The warriors looked expectantly at Guadal-onte. What would he do?
They could hear Spanish voices on the hills around them. They could hear the scream of golden eagles soaring in the sky above them, buoyed by the updrafts, free. From the mouth of their cave, they could see enemy campfires on the surrounding hills at night. They could feel, in the black recesses of their cave, the tightening grip of dread.
Dohasan could see that Guadal-onte, who had led his followers on a failed raid and then led them into a disastrous ambush, had lost faith in his medicine, his power. He had lost his spirit and ability to command. He felt paralyzed, unable to use his absolute authority. The Kiowa warriors did not speak of mutiny. If Guadal-onte, who had proven himself in past battles, could only find his will to lead, they would follow.
They waited, beginning to feel themselves choking with frustration and impatience.
With empty bellies and dry raw throats, they felt their energy fading, apathy taking hold, irritability rising. They could see muscles starting to waste, cheek bones starting to protrude, eyes starting to sink, skins starting to wrinkle. They looked withered, like old rawhide. In the darkness of their natural crypt, in that strange rocky island in the desert called Hueco Tanks, they dreamed of freedom and home. They prayed to their medicine and Kiowa deities for release.
After days of intensifying agony, they heard someone yell down to them, in the familiar tongue of the Comanche, from the top of the cliff just above the entrance to their cave. It sounded like a voice out of a vision. “Don’t give up,” the person yelled. “The Mexicans are going to throw some food down to you soon. It will be all right, because they hope to take you alive. I will help you escape later.” It must be a Comanche captive, the Kiowas thought, taken sometime earlier by the Mexicans. Obviously, the soldiers could not have understood his promise, made in Comanche, to help them to freedom.
Hope rose. They could feel it in their chests. They heard the thuds of something falling before the mouth of their cave. Mad with hunger and thirst, they rushed out of their entombment to retrieve the “food” only to be met by rattlesnakes, musket fire and derisive laughter. They had to scramble to avoid snake bite, kill the rattlers and duck musket balls. They could not escape the laughter.
The Kiowas retreated back into their cave. The unthinkable – rebellion against their leader – had now become thinkable. They knew that they could not count on Guadal-onte.
Ascent into Darkness
Tsone-ai-tah spoke, accusingly, to Guadal-onte, “We have lost one man. Another is wounded. We are starving, getting weaker by the hour. We are going to die here like helpless women.” The other warriors nodded.
Dohasan could see the wildness, the irrationality, in Tsone-ai-tah’s eyes.
Tsone-ai-tah turned on Au-tone-a-kee, who had wanted to stop and fight at the start of the ambush. “…you are the cause of all our trouble,” he said to Au-tone-a-kee. “You are responsible for your own brother lying there all black and bloated.” Tsone-ai-tah sprang on Au-tone-a-kee with a knife, not to drive the blade into flesh, but to chop the hair from his scalp. Other warriors, stirred by Tsone-ai-tah’s madness, grabbed the cut hair from his hand and flung it across the rotting corpse of the brother. Au-tone-a-kee stood silent, in anguish and pain.
“If you are willing to die like women,” Tsone-ai-tah said to Guadal-onte and the others, “there is no help for us. Let us get out of this foul place and die in the open like men and warriors!” Guadal-onte did not challenge Tsone-ai-tah. He had forfeited his leadership. “…if any of this affair reaches our people,” said Tsone-ai-tah, angrily, “it will be that we were killed in battle—not starved like badgers in a hole in the ground.”
“Are you willing to make a rush for it after dark, even if everyone of us is killed?” Tsone-ai-tah asked the raiders. He did not try to take charge. He called for a leader to deliver them from the cave. “We will all follow,” he said, “but you, Shaved Head, will go last.” The warriors looked at Dohasan, who remained silent. He felt reluctant to commandeer leadership. It violated the code of Kiowa warfare.
The warriors waited impatiently. The afternoon light melted into darkness. Deep into the night, with the Mexican sentries growing drowsy and their fires burning down, Tsone-ai-tah whispered, “…are you ready?” The warriors lashed their weapons to their wrists for the climb out. “…if we are going to die,” Tsone-ai-tah said softly, “let it be now!” They would make their break, with or without a leader.
Then, from the darkness, the warriors heard the voice of Dohasan, chanting softly.
Oh, sun, you remain forever, but we KoitsEnka must die.
Oh, earth, you remain forever, but we KoitsEnka must die.
His death song. It signaled – the raiders understood – that Dohasan had made the decision to take command from Guadal-onte and to lead them from their dark prison, even though he believed that he, and the others, would likely die.
