The Ballad Of Cynthia Ann


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.

It was in horses that a Comanche counted his wealth; racing he thought the one sport worthy of a man. Squaws, too, rode like wild spirits of the air; they too could hang by their heels, vault up again to the saddle, or spring from one galloping steed to another. The horse lifted the Comanche woman from a beast of burden to a mate, mounted and proud and free, whose bride-price had been paid by her suitor in those very animals that made of him a red half-god, a centaur out of myth. … That was how Peta Nakona, young chief of the Kwahadi band of Comanches, obtained Cynthia Ann from her red foster parents when she would have been about fifteen years old.

In 1851, some Texan travelers fell in with the Kwahadi band along the upper Canadian River. They stared long at the hair of the young chief’s wife; it was straight as an Indian’s, smelling of the lodge fires, but yellow, yellow. Her skin was tanned to leathery brown; in her eyes, when they questioned her, there was no gleam of recognition. Not even at the name of Cynthia Ann Parker. She was Preloch now (say the ch hard, as in the Scottish loch ). No, she answered in Comanche, she had no desire to return to her white relatives, to leave her two swarthy little sons, and her good husband.

I know, I know. It doesn’t fit at all with the tengallon legend. It’s right in the script that any white woman would spurn the embrace of a no-account, redhanded, scalp-lifting Indian varmint. And the fairhaired girl is always rescued by the Lone Ranger.

All right. I’ll play you the banjo tune for a minute—and I’ll be telling the truth. That’s just what happened.

The Kwahadi band—so went the Texan tune—had to be punished. They’d been raiding; the frontier was aflame. So, in December of 1860, 47 Rangers, under the command of Captain Sul Ross, took the field in vengeance. Joining them was a handful of settlers and cowboys, and 23 dragoons, fight-loving Irishmen. In all, they made a motley force of some eighty, in every kind of uniform or duds, on every sort of mount.

United in their enmity, these outfits had their own ways of fighting; when it came to a scalp-lifting, you couldn’t always tell a Texas settler from a Comanche; the dragoons shot squaws as soon as bucks. (Harsh truth drowns out the banjo.) And the Rangers had at last got Colt six-shooters. They were the first to use the Colt on the Comanches, and with it they turned the whole tide of Indian warfare. Now it was they, not the red centaurs, who charged, and their in-fighting was so close they powder-burned the coppery skins.

Thus, on the morning of December 19, the end was clear in the beginning, when the whites surprised the Kwahadi camp on the desolate banks of the Pease. It was the same end, of course, as that which had come to Fort Parker. The Comanches fled, as the Baptists had fled, larruping their wild-eyed ponies, toppling, under the leaden hail, sideways or backwards with a last crazy salute of upflung hands. Only one figure, crouched low on an iron-gray mount, was pacing the wind. She outraced the Rangers, all but outran the bullets, until at their whine around her ears she reined, plunging, and lifted high above her head a swaddled babe, hostage to surrender, pledge of her womanhood.

So they took her. Took her first to Camp Cooper, where the officers’ wives were kindly pitying, and cooed over Tautaijah, the tiny red baby. They improved the Indian syllables into Topsannah, and declared it meant “Prairie Flower.” (You know how we make up the Indian’s poetry for him, to fit our Longfellow notions.) To poor Cynthia Ann Parker they showed every Christian charity—and met the glare of Preloch, a caged female whose mate and cubs were still out in the wild. Twice she stole a horse and with her babe in her arms streaked as only a Comanche could for the open. But the cavalry did its job; she was always brought back. Everybody concerned was glad when Senator (and Colonel) Isaac Parker came and took his niece and her child away.

He brought her home, to the piny eastern part of Texas, to her younger brother Dan Parker’s house in Athens.