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Just at this point, when it seemed that all hope would soon be lost, there arose from the Comanche tribe a prophet. He was very young, but he had a great and towering vision. He had the answer to all of their ardent prayers.
He was called Isa-tai, which was one of those Comanche names that delicate western sensibilities had trouble translating. Sometimes it is given as “rear end of a wolf,” which is amusing but inaccurate. Elsewhere it appears as “coyote droppings,” “coyote anus,” and “wolf shit.” But even these were euphemisms along the lines of “Buffalo Hump.” The more accurate translation would have been “wolf’s vulva,” or “coyote vagina,” both of which were unprintable until well into the twentieth century.20
He was a medicine man, a magician, and probably a con man, too, though there was no question that he believed at least some of what he was preaching. He was a Quahadi, probably around twenty-three years old, a stocky man with a large head, a broad, open face, and a bull neck. In the winter and spring of 1873–74 Isa-tai had established himself as the possessor of an electrifying sort of puha that Comanches had never seen before. He claimed miraculous healing powers and the ability to raise the dead.21 Though he was as yet untested in battle, he maintained that the white man’s bullets had no effect on him, and that he could also make medicine that would make others immune, even if they stood directly before the muzzles of the white man’s guns.22 These were impressive things, but not without precedent. Other shamans had claimed the same magic. That year, however, Isa-tai had, in the presence of witnesses, raised from his stomach a wagonload of cartridges, belched it up, and then swallowed it again. On four separate occasions he had—again, in front of witnesses—ascended into the skies, far beyond the sun, to the home of the Great Spirit, remaining there overnight and coming back the next day. Most astonishing of all, when a brilliant comet appeared in the sky, he had correctly predicted that it would disappear in five days.23 His legend spread throughout the plains. People said that he could control the elements, and send hail, lightning, and thunder against his enemies.
How did he convince people he could do these things? Part of the answer may lie in his abilities as a magician. In one account, he was able to make arrows appear in his hands, as though they had flown there out of the air.24 This sounds like the sort of sleight of hand that any competent modern magician could do. According to Quaker teacher Thomas Battey, who worked at the time on the Kiowa reservation, Isa-tai had a particular technique for creating the illusion that he was rising into the clouds. He gathered people in a sacred spot, wrote Battey, then “tells them to look directly at the sun until he speaks to them, then to let their eyes slowly fall to the place where he is standing. As they do this they will see dark bodies descend to receive him, with which he will ascend.”25 He would then slip away, and remain concealed until his “return.”
But Isa-tai was about more than just magic. He had a vision of a new order on the plains. During his ascent into the clouds, the Great Spirit had endowed him with power to wage final war on the white man—a war that would not only kill many taibos but would restore the Comanche nation to its former glory. And this is what he now proposed to the Comanche tribe. That spring he moved among the bands, preaching that if they purified themselves, and stopped following the white man’s road, the time of salvation was near.
Then he expanded his evangelism to include Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho camps. Accompanying him on many of these trips was the charismatic young warrior Quanah, who had considerable battle experience and whose fame as a war chief was spreading across the plains.26 Together they were a formidable team. Isa-tai was the magic man; Quanah was the tough guy, the tall, battle-hardened warrior with rippling muscles and a startlingly direct gaze, the one you did not want to disappoint. Their pitch had its roots in one of the oldest of Comanche martial traditions: the revenge raid. Isa-tai had lost an uncle in the fight with Lieutenant Hudson, and so he and Quanah had both been grieving since January. Now that spring had arrived, they were ready for revenge. Quanah had always burned for retribution, ever since the taibos killed his father and took his mother and sister away. Now Isa-tai’s puha offered him the chance to wreak it on a colossal scale. Together, over a period of months, they managed to rouse the entire Comanche nation to a frenzy of hope and expectation.
