Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Indian Sentinel

As the sun was setting one fine autumn day, a young boy was watching a motionless figure standing on top of the hill at the edge of Tehuacana, Texas. For over a half-hour the boy had been watching that figure staring westward, never moving, still as a statue.

The young boy was John Boyd, son of the founder of the village. The figure he was watching was obviously an Indian as John could see the feathered headdress on his head, but this was 1858 and the Indians had been driven from the area some years ago. He finally decided to climb the small hill to get closer. What danger was one lone Indian when it appeared he didn't have a horse and there were settlers with guns nearby should John call out to them?

Making his voice friendly, young John called out to him, but the Indian didn't move. It was as if he didn't hear him so John walked closer. He was close enough now to see the fine buckskins he wore, the craftsmanship of the stitches and the colorful beads which adorned the shirt. He had fine, long black hair which was braided and a beautiful leather belt with strips of rawhide that moved with the wind. John looked carefully, but he could see no weapon.  "Are you hungry? We can spare some food."

Ever so slowly, the Indian's head turned, as though it took an intense labor of will. The eyes, as dark as a black pit fixed on the boy. No expression crossed the face, only the awareness of another's presence. Jon felt paralyzed, totally incapable of running away from those eyes staring unblinking at him. It was then he noticed a strange glow about the figure, as though the fading sunlight radiated not around him, but through him! Suddenly, John felt very cold and an inner voice said to run, run very fast!

Before he could move though, the Indian was gone. John carefully looked, but there was nothing around him. The figure had vanished into the air.

John Boyd would not be the last to see the hilltop Indian sentinel, the last chief of the Tawakoni tribe, a man who had died in a massacre thirty years earlier. For years afterward, at daybreak and sunset, the chief would appear and stand motionless atop the little hill overlooking the land that had once been home. Whether he was awaiting the return of his people, his son at their head, or he was standing guard in penance has never been determined.

The Tawakoni were allies of the Tejas who lived to the east. They were an industrious and friendly people who protected their lands, and thus the land of the Tejas, from the war-like and more savage plains warriors who roamed the west. The Cherokee were being driven from their own lands by the white man by the 1820's and they needed the game and watering holes of the Tawakoni. The Cherokee came in force, but the Tawakoni fought them to a standstill in a battle where Waco now stands. The enemy invaders retreated and left them in peace...for a while. Thinking they had driven them away, the Tawakoni relaxed and braves posted as guards were not as vigilant. The Cherokee snuck back and in a devastating attack, virtually annihilated all of them. They burned to the ground the bee-hive-shaped dwellings and erased any signs the Tawakoni ever lived there. Only a handful escaped, mostly women and small children, as Tawakoni braves and their chief sacrificed their lives giving the survivors time to grab the chief's son and flee into the brush.

The last stand of the Tawakoni was not recorded in white man's books and may have gone completely unknown except for an Indian scout who worked for General Earl Van Dorn, a grand-nephew of Andrew Jackson. Known only as Tawakoni Jim, he told the troopers his childhood memory of his father's death on that flaming hilltop. As soldiers were transferred to other units, the story was passed around the evening fires from one army camp to another. As stories do, this one made it back to the Tehuacana settlers who were finally sure of what they saw - a father waiting for his son's return.

In the late 1900's, archaeologist found proof of the story. Near Barry Springs on Tehuacana's eastern side, they located the old village. They traced the sunken floors and the central fire basins. They found the lodgepole marks for oval dwellings. They gathered artifacts clearly identified as Tawakoni. Most telling, they found proof of a village which had been razed by fire. Tawakoni Jim's story was true.

Shortly before Jim passed away at the age of 90 in the early 1900's, his minister was able to trace his lineage and authenticate that he was indeed the chieftain-to-be, escaped from his dying village. The return of Jim's people was a lost dream.

When I heard this story, of course I had to drive there and check it out for myself. There's not much to the community of Tehuacana now, a lot of abandoned buildings and broken dreams. When asked, most of the older people I found to talk to just smiled and said they had never heard of the story. One old gentleman dressed in a farmer's dirty overalls and beat-up straw hat looked at me sideways for several seconds, spit some chewing tobacco juice on the ground and said he didn't have time for such nonsense as he turned and walked away.

I found another old man with a deeply-lined, weather-beaten face and snow-white hair sitting on a bench in front of a small store. I sat for a little while, drinking a coke I bought inside. When I asked him if he knew of the story, he admitted he did. He said he was born and raised around Tehuacana and had heard the story from his grandfather. He told me the old Indian still makes an appearance every now and then, always at sunrise or dusk. He claimed to have seen him himself. He said he thinks he is standing guard, doing penance for allowing his people to become lax, to be caught unprepared to defend themselves. But then again, he thinks it's just as likely he's still waiting for his son to return, a father's vigil. "That's just my figuring though cause nobody knows for sure," he said. "You can't read the mind of a ghost." And then he gave me directions to the hill.

It was getting dark as I followed the old man's directions. It's a pleasant place with a few hackberry tree's around a little park at the top, cleared of vegetation, overlooking a vast open countryside. I waited there, alone, hoping to see an old Indian chief appear out of thin air. It didn't happen. Perhaps all these years later he has given up returning. There's no one left to listen to his warning of what happens to a people when they let down their guard. I drove away wondering about things that can't be explained.

At the bottom of the hill, I looked in my rearview mirror. I'm sure what I saw at the very top of the hill was just a tree. Strange, I hadn't noticed it while I was there.