THE CHRISTMAS GIFT
The Fall of 1862 was not a pleasant one for many of those living in Texas. The War between the States and the war between civilizations caused hardships and death for many. By this time, I was twelve years old; in the white man's society, but a child; in Comanche society: eligible for marriage. I lived with Ed Kennard and his wife in Bandera. Ed was the blacksmith there. A year and a half ago, they had rescued me from an abusive white man. By now, I had learned English quite well. I even attended school and could read and write. The stories of Shakespeare were something I never appreciated, but the tales of maids and knights in medieval Europe was something that kept my undivided attention when I had a book to read.
As I grew, I had to make my own clothing. However this was never a problem as even very young Comanche girls learn to cook, dress game, make their own clothing, and even ride a horse, long before they become eligible for marriage. If Ed would shoot a deer, we would have meat and I would have clothing and moccasins. The only game I killed was usually rabbits or squirrels, with a well placed rock. Comanche girls did not normally use bow and arrows, or firearms.
Even though I was used to the white man's world, I was still Comanche. I had my own horse, a gift from Ed, in appreciation of my working alongside him in his stable. I named her Bluebonnet. We would spend many years together and she never failed me. I was practically born on a horse.
Would I be bragging if I said that no girl or woman could ride as well as I could?
Fredericksburg was, back then, an all day ride from Bandera. I really never went there. Back in 1862, Comanche raiders would go as far south as Mexico. My life was in Bandera and Kerrville. Soon, I would ride to Fredericksburg, on a mission of mercy with but little chance of success.
A few days before Thanksgiving, some Comanche warriors were out to steal horses. They were near Fredericksburg, when they came upon the cabin of Seth Miller. He was out in his field, Mrs. Miller was inside the house, preparing dinner, and little eight year old Jennifer was playing outside. That was a mistake, as, in those days, you never played alone or out of sight of your parents. The Comanches burst abruptly from the woods on their horses and closed quickly on little Jennie. She screamed and ran towards her cabin, but the warriors were much too swift and one of them grabbed her by her arm and pulled her up to him. Mrs. Miller ran outside and saw what was happening, and added to the screams. Seth Miller heard the screams and ran towards the house.
In an instant, their daughter was gone! Mr. Miller couldn't chase them on foot. There was little he could do, but get a posse up and hope, yes, hope, they could pick up the trail and catch the scoundrels.
Needless to say, Seth Miller and his friends stayed out five days searching for a sign, or even the camp where Jennifer had been taken, praying that she had not already been murdered and left somewhere. Sadly, they had to return to their homes. Seth and his wife were distraught; no amount of comforting by friends can allay the loss of a child. One by one, the men left Seth's house to return to their own cabins.
One man, John Eastman, delayed leaving. He put his hand on Seth's shoulder and said "Seth, let's hope the injuns will ask for ransom for your daughter. We'll all help with that."
Seth nodded, as he was unable to speak; his sadness was overwhelming.
John went on, "Now, look, I have a possibility, just a possibility, that I am going to look into. It may not work, but I'm gonna see."
Seth looked at him curiously.
John continued, "I'm going to Bandera tomorrow. The blacksmith there, as I hear it, has this lil Comanche girl living with them. I'm going to see if maybe she has some idea where the injuns might've taken your daughter. It's a long shot, but I'll see what I can do."
Seth merely stared at his friend.
As John was leaving, Mrs. Miller said "Well, thanks for your help, John. I wouldn't put any faith in anything a redskin says, though."
The next day, John Eastman rode to my father's stable and asked for me. "Say, smithie, don't you have a lil injun girl living with you?"
Ed replied, "What's it to you?"
"Well, Seth Miller, in Fredericksburg, lost his daughter to Comanches a few days ago. We tried to trail them but came up empty handed. I thought the girl might have some idea where we could find an encampment or something?"
Ed thought a moment, then said "I could ask her. It's a shame Miller lost his daughter. … Come on back later today, and we'll get together on it. She's in school right now."
"School? She goes to school?"
"Yeah, darn smart girl, she is. She's only been with us about a year and a half, and she can read and write. She loves books."
That evening, as we ate dinner, Mr. Eastman came by. He sat down at the table and, after drinking some coffee, he started asking me questions. "Where would they take the girl?"
"Oh, Mr. Eastman, I have no idea, other than west Texas."
"Will they kill her? Will they turn her into an Indian?"
