- Historic Sites
The Ballad Of Cynthia Ann
Both grimness and beauty touch this haunting fragment of America’s past
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Deep in the woods the men began hunting for their families, children for their parents. These refugees were many starving days 1'rom salety. The shoeless had to walk all the way on bleeding feet. Yet they all made it back to the eastern settlements. The wounded made it, a woman with child made it. Old Granny Parker, speared and left for dead, played possum till darkness—she made it too. Three nursing mothers somehow brought their babes alive through the flight; Nature wrung the milk out of their gaunt flesh to nourish the frail hopes they carried.
Wouldn’t you think they’d had enough of Fort Parker? Then you don’t know your own American ancestors. For practically all of these people returned to the fort in a short time. They buried the bones, picked clean by wolves and vultures, of their dead. They planted another crop that year. They begot and bore and raised more children. They brought more Bibles with them, and read aloud together the covenant of Jehovah with those who keep His commandments.
And now the heathen wilderness began to give up some of those ravished away. Elizabeth Kellogg was the first to return. Unbroken in spirit, she had given such a thrashing to a squaw who was beating her that the Ketchaw Indians admiringly named her “Brave Worn- an.” They sold her for $150 in trading goods to some Delawares (always allies of the whites) who brought her home. Rachel Plummer, that same autumn, was purchased by Santa Fe traders and brought back to her husband. Of her son Pratt, taken from her early in captivity, she never lived to hear news. Yet seven years later he was turned over by friendly Indians to the soldiers at Fort Gibson.
But the Indians had taken Cynthia Ann to a place that no honest white man ever saw—and lived. It is the center of the whirlwind, the ancient and most secret hide-out of the Comanchcs. It is the lost and inaccessible valley where a stream comes down, between warpaint canyon walls, from the high Llano Estacado through the break of the cap rock. That stream was called the Rio de las Lenguas—“the river of tongues”—for the many tongues that were spoken here: Kiowa, Comanche, Wichita, Jicarilla, Mescallero, a cawing Babel like ravens and geese and whooping cranes all calling together. The Comancheros, white renegades who rode out from New Mexico to trade here for stolen cattle and horses, with a duel poetry named this spot—where women were sold among the tribes, where children were reft from the clutch of their mothers, and girls knew brutal hands—the Valle de las Lágrimas.
Into that blackness vanished Cynthia Ann.
Years had passed, and Colonel Len Williams, with his fellow trader, Stoat, and the Delaware guide, Jack Harry, were parleying with Pahuaka’s band of Comanches down by the bank of the Canadian River. Heat and excitement fevered the Colonel’s impatience. Best let the more stoic Stoat negotiate. For the Colonel himself hadn’t a doubt of the identity of that blond girl of thirteen among the Comanches. Promptly he had offered to buy her freedom; proudly Pahuaka replied that members of his tribe were not for sale. The Colonel then asked to speak with the girl, and received the startling answer that the chief would have to get the permission of her mother and father.
Now the girl, in Indian dress, walked slowly out of the group and toward him, her eyes on the ground. At the Colonel’s feet she sat down, as a modest Comanche girl does before a man, tucked her legs under her skirt, and folded her hands in her lap—the incarnation of obedient attention.
The Colonel spoke, coolly, kindly. Her family had been hunting for her for years. Her playmates remembered her. Her place waited for her, and a warm welcome. And he promised to raise any sum for her ransom that the Indians might ask.
She raised her eyes. And what he saw was nothing he had ever seen before in the gaze of any woman, least of all in the look of a young white girl. In that long glance he saw the Llano—the endless level of the highlifted short-grass plain, where there is nothing from dawn to sunset to give back an echo. Even the blue of those eyes was like the Llano sky, that arches over the buffalo grass and the curlew lakes, and is unchanging, beyond recollection or fear or pity.
He dropped his own startled gaze. It’s no use, he knew. There’s nothing we can do with this. Let us go.
Yes, they went, and they let her go back—back to the blanket. For there is no fugitive so difficult to pursue as the freed will of a woman—unless it is a Comanche.
The tribe was, in those days, the whirlwind itself, possessed of the greatest horsemen in history. Greater, said old cavalry officers, than Arabs or Bedouins or Cossacks. It was they, perhaps, who were first of the red men to master horses—beasts descended from strayed or stolen mounts of the Spaniards. From the moment that the Comanche leaped to the back of that mustang, he changed from the clumsiest Indian afoot into the “red knight of the plains.”
With horses, the Comanches’ striking power was fluid as the Llano wind. The West Point style of cavalry charge was useless against a foe who could hang by his heels while galloping, and shoot arrows under the horse’s neck so fast that he could keep eight of them in the air all the time. The Texas Ranger could get in at most three shots—one from a rifle and one each from a brace of pistols—before he had to reload. In the sixty seconds needed for that, a Comanche horseman could close in for the kill.