Western Short Story
Bloody Knife moved silently through the forest, carefully avoiding anything lying on the ground that might make a sound. He had left his army issue boots with his horse. He wore moccasins, both for their comfort and adaptation for silent movement. He still wore his government-issued blue jacket and trousers with their brass buttons and yellow stripes and emblems.
His long, straight, black hair extended from beneath his slouch hat down past his shoulders. That, plus his breechcloth and brass tacks decorating his rifle stock, showed him to be an army scout, not just another trooper.
Bloody Knife was proud of his Arikara heritage and preferred not to think about the half Sioux blood that flowed through his body. The Sioux were his enemy, especially the chief named Gall. He hoped one day to kill Gall in revenge for the deaths of his own two brothers.
Today, he was hunting game for the U. S. Army. A patrol of twelve troopers and a Lieutenant from Company G, 7th Cavalry, had been sent into the Black Hills on a scouting mission by Colonel Custer. Two of the soldiers were accompanying him on the hunt. They were so inept at moving through the forest that Bloody Knife had told them to stay put while he chased game toward them. That was over an hour ago.
He planned to kill a deer and have them carry it back to camp. Bloody Knife knew that the bluecoats were terrible shots and would probably shoot him by accident if he chased a deer past them. He also figured that if he did not wear the blue jacket, they would shoot him as a hostile. Most of the soldiers at Fort Lincoln, home of the 7th Cavalry, could not tell one Indian from another and treated them all as hostiles.
It was midmorning when Bloody Knife considered turning back to where he had left his two companions. He stood at the edge of a meadow and scanned the forest on the other side. He had a tingling sensation along the back of his neck and stayed very still.
Three deer suddenly rushed out of the trees into the open just as a rifle shot sounded. One of them fell to the ground, and five warriors came running out of the forest toward it. There were two Cheyenne and three Lakota Sioux in the hunting party.
One of the Sioux was behind the other four. He raised his rifle as if to shoot at the two surviving deer. When he fired, he hit one of the Cheyenne in the middle of his back, killing him instantly.
When they realized what had happened, the others stopped and turned to face the shooter. The second Cheyenne raised his bow with a knocked arrow as if to shoot the killer. Before he could stretch the bowstring, one of the other Lakota hit him on the side of his head with a gunstock.
Bloody Knife watched from his place of concealment as the dead Cheyenne was stripped of his weapons. Then he was scalped and tossed aside. The unconscious warrior was spread-eagled on the ground and tied to four stakes driven deeply into the soil. They slapped him awake and demonstrated what they planned on doing by running a scalping knife over his bare skin.
The Cheyenne spat in the face of the Sioux wielding the knife. Bloody Knife figured he was trying to anger the Sioux to gain a quick death. Being skinned alive was not a very pleasant way to die.
He had seen men tortured in this manner before, and one time the victim had lasted for almost two hours. He found it to be a disgusting practice and considered killing one or two of the Sioux to put an end to it. He did hate the Sioux, but at the same time, he had no love for the Cheyenne. These thoughts were going through his mind as he slowly raised his Sharps and cocked its hammer.
He held his fire when the Sioux stopped chiding their prisoner and looked toward the forest where the deer had disappeared. A lone figure had walked out of the trees into the open. He had a headdress made up of many raven feathers and approached the center of the meadow as the Sioux stood still, watching.
When he reached the center, the newcomer stopped and forcefully shoved a war lance into the ground. There was a long sash attached to it and tied to his waist. He walked to a point about six feet from the lance, stretching the sash to its limit. Then he took out a tomahawk and a knife and shouted insults at the three Sioux.
Bloody Knife knew about the caste of warriors known as Cheyenne Dog Soldiers but had never seen one in a fight. The three Sioux seemed to be confused about what to do. They spoke among themselves for a moment. One of them suddenly cut the throat of their captive, and the other two rushed toward the dog soldier. As they ran, the one who had killed the helpless Cheyenne raised his rifle to fire at the dog soldier.
