The Perilous Journey Begins – Chapter 4

The Perilous Journey Begins Chapter 4

Fort Sedgwick, Colorado Territory
June 1867

Joshua Hotah patted the neck of his faithful appaloosa, then scratched the strong-willed animal along the base of her coarse mane. The horse tried to step away, but he pulled firmly on the leather reins and coaxed the animal back. The horse pondered Joshua’s youthful face. He stroked the animal’s white-and-brown-spotted nose with a delicate motion. The appaloosa exhaled a defiant snort, but she did not step away this time.

“I know you want to leave this place and ride across the open grass, but we must wait outside until the new captain finishes his long conversation with the war general.” The appaloosa appeared to understand Joshua’s soothing words, but shook her head in mock frustration anyway. Joshua stroked the nose more vigorously. “I know. I know. But you must learn patience in your new life. You cannot always ride when you want to and where you want to. Sometimes you must wait a long time inside the sharpened tree walls of the fort until the white man is done with whatever he is doing. The same is true for me.”

Joshua Hotah had acquired the appaloosa from an aging Nez Perce warrior during the waning days of last autumn. At the time, Joshua had need of a new horse and the Nez Perce had need of a new rifle. Joshua traded a Sharps military carbine— converted to use the new .50-70 Government metallic cartridge—and thirty-seven rounds of ammunition for the spirited animal. Before the negotiations began, he concealed his Henry repeating rifle some distance away beneath a prickly yellowing bush to avoid any distractions. He preferred the range and accuracy of his Sharps, but had decided a repeater might provide more utility in his current occupation. The Nez Perce tried to barter the saddle and beaded bridle for more ammunition, but Joshua finally convinced him that he had given every last cartridge and might have to ride many days to find more. The Nez Perce chuckled at the conclusion of the transaction. Before pulling his horse around to gallop away, he declared: “I hope you are a very good rider, Joshua Hotah.” Joshua answered back: “Do not worry about me old man,” before he confidently mounted his new horse. The feisty appaloosa waited until Joshua relaxed, then instantly spun around and bucked him to the ground. Astonishingly, the animal did not run away, but instead contemplated his new “master” with a bemused look. Joshua brushed himself off and limped back to the defiant animal. His remarkable friendship with the appaloosa began at this moment.

Excerpt from A Glorious History of the American West
by Muireall Anne Ravenscroft
The Horse and the Indian: A New Way of Life

Although there is significant evidence that the ancestors of the modern horse thrived in both North and South America during prehistoric times, and that at some point these resilient animals migrated from North America to the eastern regions of Asia across an Arctic land bridge, horses nonetheless vanished inexplicably from the New World around 8,000 B.C. When the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez first set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519, the horse was effectively reintroduced to the continent. The Mayans who inhabited the lands of the peninsula had never seen these magnificent animals before and, understandably, initially perceived the combination of horse and Spanish rider as a strange new entity beast. The Mayans, and later the Aztecs and Incas, learned to fear the mounted soldier during the bloody conquest of the peninsula, Mexico, and Central America.

King Charles V established the first Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1535 (a few years after the conquest of the Incas in 1532) to govern the new colonial territories in North and Central America. By the time Spanish rule of New Spain ended in 1821 this vast colonial empire extended south to Guatemala and north into the southwestern United States including the modern-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The capital of New Spain was located in Mexico City. The second Viceroyalty of Peru was established in 1542 and originally controlled most of South America from its capital city of Lima. The third Viceroyalty of New Granada was established in 1717 and primarily governed areas now encompassing Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. The fourth and final Viceroyalty of the Rio De La Plata was formed in 1776, the same year as American Independence, and roughly bounded the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay, with Buenos Aires as the capital.

After initial explorations north of Mexico by the Franciscan monk Marco Di Niza suggested the possibility of great riches, the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a major expedition into what is now western New Mexico. His advance guard reached (and then captured by storm) the primary Zuni city (called a pueblo by the Spanish) in northwest New Mexico in July of 1540. Coronado sent exploration parties in every direction and discovered a rich and populous region with twelve pueblos and around 8,000 inhabitants. After a brief period of peace and cooperation, the Pueblo Indians reacted with hostility and resistance to the capricious behavior of the Spanish. This in turn led to horrific reprisals including the burning of 100 Indians at the stake and the slaughter of hundreds more. The subsequent years brought more expeditions, continued hostilities, the construction of numerous Catholic churches, and the baptizing of thousands of Pueblo Indians. By 1630 approximately 50 friars provided religious services to 60,000 Indians in over 90 pueblos, including a small but wild Apache contingent in the eastern plains.

