Authors: Frederick Manfred
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
“Why, it’s a wild swan. A young one. The kind Claude calls the trumpeter.”
She examined the wild cygnet more closely. Its neck was broken. The bird had been strangled, and then, seemingly, its neck had been deliberately broken.
This meant something. She had heard Theodosia and Claude talk about Indian sign a number of times. Scarlet Plume had thrown the wild swan under the table for a reason. As a runner and newswalker, he probably knew something. Tribal custom, perhaps the grim soldiers’ lodge, forbade him to speak of it. But the soldiers’ lodge could not prevent him from leaving mute sign about.
As she was turning the dead bird over yet again, stroking its miraculously soft down, she heard footsteps on the path outside. It was Theodosia. Ah, her sister would know what the sign meant.
Theodosia stepped into the cabin with a swishing of long skirts. She wore blacks mostly: high black kid shoes, black dress, and gray sunbonnet. She was slender and quite tall, much like Judith herself. But where Judith walked with easy grace, Theodosia had stiff knees. And where Judith’s cheeks had the clean pink glow of vigor, Theodosia’s face was grainy and blotched over with freckles.
The eyes were the life of Theodosia. Hazel and gentle, they were full of Christian forbearance. They drew one with their sweet compassionate expression. They were the type men revered, would think of as mother eyes. Lust, passion, even simple man-woman love were foreign to them. Judith, in fact, had often wondered how Theodosia and Claude had ever gotten around to having children. Mavis Harder, more frank about such matters, had laughingly remarked one day that the two pure-in-hearts had probably cohabited while sound asleep, maybe while sharing the same deep dream.
“Theodosia, am I glad to see you!” Judith gave her sister a quick smile. “A strange thing happened. An Indian brought me this only a minute ago. Wild fowl.”
A serene expression opened Theodosia’s pale lips. “How nice. We’ve not had goose for supper in some time.” She took the wild swan from Judith. “The Lord does provide, doesn’t he?”
“But that’s just it, Theodosia. It’s not a goose at all. It’s a wild swan.”
“So it is.”
“With a broken neck. See?” Judith described how Scarlet Plume had suddenly appeared in the doorway, how he had for a moment wept tears, how then without a word he had tossed the wild swan under the table. And disappeared.
At that, the serene expression slowly left Theodosia’s face. She looked down at the wild swan in her hands. “A broken neck then.”
“Yes. That means something, doesn’t it? A sign of some sort?”
“Yes. It is a message. We had better call Claude.”
“What does the sign say?”
“It means,” Theodosia said, “‘The white man must fly or his neck will be broken.’”
Both women looked at each other. Both immediately thought of the Spirit Lake massacre. Theodosia’s hazel eyes momentarily filmed over, and darkened with disappointment; Judith’s blue eyes opened high and wide, and turned an almost hailstone gray. Theodosia stood calm and resigned, and her rustling black dress slowly fell silent. Judith swelled and rose, so that her gray skirt lifted off the floor a little.
Theodosia said, “May the Lord be with us in this time of extremity.”
Judith said, “Hadn’t we better warn the other settlers?”
Even as they talked, the sound of wild galloping came to them.
Both women hurried outdoors.
It was Billy Vikes, bachelor. He lived in a sod shanty on the north point of the lake. He was riding a gray workhorse. The gray’s harness had slid down and it dragged along on the ground. The skin over Vikes’s cheeks resembled soot-mottled snow. The whites of his eyes showed stark.
Vikes had trouble talking. “Henry Christians. He’s . . .” Vikes’s teeth chattered like little gourds rattled together. “He’s . . .”
“Yes? What is it? What about him?”
“He’s . . . He’s . . .” Vikes sucked quick shallow breaths. “Poor Henry.”
Theodosia tottered a little. But her voice was calm. “Speak up, man. What about him?”
Vikes bit his teeth tight together for a moment to stop the chattering. Then he managed it. “I just found Henry Christians murdered on his front doorstep.” Again Vikes had to bite down the chatters. “He was hit in the chest and scalped.”
Again Theodosia tottered. “May the Lord have mercy on his soul. And his wife?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see her anywheres.”
Judith thought, “Dear God, Scarlet Plume’s sign came too late for poor Henry. The Indians must have struck quicker than even Scarlet Plume expected.” Judith shivered. “And they picked Henry off first because the Christianses live alone on that neck of land in the middle of the lake there.”
Judith glanced over at Whitebone’s village.
