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The Whisper of Old Owl
By Jeff Clark

I left Weatherford this morning, in search of Old Owl's camp. It was last seen in 1849, best I can tell. If the stories are true, its location is south of my Alameda-centric box. A full moonlit night would carry a warrior's steed to the Mansker Lake Community in an hour. I hope my friend north of Abilene will understand.
I turn south on Hwy 16 from I-20, the morning sun still coming in my east truck window. I figure a trip across the foot of Cook Canyon is a good way to cross over into today's nineteenth century search.
I've tried to develop the skill of seeing the land without its roads and fences. My John Wayne-colored glasses warn me that the Indians lurk along the cedar-covered rim of the canyon to my right, awaiting their chance to swoop down and surround me, fill me with piercing arrows. This canyon whispers such tragedies, from not so long ago.
I pass across Palo Pinto Creek, the Indians' highway through this country, creating stories we've all heard, and a few never repeated, I'm sure. The project's newest contributor, the one translating from outside our log cabin's walls, says it's important to get a sense of a place. That the Comanche were attuned to their world in a way that's difficult for moderns to understand. I sense as I cross this creek that I'm entering their world, hoping for some sign I can follow into Mopochocupee's flourishing camp, one of the largest in Texas.
What do you ask of a Comanche who died over 150 years ago? Will he ride around with me and point out the old sites? Will he have photos of the significant people and places from his nomadic world? Will he be able to tell me what he, and later Buffalo Hump felt when these cursed settlers kept pouring over the hill from three directions, killing all that Comanches held dear?
To be clear, I have little idea what I'm looking for. I feel pretty confident when I'm tracking Anglo sites now, when looking for abandoned cemeteries, homesteads or schools. Crooks in the road, cisterns in a field, fence lines that make no sense - I can pursue these footprints with some assurance. Comanches - I find myself again at the bottom of a learning curve. Hopefully they will share the guideposts I will need to find them, to make contact.
I ascend up the southern rim of Cook Canyon, up into the gently rolling country between Salem and Hogtown. This flatter plain would've been an easier path for our new friends northwest toward Mansker Lake, on toward their camp near Sweetwater, or north to the reservation late at night. Our new friend counsels, "look for paths of least resistance." Our old roads often follow theirs.
I near Hogtown. Blair's Fort is the last stop on the Stephenville - Fort Griffin Road that I'm sure of. Some writings suggest it headed to Dallas Scott's place on the hill east of Mansker Lake, before following the Sanches Trail north to Merriman. Some suggest it continued north.
Desdemona has almost completed its metal volunteer fire house. The community still hold dances and plays. There are still pickups clustered around the café for coffee sometimes. This town has a heartbeat.
The long-ago story that I'm relying on this morning was written by R.I.P. Ford. "Rip" for all the death notices he signed - Rest in Peace. Robert Simpson Neighbors talked Rip into an expedition at a trading post near Waco, heading for El Paso. Buffalo Hump and the great peace chief Old Owl led the men to the wise elder's camp "near the headwaters of the Leon" after a four day ride. Ford's description is vague, at least the version I have. The camp was said to be where a creek meets the Leon. It was supposed to be one of the larger encampments in Comancheria, a fully-functioning prehistoric society with many children and one lady said to be over 100 years old.