Dagoi, crippled by his wound, his strength nearly gone, said to Dohasan, “Don’t leave me here. I want to see my father’s face again.”
Dohasan spoke to Dagoi softly and sadly, “It is our life or yours. If we stay to help you, no one will get away. Make your heart strong. Die like a Kiowa warrior.”
Dagoi settled back. “Tell my comrades to come back and avenge my death.” He sang his death song. He knew he would die at the hands of the Mexicans.
In the darkness, Dohasan found handholds at the opening with the juniper tree at the edge. He grabbed a limb. He hoisted himself upward to solid footing, the first of the warriors to leave the cave prison. He extended his bow back as a lifeline, pulling warrior after warrior up to the surface. He led them east, across a saddle in the hills, through boulders, loose rocks, the saw-tooth sotol plants. They could see the Mexican fires burning on the hills around them.
Someone stumbled. The soldiers heard them. They opened fire. A ball struck Hone-geah-tau-te, knocking him off his feet. He lay where he fell. A ball struck Konate, knocking him to the earth. He rose, seriously wounded, but somehow pressed on with the other warriors.
Dohasan led them from the hill down to the desert floor on the east side of Hueco Tanks. By luck, they found soldiers’ horses. They mounted the animals and fled east, across the open desert, toward the pass through the Hueco Mountains. Amid canyons and cactus, they eluded Mexican pursuit the following day even though their strength had been exhausted by the ordeal in the cave. They had learned from their fathers to endure fatigue, hunger, thirst and pain; and now that lesson would save their lives.
The following night, Dohasan led the raiders into the reserve camp at Ojo de Los Alamos, where Guadal-onte had, with the foresight of experience, stationed the two apprentice warriors to guard spare provisions and horses. The party believed that three warriors – Au-tone-a-kee’s brother, Dagoi and Hone-geah-tau-te – had already died. They thought that Konate, barely conscious, his wounds already starting to fester, probably would die before they could get him home.
They ate from spare provisions and drank from Ojo de Los Alamos water, the first time since the ambush that they could satisfy their hunger and thirst. The next morning Dohasan led the decimated raiding party east, on the return trail toward home, mounted on fresh horses.
The Long Way Home
Following Dohasan, the warriors re-traced their path across the creosote desert, the salt flats, passing El Capitan, crossing the Pecos River. They would soon reach the Comanche War Trail, at the southern end of the Great Plains. Along the way, they could see, they believed, that Konate would die. Fevered, the larva of blow flies at work in his wounds, he had passed from consciousness. He could go no farther.
Dohasan and the warriors came to a spring at a place they called Sun Mountain. The weary Kiowas decided to leave Konate there to die. They laid him near the spring, where he could reach the water in the unlikely chance that he should regain consciousness. They piled stones around him to help protect him from wolves and coyotes. Morosely, they turned north, up the trail, abandoning a comrade and a friendship forged in the crucible of battle and suffering.
Along the way, they encountered a party of six Comanche warriors, en route to raid in Mexico. They told the Comanches about the siege they had endured at Hueco Tanks and the dying comrade they had left at Sun Mountain. They asked the Comanches to cover the body with stones to protect it until a party could be sent back from the Kiowa camp to recover the bones.
Some days later Dohasan led the raiders into the Kata village at Rainy Mountain. He and the other warriors told about the failure of the raid, the disaster at Hueco Tanks, the extraordinary mutiny against Guadal-onte’s command, Dohasan’s assertion of leadership, their escape from the cave, the deaths of four warriors.
The families of Au-tone-a-kee’s brother, Dagoi, Hone-geah-tau-te and Konate plunged into despair. The women set up their mournful wailing. They sliced their faces and arms, which became streaked with the blood of grief. Relatives shot the five raiders’ horses. They burned their possessions. No one would ever speak their names again.
Days later, while Dohasan’s Kata band was still immersed in anguish over the catastrophe at Hueco Tanks, seven riders from the south approached the camp. As they drew near, the Kiowas realized, to their surprise, that six of the riders were the Comanche warriors who had been asked to cover Konate’s corpse with rocks. They then realized, to their complete astonishment, that the seventh rider was Konate, who the raiders had left for dead beside the spring at Sun Mountain. Somehow, he had survived and begun to recover. The Comanches had brought him home.
The grateful Kiowas staged a feast and a dance to honor the Comanches. They gave the rescuers fine horses to thank them. The bonds between the tribes grew stronger than ever.
