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Authors: Phoebe Conn

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BOOK: Tender savage
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When rumors of the uprising reached the Upper Agency the afternoon of August 18, there was no agent in residence and the whites at first found it impossible to believe re|X)rts of the massacre. At the same time, the Indians living in the vicinity of the Yellow Medicine River just below the agency were engaged in heated argument over whether or not to join the Lower Sioux in the uprising.

Urging peace was John Other Day, who was married to a white woman and had mixed-blood children. Also opposed to the war was Little Paul, the speaker of the Upper Sioux. When they could not sway the majority opinion to their view, they left to warn whites before the

war council was over. John Other Day gathered the people at the agency into the warehouse, stood guard over them all night, then led them to safety across the Minnesota River the next morning. Little Paul made his way to the outlying missions of Dr. Thomas S. Williamson and the Reverend Stephen R. Riggs to spread word of the uprising and urge whites to seek refuge at Fort Ridgely. While his news was met with disbelief by the doctor and the missionary, his warnings were reluctantly heeded, and the white residents of the Upper Agency were spared the full wrath of the uprising their counterparts at the Lower Agency had suffered.

While the other braves celebrated their victory on the night of the eighteenth. Viper sat quietly by himself. He was leaning back against a tree, his rifle balanced across his knees. All around him men were getting drunk on the whiskey they had taken from the traders' stores. He had gotten drunk only once, but that experience had been enough to teach him he didn't want to drink whiskey ever again. He had been fourteen, out hunting with his uncle when the man had produced a bottle of whiskey. The vile stuff had burned his throat, but then warmed his insides sufficiently to inspire him to risk taking another drink, and then another. He could not recall the rest of the evening, but he had awakened in the morning so sick he had feared he was dying. His uncle had laughed at his pain and encouraged him to drink the last drops of whiskey left in his bottle, but Viper had refused. Now, more than ten years later, he still refused to take another drink.

He was not certain how many of the army men he had killed, since too many others had been firing at the same time. His friends had been right apparently: the army had few men to send against them. Those they had sent had died quickly. He had been impressed by the bravery of the officer who had led the troopers. That a man of such courage had drowned made it clear that the river had chosen to help them win the fight. That thought brought the first smile of the day to his lips, for Viper had a special fondness for the river.

While he would accept help from any quarter, Viper

knew the Army trained its men to be well disciplined, to follow orders, and to function as a ^oup, whereas warfare was a far different matter for the Sioux. It was the heroic deeds of the individual, "counting coup," which mattered most to them. Despite their far more loosely organized structure, they had done very well that day. They had had the element of surprise on their side, though, in addition to a vast superiority of numbers. While his friends drank themselves into a helpless stupor, Viper sat by himself wondering just how lon§ those advantages would last.

If the soldiers at Fort Ridgely died as quickly as those he had seen that day. Viper knew there would be nothing to stop them from retaking the entire river valley. The farmers at Milford would put up little resistance, and surely the residents of New Ulm would fare no better. Viper closed his eyes as memories of Erica suddenly flooded his mind. There wasn't a brave among them who was stupid enough to shoot a woman as pretty as she, but what if another man took her captive? That possibility filled his heart with dread, and the gray-eyed Indian swore to himself the slender blonde would fall into no man's hands but his own. He had not considered taking her against her will before that day, but he had not dreamed war was so close at hand, either. During a war, anything might happen. A white woman might even fall in love with an Indian brave if the man were clever enough to make it happen.

None of the advice Song of the Wren had gotten from her mother had proved of any help in winning Viper's heart, but the clever girl knew that when drunk a man might do many things he would not do when sober. If Viper were to get very drunk that night, she planned to seize that opportunity and make certain he awakened to find he was her husband. She felt a slight twinge of conscience at the thought of tricking the man into becoming her spouse, but she was tired of waiting for him to become enamored of her on his own. She was positive that if they could only spend some time together he would fall in love with her, since so many of his friends found her charming. Because of the war, she knew she had not a moment to lose. During

the fighting he could easily meet a woman from another village but if he already had a wife, then he would come home to her at the war's end.

When she found Viper seated alone beneath a tree. Wren observed the stillness of his pose for a moment, then, certain he had joined the others in getting drunk before stag^ring off by himself, she rushed forward and knelt by his side. "Viper? she whispered anxiously, hoping to lure him to a more secluded spot where either he would make love to her, or in the morning when he saw her tears, he would assume that he had, and offer marriage. It seemed the perfect plan, until Viper turned toward her and spoke.

