Quanah spotted the smoke from the Crow camp just before sunset. Luck was on his mind. The spirit that was in everything carried luck good or bad, to people, to horses, even to rocks. But the nature of that luck, its fickle nature, continually shifted. Ultimately the bad and the good balanced and now he so long deprived of victory, a rich prize, or the glory he craved he believed to be within reach. He could feel it. On foot he’d followed the ridge along the contour of the river to a point directly above the summer fishing camp. There four teepees stood against the ledge and racks for drying fish and game stood over smoking pits of coals and wood chips on the bank of the river where fish traps had been set. With the river on one side and the steep wall of limestone to their backs these Crow felt secure. No pickets guarded the camp or the horses. He watched as the few families ate around various fires then afterward as everyone drifted to the big fire ring in the center of the camp. Ten women, four children, four men, six horses. He lay there all night until the first dim glow an hour before sunrise. Back with his horse he moved further downstream and camped on the backside of an ox bow where he napped the spent the afternoon cutting handfuls of red antelope grass which he tied in sheaves. With several of these bundles he returned to his camp by the ox bow and began plaiting long stems of the tough grass into three strand twine, tying the standing end to a stake in the mud then continuing the length of the bitter end until the desired length was reached. He worked until the light failed and the next morning after the sun was high enough to clear the dew he gathered more grass and continued braiding still more twine amassing a quantity of good tough twine. The next day he worked on braiding some of the twine into ropes. When he’d fashioned six ropes, each the length of four men, he back-spliced a loop into each end and a master cord with six eyes spliced in equidistant and a fixed loop that would slip over his horse’s neck. With these ropes he could control a small remuda. Before the light failed he fashioned a noose of twine on a stick and searched near a prairie dog colony until he found a fat basking rattlesnake which he snared and secured in the woven bag he carried for his food and tinder.
He spent the next two days digging roots of the cattail plants which grew in abundance around the oxbow. His first night at the ox-bow he had waited until nightfall to build a small fire to roast a large snapping turtle. Thereafter he’d camped cold without risk of smoke or odor reaching his enemy. Without even a small fire the nights were long. Then he often contemplated luck. His grandfather had taught that the spirits’ mode of checking imbalance was through luck. A warrior too proud might lose a horse, or suffer a wound. A mother who endures a failed childbirth is blessed with twin boys. His mind was tuned to this restorative nature of luck. From birth his luck had been bad. A short leg, marked face, and buffalo back had ostracized the boy to the shelter of the women until his break away to the lone wolf path, surviving on grasshoppers, turtles, mice, snakes, and frogs until his old grandfather sought him out to teach him the ways of the horse and bow.
The last of the turtle was eaten the afternoon the rain began. All day he’d watched the western sky darken and felt the breeze stiffen to strong gusts that flattened the prairie grasses. This is what he’d waited for. Fording the river he rode upstream to within a mile of the enemy fish camp then dismounted and walked his pony in the rain to a copse of willows some distance upriver and by a natural rocky ford. When he judged it to be midnight he crossed the river above the camp to where the Crow horses were tied. In the wind and noise of the storm he was able to approach the horses easily. Once they detected Quanah’s scent they pawed and nickered however this was scarcely audible an arm’s length away. Now he slipped his nooses over each of the ponies and guided them up river to the shallow ford, crossed the river there and tied the horses in the willow copse where he rigged each horse’s lead to the long master lead tied to a willow tree. Taking the tied bag now from his horse, he crossed the river one more time in the storm.
The four teepees had been set in a row with a family of five lodged at the far end in the largest teepee and with just a brave with his woman in the small teepee at the near end. With no moon and no fire the only light came from occasional flashes of lightning. Quanah crept to the large teepee into which he hurled the angry rattler with a yell.
All hell broke loose as women and children shrieked raising the alarm. The other three braves raced from their tents and rushed to the panic stricken family’s aid. Quanah slipped into the small tent quickly tying a gag into the young woman’s mouth then looping a length of twine over her wrists. Next he backhanded the woman’s face hard which spun her and knocked her to the floor of the teepee. He hoisted the dazed woman over his shoulder and reached the ford in just seconds and before the terror had subsided.