The year 1680 marked a calamitous turning point for both the Spanish and Pueblo Indians. Inspired by the leadership of Pope, a chief from the pueblo of San Juan in northern New Mexico, the Pueblo Indians mounted a widespread and coordinated uprising and in the process killed over 400 Spaniards, including 21 missionaries, and temporarily drove the Spanish from their lands. The Pueblos also destroyed every mission including all records and furnishings. As the uprising raged on and the Spanish retreated in chaos, thousands of Spanish horses were released into the wild and migrated north. Because of their farming culture, the Pueblos had more interest in sheep than horses and did not act quickly enough to capture them in significant numbers, but the Comanche Indians to the east and the Utes to the north embraced the new animal. The Spanish horses continued to move north on both sides of the continental divide during the following decades and found the Shoshone by 1700, the Pawnee by 1720, the Nez Perce by 1730, the Crow and Blackfeet by 1740, the Cheyenne and Sioux by 1770, and had even travelled into northern California by 1775. Although the arrival of horses did not fundamentally change the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Indians, they did provide new and unimagined freedom over the vast distances of the west, thereby allowing the practice of a truly effective nomadic culture for the first time. And not only did the Indians conquer distance and time with the assistance of the magnificent horse, they also transformed themselves into superb riders and hunters of the great buffalo herds and legendary warriors, all within a handful of generations.

The appaloosa, a spotted horse possibly derived from the Spanish Andalusian breed, deserves special mention. The Nez Perce Indians of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho was possibly the only tribe to consciously and selectively breed horses for strength, speed, courage, intelligence, and the quality of the spotted markings. As such, the appaloosa was highly regarded and sought after by other tribes of the plains. These capable and strong-willed animals served the Nez Perce well until the very end when in 1877, under the leadership of Chief Joseph, the last free Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry after an implausible 1,400-mile fighting retreat through what many thought was impassable terrain. The appaloosa horses were taken from the proud Nez Perce and distributed amongst white settlers, and the purity of the breed was forever diminished.


John Ravenscroft slurped tomato soup from an oversized spoon as he read to the end of the paragraph about Chief Joseph and the appaloosa horses and the U.S. Cavalry. He licked the spoon clean and nestled it to the side of the saucer below the curved porcelain bowl then set the page down next to his wine glass. When he raised his eyes from the manuscript they instantly found Muireall’s. “Not bad. Not bad at all. As a matter of fact, pretty interesting.”

Muireall slurped a spoonful of tomato soup. “Thank you.”

“Where’d you find this stuff? I’ve never heard about any of it.”

“In magazines. In books I purchased at that cute little bookstore in San Francisco last year. In the California Polytechnic School library. At the San Luis Obispo Carnegie Library. Other sources I can’t remember without checking the bibliography.”

“Impressive. And if I understand this section correctly, the horse began in North America, crossed over some sort of land bridge into Asia before disappearing from the American continent for reasons we don’t know, migrated west to Spain, boarded a ship with Cortez, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Yucatan Peninsula, travelled to Mexico with the Conquistadors, then journeyed back to North America with Coronado after an absence of around 9,000 years when a Pueblo Indian named Pope sent the Spanish packing.”

Muireall sighed. “Sounds about right, although you have condensed four pages and two days of hard work into an extemporaneous outburst of less than 100 words. I’m the one who should be impressed—with your gift of brevity.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Captain Ethan Plantagenet of the U.S. 2nd Cavalry stared blankly across the polished oak table, the only furniture in the room not covered with a thin film of dust, into the stoic face of General William Tecumseh Sherman. He generally found Sherman an honorable man, but occasionally struggled with the infamous “March to the Sea” of 1864. But then he reminded himself of his promise to set aside all such concerns in support of his rejuvenated career in the army, the only occupation that had ever provided him with true passion and commitment. He had tried shop keeping following the war, but after a drunken night of intense self-pity and a failed suicide he had sought out the military again the next morning. Distracted by these thoughts, and unsettled by the memory of the nearly-successful suicide, he did not choose his next words with care. “General…I think it ill advised to assign a Sioux half-breed to my company for what should be a straightforward mission. Frankly sir, I have not found any reason to trust them.”

