A western saga of honor amid the nineteenth-century Indian wars from the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
“I wished I was back in Texas and had never left there to end up scouting in such godforsaken country for an army dressed in blue.” Such are the sentiments of John Singleterry as this gripping tale begins in the snowy wilderness. Singleterry and his partner, Peter Dunreath, are sent to scout ahead of their battalion when they’re taken captive by two fighters from the Cheyenne, a tribe not known for taking prisoners.
One fighter is an old medicine woman, suspicious and eager to kill, while the other, a beautiful mixed-race girl named Marisa, wants to wait. The women tell the scouts about their tribe’s decimation during its forced relocation, and of multiple promises that have been broken—stories that force Singleterry to face difficult questions of love and desertion.
Written by an acclaimed chronicler of the drama of the American West and the conflicts between white men and Indians, this is a moving novel of torn loyalties set during one of the most tumultuous eras in Native American history. Cavalry Scout gives full-blooded reality to its time, and to both the settlers and natives at the heart of its story.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Dee Brown including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
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By Dee Brown
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1958 Dee Brown
All rights reserved.
It all began (Singleterry said) on a late Spring day in those godforsaken hills that lie high up the Yellowhorse Valley. Wet snow had fallen the day before, and during the night the temperature dropped sharply, freezing a hard crust over a land that was all under snow. Early that morning Colonel Comstock ordered his pursuit battalion to dig in and establish a base camp, and then he sent Peter Dunreath and me to scout the forward area.
By midafternoon we had pushed our horses in a wide semicircle around the cavalry camp and were approaching a thick wooded section along a frozen creek. The trees were mostly evergreens with snow covering the needles like thick fluffy icing on a cake. Some folks might have said that green-and-white thicket looked like a pretty picture card, but to a Texas boy a long way from home, it looked almighty cold and hostile.
When I heard a low signal whistle, I halted the little bay I was riding and waited for Dunreath to come up from the left. I pulled off the green veil I'd been wearing against snow blindness and thrust it down inside my coat, and for a minute the glitter of icy snow blinded me. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, then opened them narrowly. The veil was one of Colonel Comstock's ideas, but I considered it a damn nuisance, impeding vision more than it helped, and the afternoon seemed late enough to be rid of it.
The crunch-crunch of Dunreath's mount grew louder. Vapor blew from Pete's mouth when he spoke: "I think we've found 'em, Singleterry."
"In that thicket?"
"I caught a sniff of wind off there just now, smelled of horse and dead smoke. Reason you don't hear no dogs barkin'—they all been eat up long since."
I stared hard at the woods, my eyes aching against the glitter. "No sign of anything," I said. "But we won't know for sure way out here."
"And if they're in there, mebbe they've seen us, mebbe they ain't. We got to make it look like we're ridin' away, then sneak back. They'd kill us sure if we got in range."
The green-and-white picture-card woods looked even more hostile now. I slid out of the saddle, my boots breaking through the snow. "The bay's been favoring this leg," I said, lifting it gently. The fetlock was bloody from an ugly ice cut.
"This stuff is hell on hoss legs," Dunreath replied and added: "But he can still run if he has to."
I climbed back in the saddle, scraping snow off my boots against the stirrups. Dunreath's squinty blue eyes were studying the bright landscape. The wind was rising, blowing in our faces. I smelled the dead smoke smell.
"No use to turn back," Dunreath said. "You ride off to your right till you're screened by that knoll, then tie your mount and crawl up the creek for a look. If they're in there, they're bound to've moved around some today and left tracks. I'll ride the other way till I hit that deep gully. Strike out and head for camp soon as we know for sure. What you think, Singleterry?"
"Good enough. No way's going to be easy."
"You can bet your boots on that, boy. If they're desperate enough to hole up there in this snow with no day fires, they sure won't let no cavalry scouts loose to give 'em away—if they can help it."
