Narrates the meeting AD1560 of the Conquistador Hernando Fortez with the Comanche. The meeting did not go well for the Conquistadors.
The Spaniards rode away in a cloud of dust, the hot sun gleaming on steel breastplates. Soon, the sky would be molten brass, the sun a yellow-white smear pouring down incredible heat. They would survive for a while, but only just. Blue Shoes knew another word of the strangers’ tongue, in fact he knew several but this one he savoured; horse. He sighed, he would miss the Spaniards’ mounts; already he felt kinship with the horse.
Mee-Chan-Tay stood by his side, ‘where did you send them husband,’ she asked softly.
‘To the Staked Plains,’ he replied, ‘to the land of the Comanche.’
They stood in a loose group, Blue Shoes and My-Evening Heart; Lark-Who-Sings-In-The-Air and her brothers watched the mounted Spanish men disappearing back into the desert from where they had come, shimmering heat waves closing in, swallowing them up. The vast land in its vault of silence did not even notice their passing.
Hernando Fortez, captain of the seven man expedition into the unknown lands during the mid to late 1560’s for the purpose of exploration, did not return to Mexico, nor did his men. It was not until around 1573 that the then Spanish-Mexican authorities were apprised of the entire expedition’s fate. It was however, too late, the Comanche already had the horse, the sense and know-how to breed them and were well on their way to becoming known and feared as the finest light horsemen the world had ever known. At first sight the Comanche welcomed the arrival of the horse like a long lost brother, and for almost three hundred years they were known as The Lords of the Plain. You could kill the Comanche but you could never defeat him; it took what was then (19th Century) modern technology to do that, and about twenty to thirty heavily armed men for every one Comanche who took the field against them in a long and bitter struggle to retain their freedom and lands that mostly no one else wanted, too hot, too cold, too barren. To the Comanche however, it was a lovely land; the Staked Plains, the Llano Estacado, Comancheria, the Land of the People of the Lance, the Horse Lords. The Comanche said ‘The Creator knew what he was doing when he placed us here.’ Their homeland included the incredible Palo Dura Canyon range; it was and remains their Spiritual Centre for all no Comanche live there today. The Palo Dura is also at the centre of a great mystery no westerner has come close to unravelling. Only the Comanche know the truth and they are not talking and never will. There is a vast area that includes not only the Palo Dura Canyon, but also the Antelope Hills and the Glass Hills up around the Cimarron River Country and the Washita Mountain area, a wild and rugged, spectacularly beautiful country of plain and mountain, desert and green valley. The Llano Estacado includes a vast section of Texas and New Mexico, however during the time of Hernando Fortez and for almost three centuries following, Comancheria, as the vast tracks of Comanche controlled lands were known, extended beyond anything modern day maps reveal. The Comanche were The People, in the way of their forefathers, in the way the grandfathers taught. It was the lovely blue (spiritual) earth. The Comanche said, it is our way we need no other, we want no other it is our road (spiritual Road) the Way of The People. From Brents Fort all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico and that just about included the whole of the modern day state of Texas, including the formidable Sierra Madre range and Colorado, Durango (the state not the town of the same name.)
The mystery of the canyon had, more than two centuries later, to do with a Comanche leader during the lifetime of Harpo Kane and his father. The mystery changed them both, Harpo Kane more so perhaps, however that’s far ahead in the future.
When Blue Shoes, a famous Cheyenne News Carrier of his time directed Hernando Fortez and his band towards the Staked Plains the Comanche had not then acquired the horse, or otherwise known of its existence. The Navajo could have told them, but alas they were enemies, and the Comanche, they who like to fight a lot, took pride in their stunningly outstanding number of enemies. To be spiritual in many ways does not, and never has implied one may not also be a warrior and proud of it. For their time and place, living in a land no other tribe wanted or any one in their right mind coveted, the Comanche were unique (in that respect), and because of it you might say, stumbled upon or were introduced to (by whom?) a secret as old as time, if not older and became at least in part, protector and guardian of something no one today even pretends to understand (what little is known that is), culminating in its last protector/guardian known as Red Shirt, to whom the father of Harpo Kane advised his son to go and find, should he ever need to disappear for a while; assuming of course that Red Shirt of the Llano Estacado Comanche, as he and his small tribe came to be known, was alive and well. The Comanche Nation was made up of many small tribes, amongst whom Red Shirt and his people held special status as the ones responsible for safe guarding the old mystery of the Palo Dura Canyon. However before all that there was the Spanish incursion of Hernando Fortez, the first and last conquistador to attempt to control the Comanche in the name of his most Catholic Majesty Philip of Spain. Conquering the New World was one thing, conquering the tribes of plain, mountain, desert and valley, a fool’s notion doomed from the onset.