All seemed calm enough over there. The little children were playing in the deep grass, the squaws were out airing the buffalo-fur bedding, the braves were sitting in the morning sun, smoking and gossiping.
“It must be those renegade Indians living on the other side of the lake then,” Judith said. “Mad Bear’s band.”
“Yes.” Theodosia nodded. “It’s just come to me.”
“Or else some of the wilder ones from Pounce’s band. From over the hill there by the mission church.” Judith pointed toward a rise in the land which separated Whitebone’s camp from Pounce’s camp.
“But that can’t be,” Theodosia said. “Pounce and his group are all members of our church. They’re friendlies. You know that. You’ve been teaching their children.”
“I know. But I never did trust that scheming Pounce. Nor those lazy converts of his. They’re candidate backsliders if I ever saw any.”
“They’re not lazy. They’ve learned to farm a little.” Theodosia stood quite still. “Let’s hope it’s only a pet of some sort the Indians have fallen into, that it will soon pass away.”
Both Vikes and his horse stood puffing above them. Vikes said, “There was an arrow right through Henry’s heart. Slick and clean.”
Arrow? That really did prove then it was Indians. But which Indians?
Theodosia said, “Yes. Well, I will hurry and fetch Claude.”
Judith said, “And I’ll hurry and find the children. God knows where they’ve gone playing by now.” With a shudder Judith recalled that the Indian lad Two Two had been chasing them in play earlier in the morning.
Theodosia said briskly, “Billy, hurry and warn the other settlers.” Theodosia stuffed the wild swan in the cooler against the north wall of the cabin. “Tell them they must all come here. At once. This cabin is the strongest. Hurry.”
“I’ll round ’em all up, ma’am. Don’t you worry.” Vikes set down his chin. “Poor Henry. Laying there scalped. My God, what’s this world coming to, anyway?” Vikes picked up one of the loose tugs and walloped his horse over the rear with it. The heavy horse slowly gathered itself into a lumbering gallop and was off. Vikes rode with elbows flopping, whites of the eyes wild and high.
Theodosia hurried north across the swamp to get her husband. Despite stiff knees, Theodosia moved with surprising swiftness.
Judith scurried south toward a deep grassy meadow. Judith remembered that the children on occasion went there to play.
As Judith ran, the story of Abbie Gardner’s rape and captivity came vividly to mind once again. Was another Spirit Lake massacre about to take place? Was it now little Angela’s turn to be raped and tortured? Judith stumbled and almost fell at the thought of it.
As Judith breasted the first rise, she heard screaming on her right. It came from Jed Crydenwise’s sod shanty at the edge of the woods next to a small field of barley. Crydenwise was a farmer in the summer and a trapper in the winter.
Judith stopped, and stared. Lord in heaven. Crydenwise had caught a timber wolf and had trussed it up on a wooden frame. The timber wolf’s four legs were spread-eagled and Crydenwise was skinning it alive. Crydenwise was almost finished. The timber wolf’s thick gray fur, still attached at the tail, lay at Crydenwise’s feet in a pile of loose folds. Jaws wide, the timber wolf was yowling for all it was worth, its gleaming fangs and fierce eyes oddly out of place. The raw skinned wolf shivered in jerks, and humped up violently every few seconds, trying to free itself. Glistening bloody muscles worked in spasmodic clutches all along its lean carcass.
Judith swayed. She touched her lips with her fingers. She had often seen her brothers skin out wild animals, and had often helped them with the fall butchering, but this—this was too much. “Mr. Crydenwise!” she cried. “What are you doing to that poor beast?”
Crydenwise hardly looked at her. He twitched heavy shoulders at her as if at a biting fly. “The son of a bitch,” he growled. “I’ve been laying for him for months, and I finally caught him, ha!” Crydenwise’s brown pig eyes glittered in triumph. Crydenwise wore boots, a pair of black trousers, and a faded blue shirt open at the throat. “This’ll teach him to steal my fresh calves.”
“But that’s inhuman! Cruel. An awful thing to do.”
“What you’re doing. Why, it’s bestiality itself.”
“I know. I mean it to be.” Crydenwise stuck his bristly chin out at her. “How would you like it if you brought a favorite prize-winning cow all the way from Ohio, walking, and with her bred there before you left because you knew there was no bulls in the new land, and then a sneaking son of Satan comes along and gobbles up that bull seed, ha? All the more so when that bull seed was twins, ha?” Crydenwise spat so forcibly that his cud of tobacco fell out of his cheek. His sailing spittle almost hit Judith where she stood.
Judith fell silent.
