Echoes of Vengeance

Chapter 1


It was a hell of a way to be jerked to consciousness--staring down the stovepipe snout of a .50-caliber Sharps.

It all began when the intruder, in the half-light of breaking day, stumbled first over the discarded whiskey bottle, then the half-filled chamber pot.

"I'd drink to forget, too, if I was you," the intruder muttered, thrusting the Green River knife between his teeth and emptying the chamber pot on the sleeping man's head.

Major Calumet Cornelius Bates hurled blankets and quilts from his porcine body, spluttering, cursing, and clawing at his muttonchop whiskers with both hands. His voice trailed off when he spotted the big Sharps, its ugly snout yawning at his right eye.

"Kla-klatch." The sound of the Sharps' hammer as it was eared back split the sudden silence.

"Who are you? What do you want?"

"One question at a time, Major. When you're done, then I'll ask 'em."

The officer's jaw quivered as he clutched at the bedding. "What do you want?"

"First off, we'll talk. After that ..." The intruder shrugged.

"Who are you, dammit? What are you doing in my quarters? How did you get in here?"

"I said one question at a time, Major." There was an audible, tiny click as the heavy Sharps' set-trigger was latched into place. Now the slightest pressure would touch off the gun.

The major paled, but had the temerity to whisper, "How did you get into this fort?"

* * *

He came over the wall during the dog-watch, when two patrolling sentries were least alert, huddling in their greatcoats, thinking only of the interminable time until changing of the guards. The moon was half, and on the wane, shimmering intermittently between great scudding clouds. A tinge of pink touched the eastern prairie sky. Fort Pembina's palisades, barracks, stables, sutler's store, and armory cast shadows within the isolated post, across uneven patches of dirty snow.

He glided ghostlike from one shadow to another until reaching the commandant's quarters. Inside, Major Bates snorted fitfully, an arm draping from his bedcovers despite the Dakota Territory's November chill. The wraith flattened against rough bark-covered cottonwood logs, then crept to the building's door where he bludgeoned a slumbering sentry and pulled him into the shadows. The intruder abandoned the door when it creaked, turning instead for a window.

Leaning the heavy Sharps buffalo rifle against the logs, he pulled an Indian trade knife from the sash around his middle, then used it to pry the window open. It gave with a soft shudder.

Bedsprings squeaked as Major Bates rolled onto his back. The intruder melted against the wall logs, but when the officer resumed snoring, the man's face appeared above the sill. Only a faint rustle accompanied him as he squirmed inside. Even in the dim light, his mouth pinched into a thin line and tiny lights danced in gray eyes that were all the more startling because they were set in a dark face.

By now, the half-light of pre-dawn filtered into the room, falling across the whiskers, beetle brows, and ruddy face of the officer. The commandant lay with an arm across his forehead, puffy mouth open to expose stained teeth.

Then the intruder stumbled over the whiskey bottle and chamber pot, and the major's day was ruined before it even began ...

"For God's sake, move that gun!"

The Sharps never wavered.

"Who are you? At least tell me that."

"You don't remember me, Major?"

"No! Dammit, man, move that gun!"

The stranger made no sign he heard. "My name is Jethro Spring, Major. That mean anything to you?"

"No, no, no. Why should it? My God, one move and you could blow a hole ..." The major's voice trailed off.

"That's the idea, Major. To blow a hole. I worked on your post out in Montana. Fort Ryan. You still don't remember?"

The intruder was clad in buckskins, with knee-length moccasins on his feet. Bates sensed that the man was little more than a youth. "No! I don't know what it is you're after, but you'll never get away with it. You're inside a United States Army post. Three hundred men are just outside. Guards everywhere. You'll never get away with anything. Please!"

Unwinking gray eyes met the major's red-rimmed ones.

"Guard!" the major shouted. "Guard! Help!"

The shout brought only silence. The buckskin-clad stranger chuckled. "Ain't no guard there, Major. He's got a headache right now and is off takin' something for it."

The major twisted and untwisted his bedcovers. "What do you want?" he said again.

"I was just a stable hand who could speak a little Blackfeet. Not fair, I suppose, to expect you to remember me."

The major's eyes narrowed. "Now I remember," he said. "You're the young idiot who tried to tell me how to run my command."

"No, Major. I just tried to stop you from butchering an Indian village."

"And I had you thrown in the stockade."

"Now you got it right, Major."

"And for that, you follow me to Pembina, break into my quarters and hold a gun on me? You'll get the stockade for twenty years, you fool." Major Calumet Bates paused, then added, "If you touch that trigger by accident, you'll hang."

