THE LAST BUFFALO HUNT
It was now the Fall of 1866, and the buffalo were fast disappearing from central Texas. Every year, the Comanche would have to go further north to find them, as they were so important to survival.
I was not yet sixteen, but had been going on buffalo hunts with any tribe I could find, since 1861. When the trees were still green, and the days were not yet cold, and the north wind was still pleasant, that was the time to go. I would leave school, saddle my Bluebonnet, and ride from Bandera, out westward towards the present day town of Mason. That was getting close to the frontier between white settlers and my people, which was slowly getting smaller. I would join up with the first village I found, usually accompanying a widow, and helping her during the journey.
The hunts would take weeks or longer, depending on the scarcity of the bison. I tried to be back for school before Thanksgiving, when I rejoined my white family in Bandera.
Imagine if you can, the complete feeling of freedom I enjoyed: to stand on the prairie, to watch the clouds move across the sky, knowing I owed nothing to no one and was not owned by anyone, that I was a free woman, and could go wherever I pleased. Those days were coming to an end, however. The Civil War was over, and many white men were once again moving into these lands, seeking a homestead. The U.S. Army was also active; their goal was to push all Native Americans off of Texas soil and put them onto reservations in Oklahoma, or kill them off. My people were nomadic; we did not thrive by living in permanent camps and fed by agents, dependent on the grace of the Great White Father; we wished to chase the buffalo and antelope, and ride our horses across creeks, prairies, and hills that had been there for thousands of years.
The Comanche preferred this way of life to living on government land, and I had convinced some villages to leave white people alone: to stop stealing horses and to stop hurting white people. However, the white man looked at all Comanche as the enemy and he feared and hated us. The two cultures were irreconcilable, and the red man's numbers and land was decreasing. Only a fool would not see the ending of our way of life would come soon.
After two days of riding north, I came to a hillside in present day Llano county, covered with many colorful flowers, still displaying their beauty late in the year. I dismounted, and stood there, enjoying the beauty of nature, picking some flowers and taking in their delightful odors. Bluebonnet grazed nearby, also enjoying the delights nature had placed there. This was one of the happiest moments of my life: I was at peace with everyone, blue sky above, my horse and I were accountable to no one, and I felt that the problems of the world had passed me by.
Nearby, a posse of four men was in a cedar break, ready to ride westward. They had been searching for an armed robber for several days. The leader, Deputy Brown, had a pair of binoculars; he would scout out the prairie before leaving the cover of trees, so as not to be seen by either Comanches or the pursued. I didn't yet know that they were watching ME enjoying this lovely Autumn day of flowers and blue sky. They had noticed me standing by Bluebonnet, enjoying a day of peace and beauty. Simply stated, they could not believe their eyes: that a Comanche was so close, apparently alone, and unaware of their presence.
The Deputy split up his men, telling Ivan Woolery and Tom Higgins to go to the backside of the hill I was on, and ride around the other side, "Ride quietly but swiftly. When she sees you, she can only flee this way, or down the hill, and there's a creek at the bottom. She won't flee UP the hill." Deputy Brown and Bill Tillery would wait in the trees, and if I fled towards them, they would cut me off; if I rode towards the creek, I would have to slow down to get across it. It appeared to be a good plan, except that I was with Bluebonnet.
The Autumn sky and the bluebonnets were intoxicating, a reminder of the beauty of Texas. I stood quietly, looking at the gift of Mother Nature on this hillside. Suddenly, Bluebonnet jerked his head! I hesitated a second, not hearing anything, but then, better sense grabbed me, and I dashed for Bluebonnet and jumped into my saddle. At that time, I heard fast hoofbeats approaching from the eastern side of the hill. Bluebonnet and I rapidly took off for the creek, as I knew how to cross it without slowing down. Anyone chasing me, unless they knew where to cross the creek, would have to slow down a bit, enabling me to stretch even further the distance between us.
