Ashes on His Boot

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The Warpath - Early June 1840

A lead-gray wall of approaching rain framed Buffalo Hump’s village of beige and white tipis dotting the green plateau. Lightning streaked across the roiling thunderhead towering in the western sky. The storm was favorable medicine.

Rumbles of distant thunder from the Great Spirit’s war drum overpowered the noise of hundreds of pony hooves clattering on the trail. Peta Nokona, bare-chested astride a gray Apaloosa, led his Nokoni warrior band into the sprawling Penateka village. Yellow Wolf and a band of Yamparikas trailed the last of the Nokoni war party. Iron Jacket had already arrived with his Quahadi band, more than two hundred warriors, a day earlier.
Buffalo Hump walked the path between long lines of young Comanche braves, honing the points of war lances and making arrows. He nodded to others sitting under tipi flaps, painting sacred buffalo emblems on leather and wooden shields. Women, soaked to the skin from an earlier downpour, scurried about in the mesquite bushes gathering wood for the war fire that Buffalo Hump had ordered lit when the thunderstorms passed.
He would make war. Kill White Faces. Buffalo Hump had lost his most trusted peace envoy, Chief Muragua, in the Council House Massacre. Thirty-five Comanche, among them twelve peace chiefs, had been gunned down either inside the White Faces’ meeting house, or in the streets of San Antonio. They’d died like running dogs. Some thirty more Penatekas and Nokoni had later been imprisoned there. Buffalo Hump would never again talk of peace.
But could General Sam Houston have been part of this slaughter? No matter now, his people – Texas Army and Rangers – had done the evil deed.
At the last full moon, Buffalo Hump had resolved what must be done to return balance and order to his world. He had ordered the White Face hostages in his camp to be ceremonially executed. The ones he’d punished had not been the offenders, they were nothing more than surrogates. Other White Faces in San Antonio and Austin, their Paraibos, had left him no choice.
To show Buffalo Hump’s deepest despair with the Council House slaughter, he’d chosen the most severe and ancient Penateka retribution, ritual death by fire. The Chief personally selected two young White Face boys and tied them to spits and roasted them alive. The Chief had forced their parents and the rest of his hostages to attend the ceremony, then had come his more merciful killing of the rest.
He’d spared one White Face woman to carry his message to Austin. Buffalo Hump gave her a fast pony. He instructed her to ride to the White Faces, tell them of the ritual deaths she had witnessed. Tell them she had seen Numunuh justice.
Still, there was no satisfaction. Even these executions did not restore equilibrium for Buffalo Hump. Chief Muragua’s death and that of the other great Numunuh warriors and their families required further acts. All Comanche held by the White Faces had to be released. More intruders on Numunuh land had to die soon. Great spoils and many captives should be taken. A quiet order, peace at last, entered Buffalo Hump’s thoughts. He considered the war council to come.

