Sample Chapter from The Comanche Girl's Prayer. Pre-order HERE
Chapter One: A New Path
Dozens of locusts thrummed from the treetops. The mournful melody filled Soonie’s ears in unshakable cadence.
Powerful as the sound became, Soonie’s own heart, pounding against her faded calico dress, seemed louder. Her leg cramped, but she didn’t dare to move. Squeezing her eyes shut, she fought to ignore the pain.
As a child, Soonie had played hundreds of games of hide-n-seek and had always been the last one found. But never when the lives of my companions were at stake.
Tersa and Bright Flower hunched beside her. Rocks towered around them, bushes sprouting from cracks like little girls carrying bouquets. The two men crouched a few feet ahead, drab clothing melting in with the trees and dappled sunlight.
Soonie swallowed a cough. Her canteen hung from her belt, but she couldn’t reach for it. The slightest movement might cause the brush to sway, or create a gravel slide to alert the approaching travelers. She and her companions could not be seen.
She wasn’t quite sure how Uncle Isak had caught wind of the travelers coming down the road. Perhaps he noticed a hawk’s unusual flight pattern in the sky over the hills. Or maybe he heard a warning note in the squirrels’ chatter. He had a sense for these things, instincts that had saved his own life and many other souls more than once.
This was the third time they had been forced off the road to hide from travelers. The further north they journeyed, the more the risk grew. Folks in this area watched for renegades. If caught, a Comanche of full blood could be beaten, imprisoned, or even lynched.
Uncle Isak glanced back at her, eyes shaded by the brim of his hat. Like her other companions, he wore clothing associated with town folks. He smiled reassuringly, small wrinkles forming around his eyes.
Unable to stand it any longer, she reached down to rub her aching calf. Lord, we put our safety in your hands.
Doves burst from a thicket and darted to higher trees over the path, and sun-dried dirt crunched under hooves.
Soonie pretended she was part of the earth, imagined herself melting into it like water, smoothing into the cracks, disappearing from sight.
Two men on horseback and two in a buckboard wagon paraded through the pass. At first they appeared tiny as tin soldiers, but soon were close enough that Soonie could hit one of them with a well-aimed stone.
One burly fellow removed his hat and ran a hand through hair so white it gleamed in the sunlight. “How much longer you reckon till we get to the ridge?”
Soonie could barely hear the younger man’s reply through the locusts’ song. “Don’t know, Pa. Mebbie a day.”
The conversation continued, with loud laughter, and ribald jokes that warmed Soonie’s cheeks. On occasion, one of the men would stare up into the rocks, and the six on the hill tensed, hands on weapons.
But what will we do, if the call is made and the hill is charged? Soonie touched the hilt of her own knife, a gift from her brother, Wylder. The idea was flight, always flight. Could I strike out to defend myself? The others?
The men disappeared down the road, and everyone hiding relaxed. A very long time passed before Uncle Isak nodded. Soonie and the rest of the group followed him back to the clearing where they had left the horses.
The party continued on for several hours. Saddles had become a sort of home. Soonie, being accustomed to her horse’s gaits and habits, would be fine for a few hours. But as the day grew warmer, sweat would start a slow trickle down her back and front, until she was drenched.
Women’s’ underthings were not meant for days of riding, especially the cotton petticoats Soonie had brought from home. On the second day of the journey, Tersa offered her a pair of deerskin leggings, and they had been a salvation. Her legs were grateful for the soft fabric protecting them from the worst of the saddle’s chafing. They stayed hidden under her full skirt, along with her moccasins. Her feet would have been blistered and pinched in leather button-up shoes.
The August heat arrived early. The group started before dawn, took breaks during the hottest hours, and traveled into the night.
Soonie’s horse, Stone Brother, snorted. The Indian pony had carried her through many an adventure, but was not accustomed to trips of this length.
“I know, dear.” She patted his white and gold splotched neck. “We’ll stop soon.”
Tersa and Bright Flower were both a few years older than nineteen-year-old Soonie. Their horses’ reins stayed tied to the saddle horns while they rode, keeping their hands free. Soonie could speak fluent Comanche, but she wasn’t close enough to hear the words. From the gestures, she guessed the discussion was about cooking. Thick, dark hair blew above their shoulders, cut short in the Comanche style.
Uncle Isak and the other man, Wind Catcher, rode in silence. Both wore wide-brimmed hats to hide long, thick braids rolled neatly beneath them.
In the small town of Bastrop, Texas, where Soonie was from, one or two Comanche people would have evoked curiosity and perhaps a few questions. Most of the folks in town accepted the Comanche blood running through her veins. Bastrop gathered people like a magpie collected shiny trinkets, and those of assorted heritages and cultures strolled through the town streets.
A copse of cypress trees stretched long, feathered branches over a hollow, like a giant bird protecting its nest. The trees sent out thick, greedy roots to a meandering stream. The perfect place for camp.
As though Uncle Isak could hear her thoughts, he held up his hand. They all stopped.
The earth welcomed her feet. Solid ground and soft grass to boot. The scent of cool, moist earth mixed with a whiff of pollen from sun-warmed Indian Blanket flowers nodding by the water.
Soonie led Stone Brother to the stream for a drink as she rubbed him down with a handful of dried leaves. While he sucked up the water, her sore ankles pled their case. She dropped to the bank and tore off her moccasins.
Zillia would be scandalized if she knew I had my ankles bare, where these men could see them. On second thought, her best friend would probably have shared her weariness and dunked in her own toes.
A wry smile tugged at the corner of Soonie’s lips. Zillia was done with adventures for a while, at least the kinds involving long journeys. Moments before the group set off, she had pulled Soonie aside to share a secret.