*Tou should be with your mother tonight. Wren. I do not know half of these braves, and I am certain your parents would not want you to know them, either. I will find your brother to walk you back to your tepee." Viper was annoyed to have his thoughts interrupted by a young woman prowling about alone, but he had no intention of taking responsibility for her himself and rose to his feet.

Song of the Wren knew instantly she had made a terrible mistake, for it was now plain Viper had not been drinking at all. Fearing he would guess what she had planned to do, her face grew hot with shame. She leaped to her feet, but as she turned to flee, she slammed right into the broad chest of a brawny iM-ave, who, looking for a place to relieve himself, had stepped away from his companions. He laughed when he saw she was pretty, and pulling her into his arms, he tried to kiss her.

Viper recognized the man as one from Shakopee's camp, but he did not hesitate before calling out to him, "Let the woman gol"

The brave, like Viper, was in his late twenties. A heavy-set individual, he scanned Viper's lean build and made the mistake of thinking he could fight him for the woman and win. "Is she your wife?" he asked first, for he would not cause any trouble over a married woman.

"It does not matter who she is," Viper responded. "Let her go."

"Clearly, she is looking for a man. If it is not you, then it will be me," the brave bragged with a deep chuckle.

Song of the Wren struggled to break free, but the poun(hng of her fists made no marks on the brute's chest

and little impression upon his whiskey-clouded mind. She turned toward Viper, her tear-filled eyes imploring him to defend her.

The brave held Wren securely, and Viper dared not fire his rifle or draw his knife for fear of striking her. Why the silly creature had left her tepee at that late hour he didn't know, but he would not allow his friend's sister to come to harm. "This is not your camp, but mine. Release her, or you will not live to see the dawn."

Even in his drunken state, the seriousness of Viper's expression as he spoke that threat prompted the man to reconsider. He had been drinking a great deal and had wanted only to have fun, not make trouble. While he still thought he could beat the brave who faced him in a fight, he doubted the brief pleasure the woman would provide would be worth the trouble that would surely follow. With a disgusted sneer, he released Wren and went stumbling off to complete his original errand before rejoining his friends.

Mortified, Song of the Wren threw herself into Viper's arms and began to weep hu^e tears. She had wanted Viper to notice her, but not like thisl Now her only hope was tnat he did care something for her and would speak of his own accord. She murmured soft words of praise for his kindness against his bare chest, but he did not respond as she had hoped he would.

Viper wasted no time in prying Wren's arms from around his neck, but rather than searching out Hunted Stag he escorted her back to her tepee himself. Without scolding, or wishing her a goodnight, he left her there and went to find a place to rest where his solitude would not again be interrupted.

Wren dried her tears before slipping inside the lepee. Her father was celebrating with his friends and her mother and sisters were sleeping soundly, so she knew the sorry fact that her plan to become Viper's wife had met with disaster would never be discovered. That thought did not console her, however. She still wanted the han£ome brave for her husband, and vowed she would not give up until she found a way to melt the icy coldness of his heart with the warmth of her love.

On Monday morning, August 18, curiosity about a commotion out in the street drew Erica from behind the counters of the dry goods store. The cause of the excitement proved to be a recruiting party getting ready to depart. The men were riding in several wagons and had brought along a brass band to better then* chances of finding volunteers for the Union Army among the inhabitants of the outlying prairie farms. They were an enthusiastic group, and while there had been a time when Erica would have joined the other residents of New Ulm in waving and shouting encouragement to them, she no longer had any interest in seeing men go off to fight in the war and quickly returned to her duties.

Karl Ludwig saw his niece slip back into the store, but he made no move to follow her until the recruiting party had started on its way. The music had lured more than the usual number of people to the center of town, and any time a crowd gathered it had always proven to be good for business. Anticipating a profitable morning, he returned to work in an ebullient mood. He walked up to the yardage counter where Erica was busy sorting thread hoping to discover why she hadn't shown more interest in the unexpected entertainment. She spent so much time by herself, he was surprised she had not wanted to mingle with the crowd, as he had.

"What's the matter, child, don't you like music?" he

f

asked with a warm smile, which kept his question from sounding critical.

"I love music," Erica replied, "buti thought all the men who wanted to be soldiers from around here had already enlisted. Is there anyone left for that noisy bunch to recruit?"

"You've a point there, my dear," Karl admitted. "Of course, there are always boys like Gunter, who may have recently had a birthday and may now be old enough to join the Army."

