â€śHello, the ranch!â€ť
* * *
Douglas turned quickly, his hand instinctively moving towards the heavy colt that rested on his right hip. He cursed to himself for letting his guard drop while he fidgeted with the cinch as he saddled the dun. While the winter had been quiet, memories of the Comanche great raid of 1840 through central Texas a few short months ago lingered fresh. Inattention, even for a moment, could give the stealthy Comanche warriors the upper hand.
â€śHello, the ranch,â€ť repeated the lone approaching rider, his right hand in the air as he halted his horse some fifty yards out. It was a customary precaution to announce oneâ€™s presence and friendly intentions.
â€śJake. Is that you?â€ť asked Douglas. He now recognized the rider as a Ranger, one of the defenders employed by the Republic of Texas to patrol the plains against the criminal element as well as Indian threats.
â€śYep. Headinâ€™ back to Austin for the next assignment. You fixinâ€™ to ride to town?â€ť
â€śHowdy Ranger Jake. Do you have time to stop for some coffee and fresh bread,â€ť asked Anna, Douglasâ€™ wife. A petite 19 year old with blonde hair, Anna stepped out the doorway of the two room mud and log shelter that was their home on the Texas prairie. â€śOr were you just planning on spiriting my husband away to go carousing in town?â€ť
Jake smiled and touched his hat. â€śMorning Maâ€™am. Appreciate the offer. Captainâ€™s orders to get to Austin. Next time I pass through.â€ť
The 25 year old rancher kissed his wife good bye and then the two men headed east along the Colorado River trail towards Austin where Douglas intended to purchase a horse and supplies, and return the next day. The young couple had moved to Texas to take over operation of the ranch after Annaâ€™s brother, Thomas, had died fighting Comanches at the battle of Plum Creek the previous fall.
Anne busied herself with sweeping out their dirt floor prairie home, and then, working at a small outside table, she began cleaning and skinning a wild turkey that Douglas had shot earlier in the morning. The feathers were making a mess, so she stepped into the house to find a small bag. Feathers blew across doorway as she stepped out again. Suddenly from behind, a firm hand grabbed her by the mouth and jerked her back and she felt the sharp point of a knife at her throat. The smell of a sweaty body and the feel of a firm uncovered chest and copper colored muscular arms about her meant that she had been captured by an Indian.
* * *
Little Bear, so named because of his short stocky build came around the corner of the log house, with a turkey feather dangling from his headband and one in his hand. On seeing the yellow-haired white woman tightly held by his tall lean companion, Running Horse, Little Bear gave a joyful yelp. He reached out with the feather to tickle the nose of the woman. Anne squirmed to turn away and gasped from the effort. Little Bear then grabbed at her dress.
Anna kicked at his reaching hand and then tried to twist out of the tight grip of the tall Indian. Running Horse squeezed the petite woman tighter, and she screamed when the knife nicked the skin under her chin. Now afraid for her life, and even more dreading the humiliation of being ravaged by the Indians, Anna swung her arm at the Indian in front of her and stomped her shoe onto the toe of her captor and squealed a grunt of effort as she broke free and ran. Running Horse dove after the fleeing woman, catching her long dress, which partially ripped away in his hands. She stumbled, losing her shoe, and the bottom hem of dress tore free exposing her white ankles and calves as she fell, cutting her knee on a rock. The Indians laughed as they tackled this yellow haired woman with spunk.
It was late afternoon the following day when Douglas approached the ranch, newly purchased horse in tow packed with supplies. Fluffy clouds hung in the sky and shadows stretched across the yard as the sun approached the western horizon. The log house and yard seemed surprisingly quiet. A crow cawed, and Douglas saw a flutter of wings as two black birds hopped about arguing over a morsel on the outdoor cutting table. A straw broom lay angled across the doorway threshold.
* * *
Douglas reined his horse to a stop, as the hair on his neck tingled. Watching for any movement, he reached for the Colt and cocked the hammer. The crows continued their tussle. Small white feathers drifted along the ground in the breeze near the cutting table.
â€śAnna . . . Anna . . . are you there? Are you all right?â€ť
Dropping the lead for the supply horse, Douglas nudged his horse ahead cautiously. He circled towards the cutting table at the side of the house and saw a few scraps from the turkey he had shot the day before. Ants swarmed over the table and short feathers were scattered across the yard. Something was wrong, Anna would never leave a mess like this.
