Western Short Story
This boarding house in St. Joe’s where I’m living, will probably be my final stop in this lifetime. I’m certain that this is my life’s last stand. Still it’s cheap, the land lady feeds me well and I can sit on the front porch rocking chair and stare out towards the prairie. Sitting here, I let my mind wander out to the wilderness where I wandered the vast green stretches of land for so many years. As the US Army routs the remaining free Crows, my sons and their families are out there, somewhere, running away and attempting to survive.
It’s a hard life for them but there’s not much that I can do. Each time I drift off to sleep the same nightmare returns. I see the women and children running at Renegades Rock and the Cavalry shooting them down. The images of the of the children being shot and the sounds of the screams and cries are etched like photographs into my dreams. Nothing keeps me here in St Joe’s but I had to escape the prairie to try to stop the nightmares.
I’m Brett Nygard and I was at Renegade's Rock three times. Each time there I saw only death and killing. The last time was with the famous outlaw and renegade Jack Falkland when he died at one of the well-known massacres at that spot.
The Crow people were pushed out of the Ohio Valley a long time ago by their traditional enemies, the Lakota and the Cheyenne. As they headed west, one of their shamans had a vision that the white men would control everything. He convinced their chieftain Arikora that for the Crows to survive they had to make peace all the time with the white men. As they moved westward and settled beyond the end of the white man’s civilization on the buffalo laden prairie, despite always seeking peace, the Crows were still subject to the greed and land hunger of the never ending white settlers.
My parents came from Norway and I grew up as a farm boy near St Paul, Minnesota. Despite a good Lutheran background, I was a wild one. At fifteen years old but as big as a grown man, I had my first drink and my first fancy girl. I was hooked. I could ride and fight and shoot and I never feared death. I felt trapped in the built up towns in Minnesota, so as a teenager, I headed west to the grasslands of the Dakotas and lived by my wits in the tiny prairie villages. The red men never entered my thoughts. Back then I just scraped by on whatever the vast green prairie offered.
Shooting and skinning buffalo were easy for me so I became a buffalo hunter. This was before the war and out on the prairie and further west I ran into all the famous mountain men; Jim Bridger, John Coulter, Kit Carson and Jack Falkland. I learned a lot from them and when the war ended and the US Army began “protecting” the prairie I used what I knew and became an army scout.
Out on the prairie, on Indian lands, Jim Bridger introduced me to a Crow chieftain, Flying Raven, and Flying Raven and I became friends. I lived with his band of villagers for two years and I learned the Crow ways and the Crow language. The Crows were fierce in protecting their own and struggling against their traditional enemies among the red men, but overall they were basically a peaceful people who planted small crops and hunted buffalo and tried to avoid the confrontations with the more numerous Lakota and the treacherous white men.
The land along the Powder River was fertile, flat and perfect for planting wheat. A large group of settlers led by Marcus Dunbar petitioned the army to homestead the land north of the Powder River near what was then called Eagle’s Rock, a small range of low rocky peaks which housed a large collection of eagles. There was one problem; the Crows had settled near Eagle’s Rock and had a good sized village there. The Crows would not have minded living alongside the white settlers; they would even be happy to, since a white settlement would provide a buffer between the Crows and the Lakota and Cheyenne further east. However the white settlers would have none of it. “What if they go renegade?” Dunbar told the provisional Governor and the army commander at Fort Mitchell.
The provisional governor granted their request and ordered the eighth cavalry out of Fort Harris to clean out the Crow village. I went along with the troop as a scout. Although I liked and respected the Crow people, at that time I had no opinion on the Crow-White struggle. I was just earning a living.
Our commanding officer was Captain Elias Bunning, a career military man out of West Point who had fought in the Union Army. He was a hard, humorless man who hated the Indians as well as the Southerners and he had no reluctance in killing either.
We had over a hundred men in the troop, all well-armed. We crossed a hill south of the Powder River and we could see Eagle’s Rock in the distance, the peaks jutting up above the flat green prairie. Mostly the view was treeless but there was a wooded area right behind the Crow Village and leading to Eagles Rock. Captain Bunning had started calling our target Renegades Rock after Dunbar claimed that the Crows living there were renegades and dangerous. The Crows had no reason to hide and as we looked down at the Powder River settlement the Indians were peacefully going about the business. Most of the villagers lived in a large communal lodge located in the village center while some more important braves and families lived in Tipis scattered about the main lodge. There were gardens with corn and other vegetables located throughout the village. Children played around the gardens where their mothers worked in them, A nice sized herd of horses were tied up at the village edge. Bunning had laid out the troop’s strategy the night before. They would take the village by surprise then force the Crows further west so the land by Renegade’s Rock was open for Dunbar and his settlers.