Quanah later recalled his efforts at recruitment: “That time I pretty big man, pretty young man and knew how to fight pretty good. I work one month. I go to Nokoni Comanche camp on head of Cache Creek, call in everybody. I tell [them] about my friend kill him in Texas. I fill pipe. I tell that man: ‘You want to smoke?’ He take pipe and smoke it. I give it to another man. He say ‘I not want to smoke.’ If he smoke he go on war path. He not hand back. God kill him, he afraid. ”27 It is evident from this last line that this was not a soft sell. Warriors’ courage, patriotism, and manhood were being called into question.
In May, Isa-tai did something that no Comanche leader in history had ever done: He sent runners to all the Comanche bands, on and off the reservation, summoning them to a Sun Dance. This was an extraordinary move for three reasons. First, there had never been a single council attended by all Comanches. Nothing even close to that had ever happened, at least since the tribe migrated south out of the Wind River country of Wyoming. Second, there had never been a single leader, a paraibo, with the power to convoke the whole tribe. And third, the Sun Dance was not a tradition of the Comanche tribe and never had been. The People had watched Kiowa ceremonies, but they had little or no idea of what a Sun Dance actually meant or how it was performed.
In spite of this, virtually the entire Comanche people agreed to come, even the sedentary Penatekas. The idea was to unite under this powerful new medicine and drive the whites forever from the plains. In concept it was not unlike Buffalo Hump’s great expedition, driven by his vision of white men falling into the sea, which had resulted in the Linnville Raid and the Battle of Plum Creek in 1840. The Sun Dance would thus be the focal point for the Comanche tribe’s second large-scale revenge raid against the white man.
The bands gathered in May on the Red River just west of the reservation boundary (near present-day Texola, where I-40 intersects the Texas-Oklahoma border). Though they did worship the sun, and usually blew the first puff of sacred smoke in its direction, they were true animists: power and magic was not concentrated in one or two places (such as a Great Spirit) but diffused throughout the universe. Power could reside in wolves and trees and rock bluffs as much as in the sun. But Comanches were intensely practical people; they were happy to try anything that worked, and Isa-tai was a persuasive man. So they dispensed with the military societies, the fetish dolls, the trained priests, the medicine bundles, the rite of warriors’ piercing their breast tendons with thongs and hanging from the lodge pole, and other traditions considered essential by other tribes.28 They built a medicine lodge of poles and brush and acted out sham battles and sham buffalo hunts. They danced a simplified, practical Sun Dance, and they held a massive party with a good deal of whiskey and feasting and all-night drum playing. They gloried in believing again in the power of Comanches.
In the end, perhaps half of the tribe agreed to follow Quanah and Isa-tai. The exact number, or percentage, is unknown. The Penatekas, by now quite tame and even engaged in some farming, left for the reservation. They were frightened by such talk. Most of the Nokonis left, too, under their chief Horse Back, and many of the Yamparikas went with them. They did so under threat. Quanah’s people said they would kill their horses and strand them afoot if they did not go along.29 Some of the defectors were even threatened with personal violence. The Yamparika chief Quitsquip reported back to Indian agent J. M. Haworth that by night the Comanches were being whipped into a chauvinistic frenzy with whiskey, drumming, dancing, and war talk, only to lapse into confusion and indecision, and presumably hangovers, the next morning. “They have a great many hearts,” he told Haworth. “[They] make up their minds at night for one thing and get up in the morning entirely chan
ged.”30 At their war councils, Quanah and Isa-tai promoted their idea of a revenge raid in Texas, starting with the traitor Tonkawas and moving on to a war on the settlements. But the tribal elders had other ideas, and overruled the two young men. Quanah later remembered it this way:
They said “You pretty good fighter, Quanah, but you not know everything. We think you take pipe first against the white buffalo hunters. You kill white men and make your heart feel good. After that you come back and take all young men and go Texas war path.” Isa-tai make big talk that time. [He said] “God tell me we going to kill lots of white men. I stop the bullets in gun. Bullets not penetrate shirts. We kill them just like old women.”31
So the first target would be the buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls. Then the full fury of the tribe would fall upon the hated Texans and their traitorous allies the Tonks. Armed with their powerful idea, Quanah and Isa-tai now visited the camps of the Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos to recruit warriors for the attack on the hide men. They had little success with the Kiowas, where, according to one of them, the elders “were afraid of that pipe.”32 Only a few of the tribe agreed to go. They had better luck with the Cheyennes, many of whom were enthusiastic about the expedition, especially with the protection of Isa-tai’s medicine. The Arapahos liked the idea but hedged: Powder Face, their main chief, was deeply committed to the white man’s road. Only twenty-two of them agreed to go, under the young upstart chief Yellow Horse. The force of two hundred fifty warriors was thus composed mainly of Comanches and Cheyennes. They were clear on three things: that the attack would be made on the buffalo camp forty miles to the west; that it would be made under Isa-tai’s protective magic; and that it would be led by the young Quanah, who had impressed everyone with his burning passion and his singleness of purpose.