At the willow thicket he untied the horses, hoisted his captive over the back of his pony and with the lead rope looped over his pony’s neck headed south for an all night stormy ride. They rode south through the storm for half an hour then halted to rest the horses. Quanah untied the captive girl whom he told ride one of the horses. As she had been taken during the uproar at camp, abruptly roused from sleep, she had no clothes and had been covered only by a fringed and beaded blanket in which she now wrapped. She spat at his face and once again he backhanded her. As she struggled to get on her feet he grabbed her braids and slapped her hard first on the right side of her face then on the left. Blood trickled from her broken lips and now he commanded her to pick up her blanket and to mount the pinto closest to his pony. They resumed their way south through the rain at a steady trot. He did not worry about pursuit. The Crow would need a day or more before a war party could be assembled to search for tracks washed out by the hard rain. An hour before dawn they stopped again to rest the horses. The rain had eased to a light sprinkle. With the coming light he appreciated a slight shift in his luck; he intended to produce a son quickly. They rode another three hours then hobbled the horses and rested beside a good size stream. A bluff rose on the stream’s opposite side and they crossed upstream and found stand of oak and cedar. From this bluff he could see far to the north and east. This woman would need to be tied while he hunted or scouted. His cave was but a day’s ride.
Nearby was a fallen cedar. The bark on the underside provided good dry tinder. He struck a fire and made a bed from pine straw then spread the blankest and his wet clothes on limbs by the fire to dry. Here he took the woman for the first time then bound her hands behind her and with a noose around her neck that was tied to her ankles. This prevented escape and both could sleep. He roasted clumps of cattail roots, ate half and fed the rest to his bound captive then slept.
When Quanah awoke he loosed the noose from the girl’s neck and had the woman once again then trussed her and set out with his bow for meat, returning two hours later with an antelope which he gutted. He pierced the liver with a sharpened greenstick and set it to roast over the coals while he trussed the animal’s carcass for skinning from the lowest branch of a red oak. He untied the naked girl who was most uncomfortable and stiff. She sat stretching and messaging her arms and legs then fetched her blanket to cover herself and went behind the oak to pee. “Eat as much as you can from this liver, skin the antelope and cut strips for smoking.” He laid the knife for her on a rock between them. “If you attack me I will cut you from your naval down to your slit and lay hot coals on your guts. You can watch yourself roast like this liver. You understand?” She nodded and looked at the hanging antelope then at the larger knife in his lap. The sky was gray with a cold wind from the north. “Break some deadwood from that old oak too. I don’t want my meat to taste of cedar.” With a fallen cedar they could keep a fire tended all day and no smoke could be detected to the north, though he doubted that the Crow could have found their track. The antelope required a hardwood fire and a windbreak. When he’d awakened the girl she had been shivering; he did not want her to fall ill. Her blanket was now dry and she would be warm tending the fires all day. He intended to remain there until the next morning then strike for the low range of hills to the west and the cave that had been his solitary lodge for four winters. With a full belly by the warmth of the fire watching the woman gathering fuel, for the first time in many days he felt good. “Once she gets meat on the smoking rack I’ll take her again.”
The woman hurt all over. Her head had throbbed from the man’s first powerful backhand. She saw small black dots. Her mouth was cut and two teeth were loosened. Keeping her balance on the ride had been most difficult in the cold rain and she was sore from the man’s lust. She badly wanted to wash his filth from her. She studied her captor sitting by the fire. His face was horrid, half covered with a purple birthmark and his back bore a huge lump like a buffalo. She’d noticed that he walked hunched over and with a limp. During the night ride she had chewed pieces of beaded fringe from the blanket leaving a trail for her people. “This coyote has never seen the workings of Crow women at the captive dance. I will feed him first his toes, then his fingers…”
The captive girl’s man had run through the rain for two hours, rested then continued to the larger Crow summer camp. Once there within an hour a war party of six riders left with spare horses. They did not wait for the rain to stop but rode out immediately. By the time they reached the fish camp the rain had stopped. Two of the three men at the summer fish camp joined the riders. Dispersing by pairs in the cardinal directions they began looking for spoor, each pair winding in a zig-zag pattern, the group to reassemble at the fish camp… At noon that group of six headed south to join the pair still out and already on the track where pieces of fringe and beadwork led southwest. They found where the enemy had stopped. The girl had left a sign with small rocks. By sundown the war party had a clear trail their stolen horses had left upon the wet prairie. At sunset the war party halted to water horses at a trickle of a stream by thicket of redbuds and sent two scouts ahead. While resting they applied black and red war paint and looked to their weapons, bows, lances and war clubs. Bows were restrung with dry bowstrings. The oldest of the braves, a man called Fox complained that the summer camp should never have been moved so far south. Another man said that when the fishing was easy and good as it had been this summer there was always something bad to weigh against easy gain. They all speculated on the number of the enemy. The captive girl’s man had first attack privilege. As he had been on but one previous war party, two of the older veterans comforted him with encouragement and advice.
