Red Hand Synopsis
As the warriors rode into camp covered with the blood of the 7th Cavalry, the Sioux princess held her new born high into the air. He would be a witness to this victory; he would remember his legacy. She would call him Red Hand.
Beginning in the 1870′s, Red Hand is a vivid and moving tale of a half white, half Sioux boy whose white father was killed when he was an infant. It is only after he becomes a young man that he resolves to go on a quest in search of his white heritage. His travels take him half way across the Eastern U.S.A. to a penitentiary in Florida, the Bowery in New York, the Ohio valley as well as spiritual journeys of introspection until his peace of mind is resolved, at last, a century later.
“The buffalo that once roamed these lands, their number too many to count, are all gone…The plains that were once open, too far to cross on a string of good ponies, have shriveled up under the iron horse…The fertile land given to us by the Great Spirit, plentiful for all, has been fenced off and plowed under…And you wonder why we fight.”
— A Cheyenne Dog Soldier
The dampness of the dawn belied a day soon to be filled with an early summer’s heat when the pony soldiers broke camp. Seven hundred strong had ridden west from Fort Lincoln to this wilderness on the Rosebud, and now it was time… time for the men and horses to break their feed, time for the bugler to blow his trumpet, time for boots and saddles.
Crook had been beaten, driven into an embarrassing retreat by Crazy Horse only one week before, not more than a mile from this very spot, pondered the general. The man sat resolute on a rock facing east gazing across the river, a few stray locks of hair blowing lazily in the wind, his coffee long cold. How could that have happened? Crazy Horse must pay, he demanded of himself. Of course, there had been broken promises with Red Cloud, Spotted Tail and the rest. But who were they? What have they and their people done to make this magnificence a better place to live?… roam its endless expanse breeding like rabbits, killing game only for food and necessities, and each other for the vainglorious adornment of a few eagle feathers? Well, my short red bastard friends, it is your time no longer. You have outlived your preeminance over the land. I, Long Hair, shall see to that. And presently, I imagine.
“Yi yi yi yi yi yi…” they came, thousands of them, firing rifles, wielding lances and battle hatchets as the men of the 7th scattered over the low hills just south of the river. Moments before the smoke from many fires rising from the treetops a half-mile off had warned the bluecoats, but still they rode down Medicine Tail Coulee into this place where death greeted them, each man tall in the saddle like the general at the lead. Without hesitation the Indians kicked their ponies, racing to confront the bluecoats. These were not old men, women and children huddling in fear as they had at the Washita. These were young men, braves, painted for battle. They met the soldiers head on, forcing them to abandon ranks and form small groups behind their fallen mounts. Sioux and Cheyenne and Arapaho rode through the forthright as well as the faint of heart, bloodying them with lances, shooting the dead and the dying, hacking them to pieces. Scalps were taken, bodies mutilated by the squaws of the village who delighted in their plunder until there was but one survivor, Comanche, the large bay who stood alone beside the body of Captain Keough as the life poured from his master glowing crimson in the sun.
Some claimed they had been the one who killed Long Hair, but no one knew for certain. The fight had been a frenzy, a gorging, a wild bloodletting that seemed much too swift to those who remembered the bluecoat tune called Garryowen, the killing song of the pony soldier trumpets. But now it was done. The 7th Cavalry was destroyed, and Long Hair, the boy general who had meted out his share of cruelty and death to the redman of the western plains, was dead.
As the warriors rode back across the river with trophies dripping from their lances, the wailing of Comanche for his fallen master rode with them, melting into the cries of new life coming from the Indian camp. It was a child crying for his mother’s milk, crying instinctively for that which sustains life while the rich purple hue of the placenta still covered him. Rather than give him her breast, his mother held him high in the air to witness those returning victoriously from battle, to paint them into his mind so somewhere deep within his spirit he would always know his legacy. The child turned silent, focusing on the picture before him — men and horses crowding into one another with weapons raised, firing rifles, kicking up dust all around, becoming one together drunk with the moment. It was then the young Sioux princess chose to name her son. She would call him Red Hand, for the blood of the soldiers still on the hands of so many.
The days when the Sioux and Cheyenne lived as one with the earth, when their lodgepoles stretched across a thousand miles of plains and their only enemy was hunger… the better days, had long since passed when Red Hand rode into camp from an afternoon herding strays with the other boys. He was big for his age, eager since he first sat astride a pony to grow up and go with the men. It was not as before, however, nor would it ever be again. Not long after the Little Bighorn, the Indian Nations were broken by yet another army of bluecoats. Sitting Bull escaped to Canada while most of the other chiefs took their tribes to the white man’s reservations. At least there they would not starve, or freeze to death as many had before hunting in the bitter cold of winter for game no longer plentiful enough to fill their bellies.
