Western Short Story
Tom Adams reined in his horse and gazed around, as he carefully searched the landscape, but nothing disturbed the tranquility of the rolling prairies spread around him. The early summer of 1869 was dry and the long grass shimmered back and forth in the light breeze.
Tom, a slim man with lean features, burnt dark brown from exposure to the elements, his wrinkled skin belied his true age of thirty. He squinted from the glare of the harsh sunlight, searching for any signs of his quarry.
A fragile peace extended across the Black Hills, the surrounding prairies and the Badlands. A year ago in 1868, the hostile tribes and the white-eyes signed a treaty, but a lone white man traveling through the Black Hills could not lower his guard for one moment.
The Sioux Treaty was an agreement between the white-eyes, and the Hostiles, better known as the United States and the Lacota, Yanktoni and Santee Sioux, along with the Arapaho tribes.
Since the treaty, signed at Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory, no trouble had arisen. An Indian’s word was sacrosanct; the Sioux nation would abide by the terms of the agreement but, if the white-eyes broke the treaty, all hell would be unleashed. Sure, many members of the various tribes disliked the treaty, but they abided by it, nonetheless.
“I imagine this looks like the ocean,” Tom muttered, scanning the long grass on the prairie, “Looks like waves moving across the land.”
Tom had never been close to the sea, having lived on the prairies all his life, but he’d seen several lakes that gave him a good idea how water moves with the wind.
He studied the regular motions for a spell, thinking the tall grasses could hide an army of thousands, unless they moved and disturbed the pattern of movement.
“Hot, but thet don’t mean the good weather will hold.” Tom rode many a lonely trail and was used to the sound of his own voice.
Glancing westward, he saw black clouds far off on the horizon, “Figured a storm were brewin’.” he finished. Digging his spurs into the horse’s flanks, he followed the course of a slow moving creek heading south, keeping an eye open for a place to shelter.
Adams, a seasoned civilian scout serving with a cavalry company, felt reasonably safe in this closed area. For starters, he felt part Sioux himself, having been raised since a child by a Sioux family. On the pommel of his saddle there rested a woven circular ring of eagle feathers that guaranteed him safe conduct in his travels.
Tom’s parents lost their lives during a running battle against a Pawnee raiding party. Fire arrows hit the Conestoga wagon they drove and Bill and Mary Adams perished when they dropped to the ground avoiding the fierce flames.
Tom managed to hide in a shallow draw, but the ten-year-old lad barely survived before a Sioux hunting party found him three days later.
Running Deer, a Lacota elder, sat Tom astride his pony and returned to the Sioux encampment. Impressed by the boy’s fortitude after his survival, Running Deer adopted Tom, naming him, Prairie Dog.
For more than seven years, Tom learned the ways of the Sioux. At first, it was tough, but he found his way among the people. Running Deer taught Tom the way to stalk animals using the ground to the best advantage. Tom’s keen senses absorbed all this craft and he remembered all he was taught.
The language difficulty he overcame with the aid of Little Otter, a white woman abducted many years before. She was Running Deer’s squaw and seemed content in her position. She and Tom spoke often about the past.
Tom’s present employment saw him chasing down four extremely violent men, led by a giant of a man, Roland Bishop, a renegade half-breed. Two of the man’s followers were deserters from a cavalry unit.
A week prior to Tom’s errand, four shifty-eyed men sat at a table, set in a dark corner of a small room in the Fort Laramie Sutler’s store, drinking beer. Wanted for committing many crimes, the last thing they wanted was to draw anyone’s attention, but their leader seemed to think the opposite.
“Let’s have another beer.” Roland Bishop wiped his scruffy black beard with the back of a monstrous hand, burped loudly, and banged his empty glass on the scratched, rickety table. Bishop needed to shut up, but not one of the gents at the table felt like taking the initiative. The man, brutish in appearance, heavily built and a glutton for starting fights intimidated them.
A nervous waiter swiftly dropped four glasses of beer and scrambled for safety as the thirsty ruffians swallowed the cool nectar.
Two ex-cavalry men dressed in faded uniform shirts and breeches without rank insignia and a nondescript little man with yellowed teeth and a gray mustache, the ends stained from tobacco. Both men appeared nervous, especially because so many enlisted men who could recognize them. Luckily, most of the cavalry units were patrolling the surrounding countryside, leaving only stores personnel and sick men behind.
Only Bishop stood out, wearing a bright red shirt and white bandana, and he appeared not to care who saw them.
