Blue Sky Clinic on the Red River
The Kotah family was assembled, nervously watching at the south windows of their Blue-Sky Veterans Clinic. Founder and manager Hunter O’Neil Kotah fidgeted at her oak desk. Her brilliant blue eyes, red from her most recent stress, focused on the iron-gated entrance to the clinic, stables and grounds on the south bank of the Red River. She mindlessly shuffled papers certifying the temporary transfer of three PTSD patients to Fort Sam Houston’s Brooke Army Medical Center. None remained at their Blue Sky equine therapy program. Her real focus was on how to save her husband, Bear. She was not alone. Slick, Bear’s younger brother, and wife Koko, the lone Shoshone-Cheyenne among the Kotah Comanche, sat beside Hunter.
Kotah elders Forrest and Willie sat cross-legged, face-to-face on a cowhide leather sofa, playing a seemingly mindless hand-slap game. Bear and Hunter’s adopted nineteen-year-old Tre, fumed nervously just watching them.
“What game are you two playing? Jesus, please. I am so tired of watching you act like children.”
“It is an old Blackfeet war ceremony, not a child’s game,” Forrest said slowly, refusing to lose concentration.
His twin brother Willie finished the explanation. “… Taught by Blackfeet warriors who showed up with Lakota friends at Wounded Knee in ‘73. He said in the days of White enemies it was played before giving captives a head start in a dead-serious foot race to the ponies. The runner had one chance for his escape; the pick of ponies tethered to a line.”
“Ponies? You mean young horses?”
“No,” Willie replied, his voice quick, impatient as he returned a series of slaps. “Say six animals were selected for their slower speed. Anyone fleeing for his life really didn’t have much chance. The other ponies would be mounted on the run by warriors, so an escaping prisoner knew to grab the pony quickly, much like we have to make decisions today. I have to tell you our Comanche ancestors gave no mercy. Our captives were tortured, raped, gutted and burned alive….”
“Grandfather…” Hunter shouted, slamming her fist on the table.
Tre blushed. “But, it’s just a game today, right?”
“Not! The hand slap is a humble way of bragging about how many coups you have counted before and how many horses should be granted your prisoners. The more coup, the more horses you should allow the victim. A man granted such luxury might last many days or even escape.”
Grandfather and Uncle Willie paused. “This story comes to us from our Grandfather Wasape. A reminder of life or death choices. He was one of the last free Comanche to surrender at Fort Sill in 1875.”
“I know. I read the book, so…what does it have to do with freeing Papa Bear?”
“The Mexican cartels have many warriors and horses but they do not keep prisoners very long. They kidnap and kill by the busload. Prisoners that have some value are offered for ransom or trade, like our wiser ancestors did. Now, a Mexican cartel has stolen a member of our family. We don’t know if he is held somewhere nearby or was taken into Mexico. We know only that someone demands payment for his return. We must count coup upon these enemies without mercy. How many depends on how much they demand of us.”
“Do you mean to steal horses from the drug gang?”
“Oh, no, course not,” Grandfather said.
“No,” Willie answered. “That would be illegal.”
“Then how will you count coup?”
“We agreed that Bear is worth nine or ten Mexican drug cartel warriors, so we will take only five scalps each.”
Hunter, Koko and Tre squealed as one. “No, you will not.”
Hunter continued, “What would Grandfather Wasape say?”
Willie answered after a quiet moment. “Well, he was among the warriors who survived reservations, buffalo wars, raids south into Mexico and World War One France. He was among the many thousand who resisted the old Indian School prisons…but could not survive the White stampede to kill our Comanche culture. He died on Mount Scott and we were with him. On his last day alive he counted coup three times with his arrows. Three! Uncle Eddy’s grandfather, Jack Wilson, was there. Eddy knows these things about our people. Their ways live on here in our hearts.”
Tre crossed her arms. “I read about it. You even told me more of the story because you were there. I think Wasape had reformed to a peaceful man by then.”
“And so he was. He killed very peacefully.”
“But if you did that today, he would tell you not to break the law. Right?”
“He would tell us, well done!”
Hunter frowned, shaking her head slowly. “Grandfather, you and Willie have already agreed you will stay here and guard the property with our friends while others work to free Papa Bear.”
“Yes,” Tre chimed in. “So, you guys can keep the old ways alive with the hand-slap games in Wasape’s honor if this is important to you. Okay?”
“Of course we will. Particularly today,” Forrest said.
“Aho,” Willie suddenly shouted, winning the third and final hand slap.
Grandfather raised a fist at his brother. “You cheated…”
“Not. You are slow…and you would be the last to catch a taibo, or steal a pony, old man.”
“Maybe, but my grandson Bear Kotah will not be as slow when dealing with his captors. That is all I care about.”
Willie Kotah went Comanche sober, his eyes narrowed. His mouth set in a descending crescent. He grabbed his twin brother Forrest’s arm. “No matter, my brother. Someone comes. Might be Eddy’s pickup coming down the road.”