â€śAnna . . . Anna . . . are you there?â€ť
Douglas quickly scanned the yard and the horizon, seeing only empty Texas plains. He dismounted and crept stealthily towards the doorway. Silence hung in the air. A lonesome wind blew, fluttering the curtains Anna had used to decorate the kitchen window. Anticipation and fear grew. Could she have walked down to the creek? Could she be hurt? He spun quickly into the log home, gun first. Their few belongings were tossed about, and the Kentucky rifle was not in its normal corner. He felt goose bumps of fear on his skin.
Douglas rushed out of the house and circled the small log and mud structure, freezing instantly after three steps. There on the ground, lay a torn fabric, the hem apparently ripped from Annaâ€™s dress. Then he saw a rock stained brown with blood, drag marks in the dirt, and a few yards up, Annaâ€™s shoes lay carelessly about. He followed the drag marks to the back of the house where he saw hoof prints. Unshod ponies! The Comanches have taken Anna!
Fear raced through his mind. Douglas recalled the story of how the Comanches had taken little Cynthia Parker, several years before. The little girl had never been found; rumor was they had raised her as their own. And there were stories about how the Indians ravaged and mistreated the white women they captured. The pony tracks lead northwest, towards the Comancheria, the Comanche homeland. Anger and determination swelled within, Douglas ran back to pack supplies. He would track these red devils and bring back his wife.
Running Horse had tied Annaâ€™s wrists tightly with a strip of rawhide, mounted his horse and dragged her along like he was leading a stubborn mule. Angered by the death of his brother at the battle of Plum Creek, this young brave was anxious for revenge against the white man.
* * *
Little Bear followed along, laughing and taunting her, as she tried to run along keeping pace with the Indian pony. Her shoes had fallen off quickly and now her feet were becoming bloodied, running barefoot across the prairie. When she stumbled and fell she was dragged until Running Horse stopped his pony to let her stand. The prairie tall grass cut her legs as she ran along and then scratched her face and arms when she fell. She cried, begging them to stop, but the Indians laughed and kicked their ponies to continue. It had only been a mile or two, but to Anna, it seemed to be forever. She was weakening, and falling more frequently, and then she twisted her ankle and fell hard screaming in pain, cutting her knee on a sharp stone, the wound bleeding onto the dry ground.
â€śJust kill me,â€ť she cried, and then, in anger, she grabbed a stone with her bound hands and tried to throw it at Running Horse.
â€śShe still has fight in her,â€ť said Little Bear, in his native language.
â€śYes,â€ť laughed Running Horse, replying in the Comanche tongue, â€śbut we have three suns ride. I donâ€™t want to leave all that fight here on the prairie. I will show my prize to the elders, and bring a slave for my wife. I will let yellow hair ride for a while.â€ť
Running Horse yanked on the rawhide binding, and pulled Anna up to his horse. He reached down and lifted Anna up like a small child, placing her on the horse, in front of him. In a flash, he had his knife at her throat.
â€śRide now . . . no fight,â€ť he said in heavy accented English, gesturing threateningly with his knife. Anna nodded submissively.
The afternoon sun had moved behind cloud cover. Dark storm clouds loomed in the distant western sky ahead.
Douglas quickly packed supplies needed for a week on the trail including balls, powder food and coffee. He checked for and found his two flintlock pistols that were stored in a hidden cubby in the bedroom. He stored the remaining supplies and then stepped out, to ready the horses, but cursed to himself upon seeing that the sun had dropped below the horizon, leaving barely a half hour of dusk remaining in the day. There was a crescent moon rising in the east; it would be too dark to follow a track. Reluctantly, Douglas decided to delay his departure until morning when he could see the trail.
* * *
He led the horses to their stalls in the covered shelter, rubbed them down from the dayâ€™s ride and then let them settle in for the night, so that they would be fresh for riding in the morning. He forced himself to eat some dried beef, washed down with coffee, as the thoughts and fears in his mind raged in a tug-o-war between plans for finding Anna and fears for her well-being. Though sleep was desperately needed, he likely would not sleep tonight.
A tinge of gray shown on the eastern horizon as Douglas readied his horses for the dayâ€™s journey. It had been a fitful night, with occasional periods of sleep disturbed by dreams of wife Anna fighting against an onslaught of painted warriors. Douglas had awaken several times in a sweat, feeling his arms swinging at imaginary foes.
