Man of Iron

You may have heard the familiar story. Far away a planet died and the last survivor, a baby, was sent to our planet. He was adopted by a humble farmer and his wife, and grew to become a legend. Yet what if he had not landed in our time, but in the age of the untamed West, when the vast plains of America were still inhabited by their native peoples…

More Comanche bands were arriving every day, and every warrior among them knew the name of this band, the Quahadi, the Antelope-Eaters. And every Comanche had heard of the Quahadi’s new warband chief. He was young yet not even the oldest warrior would speak before him. His skin was white, but he had proved his loyalty to the Quahadi in raid after raid. Now every one of them looked to the young man for guidance, for wisdom, for strength. He was the greatest buffalo hunter, the greatest horseman, the strongest warrior. And his closest war-brothers knew he was also much more. His name was Pohebits-quasho, “Iron Jacket”, and the tales his war-brothers told of him left their listeners aghast. It was said that bullets bounced off his skin. It was said that he could blow bullets aside with his breath.

As the warriors gathered Iron Jacket spoke, and the restlessness among them stilled immediately. He spoke with few words, but they were words that brought a great cheer to the listeners. The Comanche would ride this full moon, and Iron Jacket, if they wished, would lead them all. The representatives of the other bands spoke as one, and joined their voices to Iron Jacket’s war-brothers as they cheered him. In two night’s time, the moon would be full. And the Comanche would ride as one tribe.

The battle was over quickly. Iron Jacket rode at the head of the line of a thousand whooping warriors. The Mexican soldiers fired a single volley and fled. He led raids against their towns and villages. For an entire summer he looted and raided, taking hundreds of slaves, and burning thousands of homes. The Mexicans sent their best general against him, but the man returned, pale and ill, with only a handful of his men remaining. He said that Iron Jacket must be a supernatural being, for he had seen the Comanche chief shot dead centre without any harm coming to him. The Mexicans and Texans became terrified of Iron Jacket, and the Comanche became a name to be feared.

Iron Jacket knelt in the dirt as tears poured down his face. His wife and daughter lay under the Wichita mountains, and their belongings lay burning before him, the flames dancing on his tear-soaked face. The smallpox had taken them both, and devastated the Quahada. Barely half of them remained. The rest of the Comanche faced similar woe. Iron Jacket was devastated. He could not eat, he could not speak. His wife’s brother knelt beside him and slashed at his own arms in mourning, as was the custom, showing the depths of his grief. But Iron Jacket could not. His knife slid off his skin harmlessly like it always had. And his heart broke that he could not mourn his beloved wife properly.

For many years Iron Jacket mourned. And despite their once invulnerability in battle, the Comanche way of life was steadily disrupted. Decimated by the Smallpox, and by the Cholera that followed it, their great warbands no longer rode out every full moon. Their villages became abandoned. Their enemies no longer shook with fear at their name. The buffalo herds were dying as white hunters took them, slaughtering them in greater and greater numbers. The Comanche had no farms, the buffalo were their life. And the white hunters, despite how many the Comanche killed, seemed never ending.

Iron Jacket remarried, and his second wife gave birth to a son. He became known as Lone Wanderer, due to the boy’s habit of disappearing for days on end. Only Iron Jacket knew where the boy went, and only he could follow him, though he never did, appreciating the child’s need for solitude. The burden of leadership weighed heavily on Iron Jacket these days, and he wished he too had a place of solitude to retreat to. But every day brought councils, debates, problems to fix. He could barely afford the time to eat, let alone take time out for himself. A war chief had to be visible at all times, and Iron Jacket was the war chief of war chiefs, the most famous Comanche alive.

The young warriors clamoured for Iron Jacket to gather the warbands again, as he had done before the great dying. He was reluctant, he was superstitious and feared that the death of his first wife was somehow tied to the lives he had taken. He did not know where his abilities came from, he did not know why he could not be touched by bullets or blades, why he seemed to have limitless strength, why the smallpox had not touched him, or why he could travel so far and so fast without exhaustion. His old war-brothers had respected him for his abilities, now he was revered. But he saw the faces of the dead whenever he closed his eyes, not just Comanche, but the white men also. Women and children falling apart in his hands like water. He could not sleep through the night any more. He did not want to go to war again. But his people needed him. And so he must.