After a number of questions that would have been of no value to try to answer, I finally said "Look, I'll go back with you to meet Mr. Miller. I might be more helpful there than here."
He seemed surprised but agreed that when he returned to Fredericksburg tomorrow, I would accompany him.
The next day, I put on my native clothing, which was more adept to outdoors than white girls' clothing. I saddled Bluebonnet and when Mr. Eastman came by, we set off. Ed and his wife did not approve of my plans, but, they knew how determined I was. I meant to find the Miller girl, whatever it might take.
The same evening, we arrived at Mr. Miller's cabin. It was dark, so Mr. Eastman called out as we rode up.
Mrs. Miller opened the door and greeted him, and invited him in. Mr. Miller was very sad looking but he greeted his friend; then, he saw me, and he went pale. Mrs. Miller's eyes grew large when I came through the door.
"In all my days, I never ever dreamed I'd see a red savage in my house, while I was living and breathing" he said.
I looked up at Mr. Eastman for an explanation, for I never considered myself a savage.
Mr. Eastman introduced me: "This is the girl I told you about. She might be able to help."
"How? She's just one of them, and she'd lie to protect them," replied Mrs. Miller.
I responded, "Mrs. Miller, I don't tell lies. I'm a Christian. I came here to help, and I will help you, as much as I can."
The Millers were astonished that I spoke English, and that I was baptized. That seemed to ease their concern.
We sat down and chatted. I asked a lot of questions, including: "What does your daughter look like?" "What was she wearing?" "Do you have a picture of her?"
My questions were answered, but finally, Mr. Miller threw up his hands and asked me "Why all these questions? We need a rescue party, not a retelling of events."
The entire party went silent when I explained that I would go into the Comanche lands and search for their daughter.
"What? But, you're just a little girl."
"Mrs. Miller, in Comanche society, a girl of twelve is considered an adult. Besides, I'm used to being out of doors, and I know the People. I am in no danger from them. A rescue party would have a fight on its hands if they even found the right camp where your daughter is a prisoner."
They were finally persuaded that I was the best chance they had. I further explained that I promised only that I would search for her. I would be back in no less than two weeks, and for them not to get their hopes up. Prepare for the worst news, and I might bring them something better. "Oh, and Mr. Miller, please write a note for me, explaining who I am and that I'm on a mission to recover your child."
"You going to show this note to Comanches? I don't think they'll be persuaded."
"The note is for any soldiers or settlers that intercept me. Otherwise, they'll just make me a prisoner and send me off to somewhere that I don't want to be."
I spent the night with the Eastman family then set out on my mission when dawn awakened me. I think no one expected to see me or Jennifer again.
At this point, my greatest danger was from white men, who might shoot first and ask questions later, if they saw a Comanche, any sex or age.
Once I got far enough away from white civilization, I still had to remain vigilant because you never knew what sort of trouble might come your way. I rode for hours, for days, never seeing anyone. No trail was found in the area where Jennifer disappeared. It turned rainy at times, and it turned cold. I would put up for the night in a patch of trees, caring for my Bluebonnet, then rolling up in a blanket. At first light, I continued the search.
One morning, I had set out from my campsite, when, almost immediately, I saw smoke about two miles away. Knowing that only white men made fires like that, I headed Bluebonnet in that direction. I thought I might get a hot breakfast, instead of berries and cold squirrel meat.
Some Texas Rangers had built their fire on a small hill, so they could not easily be approached without being seen. Of seven Rangers, two were awake and drinking coffee. Their officer, Captain Luckett, was pulling his boots on. The other four were still half awake as daylight seeped in.
One of the Rangers, named Dockery, was pouring fresh coffee, while he chatted with Ranger Powell: "Well, chasing Comanches isn't always worthwhile, when you can only go so far, then you have to return to base, for fresh mounts, food, ammunition…we need to learn to live off the land like they do." As he spoke, he stood up, sipping coffee, and looked up. He was totally astonished to see a young Comanche girl sitting on her horse, about 40 feet away, staring at him. His eyes grew very large, and he dropped his cup to the ground, as he froze.
Ranger Powell heard the cup hit, and looked around and saw me. He stood up and said "Uhh, Captain, We don't need to look for any Comanches; they've found us."
Captain Luckett looked over and stood up, grabbing a rifle. "EVERYBODY UP, NOW!"
I sat quietly on Bluebonnet, not wanting to make any sudden movements. Apparently, they never saw or heard me riding up, and my appearance was a sudden surprise to them.