The raid on the trading post should have been an outright slaughter. The night was warm and sultry and most of the people at the post—twenty-eight men and one woman, scattered among two stores and a saloon—were sleeping outdoors. There was no hotel, no rooms for rent. Those who were under roofs were in buildings whose doors were wide open. Isa-tai knew this from a scouting party he had sent out, and had confidently promised his men that they would sweep down on the taibos and club them to death in their sleep. It was a good plan. In principle, anyway. In the early-morning hours of May 26, 1874, the Indians under Quanah’s command massed on a high bluff beside the Canadian River. They waited. Among them was the messiah, Isa-tai, stark naked except for a cap of sage stems, and painted completely yellow, as was his horse. Yellow meant invulnerable. Most of the other braves and their horses were painted yellow, too, along with other colors. They all believed, or they would not have been there, that Isa-tai had true puha, that they would be immune to the white man’s bullets. After all, a man who could ascend into the sky, and who could burp up a load of cartridges, would have little trouble with a small band of the hated buffalo men. The assembled Comanches, Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Arapahos believed that this was a moment of destiny and that their redemption was at hand.
But the massacre of sleeping taibos never happened. That was because the owner of the saloon, a transplanted Pennsylvanian by way of Dodge City named James Hanrahan, fired his gun in the middle of the night, waking many of the hunters, skinners, merchants, and drovers. He told his guests, and they apparently believed him, that the loud noise they had heard had been made by the cracking of the ridgepole, the main beam holding up the sod roof of the saloon. Such an event would mean death, injury, or at the very least extreme inconvenience for the people underneath it. Fully awake now, the men then pitched in and spent the rest of the night replacing the ridgepole.
In fact the ridgepole was fine. Hanrahan had invented the story about the roof falling in because he had been informed several days before that the Indian attack was coming and had not wanted to hurt his business and thus hadn’t told anyone. When the men had finished their task, Hanrahan, refusing to come clean about the attack but afraid to let anyone go back to sleep, offered them free drinks. At four a.m. Thus many of them were wide awake when the Indian war party swept down from the bluff just before dawn on June 27.