"Let's go," I said, and we swung away from each other, the hoofs of our horses grinding rhythmically together until at last I could hear only the sounds made by the bay.
For a few minutes I was aware of sky clouds drifting blue shadows across the frozen land, of fine snow dust flying before a rapidly rising wind. The tiny particles, sparkling and bright, stung my face.
Long before I reached the knoll on which I was setting my course, my eyes were burning. I felt around inside my coat for the green veil, but it wasn't to be found. I halted and dismounted, but the veil was gone. It had probably slipped through my coat when I got down back there with Dunreath to inspect the bay's fetlock.
When I started again, it was as if twilight had fallen suddenly. I couldn't see where the knoll lay and I closed my eyes, opening them slowly, but both eyeballs seemed to roll in a kind of liquid fire with a grating feeling as if they were surrounded by fine gritty sand.
Hoping that I would be all right again if I could just reach the knoll and get into shadow, I spoke encouragement to the little bay and kept him going across that blinding field of snow.
For several minutes I listened to the crunching sound of my mount's progress, cursing the bitter west wind that kept blowing the snow dust straight into my face. Every once in a while the bay would shift gait slightly, muscles aquiver, favoring the bad leg when the fetlock scraped against ice crust.
It happened all of a sudden, a quick furry sound that ended almost before I heard it in the sickening thump that an arrow makes when it strikes flesh. For a long moment the little bay staggered. With my boots out of the stirrups, I hit the snow, rolling away.
I had fallen in deep shadow. Maybe it was the temporary relief from blinding sun or shock, perhaps fear, that drove the blindness away. My eyes still burned painfully, but I could see the bay lying in the snow with an arrow shaft driven deep through its ribs, legs thrashing as life drained away. I lay still for a few seconds, squinting at a low embankment beyond the horse. The embankment was ten or twelve feet high, crowned with thick stunted pines sealed over with frozen snow. I heard no movement, saw no movement, but I knew from the depth of the arrow shaft that the bowman was close at hand.
My first thought was to retrieve my carbine. The weapon was caught in its boot under the bay, and I realized I would have to crawl a couple of yards to reach it, maybe spend a precious minute working it free. I waited while the wind spun showers of snow into my face. Cold began biting its way through my heavy coat.
I knew I couldn't lie there much longer, slowly freezing. I raised up quickly on one knee, flinging myself toward the trapped carbine.
"Don't move, soldier scout!" It was not so much the words but the sound of them that startled me; it was as if a bell had rung suddenly out there in the lonely wilderness. And thinking of that particular moment afterwards—as I often have—there was a bell-like quality in the voice. "Stand up, away from the horse," the voice commanded.
As I rose slowly, I saw a rifle barrel covering me from between two of the little snow-clad pines, and beyond it was the prettiest pair of blue eyes that I have ever seen from that day to this.
For a moment I thought it was the snow blindness again, transformed into a vision that would surely vanish with the next blink of my burning eyes, but I was convinced of reality when the rifle bearer pushed the frozen pines apart and came a step closer.
This was a girl, all right, with skin the color of honey, and blue eyes that glared with as much hostility as I've ever had directed at me. A half-breed, surely, I thought. Her dark hair was parted in the middle, and a pair of long braids were flung over her shoulders. She was wearing a squaw-red blanket for a skirt and a full-sleeved jacket. The rifle was a Winchester repeater, almost new."
"Kill him, Marisa," a cracked, old-woman's voice cried. "Kill him now!"
"We wait," the girl replied in Cheyenne, and added coldly to me in clear English: "Come here, soldier scout!"
I walked or half crawled up the ice-crystaled grass slope, she backing away from me as I came closer. Icicles shattered and crackled to the ground as I moved through the dwarf pines.
"Sit down," the girl ordered. "We wait."
A few feet away from me an old squaw sat cross-legged at the edge of a deep hole dug out of the ground. I could almost feel the hatred in her face. Her lips worked over her teeth for a moment, then she spat at me.