General Sherman maintained the clarity of his calmly indifferent expression. “You mean to say…you are not willing to trust them.” Sherman lighted a cigar—recently imported from Saint Louis—and puffed a compact haze of smoke above the table. “Joshua Hotah is a superb Indian scout. His horsemanship is unsurpassed. He reads the trail with great skill. He is a better rifle marksman than any of the ragtag immigrants in your unit. He speaks both English and Sioux fluently, and a little Cheyenne and Nez Perce as well. He may speak other Indian dialects I am not aware of. I would not hesitate to trust him with my life in this savage wilderness.”

Ethan shifted his weight and squeezed a pair of white cavalry gloves behind his back. “And which half do you suggest I trust, sir—the white or the red?”

Sherman released his stoic countenance with a brief smile. “I see your problem.” He paused again to enjoy a long draw from the cigar. “An excellent cigar. Would you like one before you leave?”

Ethan shifted his weight again. “No sir. I don’t smoke.”

“A habit you should consider taking up. Nothing like a good cigar to break the tension of the moment.” Sherman lowered the cigar to admire it. “And which half do you suggest I trust, Captain Plantagenet—the gray or the blue?”

Ethan felt the sting of this question. “I assure you sir, that you have my full and uncompromising loyalty. The war is over for me.”

Sherman chewed on the cigar. “I know I do son, and I honestly have no doubt of it. But I assure you as well that you can trust Joshua Hotah with your life. Do we have an understanding?”

Ethan considered his next words more discreetly. He thought of pushing the argument a bit more, but then reconsidered. “Yes sir, we do.”

“Good. Then listen carefully. Lieutenant Colonel Custer and over one-thousand men of the Seventh Cavalry departed Fort Hays nearly a month ago to quell some Indian uprisings near the Platte River. According to information I have just received, the regiment is encamped at the forks of the Republican River, about 90 miles southeast from here. I have a critical communiqué that must be delivered to Custer as soon as possible. I have placed the message in this envelope.” Sherman slid the envelope, secured with his personal wax seal, across the polished table. “You alone are to carry the message. You alone are to personally deliver the envelope directly to Custer. Do not allow anyone to take the envelope from you and do not ask anyone to deliver the message on your behalf. Are these instructions clear?”
Ethan wrested the envelope from beneath Sherman’s tobacco-stained fingers and then deposited it into a black leather pouch slung at his side. “Yes sir, your instructions are quite clear.”
Sherman flicked a large cylinder of grayed ash from the end of the cigar. Ethan watched the ash float down and puff off the edge of the formerly pristine table. “Then you are to leave immediately. Take as many men from your company as you see fit, but I want you to leave the fort within two hours. Any questions?”

“No sir, none.”

“Then on your way. And take a cigar with you.” Sherman opened a leather box and presented it to Ethan. “You might change your mind.”

Without a hint of indecision, Ethan selected one of the cigars. “Thank you, sir.”

“And Captain…”

“Yes sir?”

“Don’t forget to take Joshua Hotah with you.”

“No sir.” Ethan shoved the cigar into the pouch next to the letter, saluted smartly, pivoted cleanly, and strode briskly from the office. When he had passed through the heavy wood door and crossed the covered porch at the front of the building, he found Joshua Hotah standing beyond the margin of the roof’s shadow and stroking an unusual spotted horse. He addressed him directly. “Are you the half-breed they call Joshua Hotah?”

Joshua looked up from his appaloosa, the oddly-feathered brim of his old army hat shading his face from the morning sun. “My name is Joshua Hotah.”

Ethan clopped indifferently down the two porch steps and approached Joshua at a leisurely pace until he stood less than an arm’s length away. Joshua’s dark-blue regulation army jacket, wide-brimmed-black-felt Indian scout hat with golden crossed-arrows insignia and red and white acorn-tipped braid, and light-blue pants with a blue stripe down each side were in order, but the multi-colored-bead-adorned leather moccasins represented a notable lapse of military decorum. “General Sherman has assigned you to my company for a patrol to the forks of the Republican River.” Ethan thought of the moccasins again. “I objected vigorously because I do not trust you or any other Indian scout. However, I have no choice but to bring you along because of the general’s insistence. General Sherman informs me that you speak fluent English. Is this true?”