“Wylder and I will have a little one soon. February, I think,” she had whispered excitedly.
“Oh my goodness!” Soonie had squealed.
“Shhhhh,” Zillia looked around at the other family members in the room. “No one else but Wylder knows. But isn’t it wonderful?”
Good thing for Uncle Isak I’d already committed to come, otherwise the sheriff himself wouldn’t have been able to drag me away. Soonie swirled her feet in the water, watching tiny bubbles form on the surface. Riding away from her home and family had been the hardest thing she’d ever done.
The day she left, tears had rolled down her grandma’s wrinkled cheeks, and new creases formed in the corners of her grandpa’s faded blue eyes. Wylder’s jaw was set in the hard line that only showed when he was most upset. They respected her choice to go, but all feared for her safety.
How would they have felt to see me hiding out on the hill? Soonie closed her eyes.
The waves of sadness coursing through her were soothed by surges of peace. This journey was right and true, and she needed to go. When Uncle Isak had asked her to come and be a teacher for the children, she had felt a tug in her spirit. Reassurance grew stronger every day.
“Susannah,” Bright Flower called from further down. “Come, fish with us.”
“I’ll be right there.” Soonie pulled her feet from the water. She led Stone Brother back to the other horses so he could join them for a supper of river grass.
She crept down the bank, avoiding the slippery moss and wet patches on the rocks.
Tersa held out a cane pole. “Here.” She pointed to a rock. “You sit in this place.”
Soonie obediently sat, drawing her knees up and pulling her skirt over them.
In childhood, grandma sent her and Wylder down the river to fish all the time. Since Soonie’s nephews had come to live with them four years ago, she hadn’t needed to go.
Beside the rock was a soft patch of mud. She found a worm, baited the hook, and threw the string into the water.
Tersa and Bright Flower nodded, smiled and moved to different areas on the bank. Soon the three women were fishing in contentment, lost in their own thoughts.
Only a few quiet moments passed before Tersa leapt to her feet. Her pole bent towards the water, and a silvery creature thrashed madly in the shallows.
In her excitement, Soonie dropped her own pole. It slid into the water, and she caught it just before it was lost. I forgot how fun this is.
Tersa gave a mighty tug and a handsome bass flopped onto the rock, mouth agape. With an expert flick of a slender brown hand she sent the fish into a basket.
Every gesture was filled with grace and purpose. It sparked Soonie’s vague memories of her mother, who had been half Comanche. The simplest task had been beautiful to behold, and each moment held a dance.
More time passed, and Soonie’s eyes became heavy. She pinched her arm to stay awake, watching the skin change from pink to light brown again.
Then a tug ran through the line and into her hand, a jolt like the electric shock from the machine on a traveling salesman’s wagon.
The line slackened while the fish moved closer to the bank, invisible beneath the smooth surface of the water. Then the jerks became harder and more urgent.
She pulled the cane pole, hand over hand. At the end of the pole, she began twisting the line around her fist. Finally, the glistening fish broke the surface and swung into the air, almost smacking her in the face.
Tersa pulled in her line and began to walk towards Soonie, but Bright Flower shook her head.
Soonie grasped the fish beneath the gills with one hand, removed the hook, and walked over to sling the fish into the basket.
Tersa and Bright Flower both nodded and returned to their poles.
After supper had been consumed and the fish bones buried to prevent unwelcome visits from wild creatures, Soonie settled onto her blanket to watch the fire.
“To stare into the fire is to blind one’s self to one’s enemy.” Uncle Isak sank down beside her, his movements soundless as an owl’s flight.
Soonie blinked. “I have no enemies.” But she tipped her head back. Stars appeared one by one, winking as though angels lit candles in the darkness. Fewer trees dotted the landscape in this area, and the sky seemed bigger and closer than ever before.
Uncle Isak bowed his head. “Ah, Little One. Your life has been one of shelter and peace, in a world of rare acceptance. I have already described the place where we are going. We have chosen to live free of the reservation and the white man’s rules. But that freedom comes with great price.”
“Will the people accept me?” Soonie glanced at her arm, close to Uncle Isak’s. Even in the dim light, the contrast of skin color was apparent.
Uncle Isak picked up a twisted stick and pulled a knife from his belt. He began to remove the bark in smooth curls. “The settlement has many people like us, some Comanche, some Kiowa, and a few like you and I, with blood from different worlds dripped into the same bodies. All believe in our people, in our survival. The children must learn to read and write, to have the same abilities as those who would rule over us with white fists. They must learn mathematics so they can understand contracts and bills of sale, so they will know what they are agreeing to before they sign.”
His turquoise eyes flashed black in the firelight. “At the reservation in Fort Sill, the older ones were educated by white men. But we are separated. We have asked you to come because you respect the people, and our ways, and you possess the gift to teach. Though the Comanche and Kiowa’s world is destroyed, we must move forward and live on.”
Soonie rested her chin in her hands. “Do you think they will learn from me?”
Uncle Isak shrugged. “You must make them listen.”
I wish it were as simple as that. Soonie poked at the fire with a stick. Her teaching certificate, still crisp, was folded inside the cover of the small Bible Wylder and Zillia had given her as a going-away present.
Uncle Isak went to speak with the other men, and Soonie found herself staring into the fire once more. Soon, fatigue won over her fascination with the dancing flames. She spread her blanket beside the sleeping Tersa and stretched out.
Bushes surrounding their camp rustled, and normal night noises were broken by the startled cries of small creatures who suddenly found themselves claimed as dinner.
Lord, I am a stranger in a strange land. Give me wisdom. Let me have patience. Most of all, fill me with love.”
One more prayer escaped her mind before she drifted off to sleep. And never let me be afraid to enjoy a fire.