Western Short Story
Sgt. Quinn Cosgair, two days from the end of his current enlistment, September of 1871, three hash marks earned for his left sleeve, participated in the battle with Comanches at Blanco Canyon, nearly 40 miles long, and when the Comanche women and children finally were able flee the attack, the fighting Comanche braves drifted off into the silence of the Llano Estacado, Palisaded Plains, like high spirits of old, the invisible ones.
Some of the troops said, “Good riddance,” to the Comanches, and the wise ones, generally to themselves, said they hoped they’d never see the Comanches again.
Captain Ivan Blundell, the commander of the 5th Cavalry, was glad to see the women and children get away. The inevitable would have haunted him again; he’d known too many sleepless nights after such engagements.
There were some things that Sgt. Quinn Cosgair, a cavalryman for all of his three hitches, might tell his captain, and some things that’d never pass his lips even if Death came calling with its pressures.
Quinn Cosgair had told Blundell at one time while they were on a quiet patrol, “I got tired fighting about my given name, Bréanainn, every place I went, Captain, so I changed it to Quinn. No paperwork, as they say, but the word of the man, Quinn Cosgair. That family name in the old language sounds like Garbhainn.”
He let the word hang in the near-Celtic air, an aura upon which the captain dared not intrude lest he stumble.
Cosgair, in conscience and in hope at the end of the Blanco Canyon battle, did not tell Blundell that he had seen one Comanche woman, appearing late in the battle after all the other women had gone with the children, slide sideways, elusive, like a ferret, behind one sheer side of a cliff fall. She obviously was too far behind the other women to catch up.
He kept the spot in mind. If she dared move, she faced torture at the least from many of the men who had lost many comrades to the Comanches in previous engagements. If she remained hidden with water and food, she might wait a few days before attempting a night escape. If she became thirsty or hungry, she might pay for it dearly.
And he had only three days left of his hitch, he looked forward to a number of opportunities; perhaps he could help her, if she wanted help, would take help, had not already been captured, tortured, dead.
At the back of his mind, as if the thought had sat there to be found at the proper time, the words of an old trooper had been revealed; “The Comanche make sure they take as many women prisoners as they can handle on their flight away from a battle or a raid. They take ‘em or kill ‘em. It’s as simple as that.”
He made sure he did not appear too anxious in front of the captain. He did not care what the other troopers thought of his observations.
All the wide open parts of Texas were in turmoil from Indian attacks, quick raids, and long and deadly engagements with fierce warriors. Names came across the land from the hidden camps, the villages and the great lodges, names that were developing a continuing history: Bull Elk, Wing Talk, Black Horse, White Robe, Black Mustache, One Wolf and Three-Crows. The commands seemed endless, the ranks littered with heroes. The Comanche medicine man Isatai constantly pushed for war with the white man … settlers, ranchers, and the whole vast army.
Comanche actions were continuing in the mid-70s and Cosgair was well aware of the consequences for a lone man out there on the Plains. He was aware that the death of one of the chiefs or of their kin would set any hopes of peace far adrift on the Plains. He was also worried about the tribes joining forces, becoming a stronger force.
But when Blundell called him in on the next to the last day of his enlistment, he served him his discharge papers, saying, “You’ve been a good soldier, Quinn, and I want to wish you the best. I know I can’t change your mind. Do you have a horse and saddle at your disposal?”
“Oh, I’m all set there, Captain. I’ve got a horse my own, from the outside, broke, rid and saddled entire he is. A handsome bay he is, 16 hands high, eye of the devil in the pasture and he’ll do me well.” Cosgair could feel that mountain of muscle already moving beneath him.
He didn’t want to hang around chewing the fat with the commander. He had someplace to go; something to check out. He was itching to move.
At the livery in Wells, he swapped his army clothes with the owner, part of his deal for a horse he’d previously picked out, a saddle that he especially wanted, a new rifle and side arms, a saddlebag, two blankets, a bed roll rolled up in a canvas. He wore a gray Stetson, gray shirt and dark gray vest, black pants with no stripes down the sides of the legs, a pair of handguns on his belt, the honorable discharge in his shirt pocket. Hope sat so well in his eyes that it was noticeable.
