Down around Matagorda, folks love to tell of the time old Satan himself paid a visit to Texas, and found it too hot for his liking. What spoiled his trip, the story goes, was his misfortune to tangle with my good friend Strap Buckner, quite probably one of the largest humans ever to walk the earth.
It’s a fine tale, no mistake, and improves with each telling. But until now, the true story has never been heard. The fact is, no one knows it but me. Well, me and one other. But that other, if he still lives, has good reason to hold his peace.
It was the spring of 1830, and most of Matagorda’s local citizenry, including Strap and me, were gathered in what passed for the town plaza—actually a clearing with a ring of live oak trunks around a fire pit—welcoming the latest shipload of immigrants to our settlement. We had established a sort of ritual for such occasions, which had become ever more frequent since Mr. Stephen Austin secured the colony charter back in 1824.
Owing to my natural gifts of elocution, I served as master of ceremonies, and was now addressing the newcomers. “What you folks need to understand,” I told them, “is that we got no official law here. We got laws, of course—more than any man can use—but there ain’t no legally constituted authority to enforce ‘em. And we ain’t too anxious to ask for any, lest we get saddled with a complement of Mexican soldados, like up in San Antonio de Béxar.”
Matagorda, of course, like the rest of Austin’s colony, was duly covered by the laws of Mexico. But Mr. Austin and most vestiges of true civilization were 125 miles northwest in the village of San Felipe. Down here on the coastal frontier, and most especially in the heart of Karankawa Indian country, we had learned to fend for ourselves.
The new settlers frowned a bit, being used to some semblance of law and order back in the States. One man in particular, a thoroughly bald, well-muscled fellow who had announced his profession as blacksmith, stepped into the circle and thrust his chin at me.
“That’s no concern of mine,” said he. “I’ve never found it needful to rely on others for protection.”
From the size of him, I could believe it. He was a big ‘un, and back in polite society others would think twice about troubling him. But here in Texas, as he would soon discover, everything was bigger.
I could only smile. “We ain’t found law enforcers needful,” I went on, “’cause we got something better.” I paused, allowing their curiosities to peak, then stepped aside and waved an arm at the man seated on the log behind me. “We got Strap Buckner.”
At this, the new arrivals all stretched their necks and gawked. They’d already taken note of the big man on the log, of course. He couldn’t be missed. But Big Strap Buckner was not the sort of man you stared at without invitation.
To call Strap big was a major understatement, like saying the ocean is wide or the sky is high. Seated there on that log, he might have been mistaken for a mountain with a hat on. Add to this his flame-red hair and freckles, and he was altogether an extraordinary sight.
Strap took a draught from the barrel he used for a whiskey mug, and let out a belch that singed my whiskers. The blacksmith, who had been directly in its path, picked himself up off his keister and began slapping dust from his breeches.
“It works thusly,” I said. “Each time a new man moves into the colony, Strap knocks him down. This reminds us lesser mortals what’ll result if we don’t behave well toward one another.” I aimed my pipe stem at the blacksmith. “Since you, mister, have already been knocked down, we’ll just proceed to the next feller in your party.”
“I object,” the blacksmith said, and the gasps of those present nearly sucked the flame from the fire. “That was no fair contest, as I was unprepared. If this Buckner jasper proposes to knock me down, let him stand and try it.”
I shook my head at such foolishness. But some men must be shown, not told, so I widened my smile, shrugged, and nodded to Strap.
Knowing what was coming, most of us old hands sat down or clung to the nearest tree. For as Strap Buckner unfolded himself from that log, the earth began to tremble, and most of the greenhorns danced a jig to remain perpendicular. Strap rose and rose until he appeared fully capable of plucking stars from the sky.
The blacksmith stared up at him, his bald head reared back on his shoulders, his features pasty white.
“Ready?” Strap inquired. The word echoed through the clearing like thunder.
The blacksmith swallowed hard, but his lips were set. He nodded.
Strap frowned. He knew what was expected of him, though he didn’t particularly like it. Strap, you see, is a normally peaceable fellow. Knocking men down had once been his hobby, but the novelty had worn thin, and he now required a great deal of liquid persuasion to perform the task.
Strap extended one mighty hand, placed a fingertip squarely on the blacksmith’s chest, and pushed.
