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Authors: Phoebe Conn

Tags: #Indian captivities, #Dakota Indians

Tender savage (11 page)

BOOK: Tender savage
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As they raced back into town. Erica had no idea her cousin's thoughts were focused upon her. She kept looking at the bluff behind them, thinking it provided perfect cover for an attack. "This is an awful mess, isn't it, Gunter? I never realized what the people in the South are going through with battles raging all around them."

Gunter dared not admit how little that prospect frightened him, that he had been so caught up in the excitement of preparing for an attack that he had had no time to be afraid. "Henry Behnke has already gone to get help from St. Peter and the other towns nearby. I think we'll be able to gather enough men to come out of this all right."

"Oh, so do II" Erica agreed optimistically. "Just see you don't take any chances."

That she seemed truly worried about him pleased Gunter enormously. "I won't," he promised. When they reached the hotel, he carried the basket of food inside, then

went back to work on the barricades.

As long as they had li^ht, the women sharing the corner room with Britta and Erica joined in working on the quilt. When the hour grew late, none found it easy to sleep.

While the citizens of New Ulm frantically gathered their meager resources to defend their city, the situation that Monday was no less desperate at Fort Ridgely. Lieutenant Gere, the nineteen-year-old left in command by Captain Marsh, was ill with the mumps. Although it was a military outpost built to house army troops near the Sioux reservation, the fort had no stockade. It was a collection of detached buildings: a two-story stone barracks, a commissary, frame quarters for officers, the commandant, and post surgeon, a log hospital and log houses for civilians, and numerous other buildings with varying purposes. The main structures were grouped around a parade ground on open terrain, making them nearly impossible to defend. Deep ravines cut into the prairie on the east, north, and southwest, providing easy access for the Indians.

Around noon, when settlers seeking protection from the Indians were just beginning to reach the fort, a stagecoach carrying $71,000 in gold, the money the government owed the Sioux, arrived. Gere had the kegs of gold hidden, since, tragically, they had arrived one day too Tate to forestall the uprising.

The population of the fort had grown by more than two hundred with the influx of refugees by the time the first of Marsh's troops returned with the news of his tra^c death. Lieutenant Gere then sent another dispatch to Lieutenant Sheehan entreating him to hurry his return. He also sent a rider to notify the commanding officer at Fort Snelling and Governor Alexander Ramsey, alerting them to their dire situation and requesting immediate reinforcements. While carrying that message. Private William J. Sturgis passed through the town of St Peter, and finding the Indian Agent, Thomas J. Galbraith, there with his newly recruited Renville Rangers, sent them back to help out at the fort.

Had the Indians gone from the Lower Agency directly to Fort Ridgely, they would surely have taken it on

August 18. Fortunately for the few army personnel in residence, and for those others who had taken refuge there, the Indians paused first to celebrate their victories. When Little Crow and his braves drew near the fort on Tuesday morning, August 19, the chief, along with Mankato and Big Eagle, urged an immediate attack upon the fort. Many of the younger men had another goal, however, and wished to attack New Ulm, where there would be stores to loot and pretty young women to capture. While the Indians argued. Lieutenant Sheehan and his men arrived at the fort followed by Galbraith and his fifty Rangers. The beleaguered fort then had a hundred eighty men to defend it.

Viper coul not believe there were men among his friends who were more concerned with gathering spoils than with dealing the United States Army another stunning defeat. 'Tort Ridgely is the most natural target," he argued persuasively. "It is the army who enforces the government's policies, and it is the army who deserves to suffer, not the fat shopkeepers of New Ulml"

Growling Bear was not convinced. "If I am going to fight, it is my right to say where!"

Viper shook his head, for he could see the futility of arguing with so stubborn a man. Unlike army Droops, Indian braves were not compelled to follow their leaders. They kept their independence at all times, even in the heat of battle. They might follow a respected chief on one day and not on another if they so chose. No man criticized another's actions, for all believed each man was accountable only to himself. How could one man hope to change the tradition of centuries? Viper wondered. "Look," he finally pointed out, "if we are going to sweep the white man from Minnesota, then we must destroy each army outpost on our soil. If we attack in full force we can take Fort Ridgely as easily as we did the agency, but we cannot fight halfa dozen battles up and down the river until each man has stolen whatever booty he wants and goes home!"