The two scouts returned to report one Sioux with the captive girl and seven horses an hour’s ride distant. The war party surrounded the sleeping pair an hour before dawn. The girl’s man notched an arrow then yelled a threat to the Sioux who jumped to his feet with his knife in hand. As he turned the arrow thudded it’s point failing to penetrate the rib that had stopped its flight. Dropping his knife he seized the arrow’s shaft but now the Crow warrior rushed Quanah with his knife knocking him to the ground. In an instant he was overpowered. Atop him the Crow warrior looped Quanah’s braid around his wrist and deftly took several inches of scalp above his right ear with a whoop. Others gathered and began kicking their wounded victim. “Alive, alive,” the brave yelled, we take him alive!” He’ll die slowly before our women.” As two of the war party bound him the others saw to the woman and the horses. Blood poured down his face blinding him as he felt the Crows cinching a binding on his wrists. Before they began the trek back into Crow territory the warriors took time to eat the remainder of his antelope and cattail. He had been beaten down and tied to sapling near the stream. In mud churned up by the horses he dipped his bleeding scalp effectively plastering the wound. He ached all over, his head felt as though it was on fire, the wound from the arrow point throbbed with every heartbeat, and the brutal kicks from the beating had crushed his testicles and summoned frightening pains from deep within his lower torso. As he lay there he could see his own scalp dangling on a thong looped around the neck of the Crow’s pony. I am broken, he thought.
The Crow argued briefly whether to make the captive run behind or ride, electing to put him on a horse in order to get back into safe territory as soon as possible. The ride was at an easy trot with each warrior leading one of the recovered pony’s Quanah had stolen. Still in war paint the warriors, full of success, boasted and whooped as they moved north towards their summer camp. Cresting a steep hill just south of Grouse Creek the war party found itself not 50 yards from an Army topographic unit and its escort on its return trip to St. Joe. Sighting the war paint the cavalry sergeant quickly conferred with the lieutenant who ordered immediate pursuit. The abruptness of the chance meeting had unnerved the Crow. Their immediate confusion riled their horses who turned this way and that straining to run. As they struggled to control their ponies it became clear that the blue coats were assembling an attack. The oldest of the band yelled for them to cross Grouse Creek then split east and west, everyman find his own way home. “Our horses are faster but take care.” Quanah watched. The woman’s man, the warrior who had scalped him, holding a noose on Quanah’s pony’s neck was determined to deliver his captive alive. He brandished the war club tied around his waist and signaled the direction for the trio to ride. A bugle call sounded behind as they headed for the creek. Quanah knew his best chance was to slip off his horse as they crossed the creek. Not only would it be difficult for the Crow to turn his horse once in the water, but foolish with the bluecoats in close pursuit. He would have seconds to elude the Crow then find a place to hide from the soldiers.
Crossing the stream rapidly, the Crow looked back to see the first of the soldiers at the top of the hill, where they had first seen the blue coats. The woman’s horse made the crossing between the Crow and the Sioux obscuring his vision momentarily. Quanah slipped from the right side of the pony into the stream, and then crouching low made for a willow thicket where he flattened himself in a snag of driftwood. He could hear the hoof beats of the soldiers’ horses halt at the stream’s edge. Realizing that the war party had scattered the soldiers abandoned the chase and watered their horses not 20 yards from his hiding place. He could smell the sweet tobacco and hear the murmur of their voices before they mounted to return to their wagons.
He realized how desperate was his situation but reckoned it had been much worse just minutes before. Although he was critically wounded he knew he had to find safety before his muscles stiffened. A fever was rising too. He stripped peels of willow bark tucking them inside his shirt. He could not dismiss the possibility that the Crow would return to search for him and knew that distance was his friend. He waded upstream, away from the soldiers, staying in the stream until he reached a low stony ledge that reached into the stream. The limestone provided a solid rock exit into a thick stand of hardwoods impossible to follow. A good tracker might think this ledge the captive’s exit from the stream but without any certainty. His energy waning, a fever rising, he sought out a giant shagbark hickory with low limbs. He drank deeply and gathered a great quantity of nuts then climbed high to a horizontal forked limb where he fashioned his eagle’s nest, invisible from below, safe from bears and close to water. His head rang and buzzed and still burned like fire and throbbed unmercifully. As he chewed the willow bark the fever gave way to chills and he fell into a fitful, cold slumber.
