Authors: Frederick Manfred
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
“What about Whitebone?”
“He is a great Yankton chief and a true father of his people. He speaks with his mouth where his eyes look. He speaks true.”
“Do you think Whitebone will respect our godhouse?”
Tinkling nodded, slowly.
Reverend Codman nodded too. “Yes, in matters of religion I’ve found the old-line Yankton Dakota to be as courteous as any people on earth.”
Mouths panted. Hearts bumped, wildly irregular.
Crydenwise moved. Before Mavis could defend herself, he slipped his hand about her waist and kissed her roughly on the lips. Then Crydenwise threw Mrs. Christians a smirking look. “Since I been accused of takin’ liberties with the widder I might as well be guilty of ’em, ha.”
Mavis slapped Crydenwise. Her eyes flashed. Her face took on an even sharper terrier-like look.
Reverend Codman frowned. “My beloved in the Lord.”
Mrs. Christians’ lips, already thick from her near lying-in, took on a child’s pout. “That’s what my Henry said. That’s what he said. And you wouldn’t want to go against a dead man’s word, would you?”
“Children!” Reverend Codman said sharply.
“Mama,” Ted said, “when are we going to have some mummum?”
Theodosia stroked Ted’s wild blond hair. Her hazel eyes were calm. “In a little while, son.”
Far in the distance, barely within ear range, there was a low rumble of thunder. Almost immediately after, a wild whoop rose from the woods along the lake.
Reverend Codman looked kindly at Tinkling. “Sister, I ask it again. Do you still think Whitebone will respect the Good Book Tepee of the white man?”
“Let’s go,” Silvers exploded. He threw his trembling wife a scornful look. “Don’t pay her no mind, Reverend. She don’t know from nothing.”
Reverend Codman persisted.
Tinkling stood straighter. She took heart. “We go.”
There was a roar of relief inside the cabin. Everybody quickly got ready to make a break for the mission church.
Tallak held up his big hand. He blocked the door with his huge frame. “Wait a minute, everybody. Whoa. That’s one thing you can’t do. Run across to the church like a bunch of scared rabbits.”
Reverend Codman agreed. “We go as men or not at all. Calmly. Showing no fear. After all, we are Christians, are we not?”
The settlers steadied. Of course. To show fear was to invite instant massacre.
Joe Utterback handed his wife, Maggie, a skinning knife.
“What’s that fer?” Maggie Utterback exclaimed.
“Wal, if them red devils should happen to forget theirselves and attack you, Wal, you know what to do. It’s sharp enough.”
Maggie Utterback almost blew up in disgust. “I will not.” She knocked the skinning knife out of her husband’s hand. “I ain’t afeard. Besides, what’s the difference? A bull man is a bull man whether he’s red or white. Or even blue. Ain’t he? You men are all a bunch of lazy good-fer-nothin’ boar pigs, the lot a ye.”
Joe Utterback flushed around his eyes. “I was only thinkin’ of your good.” He picked up the skinning knife and thrust it into his belt again.
“The Lord be with us, that I pray,” Theodosia whispered, hugging Ted and Johnnie.
Tallak turned to Vikes. “Billy, are your horses afraid of Indians?”
“Huh? Who, mine? Naw. They’re used to Pounce’s bunch. I can’t say, though, for the others.”
“Good. I want you to quick hitch them to Reverend’s wagon behind the cabin there. We’re going to need it for Mrs. Christians. She’s already walked too far. And there’s food and powder and extra clothes we need to take along. We better load on all we can. The Lord only knows how long it’ll be before help arrives. We may have to live in that church a week.”
“Before we go, let us offer up a prayer for a safe journey,” Reverend Codman said.
All of the womenfolk knelt on the circular rag rug in the center of the cabin. Of the children, little Johnnie knelt too. And of the men, only Tallak got down on his knees. The rest stood with their heads bowed.
Reverend Codman used the back of the black rocking chair as though it were a pulpit of the Lord’s. “Father, here we are, on this earth, sorely troubled. We who have ventured much stand to lose all in an instant. Much labor in thy service, many many months of it, both spiritual as well as temporal, is in danger of being lost if Thou dost not soon send us help. O Father, we pray Thee to consider us in our great and sudden extremity. Come, hear our cry. We are thy humble servants. Hear, hear our cry. We plead, yea, we beg of Thee, not for our sakes, since we by ourselves are sinful and utterly deserving of utmost condemnation, but for thy sake out of grace granted by Thee, to save us. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Another drumming of thunder sounded, far in the southwest.
