Authors: Frederick Manfred
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
Tallak snorted. “That dirty devil Pounce. Look at him. Hair cut off like a Christian. T’while his clout is shitty like the breeching of a horse.”
Theodosia spoke up near the door. “Remember, where the baptized are gathered, there the Lord is.”
Waggling his war club, Pounce strode off to meet Whitebone. He met Whitebone just as the line of Whitebone’s mounted, chanting braves emerged from the deep grass.
Pounce held up his left hand, palm out. “Houw!” He spoke loudly enough for the whites to hear.
Whitebone stared down at Pounce a moment, then, reining in his war horse, held up his left hand too. “Houw.”
The line of braves braced, and stopped. Slowly the eerie chanting faded away.
Pounce and Whitebone conferred. They were too far away for the whites to hear much of what was said. Only occasional words, spoken in sarcasm, drifted across the intervening space. Pounce seemed to be talking big; Whitebone quietly and incisively.
Judith lay with Angela under the table near the door. Looking out through a crack between the door and the doorpost, Judith distinctly heard Whitebone say in Dakota, “I see my red brother has removed the white man’s pants and put on the breechclout.” A little later Whitebone laughed scornfully and called Pounce a name. “Pantaloons.”
Pounce defended himself.
Time passed. Hearts pumped loud. When the children whimpered they were pinched and told to shut up. The old black rocker creaked as Reverend Codman rocked and pondered.
The two chiefs at last fell into a low murmuring discussion. There was much looking toward the cabin by both of them, then off toward the northeast in the direction of Fort Ridgely.
Judith could make out Whitebone’s face quite clearly. The afternoon sun shone full upon Whitebone. He sat very erect on his spotted bay. He looked to be about fifty. He had a firm mouth, sharp nose, wide, high cheekbones, small glinting black eyes, forehead narrowing into black hair. His skin was dark, almost black. A fur-wrapped braid hung on either side of his face. He was the most primitive man she had ever seen, a true old-time savage.
Judith looked to see if Scarlet Plume, the tall Yankton who had suddenly appeared in their cabin earlier in the day, was in Whitebone’s line of warriors. She examined the heavily painted faces, then the breadths of the shoulders. He wasn’t. Apparently not all of the Dakotas were war bent. There was a chance then for the whites after all.
Judith recalled how only the previous week Whitebone had allowed some of the children of his band to join Pounce’s little children in her sod-house school. There had been so many pupils suddenly, there weren’t enough slates to go around. So she had taken them all down to the lake shore and had used the sandy beach to write on. She sat on a log, teaching them. The earnest dark little faces looked up at her, full of puppy trust. They were more intent on learning something from her than was her own Angela or her nephew Ted.
The whites in the cabin waited. The men along the log walls gripped their guns so hard they had to set the guns down every now and then and rub their hands to restore the circulation. Bellies rumbled. One of the women pinched off a squeaking private noise.
Movement on the trampled grass near the garden caught Judith’s eye. She looked out. It was Theodosia’s only cock and hen. That dratted pair. They and the mice and the babies had been in league all summer long to destroy what little flowers they had.
The cock was a gallant golden-brown fellow with a bright-red comb. The hen was small and modest. The two were pecking along together through the grass, here a seed, there a baby grasshopper, then a speck of sand, even a turf beetle. All of a sudden the cock made a whirring noise, dropped a wing hard to the ground, pranced around the hen once, then fluttered aboard. The hen was all too ready to acquiesce. Even before the cock dropped his wing she had squatted down and tipped her short tail up.
Cock and hen pecked along some more. A seed. A fly. A grain of sand. Again he dropped a wing, whirred, and fluttered aboard. Peck, peck, peck—then
and in the saddle. In the space of a few minutes the gallant old boy had mounted her a half-dozen times.
The sight nauseated Judith. What a foolish chit of a thing the hen was to let herself be mounted so often. And at a time like this. Why didn’t she peck him back a couple of times or two, to make him behave a little? Sharp and hard too. Where it would smart. Cocky men burned Judith.
The parley between the two chiefs broke up. Whitebone gave a signal, and his men fell back a little into the deep grass, he with them.
Pounce came lolling back, waggling his war club. A big smile cut his rough face in halves. He too gave a signal and his men fell back.
Pounce approached the door of the cabin. He called for Reverend Codman to come out.
Reverend Codman got to his feet hesitantly. He pushed the rocker back.