Prepared as he was, the blacksmith nearly toppled. Instead, he staggered back into the arms of his yellow-haired wife, who begged him to fall down. He’d have been wise to do so, of course, but his gumption was up. Shaking himself like a wet hound, he marched back to his spot and braced one leg behind him as an anchor. “Again,” he said gruffly.
Strap’s brow darkened. He had no wish to hurt this man, I knew, but to dislodge him from such a firm position would require a prodigious blow.
After brief reflection, Strap again stretched out his hand. This time he wrapped it entirely around the blacksmith’s body and plucked him off the ground. He held the fellow a moment, watching him kick and squirm, before loosing his fingers and allowing him to tumble back to earth.
Had the blacksmith not been flailing about, all would have been well. But one still-kicking leg twisted catawampus as he struck the ground. The crack of the bone was ugly and loud, and for an instant no one moved. Then the blacksmith’s wife wailed, his two young ‘uns cried “Papa!” and all rushed to his side.
Strap Buckner stood silent and still, but I saw the sorrow in his eyes.
What might have happened next will never be known, because a howling came out of the distance, accompanied by the rising thump of hoofbeats. Into the clearing burst a wild-faced rider. I knew him as a cotton farmer with cabin south of town. “Kronks!” he shouted, leaping from his horse. “The Kronks are on the move!”
Men snatched up their rifles, me included. We had learned to expect mischief from our Karankawa neighbors. They had roamed this area for at least a century prior to our coming, and seemed singularly unimpressed with the papers granting us title to the land. And while Texas had no shortage of inhospitable Indians, the Kronks were the worst. They not only massacred unfortunate settlers who got in their way—they sometimes ate them as well.
“How close behind you?” I demanded, already priming my rifle.
He shook his head. “They ain’t coming here. They’re running every whichaway, and screaming like they lost their senses.”
The crackle went out of the air as men lowered their weapons.
I was still feeling hot. “Then why’d you come boiling in here like a pack of wolves was on your heels? We might have shot you just out of excitement.”
“It ain’t them I’m afraid of,” the cotton farmer said. “I rode alongside one, asking what was up. He jabbered back in that crazy Indian lingo until I tried Spanish. Then I got two words. Rojo and diablo.”
“Red,” I said, “and devil.”
The silence was heavy. Even the blacksmith’s kin had ceased their sobbing.
That the Karankawa spoke bits of Spanish we all knew. The Spanish priests had been hunting their souls since long before we arrived, and the Indians still visited the missions for occasional handouts of food and blankets. “What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know,” the cotton farmer said, “and don’t want to. Those savages were terrified plumb out of their wits, and they don’t scare easy. If it weren’t old Satan himself after ‘em, it was something just as bad. Me, I’m heading north, and not stopping till I plant my lips on good American soil.”
Over the passing weeks, reports of a devil among the Indians grew more frequent. Outlying settlers heard screaming in the night, and a great number of horses vanished, presumably borrowed by Kronks too impatient to vamoose on foot.
Of course, there were positive aspects to the situation as well. Fewer cattle and chickens were stolen, game was more plentiful, and a man no longer risked his gizzard by going fishing. A good many colonists applauded the devil’s efforts, hoping he kept at it until the last of the cannibals were gone.
The more pious among us, though, became increasingly reluctant to venture into the wilds for fear they, too, might encounter the Foul Fiend. Some painted big white crosses on their doors, and attendance at Sunday services reached an all-time high.
Our devil soon played cause to every ailment from rheumatism to the gout. When it rained, men feared a flood and blamed him; and when it rained not, they feared drought and blamed him for that as well. On outlying farms, men feared to work their fields, lest Satan spirit away their wives and children, and at night they slept with one eye open to prevent him catching them unawares.
As in previous times of trouble, the colonists turned to Strap Buckner. But as much as they begged and cajoled, he refused to budge. It was not that he was indifferent to their plight, for no man cared more for the well-being of the colony. But the breaking of the blacksmith’s leg, however unintentional, still weighed heavily on him, even to the extent of spoiling his appetite. He now consumed no more than eight or ten steaks a day, and had sworn off hard spirits altogether.
Worst of all, he’d announced he would no longer participate in our knocking-down ceremonies. With new settlers arriving in ever-greater numbers, this boded ill for the public peace. Those among the original 300, like Strap and me, had sworn upon The Book to uphold the laws of Mexico, to accept the Catholic faith, and hew to a passel of other bothersome ordinances with the understanding the Mexican government would otherwise leave us be. Many of the newcomers, however, cared little for such niceties.