A guttural sigh rose from them all. Silvers had a tear in the corner of his eye. Vikes’s eyes were awash like melting hailstones.
Little Johnnie at last seemed to understand that all was not well. He began to cry. A wet spot slowly spread down the side of one of his pants legs.
Theodosia swept him into her arms.
“All right, Billy,” Tallak ordered, getting to his feet. “Get them horses hitched to the wagon. Mrs. Codman, tell us where things are so we can quick get them loaded.”
Canned food, clothes, blankets, the thick Bible, a keg of gunpowder, mission records were all hastily carried outdoors. Tallak, the tallest, placed them in the bottom of the wagon. A feather tick was spread out on the floor near the rear end. Tallak hoisted Mrs. Christians up and settled her on it. Mrs. Christians wept uncontrollably. She held a fresh loaf of brown bread to her breast. Tallak next placed the children on top of the load up front. Theodosia carried Johnnie. Johnnie’s eyes were crossed in fear and Theodosia decided to carry him snuggled warmly in her arms.
Silvers, Crydenwise, Maggie and Joe Utterback stood on guard, guns cocked.
“Look at that smile all of a sudden on Pounce’s face,” Maggie Utterback muttered.
“’Pears to be in high feather at what we’re doin’, all right,” Joe Utterback said.
“Gassy pigs,” Maggie Utterback said. “Wish there was some way of taming them. Like dogs.”
“The only way you can tame a Indian,” Silvers said, “is to fill him up with white blood. Like I been tryin’ to do with my woman Tinkling.”
“Whoever thought the Indian had a soul must’ve surely lost all his buttons,” Joe Utterback said.
Reverend Codman frowned.
“Ha. Ever try to domesticate a wolf?” Crydenwise said. “Try it sometime and see what you get. I know. A wolf’ll snap at anything that comes near him even after he gets used to livin’ with you. Same thing goes fer a red devil.”
Reverend Codman shook his head as if at wrongheaded children.
“Preach, I tell you,” Silvers said, “someday you’ll larn that it was a mistake to be tenderhearted with the noble red savage.”
Vikes finally had the horses hitched up. “Everybody ready?”
“Let her go.”
Vikes climbed up on the wagon seat. He snapped the reins. “Giddap. Colonel. Duke. Get!”
The grays picked up the urgency in Vikes’s voice and their ears rose. They leaned into it and the wagon began to creak away.
Pounce and Whitebone exchanged hand signals. Pounce’s group immediately formed a moving wall on the south side, Whitebone’s warriors came out of the grass and formed a moving line of mounted men on the north side.
The caravan moved slowly toward the mission church. The church was still out of sight over the rise. Reverend Codman strode ahead alone, pale, bold nose in the lead. Those not riding walked behind the wagon.
They had gone but a dozen rods when Mad Bear and his bunch of renegades came whooping out of the timber behind the cabin.
“There they come!” Maggie Utterback yelled. “Shall we shoot?”
“Hold your fire!” Tallak roared.
There were at least thirty renegades. They were even more ragged than Pounce’s band. Some wore white-man breeches, some blankets, some feathers, some plug hats, all mostly stolen goods. Their yelling was wild, unearthly, more like the erratic crazy chirps of prairie dogs than war cries. Mad Bear was in the lead. He carried an old-time longbow. He was a squat, muscular devil some forty winters old. He had a naturally deep-set scowl and wild, rolling black eyes. He wore a grotesque necklace.
Whitebone galloped over. He saluted Mad Bear.
Mad Bear saw Whitebone’s raised left hand. Mad Bear signaled and his marauders held back. They danced in the grass, barely restrained, brandishing shotguns, knives, spears, bows and arrows.
There was a further cry from the woods, higher, shriller. Out poured Mad Bear’s squaws, fat and thin both, all of them squalid. They made straight for the cabin. They clawed and squealed their way inside. In a moment all that had been left behind was in tatters—clothes, sheets, bedding, feathers, books, papers. Two heavy, snarling squaws fought over a jar of pickles. One of them became so wrought up that when she finally got control of the jar she whacked the other over the head with it. Pickles and glass and juice flew everywhere. Another pair of squaws fought over the dead wild swan with the broken neck; head and neck went one way, body and legs the other. In the midst of it all, one of Mad Bear’s braves came running up with a burning torch and set fire to the cabin.
The faces of all the whites took on the hue of scorched clover.