Without thinking, Bloody Knife fired his Sharps rifle, blowing a large hole through the chest of the third Sioux before he could shoot at the dog soldier. The other two were intent upon their attack and did not immediately realize that the shot had not come from behind. They stopped just before coming into reach of the Cheyenne. They were confused. The man was unwounded.
Looking back, they saw their friend lying on the ground and noticed Bloody Knife standing at the edge of the meadow with a rifle pointed in their direction. When he motioned toward the Cheyenne with the barrel, they realized their best chance of survival was to kill him and escape into the woods.
They turned back toward the dog soldier, but the distraction proved to be fatal for one of them. He never saw the tomahawk coming. It buried itself deep into his chest, taking a slice out of his heart. Falling to the ground, the critically injured warrior watched his friend rush into the circle of death defined by the Cheyenne dog soldier. As his world went dark, he knew he would not leave this world alone.
The fight was a short one. The onrushing Sioux cursed himself for not merely standing back and killing this Cheyenne with his rifle from a distance. Now he had to do it with tomahawk and knife. Rushing into the circle, the Sioux threw his tomahawk at the Cheyenne. He figured on making the dog soldier dodge the throw, allowing him to either grab the lance or catch him off balance.
The Cheyenne simply knocked the tomahawk aside with a sweep of his knife. Then he quickly reversed the motion to thrust it into the neck of his opponent.
Bending over, he deftly scalped the Sioux. Then he retrieved his lance and wrapped the sash back around his waist. Carrying the lance in one hand and the dripping scalp in his other, he left the circle. As he walked toward the dead Cheyenne warriors, he paused briefly to take the other Sioux scalp. He ignored the Sioux shot by Bloody Knife as he cut the bonds on the spread-eagled warrior. When he stood and whistled, a spotted pony came out of the forest and trotted over to him. He placed the two bodies on the pony, and only then did he acknowledge the presence of Bloody Knife, who had not moved from his position.
The Cheyenne dog soldier raised his hand in greeting and slightly nodded his head before returning to the forest. Bloody Knife faded back into the woods himself. He figured that other Sioux would come looking for the three dead ones. He did not want to get into the middle of an intertribal feud. He tried to conceal any sign of his presence and started back toward the two troopers. Hopefully, they had stayed out of trouble.
An hour later, he was within sight of the creek where he had left the troopers. They were not there. Before he could start searching the area, he heard some shouting from a short distance upstream. It sounded like a large group of men. Hurrying toward the sound, he quickly came upon the two troopers and three civilians. They were all splashing around in the water and shouting with glee.
When one of them noticed Bloody Knife standing at the edge of the water staring at them, he stopped moving and shouted, “Injun.”
The men started running toward the creek bank and their rifles when one of the troopers yelled, “That there is Bloody Knife. He’s a scout travelin’ with us.”
The men stopped their rush but continued a slow movement toward the bank.
Meanwhile, Bloody Knife moved closer and settled down beside their guns. The civilians stopped their movement and appeared to be nervous. The two troopers showed no concern as they came out of the water and sat beside him. When they showed Bloody Knife some small gold nuggets, he slapped their hands away and said, “Yellow metal make white man crazy. Sioux all through the Black Hills and maybe hear your shouting. Much danger here.”
“If’n we stay here and pan these waters for a few days, we’ll be rich and can tell Custer to take a hike.”
“We go back to patrol and take these men with us. They no belong here, and Sioux will kill them.”
The three civilians stood at the edge of the water, and they all shook their heads simultaneously. “We ain’t goin’ nowhere, Injun. We just struck it rich and will be stayin’ here. If’n you try to move us, we’ll hafta kill you.”
Bloody Knife shifted his weight and rested his hand on his tomahawk. He looked toward the two troopers for support and saw that one of them was holding a revolver. It was pointed at him.
“Bloody Knife, I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if you don’t leave us be. We see a chance here to be rich, and we aim to take it. I don’t want your blood on my hands, so just go away and don’t come back.”
Bloody Knife stood and said, “What about Lieutenant? “
“If’n the other fellas follow the Lieutenant up here and see all this gold, they’ll join us and probably shoot him.”