The boy entered the tipi, placing the buffalo hide back over the small entrance, and warmed his hands by the fire. He picked up some jerky before asking his mother yet again to repeat the story. It was one she recounted with difficulty, for it was the story of the only man she had ever loved… the man she still waited for, longed for.
“Please, mother?” He looked at her with his blue eyes, blue like the summer sky, like his father’s eyes, and she relented as she would always.
“All right, my child. But only this last time, for you must know it by heart.”
“This last time then, mother.”
The fire warmed the distance between them, the flames licking at the hunk of venison on the spit, and Willow That Weeps began her tale. “It was a cool morning, the earth once again beginning to blossom when he rode into camp, a day I will keep in my heart long after I have left this earth…”
“Whadya think, John, wanna go on in? Looks quiet enough.”
“It’s all right with me. I could use some people aroun’ me fer a change.”
The two rode out of the treeline down a grassy slope into the valley below. Closer to the encampment they counted more than fifty tipis huddled along the river bank, enough to hold four times that number of men, women and children, but no matter. The Indians John Connor and his partner Ethan MacCall had encountered during three years of trapping were often sullen and suspicious, some dangerous, others unpredictable. The Pawnee, who would just as soon take your hair as look at you, they had learned to avoid. The Sioux, as these were, were generally friendly and accepted the white trappers, even traded with them, for they saw that these whites lived mostly as they did — wandering the great plains, taking only what was needed to sustain life, using the sky above as their blanket for a night’s rest.
When Ethan and John were within sight of the camp, some of the young men rode out to greet them. One recognized the two from a year ago along the Shoshone taking beaver pelts down to Slatton’s Post, and he raised a hand inviting them in.
Most everyone turned out to see the white men now. Although it was nothing new, whites visiting their lodges didn’t happen everyday, and there was a curiosity about them still. These two seemed more like their own kind than the others who’d come. These were young men with keen eyes, well outfitted for hunting these hills. As they rode among the people with the labor of many months strapped to their mules, the scent of the skins filled the air causing the dogs to fuss.
“This way,” their escort told them, and they continued towards one of the larger lodges in the middle of camp. A tall man, his hair adorned with eagle feathers, stepped from the entrance. They would learn later his name was Two Bears, that he was a chief among the people. Dismounting now, the eyes of the two trappers turned to Two Bears’ family who followed him from the lodge. A boy of about sixteen, not yet as tall as his father, stood to his right, eyeing the two like game not often encountered. A woman, striking for one who lived the life of a squaw as all Indian women do, stood at his other side gazing at John and Ethan, her kind eyes giving her away. Then she appeared and joined her family. She of the raven black hair, and of still darker eyes that pierced the very soul of John Connor, bidding every muscle of his body to ache for her touch. For her part, she too was fixed upon him, her eyes smiling at his, this white stranger dressed in buckskins, with broad shoulders and sky blue eyes and as kind a face as she had ever seen… as kind, she would allow, as her own father’s.
“What brings you here,” Two Bears asked them.
“We been huntin’ these hills fer many months,” John answered, “away from the company o’ others when we saw yer smoke. We missed the warm fires of our Sioux brothers since we las’ stayed with Red Cloud an’ his people on the Tongue. It was in our minds ta visit yer village, ta talk trade, an’ sit once agin with those which we share this earth.”
Two Bears stared at the two white trappers for some moments longer, looking beyond the surface of what was plain to all, looking instead inside, to where the truth of their words lie, and he welcomed them.
“It is good you have come.” Gesturing to the beaver pelts on their pack mules, “you have hunted well. The Sioux have always been willing to share what our Mother the Earth provides. Come, we will talk.”
The men entered the lodge first — Two Bears, his son, Running Wolf, then John and Ethan, finally the wife of Two Bears, Star Rising, and she, she whose blue-black, velvet eyes again glanced to John, lingering forever before taking her place on the opposite side of the lodge with her mother and two other women of the tribe. She, whose softness continued to reach out to John, a softness as soothing and gentle as the sound of her name, Willow.
The conversation among the men touched on the bounty of the land, the coming summer and, hopefully, the promise of good hunting before autumn came and winter set in in earnest. Running Wolf, who was nearing his seventeenth year and so was allowed to sit and talk with the men, asked the whites how many of their kind were on Sioux land. Two Bears admonished him some for being direct, but John and Ethan were not put off by the boy’s eagerness.
