What seemed like just another ordinary day here was about to take a sudden and dangerous turn in events.
The season was edging toward the tail end of autumn, when the Panhandle’s open land donned its golden coat. The humid airs of September and October had surrendered to the embrace of a crisp, clear day. The sky stretched wide and blue, akin to a lark’s egg, adorned with those fluffy cotton-ball clouds. It was an all-around, pretty good day; one of 60-degree temperatures.
Tom McCloud, a solitary hunter, moved with the stealth of a shadow through the chinkapin oaks and scented cedar trees that freckled the rolling plains of yellow-brown buffalo grass. His attire included a flat-brimmed creased hat of beaver felt, a yellow bandana, and a tanned deerskin jacket that bore the marks of countless days in the wild. In his seasoned hands, he cradled a percussion rifle, aged and faithful.
Silent as the breath of the sleeping land, he stalked his prey, his senses razor keen. It was while stooping down to check the freshness of a deer sign that he heard the approaching clatter and thunder of hooves. Coming fast and hard, they intruded upon the solitude. He lifted his head to have a wary looksee at who was coming.
From the depths of the scrub trees behind him, three riders emerged on mustang ponies, their steeds’ hooves pounding the earth like war drums. In relentless pursuit, they closed in on a lone white girl, her feet swift and nimble as she ran among the slender trees, determined to outpace her relentless pursuers.
She bore a spirit as fiery as the sun, even pausing to sling a rock at one of her assailants, connecting with a solid thud to the head. It must have hurt. The girl possessed gumption beyond measure, but her daring actions threatened to lead her straight into the clutches of these unyielding braves.
Riding bareback, the three Indians displayed their mastery over their steeds, their bodies in perfect harmony with their mounts’ untamed gallop. The lead rider, atop a brown and white pinto, leaned forward, urging his pony to even greater speed, his eyes locked unflinchingly on the fleeing girl, his left arm already leaning out to fetch her up. Yet somehow she remained out of reach, changing directions like a jackrabbit.
The second brave, mounted on a sleek black mustang, skillfully navigated the uneven terrain with skill, the rippling muscles of his steed propelling them forward.
The third brave, astride a chestnut pony, bore down on their quarry with unwavering determination. Yet the girl remained elusive, her feet scarcely touching the earth as she darted through the trees, each strand of her hair dancing in the wind.
This land, lying between Hubbard Creek and Snailum Creek, should have been devoid of anyone, save for the whispering wind and the call of wild creatures. Tom McCloud knew this well, and his instincts told him that trouble was brewing.
With his rifle held steady, he watched, facing them square. In this vast expanse of Kiowa raiding territory, encountering these braves was no trifling matter. They’d been leaving their reservation for the last couple of years to raid Mexico of horses, steal cattle here or illegally hunt buffalo. Tom, however, soon realized that these were not Kiowa, for the Kiowa rode shirtless. No, these were Comanche, a tribe feared above all, their very name synonymous with “enemy.” They had even driven the feared Mescalero Apache back into the Guadalupe Mountains.
These three Comanche braves seemed far from home. Their nearest tribe, the Penatekas, had been corralled onto a distant north reservation. It had been legal for five years to shoot them off the reservation, but few dared to try. The Comanche held a long memory for such deeds.
As the thunderous hooves of the horses merged with the cool breeze, the girl spotted Tom. She veered toward him, a fleeting glimmer of hope before the closest brave reached out and snatched her up. Tom made himself visible and aimed his rifle at the Indian atop the brown and white pinto, his voice cutting through the air like a blade as he issued a stern warning
“I’d let her go if I were you.”
The three buckskin-clad Comanche braves halted their horses, their faces registering surprise at the sight of Tom. One of them clutched an old Henry repeating rifle, prompting Tom to shift his aim, determined to discourage any attempts by him. For this year alone, twenty souls had met their end at the hands of raiding Indians, and Tom had no intention of becoming the twenty-first.
“You’ve ventured quite a distance from your reservation,” Tom remarked, his voice measured, eyes narrowed. “I imagine the girl has friends who’ll miss her, just as I imagine you have friends who’d mourn you. Make the right choice now, and everyone goes their separate ways.”
The girl struggled to escape but the defiant buck did not release her. Though Tom knew that challenging these braves could mean death, that was a two way path. He held his ground.
“Of course, I ain't fixing to kill you first,” Tom added to the buck. “I'll start with him,” he motioned his head towards the one with the Henry. “Then you'd be next. Or you can just let the girl go and leave. You’ll live one way or die the other. But either way, you’re leaving. The decision's yours.”
But the other still didn’t do as told. Instead, he answered defiantly in English. “Who you be, buffalo hunter?”
He had noticed Tom’s Mississippi rifle. Tom occasionally hunted buffalo but not professionally. He aimed to get rich raising cattle here.
“Buffalo hunter? I’d have to be plum loco to be hunting buffalo in these trees,” he replied. “The buffalo are all out on the plains back yonder. The name’s Tom McCloud, at your service.”