Since there was no reasoning with these men, Bloody Knife decided to let the Lieutenant handle the problem. Besides, the Sioux might take care of these fellas before he even gets back to the camp.
Turning his back on the men, Bloody Knife walked away from the water. He had only taken a few steps when he heard the cocking of a rifle hammer followed by a whistling sound and a scream.
One of the civilians was about to shoot him in the back. An arrow in the belly stopped him. Believing the Sioux might be attacking and not wanting to take cover with the white men, Bloody Knife hurried into the trees and underbrush. He moved fast and was quickly several hundred yards from the creek.
He lay still for a few minutes, and once he ascertained that no one was close by, he silently moved in an arc to come in behind whoever had fired the arrow.
Meanwhile, the wounded prospector was pulled from the water and dragged up onto the bank by his friends. The two troopers searched for whoever fired the arrow. When they returned to the others, the wounded man lay on the ground next to a small fire clutching his stomach and moaning. The other two were by the creek panning for gold.
Mulvany and Schmidt had searched the area and found no sign of whoever shot the arrow. It made them nervous. They were having second thoughts about staying with these prospectors, especially when they showed no interest in helping their wounded friend.
Schmidt knelt by the wounded man and said, “That arrow has to come out right away. It is in too deep to cut it out. I think a quick jerk, and it will come back out the way it went in.”
“Did you ever treat an arrow wound before this?” Mulvany asked.
“No, but it makes sense to me,” he replied. Then he went on to say, “Put your knife blade in the fire and get it glowing red so I can cauterize the wound after I pull the arrow out.”
The wounded man groaned and muttered, “Just get it the hell out of me. I can’t take the pain.”
Before another word was said, Schmidt gripped the arrow shaft and jerked it out of the wound. It came out without an issue but left the head inside his body.
“I think you done it wrong,” Mulvany said.
“Maybe so, but I can see part of the head just inside the wound,” Schmidt said.
Before he finished speaking, Schmidt had his knife out and enlarged the wound far enough to use two fingers and grab the head, pulling it out of the man’s body. Then he seared the wound shut with the hot knife from the fire.
The other two prospectors had ignored them, even when the wounded man screamed and passed out during the operation. They were finding too much gold in their pans, and when one of them, the man named Carl Sommers, found three large nuggets in his pan, he yelled louder than Jolson, the wounded man.
Mulvany left Schmidt to his doctoring and ran over to the creek. He took Jolson’s pan and scooped up some gravel. “You fellas ain’t takin’ all the gold for yourselves. I aim t’get my share too,” he said while swirling the stones and sand in the pan.
Schmidt quickly pressed an old cloth against the cauterized wound and sat Jolson’s hand on it. Then he went to the creek with a tin plate to do some panning for gold himself. They all ignored Olson and focused on the gold they were washing out of the creek’s sand and gravel.
Olson finally opened his eyes just in time to see a painted face looking down at him. Before he could moan or even move his hand, a Sioux cut his throat, and he lay still. The warrior who had cut his throat stood and motioned toward the men panning for gold. Seven others silently came out of the forest, and they all moved toward the creek.
Schmidt noticed some movement out of the corner of his eye and turned toward the approaching Sioux. He dropped his tin plate and reached for the revolver at his waist. As his hand touched the butt, two arrows pierced his chest, and he went down with a yell and a loud splash.
Mulvany dropped his pan and started running across the creek. The other two men had kept their rifles close by but had no chance of reaching them. One of the Sioux knocked Sommers unconscious with a war club. At the same time, a tomahawk blow from another warrior killed the other man.
Meanwhile, Mulvany almost got across the creek before being shot in the back with an arrow. The water was deep enough for him to float away, severely injured. The Sioux who had shot him figured he’d find the body later and wanted to join in the fun with their captive.
The Sioux tied Sommers to four stakes in the ground while they went through the packs on the four mules and two army horses they found hobbled a short distance upstream. After taking what little they found to be of any value, they sat around Somers listening to him scream while a small fire burned on his abdomen.
When the screaming became a whimper, one of the Sioux decided to find the soldier who had floated downstream. He wanted the scalp, and if the man were still alive, he’d bring him back to lie by his friend.