“There’s a smatterin’ of us in these parts,” Ethan said. “John an’ me come up from Colorado Territory goin’ on three years now, so we don’t really know ‘xactly how many white folks there might be. Not too many I reckon.”
“Do you travel far?” Two Bears asked them.
“Down to the Powder on our way south,” John replied as his eyes darted quickly towards the girl, and not for the first time. “Good fishin’ on our way ta trade, an’ a chance fer a few more skins to boot.”
“Will you come this way again?”
“I reckon we like the country an’ the trappin’ well enough. What we need is a few days res’ fer Ethan’s horse. Seems he picked up a nettle an’ we cain’t git the dern thing out. He’s been hobblin’ real bad. We’d be obliged.”
“You can make camp along the river. We will look at your horse in the morning.”
The two men sat over a fire that evening warming their bones after they’d hobbled the horses and pack animals a ways downstream. John had scavenged some kindling while Ethan’d cut a few strips off a flank of elk they’d shot the week before. With the coffee and dried biscuits, they sat eating in silence
staring at the lodges of their hosts. The moonlit night offered a backdrop of varying shades of blue, purple and orange while the smoke from many fires climbed skyward through the scene, the pony herd breaking the stillness now and again after catching the scent of a stray coyote.
“Ya think that chief’ll be able ta do anythin’ more fer old Soldier, John? That nettle’s in deep.”
“Don’ know, but he looks like the kind that won’t give up on somethin’. Strikin’ son of a gun… he an’ his whole family. An’ no lack o’ gray matter neither… his English is dern good.” John wasn’t ready to admit just yet being smitten by the chief’s daughter. He was merely asking for Ethan to pick up his thought and engage further conversation about the girl, hoping to gain Ethan’s opinion without having to ask it directly, but silence remained. No matter, he thought gazing back at the Indian camp, attempting to pick out the lodge of the chief, and of her, tomorrow will come soon enough. As he and Ethan hunkered down for the night in front of a still smoldering fire, he found he couldn’t wait.
The ducks woke the two men early next morning with their squawking in the marsh at the river’s edge. John, scratching himself awake, got up first and started a fire, giving Ethan a nudge with his boot.
“Gonna git the rest o’ them biscuits out whil’ I make the coffee, pard’?… or ya gonna lay there an’ sleep like the King of Siam hisself ‘til one o’ yer harem props ya up on a pilla an’ serves ya roasted pig, with the dang apple an’ all?”
“I hear ya, I hear ya,” and Ethan slowly crawled from under his blankets in his longjohns and socks trying to sidestep the pricklers as he made his way towards a thick scrub of oak muttering something about first draining his pecker. John watched him hop along, only seeing the top of Ethan’s head now from behind the oak as the man stood motionless for what seemed like an hour. Jeez, that boy could pee, thought John. He’s like some damn camel er something, just saves it up fer days then lets ‘er fly. As John smiled he also thought a man couldn’t have a finer partner, one who knew the mountains and its peculiarities as well as any white man he ever knew, and one who wouldn’t turn tail when trouble came calling.
“Any more biscuits?” John asked as the two sat sipping their coffee, hands cradling tin mugs.
“No biscuits, jes more o’ the elk, an’ not a whol’ lot ‘o that neither. We gonna have to scare up some meat b‘for we ride down to Slatton’s. With ‘at Sharps yer carryin’, pard’, that shouldn’t be no trouble.”
John’s thoughts wandered back to the girl with the raven hair and sweet, soft name as his eyes strained to catch a glimpse of her among the many in the Indian village now up and about. From this distance, the people were no more than the size of insects — women gathering up firewood and kids, men heading to a thicket to relieve their night’s swelling — and John strained all the harder, attempting to find her until he noticed three figures in the distance growing steadily larger walking his way. Nearer, he saw they were Two Bears, Running Wolf and a third, older member of the tribe he and Ethan had not yet met.
Within twenty yards of John’s and Ethan’s makeshift camp, Two Bears raised his hand in greeting. The two hunters replied as the five men now faced each other, and Two Bears spoke first.
“This is Santin, an elder of our tribe, one who works with herbs and roots and the moss from the riverbeds. He has cured many of our horses from going lame. He will look at your horse, Ethan McCall, and take the sickness from him.”
The old man moved easily from the group to the horses. The others followed, watching him as he approached the animals. He placed a hand on Soldier’s forehead who snuffled, shaking his head slightly. Santin waited some seconds, then placed his hand again on his forehead, all the while speaking to him, gentling him before slowly lifting his left foreleg to inspect the soreness Ethan noticed had grown. It was starting to fester. Santin moved away and muttered a few words to Two Bears before heading back towards the Indian camp.
