Saturday, May 4, 2013

South of Comancheria; a short story

Last week I met some friends in Kingsville. It was the first  time I'd been that far south in Texas. While we were there I learned that this area, between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, used to be called The Wild Horse Desert. Later it became the King Ranch.. I was intrigued by the name and the stories I heard.  When I got home I started reading anything I could find about the folk lore, Indians and general history of that mysterious no-man's land. My imagination got carried away and I wrote the fact based story below. I hope you like it.
                                                        South of Comancheria

The shadows were long when the band of a dozen Comanches forded the river. Each  mounted warrior led an extra horse through a shallow spot near an old fort long abandoned by the soldiers who called this river Nueces. After crossing, most of the braves dismounted. Some went about gathering wood for the evening fire and others gathered pecans from the ground and from the tall trees lining the river bank. While his younger brother, Kotosteka watched, Muguara rode away with the sun to his back. He sat his horse with his strong back straight and erect. His eyes looked forward from his battle scarred face. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and laid it across the bois d’arc bow on his lap. 
 By the time the fire began to pop and the flames licked out at the northern sky, Muguara returned to camp with a young doe draped across the withers of his stallion. As two of the other men took the deer, Muguara’s black horse snorted and raised his head, flaring his nostrils at the scent of the dead animal. His black eyes rolled around in their white sockets, but he did not move or touch the men. 
 In little less than two hours the members of the hunting party had their bellies full and were enjoying the last comfortable night’s sleep they would have for almost a week.
 It was the fall of the year, but the weather was still hot, and the buffalo had not returned from the north. There was no word of bison being seen on neither the plateau above the escarpment nor the staked plain farther north. The Indians needed meat to feed their families, so for the first time any of them remembered, a decision was made to hunt the feral ponies in the land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande; the land known as the Wild Horse Desert. Horses had become more than a means of mobility to the Comanche. When the buffalo were too far away, horses also provided food, shelter and clothing.
 For decades neither Comanches nor Mexicans had been to this no-man’s land because there was little water and many areas were impassable because of the brasadas of cactus and mesquite. The only human inhabitants of this place the Mexicans called Desierto de Muerto were the Karankawas. Some of these “Eaters of the Dead” were over six feet tall. But still, the men whom Muguara had picked to join him weren’t afraid.
The Wild Horse Desert is shown near the center of this map from 1836.

 The Indians rose a dawn and struck out in a southeasterly direction through the dunes of coarse sand. Now and then there were impenetrable thickets that need to be bi-passed. Slowly, the men and horses traveled in a single graceful line. Each rider and his horse moved in a fluid, natural manner as one animal; half horse and half man. They trekked all day speaking very little. The mounted horses were simply fitted with blankets and reins. Those being led had harnesses and long leads. The only times they stopped that day to was to gather two jack-rabbits and a quail that were dropped by arrows. By night fall, most of the water they had taken from the river was gone, so the men stripped the thorns off cactus and ate the fleshy stems to hydrate their bodies. They also had small amounts of pemmican they had brought along.
 As they slept in the wind and sand, they heard wolves howling and the sound of wild hoof beats all around them. The Comanche horses were restless and uneasy.
 At first light the Indians walked around the camp looking at mustang tracks and trying to figure out where the mesteños had gone. The tracks continued to circle farther and farther away then headed southeast. The Comanches mounted up and, at a slow pace, began tracking their prey. It was already beginning to get hot, so their pace was slow. Muguara knew care had to be taken not to exhaust his men and their animals.
 The salty breeze was beginning to blow harder and directly into the faces of the riders. Otherwise, the Comanche's keen sense of smell would have detected the filthy Karankawas that stayed out of sight and patiently followed on foot.
 All day long the procession of mustangs, Indians and cannibals traveled toward the gulf coast. The wind was beginning to become sticky and heavy with an unfamiliar smell. Mosquitoes buzzed around and into the ears and eyes of the men and their horses. Unlike the Karankawas, the Comanches hadn’t learned to cake their bodies with mud in defense of insects and the merciless sun. When the first pool of water came into sight, Kotosteka galloped his horse ahead, dismounted and sampled some of the water from his fingertips. He spat and shook his head. Night was only an hour away, so Kotosteka signaled for the others to make camp. The two brothers set out searching the area for any signs of fresh water, but found none. Again, they camped thirsty and with hardly a bite to eat. Most stayed awake watching the white-ringed crescent moon travel across the sky. They took turns tending the fire they had built to keep the wolves away.
 At one point during the night there was a disturbance among the horses. Two of the men took sticks from the fire to provide light and discovered a horse was missing. There were huge foot prints in the sand that told them the tall Karankawas were to blame, but it was too dark to follow the thieves.
 Muguara fought the anger inside him when he gather his men and told them they would not pursue the Karankawas. It was his extra horse that had been stolen during the night, but he reasoned revenge would be no help; especially since the culprits were the lowly Karankawas. The Comanches would use extra caution and post a guard to watch over the camp at night. Muguara said if no wild horses were caught this day, they would kill one of their extra horses for meat. Kotosteka hid his face from Muguara and grimaced as though his brother had embarrassed him by making a decision not to track down and kill the culprits. No more time was lost and they mounted and resumed their hunt. 
 Before the Indians had ridden a mile, a longhorn bull ran out of a thicket and past in front of the warriors. Before it could get out of range the bull was on ground with seven arrows in it. Then, four more longhorns came out then immediately ran back into the brasadas. However, nothing was lost because there was more than enough meat on the bull they'd already killed. 
 The party began preparing a camp site a couple of hundred yards upwind from the spot where the beef was being butchered. While the four youngest men tended to the bull and set up camp, the remaining eight continued to search for wild horses and water.
 The hunting party continued in the direction of the gulf. Even though the heat was uncomfortable, all the men still wore buck skin leggings with belts and sheathed knifes; moccasins, and assorted head adornments. One wore a helmet made from a buffalo skull with the hide and horns intact. For good reason, their faces were painted as though they were going in to battle; two vertical black stripes on each cheek. They were hunting while being hunted, by the Karankawas.
 Before noon, the riders came to a tall sand dune and went to the top to look around. For the first time they saw the gulf in the distance. The water appeared gray under the dark clouds forming above the white caps. It was at that moment Juguara, the eldest of the group, saw wild horses. They were in a dead run, less than a quarter mile away. The mustangs had seen the Indians first and took the advantage of a lead. Muguara raised his left hand and gave the signal to chase the herd and they began following the fresh tracks in the sand. Before the mustangs were seen again, the pursuers past a waterhole where the wild horses had been drinking when the Indians scared them away. This was good, but there was no time to stop now. The chase had begun.