Hernando Fortez was a desperate man. The Indian had lied, the Indian had misdirected, god curse the heathen Indian, and now he was lost in hell. It had to be hell, because mother of god, he thought torpidly, only the devil himself could live in such a place. Was it only eighteen days, he thought hollowly since he and his men had ridden away at the gallop from the god cursed camp of that god cursed lying savage? ‘May all the hags and demons of the pit devour his soul’ he swore listlessly. And for five of those eighteen days, he and his men rode deep into the plains. He couldn’t turn back, neither he nor any of his men had any idea which direction was back; right, left, forward were all the same, nor could they simply reverse their direction, they had tried it, floundering around trying to retrace their tracks, only they couldn’t find any tracks beyond the ones they were making. It was as if the past five days had ceased to exist and any tracks they made along with it, as though the terrible plain didn’t even notice they were there in all its empty, mind numbing vastness. And the heat, mother of god they rode through a furnace that was slowly but surely roasting them alive, like pigs on the devil’s carousel going round and round and round. He had stopped sweating, and that was a bad sign he dimly registered. The heat had sucked him dry, his body had no moisture left to give. Soon they must kill a horse, drink its blood and eat its meat if so they would live. And yet without their mounts they were dead anyway, drinking horse blood merely prolonging the agony of living. He cursed the Indian silently, viciously; even so, he refused to let go, so utterly convinced was he that El Dorado was out there waiting for him to find, somewhere beyond the plain; this terrible plain that impaled them, staked and writhing like helpless victims. The Staked Plains, he realised, swallowed its victims whole, and that, through some quirk of fate is what the great plains came to be called, the Llano Estacado, the Staked Plaines (30,000 square miles), but that was later, much later when the surviving Comanche had no choice but to leave their lovely land at the point of a gun, thousands of guns. To the Comanche, of whom the Ute and the Apache said with grudging respect, ‘they like to fight a lot’ the Staked Plains was the earth and spiritual home of The People of the Lance.
The Fortez expedition of 1560 into the unknown lands beyond the Mexican border, was about as lost as lost can be as they plodded dreamlike across a monotonous, unchanging landscape only the devil in his evil genius could have created. God, they assumed, would not allow such a place to exist; the fact that it did exist, they reasoned, meant that god had forgotten it was there, otherwise the devil could never have claimed it for his own. He wasn’t even sure if they were heading in the right direction or just going round and round in ever increasing circles. Each day was the same as the one before, the very monotony of the featureless, unchanging landscape scraped his nerves raw. There was nothing to measure progress relative to position; no distant mountain peak, no hills, no tree or bush, not even a fist sized rock, no shale or small stones, nothing but a plain, flat as a metal blade in every direction; the kind of vast, flat emptiness that drove men mad, a plate glass ocean that had no end. His thoughts gibbered in the torpid recess of his mind, wandering like vagabond winds in the haunt of his soul. The brutality of the heat stunned his senses and sucked his blood out through the pores of his flesh like a vampiric demon. His body was beginning to shut down, once you stopped sweating death followed soon after. He knew that but he no longer cared, other than to curse the stinking savage who had deliberately misdirected him. Not even his most Catholic Majesty Philip of Spain could find direction out here unless god came down from his heaven and led him by the hand. Maybe god would do that for a king, he thought drowsily, but not for a common soldier, not for a conquistador who lost his faith in the bloody ruin of his soul.
Fortez and his band rode through the enervating heat all but prostrate in the saddle; the wonder was that their mounts moved at all. The poor beasts suffered in silence even as their masters inched inexorably towards death. About then the Rascal played a joke on the tormented band, inviting the Spanish desperadoes deep into the hell of their souls. Hell is always today, hell is a desolate landscape, a heat struck featureless plain, flat as a planed board of wood.
A delirium of heat and thirst conspired to exhaust him; close, fierce heat embraced his flesh, inducing the seductive lethargy of not caring if he lived or died. Simply to think was too great an effort, his head ached, his eyes ached, his throat was a rasp and his empty stomach a caved in drum of flesh beneath bony ribs. Neither he nor his troops had eaten for three days and they had shared the last of their water at sunrise.
Now, the impacting brutality of the heat dazed them like a sudden blow to the head with a stunning hammer. Their mounts fared no better, plodding across the empty burning land with drooping heads, haunches slack with exhaustion, trailing clouds of fine, sifting dust from beneath their hooves that somehow managed to lodge in every crease, crack and crevasse of their riders flesh, rimming mouths and eyes, rubbing like pumice, until flesh flared angry and raw. For all there was no wind, his troops were being sand blasted as they rode.
