Western Short Story
War Bonnet, For Sale
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Nobody in all of Tremont, Iowa knew how Ronald Ashes Davis, a leftover specialist and collector, came up with the war bonnet, nor where, which might have leveled off the curiosity, once known.

The war bonnet was an Oglala Lakota helmet made of buffalo hide with a pair of buffalo horns attached thereon, and shaggy buffalo fur and a buffalo tail trailing from it. Hunters and Plainsmen identified ermine skins and eagle war feathers hanging from the back and sides, making the piece illustrious and precious even to non-collectors and non-historians. Curiosity was supreme, says it lightly, but value always attracts seekers, hunters, money-handlers, the lowest parts of civilization on the move, especially in newer territories just opening up, trying to stretch more than their grubby hands into the till of the land. Success lies in the hand, not in the odd dreams.

Talk spun around town about where Ashes had been recently, what visits he had made, what were his welcomes like. It was just before the end of the 19th century, 1892 to be exact, Easterners still going west, westerners still piling up, but times and landscapes changing too, every plodding step of the way, rider atop rider, wagon atop wagon, caravan atop caravan

Some folks figured he had swiped it from someone’s barn or off the very mantel in an occasional grand house of houses, or found it in an attic or cellar place while just poking around, but Ashes’ eyes must have lit up at the sight of the war bonnet, the Lakota reputation for fierceness and war tactics not fully dimmed as yet, too many passers=by, on their way out of Boston and Providence and such places still alive to note their infamy in daily talks, historical lessons, or I-saw-this, I-saw-that.

In the Free-Spin Saloon, the lone bistro in Fremont, with a bar floor and an upper floor with a viewing balcony as proper equipment, there was talk of night theft, inducing women to sell “harmless goods” kept by a drunk husband, getting leads from friends and neighbors which local household had at least one interesting piece on their mantle, and mustering up a plan by Ashes to gain ownership, by any measure.

Some remember his acquiring a feather headdress from a drunken Indian away from his village or his wampum on most nights when not disturbed by liquor. Another said he knew the woman who showed Ashes, among other things her dead husband had collected, a Lakota bow and arrow quiver hanging in his special room and weeks later noted it was gone, like it had been shot out of sight. She could not remember showing that room to a anybody else, but there was no way to identify the quiver if found, take it or leave it gone.

Then life got a little rumpled for Ashes Davis: his daughter got twisted up with the wrong guy, right from the first night when he took care of her loneliness and then punched her silly at the end of the night when she asked him what he did for work, shouting, “I don’t answer to nobody.”

It was the end of the relationship but not of her problems, ending up as pregnant and ill at the same time, a new and unnecessary draw on Ashes’ pocketbook, thin as ever, if checked again

As it was, Ashes was driven to gather money to help the situation, so he decided to sell the bonnet; but trouble ensued as soon as he posted signs around town. There were all kinds of reactions to the posted signs, from dozens of sources, not all of them kind and a few of them threatening him. ” Let the dead lie, Indian or not.” “Don’t make money off poor savages.” “You ought to sell your lonely soul.” “Who’s gonna walk around town with that thing on their head?” “It’s almost like getting scalped, so how would you like that?” “What’s a few more pennies gonna do for you?”

“I like my head the way it is, not top-heavy and unbalanced.”

Each response, in any way or fashion, or intent, made him think about not only the sale, as proposed, but his collecting old things touched on the heart of history of the West, in many manners It all made him seek a discussion with Harvey Schmidt, barber-dentist-doctor-confidant about the proposed sale. There was no way he could talk to his daughter, even incidentally, about the sale, could not reveal the need for more money in the coffers.

The lone all-around guy in Fremont, Schmidt said, “Ashes, you have more history collected in your house than I bet are in any museum this side of the Mississippi. It’s priceless, to be exact, and I for one love to spend hours with all of it near at hand, hold it in my hand, know where it’s been. It gives me a look at things I never saw, that I’ll never see again, that helped this nation to grow the way it is. Sometime, down the road, even in the next century, let us hope it’s all still together for dumb ones like me who don’t know what they are looking at every day in our lives out here on the edge.”

Schmidt put down a small tool in his hand when a woman came into his shop with her sobbing son, saying, “Doc, Willy got hit on the face with a rock. Will you please look at him and stop the bleeding? I can’t stop it.”

Then, when the first local half-breed woman, a servant in a rancher’s house, came into the shop, she said, “There is some unrest among the local Oglala Lakota. They think the headpiece must have been worn by Black Elk, a holy man of the tribe. I think this makes a big difference to them, not a glorified warrior chieftain, but a holy man. Perhaps a bigger chunk with them because Black Elk never lost a battle. I’m not sure about this, but I think it’s coming to that. Holy men, medicine men, are a definite breed among them. They are treated differently, spoken to differently.”

It made Ashes think about his intents, his For Sale sign he was about to create. It had to spark interest in even a novice at collecting chunks of local history, and nothing in sight, or around was as old as Indian treasures, pieces of their ancient world and ways, not just raiders and killers that attacked wagon loads of people seeking out plots in the newer territories..

He studied his personal creation of his first For Sale sign or circular that he’d post in dozens of sights in the town and nearby locations.

For Sale, an authentic Oglala Lakota headdress reserved for history, perhaps belonging to Black Elk, Medicine Man Supreme of the Oglala La tribe, or The Sioux or the Choctaw or Chippewa or Cherokee Tribes or even the Anishinaabek people I bet you didn’t know about.

Actually, nobody did know about the Anishinaabek people, or what they had done in their times. Who fought them? Who they fought? Where they lived off the Earth itself and all its pieces? And because of these mere facts, there were no takers, no grabbers of loose history, for none of them could measure the impact of the near-unknown on history itself. All were prepared to let Ronald Ashes Davis’ collection become a standing museum and library of western history, becoming the first time out West when doing nothing did something noble and true.