Timbers fall to ringing axes, game to booming sticks.
Hunger drives us from ancestral homes.
Tribal drums go hollow.
Flutes pipe in despair.
Stanza from the poem “Echoes of the Flute” by Mark Wildyr
White Stone Hill, Dakota Territory, September 5, 1863
The sun rising over the smoldering village promised a hot day. The sky was clear blue and cloudless, except for the cumulus of black buzzards circling expectantly overhead. Smoke from blazing lodges rode the wind, burning eyes and carrying the acrid smell of gunpowder and the stench of death across the prairie to the coulees and the short, wooded hills where the Dakota warriors had taken refuge. The very air tasted bitter to the tongue. They were tired; their horses, spent. Even the earth beneath their moccasins seemed exhausted.
On the run from the Star Chief Sibley since the battle at Big Mound two moons past, they had stood to fight him again at Dead Buffalo Lake. Now for the span of two suns, they had done battle with another Star Chief called Sully, a relentless warrior who spent his time drawing pictures with pigments soaked in water when he wasn’t killing tribesmen.
Today would bring no respite. The blue coats and their thunder guns were still here, hovering like the feathered bone pickers circling overhead. The white army had inflicted a terrible toll on the Dakota. Warriors were accustomed to staring into the face of death, but how could even the bravest stand against big guns that shredded men and horses with bursts of fire and thunder?
Inkpaduta, whom the Americans called Red Cap, a dour, pox-scarred war chief, had led them through these many days of slaughter, fighting with a ferocity born of a deep, implacable hatred of whites. He had a wily mind, vicious fangs, and terrible claws, but Sully had numbers, firepower, and tenacity.
The shelling began again with the booming of cannon and the ear-splitting eruption of hot shells. The fusillade was not so effective now that they had the protection of the gullies and the hills, but Sully would soon be on the move. Their ranks decimated, the Indians withdrew, abandoning food and provisions and leaving their women, children, and wounded to the mercies of the Americans. All was lost now, but at least some of them would live to do battle another day.
Teacher’s Mead, Dakota Territory, Spring 1864
A whistle drew me outside where a child’s voice from atop the hollow hill behind the house directed my gaze south. Less than half a mile away, six mounted warriors rode west between the Mead and the near shore of the bloated Yanube River. They were too far away to identify, but they did not have the look of Sioux.
Cuthan joined me on the porch. “I guess we know why the blue coat went flying by here. Do you think they’re renegades, Otter?”
An hour earlier, a trooper had passed on the south side of the river, riding hard for Ft. Yanube.
“If they are renegades, they’ve thrown away the advantage of surprise, but we’d best get everyone inside.”
I looked toward the near field where six-year-old Alexander stood in the middle of the freshly turned rows. A hand shaded his eyes as he stared at the riders. He caught his father’s wave, dropped the bag of corn seed he was holding, and started for the house. John, younger by a year, shot around the corner of the porch, eyes agog. He’d given us the warning from the hill.
“Do you see them, Pa? Do you see them?”
“We see them, Son,” Cuthan said. “It took sharp eyes to spot those riders in the tree line. You did well.”
Glowing from this praise, the boy self-consciously snatched off his hat and slapped it against his leg to free it of dust, as he’d seen his father do a thousand times.
The warriors had halted and were talking among themselves. After a moment, they headed in our direction at a slow, cautious pace. Each cradled a long gun in his arms.
Cuthan’s wife, Mary, stepped out onto the porch. “What’s happening?”
“Get back inside,” I said sharply. Those warriors should see a family of natives, not a yellow-headed American woman. “Where are the girls?”
“They’re in the house. Oh!” she gasped as she caught sight of the warriors.
“Go inside with your mother,” Cuthan said to the two boys. “Let’s join them, Otter.”
“I want to talk to those men.”
“We can talk through the door.”
“I want to know what’s happening. The best way is to go out and talk like men.” I said.
“I’ll get our rifles.”
“I’ll go alone and unarmed. If anything happens, send Mary and the children through the secret tunnel into the hollow hill. You stay in the house. Fight them off if you have to.”
“I’m not going to let you—”
“Think of your wife and fry and do as I say. I’ll be all right.”
I walked to the barn, trying to appear unhurried. White Patch, anxious for exercise, danced in anticipation as I threw a halter over his long nose. I didn’t bother to saddle the pinto. I would have preferred to greet the strangers in my breechclout, but Mary considered them uncivilized, so I refrained from wearing mine around the Mead. I stripped my white man’s shirt over my head and dropped it in the dirt. Getting rid of the garment made me look more like who I was.
By the time I left the farmyard, the riders had almost reached the line of trees bordering the old game trail running in front of the place. When I got within a hundred paces of the leading horseman, I gave the open-handed salute. He returned the gesture as we pulled up facing one another.
“Hah-ue.” I spoke the Lakota greeting even though I could see these were foreign Indians. Southern Plains from the look of them. Four wore their hair in a pay-shah—a roach. One was in braids, and the sixth wore a turban of some sort. “I am River Otter.”
“I don’t speak Sioux,” the leader said in passable English.
I repeated my name in the American language.
“I have heard of you. The Last Yanube, they say.”
“Almost, although the man who farms this land has the same blood I do. What can we do for you?”
He squared his impressive shoulders. “I am Big Scar. My men and I are Cherokee.”
“You are a long way from Cherokee country, and you do not have the look of a wandering star-gazer.”
They broke into laughter and chattered among themselves for a moment.
“Do you fly the Stars and Bars or the Stars and Stripes?” Scar asked.
