Taabe Waipu huddled against the outside wall of the tepee and wept. The wind swept over the plains, and she shivered uncontrollably. After a long time,the stars came out and shone coldly on her. Where her tears had fallen, her dress was wet and clammy.
At last her sobs subsided. The girl called Pia came out of the lodge. She stood before Taabe and scowled down at her.
Taabe hugged herself and peered up at Pia. “Why did she slap me?” Pia shook her head and let out a stream of words in the Comanche language. Taabe had been with them several weeks, but she caught only a few words. The one Pia spat out most vehemently was “English.”
“English? She hit me because I am English?”
Pia shook her head and said in the Comanche’s tongue, “You are Numinu now. No English.”
Taabe’s stomach tightened. “But I’m hungry.”
Pia again shook her head.“You talk English.Talk Numinu.”
So much Taabe understood. She sniffed. “Can I come in now?”
“No,” Pia said in Comanche.
Pia stroked her fingers down her cheeks, saying another word in Comanche. Taabe stared at her. They would starve her and make her stay outside in winter because she had cried. What kind of people were these? Tears flooded her eyes again. Horrified, she rubbed hem away.
“Please.” She bit her lip. How could she talk in their language when she didn’t know the words?
She rubbed her belly, then cupped her hand and raised it to her mouth. Pia stared at her with hard eyes. She couldn’t be more than seven or eight years old, but she seemed to have mastered the art of disdain. She spoke again, and this time she moved her hands as she talked in the strange language.Taabe watched and listened.The impression she got was, “Wait.”
Taabe repeated the Comanche words. Pia nodded. Taabe leaned back against the buffalo hide wall and hugged herself, rubbing her arms through the leather dress they’d given her. Pia nodded and spoke. She made the “wait” motion and repeated the word, then made a “walking” sign with her fingers. Wait. Then walk. She ducked inside the tepee and closed the flap.
Taabe shivered. Her breath came in short gasps. She would not cry. She would not. She wiped her cheeks, hoping to remove all sign of tears. How long must she wait? Her teeth chattered. It is enough, she thought. I will not cry. I will not ask for food. I will not speak at all. Especially not English. English is bad. I must forget English. She looked to the sky. “Jesus,help me learn their language. And help me not to cry.” She thought of her mother praying at her bedside when she tucked her in at night. What was Ma doing now? Maybe Ma was crying too.
Stop it, Taabe told herself. Until they come for you, you must live the way the Comanche do. No, the Numinu. They call themselves Numinu. For now, that is what you are.You are TaabeWaipu,and you will not speak English.You will learn to speak Numinu, so you can eat and stay strong.
She hauled in a deep breath and rose. She tiptoed to the lodge entrance and lifted the edge of the flap. Inside she could see the glowing embers of the fire. The air was smoky, but it smelled good, like cooked food. She opened the flap just enough to let herself squeeze through. She crouched at the wall, as far from Pia’s mother as she could. The tepee was blessedly warm. If they didn’t give her food, she would just curl up and sleep. Since she had come here, she had often gone to bed hungry. Pia didn’t look at her.Pia’s mother didn’t look at her.Taabe lay down with her cheek on the cool grass. After a while it would feel warm.
She woke sometime later, shivering. Pia and her mother were rolled in their bedding on the other side of the fire pit. The coals still glowed faintly. Taabe sat up. Someone had dropped a buffalo robe beside her. She pulled it about her. No cooking pot remained near the fire. No food had been left for her. At least she had the robe. She curled up in it and closed her eyes, trying to think of the Comanche words for “thank you.” She wasn’t sure there were any. But she would not say it in English. Ever.
PLAINS OF NORTH CENTRAL TEXAS, 1857
Faster. Taabe Waipu had to go faster, or she would never get down from the high plains,
down to the hill country and beyond. South, ever south and east. Clinging to the horse, she let him run.The land looked flat all around, though it was riddled with ravines and folds. She could no longer see any familiar landmarks. The moon and stars had guided her for two nights, and now the rising sun told her which way to go on her second day of flight. She’d snatched only brief periods of rest. At her urging the horse galloped on, down and up the dips and hollows of the land.