The youthful Fort Ryan stable hand's hollow laugh sent another wave of shivers through the major. "Won't be by accident if I touch it."

"What do you want, then? Make it quick."

"I want to talk about that Indian village. Do you remember it?"

"Do I remember it?" The major's bleary eyes drifted from the youthful face and the penetrating gray eyes. "Of course I remember...."

* * *

Snow lay in patches, heavy and deep along the Musselshell--residue from a long, hard winter that blew in early from the Canadian Prairies. The tiny Indian encampment was pitched on a sweeping bend south of the river. High sandstone bluffs to the north provided some protection from the keening arctic winds that swept the land. The expected Chinook was slow in coming, but had arrived at last.

Reconnaissance was swift and accurate and between the hours of three and four a.m., Major Calumet Bates positioned five mountain howitzers and two hundred and fifty men in the soft, melting snow along the foreslope of the low hills south of the village. An additional fifty men of "A" and "F" Companies slipped into the brush across the Musselshell, under command of Captain Wesley Dix. All were in readiness, awaiting daylight and Major Bates's order to fire.

"Sarge, what's this all about, nohow?" Private Joshua Finster whispered to the burly man next to him. "What'd these red devils do? Is it a big village? Are they dog-soldiers down there, with bloody hands and bloody scalps hangin' from teepee poles?"

Sergeant Burke Mallory spat a thick stream of tobacco juice, staining the snow at his side. "Dunno," the sergeant replied in a whisper. "All I know is we got orders to leave no survivors. We're to kill 'em all--even women and kids if they's any among 'em."

"Must be some women, Sarge, what with that wailin' goin' on down there. Gods, don't they never shut up?" The eerie chant, begun as they moved into position, continued uninterrupted. "Why they do that?" the private asked.

"How the hell do I know? I ain't no Indian."

Farther along the line, Major Bates, lying on the muddy ground, lifted his heavy field glasses and smiled grimly. A godsend had brought this reservation-jumping band of Blackfeet within range of his command. Only a fool would miss such a heaven-sent opportunity to demonstrate military prowess. "Pink is beginning to show in the east, Lieutenant," he said.

When his junior officer said nothing, the major spat, "Damn! Why can't we see down into the village? Are the Gods hiding that infernal camp from us?"

Lieutenant James, lying beside his commanding officer, shook his head. The village would be last to receive the morning light. "We'll show clearly against the snow, sir, and easy pickings if we're discovered before we can make out our own targets."

Major Bates peered through his field glasses once more and suddenly spat, "Damn that squaw! Will she never shut up?"

The lieutenant propped himself on an elbow. "Sounds to me like a death chant, Major, sir. Leastways, it sounds something like one I heard coming from a 'Rapaho camp one time."

Major Bates chuckled. "There'll be ample reason for it soon. I wonder who it's for?"

"I don't reckon it's for any who died, sir. More'n likely it's for them who are about to."

"What? Impossible. There's been no sign of alarm. Are you suggesting they know we're here, Lieutenant?"

"No, sir. But maybe they know they'll die. Indians have funny ways and I'm thinking, sir, that some are beyond a white man's understanding."

"Poppycock! Please inform the company officers to commence firing when discovered, or at six a.m., whichever comes first."

"Yessir." Lieutenant James rolled to the knob's far side and clambered to his feet. His lip curled to a sneer as he saluted the major's backside

Heart thumping with excitement, Major Bates again lifted his glasses. A dog barked in the village. Bates cursed. The unnatural keening continued. Once more Bates peered to the east.

Lieutenant James skidded up moments later. "Still not too late, sir, to rescind the no-survivors order--if you've had a different thought, sir."

The major ignored his junior officer. He could barely make out a tipi--no two--through his glasses. His uneven teeth flashed through a ragged grin.

An old crone waddled from a tipi at 5:57 a.m. When she raised her skirt to urinate, a rifleman could contain himself no longer. He missed. But the hundred-odd other rifles trained upon her did not. The roar of a ranging howitzer boomed out, followed by others. The third howitzer in line scored a hit, its burst falling directly on the village's largest tipi. Major Bates shouted with glee. "See that gunner gets a commendation, James."

"Yes, sir."

A melee erupted as men, women and children burst from the remaining tipis. They scattered to the river, away from the concentrated fire blasting from the southern hills.

"Where the hell is Dix?" Bates shouted.

