Authors: Frederick Manfred
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
Again Judith could hardly believe her eyes. “You people—What in the world is going on here?”
Neither heard her. Around and around they went, hopping, snarling, dodging. Maggie was a hand taller than Joe, and had longer arms, and she kept Joe at bay with the long black-snake whip. Joe, though stumpy and heavy, wearing only brown work pants and boots, was the quicker of the two, and he made quick little jumping feints at Maggie. Both were hatless, gray hair tousled and wild. Their eyes glowed with a reddish fury.
Judith then noticed that Maggie had tied her long gray dress in a knot at her waist, the easier to get around. Her long, skinny legs shone plainly to view from the crotch down. Where Joe was naked from the waist up, she was naked from the waist down.
“Maggie!” Judith was scandalized. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Maggie finally heard her. Maggie’s whiskery face took on a man’s mean look. “Ashamed? What fer? Are you seein’ something you ain’t seen before? I know Joe ain’t, fer a fact.” Maggie was a ripper and had the gravelly voice of a mule skinner. “Him askin’ me if I had anything in the shape of dinner this early in the day. The idee.”
“Stars alive, you two. This is not a Christian way to act. Why, you’re acting worse than a couple of Red River breeds.”
The dancing duel continued. Joe darted in, jabbed wickedly, missed, dodged back. Maggie popped her black-snake whip with a great cracking sound.
“This is terrible, you two,” Judith cried. “In the name of heaven, will you please come to your senses?”
Maggie took her eyes off Joe long enough to say, “We’re going to find out right here and now who’s boss in this family. Today. This cannot go on.”
There was more snarling and jabbing, and cursing and whip-popping.
“Listen, you two,” Judith cried. “Listen to me. Henry Christians was found dead this morning with an arrow through his heart.”
Joe and Maggie stopped dead in their tracks. Joe set his fork down, Maggie let her black-snake whip fall to earth. Turf dust floated slowly away from them.
“No!” Maggie exploded.
“Yes. You’d both better hurry over to my sister’s house. We’re rounding everybody up so we can decide what to do. Hurry.”
Joe’s mouth slowly dropped open. “Red devils on the rampage?”
“Yes. Maybe just like at Spirit Lake. Hurry. And oh, yes—have you seen our children around?”
“Indians killin’ and scalpin’?”
“Has Angela been over to play with your pony? She was wearing a green silk dress.”
Joe shook his head in a daze. “No, we hain’t seen yer kit. No.”
Maggie’s jaw set out. “Joe, go get the guns. Both of ’em. I’ll dig up the balls and powder. Git.”
“Then you didn’t see the children at all, Maggie?” Judith asked.
“Naw, we didn’t see your kits.” Maggie gave her a sidelong darting look. “Judith, if I was you, I’d run and save my own skin. Because if it’s really the Indians, the kits’re long ago kilt.”
“Oh, Lord, mercy, please no.”
Judith ran back toward her sister’s cabin.
Judith sweated. She panted. She ran with mouth open and eyes glazed. A dull flush suffused her cheeks.
The light breeze of early morning faded away. It became very still out, hot, oppressively humid. The far distances turned milky. Yellow butterflies fluttered languidly from aster to bull thistle.
Judith stumbled around the corner of Theodosia’s cabin. She could not have run another step. She held her bosom in her folded arms.
She saw figures. Ah, there they were. They were coming across the swamp. The children, Angela and Ted and Johnnie, with Theodosia and her husband, Claude. “Thank God. Ohh, thank God.”
Reverend Codman came on slowly. His light-gray eyes glinted with quiet determination. Reverend Codman was slight and wiry, with a large, even noble, head and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. A pink nose rode high out of his face, not unlike an Indian’s. His complexion was pale, and where it had been exposed to the sun it was quite freckled. He gave Judith a reassuring look. “Are you all right, sister?”
“Yes.” Judith caught a hand to her throat. “A little out of breath, is all.”
“Good. Very good.”
“They were playing with Two Two and his friends. In Whitebone’s village.”
Judith slowly got her breath back. “I was so afraid. I looked everywhere for them.”
Angela slid to Judith’s side. “We had so much fun, Mama.” Angela was a whitehead like Judith, and very fair. Her lips were naturally quirked at the corners and her blue eyes smiled, kittenish. Her green silk dress, too small for her, made her look a little like a slinking siren.
