Western Short Story
It had been about 20 years since the ignominious raid on the Indian village at River Hill had taken place. The army captain, Gregory Merton, who led the raid, and all his officers, and supposedly all but one of the enlisted ranks, had been killed in later actions. The sole known enlisted rank not dead was a retired sergeant, Martin O’Keeffe, who told the discharging officer on the day he left the army that there was one other witness to the raid, and he hoped she was still living.
“How do you know that, Sergeant,” the officer said, his head hanging low at the thought of River Hill that must have been weaving through his mind.
O’Keeffe, the officer saw for the first time, had visible scars from his wars, scars that hardened his face, said he was resolute, committed, and durable. One thin line, slightly red on one cheek, said he had been most likely in a hand-to-hand situation at least once in his career. A small knob on the sergeant’s nose gave him the familiar characteristic of a pugilist who had received a high hard fist, also at one time, on or off duty.
“I saw her, sir,” O’Keeffe said, “a little blonde girl hiding in the hollow of a large tree.” The livid scene of River Hill came back in a rush. “She was no Indian with that head of hair, but she was part of that encampment. Most likely taken from her people at one time.” When he closed his eyes he could see her again, the deep blue of her eyes full of terror, the mass of blonde hair saying she was not an Indian.
“Did Captain Merton know about her?” His face still had embarrassment written all over it; O’Keeffe thinking the flush was highly uncomfortable for an officer.
“I wouldn’t tell that man a word about her, sir, then or now, even if he was here with us. If he stood here with a blade at my throat, I’d not tell him about her. And I know I was the only one who saw her. We were eye to eye for the sorriest moment in this life. I’ve seen her every night since then.”
“That’s a credit to you, sergeant, that you didn’t give her away. It’s a horrible stain on the army, the whole incident. But I wish you luck wherever you go, and I sincerely hope none of this follows you. From what I have heard over the years, you’re the lone survivor, at least on the army side.”
He shook O’Keefe’s hand and dismissed him, from the room, from the army, from service to his new country, in the company of an attending corporal, the company clerk, who sometime down the line, perhaps in another outfit, or on another assignment, shot off his big mouth about Sergeant Martin O’Keefe and the lone witness of the River Hill massacre, a blonde girl.
As fast as ponies and horses allowed, the word spread at first to army posts all through the west, through towns and settlements on the edges of grass, mountains and rivers, through the ranks of army Indian scouts, and finally, as if demanded by the notoriety of the deed, moved slowly but consistently into every Indian village north and west of the Mississippi River.
Both sides of the incident were caught up in the after-shock.
In the small Montana town of Clusterville, squatting like a postage stamp on a quick turn on the Powder River, one of the weekly visitors to the general store was a gorgeous and most regal blonde Indian maiden who insisted her name was Lakota Betty. Her language, in English and Sioux, was impeccable to the tuned ear, and she often carried on long conversations with both townspeople and Indians of her village, which sat near rapids about 20 miles upriver.
When the story about the “Indian blonde survivor of River Hill” first surfaced in Clusterville, Jed Bolyx of the general store told every customer who’d listen to him about the survivor, and what he believed was his own private secret about the little blonde witness. That part he savored in revealing, because it was so very special in his mind.
“Said she was about 6 or 7 years old, they do, when them rotters shot the place up and everyone in it including babies and women.” If he was outside the store he would have spit on the ground to show his disgust.
He was talking to the banker, Adam Flinkfelt, who tried to dust him off. “You know, Jed, people hear you talking like that and you might lose some customers. Injuns killed a lot of folks.” Flinkfelt’s suit, high fashion for a small town, had pointy collars, a rich orange grain running through it, and his shoes with button buckles would not sit well on a horse.
“Oh, yeah, and where’ll they go then, Adam, and where’ll they bank their money when they hear you say them soldiers was heroes for what they done that day?”
Bolyx felt good standing his ground, and bankers, he said to himself, always was a tricky lot to begin with.
“Well, I didn’t say it like that, did I?” The banker was retreating in a hurry, dollar signs and decimal points tossing their weight around.
“What’s more,” Bolyx added, “when I tell Lakota Betty when she comes in next time, which most likely will be the day after tomorrow, she’ll climb up on that horse of hers and have at it with you. Betcha bottom dollar on that, and you won’t stand a chance with that girl sitting a horse the way she does and right out in front of your place of business, handling two languages the way she does. The girl’s a miracle. Believe me.”
The banker had no idea at all what the grocer was telling him.
“Can’t we back off on this, Jed? You make me uncomfortable. If my business goes south on me, where do you think yours is going? Don’t miss out on any good business, Jed.” Then, like in a swap deal, he let out his own secret in the clipped fashion he used when doing so. “The army’s coming. Coming this way. They’re going to open a new post near here. Right near here. On the river. Getting Linderfall’s land. Maybe a regiment. Maybe more. That’ll be great for your business. For mine too. We have to cover the ground behind us. Common sense says so. It has to tell you that. Listen. Hear the business move.”
