Authors: Frederick Manfred
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
Reverend Riggs was shaken. “It is possible, madam, that a terrible wrong is being done here in some instances.”
“Possible?” Judith’s eyes opened a shocked blue. “And yet he dies? A possibly innocent man?”
“Madam, I am sorry.”
“There are also others who are possibly innocent. There is Rdainyanka, for example, who wrote a letter to his father-in-law, Wabasha, protesting his innocence.”
“Yes, I helped him write the letter.”
“Yes, and I was asked to read it after Wabasha received it. By Wabasha himself. ‘You have deceived me,’ Rdainyanka wrote. ‘You told me if we gave ourselves up to the whites all would go well. I have not killed or injured a white person, and yet today I am set apart for execution and must die in a few days, while men who are guilty are free to run in the grass, far across the Missouri River and far in Canada. Well, when my children are men, tell them that their father died with no white blood on his hands. When the time comes I will stand on the gallows as a brave Dakota.’”
“I know. I know.”
A tremulous quiver moved along the edges of Judith’s white lips. “Reverend, does it not pinch your conscience a little that a red man can say to a white man: ‘Yes, go build your house and forget the homeless; yes, go lay up food in your storeroom and forget the hungry; yes, go look for a neighbor you can take advantage of and seize all he has’?”
“Madam, I am sorry. Truly. But I can do nothing.” Red veins showed in the corners of the missionary’s eyes. “It is too late.”
“He’s as white a savage as I ever saw. Whiter even than a white. And yet it is too late.”
As the thirty-eight condemned began to mount the gallows, they again chanted the Dakota tune of terror. Fourteen hundred nineteen soldiers immediately formed solid ranks around the square scaffold. Lieutenant Vincent Raveling stood on the inner line.
Guards guided the condemned to their assigned places under the dangling nooses, facing them inward. The nooses were adjusted around the thirty-eight red necks. Reverend Riggs, standing below, prayed for their red souls.
Army drums began a slow, measured drumbeat. Immediately the chanting Sioux began to sway in a last dance. The wooden platform of the gallows began to rock dangerously. There was a shout from the provost marshal for them to stop the death dance. The condemned men ignored the order. They shouted each other’s names. They swung from side to side. Some managed to clasp each other’s hands despite being bound at the wrist. The platform rocked so violently that nails began to squeal and boards to crack. The trip rope became so taut it hummed. The provost marshal and the guard, their eyes rolling, scurried down to the safety of the ground.
Scarlet Plume cried aloud inside his muslin head covering, “Ai-ee! Ai-ee! I feel the irons in my heart.”
On the second roll of drums, the waiting crowd and all the blue soldiers held their breath as one person. The whole village square seemed to enlarge for a moment.
Scarlet Plume cried aloud again. “It will be good to lie down once more with the people of my father!” Then: “You linger! I go! He-han.”
Judith turned her back on the sight. She stared at the yellow stone bluffs across the river. Her blue eyes slowly grayed over. Her pupils settled to the bottoms of her eyes. With her nails she began to scarify her cheeks in the ancient manner of the bereaved. Presently a trickle of blood dripped from the point of her chin.
On the third roll of drums a man named Duley from Lake Shetek, father of two massacred children, himself a miraculous escapee, stepped forward. His eyes whirled from side to side. He trembled and the knife he held almost slipped from his grasp. He had been offered five twenty-dollar gold pieces for the privilege of cutting the trip rope. He had refused the money, saying that a hundred times that amount wouldn’t be enough. Money couldn’t bring back his two massacred children. No, he just wanted the revenge, is all.
The provost marshal gestured, curt, with a downward stroke of the hand.
Duley got hold of himself. His hand steadied. He took a step forward and with a curse cut the vibrating trip rope. The rope parted with the sound of a snapped bowstring.
The platform dropped. In an instant thirty-eight red warriors dangled in the air. Legs kicked. Arms jerked. Bellies ballooned out, then collapsed to gaunt hollows.
A deep guttural roar, abrupt, rose from the soldiers. A broken cheer, short, floated down from the watchers on the rooftops and in the second-story windows.
One of the nooses broke and a body bumped to earth. The body began to bound around on the ground like a just-beheaded rooster. A gasp of horror broke from the watchers. Quickly the provost marshal ordered the red body hanged again.
A silence and a shuffling of feet followed.
One by one the bodies were cut down. Doctors from Mankato and nearby towns examined the bodies and then pronounced them dead.
One of the doctors had to hold his nose because of the stench of the befouled burlap diapers. “Sure don’t smell like cream and peaches.”
The bodies were loaded into four army wagons in the manner of cordword and hauled behind a grove of red willows along the Minnesota River. A shallow grave twelve feet wide and thirty-six feet long and only four feet deep had been dug into a sandbar. The sandbar was the only earth around not frozen. The bodies were swung into the grave and laid in two rows, heads out, feet in. Blankets were spread over them. A detail of soldiers with shovels soon had the grave heaped full.
Another of the doctors sighed. “Well, that’s it. Now back to prescribing calomel.”
“Yes. Salts if you’re all bound up. Nutmeg if you have the skitters.”
Still another doctor said, with a humorous grimace that wrinkled up his eyes at the corners, “Now if we were women we’d have the perfect antidote for this.”
“Oh? How so?”
“There’s nothing like good honest motherhood to clean out that feeling of sin.”
One of the soldiers in the burial detail still stood looking down at the heaped-up grave. He remarked, “Well, they have all went to hell in a pile.”
Reverend Riggs also stood beside the grave. Looking up at the sky, he spoke a single sentence. “May my red friends have a straight road, smooth waters, and a clear sky on their way to eternity—whatever it may hold for them.” Reverend Riggs’ nose was red.
That night, in the dark of the deepest night, certain doctors raided the grave, digging out several bodies and taking them away for anatomical study. One of the bodies was that of Scarlet Plume.
“The next spring flood will wash them out of that soft sandbar anyway,” one of the licensed ghouls said.
In the morning, when Vincent Raveling went to look for Judith in her quarters, he found the door ajar. A window was open and a strong wind was blowing through the house and a rocker was gently rocking alone.
Judith was never seen again by the whites. And the redskins shook their heads when they were questioned about her.
Later Reverend Riggs in confidence told Vincent that he had overheard Judith mutter to herself that she hoped to “go back home.” Reverend Riggs said he was greatly mystified when she added, “To a place where all men were once one flesh, with black hair and dark skin.”
A yellow dot inside a blue circle.
A wild white swan with a broken neck.
February 29, 1964