Judith lashed out at Angela. “Naughty girl! When I’ve told you time and time again not to play with . . .” Judith paused. She realized that what she was about to say next would not set well with her missionary brother-in-law. Also it was a lie. She had never told Angela anything of the kind. She finished, “Next time I want you to tell me where you’re going.”
Shadows appeared in Angela’s eyes. “We were only playing, Mama.”
Reverend Codman cleared his throat. “There is no harm done, sister.” Reverend Codman’s lips always moved a little before he spoke. He had the manner of a man who made it a point to first go over an idea thoroughly before giving voice to it. He looked down at Angela. “Fret not, child. Your mother means only for the best.” A benign smile moved over his face. The smile was remindful of a late fall sun, having little heat or passion.
Theodosia breathed slowly. She made herself be firmly calm. She had Ted by one hand and toddling little Johnnie by the other. Ted was a towhead, with a single pale curl in front. Johnnie was a whitehead like Angela.
Judith smiled at her two nephews. “Thank the Lord your mother found you safe too.”
Theodosia’s blotchy freckles were more noticeable than usual. “Two Two had a new game to show them. A real Dakota game.” “Oh.”
A puff of smoke showed above a far hill to the north. Almost immediately after, another far puff showed; then two quick ones.
Everybody stared at the puffs of smoke.
“Smoke signals,” Judith said shortly. “Aren’t they? Coming from the direction of Little Crow’s band along the Minnesota River?”
“Yes,” Theodosia said.
Reverend Codman’s eyes half closed. His lips moved. “Yes.” He nodded inwardly, once. “There have been rumors of Indian unrest along the Minnesota. Grave rumors.”
More smoke signals puffed up. Slowly the puffs of smoke blended off into the milky distance.
Ted pointed, his pantaloons lifting on one side. “Look, there’s some over there too.”
All turned. Above the trees across the lake rose an answering smoke signal.
“That’s the renegades,” Judith said. “Mad Bear’s bunch.”
“I guess so,” Reverend Codman murmured.
“What do all those signals say?”
Reverend Codman studied them, impassively, first looking at the signals to the far north, then at those across Skywater. The three children stared up at him, waiting.
Finally Reverend Codman said, “I do believe it’s . . .” He looked down at the three children, and stopped.
Judith touched Reverend Codman’s sleeve. “War signals?”
“I’m afraid so.” Reverend Codman sighed. “Well, it seems we shall have to face up to it. May the Lord in his infinite mercy give us the courage.”
“But why?” Judith demanded. “What have we done to them?”
“The way our traders treat them, I can’t say as I blame them. Even our esteemed government agents have been guilty of cheating and defrauding the Indian.”
A smoke signal next lifted from Pounce’s village over the rise to the east. The smoke signal rose slowly. It resembled a slowly expanding toadstool.
“Now our fat Christian Indian seems to be joining in,” Judith said.
“But that can’t be,” Theodosia said. “I’m sure of Pounce. His repentance is sincere.”
“I never did like him.”
Theodosia’s eyes closed. “Oh, Lord, do have mercy upon us,” she breathed. “It cannot be true, please, Lord.”
Reverend Codman spoke almost musingly. “After we’ve had so much success too. More than a dozen adult Indian souls saved.”
“Trapped,” Judith whispered to herself. “Oh, if only I hadn’t been so foolish as to come out here in the first place.” She clutched Angela by the hand, hard. “What do we do now, Claude?”
“Pray. And hold firm in the Lord.”
“Don’t you have a gun?”
Reverend Codman shook his head. “God is love. It is in his name that I preach to the heathen savage. Not in the name of the god of war.”
The smoke signals were soon seen in Whitebone’s village and almost instantly it became a boil of activity. Braves jumped up from where they sat smoking. They ran to put on their war paint and pick up their war gear. Squaws called in the children with sharp warning clucks. Young boys ran to get the tethered ponies for their fathers. Door flaps snapped shut and were tied down. The sound of the drumming changed too. Quicker, harsher drumbeats came from the council lodge in the center of the village. One singer began a wild, exultant war song. Sharp whoops resounded against the thick grove of oak and hackberry along the lake. Finally smoke signals rose from Whitebone’s encampment too.