One much later interpretation identifies a spot in northern Comanche County. I've highlighted that stretch of the Leon on my map. Another 1936 journal (not necessarily related to Old Owl) tells of finding eleven fireplaces, evidence of an Indian "work camp," the man says. Blow sand originally concealed the clay pits, three feet across and two feet high. Rocks protruded from the top in a circle. This sounds similar to the circles near Ranger. It is unknown if this camp and Old Owl's are related. There are fairly specific directions to this 1936 location. I highlight it on the map as well. The two sites are half a mile apart. Could they be the same?
The country south of Desdemona is gently rolling, mostly coastal now. Was this land cleared to farm cotton, or later peanuts? What did it look like back then, when mounted warriers attacked Blair's Fort, Mansker Lake, the Duffer Ranch? Looking down I'm still on striped asphalt. I don't feel like I'm hot on their trail.
Uncle Ben wrote that Jake Hamon's locomotives could not climb more than a two percent grade. Though they sought to tie certain towns together, the railroad searched hard in 1919 to find the easiest route. They too veered northwest, avoiding the canyon and eventually skirting eastern Cheaney. Comanches killed Henry Martin not far from here.
I've looked at a lot of maps from as far back as the mid-1500s over the last couple of weeks. Our stretch of the Leon Valley, indeed most of the Leon Region is omitted on all but a few. History appears to be happening elsewhere. Today I am not so sure.
As I near De Leon I wonder…our river is straighter, and much easier to cross than the twisting Brazos. Before the tanks, lakes and wells, its volume was much greater. Many in the project remember the richly flowing lion of a river before Lake Leon was built, during certain seasons. And though we're focused as moderns are on the Comanches' impact on us, it is good to remember that they too had enemies before our wagons arrived…Apaches, Kiowas, other bands. Our rich valley would have offered protection.
Archeological evidence shows Comanches and Kiowas lived up and down our stretch of valley. The buffalo were less than a day's ride to the west and northwest (McGough Springs had a few…seven miles from Mansker Lake). Other than what we've found on the sandy ground, how could Indian presence have been recorded before the first Anglo families got here, if no explorers passed through to see them?
I pull into De Leon about ten. The dusty little town will be my base of operations today, a first. A green highway sign tells me to turn left if I want Dublin or Comanche. One Comanche will do. Why be greedy? I turn left.
De Leon is still in business. The Highway 6 Café parking lot is packed with pickups at ten in the morning…I make a note for lunch time. The main drag boasts cars and hard-working farm trucks parked along its streets -- over half the storefronts open, back in the game.
I head south out of town, seeking the Leon River just above Lake Proctor. I will turn north there and follow its waters to the base of Alameda Cemetery. Hopefully I will catch a Comanche scent, some sign, some clue.
I speed past a wizened old man picking up pecans from the highway's right of way, his old truck with a busted taillight dangling next to the opened tailgate pulled up near the barbed wire fence. A lady sits in a Buick just past, waiting for the mailman at her gate -- a card from a grandkid, a catalog, the Stephenville paper.
I slow within minutes, turn east onto a washboard caliche road, making a note to thank Mr. Christian for the smoother trails we enjoy one county northwest of here. I come quickly up on the Ebenezer Cemetery and stop. I'll check graveyards along today's unfolding path, looking to see if they share Alameda and Cook's signs of Indian conflict. "Killed by Indians" a clue I might be close.
If you ever get a chance to visit this cemetery, it's worth a stop. Not quite as old as Alameda, it appears more like our Cook Cemetery, showing episodes of great care some years and busy descendants others. These headstones will pull at your heart.
This lonely place is made better by many concrete markers with the stark word "UNKNOWN" stamped across each face.