“Neither. We are peaceful tribesmen who want no part of the war. We are content to let the whites kill one another while we mind our own business.”
The Cherokee leader was a striking, reddish-hued man with a meaty nose and a purple scar across his right cheek. He wore his hair in a stiff roach and was dressed in fringed buckskin trousers, a leather vest, and a bone breastplate. He pursed his heavy lips. “A warrior should choose a side and fight for it.” Lifting a bare arm, he indicated his companions. “Join us and raise the hatchet against the people who killed your village.”
“Those people are dead now, and I had a hand in seeing some of them to that end. I have no quarrel with the others.”
“Are there tribesmen in the area who will join us?”
I motioned over my shoulder. “My adopted son, Cuthan, and I are the last bloods in the hundred fifty-mile stretch between Ft. Ramson and Ft. Yanube, although occasional travelers come through the territory going from where they have been to where they are headed. You seem to ride with some purpose in mind. Was it you who frightened the army man who went flying past earlier?”
The men laughed again. “You are right. He was running away from us. We intend to stop him before he reaches the fort up the river.”
“Then I apologize for detaining you.”
“No need. The way the blue coat was flogging his horse, he’ll ride the animal to death and have to walk the rest of his journey.”
“Why do the Cherokee come all the way up here to frighten our whites? Don’t you have enough of your own?”
“Aye, more than enough. But we are part of a big Confederate army come to take this country away from your whites and give it to ours. We are the Native Detachment of McComber’s Battalion.”
I kept my Indian face in place. McComber’s Battalion meant nothing to me. “There is a Confederate army behind you?”
“The main detachment is at Ft. Ramson.”
“Have they taken the fort?”
“They are doing battle for it as we speak. We are to catch the outrider and stop him from bringing reinforcements.”
My heart lurched. I felt as if the blood drained from my face and puddled in my moccasins. The American’s Civil War, until now merely a series of news dispatches and gossip items, had arrived on our doorstep.
“I see no singing wires,” Scar said. “Does that mean they have no telegraph at Yanube?”
“Nay, it does not reach that far.” I saw no harm in answering honestly, since I perceived this as a test of something he already knew.
“Good. Who is with you in the stone house? I see two rifle barrels sticking from gun ports. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was Ft. Yanube. It is built like a blockhouse.
“That describes Teacher’s Mead. The stone house was built back when there were hostile tribes in the area.”
“And the rifles pointing at us?”
“One is in the hands of Cuthan Strobaw, the son of Cut Hand, last chief of the Yanube. The other is held by his wife.”
“Tell them it would not be wise to be so unfriendly when next we meet.” He waved his companions toward the river before turning back to me. “The farm to your east. Is that owned by bloods, too?”
“That is the home of some foreign settlers. They, too, take no sides in this war. They came across the ocean to farm in peace.”
The man nodded. “The river is angry. Is there a walk-across?”
“Our snowmelt is just ending, so you’ve come when the waters are at their highest. The best walk is thirty paces to the right of the big cottonwood you see yonder. Even it is dangerous this time of year. I would not risk it.”
Scar had to get his men to the other side in order to catch up with the dispatch rider, and my last remark was a subtle challenge. He fixed his eyes on me for a long moment, although I was unable to discern if it was rudeness or merely his adoption of the American habit of staring. Then he wheeled and caught up with his companions as they rode for the river at a leisurely pace.
I returned to the house and related all I had learned to Cuthan and Mary. Alexander, as was his nature, remained quiet and solemn. John and his younger sister, Rachel Ann, danced around demanding to know if there was going to be a battle. Little Hannah was only two, but she joined in what she considered a game.
We watched from the porch as the six Cherokee Confederates urged their reluctant ponies into the rushing current. They were halfway across the Yanube when the last man in line cried out as his horse lost its footing. The brave in front of him twisted around to see the cause of alarm, and his pony, too, dumped him into the angry waters. The others laughed and jeered until Scar sent them downstream to catch their companions. I was sorry to see both horses wade ashore, apparently without injury. The incident had cost them nothing but a dunking and a delay.
“Cuthan, go put a saddle on Patch and find my shirt. I dropped it in the dirt before going out to meet the invaders. Mary, fix a travel bag with jerky. You might want to let your father know what’s happening. The Cherokee asked about his farm. See if you can persuade him and your brothers to come back here.”
“You’re going to warn James?” Major James Morrow was the commandant at Ft. Yanube.
I nodded. “The Cherokee was right. That blue coat will ride his horse into the ground before he reaches the fort.”
While they went about accomplishing the chores I’d given them, I loaded my Henry repeating rifle and put spare cartridges in another bag. When I was ready, I accepted the supplies Mary had fixed and went outside. Cuthan had the pinto saddled with a bedroll tied behind the cantle.
“You understand this creates danger for you, don’t you?” I shrugged into the shirt he handed me.
“Aye. If the Cherokee learn of your ride, they may try to take revenge on the Mead.”
“Even so, it is something I must do.”
“This I know. How long do you figure it will take you to reach the fort?”
Patch can trot most of the way if I rest him often enough. I should cover the fifty miles in four American hours.”
Cuthan glanced at the sky. “It will be dark by the time you arrive.”
“That is good, I think. It will give me some cover.”
Patch caught my sense of urgency and was eager to race, but I reined him in. Distance was the aim, not speed. My main problem was figuring out where the Reb Irregulars were. Scar had not demonstrated any anxiety after crossing the river. When I last saw him, he and his companions had been traveling at a walk. I veered slightly north to keep the thin screen of trees lining the river between the Cherokee party and me.