The earth dugout was six or seven feet across, almost as deep as a man, with pine twigs and moss piled inside. Two forked sticks had been set upright in the snow, and across them a pole was laid. Pine brush that had formed a roof for this crude dugout had been flung to one side. With the roof in place and snow over it, a man might walk beside it and never know it was there. And with blankets for cover, the dugout would be as snug as a tight 'dobe.
For two or three minutes none of us said anything. The girl moved back to a flat-topped rock and sat down, folding her red-blanket skirt close around her ankles. She kept her rifle steady on me.
The old Woman began mumbling to herself. "Kill him now, Marisa. The white men are full of tricks. I will go down and get the arrow from the dead horse and I will kill him myself." I saw her sinewed bow then, pushed down beside her in the snow. She had only one arrow, but it was all she had needed for the little bay.
"No," the girl said in English, calling the old woman's name in Cheyenne. Medicine Woman. To me she looked exactly like death, sitting there glowering malevolently at me, working her wrinkled lips over her teeth. And I thought: the Cheyennes take no prisoners.
We waited. Would Dunreath come searching for me? My guess was that already he would be high-tailing it back to the cavalry camp if he hadn't met worse luck than I. The sun, hazy through thin clouds, was dropping behind the thicket, and the wind was dusting fine snow through the evergreens. The cold bit into me, and I began flinging my arms back and forth and stamping my boots in the snow. The girl, Marisa, sat watching me, her blue eyes alert as a stalking cat's.
When I had tired of trying to warm myself, I turned my back on her and peered out through the pine needles toward the knoll, wondering if Dunreath might be out there somewhere looking for me or my horse. My eyes still burned, but the grittiness had gone out of them.
We waited. To make conversation I said to the girl: "You speak the white man's tongue well."
"I talk it for you, soldier scout," she replied, her voice as biting as the cold. "You would not understand the language of my people."
I said in Cheyenne: "You are half white blood."
Her blue eyes widened a little, then her bottom lip curled down. "My heart is Cheyenne," she declared scornfully.
Medicine Woman's voice cut across her words: "I warn you, Marisa, the white soldier men are full of tricks. Do not listen to what this one has to say even though he speaks in the tongue of our people."
"Marisa has been to missionary school," I guessed aloud. "But where did you learn the white man's talk, old woman?"
Medicine Woman rocked forward, rubbing her hands over the bow beside her. "From the crooked tongue of a bluecoat soldier chief." Her cracked voice broke over a Cheyenne malediction, and again she spat into the snow.
I looked toward the girl. "And maybe this one would be the white soldier chief's daughter?"
"You talk too many words, soldier scout," Marisa cried sharply. "Like an old man around a campfire."
I forced a smile and felt windburnt skin stretch painfully across my cheeks. "We could all sit around campfires in peace," I said, "if your people would stop running and let the soldiers take them back to their reservation. If the Cheyenne are so bad off they must use women for outpost duty, surely they are done with running and fighting."
"Half our warriors are dead," she replied angrily, "but their women take their places! Red Eagle will lead us where the blue-coats can never find us."
"Red Eagle can lead you nowhere," I said. "The soldiers of General Buckner captured him in the last fighting."
She glared back at me triumphantly. "No bluecoat soldiers are strong enough to hold Red Eagle!"
"You have listened to the medicine men dreamers, singing their dreams. Surely you learned better than this in mission school?" I was uncomfortably cold by now and could not resist taunting her.
Color rose into her face, her fingers tightened on the rifle. Then suddenly her eyes narrowed, focusing beyond me. "Lie down, soldier scout," she commanded softly. "The other one is coming. Cry out and I will shoot this friend of yours dead." I swung around to look, and she added quickly: "Lie down in the snow!"