At almost the same time, the two men at the bottom of the hill dashed out of the woods on my left, and I could see that they intended to cut me off from making it to the creek. Nonetheless, I had speed on my side and we rapidly came down the hill to the creek. Bluebonnet knew precisely where to put her hooves into the hard ground where we didn't have to slow down to get across the small creek.
Things happened exactly as I planned : the two riders on my left could not cut me off from crossing the creek, and the two behind me couldn't catch me. In a hearbeat, we hit the bottom of the hill, Bluebonnet dashed across the creek and we were free and clear and moving rapidly away from our pursuers.
I looked back and saw only two riders trying to keep up with me; the other two were in the creek bed and one was dismounted. The closer rider to me had a fine black stallion and was keeping up with me, but Bluebonnet was not running at her fastest. The chase kept up for another minute; then I decided to have some fun with my pursuer. I let him get close, really close, his steed touching mine, and then, suddenly I jerked Bluebonnet to the left and halted her, thus causing the stallion to turn with us, and the rider was lifted out of his saddle, rolled across Bluebonnet and landed on the ground and rolled some more. I sat on Bluebonnet, laughing at the site of this human ball of dust, getting up and slapping the dirt away. This was truly one of the funniest things I had ever seen: a dusty young man, fallen from his horse, jumping up quickly, covered with dirt, and totally looking foolish.
The other rider was an older man who arrived on the scene while I was still laughing. Then I got a bit serious and asked " Dusty" : " Are you okay?" Then I laughed some more. "I hope you aren't hurt."
"Dusty" glared at me and replied "Yeah, I'm fine" while continuing to clean the dirt off.
The other rider was looking at me and "Dusty", unable to comprehend the situation. "Well, you caught her" he finally spoke.
"Dusty" replied "I told you Knightmare was fast; I caught her horse and then we stumbled and I fell off."
"Oh, cowboy," I said, "I let you catch me. Surely you don't think your horse is faster than mine? I have the fastest horse south of the Llano River."
The older man looked at me and asked "Are you a white woman?"
"I can be. It depends on what you want. Why were you chasing me anyway?"
The older man said "Someone robbed the Western Pace Stage office in
Llano yesterday. We tracked him to this area, and saw you and gave chase."
I then noticed he was wearing a badge. "Did he look like me?" I kept laughing. I could see that both men were embarrassed, for different reasons. "Wait here, Dusty, I'll get your horse for you." I laughed and rode to his horse.
"My name's NOT Dusty" he yelled at me.
I retrieved Knightmare and brought him to the young man. "Well, what is your name?"
"Bill Tillery, and I'm a Deputy, and I have the fastest horse around," He answered with blunt determination.
The older man asked me why I was wearing Indian clothing if I was a white woman.
I didn't reply but asked him why the other two riders had halted in the creek bed.
The older man, Deputy Brown told me, "One of their horses lost a shoe while crossing the creek; kinda muddy, pulled the shoe right off."
"Well, let's go see about them," I informed the two.
Tillery, Deputy Brown, and I rode back to the creek, where the other two were looking for the lost horseshoe.
"Hah, ya caught the squaw. Good work. We ought to be able to trade her for a white captive," said Higgins, as he scowled at me, the sweat dripping from his chin.
"I'm not a squaw; squaws are married. I'm a maid."
The dismounted men stared at me, with their mouths open. Surely they never expected to encounter an English speaking Comanche maid on the frontier.
I continued, "What's the problem? Your horse needs to be shoed?"
Higgins replied, "I found the damn horseshoe; I just need some nails. I'll have to take a nail out of each hoof and use them."
I dismounted, and got some nails and a shoeing hammer out of my kit. I then took the horseshoe out of Higgins' hand, approached his horse and proceeded to shoe her. Everyone appeared astonished.
"There: your mare is ready, mister." I told Higgins.
"I ain't never seen a Comanche woman could shoe a horse." He spoke.
"My father is a blacksmith; I've been shoeing horses for years."
Perhaps all these unexpected events were too much for these men, as they simply stood there, or sat on their horses, staring at me. The only sound was the wind blowing across the prairie.