“We despise buffalo hunters!” the brave spat.
Tom, unimpressed, studied the ponies, searching for a particular sign, a prize of long, blonde girl's hair. “I don’t see any buffalo hunter scalps on your belts,” he noted. “Seems you haven’t fared too well if that’s your claim. What you bucks ought to be doing is raising cattle before the buffalo vanish.”
With no buffalo on the reservation, the tribes up north were starving. They were allowed to hunt buffalo north of the reservation but not here and otherwise expected to farm. Meanwhile, the buffalo hunters west of here were killing off the herds at the rate of a hundred a day and just leaving the meat to rot.
The Comanche brave remained resolute, holding the girl ever tighter.
“Shoot him!” she implored, still struggling. “Kill him!”
Tom issued her a stern warning, his gaze unyielding. “Just hold your horses." he told the girl, while still holding his aim. "We’re just talking business.” Addressing the Comanche once more, he offered, “Now, I’ve never killed an Indian before, but I’m willing to make an exception. What will it take to trade for the girl?”
Since the brave was reluctant to release her, a trade was the only way out.
The offer piqued the Comanche’s interest. “You got whiskey?” he asked.
“No,” Tom replied, firmly holding his aim. “No whiskey. I don’t have a bottle but I do have this here bullet. It’s got your name on it. If you fancy it, speak up!”
“I said I got no whiskey but I got this here bullet,” Tom repeated. “If you want it, just say so.”
While he was offering the Indian his life in exchange for the girl, that’s not how Indians think. If they don’t get something back in trade, they think they’ve been cheated.
“Tell you what,” Tom offered. “I’ll give you my hat for her.”
“Your hat?!” the young girl exploded angrily and struggled all over again. “I’m worth more than a damned hat!”
“It’s a Stetson hat,” he answered. “And it’s worth a damned sight more than you are! So what’s it going to be, Chief? My hat or this bullet?”
The lead buck looked down the barrel of the rifle and reluctantly nodded to the one with the Henry who came forward on his horse to take the rare hat. Then the one released the girl, who ran clean away from him but not in Tom’s direction. She seemed to be trying to face them all at once like she didn’t trust Tom either.
That was fine with him. He didn’t want her coming between him and his aim.
The three Indians turned their horses around then and rode back north at a slow pace. Tom watched them go and did not lower his rifle until they disappeared into the trees.
He turned part way around to find the girl about thirty paces away and eyeing him. She'd found and fetched up another rock and faced him with it, ready to hit him next.
“Don’t you dare rape!” she warned. “Don’t you dare!”
Tom was no longer even looking at her. Though he’d noticed her dressed in Mexican peasant white with straw blonde hair, he'd gone back to checking once again to make certain those three Indians were gone for good. It seemed they were. He breathed easy then and his grip on the rifle slowly loosened.
As he lowered his rifle, his eye returned to the thin, young stick of a girl.
“Rape you? Missy, how desperate for a woman do you think I am?” he said in walking on past her to return to his tracking. “And you owe me a hat!”
That’s when the rock hit him square in the back. Now he turned with more determination. It was the girl and he had gotten her gumption for she picked up another rock and threatened to hit him again. What with her pretty good aim, he gave her stern look of warning. He was a big man , his sturdy silhouette towering over her.
The girl backed up then when she saw he was serious, turned, and disappeared into the trees as fast as any deer. He watched her leave. What was she doing out here, anyway?
Yet he wasn’t going to chase after her to find out when she was that quick. Besides, he was a mite too old to be chasing young girls. She'd find her own way home.
Satisfied she was gone; he went back to tracking amid the pleasant fragrance of of the cedars. After covering another hundred yards, he discovered yet another spoor sign on the ground. He also got hit by another rock.
Now he got mad and lit out after her. When she saw him coming, her eyes widened in alarm and her mouth formed a perfect “O” before she took off again. He had no idea any girl could run that fast. She was light on her feet. That much was for certain. It took all the speed he could muster just to keep up before he finally brought her down.
She was a lot stronger and more vicious than he expected too and fought like a possessed wildcat, all the while screaming, “Don’t you dare!”
Tom quickly learned he wanted no part of her. Too wild for him, he let her go and backed off, noticing she was barefoot with long, bare legs and blue eyes.
“What’s wrong with you, anyway?” he demanded of her. “You annoying little brat! I should have let them bucks have you!”
His only goal had been to teach her to stop throwing rocks at him. Yet here she was already reaching for another. So much for that lesson.
“You insulted me!” she answered and threatened to bean him again with another rock.
Tom chose to beat a hasty retreat. He could hit pretty hard himself with a rock but likely to come out on the losing end with her. She’d cracked that Indian pretty good. Tom had seen the welt on his forehead from thirty yards. He might hit her a few times, but she seemed to never miss and to have the better supply of rocks.
So he gave up and retreated back to his rifle. She actually pursued him, still angry, albeit from a safer distance than before. Then she stopped, biting her lip in frustration, before suddenly calling out.
“So are you just going to leave me out here?!”