High Plains, May 1868
Chisholm and Vicente had been hungry before. Many times. But not like this. Their bodies were eating themselves. Their stomachs were dull twisted knots. Nor did they have water. Their veins were collapsing from dehydration. The high plains spring had brought no rain fall for weeks. Creeks were dry. The animals were non-existent. Neither of them spoke aloud about their lack of options. At the end of the day they would have to shoot their mules. The tortured beasts were already stumbling and near death. They would have to drink their blood and eat parts of their hindquarters raw. That would give them two days of life at most. But then they would be on foot on the great prairie. A death sentence. A flock of buzzards circled them lazily in the still blue sky. A pack of emaciated coyotes followed them smiling at their misfortune.
Their mules plodded forward, the riders silent with regret. This was supposed to be a simple contract job, one of dozens of similar missions they had embarked on over the past thirty years. Two little girls had been taken captive from a far western Texas ranch. Their parents and brothers murdered, mutilated by the girl’s Comanche captors. The girl’s uncle had reached out to Jesse Chisholm. The man had gold, silver, horses, cattle, rifles galore – and he would trade mightily for the girls return. Chisholm was well known as a trader and emissary and man of plains. He wore a Comanche ‘Peace Medal’ around his neck the likes of which no one had ever seen. It gave Chisholm carte blanc among the Comanche clans to come and go freely. Chisholm had accepted the job and his partner Vicente had of course come along as well. Vicente had once been a Comanche captive himself, Chisholm had traded two blooded mares for him when he was but a child in 1844. But now those thoughts were forgotten. The silver conchos they carried in their saddlebags as trade stuffs were a useless mockery. It had been a very dry year. And they were dying.
There was no sound except that of equine hooves stamping heavily into earth. Then Vicente turned to the older Cherokee man, almost was he smiling. “Do you smell that Uncle?” He asked.
It took great energy for Chisholm to even speak, “What is it?”
Vicente grinned, “A huckleberry fire. And it is well-concealed.”
They both knew what that meant – Comanche. Chisholm took a deep breath. They might live after all. He scanned the horizon and saw nothing. “Where?” He asked, twitching his nose.
“It’s drifting Uncle. They will find us.”
They were Yampahreekuh clan Comanche who found them. Small boys on malnourished glassy-eyed ponies. Buffalo Hump’s people. They said the men were out hunting and had been gone for days. There were no animals to kill.
Chisholm and Vicente followed them slowly to their camp. There the women recognized them instantly at a distance and began wailing. These people were starving too. The men dismounted and the Comanche women crowded around them, their faces dirty their bodies covered in worn buckskin. The Thighs, Buffalo Hump’s eldest wife took Chisholm’s arm. “Why are you here Brother?” She asked, “We are starving and you will only die with us.”
Chisholm answered her in perfectly inflected Comanche, “We came to trade for two little girls your people took from the Tejanos. They were taken on the Salt Fork of the Red River.”
The Thighs nodded and Chisholm continued. “I talked to Buffalo Hump’s oldest nephew a full moon ago and he said they were with you. We cut your sign twelve days ago. But then we ran out of food. And water.”
The Thighs kept her face blank. “They were cotton-headed girls,” She said, “Very strong. They would have made good women. But when we ran out of food my husband threw them away on the prairie.” The Thighs shrugged and made a motion as if she were tossing a pinch of salt. Chisholm hung his head and felt bile rising in his throat. It was all for nothing. The girls were already coyote dung. They were going to die out here for no reason at all. He looked at Vicente and saw the light dim in his eyes. Wasted, he thought, after all these years we are wasted. “Come sit with us in the shade Brother,” The Thighs took his arm. “We have a few drinks of water and tobacco. That is all we can share with you.”
They sat in a nook of isolated hackleberry trees and smoked their pipes. Chisholm and Vicente each took a cup full of brackish water and held it in their mouths for long minutes before they swallowed. “I am glad my husband is not here to see you find us in this condition,” The Thighs confessed. “He would be very embarrassed. He is an old buck for sure but he can still lose his temper very quickly and dangerously”
“We all know the prairie very well. But it is a bad year to be moving. The worst I have ever seen.” Chisholm shook his head. “I would tell him this and he would know I spoke the truth. With one cup of water you have already helped us more today than we can help you.”
“One of our grandsons killed a youthful black bear six days ago. It was quite a feat really. He killed it with two arrows. That is all we have had in a long time. Some of the bear’s fat remains. You could cut up pieces of soft leather and mix it with the bear fat and eat it. We have all done this. There is perhaps enough left for two men.”
Chisholm looked at Vicente and the men nodded at each other. “That would be appreciated,” Vicente said and The Thighs roughly ordered her youngest sister-wife to prepare them this indelicacy. Chisholm turned to Vicente and lowering his voice spoke in Spanish, “Vicente, you know this is my seventieth summer.”
“I’m nearly at the end of my days anyway. Take all this bear fat for yourself. It may be too late for me.”
“No.” Vicente shook his head. “Never. We’ve been though too much for that. If we die, we die here together, with these indians.”
Chisholm looked at him for a long time and felt tears streaming down his cheeks. “Okay.” He said.
The woman brought them the bear fat and leather and they ate it in one fist-sized chunk. As soon as the fat hit their stomachs the revulsion rose and they both knew – the bear fat had soured. A Comanche could eat it and keep it down. But they never could – they stumbled out of the camp retching violently and sunk to their knees to vomit over and over. Vicente’s eyes lost their focus he collapsed like a dead-drunk as the women rushed to surround them.
Vicente opened his eyes and saw the endless blue sky obscured by hackleberry branches and leaves. They had dragged them into the shade to die. He heard squalls of delight and whoops of joy. Laughing and melodic Comanche language filled his head like a pipe dream. “The men are returning!” He heard, “They have meat and water!” He rolled over and leaned on one elbow and saw them. Ponies full of meat wrapped in pronghorn hide and bison bladders and gourds full of water on pack animals. “We are two days from fresh water!” He heard Buffalo Hump shouting, “We will make it!” He sat up and turned to where Chisholm lie beside him. He touched the man’s arm. “Wake up Uncle,” he said his mouth sandpaper rough and dry but Jesse did not move. Vicente saw that he was not breathing. He put his hand to his mouth. Chisholm was dead. He began to shudder and Buffalo Hump was rushing to the side of his old friend and trading partner. He dropped to his knees next to Chisholm’s corpse and screamed like a wild cat. He tore at his hair wildly and two dreadlocked clumps tore loose from his skull. The Thighs ran to his side and he pushed her away violently end over end she rolled. Whipping a knife into his hand Buffalo Hump slashed his forearm deeply over and over and then fell prostrate weeping.
The next morning stone-faced and wounded Buffalo Hump squatted next to Vicente and offered him his pipe. Vicente took it and puffed gently. “How would Chisholm want his body prepared?” Buffalo Hump asked. “In the white man’s way or in the indian way?” Still numb and barely cognizant Vicente could only shrug. “I don’t think he would care.” He said, “He was Cherokee. They are as much white as indian.”
Buffalo Hump nodded. “Okay. I will have the women do it our way. And we will make sure that you live to go to his people and tell them his fate