He was not wrong. Hunter, Bear Kotah’s lovely blue-eyed wife, turned to the rest of the family, wiping tears and sleepless nights from her eyes. “Okay. Eddy just drove in. Let’s pull ourselves together.”
Tre was attentive. She flipped her thick, short blond hair to the side and handed Hunter another tissue. “I’ll stay beside you, Mama Bear.”
Koko put an arm around Hunter. She was called Black Dog Woman from her Montana rodeo days and stood a lean 5-10, with high, wide cheeks, dark eyes, and a rancher’s strongly-veined hands. “And I too, my sister. I will play music on the piano especially for you later.”
Hunter reached up and touched Koko’s calloused hand. “I don’t know what I’d do without all of you. Thank you.” She looked to all of them, smiling strongly.
Slick stepped to the closed door when they could hear Eddy Wilson’s boots click on the limestone stairway. He flung open the door to greet their longtime family friend and Bear’s soldier buddy, FBI Special Agent Eddy Wilson.
Eddy’s sudden appearance would have stunned most audiences, but not these friends. Their families went back three generations, hence the “Uncle Eddy”. He offered his good left hand, not his steel right claw as he hugged Slick. One eye was creamy white, partially blind after surviving a mortar blast in Iraq that claimed both feet and his right hand. He would have died on the spot if Bear had not pulled him to safety under fire and staunched the blood loss. Everyone in the room knew Eddy’s story and adored him for his loyalty to the family. His own grandfather Jack had helped Wasape Kotah write his life story, small payment for having spared Grandpa Jack’s life during the buffalo war on the Llano Estacado. But today his mind was only on his missing friend. He forced a smile around the room as the family held their collective breaths.
“Hey, give a smile guys. He’s still alive.”
Later, Eddy returned to their family histories, forever linked by the mutual odysseys to survive in the violent American West.
Grandpa Jack had told him the story when he was six years old, shortly before his own death. He said Wasape and his friend, Herman Lehmann were on the trail of white buffalo hunters. Hermann was a young guy who had been captured by Apache and grew up like an Indian with the Comanche and understood how they think. Eddy had read and re-read the story by Wasape and how he spared Grandpa Jack’s life. He recalled it word-for-word:
Wasape had told the story of his revenge killings to many and written about it in his book. Eddy held up his hands and recited from memory: “This may sound curious and sordid to some who do not understand how a warrior thinks. But revenge is a private thing and some think it highly important to protect the band. It can and should be celebrated which Herman had every right to participate in, but the knife and tomahawk work would be all mine, and I began to relish that part. Revenge killings should be very personal and brutal, for sure.
“It took us ten days of diligent tracking. Herman enjoyed helping me sort out the maze of trails running through the north Estacado. After several days of searching we focused on two wagons pulled by oxen and driven by six buffalo killers. It didn’t matter to Herman or me if the hunters were part of the Adobe Walls bunch; which were exterminating our food source and spreading their pox, or both.
“The six included three shooters and three skinners on the two wagons. At that point we decided to follow the same policy as the Whites followed: kill ‘em where you find ‘em. They were camped less than ten miles west of the Walls. We waited until the next morning when they left camp to shoot from a nearby ridge, south of which a herd of more than five-hundred buffalo grazed.
“Herman followed me carefully as I tracked them to their shooting hill. The three shooters were set up fifty yards apart and a couple of hundred yards north of the herd. We stayed east of them keeping the sun at our backs and in their eyes. I found a good spot concealed by rocks two hundred yards from them. I had two .50 caliber Sharps and a seven-round Spencer. Soon as the hunters opened up on the buffs I opened up on them. Herman figured it was time for him to retreat and he did; at least to a concealed position of his own to make sure no one would ambush me.
“What a sweet shooting weapon that old Spencer was. I caught them skunks from the rear. It was a total surprise. By then I could really operate the Spencer, feeding extra shells into the breech from the long tube. I wounded the three shooters one-by-one from my concealed position. Two appeared dead, one wounded.
“The three skinners had been working carcasses. They come running to investigate. I shot them too. All with that Spencer. Bang, bang, bang. I killed two outright. I tied up the two survivors and stripped ‘em naked, just like I did the smallpox hunters. I propped their heads up on flat rocks and made them watch as I scalped and disemboweled their dead friends, gouged out their eyes and hacked off their heads right in front of them. The sun was up but still early. It cast long shadows on the scene.
“I turned on the two survivors and they started screaming. One of them bawled like a baby, cryin’ for his mama. I stood between them deciding which one to take first. Both was bleeding from leg wounds and would probably die from that alone. The older one had a gray beard and scars on his arms like he’d been in a knife fight. The younger one had long, dark hair and smooth skin, almost like a woman, but he was taking it calm like a man. Bottom line was I wanted their deaths to be from my own hands and for it to take a lot longer than their friends who I had just killed.