"I've lived with my white family for years."
They kept staring at me.
"Stop looking at me, guys. I'm NOT the stage robber you're looking for, am I? Do I look like a guy?"
Tillery finally responded, "No, you're not. I'm really sorry if we scared you. We just thought you were with a bunch of thieving Comanches."
"Not me," I answered. "I ride alone, pretty much."
"Well, what are you doing out here anyway, lady?" asked Deputy Brown.
"I like to go on a buffalo hunt every Fall. It's hard work but I get a chance to visit old friends and even make new clothing. I never go very far though, as I am supposed to be in school."
A look of total incomprehension grabbed their faces.
"What's the matter?" I quizzed them
"Lady, what you're saying doesn't make any sense at all. You're in school, you are out here in Comancheland, going to hunt buffalo with some men you know, and you dress like a Comanche? I can't make heads or tails out of what you are telling us," spoke Ivan Woolery.
"Look, I am Comanche, but I live with whites. Once a year, I head out to northwest Texas, to find a tribe to go on a buffalo hunt with. I'm not entirely white nor entirely Comanche. What's hard to understand about that?"
The men stood there, totally bewildered by my explanation. They had always thought Comanches were ignorant savages who must be exterminated, but now, a Comanche maid had shoed one of their horses, spoke perfect English, and even laughed. Was it merely cultural shock, or was it prejudices? Most likely, the latter.
Anyway, we talked for a bit longer, then we decided we must be on our separate ways to do what we had set out to do. They were still looking for a robber and I was looking for some of my people to travel with.
Several days went by as I headed northerly, making towards Palo Duro Canyon. That was where many of the People would gather, as there was an abundance of water and grass, and the white man had not yet discovered this oasis.
Before I got that far, I came across a tribe of Honey Eaters, near a small lake. It was easy to find a widow that would take me in to help her move, cook, and skin buffalo. In two days, we had moved closer to the buffalo, but still had not found any in large numbers.
The next day, as we were going about our daily tasks, three soldiers rode into camp! They had not been detected as we were moving north, and they came in from the east. Actually, it was two soldiers and an interpreter. They brought gifts of knives and beads to the chief, meaning they wished to talk. The tribal elder, Shomaka, or Sharp Spear, called for me, as he was aware that I could talk with the white men.
I did little but stand by and listen. The soldiers were asking the chiefs to come to a powwow at a creek about 15 miles away. They promised more gifts and food. The chiefs had no interest in meeting, but were aware, if they didn't, the army would most likely fall on them and a battle would ensue. I whispered a solution: "Tell them you will send some representatives, but the rest of the tribe is out hunting buffalo. Not all are here. We will come."
The soldiers seem satisfied and left.
I explained to the chiefs that if we sent a few, and just a few of our people, the soldiers would talk with them and the others could move on, as planned. Those of us (yes, I volunteered to go) who would meet with the soldiers were only 5 tipis, and the chiefs were elderly, and barely able to hunt anymore; so, if the soldiers wanted to capture wild Comanches, their bag would be few in number. This would buy time for the rest of the tribe to get further away from them.
The army was camped near present day Ballinger, and was far from in a state of readiness for pursuit of Indians; the soldiers were mostly sprawled out, cleaning their equipment, and resting their horses. There was plenty of green grass for the horses and the commander had not passed on an opportunity for everyone to rejuvenate themselves.
When our small party arrived, the soldiers stood up looking at us, but only a few grabbed their arms and stood to. Most of them just stared at us.
The squaws began setting up the tipis in a grassy area bordered by the lake on their south, the majority of soldiers on the east, and the tents and equipment on the north. I took Bluebonnet to the lake and let her get nourishment from what Mother Nature had placed there.
I took the saddle off, and was grooming her when I heard two nearby soldiers speaking: "Look at that: an expensive saddle and a fine looking Comanche squaw." I turned and looked at them, then went back to brushing down Bluebonnet.
