As the narrative progresses, Helen Morrison slowly—and almost unbeknownst to herself—goes from being a frightened, rebellious white girl to becoming “a woman of the people.” Like many of the people who figure in true-life Indian captivity narratives, Helen adopts the ways of the Comanches, marries a member of her small band, and becomes a major figure in tribal life.
A Woman of the People parallels in some ways the real story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken by Comanches, married Peta Nocona, and became the mother of the celebrated Quanah Parker, the last great chief of the Comanches. But unlike the real-life Cynthia Ann Parker story, where many mysteries abound, the novel takes the reader inside the mind of the main character, and we are allowed to grow with her as she forgets her white heritage and Helen and becomes Tehanita (Little Girl Texan).
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A Woman of the People
By Benjamin Capps
TCU PressCopyright © 1966 Benjamin Capps
All rights reserved.
1. West Toward the Setting Sun
The Trinity River empties its clear water into Galveston Bay, a good harbor on the Gulf of Mexico. In 1854 the people who lived along the lower Trinity might enjoy many of the products of civilization, for they were in touch with all the world through ships and low-draft barges. They raised garden crops, rice, tobacco, and a great amount of cotton, and produced lumber in their sawmills from the forests of pine and hardwood that were native to the coastal hills. Here along the river, vegetation grew lush; Spanish moss hung on the trees; cane brakes stood tall and thick; sometimes an alligator might be seen sleeping in the mud at the edge of the water.
If a traveler moved northwest up the winding river, he found himself slowly moving into another world. The trees became fewer and smaller, without hanging moss. As the days of his journey passed, he might note that the air was drier. Less often would he pass one of the crude river docks. Finally, as he pushed against the slow currents, he would come to where the river wound through vast prairies of blackland, good for growing cotton, a land that had drawn some farmers into it during the past decade or two. About the western edge of this cotton land the river forked and spread out like the main branches of a tree.
At this point enterprising settlers had built a bridge across the Trinity, but a surge of angry red water had come down and swept it away; in the little-known country to the west sometimes violent thunderstorms dumped water on the land.
The traveler had come only two hundred miles of distance from the Gulf, but he had come more than seven hundred difficult miles by the tortuous path of the river. He had come away from a humid climate to a semiarid one. He had come to the place from which Western Civilization sent tentative probing fingers, along the forks of a river, into the interior of a continent. Out there lay a vast unknown. It would prove to be a rugged plains country where dust blew during the heat of summer and blizzards swept suddenly down in winter, an inhospitable land where the sparse vegetation had thorns and the water was bitter to the tongue. In 1854 it was almost trackless as far as the white man knew. Its native inhabitants were nomadic Stone Age people.
This area of the forks would be a good place for the traveler to turn back. Beyond here the crude and dangerous forces of a wilderness prevailed over the things of civilization. A few white people had gone farther—soldiers, explorers, hunters in the main, a scattered handful of settlers. Some of them were tough, bold people. Some were fools. Strangely, some were young and innocent, as tender as flowers that bloom in the desert.
Helen Morrison did not know that it was 1854. She lived in no complicated framework of time, but in such world as is known by a nine-year-old girl. In her family, her papa kept account of the days. Their calendar had run out the winter before, and they had not been able to get another one, and her papa had made one himself. He had worked three nights under the light of a tallow candle with pen and ink, using the back of the old calendar, since writing paper had to be saved for letters. Her papa had done the mysterious making so that he would know Sunday, the Lord's day, and the time to plant seeds and other times that older people want to know. The most important thing about it to her was that it showed her birthday in about a month when she would be ten. Her papa had written it in: "Helen, B.D." And her mama was saving some white flour for a cake, if weevils didn't get into the can and spoil it. Her little sister Katy, who was five, had already had her birthday this year with a cake made out of the flour. And her big brother George had had one too, before they got the flour. George had said he didn't care. He had turned fourteen. She had thought he really did care and was only pretending, to seem older. But it was true that he was big and could do a lot of things, sleep up in the loft by himself, go out with Papa's rifle and get a turkey, or search out a bee tree and rob it and get stung and not cry.