"What is the point of fighting if I do not get what I want?' Growling Bear conanued.

"What you want is not important," Viper insisted once again. "All that matters is that we defeat the army again today. Now, before reinforcements can arrivel" The Indian knew he was right. He knew what he was saying

was the truth, and he was also wise enough to see his friends would never grasp the importance of a quick strike with deadly force. "We are not counting coup here, Growling Bear. No one will award you eagle feathers for touching a trooper. Instead, you must kill him. All that matters is that we take the fort so that the arms stored there can't be used against us."

Growling Bear would readily admit that Viper was far more eloquent than he. Tradition, however, did not demand that he persuade others to his cause with brave speeches, and he made no attempt to do so. "I will do what I think best, and you are free to follow your own conscience. Viper. That is as it should be."

"Not in a war, if we are to have any hope of winning!" Viper cried out in frustration.

That response amazed Growling Bear, and he shook his head sadly. "We have never had any chance of winning. Our only hope is to take what we can. That is what I mean to do."

Viper watched Hunted Stag follow Growling Bear as he walked away before turning to Two Elk. "Well, what about you? Are you going to stay here to attack the fort with Little Crow, or do you want to join the others headed for New Ulm?"

Two Elk was torn by indecision. He wanted the things he knew they could take from the prosperous town, but he also wanted to keep his best friend's res|:>ect. In the end, it was that desire that proved to be the stronger. "I will fight by your side," he announced calmly, and his heart filled with pride when Viper rewarded him with a grateful smile.

While neither his expression or his words showed it, Viper was also facing a painful dilemma. He truly believed, as Little Crow did, that striking the fort was imperative. He also had a better reason to go to New Ulm than any of the other braves, since he knew a woman there well worth taking captive. If he went with the group heading down the river, no one would criticize him for it, but he was not a man who put his desires before his ideals. As he walked slowly around the camp, he overheard at least a dozen repetitions of the same argument he had had with his friends. When finally the younger braves broke off from the others, he was p>ositive their cause was

doomed to fail. There were too few going to New Ulm to put the city in any real danger, and with no chief to lead them, they would be unlikely to plot a clever enough strategy to succeed.

When the small force of Sioux attacked New Ulm on the afternoon of Au^st 19, they took cover on the bluff overlooking the city and began firing from well-protected positions. The newly organized militia, their number augmented by men from St. Peter, bravely held their own, although some had to leave the security of the barricades to drive back the attacking force. When a thunderstorm struck late in the day and the Indians withdrew, the citizen soldiers felt a substantial victory was theirs. That some of the houses at the northern end of town had been burned did not seem a great loss, except to the owners.

That night another one hundred twenty-five men. Frontier Guards from St. Peter and Le Sueur, reached New Ulm. With them were three physicians. When Dr. William W. Mayo of Le Sueur and William R. McMahan of Mankato chose one of the front rooms of the Dacotah House as a hospital. Erica quickly introduced herself and volunteered to help them.

"My father is a physician," she explained proudly. "I often helped him in emergencies, and since there are wounded to tend, I'd like to help you see to them." She knew she could be of real service, and the activity would keep her mind from dwelling on what she feared would be an mevitable confrontation with Viper.

Dr. Mayo glanced over at his newly acquired partner. The young woman's smile was so utterly charming he saw no reason not to grant her request, and he could tell from Dr. McMahan's appreciative glance that he agreed. "We're delighted to have your help, Miss Hanson. Why don't you see if there are any other women without small children to tend who would also be willing to act as nurses? There were five wounded this afternoon, and that's far too many for one young woman to tend."

"I'll go and ask right now," Erica agreed, but while she found two ladies who reluctantly volunteered to help watch over the wounded men, they were so squeamish a

pair that she knew should the doctors have to perform any surgery, she would have to be the one to assist them.