And the fools in the Mexican Congress had just poked a stick into the hornet’s nest by banning further immigration from the States. As new arrivals were now considered squatters, they built where they chose and behaved as it suited them. Many favored breaking off from Mexico and joining the U.S., while others would settle for nothing less than a free and independent nation. All of Texas was in turmoil, and without the calming influence of Big Strap Buckner, I feared things could soon spin out of control.
This was the state of affairs one late July morning when Strap and I lounged by the fire guzzling coffee and bemoaning the future of our colony.
A rumble of wagon wheels caused me to glance up from my cup, and I beheld a rail-thin man urging his team forward with a whip. As the wagon came nearer, I spied two smaller forms beside him. The wagon careened into the plaza, kicking up great clouds of dust, and had hardly stopped before the fellow leapt off at our feet.
He was one of our recent squatters, one of several who had ignored Austin’s warnings and thrown up cabins on land that had until recently infested with Indians. His face was white as milk, matching that of the woman and boy with him. “The Devil!” he cried. “He’s burned our cabin!”
The words had scarcely left his lips before Strap was on his feet. “Where?” he demanded, and the force of his inquiry blew the man’s hat fifty feet off into the brush.
The fellow pointed southwest, where I discerned a gray ribbon of smoke against the sky.
I turned to Strap, but he was already off and running, his great footfalls causing tremors in the earth. Catching up my rifle, I ran for my mustang and was soon galloping in his dust.
We tore across the coastal plain, the tall saw grass whipping at my mustang’s flanks, and were soon deep in the heart of Karankawa country. I was astonished at the abundance of game. The Kronks were masters of the longbow, and their voracious appetites demanded every ounce of meat that crossed their land. But now I could scarcely turn my head without seeing deer, puma, bobcats and jackrabbits bounding out of our path.
Then, as if further proof of the Indians’ absence was needed, we chanced upon an abandoned campsite.
The scene was altogether eerie. A number of curved willow wigwams stood as if awaiting their owners’ return. Scattered about were all manner of animal skins, blankets, baskets and oyster shells, along with iron skillets and cooking pots no doubt pilfered from my fellow colonists.
“Bows,” Strap said, and there was a strange note in his voice, something almost akin to alarm.
I followed his gaze, and my neck hairs bristled. Stacked near the largest wigwam were a great number of bows and arrows.
Heretofore, despite all the rumors, I had considered the red devil merely a bugaboo to frighten the superstitious. But anything so terrifying as to cause the Kronks to abandon their weapons was an enemy worth fearing. For the first time, I began to wonder if even Strap Buckner was equal to the task.
A mile further on, we entered a clearing surrounded by oak mottes and saw the charred ruins of the squatter’s homestead. Of the cabin, little remained but a crude stone chimney and a tumble of charred logs. A portion of a rail fence that had doubtless served as a corral remained, but the attached shed had been reduced to a pile of ash. A pall of smoke hung over the ruins, and whether I imagined it or not, I could have sworn I also detected the foul stench of brimstone.
Strap took it in with a scowl and pronounced his verdict. “Bad.”
I agreed. “What now?”
Strap stood with his great fists balled on his hips, craning his neck to peer into the distance. At length he raised an arm and pointed west. “Arnold’s.”
I nodded. Malachi Arnold’s farm lay not more than a mile distant. Arnold was an ill-tempered cuss, and had little truck with the rest of us, visiting Matagorda only for such necessaries as coffee and gunpowder. But while I had no affection for him, his cabin seemed a likely target for our rampaging devil.
Strap started off, walking now that we had no urgent destination, and my mustang kept pace with an easy trot. We kept to our own thoughts, and if Strap’s were as dark as my own, they were pessimistic indeed. Though I was loath to admit it, I was beginning to believe Satan himself had come to Texas. Having braved Spanish and Mexican soldiers, pirates, bandits, cannibals and alligators, we now had to contend with the ultimate evil.
Wrapped in gloom, I let the mustang carry me along until Strap’s booming voice nearly knocked me from the saddle.
Pulling myself erect, I followed his gaze. Sure enough, a thick plume of dark smoke was just now fouling the sky. This fire was close, no more than a mile, and clearly not Arnold’s cabin, but a short distance to the north. Once again, the earth rocked under my horse’s feet as Strap stormed off toward trouble.
Jamming my hat hard upon my head, I raced after, though far less eager than when we had left Matagorda. Whatever was burning this time, the fire had been recently set, and the likelihood of confronting our devil far greater.
