In January 1869, the flat, featureless plains of Texas were known as the Staked Plains, after the early Spanish explorers who had discovered the desolate area drove stakes into the ground as markers to lead them back to safety. A lonely, desolate area of dirt, grassland, and Indians, it would be easy to lose one’s sense of direction if unaccustomed to such terrain. In the distance the dust rose in the wake of a lone rider as he moved across the desolate grassland.
John Henry Bain rode a dark chocolate colored horse, while a black horse ran behind, tethered by a rope. Following them, secured to the black horse by another lariat, a crabby mule brayed his disapproval with each footfall at the quick pace of travel. The rider’s head moved around as if on a swivel, searching for others on the lonely plain. This was Comanche territory, and not a good place for a white man. The one advantage was he’d have plenty of warning with the wide view in all directions if they came his way.
He moved westward, in the general direction of the New Mexico border, following tracks left by the 10 riders he pursued. He had tracked the men for eight days, closing the distance until he now trailed behind them by about two hours. The men he pursued had held up the stage outside the settlement of Washita Bend on the Red River. Having been a member of the posse which had hunted the murderous bandits for several days, he was the last one left, still doggedly on their trail. One by one the other law makers and those sworn into service in haste petered out, returning to the safety and comfort of their homes, leaving only Bain to hunt the brigands. Some would say one man was not enough against ten. Those folks didn’t know John Henry Bain. A former scout for the Seventh Cavalry, now he was a hunter ... a hunter of men.
True to his determined nature, he followed them, ready to pursue the bandits to the gates of Hell if need be. They needed to answer for their sins. He required that they pay for the three dead they left in their wake. They had traveled steadily to the west until the day before when they made an abrupt turn due north, until they came to a river and turned back to the east. He followed their tracks next to the small river. Slowing his steed, John Henry stood in the saddle and observed the horizon. He could see the river flowing into the flat terrain, but on either side of the river bed the land dropped away, receding, forming a large cut in the ground. The first signs of a canyon lay ahead of him, dropping below the level of the plain where red, bare rock formed the walls. It was wide, and small, scrubby trees dotted the landscape inside the gorge. He’d heard of this place. Hells Canyon one man told him, filled with Comanche. According to his friend, the walls were red with the blood of those the Comanche had murdered there.
The winter was mild and Bain’s head throbbed in the light of the merciless sun of the Texas panhandle, as if a brass band marched inside his skull. The two-month-old wound had healed, but still, the pain persisted. He cursed the trooper who had cracked him on the back of his head. What a wicked work of butchery that day had held. Old Indian men, squaws, and children had been slaughtered in cold blood. Its author had been his friend, well, now ex-friend, George Armstrong Custer. And he’d done the one thing a commander should never do; he lost control of his men. Shoving the thoughts of the carnage from his mind, Bain took a pinch of white powder into his mouth, washed it down with a swill of water, then placed more of the powder between his cheek and gum. The pulverized bark of the willow tree held his only relief from the constant ache.
He wondered if the outlaws ahead of him knew where they were going. Could they be so dumb to think that the Comanche would welcome them? Did they even know the canyon ahead was full of the Indians? He didn’t know what bounty these thieves had on their heads. He wasn’t hunting them for the money. They had murdered a friend and that was reason enough. Bain hadn’t known the salty stagecoach driver long, but he had befriended Bain. Eckhart’s spilled blood called out to John Henry, screaming for justice. Bain intended to bring them in for that reason, bounty or not.
Continuing, Bain neared the opening as the ground fell away before him. He knew that the Grand Canyon further to the west dwarfed this place, yet that notwithstanding, this site was massive. The chasm twisted and turned through the panhandle landscape, like a deep scar scratched into the ground. The bottom of the canyon fell a thousand feet deep in some areas. He’d have to stay alert or someone, bandit or Indian, would pick him off from overhead. Riding near the river he scanned the walls that began to rise around him as he dropped below the ground level of the plain.
The mule bellowed a complaint and John turned to him, pushed his hat back on his head and smiled. “Don’t like it any better than you, Ornery. Not by one bit,” Bain reset his hat, twisting back to the front. Gritting his teeth, he drew in a deep breath, then urged his mount to move. “Come on, Chocolate, let’s see what there is to see. Midnight, you keep up with us now, ya hear?” The black horse behind him neighed as John Henry nudged his spurs to the ribs of his horse.
In his mind John heard the warning that Eckhart had given him, “Now watch out, John Henry, if’n you ever has’t to go into that Palo Duro Canyon. She’s hells own place. The rocks are red with the blood of the Comanch’ victims.” Remembering Eckhart saddened him, yet stiffened his resolve.