Judith almost fell down. She caught hold of Angela’s reaching hand from the wagon. She pinched Angela’s hand so hard, Angela whimpered. Again Judith had trouble controlling her bladder.
Reverend Codman called from up front. “Courage now. Be of good faith. The Lord is with us and not with them.”
Whitebone made another decisive gesture, and Mad Bear held up his hand again to hold his savages in line.
Mavis let out a cry. Gasping, she pointed toward a new plume of smoke rising beyond the hill. “There goes my store and post office.”
Houses, haystacks, fields of grain were blazing everywhere. The roaring red flames, the towering plumes of smoke, the demonic yells of the renegades, the hellish shrilling of the squaws, with behind and over it all a slowly gathering cloud bank full of snapping thunder, made it appear that Judgment Day was surely at hand at last. Terrible. Yet somehow grand and tremendous.
“I think,” Tallak said, “I think we better keep one bullet over.”
“The church!” Reverend Codman replied. “Keep your eyes on the house of God. It is our only hope and our only salvation.”
A single stout plum tree stood halfway up the rise ahead. An Indian with ripgut tied to his head rose out of the grass beside it. It was one of Pounce’s men. He had skulked through a swale to head them off. After a moment other Indians, also camouflaged with ripgut tied to their heads, rose out of the prairie, blocking their path.
Reverend Codman up front, to avoid setting off a shooting affair right then and there, veered slightly to the right, going along the edge of a wide slough. Rushes in the slough stood head high.
The Indians were quick to spot the weakness and pushed the whites even further into the slough.
The settlers pressed on. The ground became rough with potholes and grass tussocks. The wagon jolted heavily. Mrs. Christians groaned.
Crydenwise played his cocked musket around. “Boys, I think we’ve been worked.”
“No shooting now,” Reverend Codman warned over his shoulder. “Steady.”
Theodosia said, “Remember, friends, sweet will be our rest in heaven when all this is finished.”
Theodosia carried Johnnie high against her bosom. His little feet dangled with each step. She walked slim and stiff and looked straight ahead.
Except for the slough directly ahead, the settlers were soon surrounded by the Indians. Whitebone and his soldiers’ lodge rode silently on the settlers’ left. Pounce and his dark, lowering savages walked mostly along on the right. Mad Bear and his renegades cut off all retreat behind them. Whitebone’s face was expressionless. Pounce was all smirks. Mad Bear frothed at the lips.
Ted asked from the wagon, “Mama, will we eat when we get to the church?”
“Yes, my darling son. All of us. After we’ve thanked the Lord for preserving us.”
Tallak’s face was ashen white. He stalked along with high steps. “By gol, if it wasn’t for that damn Mad Bear and his devils, I think we could make it.”
Silvers nodded. “They’re no good. No good to anybody. Even the Indians hate ’em.” Silvers swung his gun around menacingly to protect their rear. “You should hear some of the stories I’ve heard about ’em. Turn your stomach inside out.”
“Ya, I suppose.”
Theodosia said, “As long as the least of these have souls, we must do everything within our power to save them.”
“Souls, hell. When they’re so rotten they’ve been known to sleep with wild animals fresh killed?”
The old wagon lurched heavily. Then the reach cracked underneath. There was a sound of splintering wood.
It could not go on.
Reverend Codman turned and held up his hands.
Vikes reined in his grays. “Whoa, there, whoa. Steady now.”
It came over Joe Utterback and Crydenwise what they had to do. It was mole under or lose hair. They took one wild look around, then plunged toward the tall rushes in the center of the slough.
A half dozen of Pounce’s braves tried to head them off. They were too late. Both whites vanished.
Maggie Utterback was outraged. “That dirty skunk. That coward.” She swore. She spat after Joe. “Joe, come back here and fight like a man. Fat lot of good that knife’s gonna do me now, stuck in your belt.”
No answer. Nor was there any stirring in the green rushes to indicate where the two benedicts might be lying secret.
Mad Bear’s band rushed up close, brandishing guns, howling, yelling, dancing. Pounce’s bunch joined them. The din was unearthly. Sight of so many roaring wild Indians made the children on the wagon cry. Random shots whistled over the heads of the settlers.
Reverend Codman approached Pounce with his raised left hand. “Brother in Christ, what is this? Did you not grant us safe passage to the Good Book Tepee? Is your tongue split?”
Pounce’s heavy lips turned down at the corners.
Reverend Codman said sternly, “It seems my brother’s word has as much worth as an empty corn shuck.”