The Comanche rode again, and these raids tore the Texan rangers and US army apart. They fell back in disarray, terrified of Iron Jacket, the legend that rode at the head of hundreds of screaming warriors. But though their bullets bounced off Iron Jacket, they did not bounce of his war-brothers. And every brother who lay beneath the mountains was one less brother to ride with them.

The bands were weak, dying of diseases that Iron Jacket could not see or stop. Having to ride further and further apart, scattering themselves, to find the buffalo. Unable to sleep for the faces of the dead that broke apart and spilled through his hands each night, Iron Jacket ran beneath the moon, travelling vast distances in seconds, searching for the hunters who killed the buffalo. He killed them wherever he found them. But the next month as he searched, he found a village of Comanche instead. They lay slaughtered, fifty women, children, old people, all mutilated in the same way as he had mutilated the hunters. Iron Jacket could not look at them, he staggered away, aghast at the consequences of his actions. He should have known that brutality bred only brutality and war led only to war.

The Comanche village was dead, and the soldiers walked among the corpses, checking that none survived. Captain Rip Ford stood beside his horse and watched them with an implacable, merciless eye. He cared nothing for these people. Whether they lived or died was nothing to him. But he had orders to take care of the problem and that was what he was going to do. These people understood nothing but killing. Well, they would see Rip Ford knew how to kill Indians. And this Iron Jacket was no different than other powerful chiefs. You never fought them directly if you could help it, you took out their heart first, their homes, their food, their lives. You broke them down until they welcomed death.

The Tonkawan Indian that sat in front of Rip Ford had a vicious look to him. But to Rip Ford, they all looked like that. He eyed the man suspiciously. He said his name was Pockmark, and he was well-named, the pox had scarred him deeply. But he led a force of hundreds of Tonkawa warriors, and they hated the Comanche who had long raided their fellow Indians just as much as anyone else. More than this, Pockmark said he had a way to kill Iron Jacket. Rip Ford was interested.

Iron Jacket sat, silently, in his hut. His war-brothers sat outside, fearful, worried. They had brought their great chief the news of the approaching army, that it had massacred the village a day’s journey down the river. But Iron Jacket hadn’t even replied. He had just gone into his hut and sat. He had barely moved since his son had left the last time and not returned. Lone Wanderer was gone, perhaps for ever. They had argued before he went, Lone Wanderer had said that this was not why they had their abilities, this brutal, bloody war. This endless killing. He had refused to be a part of it any more. Iron Jacket had not spoken a word since he left. He had no one left to comfort him. His war-brothers were young, his old companions long dead in raids and illness. His second wife was also dead now from a bout of measles which had torn through their band and left them a shadow of its former self.

The White men and their Tonkawan allies lined up outside Iron Jacket’s village. For the last time Iron Jacket mounted his horse, still leaping into the saddle in a single bound as he had done as a youth. But his face was weary, his eyes hooded, and his mouth heavily drawn. His last war-brothers lined up beside him. Many had come from the Comanche bands nearby. The name of Iron Jacket could still raise an army. He rode out alone to the lines of soldiers. He saw their captain, a hard-faced man with cold eyes. He fixed him with a stare that threatened to burn the man alive where he sat. But he could not do it this time, he could not face more death. Iron Jacket rode up and down the lines of soldiers, as they fired at him, their bullets bouncing off his skin as they had always done. He could at least do this, he could at least give his brothers courage.

Pockmark grinned without humour as he pulled the oilcloth off his great buffalo gun. He raised it up, already loaded. He had bought the sliver of green rock from an old medicine man for a great price, more than he could afford. But if it worked it would be worth it. His own family were dead at the hands of this monster. Pockmark would avenge them, he would not falter. With a cry of rage he fired. The great Iron Jacket turned in his saddle at the cry, for an instant he looked straight at Pockmark, seeing the gun in his hands. But he did not move, or dodge the shot. He sat there, and shook in his seat as the green stone tore his iron skin open. As he slumped to the side and fell from his saddle his brothers cried out in horror. Rip Ford did not even smile as he raised his sabre at the lines of Indians before him. “Kill them all”, he said.

Postscript: Derived from a true story.

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