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By Janelle Taylor
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2003 Janelle Taylor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWith his dark eyes narrowed, War Eagle lowered the field glasses his older brother's wife had given him many seasons past during other difficult and dangerous times. He studied the troubling scene that was taking place not far beyond his concealed position near his best friends: Swift Otter, River's Edge, Bent Bow, and Broken Lance, who was also the son of his father's sister. While the rest of their hunting party was busy elsewhere, they had been scouting the buffalo herd's size and movements when he sighted the grave intrusion. They had hidden their horses behind a hill, climbed it, and lain on their stomachs, checking out the situation. He glanced to his right, then to his left, all faces turned toward him with expectant expressions, for he was their chief's son, their shaman's grandson, and today's leader.
He took in a deep breath and slowly released it. He almost wished this awesome decision would not be thrust upon him, but there was only one path he could ride. He whispered, "We must gather the other hunters and attack, my friends. We cannot allow them and their weapons to reach the other soldiers. If they do, their numbers and powers will soon be too large for us to defeat."
"What of the bluecoats' treaty with the Oglalas and others?"
For a brief time, War Eagle thought about the deceitful Long Meadows Treaty that had been forced upon the Indians-ally and enemy tribes alike-near Fort Laramie in what the white man called 1851. "If the bluecoat leaders truly wanted peace with us, Broken Lance, they would not be sending more soldiers and big thundersticks into our lands. Do not forget what my second brother learned when he last rode to the forts called Laramie and Kearny. Cloud Chaser was told they had sent for their great war chief named Harney to come and punish all Lakotas for the death of Grattan and his bluecoats and for the daring raids carried out by Spotted Tail and Little Thunder. Did we not strike our winter camp early and come to the grasslands to be ready to hunt the buffalo as soon as the great herds gathered? We hurry to hunt and prepare our meat and hides so we can return to the sacred Black Hills to ready ourselves to meet Harney's challenge, for a bloody conflict is stalking us. Many soldiers come from far away and send powerful thundersticks to destroy us and steal our lands. Already their forts almost surround our territory. They seek to slay us as Grattan tried to do at the camps of our Brule brothers Little Thunder and Spotted Tail before the last hot season was gone."
"Should we ride to camp to ask our council if we can attack them?"
War Eagle knew the main camp was nearly a day's ride away on the White River near the Badlands, which would make another day's ride back to the soldiers' position. He looked at the son of their war chief, Blue Owl, and explained his reasoning. "If we did so, Bent Bow, they would be out of our reach before we returned or others could have joined them, and we would be forced to battle them on another sun when their number might be larger than ours." Only a few more hunts, and the drying and storing of the meat remained to be done before their return to the sacred hills to ready themselves to face an unknown destiny, but trouble had come before the completion of their seasonal tasks. "I make this choice for the safety and survival of our people and allies. If it is wrong, I will offer myself up to be punished for it, even at the risk of banishment or death. The bluecoats will be slain fast and with mercy; we do not seek to torture them for the false words and bad actions of their leaders."
He took another breath. "A white woman rides with them," he said. "She must not be harmed, for that is not our way; I will take her captive. Do you agree with me, my friends?"
The warriors nodded. The youngest son of Chief Rising Bear of the Red Shield Oglalas told them, "We must set a cunning trap, my friends, and destroy this dark threat before it can join with other evil forces and destroy us. Come, let us gather the others and prepare to attack, for our hunting party must become a war party to save our lands and people."
War Eagle observed the steady approach of the unsuspecting enemy; he had guessed their path of travel. The men and wagons would pass along the flat area between the grassy hills behind which his large band was scattered out and concealed. When their targets reached an entrapping point, the attack began. Without delay or error, the warriors swarmed from hiding and swooped down, sending forth a flight of arrows. To catch the soldiers by stunning surprise, no whoops were shouted to alert them to their imminent peril. Arrows thudded into bodies; men fell from their saddles. Only a few of the blue-clad foes were able to seize their weapons and fire them, their hasty and desperate shots missing their attackers. Two who whirled their mounts and tried to flee found it impossible and were quickly slain. When three soldiers attempted to charge the braves blocking the terrain ahead, they were met head-on by warriors who could shoot multiple arrows before they could get off a single blast.