There had been six fatalities that day, one of them a thirteen-year-old girl who had foolishly dashed out into the street in the midst of the battle. Erica felt Emilie's death had been senseless. She could not help but wonder if the girl had merely been hit by a stray buflet or if some brave had deliberately aimed for her. From the tales she had heard from the settlers who had fled their farms, the Indians had no qualms about killing women and children. That was so despicable a practice it sickened her thoroughly.

Unfortunately, Erica found that having useful work to do did not stop her from worrying. While enough armed men had been gathered to defend the town from the first attack, how would they fare if the Sioux returned again and again? Would the town eventually be overrun despite their best efforts to prevent such a crushing defeat? Tliey were relying upon the men to protect them now, but what if so many men were wounded or killed that the women had to protect themselves? Would she be able to pick up a rifle and shoot an Indian if her life depended upon it? Perhaps the Sioux's hatred of whites had real justification, but she had no reason to despise Indians, although the violence of their actions terrified her. Would fear be a strong enough motivation to inspire her to pull the trigger? With a shudder of dread she realized those were not questions she wanted answered.

Her head aching from the turbulence of her fears. Erica remained awake all night, seated at the bedside of the most seriously injured man. Late that afternoon sixteen men had left the city to scout the farms along the Cottonwood River hoping to gather intelligence as well as to rescue survivors. Upon their return they had met with disaster when eleven of their number were slain in an ambush just outside of town. Erica knew they couldn't afford to lose any men, let alone nearly a dozen. She didn't even know how to fire a gun, but she couldn't shake the horrible premonition that she was going to have to learn, and fast. That her target would undoubtedly be Viper only added to her fright.

Viper found it difficult to hide his smile as the braves who had been defeated at New Ulm returned empty-handed to Little Crow's camp. None wished to discuss their failed expedition, but they were now ready to join in the attack planned for the next day at Fort Ridgely, without argument.

The afternoon of August 20, while Little Crow took a smaller group to create a diversion in the west, Viper was with the main body of four hundred Sioux approaching the fort along the ravine on the east. With loudly shrieked war whoops they stormed the northeast comer of the fort, taking several of the outbuildings. The soldiers grouped on the parade ground were trapped by the braves' fire, until Lieutenant Sheehan ordered them to take cover and fire at will.

Squinting into the smoke that swirled about them. Viper chose his targets with his usual care, while all around him men fired their weapons indiscriminately. Being more observant than many of the others, he was the first to see the artillery pieces being rolled out, and while he was uncertain how much damage the two twelve-pound mountain howitzers could do, he swiftly found out as their shells exploded nearby with a thunderous roar. Knowing it would take more than rifle fire to seize more ground now, he joined the others in dropping back to the ravine.

Little Crow found himself facing cannon fire on the west and also had to retreat to a sate distance. Rifle fire continued until nightfall, however, when the Indians abandoned their positions and returned to the Lower Agency. The artillery pieces had frightened them all, for they had not anticipated that the army would have such {X)werful weapons. When rain kept them from attacking again on the twenty-first, the chief used the time wisely to gather more braves, swelling his forces to eight hundred. If he could not beat the army in firepower, he could nevertheless outnumber them and pray that advantage would be enough to insure a victory.

Friday, August 22 found Viper again ready to attack Fort Ridgely. With several others he crawled on his belly through the prairie grass to get close enough to shoot flaming arrows into the roofs of the buildings. Still soaked by the previous day's rain, the roofs stubbornly refused to ignite, and the few fires the Indians did start were quickly put out by the fort's defenders.

Now that Little Grow had doubled his strength, his strategy was a simple one: he planned to lay down a blanket of continuous fire, rush the fort, and defeat the whites in hand-to-hand combat. To begin the assault, a group of braves reached the stable, which provided fine cover, but when artillery shells set the buildings aflame, they were forced to retreat. Next to be set ablaze was the sutler's home when the Sioux attempted to use it for cover. Realizing that any other building they took would undoubtedly meet the same fate, they swiftly abandoned that strategy.

BOOK: Tender savage
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