These are short stories occasionally put up on Fridays, and which you can read for free. Enjoy!
Upriver a hundred miles from that very meeting at Christy’s Tavern were five trappers coming downriver. They were the last of the party that Harris had put together the previous fall to head up to the Mandan villages to trap and trade. They had a good winter of it and an even better time coming back downriver. That was before they’d hit the Platte and a rough patch in her.
Two men were thrown from the boat, one drowned and the other cut his leg real bad on a sunken log. The men did what they could for it but the leg got gangrenous a day later. The man had refused to have it cut off and died because of it two days after that. So it was that the nine men became seven.
Then as they got near the Osage River, just ten days upriver form St. Louis, they lost another man. He’d been out hunting a few miles from the river and never came back. The men went out looking for him but could find nothing. Could have been Indians, maybe an animal, or he could have just wandered off…though with the furs in their hold it wasn’t likely.
The men had little choice but to continue on, and they did so. Then three days later it happened again. A man went out to hunt and never came back. It was just five men left now and they went out looking. This time they found him, four arrow holes in the back and his scalp long gone. They’d already passed through the Sioux territory a week before so this was troubling to them. They’d headed back to the boat and picked up the pace. The boat was just the one 30-foot-long pirogue, but within her holds she had a wealth of furs, probably $7,000 worth, the men figured.
Now just the five of them: two experienced men and the other three greenhorns. Harris was their leader and he’d done a good job of it, trapping a lot of furs and trading for the rest. He’d guided them past the Ponca and Sioux tribes and now just had to get past the Osage River and then to the Mississippi. Then it was payday, and my how he had his eye on a lady on Market Street that just happened to have the biggest –
“Harris!” one of the greenhorns manning the poles shouted out. He was already looking back at him while pointing up ahead at a bluff on the northern bank.
“Shit,” Sam said from beside Harris, “Sioux.”
Harris looked, and sure enough, it was. A handful of riders, but it could be enough against his small and inexperienced crew.
“Rifle-up, boys!” he shouted, and grabbed his own pistol as well. The men around him did so, casting nervous glances about all the while.
Up on the bluff, Chatan , Watapke, Lootah, and Kangee rode hard and fast with another three Yankton Sioux braves trailing behind them. The Santee had picked up their cousins to the north the day before and were heading into the village with them. That was still 30 miles and a day’s ride away, but now an opportunity had presented itself. Down below was a single boat of whites, just five men. Chatan hadn’t hesitated and now they were rushing to a low and sandy beach that’d allow them to fire their bows and then wade in to retrieve the furs and other goods the whites were carrying…not to mention their scalps.
Chatan had long black hair with glints of silver in it, though not from his age. He’d been given his name because of them, for Chatan meant ‘falcon’ in the Sioux language and Chatan had both the look and demeanor of one. He was observant, patient, and most of all, deadly. But he had cunning and guile, discipline and fortitude as well…ideal traits that were needed in those that commanded other braves. If Chatan continued as he had been, within a few years he’d become a Wise One and perhaps one day, if he was lucky, a chief.
The same couldn’t be said of those with him. Watapke was a large brave, tall and muscled and as fast as the ‘running bear’ that gave him his name. He was the same age as Chatan and the other two – in his mid-twenties and full of life and vigor…though in Watapke’s case he was also full of anger and resentment. It’d been that way since his younger brother had been killed far to the north on the Niobrara. It’d been whites that’d done it, though whether they’d been French or British or American, no one was sure. Watapke had blamed himself, however, for as the oldest of the two he’d felt he should have been there to protect his brother. He hadn’t been, however, and now more than a year later, the anger still ate up at him inside, caused him to lash out, mostly with words but sometimes with weapons. Chatan wasn’t sure how many more times he could talk the Wise Ones into looking the other way when Watapke’s anger took out another innocent young brave or maiden of the tribe.
