Authors: Frederick Manfred
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
“It is the young braves who make the war.”
“Is this what my eyes see?”
“The young braves make me go to war.” Pounce rubbed his heavy belly in a circular motion. “But I will shoot up, over your heads. Do not fear.”
Mad Bear danced up, black eyes rolling, mouth foaming. He roared, “The white man must die!” He had a big yellow circle painted around his right eye. It meant he was his band’s best shot. Close up, it could be seen that his grotesque necklace was made of fingers chopped from the hands of his victims. “The white man must die!”
Reverend Codman continued to address Pounce, ignoring Mad Bear. “I have lived with you twenty winters. A whole generation has grown up since I set up the first Good Book Tepee in your village beside Skywater here. My wife and my children and I have lived with you as one of your own blood. We have never done you any harm. We have tried to show you the true path.” Reverend Codman pointed toward a field of burning corn just visible across the slough. “We have taught you how to plant corn in a furrow. We have given you plows. We have been your true friend at all times. Your grief was our grief, your joy was our joy. Why do you want to kill us?”
“The white man must die!” Mad Bear continued to roar. “The white man has stolen our land. He has killed our sons. He has counted coup on our daughters in his dirty dog manner. He has defiled our wives.”
Pounce said, “I can do nothing. The soldiers’ lodge has decided you must die. I cannot spare your life. Their orders are to kill all white men. You are a white man. I cannot save you.”
Reverend Codman was finally beside himself with Christian rage. “Then you have lied to me.”
“I promise to shoot up when the time comes.”
“When . . . the . . . time . . . comes?”
“I must shoot my gun a little or the soldiers’ lodge will punish me.”
“You have lied to your Christian brother.”
A blush blackened Pounce’s pocked face. “We are very poor. You have stolen our hunting grounds. You have stolen the graves of our fathers. You have stolen even the place for our own graves. We have no place to bury our dead.”
“What!” Reverend Codman rose on his toes in the deep grass. “From this spot when I look north or east or south I can see neither house nor store built by the white man. It is only along the shore of Skywater where I see white-man dwellings.”
“You take our money and give it to this trader”—Pounce threw Silvers a snarling look—“and he touches the pen to the books in a false manner and then he says we owe it all to him.”
Silvers stuck his chin into it. “You goldurn lyin’ red nigger. Why, I’ve given you and your bunch credit for years so you could buy blankets and hoes and plows. That’s why you always owe me out of your annuities when they arrive. I wasn’t put into this world to feed and clothe you red devils out of my own pocket. And that’s why as far as I’m concerned you and your whitewashed bunch can go eat grass. And if you’re really as hungry as you pretend, you can go eat your own dung.”
Pounce’s eyes whirled, flashing, black. Gone was all pretense that he ever was the white man’s friend.
Reverend Codman turned on Silvers. “There is no need to swear. The Indian never swears.”
“Never swears?” Silvers ejaculated.
“Never. The worst he ever says is, ‘You are a dog.’ That is all.”
“Never swears, does he?” Silvers was jumping mad. “Well, maybe he ain’t human enough to swear. Did you ever think on that, ha?”
Pounce boiled. He turned toward his men. He held up his hand. He held it high until their howling fell away, until only the sound of their hate-thick breathing could be heard. He spoke in a fury. “Dakotas, attend! Before the sun sets across Skywater and the moon rises above the eastern rim of the earth, I will lead you against the stinking hairy-faces, against the fat men who have come to cheat us and take our lands away and put us in the pen for not helping them rob our women and children. Attend!”
Mad Bear addressed his men in turn. “Attend, Dakotas! This is what I say. Are we to starve like the buffalo who has fallen into deep snow? Are we to let our blood freeze like the waters of a little stream in the middle of the Hard Moon? This is what I say. Let us make our mother red with the blood of the white man.”
Whitebone, however, held his men back. He and his soldiers’ lodge meant to keep their word that the white settlers were to have safe passage to the church.
One of the older squaws from Mad Bear’s bunch approached. She gave a low trill. The trill set off a wild roar in both Pounce’s and Mad Bear’s bands.
Silvers said mockingly, “Well, Reverend, you’re a deep-read man; what do we do now?”