Buffalo Hump, Chief of the Penatekas and the Comanches’ strongest war chief, sat cross-legged in front of his council fire. The oldest war chief, Iron Jacket, and the second youngest, Yellow Wolf, flanked Buffalo Hump. Peta Nokona, youngest of nine chiefs present, sat across from him. The heavy rain pelting the longhouse and constant thunder could not dampen the will and war spirit of the council. Everybody had lost family members or comrades in the San Antonio Massacre of the first Spring Moon.
No Numunuh peace chiefs were left alive to attend the conclave, nor would they have been invited. Buffalo Hump called no medicine men to the council. He would not permit talk of peace ever again, and he required no advice from shamans. Buffalo Hump’s medicine was strong enough.
He addressed the gathering. “My Brothers, though we come together from separate camps, none is above the other in importance. No war chief was required to join this council. We must avenge the senseless killings of our people.” Buffalo Hump made a sweeping motion with one hand. “You come here with your band to be part of a mighty war party, a great raid. Together, we will make war that Numunuh will speak of in legends to their children and grandchildren.”
The Chief waited. Silence. Shifting torsos made the only sounds. Iron Jacket’s coat of Spanish chain mail rustled, glistening in the light of the council fire. The oldest war chief turned to face Buffalo Hump. He nodded once, chin touching his metal-clad chest.
Eyes shut, the Chief put one hand on the shoulder of the eldest warrior’s metal jacket. Now he had Immortal Iron Jacket’s blessing. There would be no mercy to White Faces. Buffalo Hump opened his eyes and surveyed the circle of chiefs.
“We are fewer than before,” Buffalo Hump said, determination in his voice. “White Face attacks and White Face pestilence reduce our numbers. Even so, the Great Mystery protects us who remain. He makes our medicine strong. Soon, our great fire will burn.” He stood and raised his hands. “We will sing and dance to celebrate war and the victory to come.”
Buffalo Hump ducked down at the door and led the war council out of his longhouse. The Comanche War Chiefs took their places near the massive pile of mesquite. Buffalo Hump positioned Iron Jacket on the right, the place of honor. Then the Penateka Chief moved away from the group, shed his buffalo robe and gripped his war axe. Buffalo Hump would make this a celebration no Numunuh would ever forget.
The rain had passed and Buffalo Hump motioned for women to light the fire. Low drums began a barely audible beat somewhere in the gathering dusk. More than four hundred armed warriors in war paint and full battle dress danced past Buffalo Hump in one line, bowing and swaying to the rhythmic thumping. The warriors snaked around until the line joined to form a great circle around the growing flames.
Outside the circle, Buffalo Hump signaled with his war axe for more women and children and apprentice braves – boys just learning combat skills – to gather around the outer perimeter. Soon, two thousand feet propelled his Great Comanche War Party. Left and right, forward and back, bodies undulating in unison closer to the war fire and then backing away.
The drumbeat quickened and grew louder. His time had come. Buffalo Hump bent low and danced into the circle. He emerged out of the smoke east of the fire. His cobalt blue war vest trimmed in white beads and fringed in red leather covered his bare chest and back. Brown, fringed and red-beaded leggings extended to the Chief’s bare feet. Four eagle feathers plaited with red and black rawhide hung in the Chief’s long tails of coal black hair. Buffalo Hump’s painted face, a mask of black and white, reflected the fire. The Chief of the Penatekas signaled his readiness for the battle to come.
Buffalo Hump glided with high, deliberate steps clockwise around the circle. He swung his iron war axe in a slow, menacing arc. The Chief moved first south, then west, then north in the sacred direction of the sun and moon.
He came full circle back to the east. Drums fell silent. The War Chief lifted his head and thrust the iron axe toward the low, gray clouds. Buffalo Hump let out the great war cry. The sound, like a hundred screaming eagles, echoed back from the hills and down from the clouds.
Then Buffalo Hump spread his arms and waved his war axe side-to-side. He had traced the path of sun and moon. The Penateka Chief had loosed the great war cry. His duty to make sure all were under the Great Mystery’s divine protection was done.
“This time tomorrow, my brothers and sisters,” Buffalo Hump rasped, his voice hardened by the ear-splitting scream. “By the Blood Moon’s light, we ride to glorious battle. We do not fear the enemy’s medicine. Ours is stronger. Our cause is just.”
He raised his war axe again. The weapons of the assembly followed skyward in unison. Buffalo Hump stepped onto a boulder, the surface under the Chief’s bare feet shone wet in the firelight.
“They are the devils. They are the cowards.” Buffalo Hump warned the gathering. “We will avenge our brothers and sisters who fell in their village. We will free our captives. We will burn their dwelling places.” He took a breath. “We, the Numunuh, will drive these intruders and their scourges from our land forever.”
The drumbeat started again, soft and steady. Buffalo Hump vaulted from the rock and moved toward the knot of war chiefs by the fire. He began the Comanche Raid Chant. Warriors, women and children joined in with low and lyrical voices. He danced, and they followed, dancing to the drums and chanting. His Numunuh, more than a thousand strong, began their evening of war celebration around the fire.

We all go on a warpath

So let us dance and sing

We now go off to see a land

That we have never seen.

And when we’ve won, we all will feast

Upon a colt that’s young and lean

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