At Bunning’s orders the cavalry men charged into the village, shooting and screaming, and catching the Crow villagers completely by surprise, The troopers first let the Crow horses run free and then they began shooting randomly at anyone who moved. Bloodlust trumped reason and the cavalry men gunned down children by themselves and gunned down some youngsters hugging their mothers who lay on them to protect them. In horror I tried to get some of the Crows into the mud lodges for their protection but the Crow villagers were panicked and confused and so they died not really knowing what was happening. It was all over in less than an hour and Captain Bunning, had his soldiers round up the surviving Crows without their horses and forced them to walk west towards other Crow villages.
I never fired my gun and since I knew the Crow language I tried to save as many as I could. The killing of people not fighting back sickened me and I started having my nightmares about Renegades Rock as soon as I returned to Fort Harris. Seeing what the white soldiers and white settlers had done, I felt ashamed of being white. I quit being an army scout and rode out onto the prairie not knowing what I would do.
As I rode west I passed the Powder River and again below me I saw Renegade’s Rock. The white settlers had already laid out a town that was under construction. Beyond the town’s boundaries I could see neat little farms being divvied up. Looking at the town the nightmare images of my dreams returned.
Several days west of Renegade’s Rock I rode into a Crow Village and spoke to the chieftain. I told them in their language that I would hunt with them and he let me stay.
Whispering Feather was a strong Crow woman who caught my eye. She was still young with no man and she attracted me. I asked the chieftain if I could marry her and he told me yes.
I lived with Whispering Feather in that village with the Crows for seven years and my wife bore me three sons’ Running Elk, Eagle and Hunting Raven. I felt more Crow than white.
As we lived and survived, we heard about Sitting Bull and the great war between the Lakota and the White man. We hated the Lakota and the Cheyenne, so it was good for us if the white men destroyed our enemies.
Jack Falkland also lived in our village. He was a legendary mountain man who had come from Scotland in the thirties and settled into the mountains. He had ridden and hunted with Kit Carson and Jim Bridger and he had gone as far west as California and Oregon. were well-known among both the red man and white man. His exploits
I found out that his first wife and children, all Crows, had been killed at Bunning’s massacre at Renegade’s Rock. Although Falkland lived in the same Crow village as I did, I never told him that I had been a scout with Bunning’s troops.
Falkland was bitter and hated the white men. He had taken a second Crow wife, Warm Wind, who was well-known among the tribesmen as a shamaness with great power. She pushed Falkland for revenge on the whites. From several different Crow villages, Falkland assembled a following of warriors and began harassing any white settlers. Although he lived as a red man he knew about the white man’s love of money and fear for their women. Even though money and wealth meant nothing to him he would swoop down on farms and not kill the farmers but steal whatever he could and take their wives. In bigger villages he often burned churches and any bank that was there. The newspapers began calling him and his band the pirates of the prairie.
Falkland was a huge man with the body and arms of a blacksmith and a huge head and beard of flame red hair. His look made the Crow think he had mystical power. His eyes and speech were like a madman, and he rambled on how the Great Spirit would help him rid the prairie of the white devils. I was so haunted by what had occurred at Renegades Rock that I joined his band. Our village chieftain told me not to go and told me the legend of the Crow shaman who said the whites would someday control everything. In Minnesota I had seen some of the big towns and I knew he was correct but I now considered the Crows my people so I had to do what I could do.
Falkland had assembled almost a hundred warriors and after raiding a farm in the Dakotas he suddenly told me he wanted vengeance for Renegades Rock.
The settlers had built a good-sized town at Renegades Rock and parceled out the land around the village for wheat and corn farming. It had become a bustling town, one of the many that had sprouted up on what had been Indian lands. Alongside the settlement the army had constructed a small fort with maybe twenty cavalrymen. Because of the army encampment the townspeople had s a sense of security beyond what they should have had.
Falkland led our band of over one hundred warriors to a hill on the north side of Renegades Rock. He had told me in English that his plan was to draw the soldiers out of the fort, kill them and then deal with the town. The fort stood on the east side of the settlement. Marcus Dunbar had constructed a good sized town where the Crow Village had been. There was a bank, a hotel, a saloon and a built up downtown with a wooden walkway so the townspeople didn’t have to always struggle with the muddy and dusty streets. Falkland sent a small group of warriors to assault the fort.
There hadn’t been a Crow or other Indian attack at the town in the ten years since Bunning’s massacre. The soldiers were surprised but complacent as ten warriors began circling the small fort. Falkland’s warriors fired flaming arrows into the encampment and set fire to part of the wood walls. Falkland’s initial plan worked like a charm. The commander sent out a small force which chased the attacking warriors directly into a trap set by Falkland. All of the initial troopers were killed easily. The commander could have rounded up the townspeople for safety and stayed inside the fort and sent for help. The commander though was young and inexperienced and instead foolishly sent another troop out against the Crows, I assumed that he thought that our band was small. Falkland’s warriors led them to the water where they became trapped on one side by the Powder River. When the full Crow band attacked, the small force was overwhelmed and all were killed; a smaller occurrence of what would happen later at Little Big Horn.
Falkland’s Crows then swooped into the town of Renegade’s Rock and began rounding up the frightened citizens. He had his warriors gather the townspeople together in the center of the village.