Bitter disappointment smoked in Reverend Codman’s eyes. It hurt the good reverend grievously to see his Christian Indians go berserk, while the heathen Indians did not. The defection of Pounce and his men, the killing of Henry Christians, the burning and pillaging of the settler homes and fields meant the total collapse of a world he and Theodosia had spent most of their adult lives building. Both he and Theodosia had often tried to explain the sinful greed of the white man to the red man. Both he and Theodosia had time and again tried to explain the nature of Stone Age people to the church back east. After much labor he had somehow got a few of the savages to listen to him, had somehow raised funds to build a church. But all was now for naught. It had turned out just as cynics predicted.
Judith recalled the time when she had once applauded Pounce. It was when she had first arrived. Services were being held in the new little clapboard church. Both whites and Pounce’s band were present. Toward the end of the sermon, Reverend Codman asked rhetorically, “Who has not stolen sometime somewhere?” All of a sudden, weeping, one after the other, Indian women got to their feet and began to confess. When finally even Pounce’s wife, Sunflower, rose to confess, Pounce broke in, growling, “Who knows how many times my wife has stolen? The Dakotas are a nation of thieves according to the white man’s laws, that I can see. I have said.” It had broken up the meeting.
Reverend Codman tried once more to avoid bloodshed. Sweat stood out on his nose. He said to Pounce, “Brother, remember when you touched the pen to the paper and signed the peace treaty with the white man? Well, let us remember that peace.”
Mad Bear brandished his longbow as if to cleave Reverend Codman in half with it. “Treaties of peace with the white man,” he raged, “are as worthless as ropes of sand.” He turned to his men. “Dakotas, hear me. It is time to harvest the blood. Our slain fathers cannot depart in peace!”
A double-barreled shotgun went off, twice. The back of Reverend Codman’s head broke inward above his neck. After a moment the insides of his head tumbled out like yellow clay being pushed out of a hole by a pocket gopher. The face that was left slowly closed over in peace. Then the body of Reverend Codman toppled backward into the deep grass.
A squaw lifted the high quavering trill of victory.
Judith sucked, and sucked, and sucked for breath. The Indians were at last killing them. Actually.
Theodosia, still carrying Johnnie, staggered, then cried aloud, “God is the refuge of his saints!”
A single stroke of lightning flashed beyond the trees. Then came a drum of thunder. The forward sheeting edge of a cloud bank began to cover the sun. Brightness gradually dimmed off.
The white women gaggled in terror.
Vikes tumbled down from the wagon seat and scrambled in between his grays. His eyes rolled wild, from side to side. His mouth hung open like a zigzag rectangle. He grabbed hold of the hames and hung on. He shook in such fear, the grays leaned away from him.
The boy Ted jumped down from the wagon and ran to his mother and hugged her around the legs. Theodosia settled to her heels, her slat sunbonnet folding over Ted and Johnnie like spreading wings.
Angela was next to leap off the wagon and run to her mother. Judith knelt in the grass. They threw their arms around each other and cried aloud in one voice.
Maggie Utterback let go with her gun. The ball popped through the painted chest of a brave, felling him.
Both Mad Bear and Pounce leaped for Silvers with a yell.
Silvers fired from the hip. He missed them both.
Pounce caught Silvers over the head with his war club, crunching his skull.
Mad Bear let go with his longbow,
! The arrow passed completely through Silvers’ heavy body and fell unbloodied on the ground behind him.
Silvers teetered momentarily, caught between the smash of Pounce’s war club from behind and the force of Mad Bear’s arrow in front, falling neither one way nor the other. Silvers’ eyes closed over. At last Silvers’ legs caved in, parting at the knees, and he fell in a heap at their feet. Slowly he undulated over on his back.
Pounce dove for him. He sunk his war club into Silvers’ brain once more, this time with such force it caused Silvers’ body to bound from the ground. In a flash Pounce had his knife out and scalped him. Mad Bear had his knife out too in a whip and scalped what was left of Silvers’ hair. Blood filmed over the round skinned skull. Red streamed into the green grass. Pounce and Mad Bear jumped up and began to dance in the grass, waving portions of Silvers’ hair in triumph. Both claimed first coup. Both their scalp yells quavered on the thick air.
Tinkling, humped over, stared at the slain body of her white husband. With trembling fingertips she pressed the sides of her brown face. A low brokenhearted tremolo broke from her. Silvers had been her great man husband. It was hard to believe he was so suddenly dead. She stood keening a moment; then, ducking, she ran for the deep cattails in the slough, vanishing from view.