Joshua grinned. “Yes, I speak English. My father was a buffalo hunter who came from England in a ship.”

Ethan noted the annoying hint of a British accent. “Then not only are you a half-breed, but neither half is American. Truly enlightening.”

“My mother was Sioux.”

“So I heard. As I said—”

The appaloosa shook its head violently and nearly yanked the leather reins from Joshua’s hand. Joshua pulled the animal close and spoke soothingly in Nez Perce until the appaloosa had calmed. “I do not think my horse likes you much.”

Ethan stepped back to avoid the skittish animal. “Then I believe, Joshua Hotah, that we have an understanding.”

Joshua grinned a second time. “Yes, I believe we do…” and then the grin widened, “…old chap.”

Ethan did not find this British vernacular amusing. He slapped his thigh with the white cavalry gloves. “Then we leave within two hour hours. Do not be late. I do not intend to begin the patrol by disobeying a direct order from General William Tecumseh Sherman, but if you do not arrive on time, I will leave without you.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Two days after departing Fort Sedgwick with 20 men and a half-breed Sioux scout, Captain Ethan Plantagenet pushed himself up on the stirrups of his cavalry saddle and scanned along the north and south forks of the meandering Republican River for evidence of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. As his vision swept across the horizon, his eyes paused at the strange image of Joshua Hotah—about 50 yards distant—on his hands and knees with his face pressed close to the ground only inches away from the spotted nose of the appaloosa. Although implausible, both man and horse appeared to find the same thing. When he squinted and refocused, it also appeared to Ethan that Joshua Hotah was conducting a discussion with the animal, and that the horse responded to each comment by moving its head. This observation did not improve Ethan’s original impression of the scout. He spoke to his sergeant, an immigrant from Ireland and a veteran of the final year of the Civil War. “Wait here with the men while I have a little talk with our scout.”

The sergeant spit. “Yes sir. A fine idea.”

Joshua Hotah poked a stick into the remains of the abandoned campfire and stirred. A jet of sooty dust puffed up against the appaloosa’s nose; the spotted horse shook her head and snorted. “You should not be so curious. Your only reward is a nose full of ash.” Still on his knees, Joshua explored the ground for artifacts. He noticed a discarded tin can. He crawled over to the can and sniffed it. The appaloosa sniffed the can too. “Custer left this campsite a few days ago, probably more than a few days. And they did not clean up before they left. Maybe they have many soldiers and do not worry about leaving a trail behind.” The appaloosa nudged Joshua’s shoulder in apparent agreement. Joshua stood and walked southwest, without holding the reins of his horse. The appaloosa followed. He kneeled to the ground by a set of wagon wheel tracks running north and south. Before he had finished inspecting the tracks, Captain Ethan Plantagenet rode up and stopped in front of him, a few yards away. When Joshua raised his gaze from the wagon tracks to Ethan’s face, he noticed the evening moon rising just above the peak of the captain’s hat.

After waiting patiently for a report, Ethan leaned forward against the saddle horn. “What have you and your horse found? Anything worth noting?” Ethan observed the wagon wheel tracks in the fading daylight. He followed the tracks to the north, where they likely began, and then back to the south. “Looks like wagon tracks heading south. I assume Custer has gone in that direction.”

Part of this observation impressed Joshua. “Yes, wagon wheels heading south. But I believe Custer has not gone with the wagon tracks. The path of the wagons does not have enough horse hooves. I believe Custer and the Seventh Cavalry must have followed a different path, possibly west.”

Ethan glanced down at the tracks again, the moonlight now providing more illumination than the fading glow of the western skies. “Nonsense. I don’t see how you can come to such a conclusion from the evidence right in front of us. I see wagon tracks and I see horse tracks, both heading south. I see absolutely nothing to suggest Custer and his main force went in a different direction. We camp for the night and follow the wagon tracks south at daybreak.”

Joshua offered the possibility that Ethan had more correctly read the ground. “I am not certain what I say is true. I can agree with you on this. But we should scout a wider area to find Custer’s path. If we follow these wagon tracks, we may not find him at all.”