Quanah’s head had an incessant buzzing inside and burned and throbbed. He ached for water. Slipping and half falling down from the tree he stumbled to the creek for water, mindless that it was noonday. Overhead a pair of eagles soared and not 30 yards upstream two men filled canteens. The men, army deserters, spotted Quanah who lay prone lapping water. One approached slowly and quietly with his pistol cocked and held steadily before him in both hands. Quanah who could hear nothing but the buzzing and ringing in his head neither heard nor saw the white man until they were no more than three feet apart.
“Sarvis, git over here. It’s a injun has been scalped.”
“God a’mighty, ain’t he a mess. You gonna finish him off, Will?”
“Lookee here, Sarvis. See this here poor damn injun, if he kin stay alive is what can git us off this godforsaken prairie.”
“Uh uh, Will, I don’t see. Alls I see is one damned injun….”
“Okay number one, he can git us gone from the Army injun style and maybe they’ll call in the patrol. Number two: if’n we meet up with hostiles it might look to them like we was injun lovers or renegades. The thing right now is to skedaddle outta here pronto with this here broke-dick injun.”
“How you know he won’t murder me ‘n you the first minute our backs is turned? In case you ain’t noticed, Will, this here is a savage wild injun.”
“I don’t reckon he can even stand up, Sarvis. Some other savages is peeled off half his damned head and left him for dead. He don’t have nothin’. Tell me, do you see a rifle? A bow? A lance? No you do not. And where’s his horse? He don’t have no horse. So he’s pert much at our mercy, see? Now he’p me git him to sit up and then fetch me a piece of that jerky. Here now Injun, I reckon this is your lucky day, ain’t it?
Later the two whites laboriously lifted him onto Sarvis’s horse. Sarvis mounted behind Quanah and with effort was able to steady the semi conscious Sioux.
The deserters, more boys than men, had ridden to the frontier looking for adventure, had quickly run out of money and food and were easy prey for the recruiting sergeant at the fort where they had begged food and shelter. Six months of army life had been enough for them and listening every evening to the stories of gold strikes had infected them with gold fever. And they were not the only ones. Since their enlisting a score of soldiers had taken French Leave to strike it rich in the Montana Territory.
The motion of ride started Quanah’s head bleeding but the buzzing had stopped and his thinking began to clear. He made motions to dismount. On the ground he formed mud from where he had pissed and made a plaster. The success of this communication with the whites heartened him and he made clear signs that they should be heading west not north. He did not care to be within range of the Crow.
Because these two continually looked behind he knew they were pursued. The younger of the two was stupid. Both were careless with their horses and each time they stopped to water the horses or rest, the rifle in the saddle scabbard was unattended. No, he would lead these two puppies with their horses, two pistols, a rifle, cartridges and food to his cave. The rest would be easy.
They rode west, Sarvis complaining that they should share carrying the injun, but Will would not give in. A late afternoon rain soaked the riders, aggravating tempers. When the rain ceased the sun was already down to the tree line and the boys halted to rest to make camp for the night. Quanah protested and vigorously pointing west. His emphatic gestures were convincing so the trio remounted and continued through the evening hours into the night following the Indian’s directions. Sometime around midnight they arrived at the cave, wet, hungry and exhausted. Quanah limped about gathering firewood then starting a fire at the cave’s mouth as Will and Sarvis argued whether or not to tie their captive who eased out of the circle of light to Will’s horse where he slid the rifle from the scabbard, cocked the lever, and sent a bullet into Will’s spine. Backwards he fell into the fire, dead. Sarvis, panicked, rushed into the cave, taking cover behind a large boulder. Quanah dragged the blue coat from the fire, unbuckled his belt and holster which he fastened about his own waist. He removed jerky from a saddle bag and sat warming himself before the fire. Killing the boy had a stimulating effect and while he was very tired, he found that although he was sleepy his head ache had eased considerably. Seated cross-legged with the pistol in his lap he began to chant the victory song, addressing his song to the fire for a while then the mouth of cave waiting for the other blue coat. After only a few minutes of chanting a single shot rang out from the cave and Quanah laughed heartily at his extreme good fortune then nodded off to sleep.
© Gary Ives
first published November 2013 in “Frontier Tales”