Lootah had short hair, more brown than black, and a nose smaller than most Santee. Word was that somewhere in his line – likely with his grandmother – there was some white blood, probably French. Lootah didn’t know anything about that, nor did he like the subject brought up. His name meant ‘flint,’ and like the stone that strikes to make fire, Lootah could be quick to strike with words or weapons. Quick to strike…but slow to follow through or do much afterward. Lootah had a reputation for doing things as slow as possible, and for complaining about them as well. It rubbed many the wrong way and he’d already gone through two bands of braves that’d simply gotten sick of him and told him to find some other hangers-on. He had, and now travelled with Chatan and his small band.
The last of that band was Kangee, meaning ‘crow’ in the Santee language. The brave’s hair was jet black and long and he had a sharp and pointed noise, just like the bird. Also like the bird he had a curiosity about him…one that sometimes got him into trouble. That’d been the case a few months ago when his poking about on the Knife River had gotten the small band embroiled in a fight with some American fur trappers going upriver. It’d been a small group, thankfully – just a dozen or so – and they’d managed to get away without any serious injury. They’d also shot two of the trappers dead, one falling to Kangee’s arrows, the other to Watapke’s rifle. It was an older rifle – the whites hated to trade guns to the Indians – but it worked and so far the brave had put nineteen notches into its butt, all representing kills…either Indian or white.
More kills were about to come. The seven braves rode for the beach, eager to attack the whites.
On the boat the men were ready.
“There, on the bank!” Sam shouted out, pointing as he tried at the same time to steer the boat further out into the river. The men with rifles in their hands didn’t have any trouble seeing what he was shouting about however, and got a good volley off.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
“Damn,” Harris muttered as he lowered his rifle. Two of the shots had struck the water ten feet out from the beach, while his had gone far to the left and into the bushes. The rider they’d been aiming at now had his horse in the water and was just thirty yards from them. He brought his bow up.
On the bank, Kangee charged forward, ignoring the splashing of his horse’s hooves at it tore into the river. He was intent on getting his bow up, an arrow nocked to it, and a good aim. Those whites had rifles, after all, and while they didn’t appear to be any good with them, they could still get lucky. Kangee knew he had one shot before he had to kick the horse into another position, so he had to make it count. He did. In one swift motion he pulled an arrow from the quiver on his back, nocked it, aimed, and fired.
“Watch out!” Harris shouted, but it was too late.
The arrow from the sole rider on the beach shot out and hit one of the greenhorns square in the chest. The boy tried to turn and managed to get a look back at Harris and Sam and Kip, a dazed look on his face. Then he fell forward into the river, taking the rifle along with him.
“Damn!” Kip said.
“Ain’t nothin’ yet,” Sam said, and pointed back at the beach. Another two riders had reached it and were just about to tear into the water.
“Damn,” Harris muttered. The river wasn’t swift enough and they didn’t have the men to pole themselves out of this, despite the sole greenhorn giving it a frantic effort at the front of the boat.
“What’ll we do, captain?” Kip said.
Harris sighed. “Get down behind the gunwales and hope to hell the river takes us on by.”
The men frowned, for there was barely more than a foot of space to duck down under, but nodded and got down so they couldn’t be seen.
On the small beach, all seven of the braves were now present. Looking out at the boat passing by, Chatan laughed. The whites were hiding down in their boat!
“Watapke…Lootah,” he said, looking at the two braves, “I hope you’re ready for a swim.” The two braves smiled in response, started to take off some of their beads and belt items. Chatan looked over at the Yankton braves that’d come along with them. “Two of you go with them,” he said, and they nodded, started to take off what they didn’t need as well. Within moments the four were off their horses and wading into the water.
Kangee rode back up on his horse. “Are you sure that’s safe? The whites have rifles.”
“That boat will be out of arrow range very soon,” Chatan replied. “And besides, we can’t hit those whites when they’re hiding like that.”
Kangee frowned, but knew Chatan was right. He watched as the four braves swam out to the boat, now just twenty yards from them.
“Hear that?” Kip said from his spot hiding under the gunwale of the boat. The boat’s sides were only a few feet high, but they afforded some protection…especially from arrows, which were unable to fully penetrate the thick cottonwood hull.
“Swimming,” Harris replied, “sounds like a couple braves.”
“Should we take a shot at ‘em?” Sam asked.