His eyes flickered in detail signs.
Bolyx recognized the delivery as soon as Flinkfelt started. It was the same way he opened up about Sarah Winslow when he said, “She’s not what you think. Maybe what you hope. I’d say that. How she skips Monday’s wash. When John’s downriver. Makes up for it on Tuesday. Before he gets back. But Monday’s are free. She’s the old Sarah then. Just on Mondays though.” He’d closed his eyes then, his soul torn in half. After all, he could only hold in so much.
Bolyx hoped he didn’t have such weaknesses, though it was no time to search, to measure. His daughter worked a corner display into focus. His wife, two years near infirm, in the bed above his head, still held him with steady reins.
The door opened and Lakota Betty, in colors that might blast the eyes of some men, stood in the doorway, a black stallion tied to the hitch rail behind her. The black stallion set off a frame around Lakota Betty’s blonde hair, as golden and as rich as a whole field of corn with a sun riding on it as glorious as glory could be. Those tresses rode down one cheek as if they had been painted on her in a studio, and the other half of those long tresses fell over one shoulder like a cape tossed on her red-orange-purple dress the likes of which no other woman in Clusterville could or would wear.
Bolyx shivered in primal recognition of the ultimate female, the ultimate woman. The dress sheathed her, letting shadows run where they ought, along with his mind. She smiled at him, perhaps reading his thoughts, and ignored the banker completely. Bolyx understood. He smiled back.
In a quick turn to look at Bolyx’s daughter, she said, “Hello, Melva, that looks nice.”
She turned back to the counter and the open-mouthed grocer standing at attention. “Tell me, Mr. Bolyx, what do you hear about a soldier who was at the River Hill massacre? The one they say is still alive. Tell me what his name is. Where he is? Why is word just coming about him all this time later?”
Bolyx, without pausing, said, “I heard that he was recently discharged from the army after serving all this time. His name is Martin O’Keeffe, an Irish transplant. He was a sergeant a long time and was discharged a few months ago at Fort Baker.”
He had to say more. He didn’t know how to say what had filled his mind since he heard the first word about O’Keeffe.
And Lakota Betty, much like a teacher in a quiz session, tipped her head, smiled at him, and drew it out practically all the way, letting it sit right there in his mouth, all framed up and ready for the world.
“They say he saw a little blonde girl hiding in a hollow tree trunk at River Hill and let her be. He believed she was not an Indian because of her blonde hair, like yours.” He dropped his head, lifted his gaze and looked her right in the eyes. “Said he can remember her eyes to this day. That they have haunted him every day from the sorriest day of his life. Those are his words, as exact as they can be, from all reports, but you know how such things can get twisted.”
Lakota Betty was still smiling at him, so he said, “Do you want me to try to find out where he is for you?”
“Oh, no,” Lakota Betty said, “we have our ways. Always have.” She nodded to Bolyx and his daughter, ignored the banker and walked out of the store.
When she mounted the big black stallion, her hair catching the sun, the dress shining its shape to a discerning eye, she was regal, and the horse pranced as part of the show … a lost white girl, a blonde Indian maiden, complexity on horseback, a rhythmic, colorful entity, a child grown up to be a queen without a throne.
On the Carter-O’Keeffe Ranch about 60 or so miles from Fort Baker, new and permanent home to Morgan Carter and his uncle, Martin O’Keeffe, the two men sat on the porch of their cabin slowly becoming, day by day, the ranch house of the C/O Ranch. More than 100 head of cattle grazed in a fenced pasture of 50 or so acres, half a dozen goats tromped the grass in another smaller plot of fenced-off ground, one pig, as fat as a dog house, looked about ready to say goodbye to his sty. Some birds had already nested in the eaves of the barn, and an owl, at a distance, seemed to want to join in the darkening solitude of the ranch proper.
Long shadows had settled along the ground and the large barn, four times as big as the cabin, threw its shadow onto the grass. From inside the barn the two men on the porch could hear the chanting of four stray Indians who had found a home with the “new ranchers. One of them was Pawnee, one a Cherokee and the two older Indians were Lakota Sioux. Each of them had more than one name and it was according to whom they were talking which name they went by or were addressed. In general, on the ranch in the company of Carter or O’Keeffe, they were Twisted Water, Broken Feather, Tall Answer and So Sioux Said, the last being the oldest of them and one whose smile had not faded since his first meal in the barn and plenty of soft, dry hay to sleep on. He was the only Indian Martin O’Keeffe ever heard laugh.
