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Across the Sweet Grass Hills, page 1

 

Across the Sweet Grass Hills
 



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Across the Sweet Grass Hills


  ACROSS THE SWEET

  GRASS HILLS

  By

  Gail L. Jenner

  www.prairierosepublications.com

  Across the Sweet Grass Hills by Gail L. Jenner

  Published by Prairie Rose Publications

  Copyright© 2001 Gail L. Jenner

  Cover Design Livia Reasoner

  Image credits:

  'http://www.123rf.com/photo_10292928_north-american-indian-in-full-dress-reconstruction.html'

  http://www.123rf.com/photo_7152852_american-indian-woman.html'

  www.prairierosepublications.com

  All rights reserved.

  This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real.

  No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  AUTHOR’S NOTE

  The Blackfeet tribe occupied the country surrounding the Missouri River tributaries east of the Rocky Mountains. They actually encompassed three major bands: Bloods; Blackfoot; and Piegan (or Pikuni, the name I’ve used in this story). The Bloods, or most northern band, occupied territory into what is now Canada. Like the Crow, however, Blackfeet bands roamed freely, even into the Rocky Mountains, warring against other tribes. An early estimate placed the total number of people at 40-50,000.

  Early in the nineteenth century, the Blackfeet accepted missionaries into their tribes and many adopted Christianity. Around 1837, smallpox epidemics ravaged various Plains groups and it is believed that as many as 6-8,000 Blackfeet perished.

  When the Civil War ended, Major General William T. Sherman, hero of Atlanta and the Great March, was given command of the Military Division of the Mississippi (later to be changed to the Division of the Missouri). He administered the army’s affairs of the entire Plains area and his overriding goal was to rid the West entirely of Indians.

  In a letter to his brother he wrote, “The more we can kill this year, the less will have to be killed the next war, for the more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that all have to be killed or maintained as a species of pauper…” (ANDRIST 1964, 154).

  After the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, Sherman succeeded to the post of commanding General of the Army. Although President Grant initiated a “pro-Indian” policy and a series of reforms within the Indian Service—including the appointment of the first Native American to be commissioner of Indian Affairs—Westerners were not in agreement with Grant’s approach or sympathies.

  In 1869, a fight broke out between the Blackfeet and whites at a Montana trading post. Several warriors were killed, and, to display their contempt for egalitarian treatment of the Indians, the whites cut off the heads of the slain warriors, pickled the ears in whiskey, and boiled the flesh from the skulls. The bleached skulls were then inscribed with reminders of what many endorsed: “I am on the Reservation at last” (ANDRIST 1964, 170).

  Ironically, there were still some Blackfeet leaders pursuing policies of peaceful negotiation. However, with the constant movement of trappers, miners, and then settlers into Blackfeet territory, and as treaties were signed and broken, there were an increasing number of attacks made on whites. The skirmishes continued until one campaign, now called “Baker’s Massacre” or the “Marias Massacre,” was initiated in January 1870. General Sheridan, who replaced Sherman as commander of the entire Missouri Division, decided that a winter campaign was the best way to subdue the Blackfeet.

  In pursuit of a small group of hostile Pikuni led by Mountain Chief and his son, Peter Owl-Child, Colonel Baker and his cavalry struck the winter camps of Heavy Runner, Standing Wolf, and other Pikuni along the upper Marias River (known as Bear River to the Pikuni). More than 170 Pikuni were slaughtered and 41 lodges burned. Many others were captured, only to be turned loose because a smallpox epidemic raging through the camps.

  Although there were discrepancies in the tallies, the Indian agent reported that 140 of the dead were women and children, 18 were old men, and 15 were warriors. Sherman, in defense of Baker, stated, “Did we cease to throw shells into Vicksburg or Atlanta because women or children were there?” (ANDRIST 1964, 171).

  Tragically, the army later learned that these camps had not been those harboring Mountain Chief. These camps had been those of friendly bands of Pikuni.