Crydenwise continued the grim skinning. The bloody naked timber wolf shrieked even more shrilly.
Judith covered her ears with her hands.
Crydenwise grumped, “I’ll teach the son of a bitch to eat my twin calves.”
It was with an effort that Judith remembered what she had come for, to look for the children before the risen Indians should have murdered and scalped them. She waited until the sound of the screaming lessened some, then she stepped closer and shouted, “I better tell you, Mr. Crydenwise, that somebody, Indians, killed Henry Christians this morning.”
It took a moment for her words to soak in. Crydenwise finished skinning around the tail of the timber wolf, with utmost delicacy of touch, then slowly lifted away his long curved skinning knife and took a step back. Slowly his bare head came up and slowly the whites of his fat pig eyes began to show.
Crydenwise said, “How’s that again, ma’am?”
“Billy Vikes just rode over on horseback to tell us he found poor Henry dead with an arrow through him.” Judith had trouble shaping her lips to speak the words. “He was scalped too.”
Crydenwise paled. The cruel, bestial expression around his mouth gradually changed to one of awestricken childish astonishment. His bristly chin took on the look of a slab of old bacon. “You don’t say.”
“I do say.”
At that very moment the wolf quit yowling. It shivered convulsively, once, and died on its crude cross.
In the sudden silence the sound of Crydenwise’s breathing was harsh and loud. “The redskins are on the warpath then?”
“I’m out looking for our children. You haven’t seen them this morning, have you?”
“No, ma’am, I hain’t.”
Judith threw a look down toward the shore of the lake to see if she could spot any movement on the sandy beach. “My sister said for all of us to gather at her house. It’s got the thickest logs. In case we have to defend ourselves.”
Crydenwise took a trembling step toward Judith. His eyes turned like two little onions caught in boiling milk. “My God, they may kill us all, unh?”
Judith couldn’t help but stick the hatpin in a little. “It’s very well possible. You better hurry and round up your wife and kids.”
“Ha! Lena and the kids’re probably killed already.” Crydenwise looked wildly around. “They went gooseberry-pickin’ this morning.”
“You better find them. Hurry.”
Hurrying, breathless as much from fear as from exhaustion, Judith pushed along the top of a low ridge overlooking Skywater. In the lee of an island she saw what she took to be a half-dozen wild swans hovering under some overhanging willows.
Judith looked down every draw. She searched all the groves of oaks in the ravines. She hallooed through the waving wheat fields and the bristly barley stands. There wasn’t a sign of the three children. Or of Two Two.
“Dear God, where can they be?”
She had visions of them lying slain in deep grass somewhere, their poor little bodies abused and mutilated. Terror clutched her vitals. She felt a sudden pressing need to relieve herself. Even before she could find a decent tree to sit behind, a spurt of hotness ran down her legs under her skirt. “Ohh.” She caught herself, then sat where she was. She groaned miserably.
“Dear God, this is awful. Dear God, let them be alive. Please, oh, dear God.”
Judith remembered there was one more family living to the south, the Joseph Utterbacks, just across the farthest ravine, on a spread of prairie. The Utterbacks were childless, but Angela and Ted and Johnnie often visited them to ride the Utterback pony, a pet. Judith nodded. Yes. That’s where the children were.
Judith brushed through deep joint grass. The grass was sharp and it cut her across the shins when she lifted her dress to run. Goldenrod undulated above the grass. It hurt to see the lovely golden plumes.
She found a well-beaten path. It led toward a clump of ash trees. She next heard raised voices, loud, even snarling angry. Were the Utterbacks already fighting the Indians? There was even a kind of popping sound, as of small rifles being fired.
Wonderingly she stepped around the clump of ash. The Utterback farmyard lay directly before her: sod house, sod barn, hayrack and wagon, gleaming milk pails on a drying rack, beaver traps on a pole, a dozen chickens timorously pecking in the grass immediately in front of their little wooden coop. Beyond spread the stubbles of what a month before had been a fine golden stand of wheat.
The voices came from the middle of the yard where the deep grass was trodden flat. There were the Utterbacks, Joe and his wife, Maggie. And they were going at it hammer and tongs. In fact, they were going at it with pitchfork and black-snake whip, around and around, in a circle. Turf dust hung about them in a small glittering fog. Only an occasional grunt and the snarled words, “Bitch from hell,” escaped Joe as he tried to get in a telling jab at his wife with the gleaming tines of his fork. Maggie filled the air with curses hot enough to raise blisters on the devil himself as she snapped and coiled the long black-snake whip around and above her head.