Just then, Captain Dix's command opened fire from across the Musselshell, cutting a swath through the frantic Indians. Three women, a warrior, and two children fell among the ice chunks at the river's edge. Another white-haired woman staggered into the Musselshell and fell into the freezing water. She surfaced once, then sank slowly from sight, blood staining the water around her. The turbulent tide of Indians, many limping and bleeding, swept back to their demolished camp against the remorseless hail of bullets from the ridge. Dozens of dead and wounded lay where they fell between the river and camp. Others lay broken and twisted among the wrecked tipis. As targets diminished, the soldiers' fire became sporadic. Within minutes, nothing moved in the broken village and a lull fell over the carnage. Yet the eerie death chant still wafted from somewhere among the torn tipis.

"Tell the howitzers to range on the rest of the tipis, Lieutenant," Major Bates snapped. "I want that noise stopped immediately."

"Yes, sir." Lieutenant James pushed to his feet.

"I don't believe there was a shot fired in return, Lieutenant," the major said, studying the village through his glasses. "Our surprise was complete."

"No, sir. They've not returned fire, sir. But then, I don't think I've seen more'n four or five braves. The rest have all been women and ..." The top of Lieutenant James' head exploded. Major Calumet Bates recoiled in horror as his lieutenant's lifeless body sprawled across him. A puff of black smoke drifted from one tipi flap amid a rising breeze.

A voice shouted a clear command in Blackfeet. The answering roar of rifle and cannon from the hillside drowned further commands.

Minutes later, a howitzer bracketed the tipi. A burst blew mud, dirt, rocks, and snow into the thin buffalo robe shelter from one side, another near-miss fell on the other side. The tipi seemed to shudder, then collapsed as the concussions fractured supporting lodgepoles. By then, desultory fire came from the wrecked village. That sporadic fire proved remarkably accurate, however. A soldier near Private Finster sank moaning into the snow. Another, not far away, propped on one knee and firing methodically, threw up his arms and fell to one side, blood gushing from his throat. Other soldiers fell as it became the bluecoats' turn to die on their exposed foreslope.

"Dig in!" a sergeant shouted and soldiers obeyed with alacrity.

Another puff of black smoke erupted from the edge of the collapsed tipi, and a howitzer gunner was slammed against his gun's carriage. Again the howitzers ranged upon the Indian riflemens' hiding places. Another puff of black smoke and again a gunner fell across his howitzer.

At noon, Major Bates sent a courier for Captain Dix, ordering him to report to a command conference as soon as possible. Instead, Sergeant George of "A" Company arrived. The Sergeant threw a salute and said, "Sorry, sir, but Captain Dix bought the farm. He's got a hole in him you could drive a ..."

What about Lieutenant Johnson?" interrupted Major Bates. "Why didn't he come?"

"Wounded, sir. Don't know if he'll make it back to Ryan."

"What in heaven's name is going on? the major cried in exasperation.

"They're gunnin' for the officers, sir." said the sergeant. "Damned accurate, too, if you asked me."

The major's face turned crimson. "We must do something! I want those red devils wiped out by dark."

A towering gun sergeant stepped forward and said, "Begging your pardon, sir, but me'n the guns can do it if we can move behind the hilltop. Nobody can train a gun when he's got to jump around to keep from catchin' a ball hisself."

"You can silence them?"

"Sure enough, sir. We can wipe that village off the face o' the earth, given enough time."

"How long?"

"Before dark, sir."

"See to it then."

By three o'clock that afternoon, the mountain howitzers began ranging on the village from their new back-slope sanctuary. With spotters on the ridge and accurate rifle fire from nearly three hundred troops protected behind sheltering earthworks, the battle could go but one way. One by one, the fusillade silenced suspected pockets ntil spotters directed the cannonade at the Indians' last redoubt, where occasional puffs of black smoke flared.

"By God, that's got to be a big gun down there, don't it, Sarge?" Private Finser asked.

"At the least a fifty, private. Keep your head down though, and I'll take you home to your momma yet."

Finster grinned. "Tell you one thing, Sarge. Black, red, white or blue, whoever's holding that gun is one I'd like to have on my side in a tight fight."

Sergeant Mallory nodded at the private's sage observation.

At five o'clock, Major Bates asked his one surviving officer for a casualty report. He bit his lip when Lieutenant Ames gave it: twenty-seven dead, nineteen wounded. By six o'clock, nearly an hour had elapsed without return fire and Major Calumet Bates ordered Ames to take a patrol into the devastaded village.

Soldiers of the patrol threw away the tattered shreds of the last tipi and found but two occupants. A startled corporal exclaimed, "My God, Lieutenant, it's a white man!"

