Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Arizona Tyle, rancher along the Squash River, rode into Fort Sunbury screaming that his wife Olive had been taken by Indians while he was chasing down loose horses up along the river. His two ranch hands had been driving a small herd of cows down the river to meet up with other stock.
“She was only alone for a few hours,” he said to the captain, “Everything’s been quiet for months. No sign of any Indians. I tried to trail them, but when they crossed the river, I lost them. I could be looking for them all day, so I thought I better come in here and get some help.”
Captain Harry Mason saw how distraught Tyle was, and feared for the safety of his wife. He was also worried that the quiet sector he oversaw would be disrupted by a single event. He had no doubt that a major problem could break out at any time, and for any reason. With that state of mind, he decided that a force rushing from the fort would be seen as too heavy an action, and would result in political problems. It all sounded to the captain that the immediate emergency should be placed at first into the hands of one man of trust.
Captain Mason said to his chief scout, Private Bent Red Fox, “You know his place, Private. Go take a look and see what you can find. We’ll catch up to you later on.” He could have choked on his words, knowing they carried little truth in them.
Bent Red Fox, in a quick survey of Tyle’s property not far from the river, found the trail leading away from the ranch to where the raiding party entered the river. He did not waste any time searching for where they came out of the water, but headed immediately for the range of mountains and rolling hills running off to the north. Indian ways were known to him, all Indian ways, including how they thought and planned moves and campaigns, how they would elude pursuing enemies, what false signs they would leave in their wake. Indians had the ability to divert superior forces time after time, for they knew the land, scouted the enemy at all times, and believed in the messages sent to them by great gods of the earth and sky.
In a matter of several hours, working on his special knowledge of Indian traits and tendencies, Private Bent Red Fox, chief scout for Captain Harry Mason’s 5th Brigade of the western frontier, alone on a crest of Tattle Mountain, looked down on an Indian encampment in a sheltered valley and saw the blonde Tyle woman tied to a young sapling at the edge of a copse of trees. He could not believe the Indians were Crows, not this far south out of Montana, even though most of the dress and regalia they wore said they were Crows from Montana. Studying some of the braves, he admitted they looked like Crows, walked like Crows, with that certain pride and disdain they could mount. Some of the braves wore leather leggings and buckskin shirts and some of the women wore deerskin dresses. He saw the fringes on the dresses, and guessed they looked like quills and large elk teeth Crows used to adorn their clothing.
But some of these Indians, these supposed Crows, were not dressed the same way. The differences were too far apart to satisfy a keen eye, and Bent Red Fox had a keen eye. Something was wrong with the scene. Crows, as far back as he knew, were not braggarts though they were proud, and did not enjoy the punishment of any woman who could possibly bring a child to the band, to add to the Nation. But the blonde Tyle woman bound to a tree would get cold and sick before the night ahead of them came to an end.
Making sure there would be no reflection from the looking glass he was about to use, Bent Red Fox focused the glass on the woman. The view proved that she was the wife of the rancher who had ridden into the compound screaming that the Indians, Crows he was sure, had captured his wife and all his horses. Bent Red Fox had seen the woman before, in the fort getting supplies. If he left to get help now, they would be long gone, disappearing into the hills of Nations, before he could get back with help. And the woman might never be found.
It was all up to him, to try to arrange or plan some kind of release for the woman, to help her escape her certain fate. It would be up to his Sioux skills, not his soldier skills; that argument found no contradiction in his mind.
He watered his horse and sat to eat a light meal while his mind kept going over the scene. The view with the glass showed that none of the braves wore paint always worn for rites, raids or war, and in special fashions. Then he noticed that none of shirts on the braves looked very colorful or unique, often true of Crow shirts, finely done and so dazzling in their making. None of the shirts in the encampment looked like they had been made by the Apsaalooke Crows. In fact, he remembered Mandan and Flathead shirts were just like the shirts the braves in the encampment were wearing.
What was afoot, he wondered.
At one end of the encampment he spotted five braves fixing weapons and his eye told him he was looking at a Sioux work party. Many such work parties had he seen as a boy and taken part in as he matured. Clothing on the working braves was Sioux clothing without a doubt.
Out of one tipi came the only brave in the whole encampment who was wearing a war bonnet, a tall, feathered headdress that hung well down his back. “That,” Bent Red Fox said, “is the chief of this band of Indians.”
