“Are they out there?”
“Yes. The dogs can smell them, and the horses are restless. They’re out there. Waiting.”
He turned to her. “Take our daughters and shelter in those trees with the other women.”
He saw her hesitate and smiled down at her. “It will be fine. Please go, so I don’t have to worry about where you are.”
A shadow of fear crossed her face, but she nodded. There was nothing she could do here anyway. Her young son would stay with the men and help load the rifles. Dawn was less than an hour away, and if they attacked, it would begin with first light.
His son was frightened but excited. This was the first time his father had asked for his help in the face of danger. His father patted him on the head and smiled reassuringly. He trusted his father.
They were farmers and they had come from the plains of Minnesota. After the fourth bad winter in a row, they had endured enough. The families had talked it over and pooled their resources. They would pack up and move south and west to the warm, fertile valleys they had heard about from passersby. A few families disagreed and stayed behind. The trip would be hard and dangerous.
For five weeks, they had crossed the tall grasses of the prairies, ever watchful and looking for danger. It was common to be attacked for goods and horses, so they sent scouts ahead and posted guards at night. So far, they had managed to avoid detection, but now that they were in the wooded foothills, they had been seen, and this time it was worse. This time it would not be solely for plunder. This time, they would be attacked because they were viewed as hated invaders on the land.
One of the men had killed a deer yesterday in the early afternoon, and since they had gone without meat for several days, they decided to make camp early and cook the venison. The site was pleasant enough, but not a particularly good defensive position should they be attacked. Now it looked like an attack was imminent.
The campsite was wooded and near a stream for needed water, but it was at the base of a small hill to the north. The rocks and boulders across the stream offered good concealment for an enemy. There was also concealment at the campsite, but they were exposed to fire from the hillside.
To the east, the first faint fingers of dawn lit up the bottoms of the few clouds that lingered from last week’s storms. The swollen stream could be crossed, but only with care and preparation. It cut off any hope of a quick escape.
He scanned the hillside behind him but saw nothing in the still dark morning. If anyone was up there, they had adequate concealment from the scattered rocks and several downed trees. And if anyone was up there, the camp was wide open to their fire. No sense dwelling on it he told himself. If they are up there, we’ll just have to deal with it when it happens.
Beside him, his son sat wide eyed, fearful but ready. He had the bag of ammunition open and five cartridges lined up on the flat rock in front of him. His heart swelled with pride at the courage of his young son.
He had two rifles, both of the same caliber. They were old and well worn, but they were accurate if the shooter using them knew where to sight.
He looked to the grove of cottonwoods and thought he could see the face of one of his daughters. More than ever, he now regretted the decision to camp at such a spot. But, there was nothing he could have done at the time, because the others, tired and hungry, had decided this was far enough.
There! A soft scraping sound directly across the stream. They were moving into position. He glanced to his right and was gratified to see the man next to him peering intently toward the source of the sound. To the east, the sky was noticeably brighter, so he scanned the hill behind them one more time. Nothing.
He felt the small hand of his son on his arm. He was pointing at something across the stream. At first he saw nothing. Then his eye caught movement and he saw a hand gripping the top of a large rock. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man next to him lift his rifle. He picked up a small stone and tossed it at him. The man jerked his head toward him, startled, and he held up his hand and shook his head not to shoot. The man nodded and lowered his rifle. They would wait.
The first fiery arc of the sun appeared over the hill to the east, bathing the small valley in its pale yellow light and long shadows. He glanced at the grove of trees, seeing nothing. The women and children were using the available concealment. Good.
A single shot rang out and he thrust his rifle forward, eyes darting, seeking danger. Nothing moved and there was no further sound except a hard rustling to his right. He glanced at the man who was about to shoot at the hand on the rock, and he was convulsing on the ground, blood spurting from an unseen wound. Suddenly, his son darted over to the man and picked up his rifle and ammunition. He paused a moment and then ran back, breathlessly.
For the second time in minutes, he felt pride in his son. His act was both courageous and necessary. They would need every rifle and all available ammunition. He glanced at his son and nodded. The boy tried to smile, his face pale and drawn.
“You have a rifle and you can shoot. We will load our own rifles.” His son nodded in agreement, and quietly placed his salvaged rifle on a rock, searching for a target. Nothing moved and there was no sound.
Dawn yielded to morning, and the sun was now above the horizon. The earlier chill was gone and the heat began to build. Sweat trickled down his cheek, and he glanced back again at the hill, scanning the slope. He saw nothing. He heard another rustling sound across the river and as he spun around, the attack began.
Rifles spoke from across the stream and were instantly answered by his fellow travelers. Someone screamed in agony, and he saw a head appear. He fired and so did his son. The head disappeared and he wondered if it was a hit. He glanced down the line and two of his own men were down. That made three. Their numbers were dwindling alarmingly.
Suddenly, he heard a scream from the grove of trees, and as he spun around, he felt something slam into his chest. The hill! He scanned it again and this time, he spotted the gleam of a rifle barrel. There was another! And yet another!
He tried to raise his own rifle but his arms were suddenly weak. Bewildered, he glanced at his son who was staring at him in wide-eyed horror. The harsh light of the early morning sun was rapidly growing dim, and in dawning realization, he tried to speak to his son, to apologize for failing him, but his lips moved without sound. From the grove of trees, more screams sounded, but mercifully, he was now beyond hearing them.
They came in a rush across the stream, heedless of the rushing water. The son turned his unbelieving eyes away from his father and tried to raise his rifle to fire, but he was far too late. Two bullets slammed into him and then his skull was clubbed.
The firing died off as the camp was overwhelmed. There was an occasional shot as a wounded victim was found still alive, but in a few moments, death was complete. Their journey was over. This small and anonymous place was their final destination.
The raiders began to silently loot the camp, looking for valuables, weapons, and souvenirs. Two of them stood over the bodies of father and son, staring at them curiously.
“What tribe do you make them out to be Sergeant?”
“Don’t rightly know sir. They ain’t familiar.” He spat over his shoulder and glanced back at the lieutenant. “But what the hell sir, it’s like you always say, the only good Indian is a dead Indian.’