Douglas had dismounted and left his horse in the dry creek bed. He climbed out of the gully and looked into the blowing wind to check the progress of the storm and the line of flames. The wind gusted harder full of sparks, skies darkened as the cloud line passed directly overhead, and the wall of flames bore down, only a hundred yards away. Suddenly, large drops of water splashed in his face; rain began falling, blowing really, stinging his exposed face and hands. The flames continued, closer, their heat searing. Now he was soaked by the cold rain; the flames sizzled like bacon, the moisture now dueling with the blowing firebrands. He was choked by the thick smoke.
* * *
Suddenly, Douglas felt a tremendous dread, fearing for the safety of Anna. Her sweet face flashed in his memory. Did she escape the hell that was the fire? Was she in this storm, drenched and cold? Was she still a captive? Or was she lost in the fire and wind storm somewhere on the prairie?
The flames were nearly upon him, persisting in spite of the rain. Douglas turned to step down into the gully and hide in the sandstone cavity created by flowing waters turning to find lower ground. His feet slid in the slippery mud, and he fell tumbling in to more wet mud and a puddle down below where moments before had been dry sandy soil.
Douglas coughed and spat mud and water; he raised his face from the puddle he lay in. Had he been unconscious? He didn't know, but now he was cold and wet; water rushed beneath as he rose to his hands and knees. Rain gushed down, freezing cold, like the time he had stood under a water fall. Suddenly, there was a low rumble, not from the sky overhead, but seeming to come from up the hill where a stream of water rushed past his feet, and flowed in the swale down to a lower portion of the prairie.
The rumble was suddenly louder, like boat ride entering the rapids on a river. Douglas looked up, as a wall of water crashed down upon him sweeping him off his feet, and pulling him along like a leaf in a stream. Banged and bumped by hidden rocks and tree branches, he struggled to keep his head above water, to breath. A mile or two later, exhausted, he was able to grab onto a branch of willow tree that lay across the fast flowing stream. Spent, he pulled his body onto the trunk of the fallen tree, gasping to catch his breath, and then he slowly shimmied along the tree back towards solid ground, and lay there, exhausted.
Douglas awoke wet, cold and shivering, still draped over the fallen tree. In the dim light from the graying sky, he saw a trickle of water flowing down the creek bed along with a scattering of branches and debris deposited by the flash flood . A distant burnt smell lingered, but the prairie grass here was matted and bent from wind and water, yet unburned. He heard a plaintive cry and the sound of struggle and splashing water. Instinctively, he rolled off the fallen tree and hid. In a few moments the cry and struggle were heard again, downstream in the willow thicket. Cautiously, Douglas crawled over the wet ground towards the sound. There he saw a horse, apparently stuck amid downed and broken tree branches, unable to free itself.
* * *
Upon closer look, it was a Palouse, a spotted Indian pony. He stayed hidden, fearful of a trap. After some time, he edged closer, and saw that the animal's hind leg was pinned between two loose branches that had wedged together in the water flow. As he approached, the pony snorted and shied away, fearful of white man's scent. He spoke softly, and gently stroked the animal's wet fur on the shoulder and slowly towards the hind quarters and thigh, checking for injury. The pony settled and stopped its struggle. Douglas carefully lifted and separated the branches that pinned the leg, he then took the rawhide war bridle and guided the pony back slowly until it was freed.
As he led the Palouse out of the water, Douglas saw an Indian lying unconscious near the water's edge about 50 yards downstream. As he tied the pony's bridle to a tree branch, he realized that he had no weapons; all had been lost in the storm. Quietly, he circled around to get closer, and found a thick branch to use as a club. As he snuck closer, he observed that the Indian appeared to have drowned in the flood. He was a short stocky Indian, and next to him lay a flintlock rifle. It was his Kentucky Rifle! This must be the Indian who took Anna!
Douglas searched the stream bed looking desperately for Anna. Then he remembered, he had been following two sets to tracks, two Indian ponies, one riding double. Anna must still be out there, somewhere. He found the Indian's knife, took his rifle, and wiped it free of debris and mud, and then led the Indian pony back upstream, looking for tracks left by the Indian and his pony. The Palouse seemed to want to pull away from the stream and head northwest; so, Douglas mounted the pony and let the animal follow its instinct for going home.
When the storm had passed, Running horse walked in a circle near the cave opening, and in a few moments, he returned with a handful of small red berries. He ate a hand full and a few dropped near Anna. Running Horse then led his pony to some nearby grass and let the animal nibble on the plants and drink from a puddle. Anna was starved, but said nothing. As her captor stepped out with the pony, she quickly grabbed the berries left by her feet and stuffed them in her mouth.
