Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hope in a Bottle

The latest issue of Wild West magazine has a great article on the classic movie, The Searchers, and the true story behind it. Sometimes Hollywood gets history right. Here is something I wrote way back that has more than a whiff of The Searchers to it:

The bottle lay on the sand. Nearby, gentle waves lapped softly against the beach. How long the bottle had been laying there no one knows. Whether it was the tide or a storm that placed it, we do not know that either. This much we do know: At some point, someone walking along the sand spotted the bottle and instead of breaking it or hurling it back out to sea, they stooped to pick it up. We also know that when the finder uncorked it he discovered that a note was folded inside. After fishing out the note and reading the incredible words on the paper, whoever held it must have been dumb-struck. Finally, we also know that soon after the finder read the note and recovered from his shock, word quickly spread.Thus ended one of the most remarkable journeys ever recorded.

The little bottle's story began somewhere on the dry and desolate plains of northwest Texas or eastern New Mexico, hundreds upon hundreds of miles from where it was found. Here, at a camp of the Southern Cheyenne Indians, a ragged and frightened young white woman secretly brought out her hidden treasure--a bottle, a cork, a pencil, a piece of paper--then nervously scratched out a note, a desperate plea for help. The girl quickly folded the paper into the bottle, corked the end tightly, then tossed it into the headwaters of the Brazos River. In this arid region, the Brazos in the best of times is a mere trickle of water; at worst, it is just a sandy draw. Nevertheless, this bottle and the tiny trickle that floated it were the best, and perhaps last, hope for freedom that the young woman would know.

Several months earlier, in September, 1874, Catherine German and her family had been moving up the Smoky Hill River with everything they owned in the back of a covered wagon. The Germans, from Elgin, Kansas, were bound for Colorado and a fresh start. Just moments after breaking camp that morning, the family was surprised by Indians. Within minutes the wagon was in flames, the mother, father, and two children were dead and scalped, and four daughters--Catherine, aged 17, Sophia, 12, and little Julia and Addie, aged 7 and 5 respectively--were carried off into captivity.

Catherine's story is not a pretty one to relate. There are no Harlequin Romance endings here; no
Dances With Wolves Hollywood nonsense; no silly sentimentality. Catherine was raped repeatedly during her captivity; she was traded back and forth from one brave to the next; she was transformed into the tribal prostitute, her worth being measured in horses. Each time the frail young woman was forced to fetch wood or water for her lodge, she trembled in fear for she could expect to be raped as many as six times per trip.

Hence, Catherine's desperate attempt one day with her little bottle along the Brazos. Pathetic as her gesture was, it was all she had. Over the next several months, as her prayer drifted slowly down a shallow stream, this hope was the only thought that kept the young woman going. When all else had been stripped from her--her virtue, her freedom, her dignity--Catherine at least had her little star of hope.

Finally, after five months of captivity, the band holding Catherine and her sister, Sophia, at last returned to their reservation and surrendered the girls. Along with the two younger children, who earlier were rescued during a thundering cavalry charge, the two shattered girls tried to pick up the broken pieces of their lives.

Unbeknownst to Catherine, throughout her captivity, during all the rapes and beatings, during the freezing nights and terrifying days, the little bottle that she had secretly tossed into a trickle of water on the high plains had, despite snags and shoals and rocks and floods, continued its slow journey down a winding river.

Four months after Catherine's rescue, the
Ellsworth (Kansas) Reporter picked up an article from a Houston, Texas, newspaper. The startled editor then informed his readers:

"Strange to say, after having traveled eight hundred or one thousand miles along the devious windings and changing current...a bottle...was picked up on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Brazos River, in which upon examination, was a written account of the capture of...."

Thus ended an incredible journey. After the message was uncorked and read, it can only be hoped that the reader saved the little bottle and today, passed from one generation to the next, it sits atop some bookshelf, an antique, curious and pretty...if nothing more.

(An account of Catherine German is found in my book, Scalp Dance, available at Amazon.com) 


Caricature of the Day