A jumble of thoughts careered through his head, bouncing from side to side like a ball in a metal pail. Words of Paques, the crazy Spanish poet, flowed and ebbed in his mind like a foaming tide of doom. Loud and soft, near and far, Fortez was stretched and just about ready to snap like a rotten tree limb in a storm.
The words of Paques the crazy Spanish poet bloomed in his torpid mind like wild fire. ‘I never met a saint who was not a sinner,’ whispered Paques in his ruined voice, ‘I never found peace in faith,’ he husked ‘and all the things I have read and heard men say about the will of god, I never heard or read god’s answer, only the voice of man can I hear, only the words of man do I read, reducing god to the confines of narrow imagination, sprawled weary and lorn on the blood stained altar of the soul.’ The voice of Paques died away fading in a sigh.
He should have known better, thought Fortez wearily, than to write such nonsense let alone publish it. He died chained to a stake screaming his throat out as the flames consumed him, all for a piece of tricky words no one in his right mind wanted to read anyway. He didn’t know why he was thinking about Paques; nobody thought about Paques, no one even remembered his name. His mind wandered, he hunched down in the saddle as though he were on the battlefield deflecting a flurry of sudden blows. His mother sold her body to buy him a place in the world but he misused it. The New World of Spain no more than an open shadowed door inviting him in to indulge his most secret desire that sooner, rather than later, prepared him like fodder to assuage the Rascal’s insatiable appetite. His mother never came to know what her son was, and in that one thing alone lay her only blessing. She sold her body to provide for her son but she sold it well and died a wealthy woman.
In his cell waiting to die, the soon to be immolated poet wrote, ‘something lingers in the dread anticipation of death, something lingers in its wake, something always lingers outside and distant from the real or imagined decay of flesh. Sometimes,’ wrote Paques, ‘what you seek in life will haunt you in death.’ He said he met Death in his cell. He said they spoke together face to face and that is how he knew. He said he made a bargain with Death. He said Death agreed to take his life before the agony of the flames became too much to bear in exchange for the secret sound of god’s voice that all men listen to and obey without question. Paques could not keep his end of the bargain and died screaming his throat out. Fortez shuddered as he struggled to retain his sanity, clinging to what vestige remained, like a shipwrecked sailor to a raft. The blazing heat sucked his bones and devoured his life. And then suddenly Gomez spoke, his voice harsh and intrusive. ‘My Captain, look.’
Fortez raised his head blinking owlishly to clear his vision as he turned in his saddle gazing off in the direction of Gomez’s raised hand, forefinger pointing to the hazy horizon.
‘Indian,’ Gomez gasped out hoarsely, ‘Indian.’
Fortez gaped foolishly and then he smiled, where there were Indians there would be food and water and gold. ‘Sweet Jesus,’ he whispered, ‘Mother of God we are saved, the blessed virgin herself has saved us.’ A sudden rush of vigour squirted through him, he straightened in the saddle, calling out to his men, to tighten up and form ranks. ‘See to it Gomez,’ he ordered curtly.
‘At your orders my Captain,’ replied Gomez with a return of his old sarcasm. Fortez was a fool of a commander but by god and all his saints he had snatched them from the very jaws of death, and as before he vowed to follow the Captain’s orders without question so long as the canting fool led them to gold. And it looked as though he might just do that after all. ‘Form up,’ he bellowed ‘and look to your weapons.’
Between them the seven Spaniards rode four stallions and three mares.
Buffalo Hump had no real interest in the strangers. It was the animals they rode that held his eyes and filled his imagination. It was as the Wild Man had said. Warriors returning late from the hunt had found him stumbling along the edge of the Winter Home (Palo Dura Canyon), crazy eyed and rambling. The Wild Man was freezing to death in the cold wind and icy rains of winter. He was not hard like Comanche. The stranger kicked and struggled when the hunters tried to help him, shouting out words nobody could understand.
The People fed and watered him and placed him in the guest lodge close by the fire. He was a tall, skinny man with lank, dirty hair. People called him the Wild Man; he drank soup and ate meat for many days. The people left him alone waiting to see what he would do. When he was strong he washed his hair and put on the leggings and shirt he was given. It wasn’t long before everyone began to teach him to speak The People’s tongue. In return he gave the people many new words in his own tongue. That is how we came to know Spanish. Wild Man said he wanted to be a hunter, he wasn’t very good but the young men were patient and taught him well, he got better at it. When Wild Man could speak Comanche he said he wanted to be Comanche and stay with The People for ever. Everyone was pleased and said he was Comanche. Maybe you always were they said; maybe you found us so you could be reminded to regain yourself.
