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Published on Friday, July 6, 2012

Atonement

By J. R. Lindermuth

 

The Cheyenne rode out of a clump of timber some eight hundred yards from where Webster had posted his men.

He raised his glasses and studied them. The two young warriors were armed and in full war-rig. The older of the pair wore a splendid war-bonnet that swept low toward the ground. As Webster watched, they directed their ponies up the steepest part of the ridge. On gaining the summit, they swept their steeds in quick circles against the sky, their eagle head-feathers dancing in the morning breeze.

Webster turned to his scout. "Are they mad? Do they actually intend on attacking us?"

Doyle spat off to the side, then nodded. "You can call it what you like, lieutenant. But, yeah, they do intend on taking us on. It's to be a fight to the death."

Webster gazed about him. His men, some mounted and others dismounted, were spread along the road in this narrow valley hemmed in on all sides by steep rock-crowned hills. On the other side of the creek behind them it seemed all the Cheyenne from the reservation had gathered to witness the event. Webster shook his head in dismay. "Their deaths, not ours. They're outnumbered twenty to one. Why don't they just surrender?"

"You might think that a reasonable solution, sir," Doyle told him. "It ain't so simple for them. If they give themselves up they'll probably be hung, and that's a shameful thing in their opinion. It would bring dishonor on their families and they would have no peace in the hereafter."

A week earlier, the body of a settler had been found in a ditch on the outskirts of the reservation. There was no obvious motive for the murder, but Indian police learned two Cheyenne youth had boasted of the kill before fleeing into the hills. Lt. Webster and his troopers were dispatched in pursuit. After several days of unsuccessful tracking a relative of one of the braves brought a message. The fugitives said they were tired of hiding and wanted to end the matter. They asked the troops to meet them at this spot for a fight to the death.

Webster tugged at an earlobe and stared at the scout. "But it's suicide. Why would they do such a foolish thing?"

Doyle grinned, showing stained and broken teeth. "The only honorable out they see is to be killed while battling the enemy, killing as many of us as they can before they fall." He scratched at his chin and added, "They figger their deaths will atone for the murder and, hopefully, erase any wrath we might have toward their kinfolk."

"Madness," Webster said.

Up on the ridge, the young warriors sang their death songs.

Doyle spat again, then wiped the back of a hand across his mouth. He'd lived a long time among the Cheyenne, knew them better than the young officer or any of the troopers arrayed against the two up on the hill. He'd come with the Cheyenne when they'd been moved here to the Tongue River Reservation. It was a sad time for the people. They lamented the old days and dreamed of being allowed to follow what remained of the herds. Instead they were restricted and being forced to become farmers. He didn't know what the settler had done, but he understood how frustration could lead to violence.

"You're thinkin' these young bucks is just a couple of blood-thirsty scoundrels..." Doyle started to say.

Webster raised a hand in protest. "I don't know why they did what they did," he snapped. "I think they deserve to be punished. But I don't want to see them gunned down in cold blood without a trial."

"They ain't interested in no trial. They just want to take responsibility for their actions. I don't know exactly what their reason was for killin' that man. I do know murder ain't somethin' the Cheyenne take lightly. Their word for it is he'joxones. It means putrid."

Webster squinted at him. Sweat rolled down his back under his tunic and his stomach was in turmoil over the situation confronting them. He was new to the territory and had mixed feelings about this old man who'd spent much of his life among these savages.

"See, amongst themselves there is no death penalty— even for murder," Doyle continued. "The usual punishment for the killing of one of their own is exile from the tribe. Even that can be lifted if there's a proper expression of regret and apology.

"The killing of a person outside the tribe is a matter of individual conscience. It doesn't concern anyone else, unless it poses a threat to the tribe. Which, in this case, it might if not resolved. So it's up to the guilty to settle things. That's what these boys is up to."

"Barbaric," Webster said.

"Depends on your viewpoint."

They had no more time to argue. Their final preparations made, the two young Cheyenne dashed down the slope, making for the line of cavalry awaiting them. The bucks opened fire as soon as they were in range and their fussillade was answered by Army carbines.

The younger brave's pony was shot from under him. He tumbled down the slope, tried to rise and was cut down before making two steps.

His companion charged boldly on, firing his rifle from the hip as he came. Torn by a hail of bullets, he and his steed drove through the line and fell dead at the feet of the enemy soldiers.

As silence replaced the whine and zip of bullets, the mothers of the two young Indians ran forward, across the creek and up to the bodies, slashing their hair and gashing their flesh as they ran. Other women and children rushed to join them, their voices raised in wailing and lamentation.

A number of other Cheyenne men and boys observing the spectacle began shouting and gesturing with a variety of weapons. Tension gripped Webster and his troopers. But the Indian leaders and police, joined by Doyle, intercepted them and quelled the new threat.

Webster heaved a sigh of relief. Gazing at the lamenting women and children, he shook his head. "Fool's errand," he muttered. "Bloody fool's errand."

THE END


 

J. R. Lindermuth lives and writes in a house built by a man who rode with Buffalo Bill. A retired newspaper editor, he is the author of 11 novels, including five in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series. His stories and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines.

 

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