Katy would cry at stubbing her toe or anything, but straighten up and laugh the next instant. She was a little tease. It was Helen's duty to look after Katy, help her dress, take her to the toilet, comb the tangles from her long blond hair, keep her from wandering off and getting lost. It was a lot of trouble, but better than not having a sister at all.
Being the middle child was troublesome. They would never let her do what George could do, because, as they said, she must remember that he was a lot older; and they would never let her do what Katy was allowed to do, because, she must remember, Katy was just a baby. She sometimes dreamed that among the neighbors that would come—which her papa was sure would settle this far out by next year—would be a girl her own age she could play with.
The neighbors would be close by. And a community fort would be built there on their own hill, or so her papa hoped. Sometimes at night she heard them talking after she and Katy were in bed. "All we can do," Papa would say, "is trust in the Lord and build a community fort when we get some neighbors. We've got the timber and the hill. I'd go ahead and start it, but they'll want to have their say." Pretending to sleep, she would hear them talk in low voices about the Indians. "I think the Wichitas are good people," he would say. "By themselves. But there's talk they trade with Comanches. Maybe they even spy for Comanches."
They never mentioned Comanches in the daytime. When they had lived on the Neches River, before Papa located his league of land, Aunt Melinda used to say to her children and to Helen, "You be good. You want the Comanches to get you!" But Papa and Mama thought it was a wrong thing to say. They never said it.
She thought about it sometimes, teasing herself with that forbidden secret, when she was lonely from being rebuffed by her brother and bored with her little sister's innocent play, when she was perhaps taking a little revenge for her little sister's more favored age. She would refuse to talk for a while, but would be saying to herself: There are things you wouldn't think are there. But they are. Comanches! There are really Comanches! ... They were vague things, a little like witches or bad fairies or trolls, but different, because her papa spoke of them in a low voice. She did not think of them to frighten herself, but because it always seemed they were a grown-up thing, secret, uncertain to her, but real and clear to older people. There were other ideas she savored in her private world: that she had hundreds of new and amazing things to experience in her life, that she might be the woman of a house, that she might meet unthought-of friends. That was mostly all wonderful and unending. But no thought could move her as that one she sometimes insisted upon to herself: You might not believe it, but there really are Comanches!
On that autumn afternoon it was cloudy and nice. Papa was clearing land a mile away beyond the hill. Sometimes they could hear the crack of his ax in the oakwood. He sent George home with the empty water jug. George had to saddle the mare and go look for the heifer, which had not come home the night before. The heifer was about to find a baby calf, and Papa thought it had happened and wanted her brought home to the lot. He wanted Helen to bring him the water. Katy begged to go until Mama finally said she could. Helen filled the jug from the keg, pushed the cedar stopper into the neck, and let the spigot dribble water around on the burlap cover of the jug, so the water would stay cool. "Now, go by the path, Helen," Mama said. "I'm afraid Katy will get on a cactus or something."
As she started, she saw George riding away on the red mare, Sweet Betsy, kicking his bare heels into her sides to make her gallop.
Mama called from the doorway, "Helen?"
"Keep your eye on Katy every minute, now."
That brief backward look at her mama in the doorway showed only what she had seen many times: a familiar face, kind, anxious. But this was a time she would remember long, or try to. She would seek the face in her memory, even as it faded, and try to hear the voice again, and would never get the words back, only that they said something about taking care of Katy. Also, she would remember something of the look of her brother riding away, carefree but partly grown-up, kicking his feet into the sides of the red mare to make her gallop.
"Don't skip, Katy," she said. "Here, take my hand."
"No, I want to skip."
It would make no difference in the events about to happen that she disobeyed and left the path, unless it were some coloring of guilt that would remain in her memory of the day. It would make no difference, but her mama had said to go by the path among the last things she had said. Perhaps she disobeyed to feel big for a moment. Or it might have been that she was drawn to the hill because it meant the community fort and the neighbors who would come some day.
"You want to go over the hill?" she asked.
"Yes. Let's go over the hill."
"If you get a sticker, will you not cry and tell Mama?"
"All right. But you stay close to me, because I can't skip and carry this heavy jug."