When he left the Wells Horse House run by an old countryman, Padraig Ó Síocháin with the new name of Pat Sheehan, he was shuck of the army all the way. He had bathed, shaved, cut his hair back and was a new man in a new life.
With a brogue thick as mesquite, his curiosity as deep as its hardy roots, Sheehan could not let pass any information in which he was not fully vested.
“What in God’s name are ye up to Quinn,” he said, “drawin’ down the curtain like you were on stage for a drama? Ye look like a banker from Cobh hiding the yield. What are ye up to? And I’ll wager a good pound it’s to do with a woman. I’m bettin’, too, another pound Blundell has not found an inklin’ of your leanin’. Am I right on that, Quinn? Am I right?”
The delightful sparkle of old light was in the eyes of the livery man, the village tongue brought to pub.
“Don’t let me down, here, Quinn,” he continued. “’T’is a woman, isn’t it? A real God-blessed woman after me own heart, here, glory be, in the heart of this wasteland of grass and mesquite and so dry me throat’s awork at thirst again. What do ye think of that, a woman for me best soljer.”
He bowed low, raised his head on high, threw his hands skyward, and said, “Thank ye, Lord, thank ye for such a sign. This world carries on what I left in Cobh.” His head shook in joyful and also remorseful memory.
Quinn Cosgair, once a 5th Cavalry sergeant with three hitches to his credit, a dozen battles in his past, rode away from Wells headed for fate, destiny, karma, and drama of an unimaginable sort.
He was ready for anything, having been most places already.
The Blanco Canyon might have appeared to any other man as geography set with peril, hidden peril. The high escarpment shifted and changed as he rode, presenting the unknown reservoirs of secrecy in its walls. But he felt a new comfort, not fooling himself that it was merely a new freedom.
The sun was getting hot, the horse he had named Bullet rode like a gifted mystery of grace and comfort, and the air was set with and edge toward thirst.
Overhead three huge vultures signaled their endless search for carrion of any sort, preferably the bigger the better.
Cosgair thought about the Comanche woman he had seen spirit herself away from capture. He considered, for only a second, that the birds floating above, might have spotted her in a fateful flight to freedom. All his learning said that such a woman would not lose a battle at this point of her life. Much to gain was one promise she faced in her dire straits. She was resourceful. She had been trained to withstand ferocity, hunger, severe cold, endless heat, aridness, thirst, animals of all comings.
In the middle of such reasoning, the back of his mind released another small piece of information that might have been assumed, seen, guessed at, held out for. And then a known assumption, as he actually called it, came upon him from that recess: the skin of the woman, this woman for whom he now searched, had been different from the other women in flight, different from the children in flight, different from the braves who had disappeared from Blanco Valley as if they had never been there in the first place.
That woman now hiding, he continually hoped, in some niche or cave or rupture in a sheer wall, was a captive white woman brought along in her life as a Comanche woman. He had a final duty.
As he rode close to a long stretch of palisade walls, the vultures wheeled away in their search, the thermals lifting them and escorting them in easy pursuit. He did fear that he’d miss the signs he had set at the end of the battle, but he kept his eye alternating on the ground before him and at the land all around him, alert to any other Comanche who had hidden from capture.
The horse Bullet was a distinctive animal, and exhibited traits that leaders of wild packs learn with success or they do not make any headway in procreation. Bullet made him aware of a snake on two occasions, disturbed a peccary at another point, and seemed to adjust to the vultures overhead. He gave Cosgair a sense of security that was significant to a lone man; the horse would also advise him, he was sure, of any other people in proximity.
Ahead, as if there by precision of planning, loomed the first key he had set, a strange mound on the grass, as if long in the past a body had been interred. Then came a second such mound, but slightly higher, and a sheer wall of the palisade where one crack ran down into the earth as if it was a lightning bolt from pre-history.
The Comanches, he figured, must have known of this place, this split in the palisade, these seeming burial mounds, this singular escape hatch.
He approached the site.