  It is against this historical backdrop that ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS takes place. Red Eagle and Liza Ralston are fictitious characters, as are many other lesser characters, but the historical figures and major incidents are based upon historical research. Every care has been taken to represent the events and details accurately.

  ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS

  PROLOGUE

  The old woman came to him in sleep, her dark eyes round and large, white eyebrows a stripe across her forehead. From the yawning black hole of her mouth came a haunting cry that curled up through the darkness like a thin thread of smoke. Another cry answered it.

  The man shivered as the sounds whirled around him, rising higher and higher. He wanted to cover his ears, but couldn’t move his hands. Instead he closed his eyes, trying to stop the pain in his head, but there was no way to shut it out. He wanted to shout at the old woman, but his throat was dry and his words transparent.

  The woman’s black turtle eyes closed suddenly and her mouth snapped shut. Then she glided away, strands of long gray hair billow­ing about her like a cloud, the ends twirling like ribbons around her beaded white buckskin dress. Beyond, blue shadows weaved back and forth.

  He reached out, hoping to capture the old woman and draw her back. What secret did she hide? What warning did she bring? But as quickly as she had appeared, the old woman vanished. A frightening emptiness descended upon him.

  Red Eagle sat up slowly, his heart thumping, his hands damp. He looked around, but saw only the dying embers of the cooking fire and the shadowy darkness of a night when the moon is hiding.

  “Tomorrow,” he said out loud, addressing his restless spirit, “I must find Crying Wind.”

  Surely his uncle would know why the old woman wept.

  CHAPTER 1

  Montana Territory, September 1869

  Liza stirred restlessly, trying to make herself more comfortable. Was she home in her own bed? She opened her eyes, then closed them, remembering where she was. She drew the wool blanket up to her chin and frowned. Her dreams had deceived her again.

  St. Louis was a lifetime away.

  She crawled out from under the blankets and took a deep breath, pushing aside tears that threatened to weaken her spirit. She had to remain strong, or the fear that followed like a shadow might overwhelm her.

  Stepping carefully over the rocky soil, she felt her way to the fire, spreading her hands out over the glowing coals. Glancing up at the moonless sky, the stars glittered like fool’s gold, and she found herself wondering if this journey wasn’t just a fool’s dream.

  If only she’d remained in St. Louis. Perhaps, if she’d said no to Father, he would have reconsidered. He might have changed his mind altogether, and then, Mother—

  Mother would be alive, even now...

  That instant Liza felt, rather than heard, a distant rustle. It tickled her spine like the brush of a feather.

  She drew herself up and peered into the night, but it was impossible to see past the sleeping figures of her father and Giles. The scout, a giant of a man, turned and mumbled some­thing unintelligible.

  Liza relaxed. It had probably been nothing. Just the ghosts that seemed to haunt prairie nights. She chided herself: what had happened to her ne
rves, anyway? Father had once declared that his daughter, Elizabeth Ralston, had more grit than her two brothers combined.

  There was a second strange rustle, and it seemed to be growing stronger, moving closer.

  Falling to her knees, the darkness covered her like a black cloud; hopefully it would shield her from being spotted. Pulling up her petticoats, she crawled toward her father, shins scraping against the rough sod.

  Before she could rouse him, however, a hideous cry split the night. Liza flattened herself against the ground. “Papa!”

  His dark eyes opened and he pressed a finger to his lips. She nodded and waited, her heart pounding like a hammer. This was no time to weep or grow faint.

  Her father reached for his rifle.

  An arm’s distance away, Giles had clambered to his feet and reached for his pistol. Leaning forward to get a second look, his marble eyes bright in the firelight, he turned and cried, “Run!”

  Liza hesitated, choking back fear as the big man’s warn­ing was swallowed up by gunfire. Stunned, she watched Giles drop to the earth like a felled tree, dark red blood spilling where his face had been.

  “Dear God,” she whimpered, and her stomach rolled up against her ribs.

  “Move, Liza!” her father yelled, his own voice sickly.