Tombstone of the UnknownThis sort of message used to make me sad, that some life had been "lost" like that - forever. Whoever crafted these markers saw the larger truth - each soul has been remembered now, though their names and life details still swim tantalizingly out of reach. These slabs are breadcrumbs that will fall across the path of someone, someday - the circle will be completed. I got one confirmation near the far fence, and snap its happy memory into my camera.
I'm walking back to the truck and realize I'm still thinking like a modern. I look around for bent "Comanche Trees" and spy none. Then far in the distance, on the eastern rim of the Leon River Valley I see it - two linked peaks higher than anything in the area, connected like the twin mountains above Coleman County's Santa Anna, Chief Santanna's known headquarters (down which a runaway team injured Cheaney's founder later in life). The peaks I see have a distinctive shape, would make a good landmark. They've got to be five miles away at least. I crank up the truck and head for the river bottom, watching my new goal as I drive.
I stop to look at my old map, searching for the quickest way across to the other side. Nearing the Leon, hopefully the old bridge on this map is still there. I start wondering how much the truck weighs.
The river bed looks different here - more like a swamp with lonely willows and cottonwood, ghostly with flood debris leaves and limbs clawing their trunks, like they tried to escape this place and couldn't. I'm not comfortable here, want to leave. There is water standing beside the road - menacing. I can't imagine the Indians wanting to live here.
There's an dented old pickup pulled off the road…no one in sight. A fisherman, hopefully, on an honorable enterprise. I cross the rickety bridge and push up the other side, rising quickly onto a giant plateau, old oaks with many-fingered crowns like heads of broccoli. Circling down again near the river I come to a place that has the feel of a campsite, near the mouth of Armstrong Creek. This concealed hideout has a rise above the flood plain that suggests a lookout, but it is too low to see far away. I keep moving.
I end up at Comyn, settled in the late 1870s after the Indian risk had passed according to their historical marker. A railroad town, then home to a Humble Pipeline tank farm. I pass through, my two peaks in site, just southeast of the almost evaporated settlement.
The road rises, the peaks grow taller on my left. The ground falls away to my right, to the east and south. I have a clear view miles and miles southwest to the twin peaks of Round Mountain and the Long Mountain complex (1,800 feet above sea level), almost in Brown County.