From the rounding crest of the hill she could see the roof of the cabin behind them. Out to the left she could see a broad sweep of the West Fork of the Trinity River with its fringe of cottonwood and willows. Ahead she could see the oak timber with the opening in it where her papa worked. But something was wrong! She was aware of the sight and the sound at the same time. Where her papa should be, strange horses reared and plunged in a cluster. Dark, half-naked men danced and cried out with strange, reckless voices. She dropped the jug and grabbed her little sister's hand. "Quick, Katy, something's wrong! Run!"
She ran, heedless of any damage to their bare feet, almost dragging the smaller girl, who had not seen or did not understand. Then she saw other waving horsemen spill out of the timber toward the river and she knew there was no place to run. "No, get down, Katy! Hide! Get down flat!"
Nothing grew on the hill but grass and low weeds, mostly dry from summer heat. She spread out in the prickly growth with one arm flung over Katy, who was struggling, trying to see. From toward the cabin came a scream, not loud at this distance but almost unbearable to hear. It had fright in it and anger, as if it came from a desperate animal, and sadness. It seemed to linger in the air after it was gone. Though she had never heard such a sound from her mama, she could tell it came from that familiar throat and mouth. Something had to be done, but she could think of nothing except to pretend to hide. Katy was saying things and asking questions and trying to raise her head.
She heard the guttural voices and the thumping of hoofs coming near, even saw, out of the side of her eye, the dust they raised out of the dry grass, but still pretended to hide because there was nothing else to do. She knew they were over her. She put one hand over the head of Katy and the other over her own. But then she felt strong fingers on her shoulders, and she was snatched up, as if she were small and light as a doll, and was stood upon her feet.
Four of them were there, two mounted and two on the ground. It seemed more, as if they covered the place. On their faces and arms and chests were painted lines and circles of muddy red and muddy yellow. They grunted and made small cries as if they were excited and pleased, all making sounds at once. One of them felt of Katy's hair.
The ride was like a long bad dream, beginning with a last view of her home; she saw feathers from a mattress scattered into the air and smoke rolling from a window. Then they turned down off the hill and rode toward the lowering sun. The brown arm that circled her in the saddle seemed as unyielding as a tree trunk. The Indian, against whose body she was bumped by the motion of the horse, seemed as much an animal as a man.
Katy was whining and sputtering in the arms of the rider who carried her. Suddenly that Indian cried, "Hey!" and slapped her on the side of the head. Katy had bitten his arm. The other three Indians laughed at it and talked as if teasing the one who was bitten.
She said, "Don't cry, Katy. I'm here." But the one who carried her put his hand roughly on her mouth to silence her. She was helpless, but she knew a thing they couldn't know. Her brother had ridden in the other way from the house and was mounted on the fast mare, Sweet Betsy. It was four miles back to the Johnson place. If only he had not been caught and had found out what had happened, he would ride back and tell the Johnsons. She was anxious lest Katy say something about George until she realized that the Indians would not understand it.
They rode straight toward the red setting sun. On a hill they stopped and talked, looking back. She could see a loose band of horses threading through the scattered oaks a mile behind them, being driven by naked riders. Two of the riders with her rode back toward them. The two carrying Katy and herself turned and continued in the direction they had been going. The sun was down.
As darkness came on, she worried that Katy would be even more afraid, and she worried that whoever was coming to rescue them could not find the way. They were going uphill, then downhill, across gullies, around clumps of trees, on and on through a dim country that seemed so big that no one could find his way in it. The stiff rawhide on the saddle hurt her legs. She was afraid that Katy would wet her pants and the Indian who carried her would be angry. She was determined not to give in and go to sleep; she must stay awake and do what she could to take care of Katy.
She slept without meaning to and woke from water splashing on her bare feet. They were riding across a stream. The horrible, impossible thing was still true. The horse scrambled up a sloping path on the other side, and when they came out from under the trees into the moonlight, she could see the other horse beside them and the form of Katy in the big Indian's arms, her yellow hair bobbing to the horse's gait. She was glad Katy was asleep. If only they wouldn't hurt her before George came with a lot of people to take them back.