In the midst of the wild goings-on, a vivid memory flashed through Judith’s mind. It was the memory of her first days on the Skywater prairies, of how she had fallen in love with the frontier. She had arrived in late May and the rolling plains were an endless garden of wild roses, mile on mile of heady wild perfume. The air was so sweet it almost tasted of honey. And there were the dazzling flights of the multicolored carrier pigeons, purple and blue and pink, and the lake-skimming waterfowl, burnished green and rust and glancing black. The sound of all their multitudinous calling and quacking was that of a vast symphony orchestra warming up. Skywater had been an Eden on earth at last, a bewildering dream of a paradise.
Settlers began to stream toward them. From the south came Jed Crydenwise, then the Utterbacks. All three carried guns and powder and shot.
Next came Charlie Silvers, trader, with his Sioux wife, Tinkling. Silvers had a heavy belly and he moved across the ground with the sway of a heavy load of hay. He wore greasy buckskins and a torn wolf skin for a cap. His black beard was clotted with tobacco spittle. Beside him Tinkling looked like a child. She too was in buckskins. She wore her hair in two braids, one down either side of her face. There was a beaten, even old, look in her eyes and she stood slightly humped over. That summer she had lost her third straight child at birth. All three had been boys.
Mrs. Christians arrived. She had forced her way through some shallows in the arm of the lake and was soaked to the armpits. Wet garments accentuated the swinging of her gravid belly and swollen breasts. She was in hysterics. Her teeth chattered so hard, no one could make out what she was saying. She seemed to be trying to tell them something about her dead husband, Henry.
Merry widow Mavis Harder came skimming over from her store, green velvet dress gathered up at the knees, the better to run. Her dress matched the hue of the lush prairie grass exactly. She had the muscled legs and slim bosom of the ballet dancer. Her features were sharp, like a terrier’s. Her eyes were gray, and she had gaunt hollows under her cheekbones. She came on breathless, wild-eyed. She threw her arms around Judith. “Judith! Oh! Am I glad to see you. After what just happened to me.”
Judith embraced Mavis in turn. “Now, now. We are all safe here.”
“Two young Indian boys just tried to attack me,” Mavis said. “Can you imagine?”
“It was simply awful. Boys they were.”
“There, there. Claude will have a talk with them later. Never fear.”
“The nerve of them. Snotnoses!”
Billy Vikes came thundering back on his fat horse, one arm flapping, the other hand tugging a second gray horse along. Vikes pulled up short. “I tried to tell everybody, Reverend,” he cried. The whites of his eyes were still wild and high. “But half are already murdered. The Wagners are wiped out. All five of ’em. There’s feathers scattered all over the yard. Pigs and cows dead. Their dog murdered. Their garden all ripped up. Wheat stolen.”
“What about the Magnus Olsons?” Reverend Codman asked.
“I don’t know. Didn’t see hide nor hair of them.”
“And the Tallak Aanensons?”
“Here we are, Reverend,” a voice growled from around the corner of the log cabin. A giant of a man, blond and red-cheeked, with blue eyes set unnaturally far apart, came striding up. A thatch of matted brown-gold hair stuck out where his shirt was open at the throat. His wife, Benta, came behind him carrying a baby. She was short, very thin, and had dark-brown hair. Beside her trotted three little girls, aged two, three, and four. The children, including the baby, were all goldheads like the father. All the Aanensons had glowing red cheeks.
Reverend Codman grabbed Tallak’s hand in both of his and held it for a moment.
“Ain’t run so hard since an old bull took after me in the old country,” Tallak said.
Reverend Codman looked around at his flock. “Yes. We are all here but the Wagners and the Olsons. And Lena Crydenwise and children.”
An Indian head appeared above the rise to the east.
Everyone turned to look.
“Ah,” Theodosia breathed, “it’s our good friend Pounce. He has come to help us. I knew he would stand by his new friends in Christ.”
Reverend Codman rubbed his hands in relief. “So it is. Our work has not been in vain after all.”
Pounce for all his fat belly came hurrying toward them with a quick light step. He had on a pair of black breeches and a gray work shirt given him by the mission. His hair was cut white-man style. His leathery brown face, deeply scarred by the white man’s smallpox, had a worried look. His black eyes were bloodshot as if from lack of sleep. His thick lips were drawn back and down.
Pounce raised his left hand in greeting. The left hand was always raised upon meeting someone because it was nearest to the heart and because it had shed no blood. Pounce spoke in broken American. “Houw. I look at you. My heart is glad to see my friends.”