The rock walls rose around him, not all that high at first, as flat-topped mesas lined the valley either side of the tributary. Sheer rock walls rose higher before him, as he followed the stream that meandered through the twisting canyon it had created eons ago. Strange rock formations with brilliant layers of oranges, reds, and yellows increased around him, the deeper he dropped. John Henry supposed that the reds could be mistaken for blood-soaked rocks. The river widened, then narrowed again, as he traversed carefully around a small waterfall that signalled a sharp jump downward in the floor of the canyon.
At the bottom of the waterfall, now much deeper in the canyon, he heard something and pulled his horse to a quick halt to listen. Far in the distance came the unmistakable sound of men screaming. There were other voices, whooping and hollering. His blood ran cold. Those were the sounds of Indian braves. Laughter wafted to him on the gentle breeze, a distinct feminine sound. Those were the squaws. Kicking his horse onward, the screams still came to him on the wind as he moved deeper into the valley. The walls climbed ever higher, the mesas hemmed him in, and now other gorges and arroyos either side of the central passage appeared.
For more than an hour, John Henry Bain moved through the wonderment of a landscape. A slow, plodding pace, Bain’s keen, dark blue eyes scanned the canyon around him. The further he traveled into the ravine the louder the blood-curdling shrieks sounded. Some fell silent as quickly as they had erupted. Something had changed, and that change might not be so good for Bain. His long hair hung over his shoulders, yet still the back of his neck tingled. John Henry pulled his horse to a halt, as the other two beasts stopped behind him. Bain fidgeted with the tuft of hair below his lip, then smoothed his thick mustache.
“Damn,” he said, as he saw a Comanche jump atop a rock in front of him. The brave was dressed only in a loincloth, despite the cold, the narrow leather cloth hanging front and back from a tight waistband, while his hair hung in two long braids. But what caught Bain’s eyes the most was the muzzle-loading rifle the Indian held in his hands. Bain sat quietly on his horse, observing the Indian intently. Out of the corner of his eyes, John could see more of them mounting other rocks. He turned his head and realized he was surrounded by Indians with long braided hair, dressed in buckskins.
The Indian he’d first seen lowered his rifle, then set it against the rock. The Indian faced Bain, fists on his hips, scowling at the white man. John Henry raised his right hand, palm out, then lowered it level to his waist, then moved his hands in a quick succession, telling the Indian he was after ten wicked white men. The Indian nodded, picked up his rifle and jumped down from the rock to approach Bain. The rifle was held loosely in his hand, no threat to Bain in this moment.
“Five now,” the Indian said, speaking in imperfect English. “Why you want my new slaves?”
“They robbed and murdered. I need to take them back to face justice,” Bain told him.
“I punish for you,” he said. “They do women work. When we tire of them, we stake them to ant den.”
“That won’t do,” John told him. “I need to take them back.”
“What are you known by?” the Indian asked, stepping closer to Bain.
“My name is John Henry Bain. Some of the tribes call me Eye of Eagle,” Bain told him.
“I hear of you. You are friend to Indian. But what do I care of the Kiowa, the Cheyenne or the Pawnee?” the chief told him.
“I have respect for the Comanche, also. You are the great warriors of the plains,” Bain told him. “What do they call you?”
“Pahayoko is my name,” the Indian replied. Straightening, he stiffened his stance, pumped his chest out, “In English mean, Amorous Man. I like you, John Henry Bain. We trade for men.”
“I travel light, but let us see what trade we can make.”
“How many repeaters?” Pahayoko asked, pointing at the rifles on Bain’s three animals.
Bain’s head dropped as he sucked in air hard. He looked at the Indian and shook his head. “I need rifles for hunting.”
“We trade men for guns,” the Indian insisted, folding his arms at chest. “Henry rifles, I need Henrys.”
“I’ll trade you two guns and 50 rounds, for the five men,” Bain relented.
“How many guns you have?”
The Indian nodded. Bain held up three fingers then repeated his terms.
“Okay, I give you five men. But no horses. No wampum. You give 50 round of bullet, two guns,” the Comanche told him.
Bain relaxed a moment, weighing his options. The man didn’t have to give him anything, but he needed those horses to transport the men back. Bain could put up a fight and take many of the braves with him, but if they decided to take what they wanted, John Henry knew how it would end. He’d be dead. “I need to return the money they stole. You have no need of it,” Bain countered.
“I only get two guns. I keep money,” the Indian told him.
“Okay, how about I give you 100 rounds, three repeaters, and you throw in the money, and their horses. You can keep their hardware and ammunition,” Bain said, putting up a bold front.
“Okay, what your Sharps rifles?” the Indian asked, trying to expand his advantage.
“No, I need them for hunting big game. Besides, they are single shots. You don’t want them.”
The young warrior nodded, the deal made. Turning, he yelled in his own language toward a group of young braves. As Bain watched, five of the men he’d been trailing were led around the rocks. Their hands were bound behind their backs as they were pushed ahead with rough shoves by the young Indians. Their horses were lead into view, then the braves boosted the men onto their horses.