Around the campfire when everyone was ready to listen to a good story Wild Man spoke of his life before Comanche. He said he was a slave to Spanish men and then one day he decided it would be better to escape and die free than to live each day of his life a whipped dog. He spoke of animals called horses. He said Spanish men ride on their backs. Nobody had ever heard of such an animal but everybody agreed it must be true when Wild Man drew a picture in the dust. Wild Man kept his name; he did not want a new name. He said his was a strong name, ‘it makes me feel good’ he said, ‘it makes me strong, it is the right name for me.’ Everyone was pleased that he gained such joy in his name. A good name helps to stop you from blowing away inside. A good name lets you lean in to catch yourself. The People learned a lot from Wild Man about the Spanish long before Blue Shoes sent them to the Staked Plains. Of all the tribes of The People it is we who safeguard the secret that hides in the canyon. That was a long time ago, many winter counts, Wild Man is old now. I am Buffalo Hump, son of Wild Man.
Sometimes in the excitement of the hunt he leapt up onto the back of the buffalo driving his blood lance deep into the fatty hump. He was named Buffalo Hump and carried his name with pride and the quiet, simple dignity befitting a famous warrior; mostly however he plunged his lance deep into the belly behind the ribs. Some warriors used the horn bow to kill the great beasts; Buffalo Hump always used an eight foot blood lance, a weapon to kill buffalo as well as enemies.
The dust of the plain is the dust of our grandfathers. Each step we take we walk on grandfather bones. We are The People, the Comanche.
Grandfather says “Did I perish? Did I die well?”
Grandfathers say “Am I re born? Am I where I belong? Am I Comanche?”
Buffalo Hump had never seen a horse but he knew that was what he was looking at. Wild Man was right there is beauty in their movement, for all it was plain to see the great beasts were exhausted; they were beautiful to his eyes, the Spanish men sitting on their backs were of no concern to him. Something inside him welcomed the return of the horse, some instinctive thing that later proved to be common to the Comanche, like a distant memory from one life to the next. Maybe we rode such animals when we lived before, maybe that is why we welcome their return in the way we welcome the return of a friend who has gone before, and many lives later returns to the people. As the Spaniards drew close to the Indian leaning on his grounded lance they failed to take in his fierce hawk like face, his fearless stance or even notice his burning, predatory eyes. To the Spaniards he was just another Indian, for all his presence on the hellish plain represented their salvation. At least one of them should have noticed the difference between this Indian and the one called Blue Shoes. For all Blue Shoes was a famous warrior the Indian standing before them was something else again. The very length of his lance set him apart, a lance crafted with loving care and as finely balanced as any throwing javelin a Spanish weapon smith might forge. Where Blue Shoes looked handsome and proud, Buffalo Hump looked fierce and very, very dangerous. Wild Man had told him about Spanish men even as he taught him their tongue. Wild Man had told him about the tame animals they rode and about their sharp metal weapons and muskets and pistols that make a loud noise when it fired a small round ball of metal. They cover their chests and backs in metal plates, said Wild Man, your lance will not pierce the metal, maybe arrows shot from a horn bow, he shrugged, maybe not. If you fight them go for their eyes and throat, their legs and their balls, pierce every part not covered by the metal plates. But I don’t think they will come here, it is too far, again he shrugged, maybe their god will drive them here in search of gold, who knows what men will do who live in fear of their god and his priests.
By the time he became a warrior Buffalo Hump knew more about Spanish men than they probably knew about themselves, and none of it was good. Wild Man, his father, said he could not find one good thing to say about them, not even in his most generous moment. Buffalo Hump cared for his father even though there were times when he was a little strange in the head. His spirit is unsettled, he would think, it needs a good name to stop it from blowing away forever. Before he went to live in his own lodge as befitted a single man who was also a famous warrior, a buffalo man, there were times when he observed his father sleeping, his face terrible to see when he looked at the mass of healed scars that covered his father’s back, chest and legs. ‘They whipped me,’ Wild Man told his son ‘and burnt me with red hot metal when they were drunk. Not drunk in celebration of their god, but crazy drunk like mean, vicious animals.’
Wild Man had no love for Spanish men; Buffalo Hump cared not to acknowledge they were even human.
He led them away at a ground eating lope their exhausted mounts were hard pressed to maintain. The air crackled with heat, dust bloomed in clouds from beneath the horses’ hooves. Men cursed the pace and were curtly ordered to be quiet. ‘Follow the Indian’ Fortez said, ‘follow the Indian and live, and when we regain our strength prime your pistols and muskets, sharpen your swords and daggers and we shall have gold if not El Dorado itself.’ Gomez smiled nastily; his men leered and were silent. How swiftly doomed men revive, thought Fortez, when promised gold, not bread or water. That his own revival in just a few short minutes was nothing if not miraculous, he smugly attributed to the divine intervention of god. He was after all, he thought to himself, doing god’s work in this wasteland of the soulless heathen, and god he was sure worked for His Most Catholic Majesty which is to say the world. The Rascal sniggered but Fortez did not hear him, he never did.
