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By Jan Reid
TCU Press Copyright © 2010 Jan Reid
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If Bose Ikard had to Labor another life, he hoped to be relieved of doctors. At fourteen he was the property of a physician who had given him his name in Noxubee County, Mississippi, while living along a stream called the Tombigbee—all those places as foreign to Bose's ears as the Bight of Biafra, which was where his people probably came from, his owner once told him with a chuckle. Doctor Milton Ikard heard all the talk about the noble rights of Southerners and the cowardly radicals up North but put all the distance he could between himself and that growing trouble; also he disliked a damp climate. He did not give much thought to the family he dragged along. After stops in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Paris, Texas, the doctor trundled his itemized possessions due west in six-mule wagons to the dry skirt of the Comanche plain. Among them was "the orphan Negro Bose." The value he attached to the boy, $1,500, was a damn lie. That was the going rate for prime field hands, and Bose never was that.
The mix of post oak forest and bunchgrass prairie called the Palo Pinto country began with a thickening of the savannah thirty miles west of Fort Worth. It was the far reach of the settled frontier. Nothing lay beyond but six hundred miles of fear, bloodshed, and grief, and it had been that way for a hundred fifty years. Giving up their claim, the Spaniards gave the plains and canyonlands a name in grudging honor of the nomads, Comanchería. Soon after the Ikards' arrival in the Palo Pinto country, a Comanche war axe laid open the chest of Ikard's nine-year-old daughter like a pullet prepared for a frying pan. A single rider, who must have gotten separated from his raiding party, came along wearing black face paint and a cap of wooly buffalo topknot and horns and killed that little girl out in the yard just because he took a mind to. It's a wonder he didn't kill them all. The doctor who ought to have been the child's protector was nowhere around. After that, seeking strength in numbers and patients for his practice, he moved them into the little town of Weatherford.
Bose had the barest memory of coffee-colored arms and a smell perhaps of milk-giving breasts, but the doctor and his wife, a fragile creature Bose was required to call Lady Isabella, told him nothing about his mother except that she died in that place where he was born. Gave him not even a name. Bose was light-skinned, and the older and taller he got, the more obvious it became that he was the son of the man who owned him. The doctor could joke about his ancestors but he didn't feel obliged to say one word to him about that. Not one, not ever. The son of a bitch.
That little girl, his half-sister, was named Euphrasia, after a plant and flower that was a parasite of grass, of which there was a great wealth in the Palo Pinto country. Eyebright, the plant was also called. Dust those scales and crush me some eyebright, boy. Yes sir, right to it. Doctor Ikard believed his Euphrasia tea would, in the most careful and minute dilution, cure cataracts and most all kinds of visual impairment caused by airborne miasma. Bose's father was not observed to shed one tear for his dead child Euphrasia or question his decision to transport his family to the most dangerous place on that portion of the earth. He complicated the life of one of Bose's half-brothers by naming him William Susan. Boy named Sue. He knew his mind and slept like a baby.
The kind of medicine he practiced was a craze in those years. Doctor Ikard was little more than a horse lineament salesman, but people in that town honored him as a man of great learning. He might have had it chiseled on his tombstone, for he said it so often: "Always remember, the enemy is the morbid derangement of the organism." He was talking about illness, not Comanches.
While Bose's half-brother, Milt the younger, roamed the country with a gang of pals on horses that they ran near to death for the devil of it, in those years Bose got no closer to the back of a moving horse than the seat of a buggy. Doctor Ikard made him a house slave and his medical assistant. Often abed, Lady Isabella would summon him with rings of a silver bell and calls of "Where is that nigger?" Better days were spent in the laboratory behind the little clinic on Main Street, where Bose made dust of the potions that would leave minute suggestive traces in carefully boiled water. There were virtues to that kind of bondage. He picked no cotton and bore no scars of a whip. He slept in a feather bed, he learned to read and do the figuring required by the doctor's concoctions, and he took to it. He was Lady Isabella's kitchen help, her cook, and in her gayer states of mind she taught him a few keys and chords of a piano. But Bose's hands were calloused and his arms and shoulders were hard from all the work with a shovel. The homeopath was just another sawbones, when it came down to it. Bose cleaned up after enough amputations, threw enough sawdust on the clinic's blood-soaked floor, buried enough arms and legs to muster an army of cripples. Sometimes the amputees in his dreams had no heads.
In those last weeks of 1860, white folks in Weatherford decided their most urgent concern was not the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. A party of Comanches and Kiowas led by the dreaded chief Nocona set fire to another outlying town just north of us, Jacksboro, and left bodies and ashes on almost every ranch and farm as they swept south and west through the Palo Pinto country. People huddled in misery beside the walls of the little army fort on the Brazos River, Camp Cooper, whose dragoons were suspect because most of them were Irish, and it was rumored that all the forts built for settlers' protection from the Indians would soon be closed. If it could happen to Jacksboro, it could happen to us. And out in the countryside, the danger was much worse.