Comancheria is outlined in red.
 The next time the mustangs were sighted, a magnificent grullo stallion with black mane and tail, was nipping at the heels of his herd. The hunters split in to two groups. Nothing was said; they were executing a practiced strategy designed for this specific situation. A trap was being laid.
 Three warriors, including Juguara followed Kotosteka , the other three followed Muguara. Keeping the cloud of dust from nearly fifty horses in sight, the two groups of Comanches were ready to trap the mustangs in between them. They ran about three miles in a straight line and down a gradual slope to the sea. The wild horses were now between the Indians and the water. The lead stallion wheeled around and began to run back and forth between his herd and the Indians. Kotosteka decided to charge the stallion with his reata ready to lasso the beast.
 The grullo saw Kotosteka coming and lowered his head and bared his teeth. The wild horse ran directly at Kotosteka and his mount, showing no intention of slowing or turning.Finally, at the last instant, Kotosteka’s horse yielded a veered to the left, broadside to the mad stallion. When they collided, the grullo’s head and neck acted as a powerful wedge, and rolled the horse and rider.  Kotosteka jumped to his feet and saw Muguara heading for him from one direction and Juguara from the other.
  Muguara dismounted and hugged his brother and looked to see if he was hurt. It was clear that Kotosteka was trying to beat his brother to the prize stallion. Muguara used sign language and pointed at  Kotosteka and then at the stallion, and nodded his head, “yes”. He then put his hand on his own chest and shook his head, “no”. He then pointed at Kotosteka and made a sign like he was pulling a rope to himself. Then, Muguara put his left hand over his own eyes for a second. Muguara then gestured for Kotosteka to take Juguara's horse because Kotosteka’s horse could no longer be trusted.
 At first Kotosteka looked surprised, but then he broke into laughter and mounted the horse. Everyone there knew exactly what to do and sprang in to action. The two brothers approached the stallion simultaneously as it stood its ground. When the Indians were close enough,  Kotosteka lassoed the stallion’s neck and turned to the left. Muguara lassoed the stallion’s front legs and turned to the right. The instant the stallion was taken off his feet, Muguara dismounted and ran toward the stallion’s entangled legs. He dove and, in an instant, tied a knot that hobbled the downed beast. The stocky Indian moved fast as lightning and as gracefully as a cat.
  Without delay Muguara sprang to his feet and stepped in front of his brother to help hold the rope. By the time the hobbled horse managed to get back so his feet, Juguara had joined the two brothers, holding the rope behind  Kotosteka. They were able to hold the horse, and did so for a long time, until it began to become exhausted and lowered its head.
 Slowly, Muguara inched his way up the rope toward the frightened stallion. When he was close enough to touch the horse, he stopped and started softly chanting a Comanche song.
 A half hour went by. The other braves were watching from a distance. The one called Yapa held a hackamore, a blanket, and a length of braided rawhide rope in his hands. In his teeth he held a piece of black cloth and watched as Muguara slowly reached up and put his left hand over the stallion’s eyes.
  All was quiet and eventually the mustang started slowly lowering his head as Muguara’s chanting became softer and softer. Then, keeping his hand over the horse’s eyes, Muguara began to direct his breath in to the beast’s nostrils. While this continued, Yapa, the youngest of them, silently approached the horse from its left side, laid the blanket on its back, then tied it on with the braided rope. Yapa then slid the black cloth under Muguara’s hand and blindfolded the horse. Muguara continued to breathe into the horses nostrils. Kotosteka, who was also chanting now, walked over and took the hackamore from Yapa and put it over the horses head.
 Finally, Muguara nodded and Kotosteka jumped on the waiting horse's back. It lifted its head and snorted. The other Indians let the rope go and the stallion made a few attempts to shake his rider, but because of being hobbled he was unable to do so.
 This capture took place like it had been choreographed and practiced many times; because it had been. By noon the next day Kotosteka was riding the greatest stallion ever seen by a Comanche. Thirty members of the grullo’s herd were following behind.
 The Karankawas hid and watched the riders pass by on their way back to the plateau. The hunting trip had been a success and Kotosteka ’s heart became steadfast with respect for his older brother’s position and powers; especially the power of his love and patience.
  Later that summer the tribe traveled to the northern part of Comancheria and camped near the buffalo herds. Chief Noconi died and Muguara took his place. Kotosteka was his most loyal brave.

 On January 9, 1840, a small group of influential Comanches visited Colonel Karnes in San Antonio, Texas and presented the possibilities of negotiating a peace treaty in exchange for the return of Texas settlers who were being held as captives. A fight broke out; Muguara and eleven other Comanche leaders were killed.
 The Comanche never returned to the Wild Horse Desert. The Texians took it and the rangers named it the Nueces Strip.
Drawing of San Antoñio Plaza in 1840.

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