The only reason the Comanche bothered with the Spanish men was to learn about the horse and to steal a breeding pair if they could. Buffalo Hump said they should just kill the Spanish men and take the animals. The grandfather council said first they should learn what they could from the Spanish, not only about the animals but where they could get more without having to wait for the animals to breed and their young to grow strong enough to carry a warrior. The elders were already thinking about the advantage a mounted warrior gained over a warrior on foot; they did after all have a lot of enemies.
As Buffalo Hump loped along, the exhausted Spaniards and their mounts trailing behind, he thought about a story his father once told. It was a strange story but everyone agreed sometimes a strange story is needful. People talk about a strange story, it makes you think about new things, and all the People know when you think about new things, they sometimes lead you down unfamiliar trails. That’s how you learn new things to help The People survive and grow strong; everyone agreed it was true ; therefore it was, thought Buffalo Hump.
His shadow grew long as the sun dipped westward, the swollen red ball pulsing like an open wound. The Spaniards realised the Indian wasn’t going to stop until he reached his village, whenever that may be. The Spaniards hung on grimly determined not to be left behind. Lose the Indian and we all die they thought, fear overriding their constant torment of thirst, oddly even their mounts sensed the running figure would lead them to water, dredging up what energy they could to fuel their muscles as they gamely followed the lone figure nose to tail in single file. The horses would forge ahead until their hearts burst or they reached water, whichever came first.
As he ran Buffalo Hump thought on Wild Man’s strange story. Everyone’s belly was full as they sat around the smouldering embers of the huge central cooking fire. The People talked amongst themselves, children chased away village dogs fighting over tasty scraps. The summer evening wrapped each person in a soft warm blanket. Hanging low in the eastern sky a fat, yellow moon shed its light. The evening was friendly as it approached and everything was as it should be. Somewhere close by raised voices asked Wild Man to tell them one of his strange stories. Wild Man said he would. As he rose from his place by the fire voices fell down in silence, even the camp dogs stopped their snarling and barking. The glow of the moon grew bright and full, shedding pale yellow-white light on everyone’s faces. There were shadows too reaching out to fill the spaces between each lodge like pools of slow running water. When everyone was quiet, when all the people’s faces were turned towards him and he was sure of even the smallest child’s attention, Wild Man struck a dramatic pose and with the magic power of the orator he began his tale pulling The People into the story the way the magic of a true orator can do. The People, attentive to his every word, his every gesture relived the Wild Man’s story as though they relived something from their own memory. It takes special magic to do that, to draw the listeners in so deep they think and feel they are reliving a special part of their own life.
The story wild Man told that night was stranger than any story he had told before. He began by saying:
‘Before I became Comanche, before I knew who I was, before I was a slave, I was something else. Whilst I was a slave it was a psychic shock, it caused my spirit to flee, it caused my memories of before I was a slave to flee, my mind was empty, then one day the messenger, the inner voice spoke to me and I escaped.’ Wild Man paused, looking around at the silent faces knowing he carried The People with him. In a deep husky voice he said ‘when I became Comanche my spirit returned my memories to me, this is the story of one of my memories before the Spanish men enslaved and tortured me.’ The People sighed, the gathered sound rustling through the village like a small lost wind out on the plains.
‘One night when I was a small boy’ said Wild Man ‘I curled up in a shadowed corner of our house of stone listening to what my father said to his friend Natox. They did not know I was there hiding in the corner where the light from the table lamp did not reach. My father Mitix spoke freely and I listened well as all curious children do when grown ups talk and they do not know you are there hiding in the shadows with your belly tight with tension, every word burning into your mind as you listen to talk that otherwise if your father knew you were listening would be forbidden, he would not speak other than to admonish you for sneaking around listening to what you should not. I was very young, maybe six, maybe seven winter counts, maybe I was younger,’ Wild Man said, ‘maybe I was older,’ he shrugged eloquently, ‘I was not Comanche then, I was Aztec at least for a while then my spirit did not know who it was.’
The People hooted softly to display their concern and understanding of the young boy’s confusion. Not everyone is born Comanche, not everyone is so fortunate.
Drawing breath Wild Man continued his story beneath the light of a misted, yellow moon hanging in the dark, starry vastness like a glowing lamp. A small wind sighed through the quiet village, fanning smouldering embers of the circle fire red. Somewhere a night bird called out, the plaintive sound shivering through the darkness like the passing of an energy, a power or maybe a spirit. Certainly something drew near as Wild Man told his story, everybody knew that. Maybe it was the ‘Makatozanzan’ (the clear blue spirit). Whatever it was it honoured The People that night.
