First things first, get’m outta the way. Yessir, I killed a bear once with m’two toddler hands — or a bar as the newspapers’d have it, aw shucks — but damned if it ain’t happened half the way y’heard it. And I don’t really talk that way, either.
I’ve learned to, by now, because that’s what folks expect when they come out to one of my talks. They pay to hear my best backcountry drawl and I always deliver. But that doesn’t make the voice mine any more than it makes the story you’ve heard about me and the bear anything close to the truth.
There I was in my family’s cabin, banging pots and pans in my three year old glory. Did I know there was a bear a few inches away, on the other side of a greasepaper window? Of course not, I was too short to see him and my banging was too loud to hear his approach. And that bear — if I can call him one without lying — was decrepit as a creek with its water drained off by the big Mississip. That bear was older than Indian trails, and his heart was older than that. Likely as not he’d wandered up to our house after some quiet place to curl up and die — he sure wasn’t looking to eat any kids. It was his heart that killed the poor fella, not me. Big ol’ thing just gave out with the shock of my loud pots and pans. I didn’t know he was there and that he was dead until Pa came home from his logging and found the bear’s body alongside our house.
But I let the story go on, sure I did. When the newspapers came calling Ma and Pa told a tale, and I heard about it in school when I started going. Took my lumps for it, too, but I guess I deserved that for lying: every bully this side of Texas thought it was a hoot to jump out and scare me on my walk to the schoolhouse, arms overhead and carrying on like he thought a bear might. A real bear, not an old timer one foot in the ground. And they thought it was funny to hold me down in the dirt and rough me up like bears would, roaring and drooling all over my face, so I had to learn how to fight. And I had to keep fighting, because that’s what folks came to expect. Now they want to hear about all those fights, and even the ones that I lost folks want to hear that I won — they want their money’s worth out of me, I suppose, and since they pay to listen I guess I owe them to be whoever they’re after.
I fought all the way into Congress where I thought I might finally put all that business behind me for once and for all, but that’s not the way that it went — all those eastern fellows with their fancy whiskers and whiskey, and even Old Hickory, that son of a bitch, only wanted the bear story, too. Should’ve told Jackson that the Indians could tell some bear tales and he might not have run them all off their own land.
So maybe it doesn’t make me proud now but yes, I learned how to use it, I told the bear tale and I told all the others and that’s how I’ve kept my bread buttered. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that those stories have caught up with me here. They got passed around to too many ears, until someone told someone told somebody else and that somebody else had some pull, enough to pull me back into the army — it was that, or turn them down and give up all those rich speaking fees, a fraud just for being myself. Which doesn’t seem so bad now, I’ll admit. I’d give up all the fees from here to forever if it’d just get me out of this hot desert sun and out of this damnable mission. But what else could I tell ’em? I was in Texas already, just by dumb luck, and the Governor figured if I could wrestle a bear, sure I could put a few Mexicans down. I knew it wouldn’t be quite as easy as that, but what could I say? He’d already heard all my stories. He had a copy of my book right there on his shelf, and I couldn’t argue with that.
You know the rest, Mr Bowie: more Mexicans than we expected, more cannons and guns than we ever thought Mexico owned. I’m guessing those guns have given you the same thumping headache that’s plagued me all week, but if you can still put a few words together, how’d you come to be here yourself? I know what I’ve read about you in the papers, but if you haven’t had the stories blown out of your head by those goddamned cannons, how’d you get caught here in history’s craw?