Elihu and Martha Sherman were known but not treasured by the community because they were Anabaptists. Pacifists, they ploughed their fields with oxen, figuring that horses or mules just incited the Indians. The Shermans had no guns at all; they trapped what meat they had to eat. When the war party showed up on their farm, Mrs. Sherman was eight months pregnant. With smiles and gestures to hurry along, the Indians put the settlers walking, with Mr. Sherman smoking a pipe and two little children holding on his hands. Raiders then ganged Mrs. Sherman, yanked her drawers down, took turns raping her, shot arrows into her belly, and scalped her. Nocona jammed a war lance in her when they finally stood away. Mrs. Sherman lived on for two days in Doctor Ikard's clinic, screaming in labor and telling her story with no god's mercy or rest. Her baby was born dead, and then she died. I dug both of their graves—Mr. Sherman had some Anabaptist objection to their being buried together.
A hard rain had set in before the Indians were through killing, and because of all the stolen horses the volunteer rangers had no difficulty tracking them far up on the plains. But they were too out-numbered to attack, so they turned back, bitter that the soldiers at Camp Cooper hadn't saddled up to help. It was the worst Christmas Weatherford had known. Men stood out on Main Street preaching. The one who scared me most wasn't properly a preacher. John Baylor was the publisher of the only newspaper on the Texas frontier. He called it The White Man and wrote all its stories to suit that label. Baylor had wild eyes, a bald head, and a long black beard. I came out of the clinic's alley entrance one dreary day and heard the man bellowing out in the street. I peeked between the clapboard buildings and observed Baylor flinging one hand about, an open Bible in the other. Rain poured off his head, and hanging limp from buildings behind him were black flags flown in protest of Lincoln's election. "Nahum the Elkoshite," he roared, "begins his Old Testament prophecy with a cry for vengeance against Nineveh. 'The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked; the Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein.'"
People in the Palo Pinto country were hot to get even, all right, but they were also at a loss to explain. The Comanches and Kiowas raided in the warm months, almost never in the winter, and they had never come in such numbers. At Camp Cooper the army's Tonkawa scouts, who hated Comanches above all human beings and studied them intently, said it was a vengeance raid, for certain. What were they avenging? All you had to do was read the paper.
To the privy out behind the clinic I happened to carry sheets of The White Man that John Baylor had published in November, weeks before the raid. The biggest story was the one he made up about Old Hicks the Texas Ranger and his serial search for Cynthia Ann Parker, the white girl who had been carried off as a child a quarter of a century ago, and then when she was near forgotten, army explorers and traders came back from the plains with the story that she had married and borne babies of the evil Comanche Nocona. No, that can't be true! Speak up, Old Hicks, you Indian killer.
Here's how he imagined rescuing the princess of the plains and routing the coward Indians. "When we reached the other shore and obtained our footing on the rocks, we turned again to see them. We pointed our pistols, and they dipped under the water, and held their white shields above their heads. We renewed our retreat, and were very quickly out of reach of their arrows, and answered their demon howls with jeers of laughter. The Indians stood in the stream and on the bank, watching for some moments, while we deliberately loaded our rifles and plucked out the arrows they had shot into our clothes and limbs. These we threw back toward them with scornful gestures; when we again raised our rifles, they dived like a flock of chicks when a hawk swoops into their midst.
"We could distinguish traces of the woman's flight for some distance up the ravine. I could not help observing the delicate smallness of the wet foot marks she left upon the stones. Poor creature! Her naked feet had been cut in the rapid flight by those cruel stones. When we overtook them, she held quite a large round pebble in her small hand, which was upraised above her head, as if in the act of hurling it in our faces. I could see an expression of unutterable defiance in the flashing of her black eyes, and in the compression of her thin, delicate lips. I saw at once, from the fairness of her complexion, not only that she was not an Indian, but felt this must be the face which had so possessed my imagination. She was a clear brunette, and evidently a foreigner. I signed as eloquently as I could, for I knew how to express friendliness and good will by gestures. She paid no attention to that but sharply asked me, 'Qui êtes-vous?'
"I speak French very lamely, and answered, as best I could, 'Texans, Americans, et amis.' She smiled brightly, threw away her pebble, and came bounding down the rocks to join us. That night her small, graceful head lay upon my shoulder, while the long and silken hair streamed in a raven cloud to my feet. She was very lightly clothed, since the only garment of civilization her captors had left her was something like a chemise of fine linen, which left her breast exposed and her arms naked; she, however, had thrown over her shoulders, as a cape, the brightly rosetted skin of an ocelot, but this had now fallen off. From an instinct of delicacy that does not desert even rude backwoods men, I swept her long hair as the most appropriate veil over her bosom. It was sacred to me!"