Earlier, Bloody Knife had only gone a short distance before stopping and circling back to watch the white men make fools out of themselves. He was also interested in the person who fired the arrow. It was most likely a Sioux scout who even now was reporting their presence in the Black Hills.
If nothing happened by nightfall, he would drive off their horses and mules before going back and reporting to the Lieutenant. That way, the patrol could come up and take them all back to Fort Lincoln as prisoners.
As he watched the men, Bloody Knife began to feel uneasy. Someone must be nearby. He held his rifle where he could aim and instantly fire as he visually searched his surroundings. There was no sign of anyone, and the forest was quiet, except for the occasional shout from the white men as they found gold nuggets.
Bloody Knife decided to scout toward the horses and mules and moved in that direction when a small pebble hit him in the back of the neck. He quickly turned, raising his rifle to his shoulder. He saw a Cheyenne warrior with a headdress of raven feathers standing still with his hands in the air.
It was the dog soldier he had helped that morning. Lowering his rifle, he quietly walked and greeted him with a sign of peace. Then he asked, “Why does a dog soldier want to meet with me?”
“Army scout, I bring you a warning. Lakota have heard these foolish men who hunt the yellow metal. They come to kill them. Others also follow your tracks from the morning when you helped me. If you stay here, you will die.”
“I am called Bloody Knife by the soldiers. I am an Arikara warrior and do not fear the Sioux. Many of them are my blood enemies.”
“You are the one who Chief Gall has sworn to kill. The one who shares the blood of the Lakota.”
“Yes, I am him.”
“I am Laughing Wolf, and the Cheyenne sometimes ride with the Sioux and sometimes fight them. While the white eyes are here, we ride with the Sioux.”
“What happened this morning? I saw Sioux kill Cheyenne.”
“Old memories do not always leave us. Two Cheyenne were in the Sacred Hills to offer gifts to the Great Spirit. I was following them as a hidden protector. They were only armed with hunting bows and did not expect trouble since we are allied with the Sioux.”
“They met with a large hunting party and were received as friends. They shared tobacco and talked of past feats. When they bragged of how the Cheyenne had stolen most of the Sioux horse herd some years ago, the Sioux must have become angry.”
They suggested a smaller party might have more success and sent three of their warriors with the two Cheyenne on a separate hunt. At the first opportunity, they killed them, and I had to avenge their deaths.”
“Now the main party follows your trail here. But a smaller group arrives first.”
Bloody Knife had stood silently while Laughing Wolf spoke. After he finished, Bloody Knife said, “These white eyes are fools and will not stop hunting the yellow metal. One tried to kill me as I left them.”
“I stopped him,” was Laughing Wolf’s reply.
“That made us even, yet you still warn me about these Sioux parties,” Bloody Knife said.
“These Sioux are like snakes. They killed my friends like cowards, and I must punish them. You helped me, and they want to kill you as well. I can hurt them by helping you escape.”
The two men moved farther away from the creek to where Laughing Wolf’s pony waited beside Bloody Knife’s horse. As they led the animals away, they heard screaming from the prospectors.
“The smaller war party is killing the white eyes,” Laughing Wolf said.
“If we go downstream for about a mile, there is a place where we can lose anyone who might be following us,” Bloody Knife said.
“I cannot kill the leader if they do not follow my trail,” Laughing Wolf said, pulling a Sharps Rifle from beneath a blanket roll.
The two men rode to a spot along the creek, where they entered the water and proceeded downstream. Before getting very far, they came upon Mulvany’s body wedged among some rocks. They stopped beside it for a minute. Bloody Knife dismounted to take a closer look at the body while Laughing Wolf continued moving downstream.
The man’s Colt pistol was still in its holster. Bloody Knife took it and ejected the wet cartridges. He started replacing them with dry ones when a Sioux rushed at him, swinging a tomahawk. He slapped the lock mechanism shut and rolled the cylinder on his sleeve before cocking the hammer and firing a .45 slug into the chest of the oncoming warrior.