That her shy cousin might have such a dream had never even occurred to Erica. "Gunter doesn't want to enlist, does he?" she asked with a worried frown.

"No, not yet, but he just might decide that's what he wants if all his friends do."

"Would you allow it?" Erica doubted that her aunt and uncle would, since they doted on their only child.

Karl shrugged as he supplied a philosopical reply. "When Gunter is old enough to join the army, I hope he will be man enough to mauke his own decisions."

"Well, yes, of course," Erica agreed. "But you'd try and influence him to say here, wouldn't you?"

"Of course I would, but like I said, he'll be a man soon, and a man has to listen to his own conscience rather than his father's."

The expected influx of customers interrupted their conversation then, but Erica simply couldn't imagine her bashful cousin ever having the courage to ffre a gun at anyone. Not wishing to dwell on so gruesome a prospect, the lively blonde forced such dark thoughts aside and waited on their customers with her usual cheerful smile. She had gptten very good at hiding her thoughts, she realized with some amazement, but her heart had not softened one bit where Mark was concerned, and any talk of the war always reminded her instantly of him. She had answered his letter with an equally stilted reply and was yet still wondering what he would send in return.

Because of the increase in business, Erica did not leave the store promptly at noon. She was still in town when the recruiting party returned without having completed its prof)osed route. The men had traveled within five miles of Milford, a small town upriver, when they had been

ambushed by Sioux from the Lower Agency. The high-spirited group had just begun to cross a bridge spanning a ravine when suddenly they were caught in a murderous crossfire. With four of their number dead, the survivors had wheeled the wagons around and raced back to New Ulm. Following close on their heels were families who had hastily abandoned their farms to dash for the safety the German settlement would provide. They readily confirmed the recruiters' shocking report of an Indian uprising.

For the second time that day the residents of New Ulm gathered in the street, but there was no laughter on anyone's lips now. All were horrified to learn a rampage had begun at the Lower Agency and was rapidly spreading beyond its boundaries. The recruiters' wagons were splattered with the blood of the four victims. As the survivors excitedly recounted the tale of the ambush, Erica was stricken first with panic and then seized with nearly suffocating feelings of guilt. That she had befriended an Indian brave, kissed him quite willingly, suddenly seemed like such a horrible mistake that she felt like a traitor to her own kind. She and Viper had not been enemies then, so she knew she shouldn't think of herself as having betrayed her own people. Still, she feared she had unwittingly committed some terrible crime. She couldn't help but wonder if Viper had taken part in the ambush. Had he been one of the Indians hidden in the underbrush, lurking in the shadows, waiting for some unsuspecting traveler to appear? Would he stoop to treachery as low as that?

The handsome brave had made no attempt to hide his anger at the United States government. Apparently he was not the only one who could no longer hold his hatred in check. That the Indians would strike out at innocent farmers and hapless musicians nonetheless appalled her. Despite her fears that she knew one of the Indians responsible for the day's carnage. Erica remained in the street listening spellbound as the people pouring into New Ulm told stories of such barbaric butchery that she knew they had to be speaking the truth. Without warning the Sioux had gone on a wild killing spree, and with growing horror the distraught blonde realized that the Indians were moving south and that New Ulm lay directly in their path.

Karl put his arm around Erica's shoulders to turn her away from the crowd as he spoke. "I'm going to help Sheriff Ross and Jacob Nix organize the men with rifles. I want you to run home and tell Britta and Gunter to leave whatever it is they are doing undone and come to the store at once. Just tell them there's trouble with the Sioux, but don't waste any time giving them the details before they get here."

Erica nodded. "I understand." A nervous smile quivered briefly across her lips as she hurried away. "Dear God," she whispered softly to herself as she sp)ed down the street. It had been a litde more than ten years since the Sioux had signed over much of their lands to the government. Had such murderous anger as they had displayed today been seething in their hearts all that time? If so, the fury they had unleashed was lon^ overdue but why had no one at the agency had the foresight to warn the settlers of the impending peril before it was too late? That question only added to her feelings of guilt, for if she had not shut Viper out of her life so quickly he might have warned her of what was to come. "Oh, I am being very foolishi" she scolded. The man was an Indian, and he would not have provided her with information that could be used against his people to save hersl Her head aching from a jumble of painfully conflicting thoughts, Eriga dashed up the back steps of her uncle's home praying both her aunt and cousin would be there.