Taabe didn’t know where the next water supply lay. The only thing she knew was that she must outrun the Numinu— Comanche, their enemies called them. No one traveled these plains without their permission.Those who tried didn’t make it out again. She glanced over her shoulder in the gray dawn. As far as she could see, no one followed, but she couldn’t stop. They were back there, somewhere. She urged the horse on toward the southeast. South to the rolling grasslands where the white men had their ranches.Where Peca and the other men often went to raid. Where Taabe was born.
The compact paint stallion ran smoothly beneath her, but as the sun rose and cast her shadow long over the Llano Estacado, his breath became labored,his stride shorter.Where her legs hugged his sleek sides, her leggings dampened with his sweat. He was a good horse, this wiry paint that Peca had left outside her sister’s tepee. Without him she wouldn’t have gotten this far. But no horse could run forever.
Taabe slowed him to a trot but didn’t dare rest. Not yet. Another look behind. No one. Would she recognize the house she’d once lived in? She didn’t think so, but she imagined a big earthen lodge, not a tepee. Or was it a cabin made of logs? That life was a shadow world in her mind now. Fences. The warriors talked about the fences built by the white men, around their gardens and their houses. She thought she recalled climbing a fence made of long poles and sitting on the top. When she saw fences, she would know she was close.
At last she came to a shallow stream, sliding between rocks and fallen trees. It burbled languidly where it split around a boulder. She let the horse wade in and bend down to drink. Taabe stayed on his back while he drank in long, eager gulps, keeping watch over the way they’d come. She needed to find a sheltered place where the horse could graze and rest. Did she dare stop for a while? She studied the trail behind her then took her near-empty water skin from around her neck. Leaning over the paint’s side, she dangled it by its thong in the water on the horse’s upstream side. She wouldn’t dismount to fill it properly, but she could stay in the saddle and scoop up a little.She straightened and checked the trail again.The horse took a step and continued to drink. She stroked his withers, warm and smooth. With a wry smile, she remembered the bride price Peca had left. Six horses staked out before the tepee.A stallion and five mares—pretty mares. Healthy, strong mounts. But only six.
The stallion raised his head at last and waded across the stream without her urging. They settled into a steady trot. Tomorrow or the next day or the next, she would come to a land with many trees and rivers. And many houses of the whites.
Would she have stayed if Peca had left twenty horses? Fifty? Not for a thousand horses would she have stayed in the village and married Peca—or any other warrior. Staying would make it impossible for her ever to go back to that other world—the world to the south.
Eagerness filled her, squeezing out her fear. She dug her heels into the stallion’s ribs.Whatever awaited her,she rushed to meet it.
The paint lunged forward and down. His right front hoof sank,and he didn’t stop falling.Taabe tried to brace herself,too late.The horse’s body continued to fly up and around.She hurtled off to the side and tucked her head.
“Today’s the day, Ned.”
Ned Bright coiled his long driver’s whip and grinned at his partner in the stagecoach business, Patrillo Garza. He and “Tree” had scraped up every penny and peso they could t outfit their ranch as a stage stop, in hopes of impressing the Butterfield Overland Mail Company’s division agent. Their efforts had paid off. Tree was now the station agent at the Bright-Garza Station, and Ned would earn his keep as driver between the ranch and Fort Chadbourne.
“Never thought everything would go through and we’d be carrying the mail.”
“Well, it did, and as of today we’re delivering,” Tree said. “Now, remember—the mail is important, but not at the passengers’ expense.”
Ned took his hat from a peg on the wall and fitted it onto his head with the brim at precisely the angle he liked. “But if we lose the mail on our first run, we’re not apt to keep the contract, are we?”
Tree scowled. “We ain’t gonna lose the mail, ya hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“Right. We’ve made this run hundreds of times.”
It was true. The two had hauled freight and passengers to the forts for several years. They’d scraped by. But the contract with the Butterfield Overland would mean steady pay and good equipment. Reimbursement if they were robbed.