We had covered three quarters of the distance when a wagon appeared at the top of a small rise and veered in our direction. The wagon jounced over the rough ground, trailing a great cloud of dust, and not until it slowed could I make out a yellow-haired woman and two small children clinging to the seat.
“He’s trapped!” the woman cried. “The Devil has him!” She jerked the horses to a stop and gestured back toward the cloud of evil smoke.
Strap boomed a question. “Who?”
“My husband! The blacksmith.”
A tremendous roar smote my ears. I thought for a moment lightning had struck unseen and I’d been engulfed in a thunderclap. Then I saw Strap’s mouth close, and realized he had bellowed. He was a flame-haired cyclone as he sped up the rise, shrubs and small trees whirling in his wake.
Swallowing my fear, I nodded to the wife and plunged after him. At the top of the rise I paused to take my bearings. Strap’s dust filled the air, but the glow of the fire was dead ahead. I kneed my horse left through a sloping field of saw grass in hope of a better view.
Nearing the edge of the tall grass, I saw Strap poised next to a small corral, his great shoulders heaving. At his feet lay a burly bald man with his leg in a splint—the blacksmith. And facing them across the clearing stood a living nightmare.
My mustang sunfished as if trying to swallow his head, and I was too shaken to grab the pommel. I spilled into the grass and lay flat on my stomach as the horse went windmilling back up the slope.
I might have joined him, but my limbs were fused in their sockets.
Prancing about before the angry flames of the cabin was a blood-red figure with a huge black pitchfork. Long pointed horns grew from his forehead and a red tail protruded from beneath his breechcloth.
“Beware, giant,” spoke the Devil. “I have claimed this sinner as mine own!”
I sucked in my breath. Whether Satan planned to fry the blacksmith on the spot or cart him home for further amusement, I knew Strap would not stand idly by. I had no wish to witness my friend’s destruction, and tried to look away, but my eyes refused.
Strap displayed no fear. He advanced at once, stepping carefully over the blacksmith and using own body as a shield. Knowing how deeply he regretted that broken leg, I figured he was sacrificing himself to gain redemption.
“Stay ye back,” said the Devil “Or I shall take your soul as well.”
“No,” said Strap. He balled a fist, the same fist I’d once seen clobber a huge black bull, and reared back to deliver a wallop. But the Devil danced forward, the pitchfork licked out, and a bold red line appeared on Strap’s left forearm.
Strap’s roar brought the remains of the cabin tumbling down, but he was more angry than hurt. His knockout punch had been spoiled. He swayed this way and that, huge fists coiling and uncoiling, awaiting his chance. But Satan was wary, the quick jabs and well-timed swings of his weapon keeping the big man at bay. And all the while, the Fiend kept up a stream of unprintable oaths, describing in blasphemous detail the welcome Strap would receive down in the Pit.
Tiring of this, Strap wrapped a hand around a log employed as a fence rail and ripped it loose. That log was ten feet long and thick as a man’s leg, but Strap twirled it as effortlessly as a willow switch.
Alarm showed on Satan’s features, and he gave ground. Strap leapt after him, swinging the log like a shillelagh. The Devil ducked, darted and rolled, but the club kept him close company. Finally Satan tried a quick counter, attempting to pierce Strap’s club hand with the pitchfork. He was too slow. The log caught the fork beneath the tines and sent it soaring into the sky.
Disarmed and faced with a mad giant, the Devil showed his true colors. Screeching like a wounded catamount, he turned tail and took off like a bolt of lightning. Such a move would have caught any normal human flatfooted, but Strap, when his dander was up, was about as abnormal as a human could be.
Hefting the log like a spear, Strap aimed and let fly. Had his intent been to take Satan’s head off, or drive the log through his back and out his breast, he no doubt could have done so. Instead, that spear flew straight between the Devil’s knees, spoiling his stride and turning him topsy-turvy into the dirt.
Exploding from his spot, Strap took three great strides and caught old Satan up by the ankles. Given recent events, any other man would have delivered some verbal rebuke, or demanded the Foul Fiend explain himself. But Strap Buckner, who never said two words when one would do, merely scowled and said, “Goodbye.”
Still gripping the Devil’s ankles, Strap commenced to spin. Faster and faster he went, until Satan’s outstretched body became a red blur. Strap himself, with his flame-red hair, came to resemble a great burning torch.