“Don’t go,” Tallak commanded. “It’s a trick.”
Tiny muscles over Reverend Codman’s pale cheekbones twitched. “It is my thought that I should confer with him. He is after all a baptized man.”
“Baptized? That baptism has long ago washed off.”
“I must not overlook a chance to avoid bloodshed.”
“Don’t go. That is what I say.”
Pounce called again. “Let the Good Book Man come outside. We wish to smoke the pipe with him.”
Shadows passed over Reverend Codman’s face. “Much hangs on what we do in the next hour. Someone should keep talking with them so long as they wish to parley. We need time.” Then Reverend Codman hardened himself to the task. “It is my duty. I have decided. I have been chosen by God to be your temporal as well as your spiritual leader. You are all in my trust.”
“Talk to him through a crack in the logs then.”
“Let us smoke the pipe,” Pounce called. “Come. The little hole in the pipe stem leads straight to truth. He who has a forked tongue cannot smoke the pipe.”
Theodosia moved to her husband’s side. She was sweating. She touched him. “Go. Talk to him, husband dear. And Christ be with you.”
Reverend Codman smiled a Christian smile at Theodosia. “Yes. I must go. It is our only chance.” Reverend Codman took a last look at all the white, haggard faces inside the cabin, then pushed Tallak aside and stepped outdoors.
Judith watched through the crack between the door and the doorpost. She saw Reverend Codman and Pounce sit down on the grass together. She watched Pounce fill the pipe carefully, with ritualistic gesture. She watched him light it with a fagot brought from his village.
Tallak shook his head. “How can our reverend let himself swap saliva with that dirty heathen?”
“My husband is a Christian,” Theodosia said.
Reverend Codman sat calmly. His fingers hung free and limp.
Pounce smiled. He fawned in his most winning manner. Pounce’s warriors stood back from them a dozen steps, forming a half circle. The warriors watched the smoking of the pipe narrowly. Sweat gleamed on their brown limbs.
Vikes let go with a low cry inside the cabin. “I see smoke to the north.”
“Probably another smoke signal,” Joe Utterback offered.
Vikes watched through his crack, eyes wild. “It’s too dark for a smoke signal. It’s a wood fire. Real wood burning. Somebody’s house . . . My God, it’s my own cabin!”
“No!” Tallak exploded.
Silvers was next to cry aloud. “Yep, there goes my trading post.”
“Tallak,” Vikes cried, “there goes your house. And there goes the Olson house. They’re all going up in flames. Even the wheat and barley fields.”
“Them fiends from hell,” Maggie Utterback whispered, turning pale.
Crydenwise was next to speak up from his vantage point. “Well, Joe, old hoss, you can kiss our sod shanties good-bye. Two black plumes raisin’ out our way too.”
“They are firing the whole settlement then. Skywater is wiped out.”
Mavis called from under her bed. “Any smoke out my way? The store?”
Theodosia asked, “What about the mission church?”
“Still all clear there. So far.”
Judith watched Reverend Codman and Pounce. The two were now exchanging sharp words. Reverend Codman was finally showing some fire. After a moment Pounce shrugged, and gave way. Pounce put on a smile. He agreed with whatever it was Reverend Codman said. Judith shuddered. That foxy backslider.
It became oppressively hot and close inside the cabin. Everyone breathed heavy.
Reverend Codman re-entered the cabin.
The men crowded around him, guns bristling.
“What took you so long?” Tallak demanded.
“There’s nothing gained in hurrying an Indian, you know.”
“What did he say?”
“Pounce says he and Whitebone have agreed not to molest us provided we agree to take refuge in the mission church.”
Maggie Utterback spat in disgust. “That flimsy thing? Them clapboards wouldn’t stop a fart. All them Indians has got to do is sit back in the tall grass and riddle it with rifle balls. And we’re all dead. Beggin’ your pardon, Mrs. Codman.”
Theodosia pinched her lips together.
“No,” Tallak said. “Them heathens won’t respect the church any more than they will respect the reverend’s cabin.”
“Pounce says Whitebone has made up his mind that the white man must go. This is Whitebone’s old hunting ground. Whitebone says all white lodges must be burned to the ground. Whitebone says only the white man’s mission church can stay. Whitebone says he does not wish to offend the white man’s god by burning his Good Book Tepee.”
“No,” Tallak said, “I don’t like it. I vote to stay here. We are safe here now.”