"A white man?"

"Yeah." The corporal nudged the bloody white-haired body with his toe. "Yeah, it is."

"An old squaw layin' next to him, too," a nearby trooper said. "Wonder was she his squaw?"

"All right, you men," Lieutenant Ames barked, "get to the other wreckage and see if any hostiles are still hiding."

A few minutes later, Lieutenant Ames wagged an arm back and forth in an "all clear" signal. Just as he did, the blood-soaked old white man opened his remaining eye and furtively slid the barrel of his Sharps buffalo gun forward. The roar shattered the battlefield's stillness and the heavy slug blew Lieutenant Ames around, face down in the mud.

Major Calumet Bates strode angrily into the village shortly after the patrol fired volley after volley into the withered body of the white man. Bates was livid. His losses included every one of his junior officers. He promoted his sole surviving artillery sergeant to on-the-spot field command and ordered him to take the white man's scalp for the major's very own souvenir. As the new lieutenant knelt to perform his odious task, the pepper-haired old squaw, blood seeping from her mouth, and with the last of her strength, sank a Green River knife into the fledgling Lieutenant Krachek's back.

* * *

The command returned to Fort Ryan amid mixed reviews. While the final body counts were falsified to achieve more favorable impressions, the truth leaked out: nineteen soldiers wounded and twenty-nine dead, including seven officers.

An honest assessment of the Musselshell Massacre was appalling: It took a modern fighting unit, armed with five howitzers and three hundred of the latest rolling block rifles--a unit whose surprise was complete and positions insurmountable--to kill seventy-four Blackfeet Indians, fifty-five of whom were women and children. And it was whispered that few of the nineteen slain Indian men were of fighting age.

The Army reacted to preserve itself. Department of Missouri Commanding General Philip Sheridan initiated an internal investigation. In order to save face, Major Calumet Bates, as the sole surviving officer, was given a "bravery-under-fire" commendation. But his coveted promotion was side-tracked and he was shunted to isolated Fort Pembina, in the Dakota Territory, only four miles from the Canadian border.

* * *

"Of course I remember." Major Calumet Cornelius Bates said. He perched naked on the edge of his bed, staring at but not seeing the young man before him. "It was a great victory. Why shouldn't I remember?"

The gray eyes turned as flat and blank as a frozen pond. Finally the younger man sighed. "My pa died in that village, Major."

Bitterness exploded in the major. "A white man living with those red savages--if it hadn't been for that insane ..."

"And my mother was one of those red savages. Way I get it Major, you hacked her to pieces with that sword." The intruder pointed to the regular-issue cavalry saber hanging from a nearby wall-peg.

Major Calumet Bates pulled himself together--but not without effort. He stared down in surprise at his nakedness and pushed heavily to his feet, shivering with the cold. "Get out of my quarters!"

Like taut bands snapping, the youth whipped forward shoving the officer back onto the bed with a foot. Crazy lights danced on the icy surface of his eyes. "You've got no more orders to give, Major," he panted. "All you've got left is retribution. And I'm damned well here to see you give it."

"Guard!" Major Bates gasped, recovering his breath. Just then a bugle sounded reveille. Both men cocked an ear to listen.

"You'll never escape now," the major said, struggling upright.

Jethro Spring smiled without mirth. "Didn't figure to, Major. You see, I figure to die right here. But you're goin' out ahead of me. You're goin' out with a scalp missing--just like my pa. See this rifle?"

Bates stared.

"It's a 50-caliber Sharps, Major. The same gun that you put on display at Fort Ryan. It was my pa's. I figure it rightfully belonged to me, so I took it when I broke out."

Jethro Spring pulled the Green River knife from his sash and twisted it wickedly in the clear dawn light. "And you see this knife? It was my ma's. I took it from the display, too." Major Bates shuddered, his face turning to chalk.

"What do you suppose I aim to do with 'em, Major?"

The officer looked from the knife to the wild gray eyes. "You wouldn't," he croaked. Then he lurched forward grabbing the Sharps by the barrel.

The roar of the big gun was deafening in the confines of the sleeping cubicle. The blast hurled Bates across the bed, against the far wall.

Jethro Spring slumped into a chair, gray eyes glazing. A moment later, however, his vision cleared and his head jerked up. The Sharps clattered to the floor. He leaped to his feet, hurling the Green River knife aside. Survival, after all, became the first law of Jethro Spring. Gone his intent to scalp the major, then die in a blaze of glory. Gone the desire to die at all. He dove through the half-open window.

Roland Cheek Country


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