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A Bully Poker Player

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September 21, 2010 -  Below is another excerpt from my upcoming book The Republic of Austin, in which I present 24 true stories of life in and around the Lone Star capital during the days of the Republic of Texas.  Maps, photographs, and Ray Spivey's illustrations supplement the text.  Waterloo Press plans an early October release, highlighted by a reception at the Texas Capitol October 6, 4:30-6:30 PM in Room 3N.6 which Ray and I will both attend.  We also plan a book signing October 9 12-2 PM at Read It Again And Again in Houston (5300 North Braeswood) and will appear at the Waterloo Press table at the Texas Book Festival in Austin on October 16.

A Bully Poker Player

At sundown, when a lookout spotted four mounted Indians with a white flag approaching along Congress Avenue, Coleman and three other men left the fort to talk to them.In the summer of 1843 the city of Austin hovered perilously close to extinction.  President Sam Houston’s removal of the government in response to two separate Mexican army incursions the previous year had seriously depleted the population.  Those whose finances depended upon the departed customers had no choice but to leave as well.  Only a determined citizenry’s successful thwarting of Houston’s attempt to pry national land records from its grasp had preserved Austin’s tenuous claim as the official government seat, but the laughable nature of this claim lay exposed in the description by one visitor of the capitol building as “the abode of bats, lizards, and stray cattle.”  A northern newspaperman, employing typical 19th century hyperbole, breathlessly informed his readers that, “The city of Austin is entirely deserted . . . there is not a single human being residing within it -- not one!”

With the city so depopulated, Austin residents’ fear of Indian attack escalated.  Thus, when someone began beating the alarm drum late one afternoon, men, women, and children hastened to the comparative safety of “Bullock’s Fort.”  There they heard that a party of painted Comanche between 100 and 500 strong had occupied a live oak grove on a hill north of the city.  Within the walls of Bullock’s were only 22 men and boys deemed capable of wielding a weapon.  Of the women, six insisted on being armed, as did one ill man.  The possession of an 18-pound howitzer bolstered their confidence.

The citizens quickly elected as their leader a certain Captain Coleman, “a small, wiry man of unquestioned bravery and recognized as the best poker player in the country.”  At sundown, when a lookout spotted four mounted Indians with a white flag approaching along Congress Avenue, Coleman and three other men left the fort to talk to them.  The two groups met somewhere between Hickory (8th) and Ash (9th) streets.  One of the Indians stepped forward as interpreter and explained that he and his comrades had chased a herd of buffalo to the area before deciding to visit the town and trade for sugar and sweet potatoes.  Coleman later claimed to recognize the speaker as a white man who had left Austin two years earlier after stealing some horses.  He withheld this recognition, however, and informed the man to return to his party with an invitation to a meeting at Bullock’s between leaders of the two sides.  Shortly thereafter six armed Comanche appeared at the building’s entrance.

As the Indians entered the hall, dim candlelight flickering against the 12-foot ceiling, they would have immediately noticed the howitzer and its attendant, one of the townsfolk dressed in military garb bearing an army musket.  Coleman and the man carried out the charade of exchanging sign and countersign before the sentry waved everyone into the next room.  A long bench lined either side of this room, like the hallway lit only by candlelight.  On one bench sat five Anglos, two of whom wore military uniforms.  The Indians took places on the other bench.

Looking north along Congress Avenue between Hickory (8th) and Ash (9th) streets, site of the initial parley between Coleman and the Comanche.Coleman opened the conversation by indentifying the two uniformed men as the commanders of a local military garrison, which of course did not exist.  He next asked the purpose of the Indians’ visit, pointing out their painted faces and the fact that they traveled without their families.  The Indian spokesman repeated the tale of the buffalo hunt, adding that the men’s families had fallen behind during the chase and would catch up later.  As Coleman pretended to confer with the faux officers an Anglo voice thundered from an adjacent room, “I tell you, men, we would be fools to let a single damned Indian get away.  With the soldiers we have and the two companies of rangers, whom we will have in less than two hours, we can surround the hill and, when daylight comes, wipe them from the face of the earth.”  Another voice quickly hushed the first, but added in a loud whisper, “You might as well go in the other room and tell the red devils what a trap they are in.”

Returning to the conversation, Coleman sternly reproached the Indians for stealing horses and murdering a man on Brushy Creek two years earlier after just such a truce as they now discussed.  The Indians blamed the incident on another band, but this did not appease Coleman.  He stood and approached the other side of the room, telling the Comanche that he had no desire to trade with them and that, “You have come here today with a lie in your heart to commit murder and robbery and we are prepared to meet you on your own terms.”  Sensing the meaning of Coleman’s tirade even before hearing the translation, the Indians also rose.  Coleman ordered the group from the building.  As the Indians crowded toward the doorway, Coleman confronted the interpreter, “John Loflin, you white-livered renegade, I want to tell you that I shall make it my especial duty tomorrow to tack your scalp to a live oak tree on capitol hill.”

By sunrise the next morning the Comanche had quit the area.  Their true intentions can never be ascertained, but Austin residents at the time believed only that they would have been attacked save for the bold actions of Captain Coleman.  As one grateful man reportedly exclaimed while thumping Coleman on the shoulder, “Captain, I knowed you was a bully poker player, but damned if I thought you could bluff a royal flush with a pair of deuces.”

The Republic of Austin will be released by Waterloo Press in October 2010

Jeffrey Kerr
Written on Wednesday, 22 September 2010 00:56 by Jeffrey Kerr

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