“What is it?” Ethan asked.
“Santin will gather what is necessary and return soon,” the chief told them. “There is little time.”
Ethan was taken aback by Two Bears’ remarks. He knew Soldier’s limp was getting worse, but neither he nor John were doctor enough to have been aware just how perilous the situation was. Without asking the chief more, knowing he’d get little information, Ethan stayed close to Soldier holding him as the horse nuzzled his master.
The sun was near its apex and the old Santin had not returned. Two Bears and Running Wolf had remained, however, and after some time shuffling about with their two guests, making small talk about the game in these parts and the presence of the buffalo, John invited them to sit by the fire, its flames still licking, throwing off heat. Ethan declined without any apparent offense to Two Bears, choosing to remain with Soldier, all the while keepin’ a keen eye peeled for Santin. As John settled in with his guests across the charred cottonwood and lingering flames, he reflected… you’re never certain with Indians, even peaceful tribes, if you might offend them by doing or saying the wrong thing simply out of ignorance of their ways. But then he thought, these Sioux have been nothing but friendly, and if he had his way right then and there, Two Bears might be a whole lot closer to him than a mere acquaintance. So he went on with his question.
“Two Bears, how long have you and yer people camped along the Bighorn?”
“For my father’s and his father’s lifetimes. We have survived the winters and the wrath of our enemies for as long as I can remember, but now the whites seem to be everywhere, swarming over the land like the tall grass in Spring. And the bluecoats follow, killing off those with whom they would make treaties. I do not think my son will live as my father did. Our way is changing.”
“We can live together, you and I, we proved such these past three years… me and Ethan huntin’ these parts, you and yer people invitin’ us to share yer fire.”
“This is true, but you are only two men who live as we do… off the land, taking only that which is needed, then moving on to allow the earth to replenish herself. It is not the way of the others who would grab up the land and fence it off for only their use. That is the way which will ruin us… first fencing off the Indian, then corraling us as the whites do their own animals, as they have done to the tribes across the great river to the east.”
“I can’t argue that. But it is the way of the world… people needin’ to stretch their boundaries, to breathe easier. It’s been the way since the beginning. I jes hope you and I can live together peaceably.” Then John collected himself, sitting up straighter, wanting to look every bit the man he considered himself to be after surviving three years in the wild with only his rifle and his wits, and he added, “and I’ve got a reason for sayin’ such.”
It was not the Indian way to respond to a statement left unfinished. So Two Bears looked at John Connor, waiting, staring into the eyes of the white man he would soon call son.
“I…,” John continued now, searching for the words, “I wish ta court yer daughter… that is, with yer permission… an’ her’s, Two Bears.”
The chief looked deeper now into the blue eyes of John Connor and discovered to his surprise he did not see a white man before him, but simply a man, one who carried himself with the strength and bearing of his own people. However, Two Bears hesitated before answering, examining John closer, looking for the tiniest flaw of character, the smallest trace of weakness, but found only resolve.
“I will speak with her,” the chief stated matter-of-factly, showing no emotion, the words hanging in the air until Ethan hailed them all with, “he’s comin’!”
When Santin arrived they found the old medicine man had just two items with him — a pouch of hide with an odor so strong John and Ethan picked it up from ten paces, and a sliver of a stone knife sharpened to a fine edge. He walked straight on to Soldier, only nodding to Two Bears as he passed, and soothed the horse as he had earlier. Setting the poultice down, Santin picked up Soldier’s foreleg in the same motion and began poking about with the knife until he found the spot he was looking for. To Ethan’s astonishment, Soldier allowed Santin to whittle away, slicing at the oozing gob of puss and gore as it dribbled down onto the old man’s shaggy leggings. Just a slight whinny and shaking of the head was all anyone heard or saw out of the animal until Santin let out a triumphant, “Heya!…” holding up a thorn as long as your small finger. Without letting go of Soldier’s hoof, he stooped to pick up the godawful smelling poultice, untieing the top of the pouch. He placed Soldier’s hoof inside, then retied the pouch to the animal’s leg, but not so tight as to rankle him.
Santin joined the others now and, once again, spoke only with Two Bears before walking back to the Indian camp.
“Keep the pouch on the horse to draw the poison out,” Two Bears relayed to Ethan and John. “Santin will come every day with fresh herbs. He will say when the horse is cured.”
Two days passed, then three, with Santin coming every morning to change the dressing on Soldier’s hoof with more of the herbs. Even though Ethan had kept the horse hobbled, he wasn’t going anywhere. The animal seemed to understand the old Indian was doing him some good, and simply waited after sunup everyday for Santin to arrive. Then Soldier would comply with his wishes as a good patient might with an attending physician.
