The young Apache woman lay in the brush outside of her camp, waiting for her family to go to sleep. Tied to her back was a small rucksack containing everything she needed to complete her mission: a small portion of dried jerky, a jug of water, and a beautiful ceremonial dress she had only worn twice before. As the camp’s fires burned low late in the night, the flames simmering in the young woman’s heart burned brighter, providing her with the fuel she needed to follow through with her dangerous plan.
We don’t know what her name was, but, in today’s stories, she’s known as Gouyen.
Gouyen’s mission was simple: revenge.
Several days earlier, her band of Apaches was attacked in a Comanche raid. Gouyen watched, unable to help, as the Comanche chief ambushed, murdered and scalped her husband, leaving her beloved to enter the afterlife mutilated.
Apache customs were clear: Gouyen’s husband’s death demanded retribution. But Gouyen’s father-in-law was too old to make the journey, and all of their remaining male relatives were too feeble to successfully defeat the Comanche chief. While everyone else had all but given up, Gouyen made her plan.
Gouyen would travel to the Comanche band and kill the chief herself.
Her plan was risky, and not just because it involved traveling alone for days to kill the leader of a rival group. If discovered, Gouyen risked mutilation herself: it was against Apache code for a woman to launch an attack like this one and Gouyen faced dire consequences if found.
But Gouyen knew that she would never rest until her husband’s life had been avenged.
To the rest of her family, Gouyen seemed to be going through the normal rituals of mourning. She cut her long dark hair to shoulder-length. She participated in the burial ceremony. All the while, Gouyen waited for an opportunity to slip away.
Finally, the perfect night arrived. The moon was barely a sliver, so Gouyen could avoid detection from the guards surrounding her camp. Creeping amongst the sleeping forms of her family and friends, Gouyen collected a bit of food, some water, and her ceremonial dress.
Gouyen’s ceremonial dress was made of white buckskin, easily stained and destroyed by bad weather. She had only worn it twice before: during her puberty ceremony and the night of her wedding. Carefully, Gouyen folded the dress and put it into her pack.
When her mother-in-law finally drifted off to sleep, Gouyen stole off into the night. For three days and three nights, she traveled, running for miles under the cover of darkness and hiding from detection during the bright light of day.
On the fourth night, Gouyen came upon a great fire, the kind used to celebrate a victory. Gouyen wondered if it was the Comanche band that had killed her husband.
Carefully, she changed into her beautiful ceremonial dress and crept through the vegetation to observe the festivities. Gouyen had found the correct Comanche band, indeed, and they were deep into the celebration, drunk and defenseless.
Gouyen could see the Comanche chief near the center of the group and longed for her revenge. But she moved carefully, knowing that she not only had to kill the Comanche chief, but escape unscathed. So she found the band’s horses first and led one far away from the fire so she could make her getaway when the time came.
Once the horse was set, Gouyen drew closer to the tents, smoothing her hair and calming her heart. The chief sat in a place of honor, holding a jug. She could tell by the way he was moving that he was drunk.
Everything was falling into place.
Gouyen moved through the crowd, coming to stop before the chief. When she was finally in front of him, she saw her husband’s scalp hanging from his belt. Masking her nerves and quelling her anger, Gouyen extended a hand, asking him to dance.
The Comanche chief blinked up at her, but made no response.
Fighting off panic, Gouyen invited him a second time. And then a third. And then a fourth.
Finally, the chief accepted.
Together, Gouyen and the Comanche chief moved into the circle of dancers. Gouyen feigned clumsiness, falling repeatedly into the chief’s arms to indicate her desire. After several dances, he pulled her towards a thicket.
Once they got into the vegetation, Gouyen pulled away and ran. The chief followed after her, as Gouyen moved further and further away from the crowd.
Eventually, Gouyen paused and turned towards the chief, who made to embrace her. Again, Gouyen faked clumsiness and stumbled against the Comanche, grabbing his knife.
But as soon as she held the knife, it slipped from her hands. Enraged, the Comanche chief grabbed hold of Gouyen as she tried to run.
Panic descended. The chief clutched Gouyen tightly, turning her in his grasp to face him. But Gouyen would not be defeated.
As Gouyen faced the chief, she lunged forward, locking her arms behind him and latching on to his throat with her teeth. The Comanche fought her desperately, but Gouyen would not let go.
Blood streamed down her throat, destroying her beautiful dress. The chief struggled for what seemed like hours, until finally, he collapsed.
Alone at last, Gouyen searched for the knife she had dropped. When she found it, she returned to the chief and carved out his heart. Finally, she sliced off his scalp, leaving him to enter the afterlife mutilated, just as the Comanche had done to her husband.
Her mission achieved, Gouyen stole off once again into the night, towards the horse she had so carefully positioned. Without pausing to look for pursuers, Gouyen rode for days, reversing the journey she had made only hours before. Finally, exhausted and out of food and drink, Gouyen collapsed.
When Gouyen came to she recognized the face of her father-in-law. He was beaming down at her with pride.
Soon, Gouyen’s father-in-law summoned other members of her band to his side. They recounted her story, marveling at her bravery, and declared that she always be known as Gouyen, or “The One Who Is Wise.”