Britta was a jjerceptive woman and needed no more than one glance at Erica's terror-filled expression to fear that the worst had happened. "My God, Erica, what's wron^?" she cried as she rushed to her side. "Has somethmg happened to Karl?"

Erica shook her head, out of breath from running and unable to find her voice for a moment. "Uncle Karl's fine. He wants you and Gunter to come down to the store at once. Indians attacked the Lower Agency this morning, then struck at farms and people on the road. Now come, you must hurry 1"

Britta's fair complexion turned ashen as she listened to her niece's report. "But that's absurdi We've been here all these years and—"

Erica stepped behind her aunt to untie her apron. "Yes, and I'm certain you'll be here many more, but right now

you're needed at the store. Where's Gunter?"

"Down by the river I think. Oh no! Oh Erica, we'll have to find himl"

"I'll find him, don't worry. Now you go on down to the store and Gunter and I will be there in just a few minutes." While she had to take her aunt's hands and pull her out the door, Erica finally succeeded in setting the woman on her way. She then raced all the way down to the docks where talk of the uprising was as desperate as it was in town. Since goods for the store arrived by boat, it wasn't unusual for Gunter to be down at the waterfront, but Erica saw no sign of him. She walked up and down, waited a few minutes, then decided Gunter was smart enough to know he should look for his father the minute he had heard about the uprising. With that thought in mind she hurried the several blocks back into town where she found her cousin at work building barricades on Minnesota Street.

He waved when he saw her, and Erica gestured for him to come close enough for them to talk without having to yell. "Does your father know where you are?" she asked immediately.

"Yes," Gunter replied with an exasperated sigh. "Look, they need all the men they can find to set up barricades. You just go on back to the store and stay put. I'm needed here."

While she was surprised that her cousin suddenly considered himself among New Ulm's adult male population. Erica didn't ridicule him for it. He was obviously strong enough to be of real help, and in an emergency that was all that mattered. "I'm on my way there now," she replied in a far more polite tone than he had used with her. "I just wanted to make certain your parents wouldn't be worried about you."

"Well, just make certain they don't have reason to worry about you, either," Gunter warned pointedly as he turned away.

Erica nearly screamed in frustration, she was so insulted by that unwanted piece of advice. There was no reason for her aunt and uncle to be worried about her, none whatsoever in her opinion, but she knew why her cousin had said what he had, and her cheeks burned with shame at the memory of what he had seen.

Once she reached the store. Erica learned their situation

was even more desperate than it had at first appeared. There were no more than forty men with firearms, and while they had been hastily organized into militia units, that didn't change the alarming fact that their number was pitifully small. To lighten their nearly impossible burden of defending the city, it had been decided to gather everyone into the center of town, since the brick structures there would be far easier to defend than individual frame houses.

After checking with her uncle, who was busy taking sin inventory of the ammunition he had on hand. Erica joined her aunt in the Dacotah House, a two-story frame hotel that had been designated as the meeting place for women and children. The hotel quickly became so crowded that the women began to discard their hoop skirts to make more room for later arrivals. That fashion was one of the first casualties of the war didn't surprise Erica, since she had already found the hooped garments ill suited to the way of life she had adopted in New Ulm.

Standing at the window of a second-floor bedroom gazing out at the homes that dotted the gently sloping landscape. Erica found it impossible to reconcile the peaceful scene before her with the threat of attack. From where she stood she could also watch the progress on the barricades. The workers were using barrels and planks and whatever could be found to enclose the central part of the city.

Erica felt deeply troubled that the ugliness of war might soon touch so tranquil a setting. When a little red-haired girl handed her an apple she whisp)ered a strained, "Thank you," and slipped it into her pocket for later. Feeding everyone would be an immense problem, she knew, but she doubted any of them would have much appetite.

"How could it have come to this?" Britta asked her companions, but they all shared her shock and looked as helpless as she to explain the sudden outbreak of violence.

"The Indians were pushed too far," Erica finally responded when no one else spoke up. "They've been treated unfairly all along, but they should not have been expected to wait forever for their yearly payment of food and money."

The little redhead's mother, a buxom woman in a faded

green dress, tcx)k immediate exception to that remark. "You aren't taking their side, are you?"