Then he realized he was looking at a composite war party of the famous Crow chieftain, Flying Bear, the escaped killer of a soldier general a full year earlier in a Plains encounter. In succeeding raids after his escape from an Army fort prison, Flying Bear had freed over 100 captured Indians and brought them under his command. They waged war on all whites they came in contact with and the growing band had been on the loose for almost six full moons, raising havoc in many hit and run raids looking for horses, ammunition and other supplies.
Flying Bear, he was convinced, would not let the captured woman bring a child to the Nation. He would let her suffer like so many Indian maidens and squaws had suffered at the hands of white men. But it was not right that a woman should not have a child in her life, and this rancher Tyle’s wife, he figured, had no children. Bent Red Fox believed with a deep conviction that all women should have a chance at bearing children.
His also knew that neither bravery nor stupidity would get freedom for the woman. The Indians down below were courageous to a man, and would not be afraid of any brave or stupid act he alone could bring against them. He would have to go to the heart of their beliefs to gain her freedom. He had to trick them.
As he finished his light meal of jerky, he counted his options and his supplies. Sixty rounds of ammunition for rifle and sidearm were in his pack, along with a flask of gunpowder, and two sticks of dynamite he had found at an abandoned mining site during this search, with fuses for exploding them. The ammunition would inflict little damage on the Indians before he’d be killed. So they were discounted. Only the dynamite looked to be a possibility, but would have to be accompanied by a dent in Indian beliefs and customs.
He would have to find a way to penetrate their thinking, to divert their obvious aims.
Looking down at the encampment again, the Sioux in him told him he was looking at the preparations for a ritual of some sort. Flying Bear was seated on a stump with two maidens on each side. Fire had been brought to place in front of him and the fire was fed by one of the maidens with light sticks or twigs every few minutes to keep bright the orange-red flames.
The ritual was underway.
With a dramatic motion, Flying Bear had the woman brought before him and staked to the ground. Then began a ritual of asking for a sign from on high about how the woman should be disposed of. Flying Bear stood over her, his right arm pointing down at her, his left arm raised to the heavens, imploring that a sign be sent to him. With his arms flapping like a wounded bird, Flying Bear circled around the woman seven times, asking for seven words to direct him. Bent Red Fox knew the ceremony, had learned it from his mother who had escaped such a predicament in her younger life.
He wanted that woman to have a child of her own, as his mother had.
Flying Bear, he believed, would wait for a sign.
Bent Red Fox gathered enough dry brush to form an arrow pointing down to earth and arranged it all on the side of the hill. At the point of the arrow he placed the dynamite so that its fuse would be exposed to the flames when the brush was ignited. Then he ignited the collection of dry twigs and brush.
The pile ignited slowly, at both ends and began to burn down to the point. There was a lot of activity in the encampment and Flying Bear, pointing up at the arrowed flames, grabbed a bow and an arrow from a brave and pointed down at the woman. All his actions said he was going to kill her with an arrow.
He had drawn the arrow back upon its leather cord and was apparently about to shoot the arrow into the woman, as the gods had directed him from high above, when the dynamite went off. The explosion rocked the mountain, sounding as if a terrible voice was upset with the entire world beneath it.
Flying Bear and all his cohorts broke camp in a hurry and left the area, with the woman still staked to the ground, left to die in any way the gods would choose, rather than the way an Indian had interpreted a sign.
The whole encampment of Indians was gone about two hours when Bent Red Fox, halfway down the hill, noticed a peccary nosing about the area. He shot it with a single round from his rifle. For at least an hour he watched to see if there was anybody lingering from the departed encampment. When there was no other movement or sign of any Indian from Flying Bear’s followers he, in short order, freed the woman from the stakes and set off for the fort with her on the saddle behind him. Her arms were wrapped around his waist and lightly tied in place so she would not fall off the saddle. She was very weak, made no talk, but managed a sigh now and then.
When the pair rode into the fort, a great welcome and acclaim arose for them, from the other Indian scouts, from all the troops, from the commanding officer who saluted the returning scout, and from the husband of the rescued woman who helped her down from the saddle when her hands were loosened. The grateful husband thanked Bent Red Fox and then hugged his wife again.
Bent Red Fox said, “Do you and your wife have children?” He wanted to assure his stance in the matter.
“No,” the husband said, “but I don’t think we’ll have to wait too long, though, with many thanks to you.”
“I am glad for you and your wife,” Bent Red Fox said as he shook hands with the man again and nodded at the man’s wife. “It is good for woman to have children. They carry life to a new place.”