Ethan pressed his hand against the leather pouch containing the message from General Sherman (and the cigar). “We’ve had a hard two-day ride and the men are tired. I’m not going to waste more time scouting this endless country when the evidence of Custer’s direction of travel is right in front of us. Tomorrow we follow these wagon tracks south. I am confident we will locate Custer before the end of the day.”

Joshua thought about telling Ethan about the campfire, but decided against prolonging the argument. He would wait for an opportunity tomorrow to prove the wagon tracks did not follow Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. Maybe then he could talk Captain Plantagenet into a different path.

♦ ♦ ♦

As the sun neared its zenith and the day continued to warm, Ethan halted the patrol. He rubbed the back of his neck, adding more sweat to a leather glove already soaked with sweat. He spoke to Joshua Hotah, now riding by his side. “Have you seen any evidence that Custer turned off this wagon trail? I certainly have not.”

“I have not. But we have ridden so fast and stopped so little, it is hard to tell what I have seen and have not seen.”

This obvious excuse did not convince Ethan. “Or maybe you are not as good a scout as General Sherman imagines.”

Joshua did not take offense. “Maybe not, if this is what you wish to believe. But it is difficult to read the trail when we are riding very fast above it.”

“It is really not necessary for you to read the trail at this point. These wagon tracks point to Custer, and we will follow them to the end.”

The Irish Sergeant jabbed Ethan on the arm. “Sir, we’ve got company, and I don’t think it’s the Seventh Cavalry.” The sergeant pointed.

Ethan followed the end of the sergeant’s finger to a long column of riders stretched along the top of a low ridge running southwesterly to his right, about 300 yards away. Ethan began counting them, but stopped when he reached a hundred. He pulled a small telescope from a saddle pouch, extended the tubes, and squinted at the riders. He lowered the telescope and declared, “Indians.” He handed the telescope to Joshua. “Ever use one of these before?”

Joshua did not answer the question. He took the telescope and held it up to his left eye. “Lakota…and Cheyenne. They have been following us.”

Ethan shifted in his saddle. He had bravely faced Union infantry, cavalry, and artillery in the war, but the sight of Indians on the plains of northwest Kansas frightened him in a way he did not think possible. “How many? What are their intentions?”

Joshua collapsed the telescoped and pressed it into Ethan’s hand. “Over one-hundred, with maybe more behind the ridge. I do not know what they intend.”

Ethan privately prayed that General Sherman knew more about Indian scouts than he did. “What do you suggest we do?”

Joshua answered, “I think we should ride east to Beaver Creek and look for cover. And we should not ride slowly.”

Ethan did not argue. He gave the order to the Irish sergeant. “Sergeant, you heard our scout. We are heading east to Beaver Creek, and we are not riding slowly.”

The sergeant answered stoically, “Yes sir. Sounds like a good plan to me.”

The patrol veered off the wagon trail to the east, and at the command of the sergeant broke into a trot. Some of the men could not keep their eyes forward, and regularly checked the Lakota and Cheyenne riders behind them. Captain Ethan Plantagenet did not look. After fifteen minutes of silence had passed, he renewed his conversation with Joshua Hotah. “What are they doing now?”

Joshua twisted just enough to see the Indians at the rim of his vision. “They are still following us. They are getting closer. They are riding faster than we are.”

Ethan looked back for the first time since the patrol had abandoned the wagon trail. “I see what you mean. What now?”

“I think it is time to run.”

“Do you think we can outrun them?”

“No, we cannot outrun them. We should ride to someplace where we can defend ourselves. This is our only chance.”

This answer alarmed Ethan. “I see.” He turned to the sergeant. “Sergeant, it’s time to make a run for it and to find a defensive position. But don’t blow the damn bugle.” He turned back to Joshua Hotah. “Joshua, you take the lead. We will follow you.”

This time the sergeant smiled uneasily. “Yes sir.” He gave the troopers the order to gallop and the patrol rushed forward with Joshua Hotah and the appaloosa in front. This maneuver ignited an instant response from the Lakota and Cheyenne riders, and for the first time the troopers could hear the exuberant cries of the nearest warriors.