The tracks were clear in the sandy colored soil outside his door where it appeared Anna was dragged by the Indians, and around back to where they had mounted and then continued to drag her as she tried to run along behind two unshod Indian ponies . It was obvious that Anna had stumbled and fallen and was dragged by her captors. Soon there was evidence of blood, showing injuries to her feet as she tried to keep pace. His anger quickly boiled over from seeing the tracks showing the horrible treatment of his wife. Douglas squeezed the saddle horn with his right hand as he fought the urge to scream in an uncontrolled fury, holding back the urge to race his horse in pursuit. â€śI must be calm, in control. I will get her. I will get them,â€ť the sound surprised Douglas as his thoughts transformed into words that came from his mouth.
He followed the trail for an hour, and finally, he observed that the dragging and bloodied foot prints stopped. Worried, he dismounted and walked around in a circle looking carefully, but didnâ€™t see Annaâ€™s body. Ahead the pony tracks continued, but one horse showed a heavier imprint, like that of carrying extra weight from riding double. Soon the poniesâ€™ tracks stretched out to a canter, and likewise, Douglas picked up his pace.
The sunny sky began to turn gray as high clouds covered the sun. The wind had picked up slightly, and now smelled of dampness, of rain. In the distance, to the northwest, dark clouds roiled. There were flashes of lightning in the clouds, with an occasional bolt to the ground. The breeze rattled the tall grass, which was still yellow and dry from the long winter. His horse snorted and side-stepped slightly suggesting its preference to turn back rather than continue into the tempest brewing in the distance. Determined to find his wife, Douglas held the reins tightly and nudged his horse forward.
Douglasâ€™ eyes caught movement ahead to the left. He put his rifle to his shoulder and sighted towards a running animal. There were two deer, they passed to his left with long bounding leaps. Then there was movement on the right; he swung his rifle in that direction, and in a moment, he saw four coyotes, running away from the approaching storm. His horse whinnied and turned his head to follow the coyotes. Not ten yards behind the coyotes, two jack rabbits, bounded along, seemingly chasing their natural predator. There was a gust of wind, and now the smell of smoke. A family of prairie dogs rumbled by circling wide around the horse and rider. As he watched the prairie dogs race away, he saw that his trailing horse had broke free and was running from the approaching storm.
When he turned his head back, he now saw a line of fire across the ground moving in his direction. The wind was now stronger and the smoke had intensified. Realization hit, a lightning bolt must have started a prairie fire. It was blowing his way. The animals were fleeing from the fire. The line of flames devoured the dry prairie grass and now spread across the horizon growing in size and, intensity. A flock of black birds raced overhead. His horse stamped and twisted again attempting to follow the other animals.
The wind now gusted. Sparks and firebrands blew past and the smoke thickened. The horse snorted in fear. The wall of flames threatened menacingly, its heat now being felt. Movement overhead grabbed Douglasâ€™ attention. Coming over the blowing smoke, Douglas saw a dark line of heavy clouds that stretched in a broad arch from the north to south horizon, rolling overhead. Dampness filled the air. The clouds looked like a thick black shelf darkening the western sky and consuming the light overhead. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed.
A floating firebrand splashed on against them, and Douglasâ€™ horse let out a human-like squeal and bolted. Douglas held on and let the frightened animal run. After nearly a quarter mile at a hard gallop, the horse began tiring. They had moved some distance from the prairie fire and the weather front. Douglas saw a dry wash and turned the horse into it, heading towards a lower elevation. It soon became a dry creek bed, and they stopped to rest under a sandstone overhang where flowing water had washed away the soil as it flowed to lower elevations.
Running Horse with his captive and Little Bear continued their trek in a direction that would lead them back towards the Comanche homeland. As the storm with its line of dark clouds approached, the Indians took shelter in a small cave along the Brazos River. Outside, the storm spirits sent forth the Thunder Bird in a show of anger; wind blew dark clouds across the sky, lightning flashed and the skyâ€™s rumbled. Running Horse looked at his companion, and then at his captive and smiled arrogantly.
â€śLittle Bear, you have nothing to show from our scout, but one weapon,â€ť chided Running Horse in his native tongue. â€śI bring a prize to camp, the yellow haired woman. Perhaps you can use that rifle to bring us a deer.â€ť
As a challenge to his companion, Little Bear walked over towards Anna who sat curled on the ground, with her knees protectively in front of her. Using the rifle barrel, he lifted the torn dress slightly revealing the womanâ€™s scratched and bloodied feet and legs; he grinned wickedly.
Anna pulled away and pulled her dress back down. â€śMy husband will track you, and kill you!â€ť she spat.
â€śHusband is fool. He die,â€ť Running Horse snarled in his guttural English. To his companion, he gestured with his knife towards the cave opening and said in Comanche tongue, â€śProve you are a man, kill a deer, or bring back a scalp.â€ť