* * *
"Eww. These are awful!" Her words surprised her.
"Eat. Now ride," said Running Horse in his guttural English. He then put Anna onto his pony and mounted behind her. They set off onto the prairies again. By dusk, they had reached the Comanche camp. Dogs barked in excitement; mothers and children collected in small groups to watch as Running Horse rode through the camp proudly, displaying his captive. A few old men appeared, and nodded approvingly. Running Horse stopped briefly at the lodge of elder, Great Elk, to display his prize from the scout.
He then circled the village and made his way back to his own lodge where wife Little Flower stood at the entrance holding his infant son as the baby nursed at her breast.
"What is this?" Little Flower barked in her native tongue. "You go to bring us meat, yet you return with this scrawny yellow haired dog."
"I bring you a slave," he replied firmly, as he pushed Anna from the horse, causing her to fall to the ground between them. "to carry wood, fetch water, and skin meat, while you care for our little one."
Other squaws had gathered around and began taunting Anna, as she fearfully hunched on her hands and knees.
The Palouse stepped carefully at its own pace, wending its way in a northwesterly direction. The land was charred, and it smelled of dampness mixed with the smoky odor of burnt remains. Suddenly, they crossed the fire line, into unblemished prairie grass. Douglas let the horse take its own lead, figuring it knew the way to its homeland. Anna's smiling face drifted into his consciousness, with memories of her soft touch, her warmth, and intimate closeness from their bed, providing a brief reprieve from the urgency of his purpose. The momentary glow of warmth was followed quickly with an immense sense of loss, a fear that he was too late, that deathly harm had already befallen his dear wife.
The Palouse maintained an even pace throughout the day, passing signs of wildlife on this seemingly barren plain. A large bird, looked to be an eagle, circled overhead and then floated away in the upper air currents. The Palouse carefully stepped through a prairie dog village, with burrowed holes and small dirt mounds, spread over several acres. Later, trampled ground showed that a buffalo heard had moved north recently. Twice the Palouse had found a small stream where they paused to drink and rest. In spite of his anger for the capture of his wife, Douglas felt a respect for the Comanche's ability to live and survive on the open plains.
A dog barked, and a woman's voice called out; Douglas warmly recalled his visit to have dinner with Anna's family at their Tennessee mountain cabin when they began courting. The Palouse broke stride and lurched as it stepped over a small ravine. Douglas shook his head, he had been dozing, dreaming while on the pony. Was it really a dream? Another dog bark, women's voices, and the sounds of horses alerted Douglas that he was near a village. Could it be the Comanche village? He tugged at the bridle and pulled the pony into cover behind some sage brush. The pony resisted, showing its desire to join the herd. This must be the Comanches.
The sun's orange glow faded in the west as he tied the Palouse and snuck closer on all fours to observe, anxiously hoping to see wife Anna somewhere in the village. He saw about twenty lodges, and a herd of ponies were gathered on the north edge of the camp. The lodges were cone shaped tent-like shelters of buffalo hide wrapped around tall poles, with an entry opening on one side. There were three or four camp fires, where women were preparing food and watching children.
Near one lodge, men congregated, talking and laughing, their actions sometimes punctuated with wild gestures demonstrating their actions. A dog barked, and a second chimed in. Douglas put his finger in his mouth, and held it up to test the wind direction. Keeping crouched and low, he rotated around the camp to remain downwind, so that the animals would not be spooked by his presence. He could hear voices in the 200 yard distance; while he did not understand the words, the tone and inflection of voices revealed emotions of the speakers. They seemed to be a happy people in spite of their hard nomadic life.
Suddenly, there was a piercing scream, a girl's scream, and all stopped to look and listen. Was that Anna? There was movement and a group of women congregated near a campfire in the corner by the ponies. Douglas heard more screaming, and then laughter. There was a flash of movement between two lodges, yelling and taunting, and then a flurry of movement of yellow hair, in the midst of others with dark hair. Anna! It had to be Anna, screaming and fighting! Instinctively he started to run towards her, but stumbled on a rock and fell. Douglas lay there, coming to his senses. "I can't run into that village now, it would be suicide. I have to think, I have to rescue her tonight, when they are sleeping," he thought.
It took forever for Comanches to go to sleep. Even though he shivered in the cool night air, Douglas struggled to stay awake. Finally, fires faded, the squaws and children slept, and the warriors drifted back to their lodges. Quiet settled on the village, interrupted briefly by a distant coyote. Walking cautiously, leading the Palouse, he made his way towards the village, circling around to the area where he had last seen the squaws tormenting Anna. He left the pony to join the herd, and slowly edged towards the lodges, listening, looking for some sign.