  She glanced down at the dark drops splattered across her hands in astonishment. You’ve seen blood before, she scolded herself. She forced herself to crawl along on her belly until she felt Giles’s long-barreled pistol at her fingertips.

  The weapon was so big, Liza’s hands shook as she wrapped them around the barrel and dragged the pistol toward her. She righted it, then peered into the darkness as if she could see beyond it. Her hands trembled even more as another round of gunfire exploded.

  Perspiration burned her eyes. “Where are they?”

  Her father wheeled on one knee. “Hush.” He leaned for­ward and brushed at the monstrous weapon in her hands. “Save your shot, Elizabeth, and get out of here!” Another bullet whizzed past them. “Go, Daughter, go!”

  “No.” Resolved to stay with her father, she carefully drew the hammer back, then released it, jumping as the pistol jerked in her hands.

  Her father’s dark eyes pleaded. “Hide yourself, Elizabeth. For me. For your mother.”

  Tears clouded her vision. She had not often stood up to her father. “Don’t make me.”

  And then it was over.

  Another bullet sang past her and, as if in a dream, she saw her father collapse, his face to the ground, body winding in the dirt like a snake’s.

  She cried out in disbelief. “Papa!”

  “Liza—”

  Throwing down the pistol, she scrambled over to grab her father’s arm. His body sagged as she buried her face against his shoul­der, and she tasted the slimy thickness of blood as it soaked his shirt. “No! Don’t leave me—”

  Hot tears trailed down her cheeks. He couldn’t die. Not now, after losing Mother.

  Why had they even come here if their lives were to be swallowed up beside a name­less stream in the middle of the Montana wilderness?

  ****

  Swallowing her cry, she hesitated when there was no response. “Please,” she whispered, bitterness dissolving into grief. “Please.”

  But there was only a haunting echo in her brain as she recalled his hushed command. “Go, Daughter, go!”

  In the distance, she heard the muffled voices of men nearing the camp. Their laughter filled her with a burning desire for revenge, but there was only one choice now. Looking into the vacant face of her father, she inhaled deeply. She had to obey.

  She jumped to her feet, heart pounding in her ears, hands wet with sweat and her father’s blood. She glanced around for a safe hiding place. Except for the few trees lining the stream, nothing offered shelter. She would have to make a run for it.

  She took up Giles’s pistol and her father’s rifle and head­ed away from the camp, into the blackness of the Montana prairie, her heartbeats resounding in her head like more gun­shots. She hurried over patches of nettles and pebbles littering the ground, but willed herself to ignore the rough earth as it tore at the soles of her feet.

  Her life was all that was left now; St. Louis, her grandparents and brothers, her friends— they were as dead to her as Giles and Father.

  She pushed on, not knowing where she was or where she could run. Had they seen her? Would they follow? She slowed her pace long enough to listen. There was only silence. Perhaps they’d be satisfied with the animals. There was certainly little else of value stored in the wagon.

  Liza passed through a patch of trees, their thin, spidery branches slapping at her arms and face. She tripped and fell over a stump, and the rifle landed in a tangle of thorny brush. Sobbing, she rocked back and forth before getting up. How can I go on?

  Maybe if she left the rifle; it was so heavy.

  She struggled for a breath and started off again, her chest heaving, ears ringing. Ahead, a ridge blocked out the stars. Without hesitation, she scurried up and over the lower ledges of it, groaning as her knees banged against the rough, hard rock. Her shins scraped the narrow granite slabs, and she felt, rather than saw, a small, black cavity before her. It was hardly bigger than a rabbit’s den, but large enough.

  Easing into the cold hollow, she curled up in a tight ball. Waves of fear and grief washed over her, but to calm her trembling body, Liza closed her eyes and tried to think of something else.

  Oh, Father. Oh, God.

  How long she remained huddled inside the pit, Liza couldn’t tell. The darkness seemed to last forever, and the cold Montana night quickly penetrated the layers of petticoat. Her lips were so dry, and throat so parched, that her tongue scraped against her teeth.

