Read Scarlet Plume, Second Edition Online

Authors: Frederick Manfred

Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General

Scarlet Plume, Second Edition (7 page)

BOOK: Scarlet Plume, Second Edition

Reverend Codman stepped forward with a smile and held out his hand. “It makes my heart glad to see you too, my friend.”

Pounce looked away for a second. Then, bowing a little, and in the manner of the old-time Dakota weepers, he cried over Reverend Codman’s hand. Tears fell on the back of Reverend Codman’s wrist. “It is very bad. You must fly.”

Reverend Codman drew back his hand. “What has happened? Why do certain of the red men show their anger? What have we done?”

Pounce shut off the ceremonial weeping with a single blink of his reddish-black eyes. “A runner has come to us. The bad Indians are killing at the Lower Agency. On the river the white man calls the Minnesota. The soldiers fly. All the whites are killed. Also the women and children.”

A gasp rose from the settlers.

Crydenwise said, “That means we’re cut off.”

Vikes said, “Unless we can escape the other way.”

“What other way?” Crydenwise asked.

“Why, toward Sioux Falls. We can take the mail carrier’s route that way.”

Reverend Codman asked Pounce, “What is the reason for smoke signals from our Christian brother’s camp?”

Pounce scratched himself through his black trousers. His dark eyes roved through the crowd. His glance lingered on the women, in particular on Theodosia and Judith. “The white man must fly.”

Theodosia stepped beside her husband. She gave Pounce a bright Christian smile. “I see that our brother in Christ has come to lead us to safety.”

Pounce’s large sensual lips worked. “The young braves are hungry for the blood. The spirits of some of the dead fathers will not let the young braves sleep at night because enemy blood has not been found and spilled. It is very bad. The white man must fly. Or he will die like the rabbit when the wolf is hungry.”

War drums continued to beat loud and clear. More smoke signals rose on all sides. Village dogs barked and howled. A fan-shaped flock of startled carrier pigeons flew past overhead and vanished into the oaks.

“Are you not the chief?” Reverend Codman asked. “Are you a woman that your young braves will not listen to your counsel?”

“Young braves make the war, old chiefs make the peace.”

Reverend Codman managed to shape his thin lips into a kindly smile. “Has not the track of the moccasin and the footprint of the white man’s boot lain side by side in peace these many years? Why must we shed each other’s blood? Let the war trail grass over.”

Pounce’s eye fell on Theodosia again. “Tell the Good Book Woman she must fly. I have said.”

“Our friend Jesus will not like this.”

Pounce seemed to consider this. At last he too shaped his lips into a good smile. He went around shaking the hands of all the men. Next he patted the little children on the head.

“God bless,” Reverend Codman murmured. Reverend Codman’s fists were white over the knuckles.

Pounce also held out his hand to Theodosia and Judith.

Theodosia accepted his hand. Judith refused him.

Pounce threw Judith a darting, venomous look.

Judith glared right back at him.

Pounce next spotted Reverend Codman’s white knuckles. He grunted, once, twice, then abruptly turned and started back for his village.

“Brother Pounce?” Theodosia called.

Pounce ignored her call and disappeared over the rise.

The faces of the whites, momentarily brightened, now turned darker than ever.

“That backslider,” Judith whispered.

Silvers’ bearded face worked with strangling emotion. “Damned summertime Christian.”

Tallak looked down at Silvers from his great height. “That’s what we get for lettin’ you cheatin’ trader fellers into our little town. Giving them poor red devils squirrel whiskey until they’re so drunk you can steal their money and their land for nothin’.”

Silvers gave Tallak a slow measuring look, then fell grudgingly silent.

Reverend Codman shook his head. “I fear that we may have to reap the whirlwind after all. Yes. Some of us have stolen from the red man.”

Silvers sneered. “Reverend, beggin’ your pardon, but you’re a liar when you say the trader’s cheated the red devil.” Silvers shook his heavy fist in Reverend Codman’s face. “Why, them red niggers desarve no better. They’re hardly better than animals, in a manner of speakin’.”

Reverend Codman’s lips turned quivering white. Somehow he managed to keep from speaking. Reaching down, carefully, even meticulously, he selected a single blade of grass from between his feet. He began to pick his teeth with the pale green end of it.