Wild Man said, ‘in that before time, my father’s name was Mitix, the night I hid in the corner of our house of stone my father Mitix the noble leader of the ‘Shimmering Mirror’ warrior clan said to his friend Natox, ‘we cannot blame Montezuma, the flower of heaven may his shade rest in heaven’s peace for all our misfortune. Certainly he was wrong to think Cortez and his men were the very gods who promised to one day return to us from across the sea ten thousand years ago. Did not the whole Aztec Nation think the same? By the time we realised they were nothing more than thieves lusting for gold, smelly men with superior weapons it was too late, and Montezuma was dead murdered by Cortez, who then burnt his body thereby depriving him of his funerary rite of passage through the darkness to the Abode of Peace. We all feared their horses and their muskets’ said Natox. ‘Yes we did’ replied Mitix, ‘but that didn’t last,’ he smiled then, ‘once we recovered from our shock Cortez and his demons were easy to defeat.’ My father laughed harshly, ‘they ran like rabbits from the fox. And now it is over,’ Mitix sighed heavily, ‘our cities are ruins, our people are dead or dying, the Aztec Nation is no more. Even now,’ he said ‘spies tell Cortez where we few survivors live and when Cortez learned of our plight he gathered an army of our enemies and even as I speak he marches at their head offering false promise that in return for their aid he will divide amongst them the lands and wealth of our nation. He will claim that he conquered Mexico and that his handful of Spanish soldiers defeated the 200,000 strong army of the Aztecs; and of course his king across the sea will believe him. Why should he not when Cortez sends him a treasure of more than 200 tons of gold with a promise of more to come. We defeated the Spaniards but now alas it is the disease they carried with them from across the sea that defeats us. The disease (small pox, the common cold, influenza, measles, and venereal disease) has made of our land a nation of rotting corpses. We counted our people in their tens of thousands now only one in a thousand survives. We are too few to resist yet I tell you Natox I will not submit to be burnt alive at the stake by the Spanish priests.’ ‘Nor I,’ murmured Natox, ‘nor I.’
From the shadows I watched wide eyed hardly daring to breathe lest I be discovered. My father poured water from a pitcher into two clay cups. He mixed a yellow-white powder on a clay plate and then he added the powder to the cups of water stirring it in with his fingers. ‘Drink,’ he said to his friend as he drained his own cup in one long swallow. ‘Drink and we shall sleep in the Abode of Peace forever.’ His friend drank and as I watched from the shadows they both foamed at the mouth and fell down unmoving. I crouched in the corner hardly daring to breathe. Finally when I crossed the stone floor to look at them I knew they were dead. My father had left me, his spirit had flown.
I think that was when my spirit fled, taking my memories too. When finally my inner voice spoke to me and told me to escape, I was a slave standing man tall. And of the years in between I had no memory at all until one day I knew who I was, I was Comanche.’
Wild Man sat down to polite clapping and hoots of praise for a strange story well told. Later everyone agreed it was the best story Wild Man had told and strange enough to make them think of new and different things.
Buffalo Hump ran the night through, and just when the raggedy band of Spaniards and their mounts thought they could endure no more, light spilled over the horizon’s rim in a flood of pale rose. Some way ahead the Indian stood motionless, sweat sheened his upper body, gleaming in the strengthening light. The Spaniards bunched up as they brought their snorting, trembling mounts to a halt. The Spaniards stared in astonishment at the sight spread out before them. They had been travelling for hours that seemed like days, through starlit darkness following a silent shadow that all but ran their horses into the ground; darkness without end, full of moaning winds and eerie pockets of intense silence that seemed to thrum in their exhausted minds with a sound of chords. There was darkness and then suddenly there was light, and to their astonishment a village of three hundred tepees laid out in three neat circles. The nearest tipees rising up before them like a wall. To the right of the village the dull, flat gleam of water could be seen, shallow and wide like a lake, its surface placid and unruffled caught and held stray beams of rising light. To the left and beyond the village the plain reached out towards forever. The Spaniards sat their mounts in silence as they stared at copper skinned warriors standing between them and the village proper.
Gomez cursed softly. The lips of Fortez curled in dismissive contempt. Savages, he thought to himself, nothing but stinking half naked savages. Aloud he said, ‘they are primitives, their weapons are primitive, such creatures cannot stand against our muskets and good Spanish steel. Be not afraid,’ he told his men ‘there is nothing to fear.’ The wonder of it was that he actually believed what he said. Nor did he dream that Buffalo Hump standing close by understood every word.