After the fourth day, and still without word from the old man about the health of the horse, John told Ethan he’d better go shoot some meat quick, or else the two of them were going to be worse off than Soldier in a couple days. They’d run out of the elk, and the fresh biscuits Ethan had cooked up weren’t far behind. Without waiting, John packed up his bedroll and enough ammunition to keep him occupied for the better part of a week, and rode west, disappearing with the setting sun over the hills in the distance. What he didn’t see as he headed out was the silent gaze of Willow from a small stand of trees on the edge of camp, her face only a silhouette within the twilight, watching him for as long as she was able, then longer still in her own mind’s eye, dwelling on what it would be like to feel his touch, the warmth of his breath, the sweetness of a caress.
—As darkness fell he found a gully no more than ten feet wide stretching a few miles north along a riverbank when he decided to bed down. The moon was bright, the stars dancing about, with some shooters from time to time to entertain him as he drifted off into his world of the Indian girl he’d only just met. But knowing the first light of dawn would bring the business of finding fresh meat, he put away his thoughts of Willow, nodding off for what remained of the night.
The following day the air was crisp with patches of white clouds hanging harmlessly overhead when he eased Stoney down a bank into a gully. Instantly he heard what he thought were birds in a thicket off to his left. He kept moving at the same pace, only glancing in the direction of the thicket, making no sudden move, riding deliberately, waiting until he was farther into the gully to dismount and come back on foot to surprise them. He kept on and as he did he heard their rustling again before he turned down a dry creekbed some seventy-five yards along, then doubled that distance before reining in Stoney. He dismounted and grabbed his Sharps along with a few extra rounds and headed back down the creekbed. When he reached the gully, he was crouched low to the ground, making his way carefully back to the brush where he first heard the sound. Thirty yards away, he stopped. No movement from him now, barely a breath… an intruder only slightly curious to the watchful eyes of the creatures who called this land their own.
It was another three minutes before he heard another sound from the brush just ahead, but this time there was no mistaking it. The cracking of branches told John it was bigger game, and he welcomed the thought of bringing down some meat this early on the trail. Don’t rush, he thought… don’t run it off, least ways not in the wrong direction. He looked at the ground around him. There were small twigs and branches about, and pieces of broken granite. This offered what he was looking for… a decent size ‘throwin’ rock.’ He picked one out, cradled it in his palm for some seconds, then let it go. With it still in flight he set up on one knee, brought his rifle into position and cocked the hammer, staring intently at the brush before him. The missile crashed into the thicket … then another split second… then a moment later, the buck was breaking from the heavy brush running straight at him. There was no time to think… no time, just react. He rode the sight of his Sharps and fired. The buck had moved so quickly the bullet struck him flank high, buckling his forelegs, bringing him down head over hooves. John exhaled, wiping the sweat from his brow as he watched the animal struggle to right his body without success, yet he struggled.
Some minutes later with the life pouring from him, his breath shortening, barely moving, the buck’s eyes followed the hunter as he circled around behind, slowly, carefully. He could see the hunter pulling something from his belt… what was it? But by then John had slit the animal’s jugular, trussing him up and bleeding him before rigging a sling for the trek back.
“Red Hand is a compelling and fascinating story of a young man’s journey through life as he confronts violence, prejudice, social injustice and love. The story line will move you as Red Hand’s courage and determination is unparalleled. Ross has captured the aura of a Native American and brought him to life in Red Hand.”
– Art Adkins, Award Winning Author of The Oasis Project
“Ross has done a wonderful job painting lush landscapes for his characters. Red Hand has an epic feel. Intimate and expansive, this American story takes you from the plains to the jungles to the grit of the city. There’s a wonderful organic earthiness to these characters; I can see the dirt under their nails.”
– A.L. “Skip” Mahaffey, Author of Adventures With My Father
“An exciting, well written compilation of true grit and wild, wild west characters that make you forget about your cell phone and computer!”
– Dean J. Kropp, Author of A Bone to Pick
“Around every corner- a stranger’s gun, a woman’s smile, sudden death, a glass of whiskey, an ounce of wisdom. Red Hand’s journey is set on a Western canvas that stretches across 100 years of American history. Rich in character, rapid in pace, Ross’s authentic dialogue is pure blood and poetry.”
– Brian Neary, Author of Hawk
“An action western with a modern twist. Robert Ross has tried something different, and he pulls it off. I recommend it!”
– Bill Crider, Winner of the Anthony Award for Best First Novel