Pounce snatched up a handful of sharp grass and stuffed it into Silvers’ open mouth. Pounce laughed down at the dead Silvers, mockingly. “So the white man is eating grass, is he? Ha, ha. Is it not good? Does it not fill the belly? Do you like it better than a horse likes it? Or shall we fill your mouth with your own dung instead? Ha, ha.”
There were sudden wolfish barks. A crazy, howling roar rose from the blood-maddened braves. The roaring slowly increased in volume. Deep within it, there next surged up a dark, bellowing counterpoint as if coming out of the earth itself, from a thousand mud lizards, a throaty
Angela quivered in Judith’s arms. “Are they ready to kill us now, Mama?”
“There, there, darling. Everything will be all right.”
“Mama, you won’t let them kill me with those knives?”
A heavy squaw made a grab for Angela’s soft limbs. She screamed something at Angela.
“Mama, what does she want?”
Judith shook. Judith understood. The squaw said the child’s white flesh would taste very good stone-boiled.
“What does she want, Mama?”
“Shh, child. Never mind her. She’s crazy.”
Vikes still cowered between his grays, eyes flicking from side to side. One of Pounce’s warriors, a lean starved wolf of a man, crept on quick light feet behind Vikes and aimed his musket at Vikes’s head. He fired. Bullet and eyeball flew paired out of Vikes’s right eye socket. Vikes’s other eye cocked off to one side. Vikes slid from sight between the grays. The lean wolf of a savage let go with a triumphant war whoop and was upon Vikes to count coup and lift scalp.
The giant Tallak shook himself. And took command. “Head for the deep grass!” he bawled. He grabbed up his three little girls from the wagon like a woman gathering up underwear from a clothesline on the run, and jumped for the slough. His leap was so powerful it carried him beyond the wagon. He landed on his elbows and knees, the three little tykes still tucked close. With another lunge, grasshopper fashion, he vanished. His wife, Benta, carrying the baby, bent low, screaming, scurried behind him. She too vanished into the tall growth.
Judith and Angela, and Theodosia and her two boys, also dove for the slough. Bullets whistled around them. Some shots cut down rushes neatly and crisply, as if the work of an invisible scythe. A ball ticked Judith’s shoulder. The brush of its velocity hit both her and Angela like the light slap of a lath.
Maggie Utterback and Mavis Harder scrambled after them, also on hands and knees, gasping, trembling violently.
A bullet caught Maggie Utterback a glancing flick through the crotch. She yelled, scrambled faster.
“Joe, curse you, where are you?” Maggie Utterback cried. “I’ve been hit where you won’t like it.”
Tallak whispered hoarsely, “Quick, Maggie, load your gun again. One of us has always got to be ready to fire. So they won’t dare come poking into the slough.”
Tallak and Maggie Utterback took turns firing at the Indians. When Mad Bear’s braves climbed to the highest part of the rise and aimed their shots just under their rising puffs of smoke, both Tallak and Maggie held their fire.
The children couldn’t help but wiggle when bit by an occasional mosquito. The children’s least movement stirred the tops of the rushes above. Instantly shots rang out, balls cutting through the thick growth, striking dangerously close. The spent balls fell with a
sound in the muck beyond.
“Tell your kits to lay still!” Maggie Utterback hissed. “Don’t make a move. Not even a finger.”
“You can’t ask children to lay quiet,” Judith protested. A headache began to crack in her head. The headache made a noise like a door with a rusty hinge. “At least not for very long.”
“They’ve got to. Until it gets dark. Then we’ll all try to make a run for it and head for Fort Ridgely.”
Mad Bear’s ragged renegades spotted Mrs. Christians in the wagon. They grabbed her by the heels and dragged her out through the endgate. She fell with a burdened bounce on the ground. Her soft face opened in a terrified scream. She still hugged the loaf of brown bread to her bosom. The lean savages grinned down at her. She pinched her eyes shut, still screaming. She appeared to scream on and on without taking breath. Vainly she tried to have her free arm everywhere at once to protect her belly, around and up and down. One savage knelt and laid his war club across her throat to shut her up. A gargling screech still came from her. Another savage knelt beside her with a flashing knife. He made a single swipe across her mounded belly, cutting through cloth and flesh. He reached in and took out her unborn babe. He cut it from her. Blood squirted everywhere. Mrs. Christians’ body lashed up off the ground like the doubling up of a tormented inchworm. She broke free from the war club on her throat. An enormous scream burst from her. Her free arm and both legs flailed out.