The three Rangers stood there, staring at me. Ranger Powell said "I think she's so scared, she doesn't know what to do. She must've not known we were here?"
At that point, I nudged Bluebonnet closer. Then I slid off her, and walked up to Ranger Dockery, and picked up his cup. I held it out to him, and said "That coffee sure smells good. Can you spare a cup?"
Needless to say, they were astonished, not by my fearlessness, but that I spoke perfect English.
Captain Luckett spoke next: "What? Who are you? You speak English?"
"Of course. I'm Nowena Kennard from Bandera."
"What are you doing here in Comancheland, little girl?"
"I'm looking for Jennifer Miller, who was stolen by Comanches a few days ago."
Still, the Rangers were totally at wit's end. Ranger Dockery spoke up, "Yeah, we heard about that. We thought we might stumble onto a party that has her with them, or even a camp where she is.,. IF she's still alive; but, why are you searching for her?
I explained that I was on a mission for the Millers and that I was Comanche, and had a better chance of finding her than they did. "I can come and go, and you all can't. When you get too close to a camp, you'll have a fight. Not me, I can ride right in and talk to the people."
They asked me to ride with them, but I refused, as that would hinder the search. They were looking primarily for any Comanches, and I wasn't.
We chatted a bit longer, then they packed up for the day's ride. I was fortified with some biscuits and bacon by then. We parted: me going north, them going west. In a few minutes, they were out of sight.
Why bother you with a retelling of each day's events. You want to know if I found Jennifer or not. Yes, I found her. By this time, it was late in December. In fact the first camp I came to was on Paint Creek, near the headwaters of the Colorado River. I rode in from the north and passed by the tipi where she was. Most of the people paid me little heed as I was obviously Comanche, although I didn't belong to that village.
Instantly, I spotted a young girl being taught to tan hides by two young Comanche maids. Her skin was light and her hair was blonde, a giveaway that she didn't belong there. I rode up to where she was. I remained sitting on my horse, staring at them. Such behavior implies that the person on the horse is superior to the people being addressed. I motioned for the white girl to approach me. She was scared, but came close. I asked her, in a thick accent "What name you?" and she said "Jennifer". Understand, I couldn't let out yet that I was coming from where the white man lives. If the village decided that my presence was not in their best interests, I could be killed. This was sort of a poker game, where I could not reveal my hand too early.
The warrior who owned Jennifer, and probably the one who had grabbed her a few days ago, came out and asked me what I wanted. I ignored him, and turned and trotted up to the tribal elders' tipi. This was where the elders stayed, smoked, and decided the future.
The village was now gathering around me. They were wondering why an impudent Comanche maiden would come into their village without acquiescing to the usual social customs. Girls were supposed to be seen and not heard.
Finally, one of the elders came out and looked at me. He turned to one of his squaws and spoke to her, who addressed me:" Why does a maid act like a warrior. Do you not know your place? Girls are not admitted to the elders' tipi. Get down from your horse and find a widow or one who will take you in. Then, be silent."
I dismounted then addressed the Chief who was named Buffalo Who Walks: "I have been silent…I am here; the Great Spirit has sent me. I have a message for the elders."
Needless to say, the villagers were stunned. The Chief's face was turning dark, as he was intolerant of a maid speaking out of turn. "What message would the Great Spirit send to us, from a girl? He would use a great warrior, or our medicine man."
"Yes, he would. He chose me, however, because I can see how the white man lives. I know their language, and I know their ways. I have lived with them for many moons. Now, I have come here, because we, the People, need to know that the future is changing."
"Do you speak for the white man?"
"Hear my message, and I will say only that I speak for The People who cannot be heard."
Over the next hour, the other chiefs and many warriors gathered around the fire in front of their tipi. Many came out of curiosity, just to see a maid who spoke to the elders. This was a sign of great disrespect or great daring.
I explained to them that stealing white children and killing whites always brought white men in search of Comanches to punish, to kill, and to destroy our villages. The white man would attack any village. We MUST stop hurting white people, it always brought unhappiness and suffering to us. The white man numbered more than all the buffalo on the prairie. We could not win in a war against them. Even now, our hunting grounds grew smaller each year. We were hurting ourselves by hurting white people."
The talking continued for hours, as dusk approached. Some of the elders agreed with me. They knew their way of life would be gone in a few more generations. The younger ones wanted to go on stealing and fighting. Such was the way of life for them.