Young Carter, rescued from a most dull life of working for someone else, by an uncle he had only seen twice in his life, sat back in one of the two porch chairs he had made after the barn was built. Reveling in evening’ sudden silences, or its ebullient upheaval from various critters, he was sitting so comfortably in the chair he could have dozed off. But he feared missing the transformation of day into dark night.
Twisting around slowly, he looked at his uncle and said, in a serious voice, “If we started counting right now, Martin, how long do you think it would take us to count all the stars?”
The sky was spread with stars and planets like a mine strike of golden-studded walls. He could imagine the scream of the miner finding the golden horde, how it would echo down through tunnels of the earth itself, until it faded away to silence.
O’Keeffe, just as comfortable in his chair, and deeply thankful for the younger man’s artistic endeavor, knowing that at another time he could fall asleep, looked up and said, “No matter how long it would take on this side, Morgan, we’d only be able finish on the other side. I think there’s that many up there and we don’t have that much time.”
And even as he spoke, this was the time of day that the little blonde girl squeezed into the hollow tree, the one with the blue eyes and the golden hair, came back to erupt his day, throw all the good parts of it into the mix with all the bad parts, this special part that came back as the ultimate slam on his soul. He imagined, as he did so many times, that he could have been a notorious bank robber or held up stagecoaches or railroad trains or freighters and had his picture or poster spread across the land, and never felt this badly. A posse could have chased him across the grass for miles or into the hills and canyons and rocky passes where men were killed at the snap of a finger. He knew all of that. It probably was a whisker away from him his whole life, from that fateful moment when he looked into her eyes. He tried to find the message in it, knowing that the comfort of his bed would not hold off what was coming at him as it did every night.
Carter, eyeing his uncle as he always did, knowing what was on his mind, what came at him on noisy nights, could not begin to guess the truth of the matter, as his uncle said, as he did every night, “Well, I guess I better hit the sack and get ready for tomorrow.”
This night, former Sergeant Martin O’Keeffe, emigrant from the wars of Ireland, veteran of the Great War between the States, survivor of innumerable Indian campaigns, escapee from wars of his own making, had no idea what morning held in store for him.
The drums had beat, the word had flown, the answer had come back on the breath of air itself; and so it was, on the morning following, that she was there, astride a great black stallion, the sun at her back like it was fire itself, her golden hair more golden than ever thought possible, strands of it like strings of gold caught in a breeze, and sitting the saddle of the black as if she had been born onto it.
Carter, sound sleeper most times, had slept peacefully this night, and woke early. His first look at the day brought her vision into his eyes. Without surprise he was enamored of her.
He woke his uncle from the deepest sleep he had seen the man have in months, his hand touching O’Keeffe lightly on the shoulder. “You have a visitor,” he said, without having spoken once to the stranger sitting a saddle like a queen might sit a saddle. “You have a visitor, Uncle Martin, a beautiful blonde who has not yet said a word.”
In pants and shirt hastily donned, moccasins on his feet, Martin O’Keeffe went to meet his visitor. One look into her eyes, at the spread of her golden hair, an aura in place, he knew who she was.
“You are Sergeant O’Keeffe?” she said, her voice the voice of a queen, authority in place.
“Yes,” he said, “I am.”
“Sergeant O’Keeffe from River Hill?”
“Sorry to say, yes I am.”
“You know me now?” There was a slight turn in her voice, a minor hesitation, a softening.
“I have seen you every day of your life since then, without fail.”
“You saved my life. You gave me the life of the Lakota Sioux. You I have not forgotten either.” She turned in the saddle as an old Indian stepped out of the barn.
“You are Lakota,” she said, with no question in her tone.
“I am Three Bears. Here they call me Sioux Said So. You come from River Hill. I have seen you before, in the tepee of Broken Hand.”
“He was my Sioux father, since River Hill, and this man, O’Keeffe, saved my life. He is forgiven his errors and is honored in my tepee for all time.”
Morgan Carter, afraid that she’d turn around and leave, stepped down off the porch. “Will you have breakfast with us? Is your name Betty?” He did not know what else to say.
At the barn, the other Indians stepped into the sunlight.
“I am Lakota Betty. Betty is the only thing I remember from my other life, before O’Keeffe saved me, a voice calling my name. Betty, she said, a woman, my mother I think.”
She looked at the Indians and said, “We all eat together?”
“Yes,” Carter said, “here we all eat together, every day.”
Lakota Betty looked at O’Keeffe and said, “You have come a long journey. A very long journey.” She nodded in an imperial way and added, “I will eat with all of you.”
She smiled at Carter who took the reins from her hand, and felt the exchange deep inside.
And Martin O’Keeffe, as he’d say for days coming, felt the earth shake as Lakota Betty stepped down on his small piece of Earth.