Sticking the revolver into his belt, he took out his knife. He deftly removed the man’s scalp before jumping onto the back of his horse and following Laughing Wolf downstream.
“Now we have two Sioux war parties to follow us,” Laughing Wolf said when he reached his side.
Bloody Knife simply shrugged and said, “I now have two pistols to use if they catch us.”
Leaving the creek first, Bloody Knife followed a rocky trail that led up into some higher ground covered with scattered boulders. Laughing Wolf went farther downstream and left the water where a massive rock formation reached into the water. There was no sign of his passage as he followed a different trail into the same high ground as Bloody Knife.
It was late in the afternoon, and night was only a few hours away when a large group of Sioux came splashing down the creek. They quickly spotted Bloody Knife’s tracks and saw that he was less than an hour ahead of them.
There were eighteen warriors in the combined war parties. The two groups had united, and they all wanted the same man. Without a word, they silently left the water and followed the trail taken by Bloody Knife. They were soon moving single file among the boulders, ascending a long hill. The track was a bottleneck with no smaller paths providing an alternate route.
The men started getting uneasy. They saw how constricted the trail had become and noticed several ambush sites in the rocks on the higher land ahead and to the sides. The leader signaled to go faster when a shot rang out, knocking him off his pony. A second shot killed the warrior immediately behind him.
The Sioux started to dismount and go for cover when a volley of shots rang out from a high point a short distance ahead. The shots were coming fast and furious, indicating a large group of men must be lying in ambush. Luckily, they had opened fire too soon, giving the war party a chance to retreat before being wiped out.
Their medicine was bad, and they were in danger of being wiped out. The Sioux turned and fled back down the trail. They would have to find another way to catch the man who had killed several of their people.
A short time after the Sioux had fled down the trail, Laughing Wolf arrived at the ambush site, where he found Bloody Knife waiting. As he rode up to him, Bloody Knife said, “I like two pistols. Make me sound like whole company of long knives.”
Laughing Wolf just grunted and dismounted. “I will take these scalps to the families of Slow Bull and Bright Owl. Once the sadness has passed, they will be pleased to know I avenged their deaths.
The two men clasped arms, and Laughing Wolf said, “If we meet in battle, I will show you no mercy, and if I am the victor, you will keep your scalp.”
Bloody Knife responded by saying, “I will take no pleasure in having to take your life. I will not take your scalp, and you will keep your headdress.”
Bloody Knife rode through the boulder field and followed the trail to the north across the high ground well into the night. The last he saw of Laughing Wolf, he was riding slowly toward the southeast.
He made a cold camp without a fire in case any Sioux were in the area. Bloody Knife awoke when the sky brightened in the east and got an early start. He figured he had a few miles to cover before meeting up with the Lieutenant and his patrol. They had agreed on a rendezvous site where the men would be camping. The Lieutenant expected him to be there with a deer or two when the patrol arrived. Then they would travel toward the northeast from that location.
Bloody Knife guessed about where the patrol should be along their route and headed in that direction. They had been restricted to the northeast corner of the Black Hills and had completed their orders. They had not found any prospectors in violation of the treaty. It was time to return to Fort Lincoln.
Bloody Knife reached a point along their expected route just beyond the edge of the Black Hills and waited for them. He had shot an antelope along the way and had it hanging in a tree by a small spring. It would make a good campsite for the night.
The patrol arrived in the late afternoon. Several Sioux were watching their movement as the soldiers left their holy ground. They had agreed to allow uniformed soldiers to patrol parts of the Black Hills, so there was no fighting. Their open presence was just a warning for the army to honor the treaty.
Bloody Knife reported to the Lieutenant and told him what had happened to Mulvany and Schmidt. He left out any reference to Laughing Wolf but did include the three prospectors. He said they had all died for fool’s gold. He showed him a few pieces he had picked up in the boulder field where he and Laughing Wolf had stopped the Sioux war party.
The Lieutenant shook his head in frustration and thanked Bloody Knife for the antelope, which two of the men skinned and cut into pieces for a hearty supper. The next day they’d return to the fort, and he’d report to Custer that prospectors are sneaking into the Black Hills.