“You hang these men?” Pahayoko asked.
“The law might ... not me. I just bring them in,” John told him.
“All go back alive?”
“I hope,” Bain said.
“Lose no sleep if not,” the Indian said. “Get much wampum for them?” he asked.
“Don’t know. Not doing it for that reason.”
“Strange bounty man.”
Getting off his horse, Bain fished out the agreed upon ammunition and rifles, then set them on a flat rock near the Indian. The nod between the two, white man and Indian was respectful. Bain understood Indians and how to deal with them, whereas the men he’d been tracking had obviously done wrong by the tribe. Mounting his horse, Bain rode up to the men, two of whom had been scalped and blood covered their faces.
Bain looked at the bloodied men, then turned back to Pahayoko. “Why’d you lift their top knots?”
“They, and others, killed some of my people,” Pahayoko told him. A scream rang out from deeper inside the valley. “Perhaps, one, two or even three not yet dead.”
“I want all the men who are still living, not just these five,” Bain told him.
“No,” Pahayoko said. “You have these. You want more, then more guns and bullets.” Another scream echoed through the canyon. Bain had nothing left he could afford to trade. He shook his head, ducking his eyes as another scream sent a shiver up his spine. “Go back the way you came and make way home. Careful, John Henry Bain, bounty man. Some of my brothers are not kind as me.”
Bain ground his teeth for a moment. Pahayoko picked up a large leather pouch and brought it to Bain, who leaned down from atop his horse. Handing the pouch to Bain, Pahayoko then stretched out his right hand. Bain took hold of the man’s forearm, returning the gesture.
“Go in peace,” Pahayoko told him, adding a warning. “Never return.”
Giving his word, Bain tied the sack of money to his saddle. With a final nod to the Indian chief, John Henry then slapped the backside of one of the bandit’s horses to get them moving. The men spurred their beasts and the long line headed back up the canyon, away from the tribe. Bain wanted to wait until they were clear of the Canyon before securing all the horses together. As they left, the distant screaming began again, laughter accompanying the hollers of the men. The women ... it seemed ... loved to watch whites suffer.
As they lost sight of the Indians behind them, John Henry spoke to his charges. “You boys need to behave yourself,” Bain told them. “I don’t want to kill any of you, but we’re all going back. One way or the other, you’re all going back to face justice.”
The lead rider twisted his upper body and looked over his shoulder at John Henry. He nodded his head, “We’ll be milk toast mild.” The man then yelled out to the others, “Y’all hear me on this? We owe this man our lives. Ya’ll seen what they did to the others.”
“What did they do?” Bain asked as they made their way through the red terrain of the canyon floor.
“Them thar Comanch’ got themselves a turrible fury. I had no idea how wrathful they’s capable of being. They burnt Jack Lohan’s nose off his face,” the outlaw leader told Bain. A thick stream of blood ran from his scalp and spilled down his face. “I swear to God, one of the squaws put a torch right ta his nose, and she held’t thar until the flesh burnt right down to the bone. Three of the women tore Sam Wallace’s tongue out and beat him senseless, then a brave cut his hands and feet off him, along with other, more tender parts. He bled to death while the women prodded him with sticks. They’s a skinning Dan Buckner alive, then stopped when ya come into view. After a bit, the braves come and got us, scalped me and the other one afore they brought us ta you. That was Dan you heard a screaming as we rode out of thar. Don’t know what they’s a doing then. Don’t want to know. Timothy and his brother Robert is left. Don’t know the rest of thar name. From the time they took us till they give us ta you ... well, God’s honest truth, it’s the longest two hours, err so, of my life.” The man finished his tale, having said it all in one long spiel as if to rid it from his memory.
“The Comanche are renowned for their ... methods. But you have to understand, as much as I just saved you from them, I’m still taking you boys in to face justice,” Bain said. His look changed, and grew cold and hard, “Now, who killed the stage driver?”
“Me,” the leader said, the fight knocked out of him. “I murdered him and t’other two.”
“He was a friend of mine,” Bain said, the words absent of emotion. The leader turned his face to John. Bain’s eyes told the man all he needed to know.
“I thought I was a pitiless man when I murdered them. Didn’t consider punishment or what bad might come from the act. I wish I regretted killing him, but the God’s truth of it is, my regret, what thar is of it, was riding into that canyon to try and lose ya. I’ll take the time, the rope or whatever, and know you saved me from worse. I can’t vouch for the others, but I won’t give no trouble.”
Bain didn’t believe the man. No man went willingly to the rope. They travelled for another hour, up the incline as the canyon fell behind them, and finally out onto the flat plain again. He kept the group moving until they had circled well south of the canyon, before he stopped the group and tended to the wounds of the two scalped men. John Henry removed the leather straps from one man’s hands, allowed him to eat some jerky and drink some water then rebound the man, and moved to the next outlaw. He made life a tad easier for the men by tying their hands in front of them. On the move again, the group travelled across the flat prairie until just before sunset.