When Erica turned to reply, she found every eye in the room was focused squarely upon her. None of the glances were friendly, either. Clearly this was not a group who wanted to discuss causes of the uprising in dispassionate terms. They were all too close. It was their farms that were being threatened, their neighbors who were being murdered. Feeling curiously detached from the other women's plight, she continued. "Certainly not," she assured the woman calmly. "Whatever has caused the uprising, I'm not condonin|f it. A war is rightly fought between opposing armies on a battlefiel(C not by unwarranted attacks upon helpless civilians." When that reassurance satisfied the group that she was not defending the Indians' actions after all, the conversation turned to more practical considerations such as feeding the children. Relieved to no longer be the center of attention. Erica decided she would be wise to keep her opinions to herself in the future.

She wasn't certain what had prompted her to mention the Sioux's grievances, although it had been her uncle, not Viper, who had explained them to her. Her comments had surprised her nearly as much as they had her companions, ana she had swifdy learned she would have to be more careful to keep her thoughts to herself in the future. She had never been the secretive type until she had come to New Ulm, and the effort to keep so many things hidden was hurting her conscience badly.

As she remained at the window watching for the danger she prayed would not appear, she recalled the bitterness of Viper's expression when she had bid him good-bye. Did he ever think of her with any emotion except hatred? Whatever part he might be playing in the upnsine, if he came to New Ulm would he look for her? That she had no idea whether he would want her dead or very much alive was so frightening that she shivered with dread and turned away from the window.

"I should have brought the quilt I've been working on," Britta remarked absently. The afternoon was warm, and simply waiting for the Indians to attack the town while her apprehension rose to paralyzing heights struck Erica as the very worst of pastimes.

When her aunt's comment provided an excuse to leave

the crowded hotel, Erica immediately took it. She knelt down beside Britta and whispered softly, "There's not an Indian in si^ht. I'm sure I could run home and get the quilt. Anythmg else you'd like to have?"

"Oh no. I can't ask you to go out on such a foolish errand." Britta was embarrassed even to have mentioned the quilt now.

"I won't begone more than ten minutes. Now just tell me what to bring and I'll go and get it," the lively blonde insisted. "It will help us all to have something to do."

Britta chewed her lower lip nervously, not wanting to put her niece at risk merely to ease her own boredom. "Are you sure there's no sign of Indians as yet?"

"Positive," Erica swore convincingly.

"Well then, I would like to work on the quilt. You know where I keep my sewing. You ought to bring back what food you can carry, too; that new cheese would be good."

Erica patted her aunt's hands, thinking as she had so many times that Britta and her mother were very much alike. Her mother had been lovely, but she had never been given io deep introspection on any subject. Erica had learned at an early age that if she wanted sensible answers to her questions she would have to ask her father, for she had quickly surpassed her mother's store of knowledge. Now here they were, in the very real danger of being murdered by Indians, and Britta wanted to do a bit of quilting. Her reasons for volunteering to go home were far different, however. Erica had suddenly decided she wanted the daw Viper had given her, for surely this was the perfect time to rely upon the value of a good luck charm provided by an Indian. If it would work any magic at all, then she wanted to have it handy.

Certain her brief absence would not be missed. Erica sped out the back door of the Dacotah House. But before she had taken five paces Gunter grabbed her arm, stopping her in midstride. "Just where do you think you're going?" he asked, as though he had some right to know.

Erica was too embarrassed to admit the truth, so she made up a convenient lie. "We need something for the little ones to eat. I'm on my way to our house to pick up some food."

Gunter frowned slightly, then, after finding no threat in any direction, he decided to go with her. "I'm getting

hungry myself. Fll go with you just in case there's trouble."

Rather than argue that he was unarmed and would be of little value should trouble in the form of hostile Indians overtake them, Erica accepted his company as unavoidable. "Let's hurry." She had to take two steps to each one of his, but once they reached their house she left him iri the kitchen while she dashed upstairs. The claw lay right where she had left it in the bottom of her stationery box. That day its wicked tip looked even more fearsome than she had recalled, but she hurriedly shoved it into her pocket. Then on an impulse she scooped up the little carving of a cougar Gunter had made for her and dropped it into her pocket, too, thinking she could use some of the animal's fierce spirit as much as an Indian brave.

After making himself a generous sandwich, Gunter had put bread, cheese, and a ham in a basket while Erica had been upstairs. When he saw her carrying the fabric satchel containing his mother's sewing, it didn't occur to him that she had said she was coming to get food. "Let's go. We don't want to be caught alone here in the house." Yet as she slid past him to go out the door, the subtle fragrance that clung to Erica's clothes teased his senses so seductively that he suddenly wished there were some way for them to remain alone there together.

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