The other soldier said "I've never been so close to a dirty thieving redskin in my life. She almost looks harmless." I ignored this remark.
A sergeant came up and addressed them:" Take a good look, men. You'll never see a wild Comanche again, as long as you live, unless you're busy killing them."
At this, I turned to them and walked up to the sergeant, who had a look of alarm on his face. Perhaps he was only an alligator mouth, to use a common expression. I said to him:" Sergeant, could you spare a cup of coffee?"
All three of the soldiers were astonished to hear me speak. The sergeant stammered, "Well, uhh, yeah, sure…… okay, yeah." He indicated for me to follow him and we walked to the mess area. He then picked up a coffee pot and a cup and poured some out for me.
"I never expected to hear a injun woman speaking English."
"Why not? I'm an American, too, you know: born and raised in the USA."
He was at a loss for words at this point. I was thinking that I had just shattered two or more of his prejudices about native Americans.
Then, I noticed several officers sitting at a table, staring at me. Of course, everyone else around was staring at me, too.
I walked to the officers' table and addressed a captain:" Don't you think you should have a decent reception for the chiefs?"
He replied, "Who are you—no! What are you? Chief of Protocol?"
The other officers snickered, supposing that I was uneducated.
"Today, I am, yes. It's inappropriate for you not to have some sort of reception committee for us; at least offer food and coffee. Would you treat a guest like this?"
Another officer spoke at me, " We didn't plan on you savages coming in. We sorta figgered we'd be chasing you down in a few hours."
"Well, we're here, at your request. I'll go tell Chief Spear that you aren't aware of native customs." At that, I walked towards the Comanche chiefs that had deigned to participate in these talks.
By this time, various and wild rumors had spread among the soldiers: that a captive white girl who turned Comanche was begging for rescue; that a squaw was demanding food for starving Indians; that an Indian girl was insulting the officers, calling them dogs and coyote droppings, that a few of the army's horses were already missing, and many more, just as silly.
The army major in charge was a Carlton Russo, late of Missouri, and totally inexperienced in dealing with the clash of civilizations on the Texas frontier. He had been informed of the rumors by the officers, but a wise sergeant cautioned him that they were only rumors, and bore no resemblance to the present situation.
I walked over to Sharp Spear's tipi and informed him that the soldiers were not quite ready to talk. He grunted acknowledgement and went back into his tipi.
In about an hour, the officers had positioned themselves in folding chairs in front of the small collection of tipis. A number of armed soldiers were behind them, and to our right, also. They were obviously ready to begin.
Sharp Spear and the other elders appeared outside his tipi and walked towards the officers.
The army had their own interpreter, the same person who had come into the village earlier today. He sat on the grass in front of the Major.
Some of the soldiers presented sweet cakes to the elders, then retreated to a more moderate distance.
The elders briefly tasted the cakes then sat down, facing the officers. I sat behind and to the left of Sharp Spear.
Major Russo began: "We welcome our red brothers to this conference. We know he is very brave and wishes to learn what we have to offer.."
The elders sat passively.
"…and we hope to lessen friction between the two peoples here today…"
The interpreter was far from competent, so I whispered a more accurate translation to the elders.
"… We want everyone to have the freedom to be a productive member of society.." He droned on for several minutes, talking what amounted to nonsense, and vague promises of a future happiness.
This concept was very strange to the elders, as their society and white society were worlds apart. How could the white man understand our culture?
Then, I noticed a civilian sitting in a chair, with pencils and charcoal. I got up, walked behind the elders, and up to the artist, who was sketching our group. I bent over and looked at his work. He smiled and said "I hope to preserve this for history."
I then brought my right hand sharply upwards, slapping the bottom of his sketch pad, his pencils and pad flying upwards. Then, with a menacing look, I growled " Not without my permission!". I repeated it to be sure he got the meaning. To make photographs or drawings of native Americans could be considered a violation of religious taboos. He had a look of alarm and embarrassment on his face.