“I took their horses, one wagon, guns and supplies and backed off to a rocky hill to watch them die. Hermann had ridden back to check on my progress, so he joined me. He commented that one or more of them must have been rich with two wagons, five buffalo rifles, six Colt pistols, a variety of knives and camp gear. One of the wagons was already loaded with hides at the camp from the previous day’s hunt.
“I visited with Herman more than an hour and it looked like the two Whites were still alive. So, I rode back to the hill and explained that I tired of waiting for their death so I would kill them. I would do so because they were taking food from the mouths of my family and friends and had spread the pox that killed my mother. The older man started bawling again.
“I ignored him and told them, “You take our hides which protect us from snow in winter and heat in summer. And you spread your filthy disease which killed my own mother, Blue Flower and many others. Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho. All peoples.”
“The old fool screamed real loud. I won’t repeat all of his foul language, but he swore his ghost would track me down, rip out my guts and feed them to coyotes.
“You do not impress me,” I laughed. I stayed my distance but finally removed the White men from the ant piles and tied them to their own wagon wheels. They were plenty blistered by then but still had a lot of life left, so I set about lecturing them on proper living. From a dozen feet away. I told them again about how wrong it was to destroy innocent people’s food. The older one attempted to taunt me for being too young and stupid to be on the warpath against him. The other one told his friend to man up and admit he was wrong and to die with a small amount of honor.
“The young one admitted he had done wrong and deserved to die. But, he said that if he had it to do again, he would go back to Dodge and shoot that miserable cuss who sent them out to my range to kill buffalo.
“I asked who this boss man was. Well, it was the same man named by those two smallpox fellas. Billie Brooks. He was the evil bully of what was called Buffalo City before it became Dodge City. He was its first marshal, or so-called marshal. He had already killed two men and it was believed he was a ring leader in any number of crimes. Everyone knew about him and he had no real friends. I learned later that Brooks was lynched along with two other men that summer by the people he was supposed to protect.
“We knew that Brooks and types like him were being granted permission to hunt on treaty land south of the Arkansas River. The Army was anxious to wipe out us Indians from the territory. With that purpose, the slaughter of the Great Plains was underway. Dodge City was the trail head. Hundreds of thousands of hides were brought into Dodge and shipped out by rail to buyers back east. This was historical fact. Little is known about how we suffered from this.
“Well, the older buffalo killer commenced to arguing with the young one about having rights to hunt there. I started a small fire between ‘em under the wagon. The old one started swearing at me so I just stuck a sharp stake in the fire, then used it to blind him. They both screamed for mercy, but the bad one swore at me. That made me really mad.
“I told the man, “Now. You cannot see how large or small I am, so you may say that a very big warrior attacked you.”
“I told them to repeat the words, a very big warrior ….
“They did as they were told but the mean one was unrepentant so I killed him right then and there by cutting his throat. We watched him quickly bleed out. His partner watched too, but he said nothing. Seemed like he was almost glad to see the old fool go down.
“I looked this young man in the eye. He did not blink and said he had great sorrow for what he had been doing. I told him he might live if he promised to talk sense into the Whites and set a good example for sons and daughters to follow. He agreed and he looked me in the eyes when he said it so I believed him. I admired his bravery, but I needed to know something.
“You been around that pox among your people?” I asked, wiping my knife free of blood by plunging it in the hard earth twice. I watched his face.
He did not change expression. “No sir.”
“You have fever? Head hurt?” He shook his head.
“No, sir. None of that, but I am smarting a bit from that bullet wound in my leg.”
“I looked at his wound. He would probably bleed to death within an hour or so if he didn’t staunch that wound. I looked around. Hermann stood a dozen feet behind me. His back to the sun.
“Wasape. You hold his life in your hands. He don’t act much like a harmful man, but I see and hear a brave warrior who has good medicine and does not fear death.”
“I turned and cut him loose from the burning wagon and motioned him toward his boots and clothes piled up nearby. I went to my horse and took a green poultice from my war bag. We carried it for such wounds as this. I stuffed the poultice into the bleeding wound. He grimaced and screamed. I tied off his leg to slow the blood.
“He hurriedly pulled on his pants and boots and shook out his faded red shirt. I asked him his name. He said Jack Wilson and that he came from a ranch being set up near Palo Duro.
“I was a man who was losing everything even though I had little in the way of possessions, and there I was giving a man back his life. It felt good to me. I did not regret it and felt that our trails might cross again. I remembered his name. Jack Wilson. I asked that him and his family all repeat this story of mercy and repeat it even to the end of their time.”
Eddy Wilson looked up and down the oak table. There were tears, as usual. He looked at Black Dog Woman.
“Wasape was a man of honor and who kept his word. And so was my own grandfather and his children. We honor Wasape’s wishes even to this day.”