Texas Ranger that could speak French! John Baylor must have had to take a walk, he got himself so aroused. Elsewhere in the paper, he praised the lynching of a suspected abolitionist and swore that slaves were sneaking off at night and poisoning wells. Then he turned to his column "Late Indian News."
"We learn from a gentleman just in from Camp Cooper, who belongs to Captain Barry's Company of Rangers, that on the 1st, while some ten or twelve of the Company were on scout at or about the head of the Pease River, they discovered a party of Indians, some twenty in number, and immediately gave them chase, and over-whelming them, killed and scalped four, and wounded several others. Two of the white men were wounded in the fight, but not badly. One of the men, a citizen of Weatherford, was shot in the neck with an arrow. We say, three cheers for Captain Barry and his brave Company. We wish them success and hope them many more scalps."
Gentlemen must have scalped the wrong ones.
* * *
When two companies of rangers and the two platoons of cavalry came back from their punishment raid of a camp on the Pease River, a young captain named Sul Ross bragged to anyone who'd listen that he had personally killed Nocona, and with them was a dirty and melancholy woman and a dark-haired little girl who was about two years old. The winners of that battle kept it secret as long as they could. Few people in Weatherford had any idea they were Cynthia Ann Parker and her daughter.
Parker County, where they were now captive, was named for one of the patriarchs of her Texas family—a prominent politician in his day, a friend of Sam Houston, the governor. She had some siblings, one of them a brother who'd been a captive and after his ransom had chosen to lose himself in Mexico. But both parents were dead. Rumors blew through Weatherford like northers; one had it that Nocona was much alive and terribly angry. Some who knew about the pair began to grumble that the Parker clan was taking its sweet time getting that killer's wife and daughter out of a badly shaken and endangered town. The rangers soon lost interest in standing guard over them, and the soldiers retreated to Camp Cooper. What were people to do? Why, call the doctor.
Doctor Ikard's clinic didn't have any rooms with locks on the doors, so they took the woman and her baby to his house on Main Street—to the distress of Lady Isabella. She'd be shrieking behind one door, the white Comanche was throwing herself against the woodwork behind another, and Bose was caught between them in the hall.
Bose's father gave up trying to examine the squaw or her baby. The woman took one look at his stethoscope and believed he either wanted to strangle her or steal the heartbeat of her child. "They appear to be in good health, considering," the doctor said. It fell to some women from the Parker County Baptist Church to get the squaw changed from greasy deerskin into a loose-fitting dress, but Bose gathered from the whispers that she'd have nothing to do with undergarments. Proper shoes hurt her feet; they had to let her keep her moccasins. Bose was jailer and manservant to the most famous woman in all of Texas. She didn't know how to use a chamber pot.
Governor Sam Houston himself sent up a senior ranger from Austin. A quiet man with a long nose and even-tempered eyes, Major Byrne knew the plains sign language and spoke a fair amount of Comanche. But he approached his task warily. With the old politician Isaac Parker in the doctor's parlor were three of his kinfolks, one of them a woman. There were also eight local men—the Parker County judge, a banker, a lawyer, and the Baptist preacher—and their wives. Doctor Ikard motioned at Bose to come along as they crowded upstairs for the interrogation. "God knows what we're in for," the doctor muttered to him. "Strokes, heart attacks. People jumping out windows. I need somebody in there with me who won't just gawk."
They had the look of a mob inside that small bedroom—the woman's eyes started walling. The ranger placed himself on a chair facing Cynthia Ann and made signs and talked a long while before she said anything. She just rocked in her chair and clutched her baby. Finally she spoke so haltingly and quietly that Byrne had to turn his head and lean closer to make it out. The ranger listened through it all then sat there staring at her with his hands clasped on his knees.
"Good God, man, what is it?" said the patriarch, Isaac Parker.
The man drew breath and let it out. "She remembers when she was carried off by the Indians. She has a clear recollection of her ma and pa and brother. Her pa was the first one killed. Her mother told her to take her brother and run. But everything else about that day is just a blank."
"God is merciful," said the Parker woman.
"She says she's sorry for what the Comanches did, but they must have had a reason.
She says they're good people who took her in and raised her, and she's one of them now. The way they live is all she's ever known. She says she's got a husband and two sons—"
"That there's wrong, she ain't got no husband," snapped one of the Parkers. "Sul Ross done seen to that."
The ranger looked him over. "I wouldn't know about that, sir. I'm just telling you what she told me. She says her boys need her. She's begging you to let her go."
Excerpted from Comanche Sundown by Jan Reid. Copyright © 2010 Jan Reid. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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