Everyone got quiet, deathly quiet. Some soldiers cocked their rifles.
I walked up to the Major and said in English, in a sharp tone, "Who's responsible for this circus?"
His eyes were big and grew bigger when I spoke. "I'm in charge here," he came back with. "This is not a circus. I represent General Sheridan and the United States Government!"
I was not impressed. "You don't know the first thing about protocol, Major. You don't sit in a chair when visitors are sitting on the ground. Bring them chairs, too, or you should also sit on the ground. It is disrespectful to them, as you are actually looking downward on them. As for your food, why not bring some meat. We don't eat sweet cakes."
The elders were noticeably uneasy with my outburst, but I hoped to dissuade the Major from his goal and focus on how to conduct a meeting.
"For an Indian, you speak English remarkably well. But you will NOT tell me how to conduct affairs. A squaw is about as low as you can get."
"As for your interpreter, his language ability is very poor. He could easily mistranslate a phrase or word, and start a war. Is that what you want?"
"I have my orders and will carry them out."
"Major, why not make things easier on everyone. Listen and learn. I've been working for years on bringing peace to the frontier and I will not let you sabotage my plans."
"You seem a well educated squaw. Or are you a white captive that prefers being injun?"
"I have been to the white man's school and I can read and write, and… I am not a squaw; I am a maid. Do you want to get something out of this meeting or do you just want to butt heads?"
A captain answered for both of us: "Let's calm down and get things back on track. If we offended you and your people, it was not our intention."
"I can see that, captain. You all have done it out of ignorance, and not with malicious intent," I told him.
The major quickly added: "You are unusually well educated, more so than most of my men. Tell your chiefs that we will prepare meat and coffee for them, and then we will continue."
I returned to our group and let the elders know what was going on. They were not happy with my outburst, but I convinced them to trust me, so we could give a show of interest to this business.
In a short time, meat and coffee were offered to the elders, who eagerly consumed the meal. Now we were getting somewhere. I sat down behind Sharp Spear.
The officers returned, spread blankets on the ground, then sat down and Major Russo continued his speech.
Finally, Sharp Spear said to the interpreter, "Tell the Major that we have heard his words and will talk among ourselves. We must retire now and prepare for the night."
Although the Major was not happy with this, he was, at least, making progress.
That night, in Sharp Spear's tipi, the elders were considering what to do. I was invited in and sat down. They asked me what course of action to follow.
"We only have 5 tipis. In the middle of the night, we need to get our stuff and walk quietly to our horses, then walk west. Leave the tipis and they will think we are asleep inside them. We can always make more tipis. In the morning, when they realize we are gone, it will not be easy for them to find us."
They agreed to break off the talks as it was apparent the soldiers intended to put us on a reservation. We all prepared for a quiet departure, a few at a time, just walking away from this show.
So, it came to be: we gathered what we could carry, and one or two at a time, walked quietly to our horses, and led them away from the campsite. The sentries were close to the army tents and not close to us. They were worried about us attacking them, I suppose.
The beginning of the new day found us about 20 miles west of the campsite. What the soldiers were doing at that time, I do not know. However, they sure weren't riding after us, as best we could tell.
Bluebonnet was made ready before dark and, as I had no possessions to carry with me, I was traveling light. The soldiers had virtually no chance of catching up to me.
At this point, the others were moving rapidly west. I told them it was time for me to depart from them, too. If I split off from the main group, the soldiers, if they tracked us, would also split off to follow me.
We said our good-byes and Bluebonnet turned south, towards home. This buffalo hunt had not turned out at all the way I had planned, but at least, I wasn't being forced onto a reservation.
In about an hour, I rode halfway up a hill and stopped and looked back. I saw neither the people I had befriended, nor the soldiers. The countryside was empty of any human activity. I looked at clouds moving across the sky and hoped to remember this day always, as the Day of the Last Buffalo Hunt for me. It was time to go home.
This concludes the stories of my youth. Although there were other adventures growing up on the frontier in Texas, I have not yet written about them.