‘As you say my captain,’ replied a worried looking Gomez, adding under his breath, ‘primitive they might be but they are not Aztec, those bloody great lances must be eight maybe ten foot long, and I’ll wager my soul these primitives know how to use them.’ In the end all the Spaniards wagered their souls on the good captain’s advice, and they lost. Gomez got it right the first time when he said, they are not Aztec.
Around 1560 Hernando Fortez in company with Gomez Felito and five soldiers of fortune made contact with the Staked Plains Comanche, during an expedition to locate the fabled City of Gold, El Dorado. The expedition as far as the Spanish authority in Mexico was concerned was a survey expedition under explicit orders to survey and map what were at that time considered to be the unknown lands beyond the river border, the Rio Grande. No one, least of all the Spanish, considered the primitive heathens known to inhabit the so called unknown lands to pose even the least of threats to the otherwise invincible might of New Spain, of which the expedition under the leadership of Hernando Fortez were emissaries inviolate and indestructible. Almost two centuries later (1700?) when for a brief time troops of the feared French (mounted) Lancers pranced the plains, they too were reeved like corn. The Comanche ranging as far as Nebraska to Mexico (inclusive of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas) were the undisputed Lords of the Plain.
Between them the mounts of Fortez and his men comprised four young stallions and three mares of Spanish/Arabian stock bred for strength and endurance rather than speed, they were all but perfect for the plains and deserts of the American south west. The Spanish had indirectly wiped out almost six million native South Americans (Aztec, Inca, Maya) through the introduction of disease, for all their claim of battles won they never at any time fought an army at full strength. Of course they did not view it like that, they were invincible, the Sword of God come to scourge the heathen. ‘We are sick’ they openly boasted ‘and the only cure for our sickness is gold.’ The uninformed thought the cruel strangers, melted down the gold they stole and drank it to cure their affliction, but it seemed not to work because the cruel strangers just became sicker: And then one day a small band of the invincible Spanish men crossed the river border, travelling deep into the wild, untamed lands of the great unknown, in search of El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold.
Fortez and his men were housed together in a huge guest lodge, their mounts secured in a nearby, makeshift corral. The Spaniards lived with the Comanche for five days during which time they were allowed to wonder through the village and bath in the nearby creek. Their lust for gold however, soon got the best of them, so much so that around mid morning of the sixth day of their sojourn with the Comanche, Fortez and his men emerged from the guest lodge fully armed and armoured holding primed muskets in their hands, loaded pistols stuck behind their belts and their swords and long Spanish daggers loose in their scabbards. Fanning out they faced the gathered Comanche muskets at the ready whilst Fortez in a brash, derisory voice loudly demanded that the assembled Comanche hand over their gold and silver in the name of His Most Catholic Majesty, further demanding that if on this instant information regarding the exact location of El Dorado was not forthcoming, he would be left with no choice other than to shoot six of their number and set his men loose with their swords and daggers amongst them.
The Comanche stood in stunned silence for a moment or two and then as Buffalo Hump translated, they burst out laughing; some of the older warriors collapsing to the ground, holding their aching sides, tears of mirth streaming from their eyes.
Red faced Fortez gave the command to fire. Six shots boomed out, followed by the rasp of drawn steel. Laughter turned off like a tap. A threatening murmur swept through the gathered Comanche. For all the Spaniards aimed high, intending the noise of the guns to frighten rather than kill, the message of the Spaniards’ drawn swords was clear and chill.
The day before, Fortez, strolling through the camp in company with Buffalo Hump, who, to his astonishment spoke and understood Spanish, watched an old man walk by, his eyes devoured him. The old man wore a thick, solid silver armband set with turquoise and if he wasn’t mistaken the surface seemed to be covered in some kind of strange script. His heart leapt. Feigning indifference he asked Buffalo Hump who the old man was, a tribal elder perhaps.
‘He is of the desert,’ Buffalo Hump replied, ‘he is an old one, he is not Comanche, he comes and goes as he wills. His people are no more, he is the last,’ he said enigmatically.
‘The old ones armband is silver?’
‘It is silver said Buffalo Hump.’
‘Does the silver come from the desert?’
Buffalo Hump’s eyes gleamed, ‘no’ he said, ‘it does not come from the desert, only the old one comes from the desert.’
Somewhat irritated Fortez said, ‘then from where does the silver come?’
The noise of the camp swirled around them like smoke, hot sunlight poured down. Somewhere dogs barked and yapped, children squealed as they chased each other. Buffalo Hump felt the future bend around him. The past is memory the future unwrit; even so Buffalo Hump sensed the future bend around him like a presence. The Rascal, he thought to himself, is near.
‘It comes from the other side,’ he said.
‘The other side of where,’ queried Fortez his anger rising.