Harris bit his lip. He didn’t know the answer to that, but suspected the Indians on the beach would have their bows trained on the boat, waiting for just such an opportunity.
“No,” he said, “let’s wait until they get to the side of the boat. Then we’ll get ‘em with our skinning knives.” He fingered his own eight-inch blade, one that’d tasted beaver flesh many times, but never a man’s.
The splashing increased in sound – the Indians were only ten yards away.
“To hell with this,” Kip said, and grabbed his rifle and stuck his head up over the gunwale.
Sure enough, an arrow sailed out…but it struck the boat. It didn’t seem to frazzle Kip and he took a moment to aim, though it wasn’t too hard with four braves to choose from just a few feet away.
He fired, taking one right in the face. The Indian went under the water, blood all around him.
“Ugh!” Kip went as another arrow sailed out from the bank, this time striking him in the shoulder. He dropped his rifle to the deck of the boat and crumpled down beside it as well.
“Keep firing!” Chatan yelled, his face a mask of anger at one of the Yankton braves getting shot in the face like that. “Another white shows himself, shoot him down!”
There was shouting from the bank and crying from the boat. Kip was hurt bad, and now saying, “we’re gonna die, we’re gonna die!” over and over again.
“Shut up!” Sam yelled at him, and started to go for the man’s rifle, hoping to get it reloaded in time. His own had gotten wet and was now useless until dry.
“There’s no time!” Harris yelled at him, his knife in his hand. As if to reiterate his words, just then a wet arm slapped up onto the gunwale and over it, grasped the side tightly, and then a moment later another arm joined it, this one with a tomahawk in its hand. Harris didn’t hesitate, and brought his skinning knife forward. “Hyah!”
“Aaahhh!” the Indian shouted as his arm was bit into by the skinning knife, and deeply. Blood flew and both arms fell away from the boat. Further down on both sides of Harris, however, two more sets of arms appeared.
“I got this one!” the greenhorn near the bow shouted out, and rushed forward with his own skinning knife. He looked like he’d score a good hit too, but at the last moment the arm pulled away and the greenhorn’s knife struck nothing but wood and got stuck. A moment later the arm shot back and gripped the boat. In one quick lunge an Indian pulled himself up with that arm, using his other to swing forward violently with his tomahawk. The greenhorn’s eyes went wide a second before the heavy metal axe bit into his face, cleaving it in two. He fell back into the boat, blood spraying every which way, his body convulsing madly.
“Oh, God – we’re gonna die!” Kip yelled at the sight. “Oh God, oh God, oh God!”
Harris was about to yell at him to shut up and die like a man when another set of arms came up over the gunwales and another Indian appeared. This one had a gunstock club in his hand and he pulled himself up and swung it down onto Kip. It hacked into him and blood flew back. Kip screamed and screamed. Then the Indian hacked again and again and the screaming stopped.
Beside Harris, Sam had seen enough. He jumped up and started running for the other side of the boat. He’d swim to the opposite shore and just walk back to St Louis, simple as that. He was just getting into his jump when an arrow sailed out and took him in the back.
Sam managed to jump even with the arrow in his back, though it was more a fall really. Also, the arrowhead had punctured a lung. Sam gasped for breath at the wrong moment, with his head underwater. He was done.
Back in the boat, Harris pushed himself up against the side of the gunwale, watching in horror as Kip was hacked to death. That Indian was on the boat, as was the one that’d killed the greenhorn.
God, Harris thought, I can’t even remember the lad’s name!
That was one of his last thoughts. Kip was scalped and as that Indian laughed another pulled himself up onto the boat, this one with a horribly wounded arm. He stared daggers down at Harris then lunged at him with his tomahawk. Harris brought his skinning knife up but the attempt was futile – the Indian merely batted it away, revered his thrust, and came at Harris from the side. The tomahawk bit into Harris’ stomach deeply and then the Indian pulled back. It was as if Harris was standing on air all of a sudden, so light did he feel. Then he looked down and saw his guts spilling onto the deck of the boat and he knew why. He looked back up in time to see the Indian smile, then saw the tomahawk poised over the brave’s head. Harris managed to close his eyes before it tore into his face.