A sheaf of one wall, like a page of a book, had fallen away from its binding. It was as large as the side of a barn. He was able to slide behind it still on horseback. A crack in the wall behind it was nearly 12 feet high, widened near the bottom so that he could walk into the palisade beside his horse.
He walked into the break, the reins on one hand, and a revolver in the other. He had passed nearly 25 feet into the break when he became conscious of another person in the niche.
Cosgair called out, “I mean no harm to you. I saw you come in here a few days ago at the end of the battle. I did not report you. I mean you no harm. I have left the army. I am a civilian now. I hate war. I am sorry you were captured by the Comanche. I believe you are a white woman who had been held against her will. I wait until you speak to me. I will leave water and food here in front of me, but I cannot leave. I do not want others to see me come out of this place.’
He set down a canteen and some food on a rock. “I will not hurt you, believe me. I know you have gone through a hard time, perhaps through a kind of Hell. Let me help you.”
He stepped back, watered his horse with water spilled into his hat, sat on the ground.
Twenty minutes it took her to move. Stealthily at first she moved, hardly making a sound, but approaching the water and the food on the rock. Out of darkness she came and a piece of light suddenly fell across her face. Her saw a glimpse of hard beauty, hurt beauty, but marks of beauty remaining upon her.
His heart nearly broke. A pain rushed through him. He thought of his mother, his sister dying in her bed in Roscommon, not many years younger than this woman.
She drank first. Then drank again, slowly, no rush to it, as though she had learned this behavior from life’s hard teaching. Finally, she took pieces of the food, chewed slowly, savoring perhaps not taste but salvation, her body making a statement to her.
Gradually, the sun moving its degrees, more sunrays slipped across her face. She did not shy from them, or try to hide herself, and Cosgair saw evidence of beauty about and within her. The highlights came in abundance, at first the long lashes and then the blue eyes like homeland eyes, and lips, now prim and somewhat severe, but promising softness that could melt him. Her cheekbones shone with her original paleness, a gloss, perhaps a touch of gold. His heart, the heart of an old trooper, had moved without even hearing her voice.
Her hair, though unkempt, was as bright as a golden finch he had seen once sitting at the end of his blanket out on the prairie. He remembered the bird studying him as he pretended to sleep, and kept as still as a log. He remembered, with a sudden panic, the color of his sister’s hair and her on her death bed.
At length, after drinking slowly, chewing just as slowly, she looked up, the sun’s rays still finding the tired and marked beauty in her face, and spoke.
Her voice was serious, but contained some melody of tone, the way one is impressed after a song is sung or played, and she said, “You have found me at last. They call me Woman-Who –Looks-Pale, Eck’a-wi’pe To’sa-woonit. Big Elk took me some years ago as his woman. My name, my real name, is Evelyn Stocker. All my family is dead. I had no child with Big Elk. He beats me for that, but only so the others will see him do so.”
She chewed some more food, took another sip from his canteen, and said, “You are not an army man? But you saw me hide here? What is your name? Did you come just to find me?”
“I was in the army until two days ago. I am now out of the army. My name is Quinn Cosgair. I am from Ireland in the beginning. I was Bréanainn Garbhainn back there in a life of hunger. Now I am no longer in the army. Now I am Quinn Cosgair and I have come to rescue you. We will wait until dark and then leave this place.”
He let that sink into her awareness, and made other promises that came easy in his saying. “If you want, I will take you to St. Louis or Chicago or all the way back to lovely Vermont and the greenest mountains you’ll ever see either side of the Great River. I will not rush you. I will get you the new freedom you deserve. I cannot atone for what has happened to you, but I will make it easier for you. That’s my promise.”
He did not move any closer, and his horse kept silent. The sun rays continued to highlight more of her beauty.
She moved closer.
“I know I must trust you. You have been where I have been.”
She stood up, more of her beauty showing, and made a final declaration that touched him with simplicity and promise: “And I will leave here in this place, as you did in your turn, the name they gave me, Woman-Who –Looks-Pale, Eck’a-wi’pe To’sa-woonit.”
Her hand found his hand.