The screams ripping from the Devil’s throat must have been heard all over Texas.
By the time Strap let go, I was woozy just from watching. But the sight of Satan streaking across the sky like a comet brought me surging to my feet. I watched until he was out of sight, and never saw him land.
A chorus of glad cries spun me back to the clearing, as the blacksmith’s wife and children leaped from their wagon. Strap knelt beside the injured man, and was soon the focus of much thanksgiving.
I stepped out of the grass to join them, but stopped transfixed by an object in the dirt—a cord of red-dyed leather strung with two sawed-off steer horns. The thing’s meaning was instantly clear.
No one paid me any attention as I snatched up the cord and stuffed it deep in my pocket. Then I went in search of my horse. As I’d hoped, he was milling about just over the rise. He was still mighty spooked, but eventually consented to carry me.
I rode east, following near as I could reckon the path of that devilish comet. I’d covered near a mile when a piteous groaning rose from behind a stand of hackberry trees. Pushing my mustang through the brush, I came at last upon the happy sight of a hornless devil face down in a clump of mesquite.
Dismounting, I grabbed an ankle and hauled him out, being none too gentle. He groaned all the louder as I got a toe under him and flipped him onto his back. He was much bedraggled, and there were spots on his legs and chest where the red had been scraped away to reveal human flesh.
His features seemed familiar, but it wasn’t until I’d dumped a hatful of water on his face that I recognized him. He was Malachi Arnold, the hermit we’d set out to visit before sighting the fire at the blacksmith’s.
Much of the story came to me right then, and I punctuated it with a good kick in his ribs. “You wanted the Kronks off your land,” I said, “and done this masquerade to scare ‘em. Ain’t that so?”
His answer was another groan. I repeated the kick.
“It’s so,” he howled, “but they deserved it. When they progressed from thievin’ crops and cattle to thievin’ whiskey, it was the last straw.”
“So how’d you hit upon this Devil getup?”
“I was up to the Mission when they come for handouts. That old priest’s preaching rolled off ‘em like water off a duck, but when he hauled out The Book and showed ‘em a picture of Old Nick, they hightailed it before you could say Jack Robinson. I figured the good Lord was givin’ me a sign.”
I almost had to admire the rascal. It was plain enough what he’d done. And he’d accomplished what many of us had long wanted, to get those blasted Kronks off his land.
“You might’ve been a hero,” I said, “until you turned on your fellow settlers. Was they thievin’ from you too?”
“They squatted on my land,” he said sourly. “Shot my game, fouled my water. Even feigned bein’ friendly, so’s they could borrow things. It was more than a man could bear.”
I’d heard enough. “Far as I’m concerned, you’re no longer a man. You’re a devil, and you’ve used up your welcome. You’re leaving. Now.”
He stiffened at that. “Where—where would I go?”
“Matters none to me, so long as it’s far from Texas.”
His jaw set. Wanting no backtalk, I added, “Otherwise, I’ll tell Mr. Strap Buckner just who you are and what you done. In that circumstance, you’ll be meeting Old Nick sudden and personal.”
His eyes went wide, and I heard his teeth chatter. “I’ll go.”
“And,” I said for good measure, “if I ever again hear of the Foul Fiend walkin’ the earth, me and Strap will be paying you another call.”
Well, that was the end, as far as the truth went. The legend began when the blacksmith and his family told all and sundry how Strap had rescued them from the clutches of Satan himself. The story’s grown considerable since then, and I have to hide my smile at each new wrinkle. At last telling, the Devil had leapt from a flying horse, swelled to a hundred and ninety feet tall and battled Strap for an entire day, turning the surrounding landscape into a wasteland.
But the tale’s done its job. It’s the first thing folks hear when they arrive in Texas, if they’ve somehow escaped hearing it already, and its calming effect is wondrous to behold. Despite a flood of new arrivals from the States and good number of returning Kronks, Matagorda’s become a shining example to the colony.
As for Strap Buckner, he’s taken it all in stride. When admiring females refer to him as The Champion of the World, he blushes so hard his freckles disappear. And when men ask if he truly has the strength of ten lions, he admits it’s closer to nine.
Near as I can tell, Strap holds to the belief he actually fought the Devil. And as far as I’m concerned, he’s earned it.
Aylett “Strap” Buckner was a real life Texas hero who became a legend. The story of his fight with the Devil began as oral tradition and first saw print in 1877.