Sunday, June 14, 2009

Rat-Tail Joe Explains Why Mesquite Is Hard

Suddenly one day last week I got the urge to carve a Pueblo-style bear fetish from mesquite wood.

Yeah, I know, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Here is a photo of the finished piece along with the knife I used and some representative shavings that I produced while carving this fetish.

Those of you with a sharp eye and a good memory (neither of which I possess) may note that the heart line of the fetish is backwards. The reason for this is so that if this ever leaves my possession any knowledgeable collector will know it was carved by a non-Indian.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it! (Hope that doesn't mean a curse or something!)

Moving right along! As you can see from the size of the chips, mesquite is a very hard wood. This wood has been seasoned for at least two decades, but even green, mesquite is nothing to take lightly. For my money, there's not a nickel's worth of difference between mesquite and rock maple. Mesquite is as hard as a spurned woman's heart.

Which leads me to the story of why mesquite is so hard.

I grew up in a small town of 5,000 people in the geographic heart of Texas. I've carried a knife daily since I was about 7 years old. Every day since then I've awakened in the morning, put on my pants and stuck a knife in my pocket, as did every boy I grew up with. We all brought our knives to school, and we never tried to hurt another living being with them.

A boy with a knife whittles. That's a fact of life. And the most abundant whittling wood in central Texas is mesquite. Even us kids, not noticing the blinding sun, the sweltering heat, or the gritty sandstorms noticed that mesquite was hard.

Being a curious sort, I asked every adult I knew, "Why is mesquite hard?" Most of the farmers and ranchers attributed the hardness, along with it's abundance and nuisance factor, to the Devil's sense of humor. Most other folk just shrugged their shoulders.

One day when I was about 8 or 9, in the late 1950s, I thought to ask the fount of all knowledge natural: Rat-Tail Joe. Rat-Tail Joe was an Indian, a full-blood Comanche, and he looked it. Round face, craggy features, prominant nose, dark skin. He was an oil-field worker when he worked, which was about six months out of the year. During the winter, he wasn't around. Some said he went to visit relatives on the reservation up north of Lawton, Oklahoma. Most of us kids speculated that he was down in Mexico, raiding small settlements.

He was called Rat-Tail Joe because he wore his hair in a tightly woven braided pony-tail that reached down below his shoulder blades. Now, you've gotta remember the time and place. Any man who wore his hair in a pony-tail would have been subjected to constant harrassment and would have been called names a lot less flattering than Rat-Tail. Nobody bothered Rat-Tail Joe. Nobody even called him Rat-Tail to his face. As far as I know, he never caused any trouble, but no one messed with him.

When he was in town, he'd go to the drug store (it had a fountain, like every other drugstore at the time), have an ice-cream float, then sit out on the side walk and whittle for an hour or so. He'd carve small animals, always out of mesquite.

One day, I screwed my courage to the sticking point (that took some doing, let me tell you) and walked up to him. "Mr. Joe," I said, "do you know why mesquite is so hard?"

He looked at me with those obsidian eyes for so long I was about to either wet my pants or take off running. Or both. Finally he nodded to the sidewalk beside him. I sat down. He rummaged around in his pocket and handed me a small piece of mesquite cut from a limb. I got out my pocket knife and started cutting on the wood. He started talking.

It happened a long time ago, he said, long before the coming of the White Man, not long after The People came to this land. There was a woman called Slender Tree. She was the most beautiful woman of The People. All the young warriors trailed along after her like puppies, yipping and nipping at each other, trying to attract her attention. She would occasionally favor one of the young men with her attentions, but not for long.

It seems that she was not a nice person. Slender Tree recognized her beauty and let it go to her head. She was demanding, ill-tempered and capricious. She used the young warriors to feed her pride and then discarded them. This went on for many years until she was older than all the warriors in the puppy-pack that followed her. All the men her own age had finally recognized her for what she was and had gone on to take wives and have children.

Slender Tree saw her youth slipping away from her. Her father was getting impatient. She needed to find a husband and settle down, or he'd be saddled with her for the rest of his life. For her part, she was no more anxious to spend the rest of her life in her father's tipi than he was. So she began casting around for a husband. Unfortunately for her, all the desirable men in her band of The People knew her for what she was. (Later on in life, I discovered her like in a character named Kate in a play by some guy called Shakespeare.)