As it grew darker, the mutterings and anger increased. I told them that, no matter what decision they made, it would not change the white man. The ONLY thing they could do to lessen the anger of the white man was to stop stealing their children and women. However, I also pointed out that it would indeed take a brave warrior to release any white child he had. This would show, not his appeasement of the white man's anger, but that he needed nothing from the white man. My last idea seemed to have an effect on the warrior who owned Jennifer. His eyes were downcast; he was thinking.
Finally, Buffalo Who Walks said we would stop talking. We would eat and talk more tomorrow.
One of the lesser chiefs asked me if I had seen any white men? I told him no, but that I didn't know if any were, even now, scouting out the camp, and we must remain vigilant. Until all white captives were returned, we risked being attacked.
I spent the night in the tipi with Jennifer. I came in, sat down, and chatted with the females. The warrior had a squaw and two girls, no boys. Boys were prized in Comanche society.
Jennifer watched me and finally spoke: "Do you speak English?"
"Juss a lil bit."
"I want to get out of here. Please help me; please."
I looked back and said nothing. Then I smiled at her.
She smiled back.
The warrior came in and sat down. He began eating, then looked at me and asked if I wanted to be one of his squaws? I explained: "it is my fate to help my people and that I couldn't marry for a long time. The Great Spirit had seen enough of The People dying, and we had to understand that our times were changing and that we could not go back to what we had known." He said nothing more to me.
The next morning, I got up and started the fire, as a good Comanche girl would do. We ate some meat and I sat, waiting to be called back to the elders. Jennifer watched me as she did her chores.
Finally, the elders called for me. Could I see the future? They asked me. I explained that if a herd of buffalo were coming towards us, then we should get out of the way or get run over; in that way, yes, I could see the future. "Does the white man want to kill off the Comanche?" "No, he wants to be left alone" I replied. "Why does the white man send soldiers to attack our villages? They don't even hunt the buffalo." My answer was, "they seek to punish us for stealing their women and children, or killing them. If you stop, the white man would not have a reason to come here. Even the great Houston wanted to keep the white man from our lands."
The elders indicated they were through talking to me, so I returned to where Jennifer was working. We ate some food as I waited to see what the decision would be. I would indeed be horrified if they decided to kill her, and I had determined to stand against them before they could do her any harm. Yes, I was risking my own life, but I could not let them hurt her any more.
In about an hour, the elders called me back. A decision had been reached. I approached them and sat down, showing my subservience. Buffalo Who Walks said to me: "Young maid, your words are true. We know the white man has greater numbers and guns than we do. Anything that will keep him away, we would do, to preserve our way of life. The white girl is of no use to us. If you take her back to her people, will the white man leave us alone?"
"Her family will. You must understand that the white man, like the Comanche, does not have a single chief that decides what the others will do. If we give the white man a reason to come here, then… he will come here, looking for his family."
The warrior brought Jennifer before us. He pushed Jennifer at me and said "I wish to not see any white man or his kind. Go from us."
My final words to the village was "You have done well and I shall speak to the whites and tell them there are many Comanche that wish them no harm, that the Comanche only wants to hunt and live on the prairie."
I took Jennifer by the hand and led her to my horse. We saddled up and I put her in front of me. We left the village at a slow pace as we had a long journey ahead of us. I gave her my blanket to wrap herself in, as a cold north wind was blowing. She, of course, was wearing Indian clothing as hers had been taken away when she was first captured.
We rode for hours making our way south, towards our homes. This was the time to talk to her in English. She was surprised and overjoyed when I told her that "we're on our way back to Fredericksburg. I promised your father I'd do my best to bring you back."
We spent several nights on the plains, getting slowly closer to our goal. I wanted to avoid white men, as they might start shooting when they saw what appeared to be two Comanches on a horse, so we rode through wooded areas and stayed off of trails and roads.
Although I didn't know it was Christmas Eve, I knew it was near. There was some snow falling, slowing our progress in rough areas. I decided we were close enough to town to use a road. So, we moved onto the road and our pace quickened.
Soon, white men saw us and raised the alarm. They mounted their horses and surrounded us. Jennifer then blurted out to one of them: "Mr. Wise! Mr. Wise!"
"Who is that? Who are you girls?"
"It's me: Jennie Miller."
"My god, child, it is you! Where have you been? Did you escape from the Indians?"
