The Ballad Of Cynthia Ann

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This is an old tale, and not a pretty one; it is a true tale, a real “Western,” although it wouldn’t go on TV. It sounds to me like a ballad—the ballad of Cynthia Ann.

But Cynthia Ann, fleeing us all on the thunder of Comanche hoofs, is no part of a sentimental ditty. By all accounts, she was a very pretty little girl. One of about eighteen children at Parker’s Fort on the Navasota River, she was the kind men pick out for a tweak of the curls or a joking word—even those grim pioneers whose eyes saw less of the beauty around them than visions of the day when the Lord would drive their enemies out of the land. The women, trying to describe her afterwards, said she had blue eyes and light hair—flax-flower eyes, I fancy, wheat-straw hair that curled, as a child’s will in hot weather, softly at the temples where the veins show blue in the porcelain flesh. The women would remember that flesh with burning pity. Cynthia Ann was in her ninth year on the last day of Fort Parker, which was May 19, 1836.

That day dawned warm, then turned to a regular east-Texas hot spring morning. For a while the women in Parker’s Fort could hear their men’s voices out in the fields in the shimmering heat waves. Then the voices drifted away down the long furrows. The women sought cool looting (shoes were for Sunday) as they went about their tasks. Rachel Plummer moved languidly, eight months gone with child. Old Granny Parker (eighty-odd) drove the flies from the parchment of her face.

The people in Parker’s Fort numbered only ;35 souls. Patriarch of them all was Elder John Parker, who had led his people—the Parkers, the Plummers, the Nixons and other neighbors from back east—across the Red River into the Canaan of Texas soil. And he was a Cod-fearing, “Two-seed” Baptist, and his son the Reverend James Parker walked in the ways of the Lord also, and so did his brothers Isaac and Silas and Benjamin. And they took unto themselves wives, all except young Benjamin, and begat children. And the names of their children were Rachel and Sara and James and John and the like-all Bible names. All except Cynthia Ann, daughter of Silas, the son of Elder John. Her name, whether her mother knew it or not, was Creek. For “Cynthia” is one of the titles of Artemis, goddess of the moon and protectress of maidens.

But to protect her now there wasn’t a soldier left in the fort. The Republic of Texas had pulled them all out some weeks ago, now that the Indian frontier had retreated a hundred miles to the west. Nobody that morning was thinking of Indians: why should they?

Then, suddenly, out of the prairie heat waves—they were there: Comanches and Kiowas, some afoot, some sitting ponies. The braves weren’t yelling or brandishing their shields of buffalo hide. They were just staring in silence—a long, deadly stillness. Even the buffalo horns and the eagle plumes of their headdresses hardly stirred. Their fourteen-foot lances were motionless as a grove of dead saplings, only the leathers near the tips trembling a little in the south wind.

Benjamin Parker, Cynthia Ann’s youngest uncle, went out to meet them and play for time—enough for Mrs. Sarah Nixon, Cynthia’s cousin, to run for the fields with the alarm. Ben talked as long as he con Id, then came into the fort to say the Indians showed by sign they wanted beef. There was none, so he went back to temporize. He was the first to die. They clubbed, speared, and scalped him under the aghast eyes at the portholes in the log stockade.

Now the yells broke. The mounted Indians dashed their ponies in a noose around the Tort. They swept up young Mrs. Elizabeth Kellogg; Rachel Plummer, a child in her arms and another inside her, was dragged away by her hair along the ground. The folding gate of wooden slabs yielded to the blows of the hostiles. As it burst in, one scream tore the throats of the ten women, the fifteen children. With them were only four men—old Elder John, and Silas (Cynthia’s father), and Robert Frost and his son Samuel. They had time for a single burst of firing, a single yell of triumph from Silas as a few Indians fell. Then all the men were overpowered, killed, stripped, and scalped.

Cynthia Ann heard her mother’s voice urging her on, hut she couldn’t outrun those long coppery legs. A copper hand was in her hair; a hard arm scooped her up by her waist. Her own mother was forced to set her on a pony’s back behind a mounted brave, and stand staring after her as she was borne away.

For now from the fields came the rest of the men, crouching as they ran. They were armed, though short of bullets and powder, which were mostly in the fort. Their line of fire was a ragged popping: these were farmers who never before had shot anything more dangerous than a snake or hawk. But they turned back the Comanche charge, and then another, and gained time for the children and women to scatter like quail in the brush down by the Navasota’s banks.

The Indian’s didn’t charge again. They were dealing with the milch cows now, filling them full of arrows as so many pin cushions. The farmers could hear the beasts bellowing. Soon they saw the red and yellow flames war-dancing in the standing crops.