Joshua led the patrol easterly, the churning legs of the galloping horses—sweat-lathered and weight-burdened with cavalrymen and leather and wood and iron—smashing violently through the flowing grasses and scattered wildflowers of the prairie. The rugged ground began a gentle rise toward an undulating ridge running northeast to southwest. Beyond the ridge, in a shallow valley, Beaver Creek and Sappa Creek and Prairie Dog Creek flowed southwesterly and offered the possibility of a defensive position. Ethan strained to see clearly through stinging splashes of sweat and cutting slaps of wind as he watched the nimble appaloosa and Joshua Hotah bound over the ridge. When he had reached the ridge himself, he swung his exhausted mount around to confirm the proximity of the Lakota and Cheyenne. To his eternal horror, he beheld the closest warriors overtake two troopers at the rear of his patrol and beat them to the ground with stone clubs. One of the fallen soldiers, a recent immigrant from Germany and only one month in the saddle, stood and began staggering in small looping circles. The man struggled to remove his pistol, but a Cheyenne spear pierced him cleanly through the breast and drove him down again. Ethan spun his panting horse around and commenced a ragged gallop down into the valley. Moments later he spotted Joshua and the appaloosa gesturing at him to follow them toward the swirling waters of Beaver Creek, now visible and seemingly within reach. When Ethan arrived at Joshua’s side, they renewed the desperate run to Beaver Creek together. Nearby, another trooper—a young man from Massachusetts with two Lakota arrows plunged deeply into his back—finally released his flagging grip on the saddle horn and tumbled clumsily off his mount into yellow waves of prairie grass where the merciful ground instantly shattered two vertebrae at the base of his skull.

When Joshua and Ethan arrived at Beaver Creek, with the sergeant and 16 remaining troopers trailing in disarray, they pivoted abruptly and raced along the stream, splashing in marshy pools swollen beyond the meandering shore. Joshua suddenly pulled up next to Ethan and reached across the narrow space separating them and tugged at the blue wool of his arm. Ethan glanced over to Joshua, who pointed behind them before slanting away from the creek and slowing to a walk. Ethan and the remaining troopers did the same.

Ethan, his horse shivering with exhaustion, spoke to Joshua without moving closer. “Where did they go? They were right behind us.”

Joshua scrutinized the ridge to the left, now some distance from Beaver Creek, and then scanned along the creek to the northeast. “I believe they are walking the same path we do, but on the other side of the hill.”

“Why are they doing this? They could have easily killed all of us.”

“They are taunting us. We should find protection quickly, because they will soon attack again. Some of the warriors may be moving in front of us now. We should cross Beaver Creek and move away from the hill.”

Joshua and the appaloosa trotted across the creek. Ethan and the sergeant followed without offering any commands, and the ragged line of troopers followed without speaking. Joshua turned at a gully littered with boulders and flanked with thorny bushes. Ethan and the sergeant pulled up next to him.

Joshua dismounted, removed his feathered cavalry hat, and coaxed his long black hair back over his shoulders. He swung around in a complete circle and studied the terrain, then appraised the position of the sun before walking to Ethan’s side. “It is not the best place, but the day will end soon and we do not have time to look for another. You are the soldier. Do you like this place?”

The leather of Ethan’s saddle chirped when he twisted back and forth to review the defensive possibilities of the rocky gully. “I agree it is not the best. I would prefer the high ground, but this is less exposed. I think we should make our stand here. Sergeant Doyle, do you have anything to add?”

The sergeant stiffened. “Yes, sir. Can you find another 50 troopers before dark? It would be a service, sir.”

Captain Ethan Plantagenet dismounted. “Sergeant, tie the horses up near those large boulders and spread the men out along both sides of the gully. Mr. Joshua Hotah, I want you at my side tonight. Right or wrong, we make our stand here. And may God help us.”

♦ ♦ ♦

The gloomy face of a new moon and the deafening howl of prairie wind offered little hope to the 19 men spread thinly along the jagged sides of the shallow gully. The sun plunged below the western horizon and bluish skies faded to murky blue then to inky blue then to terrifying blackness. During this darkest of nights, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors drew lots and then one-by-one waded noiselessly across Beaver Creek and crept silently over the grassy soil to the far ends of the gully where individual soldiers lay blind in the shadows of darkest midnight and deaf in the swirling rush of wind. And then one-by-one, the soldiers perished when a stony club crushed a man’s head or a sharpened blade slashed across his throat or a length of leather cut off the air from his gasping lungs. The silent killing proceeded down the lines of men throughout the dreadful night, and by dawn, when the rising sun finally dissolved the hideous shadows of night and the cool freshness of the morning diminished the relentless wind to a tender breeze, only Captain Ethan Plantagenet of the U.S. 2nd Cavalry and the half-breed named Joshua Hotah remained alive.