I let myself roll over flat on the hard snow, turning so that I faced the knoll. The needles on the dwarf pines were thick near the ground, and I had to move my head around until I could find an opening. What amazed me was how close Peter Dunreath had come to us before the girl had seen him. But Dunreath was always amazing me.
He was crouched out there in one of the folds of snow, almost invisible in blue shadow, not more than a dozen yards from my dead mount. He had seen the horse and was studying it, but from his position I knew he could not see the arrow.
I wondered if the girl would shoot, as she had threatened, if I called out a warning. The Cheyennes never take prisoners, I thought. The only thing to do is to warn him to get the hell back to Colonel Comstock and the battalion.
"Dunreath!" I yelled. "Get out of here fast!" My voice sounded weak and strange to my ears. Through the pines I searched for him against the blue-white landscape, finally found him behind my dead horse, only the top of one shoulder visible.
His head came up slowly, and I puzzled over why the girl did not shoot him there; she could have hit him without aiming. Dunreath shifted his chew of tobacco, his eyes squinting at the pines that concealed us.
"Singleterry," he called quietly. "Singleterry, boy, you in there?"
Before I could reply the girl spoke quickly: "Tell the long-nosed one to come unarmed. If he comes with his weapon, I must kill him."
I turned to face her, reading fear and uncertainty in her eyes before she averted them; it was as if she were ashamed for me to see weakness there. Dunreath's boots were breaking the ice crust, following my tracks up the embankment, and I knew I must decide quickly.
"I will shoot him if he tries to run away," she whispered as if repeating something from memory. "And I will shoot him if he comes closer with his rifle."
For a moment I wildly considered making a run for it, but I knew neither of us would stand a chance with that repeater at close range on our backs. "Dunreath," I cried, and broke the pines apart so that he could see me. "Drop your rifle!"
His thin-lipped mouth opened in mild astonishment; he was so close I could see the unkempt gray shoots of his ragged chin whiskers and the tobacco stains at the corners of his lips. The end of Dunreath's nose was as round as a cherry and the cold had turned it as red. With his head turned to one side regarding me, he looked like a comical old bird listening for a worm. But he didn't drop his rifle; instead he moved one hand out along the barrel. "I ain't droppin' this rifle till you tell me what in 'nation's got hold of you, Singleterry, boy."
"You want to live a little longer, Dunreath, drop it."
He shook his head slowly, then set the rifle carefully in the snow, propping it stock down to protect the barrel from moisture. He muttered to himself and then came up.
"Be damned!" Dunreath cried, when he saw the girl backing away from him, the Winchester wavering from me to him. He glanced at Medicine Woman bent over in the snow; she was rocking back and forth and moaning to herself. His thin lips twisted in a tight grin: "Flushed y'self a couple squaws, didn't you, Singleterry, boy."
"We go now," Marisa said. She was standing with her moccasined feet wide apart in the trampled snow, the wind whipping at her bright red blanket skirt. She moved a few steps to one side, motioning for us to walk past her through the pines. Dunreath shrugged and led the way.
When we were through the brush we dropped down a short slope and started across a treeless space between the little ridge and a low rocky bluff which lay just ahead.
"I fixed us proper," I said. "Went snow-blind. But you should've run when I yelled."
Dunreath grunted. He was busy studying the forested bluff ahead. The sun was gone, leaving the rocks an odd purple color.
I looked back; the girl was a dozen yards behind us, the old woman hobbling along at her heels. "You figure this, Pete? Cheyennes never take prisoners."
"Prisoners, nah. Sometimes hostages."
He stopped walking suddenly, throwing one arm back to halt me. A rush of sound came bounding back in magnified echoes from the bluff, hoofbeats churning in heavy snow. A moment later we saw them off to our left, a line of horsed Cheyennes crossing at right angles to us. They were thirty or more, riding in four separate groups. Most of them were bundled in ragged blankets, but two or three were partially naked, their skins painted black.
Excerpted from Cavalry Scout by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1958 Dee Brown. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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