The town, men, women and children, all stood in a crowd in front of the main hotel and across from the saloon. Falkland with his huge body and with his flame red hair stood with his wife facing the townspeople. Falkland held a rifle is his arms. Marcus Dunbar was pushed forward to speak for the town. “What is your name?” Falkland demanded in English.
“I am Marcus Dunbar. I am the duly elected mayor of this city.” Dunbar’s voice was defiant and he had an air of authority from years of being in charge. “I warn you that we are under the protection of the US Army” he told Falkland.
“Now you are a dead man,” Falkland said, and with a swiftness that startled everyone in the crowd, fired his rifle into Dunbars’ face, blowing off the man’s head. The townspeople screamed and wept. Dunbar’s wife fainted. As Dunbar’s lifeless body lay on the street in a pool of blood the Crow warriors cheered. A group of Crows then dragged the commander of the fort, a young lieutenant in his twenties, before Falkland. The lieutenant’s body was shaking and he begged Falkland, “Please don’t kill us. We are just farmers … ”
“What of the Crows you killed?” Falkland demanded.
The lieutenant appeared confused and said nothing. His view was the same as that of the settlers. God had given them the prairie to do with as they pleased. The red men had no claim on these lands. The lieutenant also died quickly as Falkland again fired his rifle into the man’s face, The remaining people of Renegade’s Rock fell on their knees and prayed.
Falkland said some words to one of his warriors who immediately led the remaining men of the town into the woods along the Powder River. Other warriors came to the children and led them away. The frightened women were brought forward in front of Falkland and his Indian wife. Most were weeping. One by one, Falkland’s wife examined each of them carefully as if she were purchasing cattle. A few she gave to the warriors to stand with the captured children, while the rest she pointed to the wooded area where the men had been taken. The women who were chosen for the wooded area pleaded for mercy, but the Indian witch turned away.
Falkland then ordered his warriors to burn the homes of the settlers.
I expected to leave with Falkland and his band and return to Crow territory. But Falkland in his madness had other ideas. He began to rebuild the Crow Village at Renegade’s Rock. I tried reasoning with him “Jack, you have to realize that the white soldiers will be back quickly and be back in force after word of this comes out. We can’t stay here” I told him. However he was a complete madman “This is Crow land given to us by the Great Spirit. We are protected here. He sent some of his warriors back to the villages to get their families.
We settled into the village and lived peacefully for several months. Falkland’s mystique grew among the Crows as we were mysteriously left alone. What we didn’t realize was the army was preoccupied with Sitting Bull, Gall and Crazy Horse and the Lakotas and Cheyenne further north of us. As the fall approached and the prairie began getting colder, we learned of the great Lakota victory at Little Big Horn. The Crows took the news with mixed feelings. There was much jubilation that a force of red men had defeated a white army. The Crows despite trying to live in peace with the White men had grown to hate them as much as any tribe. Still there was disappointment that the victors at Little Big Horn were our traditional enemies the Lakota and the Cheyenne. There was even fear that the Lakota would head south to attack us not realizing how severe the white counterattack would be.
The cavalry began to take vengeance on all the tribes, not just those involve d in the war, and the Crows, living next in line, bore the brunt of their retaliation. We learned quickly that a cavalry troop bigger than Bunning’s force had been sent to clean out the Crows at Renegades Rock and to take vengeance for Falkland’s massacre,
Falkland with his mad look and wild demeanor managed to keep most of his warriors in his village together although some drifted off with their families further west to Crow land. I sent Whispering Feather, together with my three sons to my own Crow village several days west. I stayed with Falkland out of a sense of loyalty. It was better for my family to survive than for all of us to die at Renegades Rock.
As news of the army’s revenge for Little Big Horn reached us, fewer and fewer warriors stayed in Falkland’s village. He still maintained that the Great Spirit would protect us. When we heard that a cavalry troop was less than a day away there were only thirty or so warriors left with Falkland,
We prepared for cavalry onslaught. This time we would not be surprised. However the troop was too large for us and we would be easily overwhelmed. As in the Bunning massacre the cavalry troops charged the village and first freed our horses. They then began firing indiscriminately at the warriors who were fighting back as best they could. This time there were no Crow children to slaughter. I found myself in a one on one combat with an army trooper somewhat away from the main village. He was surprised to find another white man fighting against him. He emptied his carbine and missed me and I confronted him with a Bowie knife and easily killed him. I found myself alone at the village edge. There was no reason to die for Falkland so I ran quickly to the wooded area nearer to Renegades Rock. I stood over the hill looking down at the village. The troopers had rounded up the remaining warriors and had grouped them in the village center. At the commander’s orders, the troopers shot down all the remaining, now unarmed Crows. I shook my head at the cruelty of the white men and continued by stealth moving away and towards the Crow people to the west, It was the last time I would ever be at Renegades Rock.
My nightmares never ended. I was tired of war and though I felt more Crow than white I had to leave the prairie. Fighting my dreams I turned east and wound up in St. Joes. where I’ll probably live out what remaining years I have.