♦ ♦ ♦

Joshua slithered back to Ethan’s side and rolled over to his back. He raised his shoulder off a sharp rock and reported in a low voice, “It is as we feared. Everyone is dead. Only the two of us have survived this long night.”

Exhausted by lack of sleep but forced awake by apprehension, Ethan asked weakly, “The sergeant is dead too?”

“Yes. But I think he may have fought a little, because his throat is not slit and there is much blood on the ground. He may have stabbed his attacker before he died.” Then Joshua added, “Five of the soldiers are missing their balls.”

“The Indians took their ammunition?”

“Yes, they took their guns and ammunition too.”

Ethan pulled his Colt 1860 Army cap-and-ball revolver from its black-leather holster and rested it across his stomach. He had used the pistol throughout the Civil War, and found the familiarity of the polished steel barrel and hand-smoothed wood grips oddly comforting. “Not a pretty thought. Maybe we should try to make a run for it. We still have the horses. We could take two and scatter the rest to divert the Indians.”

Joshua considered this idea briefly. “A possibility, but I do not think our chances are good. We are probably surrounded and would have to ride through the Lakota and Cheyenne. The appaloosa might make it, but your horse probably would not.”

Ethan smiled darkly. “Any chance they will just let us go?”

“I would call it wishful thinking. But if we did run for it, maybe they would kill us in the saddle. Then we would not be captured and tortured to death. Maybe the men who died quickly during the night are the lucky ones today.”

Two gaunt ravens fluttered overhead and landed raucously in a scrawny cottonwood about thirty feet away. The ravens leered down at Ethan and Joshua, twisting their glossy heads right and left to improve the view. The raven to the left, the larger of the two, began issuing a strange chortling sound reminiscent of a contented cat while the other continued his thoughtful examination of the narrow ravine and the two men stretched out on the ground below.

Ethan removed his cavalry hat and pretended to adjust the sweat-soaked-dust-caked brim while watching the two ravens and listening to the odd sound. “Ravens have arrived to witness our demise. Do you think they know something we don’t?”

Joshua chuckled. “Ravens always know something we don’t. It is a bad sign. I have not had good luck with ravens around.”

Ethan carefully positioned the crumpled hat on his head. “I know what you mean. I felt pretty good about our situation myself until those two birds arrived. Now I’m really—” The raven to the right, the smaller of the two, exploded in a wing-flapping-squawking show of alarm. The other raven quickly joined in the display.

Joshua peeked above the rocks. A lone Sioux rider approached, a lance in one hand and a rifle in the other. The rider stopped about 30 strides from the shallow ravine and waited.

Ethan rolled and cocked the hammer of his Colt in the same smooth motion and prepared to take a shot. “I think I can hit him. I killed men at Shiloh from a greater distance while riding a horse. I ought to be able to shoot an Indian sitting still.”

Joshua reached over and pressed Ethan’s arm down. “Do not shoot.”

“Why? We might as well take a few of them with us.”

“He is my half-brother. I believe he has come to talk to us. Do not shoot.”

“Your half-brother?”

“Yes, our mother is the same.”

Ethan lowered the revolver until the barrel rested on a tuft of buffalo grass. “Astonishing. What’s his name? What do you think he wants?”

“Running Bear, and I think we should find out. Do not bring any guns.”

This alarmed Ethan. “I do not think it wise to walk out in the open without our weapons.”

“If you bring a gun, you will die. Our only chance is to walk out with empty hands. Put down your revolver and stand up.”

Ethan waited until his hand had flinched a few times, then sucked in a deep breath and exhaled and set the Colt gently on the ground and stood. Joshua stood in unison then rested his Henry repeating rifle against a rock with a melodramatic flourish. They advanced side-by-side to talk to Running Bear. When they had reached a small mound covered with wildflowers about two strides in front of the horse, they stopped. Joshua waited for his half-brother to begin the conversation.