Her legs were raw against the stiff saddle. She wanted to put her hands between her legs and the saddle to ease the rubbing, but could not because of the heavy arm that encircled her. For a long time she was half asleep, awake only enough to wonder when they would ever stop riding. When she came completely awake, they were stopped on a high place, and it was daylight.
The Indian dismounted. When he lifted her down, she could hardly stand on her sore legs at first. They took stringy meat out of a pouch and offered it to her and Katy. The meat was covered with rancid tallow. It didn't seem fit to eat. She and Katy held small pieces of it and watched the Indians eat. The two took a bag from the back of one of the saddles, untied a leather string from one end of it, and drank from it. The bag was made from an animal's stomach. One of them brought the bag to Katy and made signs for her to open her mouth and dribbled water into it. When he made the signs to Helen, she shook her head and clamped her mouth shut tightly. She didn't mean to eat or drink any of their things. He shrugged his shoulders and put the bag back on the saddle.
The two Indians let the horses graze while they walked around and made their strange talking sounds to each other and looked out over the countryside. Then one of them put Katy back on his horse. The other motioned to Helen.
"I want to walk," she said. She couldn't show him the raw places on her legs because she would have to pull up her dress.
He motioned fiercely.
"I want to walk. My legs hurt."
He lunged at her and jerked her up and sat her on the front of the saddle as before. He made some sounds as if scolding her. They rode straight away from the sunrise.
Before they had gone far, she was wondering whether she did right to refuse the water. That morning was longer than the night had been. It became hot, and she wanted a drink badly. It seemed strange that Katy was not crying or chattering or wanting something, but was sitting in front of the Indian rider as if she didn't mind. Thank goodness, she wasn't crying.
She wondered whether they would give her a drink if she asked. She could ask for it and point at her mouth and point at the bag behind the other saddle. Thinking of trying to make them understand made her realize how badly she would hate to ask them for anything. She said to herself, "I'd rather die than ask them." She remembered her papa saying a person could go a long time without food but must have water nearly every day in hot weather. If they offered her a drink again, she would take it.
They crossed endless hills covered with dry autumn grass and scattered clumps of dark oak shrubbery. Then, about noon, they came to the crest of a ridge, and the Indians cried out to each other. They yelled long sounds of greeting and kicked their horses into a run. Below them lay a small stream with big trees along it. Among the trees nestled a camp with brush arbors and fires and tied horses and Indians, mostly women and children.
Excerpted from A Woman of the People by Benjamin Capps. Copyright © 1966 Benjamin Capps. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. West Toward the Setting Sun,
2. Winter on the Goodwater,
3. Winter When the Buffalo Hid,
4. Incident at Medicine Mounds,
5. Mountains That Wander Away,
6. One Spring in Blanco Canyon,
7. Winter in the Sand Hills,
8. The Wide Mouth Raid to Mexico,
9. The Offer of Nine Horses,
10. Message of a Metal Horn,
11. Story Teller,
12. Return of Ute Killer,
13. The Winter of Living in Graves,
14. The White Banner,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I first read this book when I was in junior high school nearly forty (!) years ago. It was a book that stuck with me, although I didn't remember the author's name and couldn't find the book again until, serendiptiously, I saw it on the book wall of a thrift shop. It is as good and as authentic as I remembered. Nine -year-old Helen Morrison and her five-year-old sister Katy are captured by Comanches during a raid. Vowing to escape back to white people with her little sister, Helen conforms to the Comanche way of life to earn their trust to facilitate the escape. As the years go by Katy forgets that she was ever white and that Helen was her sister. The book follows the Mutsani clan of the Comanche in their every-day life of following the buffalo, of feast, of famine, of the declining buffalo, of customs, rivalries, enemies, friends, of happiness, of the agony of loss, and of being brutaly hunted by soldiers determined to either force them on the Reservations or wipe them out completely. Helen must finally decide who she really is, Helen Morrison or Tehanita, a slave or a Woman of the People.
This is a very interesting book. It's historically accurate, and is fun to read. I enjoyed reading it. Only reason I did not give a 5 star rating is because the book gets a little boring towards the beginning. But the rest of the books if FABULOUS!
the book really depicts a good setting of American history and gives you an idea of how things are. a great story that captures both feelings and portrays an image that we do not always see... a good book