  Not until the rays of dawn pierced the black night, stretch­ing across the gray stone that rose like a wall around her, did Liza press her cheek to the cold granite. Perhaps now she could rest.

  The sun was high when Liza felt something move lightly against her shoulder. She jumped and Giles’s pistol clattered to the stone floor of her hiding place.

  “Do not fear.” The male voice was low and soft.

  She gasped and turned toward the sound. All she could feel was the warmth of the stranger’s presence and the pressure of his fin­gers against her shoulder. Then, as he leaned closer, his breath warmed the chilled air around her.

  “Do not be afraid,” came the deep voice again.

  Struggling to move forward, Liza whispered, “Please, my father. Giles. We were attacked. They were shot—dead.”

  “Ssshh.” Hard fingers had wrapped themselves around her wrist and were guiding her out of the rock cavity. Her legs were stiff and numb, her mind hazy. She stumbled forward.

  Immediately the man’s arms went around her. His body comforted hers in an embrace that absorbed the fear. For an instant, she was tempted to stay there, huddled against his muscled chest.

  Perhaps last night had only been a nightmare.

  At last, flushed and panting, Liza pulled back, her eyes widening. The woodsy smell of the stranger had awakened her dulled senses, and she saw that the man was dressed in a leather-fringed tunic trimmed in long, flat, black beads. Near-­black hair flowed past broad shoulders. Intelligent eyes flashed as they moved over her carefully.

  Liza swallowed. Dear God, the stranger was an Indian.

  Fear swept her forward and she jerked free of his warm grasp to scramble over the rocky ledge. Jumping the last distance to the ground, she collapsed as she hit the hard earth. Too late she thought of Giles’s pistol.

  “Stop!”

  Terror caught in her throat as the Indian rapidly over­took her. “You’re one of them,” she cried as he grabbed her wrist and spun her around. Making a fist, she tried to swing, but he pulled her roughly to him. She snarled, all the while, her heart pounding.

  “Stop,” he ordered again, his voice almost inaudible. “I am not one of them. They stole my horses many days ago. I’ve been tracking the
m. That is how I tracked you.”

  Ignoring his words, Liza kicked him squarely in the shin. He lost his balance, but instead of releasing her, he held on. Together they fell to the ground. He grunted as he landed on his back, and she fell across him, her face buried in the breadth of his chest.

  She pulled back and stared down at him.

  He pushed her over and rolled on top of her. The heady smell of leather and sweat, and the weight of his body, enraged her all the more. She twisted in his grasp.

  “I will not hurt you,” he said. “Listen.”

  Liza closed her eyes and shook her head. She heard him inhale as he slid off her, but he contin­ued to hold her by one wrist.

  She hesitated. Only the sounds of their breathing could be heard. Biting her lip, she tried hard to remain calm.

  “Open your eyes.” The words were so soft Liza barely heard them.

  Frowning, she raised her eyes to his. His face was inches from hers, his eyes as deep as a Montana twilight.

  “Good.” He took a quick breath. “I will not harm you.”

  She searched his face. “Who are you? How did you find me?” She couldn’t let him see the fear that burned in the pit of her stomach.

  “I am Mekotsepetan. Red Eagle. I am not an outlaw. I am traveling to my mother’s people. I saw your tracks, the tracks of a woman’s small bare feet.” He seemed to be wait­ing for a response. “I lost four good horses and supplies to the thieves,” he said at last.

  Red Eagle’s grip was firm, his touch burning her flesh. She pinned her gaze to his tunic as an inner voice warned her that no red man could be trusted. Even one that spoke English as well as this one. A half-breed, no doubt, but still, an Indian.

  How was it her father had dreamed of coming west to live among them?

  “When Lieutenant Cole and General DeTrobriand hear of this—” she began, hoping to intimidate him.

  Red Eagle’s dark eyes narrowed as his voice deep­ened. “The army cannot rescue either of us,” he replied. “We are many days’ walk from the fort, and the thieves left very little. What foolishness brought you this far from the fort anyway?”

 
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