Konate told how he had awakened beside the spring, and realizing he had been abandoned, sank into hopelessness and despair. However, as night enveloped him, he said, a wolf climbed over the wall of his rock shelter, not to tear him apart, but to care for him. For four nights, the animal lay beside him, warming him, licking his wounds, comforting him. On the fourth night, the Tai-me, a Kiowa deity, spoke to him in a vision, promising recovery, sending a cooling rain. On the fifth night, the six Comanche warriors arrived, and seeing that Konate might recover, they cared for him, abandoning their raid and escorting him home. As he had traveled with the Comanches northeastward across the rolling plains, he discovered a Tai-me icon, a symbol of his vision, resting at the crest of a low rise. He had brought it home, reverently. He would place it each year in a position of honor in the Sun Dance medicine lodge.
Years later, when the grief had subsided and Dohasan’s Kata band thought of the siege at Hueco Tanks as an ill-starred chapter in the tribe’s history, another rider from the south approached the camp, now located on the Arkansas River. He wore a colorful serape and a shining skullcap. He rode a fine horse. As he drew near, the Kiowas realized, to their disbelief, that the rider was none other than Hone-geah-tau-te, whom the Mexicans had shot that night during the escape from the cave at Hueco Tanks.
Hone-geah-tau-te told how the soldiers found him lying among the rocks. They scalped him. They dragged him behind a wild horse. They stuffed rotted meat into his mouth when he begged for food. They gave him mud when he cried for water. He refused to die. Finally, a kind Mexican man had rescued him from the torture. He nursed Hone-geah-tau-te back to health. He arranged for a silver plate to be affixed over Hone-geah-tau-te’s head to cover the wound from his scalping. Eventually, he gave Hone-geah-tau-te presents and sent him back to his Kiowa homeland.
Apparently, an unknown Kiowa eventually returned to Hueco Tanks, and on a large smooth stone surface in an overhang near the mouth of the canyon where the ambush occurred, he painted what appears to be the visual story of the siege. He left images of a man, presumably Kiowa, clutching at a belly pinched by hunger and reaching for water lying just beyond his reach; a red-coated dragoon and citizen soldiers, choking off symbolic escape routes; a man upside down, presumably dead; a tree, possibly the juniper which Dohasan used to pull himself and the other warriors from the cave; white circles, filled with black and bisected with a white slash to symbolize an escape in the night; and a man in a broad-brimmed hat, rocked back on his heels as if in surprise.
The dragoons and the militia, after a siege of 10 days, had managed to kill only two raiders and capture but one, letting all the others escape on the military horses. They knew that mercenary bounty hunters had far surpassed the military in attacking and killing dozens of Apaches, displaying scalps and ears as gruesome trophies in public plazas. The reputation of the military was on the line.
When the soldiers returned to El Paso del Norte from Hueco Tanks, they reported that they had ambushed, not a Kiowa raiding party of about 20, but an Apache raiding party of 150. They reported, not that they had allowed all but three of the Kiowas to escape, but that they had decimated all 150 Apache warriors. Those savages, they said, would never kill another Mexican, abduct another child, plunder another home.
The people of the villages, the markets, the placitas, the mission churches, the haciendas, the fields and pastures of El Paso del Norte rejoiced at the success of their soldiers.
In the fall of 1997, Dohasan’s great-great-grandson Dewey Tsonetokoy, his teen-age son Scott, his sister, his niece, my youngest son’s wife Terry, and I explored the Hueco Tanks caves where the Mexican military force had held Dohasan and the other Kiowa raiders captive for those 10 awful days of suffering 158 years earlier. (Hueco Tanks, about 30 miles east of El Paso, off U. S. Highway 62/180, is now a Texas state historical park.)
Before we entered, Dewey conducted a “smoking ceremony” to purify us. It was essential because “Kiowa warriors died here,” he explained. We crawled into the caves, and with the sunlight that sifted through crevasses, we could see features which Dohasan had described in a personal picture diary, or calendar history.
Terry and I withdrew. We did not want to intrude on a Kiowa moment.
Scott, Dohasan’s great-great-great-grandson, with the help of a rope, climbed alone up through the perilous shaft where the Mexicans had thwarted the Kiowa escape. He reached the opening and emerged from the darkness into the sunlight, much like the first Kiowas, according to tribal legend, emerged from a cottonwood log onto the earth’s surface.
“I almost cried,” said Dewey.
Scott had earned his Kiowa name: Hay-Gal-Oop Gal-Oye-Tope, or He Who Went Through and Came Out.
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