The Indians drove down into the valley with a fury. Quanah recalled later that the horses were moving at a gallop, throwing dust high in the air, and that some of them tripped on the prairie-dog holes, which sent men in feathered headdresses and horses rolling over and over in the semidarkness.33 At the settlement they crowded around the buildings, firing their carbines at windows and doors. Inside, the buffalo men barricaded themselves as best they could, piled up sacks of grain, and found that they were fairly well protected behind two-foot walls of sod. Sod would not burn, either, which would have offered the Indians an easy victory. The attackers flattened themselves against the walls. Quanah backed his horse into one of the doors, trying unsuccessfully to break it down, and later climbed up on the roof of one of the buildings to shoot down at the occupants. At one point he picked up a wounded comrade from the ground while seated on his horse, a feat of strength that astounded the men inside the buildings. In the early minutes of the fight both sides were using six-shooters. For the white men inside, the fury of the attack was terrifying. The buildings were full of smoke; people were shouting and screaming; the air was full of singing lead. Billy Dixon recalled that “At times the bullets poured in like hail and made us hug the sod walls like gophers when an owl is swooping past.”34
This is Quanah’s own account, filtered through the memory of his friend J. A. Dickson:
We at once surrounded the place and began to fire on it. The hunters got in the houses and shot through the cracks and holes in the wall. Fight lasted about two hours. We tried to storm the place several times but the hunters shot so well we would have to retreat. At one time I picked up five braves and we crawled along a little ravine to their corral, which was only a few yards from the house. Then we picked our chance and made a run for the house before they could shoot us, and we tried to break the door in but it was too strong and being afraid to stay long, we went back the way we had come.35
Three white men had been killed in the early moments of the raid, but the others had managed to hold the Indians off.36 The flanking fire from the saloon protected the people in the two mercantile buildings, most of whom had been asleep. The whites learned that by poking holes in the sod they could create gun ports for themselves, and thus drive back the Indians from the other side of the wall. The hide men, moreover, were an unusually tough bunch, even by plains standards. In addition to various hunters, skinners, and wagon drivers, they included Billy Dixon, a famous buffalo hunter who would win a Congressional Medal of Honor later that year fighting Indians; William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, a gambler and gunman who later became legendary as the sheriff of Dodge City; “Dutch Henry” Born, later the most feared of the professional horse thieves on the Great Plains; and James “Bermuda” Carlyle, later killed when a posse in White Oaks, New Mexico, tried to arrest Billy the Kid and his gang.37
The Indians were driven back. They discovered that, even though many among their ranks had repeating, lever-action rifles, they were yet again at an enormous disadvantage in firepower. Inside those buildings were not just hardened and determined men with considerable experience of violence, cocooned inside thick walls of mud and grass. They also had a virtual arsenal of ammunition and weaponry at their disposal, most notably the brand-new Sharps “Big Fifties,” rifles of astonishing power, range, and accuracy that had made the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo possible in the first place. The merchants had whole cases of brand-new Sharps rifles, plus at least 11,000 rounds of ammunition. The Big Fifties were single-shot weapons with octagonal 34-inch barrels that used huge cartridges: .50-caliber, 600-grain bullets driven by 125 grains of black powder. They were so powerful that they could knock down a 2,000-pound buffalo at 1,000 yards. In the hands of the buffalo hunters, they were horrifically effective against horses and human beings. The rifles’ ranges were far longer than the Indians’ carbin
es could possibly reach.
By ten o’clock the Indians had retreated from the booming buffalo guns. Quanah, who had also fallen back after heroically fighting at close quarters, had his horse shot out from under him at five hundred yards.38 He took shelter behind a buffalo carcass, where he was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off a powder horn around his neck and lodged between his shoulder blade and neck. The wound was not serious. Astonished at the range and accuracy of the guns, the Indians retreated yet farther, only to learn that they had still not gone far enough. A group of them had met to plan strategy at a distance of roughly three-quarters of a mile from the trading post. Undeterred, the hunters began to pick them off one by one. A Comanche named Cohayyah who was among them recalled that he was standing with his friends trying to figure out how to rescue their dead when “suddenly and without warning one of the warriors fell from his horse dead.” They found a bullet hole in his head. The wind had shifted, and they had not even heard the sound of a rifle shot.39
In the distance, Isa-tai sat on his horse, naked and bright ochre, watching the epic failure of his medicine. Nothing he had predicted had come true. The men who were supposed to be slaughtered in their sleep were now dropping Indians on the field like shotgunned mallards. The Cheyennes were angry at him. One of them struck Isa-tai in the face with his riding quirt; another, the father of a young warrior who had been killed, demanded to know why, if the messiah were immune to bullets, he did not go recover the young man’s body. As if to emphasize Isa-tai’s powerlessness, the man on the horse next to him was shot dead, then Isa-tai’s own horse was shot out from under him. His magic may have failed, but the magic of the Big Fifties worked just fine.40 Killing people three-quarters of a mile away was, by all objective precedent, godlike. Isa-tai’s excuse was that the Cheyennes had killed and skinned a skunk the day before the battle, and thus queered his medicine. His people did not really believe him.