One day a council of all the neighboring bands of The People was called. Suddenly Slender Tree's camp was filled with with hundreds of young men. These were warriors who had proven themselves and had many ponies. Most important of all, they didn't know Slender Tree. So she began to hunt in earnest. This might be her last chance to marry well.

Among the visitors was a man named Standing Bear. He was young, but in spite of his youth he was known as a great warrior. He had led many raids against the Kiowa in which he had stolen many ponies and taken several captives. He was also being trained to be a medicine man and would have a seat with the Elders in the council. It was said that the Great Spirit had spoken to him and told him he was to be a powerful man who would lead his people to greatness.

He was perfect!

Slender Tree focused all her attention on Standing Bear. Such attention from such a beautiful woman is a heady thing. Standing Bear was swept off his feet. It only took a few days for Slender Tree to become confident that she had hooked and landed the biggest fish of her life.

Unfortunately for her, not only was Standing Bear a great warrior, he was also an intelligent and perceptive man. About the time Slender Tree was becoming confident she had him hooked, he was becoming attracted to another maiden in the camp, Wind Song.

Being a decent sort, Standing Bear told Slender Tree that she was not the light of his life, and he hoped she would find a suitable match. Soon.

Slender Tree flew into a rage. No one treated her that way! She ranted and raved. Being an Indian male, Standing Bear ignored her and walked away.

Slender Tree was desperate. The council was almost over. In a couple of days, Standing Bear would leave the camp. It didn't help any that her father beat her for failing to capture Standing Bear's heart. That would have been a real feather in his cap, so to speak.

For a while, Slender Tree fumed and sputtered. Then a plan formed in her mind. She would visit Standing Bear's tipi in the night. She would seduce him. Once she had made love to him, he would be hers forever.

So, late that night, after the moon had set, Slender Tree left her father's tipi and slipped through the sleeping camp to where Standing Bear had pitched his tent. She slipped through the flap, but instead of finding Standing Bear alone, she saw him asleep with his arm around Wind Song.

That was the last straw. Humiliated, Slender Tree drew her knife, jumped upon Standing Bear and stabbed him in the heart. She then turned to the screaming Wind Song and slit her throat. By this time the camp was aroused, but deep in confusion. She cut a slit in the back of the tent and slipped out into the darkness, intending to circle the camp and pretend to be as horrified as everyone else.

While making her way through the black night, Slender Tree turned her ankle on a fallen branch and plummeted into a small ravine, hitting her head on a rock. In her semi-conscious state the Great Spirit came and spoke to her.

"You have angered me greatly, Daughter," said the Great Spirit. "Standing Bear would have made your people the most powerful in the land. Now he is dead, at your hand. You must be punished."

"But you are the Great Spirit. Can you not make another warrior to take his place?"

"No, Daughter. The tree has many branches, and now your people must follow a different path. As must you. From this day on your spirit will inhabit the most abundant tree in the land. It's wood will be beautiful, and all men will desire it. But it's heart will be hard, too hard for men to bend to their will. It will seduce the cattle to eat from it instead of the life-giving grass. It will grow so thickly that it will impede The People in their travels and their hunting. It will be good for nothing but burning."

And thus the Great Spirit made it so. From that day on, the mesquite tree has been the bane of those who would live in the land of The People.

And so you have it. The true story of the mesquite tree and why it's wood is hard. Or not.

Enough rambling for one day! Until next time, let the chips fly!


  1. Great story, Bob and you have a good way with words making your "Flying Chips" a fun place to visit. Thanks, Don

  2. Ok bob, that was a great story! I read the whole thing without skimming. LOL I was totally hooked, you are a great story teller. And now I have a story that will make me sound wise beyond my years.

  3. Hi Bob, I read it too and enjoyed the whole thing very well told. As for the heart line on the bear. You can still create it the way it should be, but carve or draw a crayon shape near your signature and that will alert a collector, gallery etc. it's carved by an non-Indian.

  4. This is the most wonderful explanation I have ever heard, thank you for sharing. I doubt I will ever hear anything better.

  5. Are you from Brady? I have lived here most of my life and I am just getting into carving...I've whittled on and off my whole life but not making anything lol...just spears out of branches hehe

  6. Are you from Brady? I have lived here most of my life and I am just getting into carving...I've whittled on and off my whole life but not making anything lol...just spears out of branches hehe