Moseying: History of the Southern Llano Estacado
Monarch butterflies awed Comanche Indians too
October 16, 2011
"Grandfather, there are so many butterflies! Look." The child led his white-haired kin away from the group of tipis on the hill above the draw, headed down into the draw. Thousands upon thousands of huge orange butterflies were swirling among the yellowing leaves of the soapberries. Thousands more still hung on the hackberries, waiting for the morning sun to warm the coolest air at the bottom of the draw, on the north side of the trees.
"Child, do you remember earlier this year, at a different camp, when you and I were helping carry buffalo meat back to camp we stopped to rest in the shade. After we quit sweating, you noticed a big caterpillar on a multi-trunked plant with skinny gray leaves but with clusters of dark red blooms? Remember I broke off a branch of the plant and white sticky sap slowly oozed out? That caterpillar became one of these butterflies. But these butterflies are like the birds, coming from the north to get away from winter's cold."
The grandfather found a toppled old hackberry and settled his weary bones down again, letting the morning sun warm his blood as he sat and basked. He moved each limb of his body slowly, trying to decide what part of his body hurt the worst on this beautiful morning. The child ran about, trying to capture the fluttering butterflies, running and leaping and laughing.
Years ago, when he had been a warrior and ridden the many days it took to go deep into Mexico, he remembered another time he had seen thousands of the orange butterflies. There had many so many butterflies they had scared the horses. A captive of the band, whose original home was even further south, told them that his people believed butterflies were the souls of the dead. After the horses settled down, the southerner started chanting as they walked their horses through the trees to the river beyond. There were so many butterflies that they even landed on the riders, but for some reason they landed on the southerner the most, until he became a human form wearing a coat of butterflies. They covered his hair, too.
The southerner stopped his chanting and then told the young man who would someday be the grandfather watching his grandson try to capture the butterflies, "In the mountains beyond the river, the butterflies gather in huge trees and sleep the winter away. In the spring they head north. As a child I was taken there and my grandfather told me to listen to the butterflies. If I listened close enough, he said, I could hear the stories of the people they had once been. I have listened to the butterflies this morning and you will be safe in this valley."
More butterflies came to the southerner, until it looked like butterflies were landing on butterflies who had landed on butterflies. The southerner had told them he knew of a place to rest in safety, where the pursuing Mexican Army could not find them. The band had just taken 100 mules from a Mexican Army presidio. The leader of the grandfather's band had promised the southerner his freedom if his story was true. The other Comanches had become mesmerized by the butterflies landing on their guide, and had fallen in behind the southerner as he rode east, directly into the morning sun. The sun made the wings of the butterflies on him and his horse glow with an intense light.
No one cared that the southerner had slowly edged further in the lead. When they reached the steep slope of the terrace above the river, he headed his horse down it, and as the glowing shape disappeared, suddenly the butterflies on him and his horse had swirled into the air, dancing embers against the darkness of the trees along the river. The butterflies began swirling in unison, like that of a dust devil or a tornado, rising higher and higher. Every butterfly in the valley began to swirl upward, ever higher, swirling and swirling. The Comanches all stopped their horses and stared in awe.
So many butterflies filled the air, the Comanches just sat and watched, mouths open, powerfully responding with deepest emotion. Some of the men had tears running down their faces, smearing their dust-smeared war paint even more. It took many minutes before all of the butterflies had left the trees and quit being specks in the sky. Before all were gone, the grandfather had noticed the southerner was gone, not to be seen, but he was right, the soldier's of the Mexican Army did not come to the valley.After a few minutes of running about and never succeeding in catching a butterfly, the child turned back to his grandfather, who now sat leaning against the tree, with his head fallen forward, as if asleep.