"Mr. Wise, we've been riding for days, to get away from them…"
He interrupted her: "Johnny, ride ahead to Seth Miller's cabin and tell him we're bringing in Jennie!"
Mr. Wise and 3 others rode alongside us. Bluebonnet kept up a steady fast trot as we continued.
"What in god's name made you two girls go get dressed up like injuns? Your Dad has been looking for you. We were all worried sick that they had stolen you and you might never come back."
"Oh, Mr. Wise, they took me to their campground, and tried to turn me into an Indian."
"Well, damn those redskins and their ways." Mr. Wise then looked at me and asked, "Where do you live, child?"
"Bandera?! You came all the way here to see Jennifer and risk getting killed? And you got stolen at the same time? Are you out of your mind? Your Dad should whip you for a week. You should know better."
I responded, "I did what needed to be done. There wasn't anyone else."
He came back with "'Needed to be done'? Well, yeah, why would you want to wear injun clothes anyway? And, where'd you get the horse?"
"It's my own horse."
About that time, Mr. and Mrs. Miller approached us, screaming their happiness for the return of their only daughter. Jennie screamed too, for joy, at seeing her parents. She got off Bluebonnet and ran to them, as they hugged her so tightly, not even a strong man like my Dad could have broken their embraces.
They turned and walked towards their house. The rest of us trotted alongside. The parents' emotions were displayed as they cried and yelled, for sheer joy. Mr. Miller kept saying "Lord Father in Heaven, this is the best Christmas gift we've ever had, or could have. Thank you, Lord, thank you."
When we arrived at the cabin, Mrs. Miller pulled my blanket off Jennifer and dropped it to the ground. "Come inside, Jennie, and get out of those clothes. You don't want to look like a savage. You can wear your favorite dress. Supper will be ready, and we will sing praises to Heaven for your safe return."
Mr. Miller turned to Mr. Wise and said "Wise, thank you so much, so very much for bringing her in. I didn't even know you were out looking for her. How can I ever thank you? Come inside and have some coffee."
Mr. Wise looked sidelong at me and said "Well, this little girl here was sorta the one that brung her in. It seems both of them wanted to play Indian."
Mr. Miller looked at me curiously. I wonder if he recognized me? I finally spoke: "It's me, Mr. Miller: Nowena Kennard."
"Oh, oh yes. Well, child… thanks."
"Mr. Miller, could I come inside and get some rest? Then feed my horse?" I asked.
Mrs. Miller spoke up, "This is a special time for us: just family, you know? You need to get on home. "
Mr. Miller offered: "Well, you can feed your horse, then I… I guess you need to be going." He stepped inside his cabin and I heard Mrs. Miller say "We don't want any savages in this house, ever again."
This was the first time I think that, as the white people call it: I had my feelings hurt. I sat on Bluebonnet, hurting inside. I had ridden for many days, going hungry, and cold, and risking death, to find their daughter and bring her back. Their appreciation was nonexistent, it seemed. Perhaps, in the emotions of the scene, they simply forgot how to be kind to me?
Mr. Wise was still on his horse, as he spoke to me, "What did they mean by that: savage?"
I shook myself back to an awareness of his question, "They mean me."
"Why would they call you a savage?"
I looked at Mr. Wise and said, "I don't really know. I suppose the word was directed at my ancestors."
"Your ancestors? What do you mean? Aren't you a Mexican girl?"
"No, Mr. Wise, I'm Comanche but I live with white people," I told him as I retrieved my blanket from the ground and remounted Bluebonnet.
His jaw dropped as I turned Bluebonnet east and we rode into town. I kept riding, past the homes, the shops all closed and dark for Christmas Eve, and the howling dogs that made their own celebrations when a stranger came by.
I decided to just ride through the night, for home. Tired as I was, only one more night, and I'd be home. I let Bluebonnet stride at an easy pace.
The next morning, we rode into Bandera. I was cold, tired, and hungry, but I still felt some pain from last night. I put Bluebonnet in the stable and brushed her down, and gave her feed. Then I walked to my house.
Of course, my white parents were glad to see me. Over breakfast, I told them of my adventures, concluding with the behavior and ungratefulness of the Millers.
Ed mentioned that many people only knew how to like people that looked like themselves and had very similar backgrounds.
"Yes, too bad. There are many good people out there that others will never give themselves the chance to know." With that, I went to sleep. Tomorrow, things would be back to normal with me, I hoped.