He froze when he saw an animal curled in a ball outside the pointed shelter tethered to a stake. The furry ball stirred, and made a soft crying sound. There was more movement, revealing a bloodied foot, and a moan, and then light colored hair emerged. Anna! It had to be Anna, tied up outside like an dog, covered in a small animal skin.
"Anna," he whispered, touching her shoulder.
"Aaahh!" Anna gasped in fear, trembling at the surprise touch.
"Shh, it's me, Douglas, I'm getting you out of here."
Her hands covered her face and she shivered in fear. Then her eyes blinked open. "Dougie . . . I knew you would come." Weakly, her hands opened up to him.
There was a sound of a cough and mumbled grunt from inside the Indian lodge. Douglas quickly produced a knife and cut the rawhide that bound Anna's leg to the stake. Whispering in her ear, he picked her up and carried her towards the herd of ponies, looking for the Palouse that had led him to the camp. The ponies snorted and stomped, backing away from the two strange smelling white people who stumbled into their midst. Nearby, a dog barked, sounding an alarm mirrored by the ponies.
Now he heard voices, men's voices, calling out an alarm. Douglas found the Plouse, placed Anna on the pony and leapt up behind her, turning the animal and kicking its sides to break away. The pony was fleet, a good runner and now responsive to his leads. In the darkness, he sensed a gully and tugged on the pony's mane to head down into the trough to better hide their retreat. Behind, he heard the yells and excitement as the village came alive and went to the horses in pursuit. The darkness helped to cover their escape, but it offered little advantage. Riding double would slow their escape. Douglas knew that the Comanches were excellent horsemen, able to track and read sign like a preacher reads the Bible.
They rode hard trying to gain some distance from the village. After a bit, the Palouse tugged to the left, and slowed as the prairie gave way to a gully. Douglas now smelled the dampness of a pond or stream. He let the pony lead to water. When the animal's hooves splashed into the stream, he dismounted, and helped his wife; they all rested and drank thirstily. Douglas listened, and for the moment at least, he did not hear the Comanches. Then he scanned the starry sky, and recognized the three stars of Orion's belt in the southern sky. When they resumed, he pointed the Palouse just left of that direction. Knowing that there were miles to cover, he nudged the Palouse to an easy canter. Soon, with the rocking motion of the pony, Anna seemed to nod off with her head on his shoulder.
The Palouse had slowed to a walk, tired from the night's journey. A touch of gray peeked from the eastern horizon. There was a whistle from a nearby ridge ahead, a two toned trill Douglas recognized as a bob white quail. Then, he heard a second trill to his right, and the Palouse's ears flicked, in each direction. The bay turned to the right, seemingly pulled towards the sound. Douglas felt a tingle in the hair on his neck; he pulled at the rein, and kicked the Palouse's sides to urge it forward. The bay hesitated for just a second, and an arrow found its mark in Douglas's right arm.
Douglas groaned in pain and Anna squealed in fear, as the pony lunged forward. Another arrow flew just inches from their faces. Two shots boomed from just ahead. Douglas feared that they were heading further into a trap and he turned the Palouse, seeking an escape route. His eyes caught movement to the rear where he saw a Comanche warrior limping away to the cover of a ravine. From the left, there came the sound of galloping hooves, then a gun shot.
Douglas turned his head quickly, fearing death by a Comanche warrior. To his surprise, he saw Ranger Jake, riding hard, colt in hand, flushing one last Comanche from hiding. Moments later, Jake returned.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," said Douglas. "I feel like we've been through hell and high water. How did you know where to find us?"
"Had a report of Comanches in the area, and stopped by your place to check on ya," replied Jake. "Saw the tracks in your yard. Told the story, Miss Anna been taken and you went after her. Then the storm hit, washed away the trail. But, I knew they'd head back to the Comancheria; I've tracked them up this way before."
"We're mighty appreciative," said Anna. As she turned to look at her husband, she saw the arrow through the muscle of her husband's arm. "Oh my! Douglas, you're hurt. We've got to take care of that!"
Douglas grimaced, and nudged the Palouse. "Enough of this palaver, we gotta get some miles between us and those Comanches before they regroup for another try."
Holding a steady pace and watching their back trail, the trio covered ground most of the day. Late afternoon, they stopped briefly to rest the horses, remove the arrow from Douglas' arm and to bandage the wound. They made it back to the Austin area by noon, the following day.
"You saved our lives, Ranger Jake," said Anna, after they arrived back at the ranch. "Now I insist that you accept our thanks by staying for dinner."
"Yes'm. I'd be mighty obliged." Jake smiled sheepishly, removing his hat as he stepped into their mud log home. "I hear tell you're a mighty fine cook, ma'am."