War Eagle had ridden straight for the group's leader, closing the distance between them fast. The officer no doubt realized he was in command of the assault, and he accepted the unspoken challenge. Lacking time to pull a long thunderstick from its leather pouch and prepare to discharge it, the captain withdrew a saber, waved the shiny blade above his head, and shouted profanities. War Eagle ignored the man's courage as he hocked and released two arrows with amazing speed and accuracy. He saw the officer's chest accept the sharp tips, the man's shoulders jerk in pain, and his body give way to death, slumping forward and then plunging to the ground. Without hesitation, War Eagle galloped toward his next unfortunate enemy; he could not give a foe-however worthy-a fighting chance at survival....
Caroline Sims watched the one-sided battle in rising fear as soldiers clashed with bronze-bodied men clad in loincloths and moccasins, their black hair whipped about in the wind. It was as if they were demons who had been spewed forth without warning from the bowels of the earth, or perhaps from hell itself. Her ears were filled with mingled sounds of shouts and curses, gunfire, the whinnying of startled horses and the thundering of unshod hooves and iron shoes. She saw dust and broken grass flung wildly into the air, and feather-tipped shafts swishing lethally across its unseen currents. When she turned westward on the hard seat, the sun-two hours past noon-almost blinded her and made her squint as she tried to take in the terrifying scene. Tension added to the sweltering heat; her mouth and throat felt dry, but that wasn't the reason she did not faint or scream in terror. It seemed that she was trapped in a nightmare and could not move.
The driver of her wagon had been killed and had fallen to the ground shortly before the team halted its movement. As her anxious gaze darted in all directions, she realized there was no place to flee and hide, as Indians surrounded her. There was no weapon within her reach. Even if a rifle had been nearby, no doubt she would be slain before she could ready it to fire, and attempting to do so might imperil her still more. The harness ribbons had fallen to the ground between the wagon and the last two mules, so she could not seize them and send the team into a swift run from danger. In fact, she was fortunate the animals had not bolted and possibly crashed the wagon and injured or killed her.
Caroline recalled a trapper at the fort saying that Indians respected "grit and good sense," so it was best if she faced her fate revealing those traits, and maybe doing so would earn her her survival, though she doubted it. She gripped her deceased parents' Bible, which she had been holding and pretending to read during the long journey, a trick to remind the lonely and lusty soldiers that she was a lady and to imply that God would punish them if they accosted her in a crude or physical manner. As her tension increased and the early August sunshine beamed on her with unmerciful blazing rays, she climbed down from the wooden seat and leaned against the covered wagon to find shade and a cooler temperature. She ordered herself not to panic and to keep her head clear for what lay ahead. God, help me, for I do not know what to do or how to behave under these grim circumstances.
War Eagle guided his horse to where the young woman was standing near one of the three wagons. He was amazed she was not yelling or crying. She made no attempt to flee or to use a weapon against him or to run at him with balled fists to strike him. She clutched to her heart what he knew, from his half-white brother, to be a Bible. Her head was lowered and her eyes were closed as he heard her softly murmuring a prayer. No doubt she had heard his approach, but his presence did not halt her action. He could not see her face and expression, as the wide band of her head cover and her lower chin prevented it. He dismounted and stood before her, admiring the hair, yellow like the sun, which flowed over her shoulders. Her stance was straight; the top of her head came to his chin. Surely she was no heavier than a small doe. He noticed the way her chest rose and fell with her rapid breaths, exposing her fear, though blended with courage. Since he began each day and event with prayer, he did not intrude on her communion with her Creator. He always asked the Great Spirit for guidance and protection in all things and his existence revolved around his beliefs. He assumed it was the same for her, so he waited for her to finish.