“Are we agreed we go fer the gold?” Bishop stared at the men in turn, defying anyone to disagree with his scheme. First, he looked towards the two deserters. Tom Williams, tall and skinny who limped from shrapnel wounds he received in the Civil War, and Elmer Fancourt, short and barrel-chested, a middle-aged veteran of many campaigns, almost Mexican in appearance.
The remaining individual, Joe White asked,” You know whar we’re headed?” The smallest of the group, Joe was mean. He loved shooting animals and birds just to watch them die. The rest of the group considered he was teched!
“Somewhere’s in the Black Hills,” came the evasive reply.
“What about the Hostiles?” Joe queried.
“We sneak in at night,” Bishop replied, “Take a day or two, but I knows the way.”
“OK Roland, we’re with ya.” Elmer raised a hand and slapped Tom on the back. “What ya gonna do with your share, Tom?”
“I’ll buy a long rifle and shoot thet officer who messed with me.” The officer in question heard that his wife fooled around when he was campaigning. He suspected Fancourt and made his life miserable by sending him out on every dangerous mission, trying to get him killed.
Leading these patrols, Sergeant Williams, also on the officer’s hate list, finally decided enough was enough. The two slipped away one night stealing horses and weapons. Their return to the fort for this meeting made them edgy.
“Right. It will take us a couple of days to reach the area and I’ve got most of the supplies we’ll need.” Roland swigged half the contents of his glass and continued. “We’ve got horses, but we need a few mules. I know jest the place where we kin steal some.”
Fancourt asked, "What’s our split?
“I knows the land,” Roland stared menacingly, “So I get half and the rest of yer shares the other half. Any objections?”
As he expected, nobody said a word.
“Right, drink up and let’s git outa here.”
The beat of their horses’ hooves faded rapidly as they rode away following sundown and bartender John Smith slipped out the back door to report the conversation to the commanding officer of the nearby fort. Early next morning Tom received his orders to trail the gang.
Bishop’s gang took over a week traveling by night to reach the Black Hills. They raided a lonely ranch, rustling seven mules as pack animals. With no saddles or bridles, a mercantile store in a settlement provided the missing equipment. The break-in and theft drew a posse after them, forcing the riders to take a wide detour and slowing them down.
The riders, keeping to the covered areas, sneaked their way up a narrow canyon, unaware they were being watched and trailed by a lone rider. A few hundred yards away, skillfully hidden in the prairie grass, lay three Sioux warriors, Red Sky, Fallen Oak and Mad Eagle, who stared at the treaty breakers.
As they planned their attack on the treaty-breakers, Red Sky caught sight of the lone rider, carefully maneuvering his horse to stay hidden if anyone turned to watch their back trail.
The rider stopped beside the swift flowing stream and tied his horse to a low branch. By now the two other braves watched as the rider sat down with his back to a rock and appeared to put his hat over his face and relax.
Without a word, the three Sioux crawled towards the white man’s position. Using all their guile, they arrived together some thirty feet behind the recumbent figure, when a soft voice, speaking the Sioux language, caused them to hesitate.
“What can we hear, horse?” the quiet voice was speaking directly to his pony, seemingly not noticing what every brave knew. The horse’s ears twitched and the animal stared to where the Indians lay, a sure sign someone was near. Red Sky took note of the circlet in the man’s hand.
“I hear the running water, also the grass as the wind blows through it. I also hear three stumbling braves stomping behind me like a buffalo herd in a stampede. Red Sky, Mad Eagle and Fallen Oak, stop playing childish games and let’s pow-wow.”
Tom stood up, a wide grin on his face as the three braves sheepishly walked towards him.
“How, Prairie Dog, what are you doing here?” Fallen Oak and Tom grasped forearms in the traditional greeting of friendship.
“The men you are trailing have broken the treaty. It’s my job to take them to the agency for punishment. You know me and what I have to do.”
The Sioux knew him as an enforcer working for the Indian Agency in keeping the treaty lands free from interlopers. All perpetrators came under the jurisdiction of the United States Government.
The four squatted around a small campfire as they ate pemmican and roasted a rabbit. Tom asked them to assist in the arrest. This appeared to be difficult as the braves wanted to count coup on the outlaws. Tom reminded them that the treaty bound the Sioux with the White Man’s justice. Capturing the four men without bloodshed would show the entire Sioux nation how skillful they were if they managed this task.
