gouging; now staggering upright, locked like bears. Each was trying to draw his knife, but in the frenzy of battle, no opportunity presented itself. Bigfoot felt his wind failing him. The iron arms of the brave bent his ribs inward and threatened to shut off his breath. The grimy thumbs with their long black nails gouged cruelly at his eyes, ripping the skin and bringing trickles of blood; the steely fingers sank deep in his corded throat; the bony knees drove savagely for his groin.

Shaking the blood and sweat from his eyes Wallace reeled upright, dragging his foe by sheer strength. Breast jammed hard against breast, they leaned against each other, gasping wordless curses. The great veins swelled in Wallace’s temples and his mighty chest heaved; but he saw in the red mist the sweat beading thick the redskin’s face, and the savage mouth gaping for breath. With one volcanic burst of superhuman effort, Wallace tripped his foe and hurled him backward, falling on him with all his great weight. The Indian’s head struck crashingly against a sharp-pointed rock and for an instant his dazed body went limp. And in that instant Wallace, with a desperate lunge, snatched out his knife and sank it to the hilt in the coppery body. As a dying tiger bursts into one last explosion of terrible power, the Indian started up convulsively, with a terrible yell, throwing off the giant white man as if he had been a child.

Before Wallace could recover himself the Indian’s hand locked on his throat, the brave’s knee crashed down on his breast, and the knife in the red hand hissed down. In that flashing instant Wallace looked death stark in the face – he thought agonizedly of his childhood home and a girl who waited him at the settlements – he saw the black eyes of the Indian ‘gleaming like a panther’s in the dark’ – the knife struck hard – but only into the earth beside Wallace and as the knife came down, the Indian fell forward with it, and lay dead on the breast of his foe. And Wallace said that a grim smile curved the warrior’s lips, as if, dying, he believed he was sending the white man to blaze the ghost trail ahead of him.

Shaken with the titanic upheaval of that terrible battle, Wallace rose, gazing dazedly down at the silent form of the conquered. His knife was still sheathed in the Indian’s body. The point of that knife was in the red man’s heart and the wonder of it is that the brave, after receiving that terrible wound, lived long enough to all but slay his foe as he died. Such vitality, surely, is possible only to beasts and men bred close to the red throbbing heart of the primordial.

Wallace looked down at his foe and in his heart rose the respect of one warrior for another. He did not scalp the big brave; he arranged the stiffening limbs and piled rocks above the corpse to make a cairn and protect the body from the ravages of buzzards and coyotes, and beside the brave he laid the knife, and the Indian’s rifle, broken to pieces – weapons for a warrior to bear to the Happy Hunting Ground. And I think of Wallace standing alone and somberly beside that rough cairn as the sun came up over the wild tree-clad hills.

— Letter from REH to Lovecraft, ca. October 1931.

It’s necessary to break here. Wallace’s career with the Rangers and his part in the Mier Expedition will have to wait for a further post. As usual, plans to make this a one-parter have been overwhelmed by the subject matter. More next time …

Read Part Two