After an unpleasant delay, Running Bear frowned and said, “Txay huh wan chee youn kay shnee.” (I did not see you for a long time)

Joshua raised his chin to see his half-brother’s face better. “Cante waste nape ciyuzapo.” (I greet you from my heart)

Running Bear waited again. “You would have died last night if I had not convinced the others to spare your life.”

“I thank you for sparing our lives, my brother, but what have you to tell us now?”

“Because we share the same mother, you may leave, but the soldier must stay.”

“The soldier is my friend. I will not leave him here so you can cut off his balls like you did to the others. You must let both of us leave, or kill us both together.”

This surprised Running Bear. He drove the lance into the ground in anger. Ethan touched Joshua’s arm. “What did you just say to him?”

Joshua snarled at Ethan without taking his eyes off his half-brother. “It is none of your business what I say or do not say to my brother.”

Running Bear chuckled. “Your friend is very stupid. Does he know what danger he is in?”

Joshua smirked, “Yes, the white man is stupid in many ways, but very clever in other ways you do not appreciate. You would do well not to underestimate him.”

Running Bear nodded slightly. “I do not have the heart to kill you today, even if you deserve it for helping the soldiers invade our lands and kill our buffalo.”

“Then you must let us both go. I will not leave without my friend.”

Running Bear glanced back at the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors waiting hidden behind the crest of the hill. “You are very presumptuous, but I must honor our mother. You may go with your friend, but the horses must stay.”

“It is a long walk. You should allow us to take one horse.”

“The horses are the price you must pay to live. Now leave before it is too late.”

“Thank you my brother. Until we meet again.”

Running Bear’s countenance dimmed. “I must tell you, child of my mother, the next time we meet I will kill you. You are given only this one chance.”

Joshua Hotah nodded. “I understand. Then I shall pray we do not meet again.” He pulled Ethan’s arm. “Start walking away from here. Do not look back. Do not say a word. Walk quickly, but not too fast.”

“I need to fetch my Colt.”

“No, you must leave everything here. We cannot take the chance.”

“No horses?”

“This is the agreement, but I think we will see the appaloosa again—after she throws her new rider to the ground and follows after us.”

Joshua Hotah and Captain Ethan Plantagenet hiked south until they reached Sappa Creek then southwesterly. The appaloosa joined them, as Joshua had predicted, about two miles before they rediscovered the wagon wheel tracks that had originally led them to disaster. They took turns riding the horse. They talked about many things. They smoked General Sherman’s cigar. And eventually the wheel tracks led them to Fort Wallace, about 40 miles from the massacre in the gully. They arrived at the fort hungry and dehydrated, but alive. Joshua waited outside an impressive stone building while Ethan gave an abbreviated report to the fort commander. They ate and drank separately, and then each slept for nearly two days—again separately.

Ethan discovered Joshua early in the morning a day later, preparing to leave with the appaloosa. He greeted him with renewed vigor. “Good morning Joshua. Where are you going?”

Joshua slipped a new Henry repeating rifle, donated by a sergeant at the fort armory, into a leather saddle sheath. He answered without turning his head. “Your sergeant has replaced my lost rifle, and for this I am grateful.” Then he turned. “I am no longer a scout. Today I head west, then maybe north.”

Ethan felt a tinge of melancholy. “What will you do? You’re a damn good scout, if anyone would care to listen to you. You should reconsider.”

“Thank you for saying it, but I have decided to look for my father and mother. I lost them some years ago, and it is time to find them again.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No. This is something only I can do, but thank you.”

Ethan held out his hand. “Then goodbye, my friend.”

Joshua grasped Ethan’s hand and they squeezed without shaking. “Yes, goodbye my friend.”

Joshua Hotah mounted the appaloosa, kicked the feisty animal in the loins, and trotted through the open gate. He rode about a mile before circling west. With the sun warming his back and cumulus clouds rising in the distance, he began the search for his parents.

Rich Ritter discovered a passion for writing during his tumultuous high school years. This zeal was consumed by technical writing during his lifelong profession as an architect until the age of 49, when he began work on his first novel. Ritter was born in Iowa, raised in the social cauldron of Southern California, completed his architecture degree (Cal Poly SLO) in Denmark, and is a 40-year Alaska resident.