Eventually the four came to an agreement and Tom outlined his scheme.
Bishop and company pitched camp alongside a wide section of the creek, where there was lots of gravel. After leaving the prairie, the ground sloped up to the foothills and Bishop led the way showing his excitement. The valley where he called a halt seemed to be an ideal hiding place, far from snooping eyes.
“We stay here.” he said, “Make sure to find dry wood and keep quiet. “Thar’s a cave round the next bend. We’ll stash the tools and set up an area we can defend.”
Three hours after their arrival, the tired men, fed and exhausted after the journey, sorted out an area for their mounts to graze, carried their gear to the cave and settled down for a nap.
The wind increased as they rested and an eerie, low moaning sound disturbed them from their rest.
“What’s thet?” Seth sounded scared.
“Dunno, mebbe a ghost.” Bishop snorted derisively.
The sound of a running man brought them to full alertness. From the direction they had arrived, a slim man, hatless, on foot, stumbled to the creek, flung himself down and drank thirstily.
“Whar yuh from, mister?” yelled Bishop, his gun in his hand, noting the stranger carried no weapon. “Who are yuh and what are yuh doin’ here?”
Tom Smith held back a smile, pretending to choke on the water in his mouth. So far so good.
“I’ve escaped a Sioux war-party.” Breathing heavily he sat down keeping his hands away from his body. “They got ma horse and mule and chased me all across the prairie, but I got away.”
Gazing around at the four men, Tom added, “If yer lookin’ fer gold I knows where there’s a heap of it, jest around thet bend.” He pointed upstream. “My pardners got killed a week ago. All I want is to get away from here, so if you let me hev a horse, you kin have all the gold. I jest want to get away. Please help me.”
Bishop craftily devised a plan to get this tenderfoot show them the gold. Give him a horse? No, a bullet will solve this character’s problem.
Glancing at his men, he saw they had the same idea.
“Let’s go find thet gold, friend. We’ll give you a horse and anything you want, but show us the gold.” Bishop helped Tom to his feet.
“This way, gents.” Tom took off at a shambling walk, followed by the four greedy outlaws.
After leading them past the cave, he pointed to the river bend and said, “Jest around the corner. Thar’s two boxes full of dust and nuggets buried in the bank.”
Reaching the bend, Tom stumbled, screamed loudly and sat down, holding his ankle. “Think ma leg’s busted. Check the first pointed rock and look behind,”
Eagerly the four ran to the area pointed out by Tom.
“Thet’s it boys, raise yer hands, yer under arrest.”
Turning around, four men caught flat-footed by Tom’s ruse, saw Tom and three Sioux warriors aiming rifles in their direction. There was no cover and the four weapons the quartet held were pointed with deadly intent. Slowly they obeyed the command and dropped their gun belts, cursing bitterly.
It took two days for the party to reach the Sioux agency where Tom handed over his prisoners.
Swift justice was carried out on the two servicemen and Jeb White, but Bishop managed to escape and disappeared from view. His thoughts were on the gold and he headed off in that direction on a stolen horse, never to be seen again.
On July 30, 1874, two miners reportedly discovered placer gold in French Creek and the rush to western Dakota Territory was on. The army fought a constant battle attempting to restrain white miners from entering the hills --and trying to prevent the Sioux from attacking any that got through
A month later three grizzled old-timers explored a hidden canyon and set up camp late one evening. When they surveyed the area next morning, they found traces of gold in the dried up area of the creek.
The work proved arduous and, in the horrendous heat trapped in the valley, one of the men wiped his brow, eased his back in a stretch. A faded red piece of cloth fluttering in the breeze drew his attention. He noticed an unfamiliar shape beside it.
He splashed cool water over his face and strode to where the cloth lay. It turned out to be the remains of an old shirt. As he kicked at it, he noticed the skeletal remains of a human being partially buried with dust.
“Look at this, Jeb,” he called, “Thar’s arrows through these bones.”
Jeb scrambled from the creek bed and ambled to him. “Yeah, and look at the size of the bones that were his hands. Musta bin a big man.”
A sudden gust of wind blew more loose soil over the remains. The wind created a low moaning sound as it passed through a narrow cleft in the cliff above. The same sound that Bishop and his gang heard those many years ago.
Suddenly, the wind dropped and the only sounds came from the water as it flowed gently at their feet.
What with the bones and the strange howl, the miners hurriedly packed their gear and rushed off, leaving the area for the ghosts.