UNDER TROUBLED SKIES
A Westerm Quest Series Novel
October 1826, Navasota Crossing, Austin’s Colony, Texas
The full moon shone brightly in the frosty October night. The air was crisp and still, perhaps too still. Not a bird or animal could be heard from the timber along the river. As was our custom during the month of the Comanche moon, we had taken special precautions. Two men were on guard duty, and the most valuable of our livestock were herded inside the stockade each night.
Tonight, Cody and Nicholas Teel were on duty. Their hunting dogs began to bristle and growl in the direction of the river. Cody saw our uninvited guests first. There were ghostly shadows in the moonlight as several mounted Indians crossed the road on our side of the river slipping silently south. He yelled at his brother, “Indians!” as Nick began to ring the large bell hanging near the gate of the fort.
The baritone voice of the bell rolled loudly through the silent night air. Flickering lights began to appear from one cabin after another inside the fort and at the cluster of buildings along the road a hundred yards to the south.
Cody pounded on the cabin door. “Major, we got Injuns along the river!”
The alarm bell had already awakened me as I grabbed my rifle and pistols. I ran out of the cabin door and bounded up the ladder to the lookout post where the Teel brothers stood on their vantage point above the gate.
As they hurriedly explained what they had seen, I was relieved to notice the lights from the cabins along the road. Someone there was ringing the bell in the church tower in answer to our alarm and to warn those few settlers who lived further south down the river. In the distance, we could hear the smaller bell acknowledging the warning from the distant cabins. At least no one would be caught by surprise.
Everyone knew there was some form of immediate danger. None of us knew the extent or exact nature of the threat. But mounted Indians this time of the year, more than likely, meant the Comanche were on the war path, perhaps in company of their equally dangerous cousins, the Kiowa.
How many were concealed in the timber? Would they see the size of the settlement and leave for an easier prey? Were they raiding for horses? Or were they coming to even the score for something another white man had done to them somewhere else?
As we watched and listened, crashing hooves could be heard galloping north through the trees on our side of the river. A band of ten or twelve riderless horses flashed across the road, closely followed by several mounted warriors. There was no time even to try a quick shot at them, as they disappeared in a single bound across the road.
I could feel my heart pounding and my muscles tensing. “Well, boys, looks like they got the Painter’s and Lane’s spare horses. Stay here while I make sure everyone else is ready for trouble.”
Everyone was wide awake with their guns loaded and ready at the rifle ports in each of the five cabins that made up the fort, including my own. Even the women and older children were armed, too. When it came to fighting Comanche, every one old enough to poke a gun through a firing port would be needed.
If the Comanche had come only for a horse stealing raid, they had done a good night’s work. If they had come for scalps, they would be back. It would be a long, sleepless night.
As dawn slowly rolled back the darkness, we saw no sign of our enemies. Were they now watching us from hiding? Had they taken the horses and left?
The families living along the road cautiously appeared from the doors of their cabins, shops, and businesses. All of those buildings were deliberately built on the south side of the road facing the fort one hundred yards away. In the event of an attack, we could provide supporting fire from the fort, as they could for us. That one hundred yards could prove a fatal distance to anyone caught in the open if the Comanche appeared.
Thirteen men and women with a handful of children trotted across the Camino Real and up the lane toward the safety of the fort. Our rifles covered them during their vulnerable trip. As soon as they were inside the gate, the large oak bars were put back in place. Now there were over thirty of us within the stockade who could handle a gun. We would be a tough nut to crack.
Within an hour we could hear galloping horses approaching from the south. From my vantage point above the gate, I could see six riders racing full out up the trail along the river. There were two white men and four white women riding hard for the fort. It had to be the Lanes and the Painters.
“Major, look west!” Cody shouted.
A dozen Comanche warriors appeared from the woods about a hundred yards west of the fort and wheeled their horses south along the river trail at a gallop. This briefly exposed them to our rifles. Shots were fired from all along our western wall. Two Indians fell dead. As the braves drove their horses farther south, Cody took careful aim and dropped one more.
Our horseback neighbors recognized their extreme danger and reined their horses off the river trail onto the open prairie south of the road. The Comanche responded immediately by changing directions to place themselves between their prey and the fort.
This again presented their flank to our rifle fire. Three more fell dead from their horses, but the “wolves” were already among the “lambs.” Our friends tried desperately to escape, but the Comanche were having none of it. They were now safely beyond the extreme range of our rifles. We could do nothing more to help. Arrows flew accurately and rapidly from the bows of the charging Indians. Within seconds every member of the Lane and Painter families lay dead.
The Comanche knew they were out of range. They quickly gathered the six saddled horses and returned to mutilate their victims. With rapid, deliberate motions, they scalped each one in full sight of us all. They remounted their war ponies, leading the captured horses behind them. They stopped and wheeled around to face the fort while angrily shaking bloody scalps in their raised fists. With no sense of urgency, they turned their backs to us in contempt and trotted south out of sight.
Gloomy, shocked silence fell over the fort. With an unknown force of Comanche loose along the Navasota, we were powerless to launch a retaliatory raid or even retrieve the crumpled bodies. Anyone who left the safety of the fort risked the same fate that had befallen our friends. Any number of men leaving the stockade would weaken the fort and jeopardize the lives of those who would be left behind.
Every one of us had known the Lanes and the Painters. As maddening as it was, we could do nothing but protect ourselves. All through the long day we stood by our posts. As night fell, we heard coyotes singing their hunting song as they smelled the blood and circled closer to the bodies. An occasional shot from the fort kept the coyotes scared away from the meadow for the duration of the long miserable night.
By the next morning, we sensed our enemies had left. They had accomplished the purpose of their raid. They were returning to their lodges with stolen horses and fresh scalps. They had covered themselves in blood and glory.
A dozen heavily armed men rode out from the fort with the gates barred behind them. Half of them took up positions inside the trading post on the main road. There they could not be surprised and the gun ports on the south wall allowed them to cover the rest of their party as they attempted to recover the bodies. I was in charge of the recovery party. When I saw the mangled bodies, I knew we could not let the women and children in the fort see what the Comanche had done. We buried them where they lay, there in the rich prairie soil. None of us in that detail would ever forget the images of that day or talk about what we had seen.
Once again Texas reminded us that she was still untamed. A land that could be so beautiful, so rich and fertile, could, in the blink of an eye, show her savage and cruel side. This was not a place for the weak or faint of heart. Our paradise was far from conquered.
I was known as Major Aaron Turner, because of my small role at the Battle of New Orleans twelve years ago. I was also known as Reverend Turner, as I was one of the only Methodist ministers in Texas. I was alcalde of the Northeast District of Austin’s Colony. We had settled in this beautiful place in 1821. In the five years since, we had accomplished much. Obviously, there was much left to do to secure our futures here.