Caroline was aware that someone was standing before her. She was confused by his silence and dreaded a confrontation. She was afraid that if she looked up at him, she would be staring into the face of the devil or pure evil. She had left Fort Pierre almost six days ago, so she was certain no rescue party was approaching. She had been told they were to cross the White River and grasslands, skirt west of the Sand Hills, reach the North Platte River Road, and travel southeast to Fort Kearny where her brother had been reassigned during her journey from the South to the Nebraska Territory.
Now, she would never see David again; and her death, added to those of their parents, would pain him deeply and he would blame himself for sending for her. What if, the horrible thought entered her mind, David's troop also had been ambushed and slain, perhaps by this same ferocious band? What if her beloved brother was ...
No, she must not think such heartrending thoughts! Without lifting her head, she opened her eyes and saw feet clad in moccasins, long and firm legs, a loincloth, dark skin at the hips, strong-looking hands resting at his upper thighs, and a narrow waist where a beaded belt held a pouch and a knife in a sheath near a flat stomach.
Although he was not holding a weapon, her heart pounded and she assumed death was imminent. She swallowed with difficulty and forced out the words, "I am ready to die now; I have made my peace with God."
When the man did not speak or move, she slowly lifted her gaze. It traveled up a bare chest with two scars, passed muscular arms and broad shoulders, and halted on his face to find him staring at her with eyes so dark brown they appeared almost black like his long hair, or as ebony as the two slashes painted across his cheekbones. She was astonished by two things: his alert gaze-though unreadable-was not cold and hard, and he was handsome, very handsome. Unable to help herself, she matched his stare.
When Caroline realized her breathing had increased its pace, her cheeks felt hot and itchy. She looked away and saw Indians recovering their arrows and gathering soldiers' bodies and horses. She also noticed that none of the warriors were scalping, robbing, or mutilating their victims. The man near her made no attempt to attack or kill her, but she moistened her lips and-to learn her fate-asked, "Why do you hesitate? I am unarmed and there is no escape. Slay me if that is the evil you have come to do."
War Eagle noted that her eyes were as blue as the sky, large and clear, and displaying a mixture of emotions. Her lips were the color of pale sunset; her skin, not as white as the clouds. Wind played with the free portions of her hair, blowing it across her beautiful face, then away from it again. Her hair was as long as his sister's, but had a rolling shape like the grasslands surrounding them, even curly in some places like the buffalo's cape. Oddly, he yearned to reach out his hand and feel it, but knew that would frighten her even more than she already was, and it was a foolish yearning. He saw the glow on her cheeks, signs of rapid breathing, and her trembling, yet she did not beg for her life or curse him.
"Whites bring evil to our land. We must defeat them before they destroy us. Wanbli no slay enemy women and children. You no die; you come to my camp."
As she listened, Caroline's gaze widened. "You speak my language?"
To prepare for the dark times ahead, he had learned and practiced English with his first brother's wife since their joining during the land's rebirth time four circles of the seasons ago. Dewdrops had learned it from a trapper who lived with her Brule band, and she had used it to trick and to spy on the whites while riding at Wind Dancer's side against their foes. He had learned more from his second brother, who had been taught by his captive white mother and by the white couple who had stolen and raised him from eleven winters old until the last hot season when Cloud Chaser returned to them and earned his way back into their lives and band. "I speak white man's tongue little" he told her. "It wise to know enemy's ways and words."
"But I'm not your enemy, and I didn't come here to bring evil."
"You white-skin; white-skins, enemies; make war on us."
Caroline grasped his matter-of-fact tone and expression. Since her parents' tragic deaths in Georgia last year, she had learned-sometimes with reluctance and at the hand of a cruel fate-how to take care of herself in difficult circumstances. She knew she must use all of her skills, strength, intelligence, and courage to survive. After considering his words, she replied in a gentle tone, "But I don't even know you, and you don't know me. Why do you want to kill an innocent stranger who has not done you any harm? Is ... Wanbli your name?"
He nodded. "It mean War Eagle. Son of Rising Bear, chief of Red Shields. We Oglala. Lakota. Dakota. What white-skins call Teton Sioux."
Excerpted from LAKOTA FLOWER by Janelle Taylor Copyright © 2003 by Janelle Taylor
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