Twin Peaks of Round Mountain and Long Mountain

While I am two miles from the Leon now, I remember reading that the Comanches had lower subsidiary sites to relay smoke signals from higher altitudes. These peaks behind me (the higher of the two is 1,388 feet) were one of their "tall towers". They could have seen trouble coming from miles away. I savor a yes moment. They were here. I feel the sense of place I'd been told about. Comanche Peak in Hood County is about 1,224 feet by comparison, also a distinctive shape.View from Comanche Peak, Hood County
A big ranch is at the top of this peak, I am a hundred feet below and still have a great view. At the base of the mountain are two homesteads, one maybe both from before 1900. A dense clump of mesquite and oak and a draw off the mountain suggest a spring….look for water, for a view, for game, for the path of least resistance. Story after story in Alameda about settlers choosing Indian front yards for their cabins. Tales confirming that they traveled primordial Indian and wild game trails. This place I stand is at least related to my search.
I don't think this is the main camp, though. This could be its lookout. The smaller lookout earlier, below Armstrong Creek, had an unobstructed view of this high place. I look to the north and can see Eastland County's Jameson Peak, to the east of the Howard Community (1,682 feet high, a distinctive shape, many arrowheads found near a spring at its base). I remember last week, seeing this same peak from the Comanche camp near Ranger. I have that "fill in the blank" feeling, feel like tumblers are locking into place, three cherries in a row. I might be observing the smoke signal promontory sites north, east and south of Alameda. Today I see no smoke.
I pass back through Comyn heading north…they now store peanuts in the giant coffee can-looking oil tanks, sisters to those that waved Mobil's flying pegasus back at me entering Desdemona when I was a kid. Path of least resistance.
It is impossible to drive close to the Leon, because of private property. I am able to turn south and again get close to where Armstrong Creek hits the sleeping river. Big Foot Wallace supposedly met the Leon here, then explored north around 1836. I'm still south on the map from where Old Owl is supposed to be waiting. How could Wallace have missed thousands of Comanches? Did the band not arrive until after he passed, or is the site further north than other historians have concluded?
I get to the flats and it looks just like the land between Alameda Cemetery and Mansker Lake…large pecans surrounded by wheat colored winter grass…easy to ride through on a horse, easy to pass through on a wagon or a teepee pull-behind.
I turn north, head up a road that would end up at Round Grove Cemetery if I kept going, but loop back to the west, following more Leon River Valley from a distance. The road is narrow and I'm passing dairy trucks and eighteen wheelers leaving with sod and milk and hard-working men in pickups. "You lost, boy?" a question I don't like to be asked. What am I going to tell them? "Eh, yes sir. Could you direct me to Old Owl's 1849 campsite?" I accelerate on past.
It's funny how much one's head moves to the left and the right when you're driving fifteen miles an hour looking for bent Indian trees or rises that could be lookouts or teepees or marks on trees. I've got to get into Fort Worth more.
I cross over into the stretch of meandering water I've highlighted on my map, based on the three reports. Trees gets dense on my left, between me and the Leon. I see a stand of deer. I don't see homesteads…I don't see warriors riding horses through here. But I can't get close enough to our river…it could be a clear path nearer the water.
I approach another bridge and stop to take a photo, noting the river's flow mirrors that below Alameda's cemetery. If conditions here and there were also identical in 1849, it would be hard to name these "the headwaters". I turn north to loop around for another river crossing farther to the west. I see something on a hillside, about a quarter mile away. Low to the ground, gray short columns, built into a far hillside. My lens isn't powerful enough to tell me what it is. It doesn't belong, though. I pull the camera down, and see in front of me, bold and fully in focus another sign -- No Trespassing.
I take off again, more than a little frustrated, now approaching the Leon from the north, pass a high dollar place on a knoll above the river. I head down into the peaceful, well-tended bottoms, littered with pecan trees as tall as Eastland's courthouse. It's flat across this stretch, with tributaries needing bridges twice. A shape catches my eye to the left and I slow. It's a grandfather pecan tree, a serpentine giant bent toward the ground, the main trunk pointing east-southeast. Down the river, toward the shapes on the hillside I couldn't identify without jumping a fence, without getting shot. My head whips to the left involuntarily, then sweeps rapidly to the right - though I hear nothing. I am ten feet away from a guidepost. Could a Comanche hunting party be far away? I pause, smiling at my delusion, at my connection.
I don't know this country well enough to determine if archeology supports this tree as a true People's landmark. But the "pointing" tree is facing in a way that the river's current doesn't flow -- flood waters couldn't have done it…it goes "down" away from the sun, before being cut off. There is no other explanation, given the old age of the stunted tree. Could it have noted a river crossing…or does it point to the hazy site I couldn't see earlier, not a quarter mile downriver? The bent pecan tree
I take off, my enthusiasm renewed. The far southern rim rises with the road, has an Alameda feel to it, more like the western cliff where the McGahas stayed. I drive up the ridge and sure enough there are several old homesteads…perhaps this was their Mansker Lake. The river below this point still flows, but in truth looks like it does on the stretch behind our cemetery, up through Cheaney, up under the Lake Leon Dam. I'm not convinced that this is the country where Neighbors and Ford crossed west at Old Owl's camp. I leave that door open.
I head north out of De Leon, it takes three tries to find the little road that will return me to the river. One of those attempts is marked by a county road sign but takes me dead end to some people named Green's front door. I swing the wheel around quickly before gunfire can commence.
There are two cemeteries on my map through here, not far apart. I again want to check for evidence of conflict. I get to one crook in the road but don't find headstones…then farther around I do find Oliver Springs Cemetery…not started until 1885, according to the sign, too new to be of help. I loop back around to the first site, crossing a spring-fed stream (car washes the only item I'm under budget on). I study the map and reconfirm the first location…it is gone. Bulldozed or plowed or whatever. There is no name for the cemetery on my map. This pasture was made bigger, maybe for peanuts now coastal. I wouldn't think a cemetery out here would have been very large…half an acre more in peanuts? I am saddened by this latest tragedy on the path.
After Neighbors and Ford's expedition left Old Owl's camp in 1849, over three hundred Native souls fell to cholera, within a few weeks it is said. Before the year was up, even wise Old Owl and Santanna would be claimed, their final resting place as hazy as these souls somewhere outside my bug-addled front windshield.
I turn north to catch up to the Leon. I am less than eight miles from Mansker Lake by horseback, though still probably in Comanche County. This road is barely a road…I'll be surprised if my grandchildren can follow this soon-to-be-forgotten route someday. Up ahead a small herd of cattle wanders the road -- strays I think. Then I see a pickup following behind in the ditch.

