Chapter LIX

The remainder of the Comanche and Kiowa hostiles moved as one great body, employing every known tactic to evade the soldiers who were chasing them. Despite being encumbered with a huge horse herd, dismantled homes, and the women, children, and elderly, they had managed to stay out of the enemy’s reach for weeks. Every day the warriors risked their lives trying to distract and annoy the soldiers. They backtracked miles up swollen rivers. on dry days they built and set fires far from their true line of march. Parties large and small constantly tried to decoy the soldiers by showing themselves or harassing the enemy with sniper fire. They harnessed artificially weighted travois to their ponies and created miles of false trails.

Audaciously, they struck Bad Hand’s horse herd in daylight, and though they captured only a few animals, many broke free in the attack and scattered over the drenched prairie in every direction. They suffered few casualties, but Bad Hand pursued them so relentlessly that only by splitting themselves over and over, until they were fleeing in groups of twos and threes, did the warriors save themselves.

On another occasion, a party led try Dances With Wolves and White Bear boldly doubled back on a group of Bad Hand’s scouts and attacked them within earshot of the main column. They killed two Tonkawas and an Osage and would easily have overwhelmed the others had not Bad Hand dispatched a squad of rescuers at the first sound of firing. Dances With Wolves and Blue Turtle were the last to break off the action and escaped only because they were able to jump from one back to another of the five ponies between them.

Actual battle against the soldiers was practically nonexistent because every warrior was consumed with trying to keep people out of harm’s way. But the success they had in keeping their friends and families from being killed or captured was so miraculous that each man knew it could not be sustained without intervention from the Mystery.

Owl Prophet had said that if they could reach the Great Hole In The Earth they might yet achieve deliverance from their tormentors. But reaching the Great Hole seemed more implausible with the close of every day. They had tried every strategy and trick but still could not shake Bad Hand and his soldiers. Even if they reached the great caprock barrier, the soldiers were too close now for them to climb over undetected. The soldiers would pursue them onto the Staked Plains and there would be nothing to keep them from following the Comanches straight into the ancient winter sanctuary.

The tenuous stalemate which threatened the hostiles with destruction was finally broken when they were within sight of the caprock. At any other time the weather’s lifting would have been greeted with relief but the sudden clearing of the skies finally forced the hostiles’ hand. They were hemmed in by Bad Hand’s column from the east and Bradley’s from the south, and the sunshine washing over the prairie left them with but one alternative. They would have to make a run for the caprock in broad daylight, a maneuver sure to be seen by the soldiers swarming over the country in their rear.

A desperate plan, concocted by the warriors in the predawn, started with a squad of children, including Rabbit, Snake In Hands, and Always Walking, driving the thousand ponies toward the brooding outline of caprock that vaulted skyward from the prairie floor. Close on their heels came the women and elderly dragging the essentials of the village behind them.

Several detachments of warriors tried to create a diversion by opening fire on the waking soldier camp. The main body of warriors daringly positioned themselves between the fleeing village and the soldiers sure to pursue it.

The distraction provided by the snipers bought them little time. White man scouts quickly spied the horse herd and the village behind it, and with only hours to make up, the hair-mouth force started in furious pursuit.

Dances With Wolves, White Bear, Smiles A Lot, Blue Turtle, and their compatriots fought as they retreated, sometimes engaging the soldiers from cover, sometimes throwing themselves in feints against the enemy flanks.

But as the morning wore on it became clear that the soldiers would not be stopped, and, to the dismay of the warriors, they found the ground they were backing over increasingly littered with lodge poles and cooking pots and other miscellaneous articles of camp. The women ahead were losing pace.

Just as the curtain of total defeat lowered, the long-hoped-for intervention of the Mystery made its appearance, with the spectacular timing of a last-minute reprieve.

The village was barely a mile ahead of the warriors when the air temperature started to plummet. Moments later, an unbroken wall of gray crested the looming caprock and swirled down the face of the great natural divide.

Knowing they now had a chance, the warriors stiffened against the onrushing blue-coats, who were nearly upon them when the first particles of sleet began to sting their faces. Minutes later the storm slammed into them and Bad Hand had no choice but to sound recall as he watched his quarry vaporize into a maw of ice and snow so thick that he was soon unable to see beyond his horse’s head.