Judith gave Silvers a withering look. The rank rutting odor of the man reminded her of an old boar she and her four brothers had once caught in the woods near their Davenport farm. She also recalled a remark Vince had once made, that many of the pioneers were not the best of people, that there were bounty jumpers, deserters, and thieves among them. Her eyes fell on Silvers’ grease-spotted buckskin shirt front. “Hardly better than animals, eh?” She glanced around at Tinkling. “Who’s this you married, then?”

Theodosia breathed quick short breaths. She took off her slat bonnet. “My, but it’s close out.” Sweat beaded Theodosia’s pale forehead. The large freckles on her cheeks stood out like dark warts.

Silvers pushed back his fur cap, and a black forelock slid across his brow. “Yeh, and I say the gov’ment made a mistake when it gave you Christian willies permission to come out here. This is no place fer women.”

Theodosia put her bonnet back on. “You don’t seem to understand, Mr. Silvers, that my husband and I were called by the Lord to bring the gospel message to the heathen. We had to come.”

“So you really think you can make a Christian out of a Indian, ha?” Silvers exploded. “Woman, it can’t be done, any more than you can’t make a house cat out of a weasel.”

“Then you have no compassion for even the least of these? Even when they hunger for truth?”

“I wouldn’t give them a stone to gnaw on.”

“Not even your pretty little Christian wife?”

Silvers stomped his heavy boots. “Her, maybe yes. Because she’s never said no to me in bed. But the rest of them red devils, naw. Let them eat grass. Or their own dung.”

Tinkling jerked as if someone had cut her across the thin shoulders with a whip. She shied around to hide herself.

Joe Utterback had a word. “And if you want my honest thought on it, Mrs. Codman, this is what I say. It hain’t right fer an ignorant savage to own so much land, unplowed, while the better white man is forced to live in want. The Indian never did use the land for what the Lord intended it fer—raisin’ wheat. That’s what I say.”

Reverend Codman shook his head sadly. “Yes. How beautiful the Ordinance of 1787 reads. ‘The utmost good shall always be observed toward the Indians. Their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.’”

Angela tugged at Judith’s sleeve. “When do we eat, Mama? I’m hungry.”

Judith glanced up at the warm sun. “Stars alive,” she said. “It’s going on afternoon already. I completely forgot about dinner.”

Maggie Utterback said, “Who wants to eat now? ’Ceptin’ maybe that pig of a husband of mine.”

The boy Ted gave his mother, Theodosia, a tug on the arm. “Make me some cornbread, Mama. I’m hungry. I surely like that new molasses you made.”

“Shh,” Theodosia said. “You’ll have to wait awhile. Until we decide what to do.”

Mrs. Christians covered her eyes with her hands. “Here I am, far in Indian country, cut off, and my husband dead.” She cried bitterly.

Mavis put an arm around Mrs. Christians. “There, there. Now, now.”

Mrs. Christians lashed out, eyes wild, throwing Mavis’ arm aside. “Get your dirty hands off me, you whore, after what you done with some of our men.”

Mavis turned white.

Billy Vikes and Jed Crydenwise gave each other wondering looks.

“Let us pray,” Reverend Codman said. He bowed his head and folded his hands. His voice boomed loud and strong. “Our Father which art in heaven, we come to thee in the noon hour of this day, sorely troubled at heart and beset round about by—”

“Here they come!” Maggie Utterback cried. “Men, cock your guns.”

Reverend Codman’s light-gray eyes fluttered open. “Ahh,” he said.

It was Pounce with a dozen braves. They came stalking toward them down the rise. Pounce had replaced his white man’s clothes with a clout. His nose was painted a deep red and his chin a striped yellow. Daubs of white clay lay in swirls across his bare chest. He carried a long, heavy knob-ended war club. The braves with him were naked and daubed over with war paint too. Some of the braves carried bows and arrows, some guns.

Angela whispered into the silence, “They’re coming to kill us, aren’t they, Mama?”

“Now, now.” Judith stroked Angela’s silver-blond hair. “Shh.” Judith could feel her own heart beating in her brain.

Reverend Codman said quietly, “Don’t shoot. One shot and we’ll all be plunged into eternity. There are too many of them. Instead we must try to persuade them to let us alone until help arrives.”

Maggie Utterback lowered her gun. “Them fiends! Devils in human shape.”

Pounce halted a dozen paces away. The young braves lined up on either side of him. All stood haughty, watchful.

Pounce raised his right hand. “Houw.”

Reverend Codman looked from painted face to painted face. He said gently, “Have my red brothers forgotten the Good Book so soon?”