“Pounce says he and Whitebone have agreed to provide us with safe passage to the church. They will protect us from Mad Bear’s bunch.”
“Mad Bear’s bunch? They ain’t even showed up yet,” Tallak protested. “What kind of talk is that?”
Reverend Codman spoke sadly. “I’m afraid Mad Bear’s bunch has. While parleying with Pounce, I saw them sneaking through the woods behind our cabin here. Out of the corner of my eye.”
The women gasped. The eyes of the children widened.
Crydenwise cursed. “Them devils. I’ll bet it was them what fired the houses, then.”
Reverend Codman said, “I’m afraid some of Pounce’s band had a hand in that too. Pounce said some of his wilder braves got out of hand and joined up with Mad Bear’s wild ones.”
“Them sons of Beelzebub.”
“And that is understandable, considering that both Pounce and Mad Bear are Santee Dakota,” Reverend Codman went on to say. “Whereas Whitebone is Yankton Dakota.”
Theodosia sighed. “Alas, how little do we know what lies before us. We know not what the hour, much less the day, will bring forth.”
Again Judith peered across at where Whitebone and his Yankton warriors waited in the deep grass. She could just make out the tips of their war feathers and the ears of their horses. She looked over at Whitebone’s tepees. Where was Scarlet Plume? He had given her and the whites a warning. A wild white swan with a broken neck. Pray God that he might be at that very moment at work somewhere trying to arrange for their salvation. Scarlet Plume was their only hope.
“Well, what is your wish?” Reverend Codman asked them all in a gentle voice. “What shall I tell Pounce?”
Every man panted. Sweat as big as gooseberries worked down their faces. Cheeks became gray-edged. Some of the men trembled violently, legs shaking, teeth chattering. Some buckled at the knees as if weak from too much laughter. The crouching women all had terror-circled eyes. The children waited, numb, looking up at their elders.
Reverend Codman said, “Pounce reminded me that the red man knows full well that the Union cause does not go well in the South. Pounce knows that our great white father, Abraham Lincoln, has had to call up old men and young boys to prosecute the war. Pounce knows that not many men are left to protect the frontier. Pounce said that perhaps the time had finally come for the red man to rise up and throw off the yoke of the oppressor.”
Everyone understood. There had been more than one report that Fort Ridgely had lately been manned by a company of young boys.
Judith thought, “Yes, even my husband, Vince, with his soft hands and erudition, has been sent south.” She thought, “We are all going to die.”
Blackness gathered on settler faces.
“Oh, if we’d only stayed in our clearing in Wisconsin,” Mrs. Aanenson said.
Tallak glared down at his little wife. “Woman, you know we couldn’t’ve kept on there. We didn’t raise enough off that sand to feed our growin’ gurls.”
Reverend Codman asked, “Tallak, do you think this structure is strong enough to withstand attack?”
“Bullets, yes. Fire arrows, no. Just one burning arrow and
up in smoke she goes. We can all be fried in it like sausages.”
Judith got up from where she was hiding under the table. She brushed cobwebs off her gray dress. The other women and children also came out of hiding. They stood ringed around Reverend Codman. The little children—Angela, Ted, Johnnie, Tallak’s girls—covertly touched the edges of the reverend’s black coat. Body odors, some strong, some sweet, some musty, some soap-scented, began to drift about in the cabin.
Judith smoothed back Angela’s silver-blond hair. Angela’s hair felt as smooth as the fur of a pussy.
Tallak said, “I think we better all keep one bullet over. If worst comes to worst.”
“What for?” Crydenwise cried. “I’d rather see it buried in a redskin.”
“Ya, your Lena and kids are already dead, so you should talk.”
Silvers snorted. “Well, my woman can take care of herself.”
Reverend Codman smiled at the Indian wife of Silvers. “What does our sister Tinkling say? Will the Dakota respect the Good Book Tepee if we take refuge in it?”
With all eyes suddenly focused on her, Tinkling humped over more than ever. She threw a minklike defensive look at them all. The whites might be cornered by the redskins outside, but she in turn was cornered by the whites inside.
“Speak up, Mrs. Silvers.”
The perfectly cut corners of Tinkling’s lips trembled.
Tinkling at last spoke. “Do not believe Pounce.” She had a surprisingly squeaky voice. “Do not believe Mad Bear. Both are Santee Dakota.”