Herd of cattleThese cattle are being herded to another pasture. The climate-controlled saddle mount seems to work great until the cattle have to make a left turn off the almost-gone road, through a gate into a pasture. A modern cowboy opens the door to his F-150 horse, gets out waving his arms and a white rag tied to the end of a lunge whip, convincing the herd. The men are driving a Ford pickup, which seems fit to the task, though Buddy tells me he finds Dodge trucks superior for herding and cutting cattle.
I come to the point that I can't follow the Leon any farther north. Until the river nears Mansker Lake. I cross over Highway 16 and head toward Victor, through the country. Though not part of my plan today, Comanches were reported in this country as well and the sun is still too high to start serious photography…I'm driving slow…I find myself thinking "where would the Comanches have been" and occasionally as I near streams or hollows or quiet bends in the road, "they would have liked it here." I keep coming back to the smoke signals. To the ingredients of a patch of ground these guys would've looked for. I put my map away.
I bend into another county road. I suspect I'm in Erath County. No fences or bar ditches along the ten foot wide trail, crossing cattle guards as I enter and leave each place. This country has rolling hills that have lookout potential, but nothing as high as what I saw earlier.
I come up on a farmplace…


this little road makes me feel like I'm intruding, like I'm driving through their front yard. There is a mailbox. There are old pickups and tractors and junk scattered wildly around the place. Some diesel tanks have leaked and killed a giant hulk of a live oak, standing dead on its feet. The present owner is living in a large storage building like you'd buy beside the freeway in Fort Worth, to store your lawnmower. Across the yard sits a once bright yellow house, a Craftsman I'd guess.

Old homestead

Its window glass is gone. Black rings above the window frames betray a fire long ago. Another sprawling live oak pokes at the roof - testing.
I'm not sure which would be sadder to the folks that built this place, coming back to see what I see, or to see bare ground, all evidence of their lives erased.
I turn back up the trail. It's getting late. I catch myself wondering if there will be a full moon tonight, if their braves will ride. The sense of place and time finally becomes a conversation.
I stop at the Bethel Cemetery, with a quaint building that could have been a school or church. I take pictures, the light beginning to cooperate.

Bethel curch

I gently push open the door and get a pleasant surprise. There are pews, the wood planked floors are in great shape. An old piano leans against the far wall. All we need is the lost Bethel Community to show up, and we could have church. 'Could share one final prayer before dark.

Bethel church
I'm tired and I want to be home. I turn north, find some pavement, and return to the world of speed limits and cell phones. I hope the next time I come out here, there is someone to greet me.
I'm thinking about smoke signals. I wonder who the switchboard operator was in Cheaney. I'm sure it was a party line, but I don't remember anyone talking about it. I'm not making a lot of sense.
I'm thinking that a sense of place goes on forever. Mr. Cheaney's father Leander was a scout to Kit Carson, who faced Comanches many times. Is it a coincidence that his son would move from his dad's place near Rustler, settle near Cheaney's Comanche-muddied banks of the Leon, then move first to near Chief Spirit Talker's camp at Mukewater, then to the mountain base of the mightiest warrior chief in Texas at Santa Anna? Did Leander get infected with the People's sense of place, and pass it along to his son?
It's easy to feel frustrated that I don't have photos of me and Old Owl drinking coffee this afternoon, sitting around swapping stories. Of Buffalo Hump in his feathered warrior array wanting to go liberate some horses from wily Old Man Mansker. I used to feel that frustration about Cheaney a lot when all this started. I persuade myself as big Kenworths roll past that I have collected golden nuggets today, puzzle pieces that will form a picture someday, after I've covered more miles, just like Cheaney's fragments finally started coming together. I've walked right past more historic places on that journey than I'll ever admit, the treasures remaining hidden until they chose to present themselves.
Sometimes you try too hard to put lost tidbits back together. Today I'm not so sure. Did my "it could have happened here" betray a quieter chieftain's whisper - "it did happen here." Did that lonely stretch of road, that narrow winter's thread of water share its rippling memory with me today?
I'm supposed to meet a new friend at a confirmed Comanche camp in Dallas County in a couple of weeks. It has all of the "signs," she says. Everything the People looked for in choosing a home. Those puzzle pieces have already been largely put together. I will have the lay of this country in my mind then. And its whispers to lead me.

Contributed by Jeff Clark -

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