A sly grimace slid across Pounce’s thick lips, then was gone. “We have come to protect our white brother from the bad Indians.” With his war club, Pounce pointed in the direction of Mad Bear’s renegade camp across the lake.

“Our friend Jesus will not like this.”

Pounce went on smoothly. “Let the white brother put on the war dress of the Dakotas and we will make him our son. We will protect him. We will fight for him when the time comes.” Pounce’s glance fell on Theodosia.

“The sun does not rise in the west.”

Cunning worked Pounce’s lips again for a second. “Let the white man shoot his guns into the ground. That will frighten the bad Indians very much. They will think that the blue soldiers have come. They will run away.”

Silvers gave Pounce a scornful look. “Does our red brother take us for fools? We will keep our guns loaded and cocked.”

Pounce pretended grief. “The body of the white man named Christians, it will rot in the sun. Soon the wolves will devour it. His spirit will not be happy. Let one of you come with us and we will bury it as the white man wishes.”

Mrs. Christians began to wail again.

Silvers snorted. “The red chief thinks he will pick us off one by one.”

“I want mum-mum,” little Johnnie said. He reached up a grass-stained chubby hand. “Mama? I want mum-mum.”

“Shh.” Theodosia reached down and gathered Johnnie in her arms. She hugged him. “Yes, darling, yes, yes.”

“Backslider!” Judith hissed.

Reverend Codman nodded. “Yes, sister, I’m afraid we have mistaken the red man’s courtesy for conversion.”

“Courtesy?” Mavis cried. “When he intended to rape and kill us all along?”

The settlers grouped themselves like a herd of horses facing a pack of wolves: males on the outside, females next, children in the center. Only Maggie Utterback broke the rule—she lined up with the men.

Judith thought: “It’s like being caught in a terrible nightmare of some kind.”

The leather door flap of the council tepee in Whitebone’s village suddenly whipped open, and out ran two dozen armed and painted Yankton warriors. Two Two and other Indian boys hurriedly led up the war ponies. With a leap the warriors were mounted. They came on, directly across the swamp.

Silvers turned green. The giant Tallak shuddered.

Judith thought, “We’re all going to die.”

Joe Utterback whispered, “There’s going to be some awful work now, boys.”

Maggie Utterback would have none of it. She said loudly, “Joe, trouble with you is, you was born without sand in your craw.”

Joe fired up at that. “Haw. Woman, I’ll tough it out as long as you any day.”

“That we’ll wait and see.”

Vikes was jumping wild.

Tallak tried to quiet him. “It’s all right, Billy. With your first shot you become a new man.”

Vikes cried, “But I ain’t got no gun. Only a pitchfork, and I left that t’ home.”

Whitebone and his warriors spread out. They came on singing a monotonous, eerie chant, the Dakota death song. Each warrior had painted himself in his own individualistic style, celebrating personal coups and battle marks. Even the ponies were painted and decorated for battle. The warriors rode naked except for clout and war feather. Most carried bows and arrows, a few double-barreled shotguns. Compared to Pounce’s Christian braves, Whitebone’s war party had the old wild look. Whitebone’s group had always kept pretty much to themselves, had never had much traffic with the whites.

Whitebone and his warriors came on. Their horses breasted through the rushes in the swamp in a wide line. In some places the growth was so deep, horse and rider vanished from view.

Reverend Codman stood calmly. But his fists were balled so tight they were white all the way back to the wrist.

Tallak shrugged twice, quick, then took command. “Boys, we’ve got to take cover. Ladies, take the kits inside and get under the beds and tables. Men, knock out the chinking from between the logs and we’ll shoot them down as they come.”

No sooner said than done. Women and children piled inside and hid as best they could. Vikes tied his team of horses to a wagon standing against the south wall of the cabin. Men looked to their guns and powder, and picked their spots inside along the log walls. Reverend Codman sat down in the old black rocker in the middle of the cabin. He fell into deep thought, eyes down. He rocked slowly back and forth.

Pounce didn’t like the white maneuver of taking shelter inside the Codman cabin. He frowned. He had had other plans for them. And it was with an effort that he finally managed to clear his pockmarked face with a benign smile. He pointed at Whitebone’s oncoming band of warriors. “You see,” he cried, “there the enemy comes. Now you will see that Pounce is your friend. Pounce will council with the chief known as Whitebone.”

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