Once they stopped for the night, the five men helped set up the camp. The shock of the cruelty their group had befallen was still fresh, preying on their minds. With their hands still tied, the men gathered wood, buffalo chips, and dry grass to build a fire. War seasoned, hard men moved about like sheep. For the moment, their resolve broken, their minds couldn’t think about running from this bounty hunter.
The leader, Clay Weller, had been a Confederate officer and these men had served under him. Having been in many battles during the war, and done their share of atrocious acts after the war, one would think they would have remained unfazed by the treatment they saw. One would be wrong.
Philip Redstone, a younger member of the group, couldn’t push the image of a woman holding that torch to his friend’s face. He was unable to wrap his mind around how much the woman enjoyed what she did.
Andrew Kemper, one could consider him the second in command, had been Captain Weller’s Lieutenant during the war. A man of iron will, his head ached where he’d been scalped, and his unyielding resolution crumbled. He moved about the camp with a lost look upon his face. The exposed raw flesh of his slashed head still oozed. Some of the blood ran down into his eyes from time to time. For Kemper, the worst thing of all was those women, beating the men, poking them with sticks as they jeered and jabbered at them. Women weren’t supposed to be like that, like cats playing with some battered mouse.
Jefferson Jeffers sat on a rock, blankly staring off into the distance. The color had drained from his face. His skin was ashen, and he yanked strands of hair from his head as he mumbled something, low and gravely. Bain, hearing him, moved closer and listened to the man. “Took his manhood from him,” Jeffers said. “Cut it all right off him. The women made him ... oh, dear God, what they made him do with ... eat his-self ... eat that part of his-self. Oh, dear God, the women.”
The fifth man worried Bain the most, a man named Jim Skimmer. He alone seemed to be in full control of his faculties. He didn’t mumble. He didn’t have a lost look about him. His face looked ... angry. But if the anger was with the Comanche or directed at John Henry, he didn’t know.
Bain killed, cleaned, and cooked six rabbits, which were in abundance on the plains. Several cans of beans accompanied the meal along with some weak coffee. He had to try and make the supplies last. Bain realized he hadn’t planned well. If he’d had all 10 of them, he’d have been hard pressed to hunt enough wild game for all of them on the trail. At best, it would have been a three-man job, and he would have needed three times the supplies. But there was no way he’d give a rifle to one of his prisoners to let them hunt rabbits or deer. When the others in the posse had turned back, he should probably have done the same. But he hadn’t, and now he had five prisoners to feed and get back alive. In the two months he’d been a bounty hunter, he’d brought in five men, but each of those had been one at a time, and manageable.
Skimmer ate the last of his rabbit and tossed the empty carcass into the fire. He fumbled with the plate trying to hold it still while he piled beans on his spork. Giving up, Jim took his hands and grabbed the beans, then stuffed them in his mouth. An odd smile crossed his features, as some of the food and juice from the beans tumbled out and down his whiskered chin. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his tan range coat.
“We been running eight days,” Skimmer said, his smirk growing larger. “Take us that long or longer to get back. A lot can happen in eight days.” Picking up the coffee with both his hands he drank the full cup in one gulp, unbothered by its heat. The fellow’s wolf grin held a certain malevolence, “How much sleep you going to be able to get over the next seven nights, worrying about me?”
“Jim,” Weller called to him, “I told him we wasn’t going ta give him no trouble.”
“You ain’t no captain anymore, and I ain’t no private,” Jim Skimmer told him. “You speak for a minority of one nowadays.”
“You give trouble, I’ll gut ya myself,” Weller told him.
Skimmer laughed and slid back against his saddle. He pulled his hat low over his eyes and settled in, making himself as comfortable as he could. Bain said nothing during the exchange, but listened plenty. He just ate his food and thought about things.
Jeffers and Kemper gathered the metal plates, brushed a few leftover bones into the fire, and walked to the nearby stream with the plates and utensils to wash. Jeffers looked at the last spork and began to laugh so hard tears ran from his face. Holding the half fork, half spoon high in the air, he shouted, “Behold, the white man’s superiority! The greatest invention of the Civil War—the spork.”
Kemper jabbed the man in the ribs, “Na, the greatest invention was your ma and pa givin’ you the name of Jefferson Jeffers,” he laughed, and the look on Jeffers face told him he’d heard it all before, but still, he grinned.
Jeffers and Kemper laughed together, then fell silent. Finishing their chore, they put all the utensils back in the sacks of the mule’s packsaddle. Holding their hands out to Bain they waited as he tied them again. Jefferson’s lightened mood didn’t last long though, and soon he returned to mumbling to himself.