The two men came to a halt facing each other, each representing a culture alien to the other. Unbending Catholic Spain, tunnel visioned and rigid, able and willing to kill any who opposed its dogma. Buffalo Hump of the Staked Plain Comanche, guardian of the secret in the canyon that sometimes revealed itself and sometimes did not, the shimmering door to the other side. Only the Old One had passed through and returned wearing the silver armband. He said the other side wasn’t much different from the plain, the people there, he smiled, about the same, but, he cautioned, if ever more than one of The People steps through, don’t expect them to return. One maybe, more than one is forbidden. He never said by who or what and Buffalo Hump never asked. You and your people must guard the door, he said, so the unwary do not fall through, You must guard it for all time, for seasons without end, until one day the Comanche step through, he prophesied, and the door closes behind. You do not need to worry about that, he said, nor any of your people, it is something for Comanche yet unborn to worry about. The Old One never spoke of it again. Buffalo Hump said, your priests do not teach you about the other side.’
Fortez blanched as he suddenly realised what he thought the Indian was saying. ‘The other side,’ his voice hoarse, ‘is where demons live; you speak of hell, the fires of damnation.’
‘Or heaven,’ said Buffalo Hump softly.
Glassy eyed at the sudden turn the conversation had taken Fortez lapsed into silence.
‘The Creator sings life into all things’ said Buffalo Hump as he turned to walk away, ‘we do not fear the Creator. This hell you speak of, maybe your god needs it to make you fear him so you will do what his priests tell you to do. Maybe your priests listen to the wrong god maybe the Rascal talks to them.’
Fortez stared at him uncomprehendingly.
That night he gathered his men, convincing them that the Comanche had gold and silver hidden in their tipees: ‘Tomorrow,’ his eyes on Gomez, ‘we do it the hard way, cut and burn until we get what we want. At first light ready the horses and see to your gear. We’ll attack about mid morning. And catch them all.’
Gomez shifted uneasily, ‘at your orders my captain.’ He did not mention his mounting fear of the lance. It came to him in his dreams, ripping into his belly, thrusting clear through his chest. In his dream he saw a young warrior drive his lance into a buffalo, dropping it on the run. He would wake up then, eyes staring into the darkness, mouth dry, his heart thumping as though he had been running as fast as he could.
The muskets boomed, belching clouds of dense black smoke, hazing the air. And when the smoke cleared the Spaniards surged forward in a compact group intending to slash and cut and kill.
The women and children ran whilst about twenty warriors faced the Spaniards, shielding them until they made good their escape. The Spanish swords met only empty air, the Comanche leaping and feinting drawing them on, out and away from the village. They could not in honour harm an invited guest, but once the troublesome guests stepped outside the village boundary he became fair game. Caught up in the rush of their own wild charge the Spaniards realised too late that they had been drawn away from their horses, to reach them the Spaniards would have to fight their way through the village. Looking back Gomez howled his frustration as he saw a group of boys untether their horses, cut away the saddles and packs, and leap up onto the horses backs, riding them away to who knew where. At that moment Gomez knew they were doomed and determined to sell his life dearly. There was no gold or silver, there never had been it was all in the fevered mind of Fortez.
Gomez did not sell his life dearly, he faced Comanche not Aztec. He stood on a limitless plain, not in some forest high in the hills. Here there was only space, and an enemy that melted away before each charge. There was no give in Buffalo Hump, or in the Wild Man who fought by his side. The entire village had gathered to watch the Spanish men die. They came as guests and through their own action left as enemies. What else was there to say, maybe all Spanish men were crazy in the head, maybe the Rascal owned them all like slaves.
The Spaniards stood in a panting, exhausted group wild eyed and cursing. ‘Stand and fight’ they jeered, ‘come on you bloody savages, stand and fight like men not gibbering monkeys.’
The first lance took Fortez in the throat. Buffalo Hump leaned in thrusting the blood lance all the way through his neck. Wild Man lanced Gomez through his stomach; a second thrust tore his throat out. It was over within minutes the cooling bodies left where they lay, food for dogs and ravens.
In this way the Comanche gained horses. When the mares were in foal, five young warriors rode towards Mexico, returning with a stolen herd of about thirty stallions and mares. A decade later the Comanche counted their horses in hundreds. Each year they raided deep into Mexico sweeping all before them. And each year when the full moon hung low in the sky, the Spanish/Mexicans entreated god to protect them from the Comanche.
But all that was a long, long time ago.
And now Harpo Kane the Colorado Gunfighter rode in search of their descendants and a War Chief, a Spiritual Leader known as Red Shirt, whom the Old One prophesied one day would lead a remnant of The People to the other side, and close the door.