At sunrise, on the parapet of the fort, Lieutenant Fredrickson, in charge with Colonel Colby away, could not hear the Assiniboine, who were assembled around the corner outside the main gate. No angry talk like the night before, no war whoops, not a whisper reached him now where he stood, trying to get his head clear. He hadn’t slept. Grouped behind the fort’s great twenty-foot cottonwood walls were his men, quiet as well, waiting for him. Vapor from their breaths mixed with the virgin air.
Below, a score of transient warrior tents lay huddled and deserted on the Missouri’s muddy banks. Inside each tent lay stacks of hides to be traded for a keelboat of pots, tobacco, and alcohol. That keelboat, with Colby on board, was on its way upriver now, returning from Fort Clark, bringing not only the goods but also Fredrickson’s wife and son from St. Louis. The lieutenant hadn’t seen his family since the springtime and had received only one letter. In the postscript, his son had written in crayon that he wanted a raccoon hat like Davy Crockett wore. He also wanted to meet real live Indians.
Fredrickson glanced at the deserted tents and shuddered. At first he had been annoyed by the intransigence of the Assiniboine. Now he felt a little less responsible for them. Unlike the Mandan and Arikara downriver at Fort Clark, the Assiniboine had had advance warning, time to flee the invisible killer. They had had a clear choice.
It appeared, however, that the old chief, Tchatka, had lost his authority. While he seemed to grasp the danger, he couldn’t convince his braves to leave the area while their wives and daughters—who had caught the virus while working in the fort—remained locked in the infirmary on Colby’s orders. The braves, through their chief, demanded to see the sick squaws, and Fredrickson offered to bring an infected boy to the parapet, to show them that the danger was real—that there was indeed a disease. Tchatka agreed to this. He had liked Fredrickson. They met together regularly at the beginning. But Fredrickson did not tell them that six squaws had already died. The soldiers had stuffed the bodies in a pit in the fort’s far corner.
Across the swollen river the land rose beyond the leafless trees to the horizon, where antlers of smoke stood braced against the sky. The squaws at the permanent camp kept fires burning all day, so the squaws locked in the fort would not feel abandoned. Fredrickson scowled. The Assiniboine should have headed for the hills a week ago. He eyed his shadow on the fort wall opposite him as he edged down the ladder to the courtyard; the shadow, huge, formless, seemed to linger, as if reluctant to accompany him to earth.
The guard removed the bar from the infirmary door and Fredrickson entered. Because there were no windows in the long room, it was dark, and the air was close. He immediately covered his nose with his sleeve. A few yards away sat the squaws, side-by-side, sharing body heat and the infected air. They were huddled as far away as possible from the main waste bucket, which stood against a curtain dividing the shadowy room widthwise in half. A small bucket of drinking water sat behind the door.
While his eyes adjusted to the room, Brave Squaw, a kitchen worker, began to berate him. She cursed him several times in English, then said to the ceiling, “Mary, mutter of cries.” The Assiniboine thought acting boldly in front of those stricken with the pox scared away the disease. He fought the urge to correct her.
The boy was on the other side of the curtain. Fredrickson sat on the ground beside him. The boy had come here with his father, one of the traders with the fur company, only a week or so before he himself arrived, in the middle of the summer. The father had been one of the few whites who had died from the plague. The boy was in the worst stage of the disease, and if he made it through the day he’d probably be all right.
Fredrickson’s eyes adjusted and he had to control himself as he felt his stomach leap, looking into the boy’s ravaged face. He himself had no fear of catching the pox for he had it already, a mild dose, along with most of the other men of the fort. He told the boy that he must come out with him to the parapet, and the boy started to get up. Fredrickson extended his arm but the boy pulled back. Fredrickson lingered and finally withdrew his hand. As he got to his feet Brave Squaw approached, waving her arms about, complaining vociferously in a language Fredrickson was just beginning to learn. The other women rose as well. The door swung open suddenly, knocking over the water bucket in its arc. The guard entered, rifle raised to his shoulder. Spilled water fanned out at his feet.
Fredrickson gave a command and the guard’s rifle dipped obediently. He told the boy to wait and then with Brave Squaw yelling behind him he exited, moving quickly so the guard could pull the door shut. Outside, the air was fresh and cold, though the stench of the infirmary remained on his uniform.
A group of soldiers across the yard looked nervous as a commotion stirred up at the gate. A black man with fierce blue eyes and a bad leg emerged from the group and hobbled up to meet Fredrickson. He was the interpreter, a runaway slave who chewed a fat carrot and wore buckskin and a shiny derby hat.
“They want to see their women, sir,” the interpreter reported. “They want to see that they’re all right.”
Fredrickson feared that if they saw the state of their women they may be compelled to attack. Brave Squaw was howling now, and the other squaws could be heard trying to console her.
“Is that all?”
The interpreter fingered the brim of his hat. “They only want to see the squaws. They say ‘Why should we believe the white man now?’”
“Can’t blame them, can we?”
“Tell them I’m bringing a boy up to the parapet. They can see the pox from there.”
“Any more dead, sir?” asked the interpreter.
Fredrickson put up one finger.
The interpreter chewed. “Not Brave Squaw.”
Fredrickson did not smile. “One of Colby’s maids.”
The interpreter shrugged. “Natural curse of the red man. Too much pemmican, not enough vegetables. Wouldn’t a never happened to them with a proper diet.” He spit a chunk of carrot which smacked the packed earth and rolled an inch, browning with dust.
Fredrickson looked at him icily. Colby must have a reason for liking this idiot. Perhaps Colby was an idiot. He shook himself. He was feeling lightheaded from lack of sleep.
“Tell Tchatka the squaws have the pox,” said Fredrickson. “His braves have to take our word for it.”
“Tchatka wants to speak to you, sir,” said the interpreter. “He wants to see your face.”
“Tell him I will bring the boy to the parapet, as we agreed.”
The interpreter lowered his eyes, shaking his head, then looked up, with diffidence.
Fredrickson shook his head reluctantly. “Okay, okay.”
The Assiniboine wore their war paint. They seemed poised for a charge. Even their horses, snorting and foaming and kicking up mud, appeared to be ready to fight. Fredrickson had never seen them so agitated. He stepped briskly beyond the doors of the fort, the interpreter behind him, feeling that his knees might buckle at any moment. He held his hand up in greeting.
Chief Tchatka, front and center, shook his fist in acknowledgement. He had a large crooked nose, long hair that swept down over his face and wore a felt hat with a brass rim. He dismounted with some difficulty. Speaking rapidly, he stopped about a yard away from Fredrickson and the interpreter. The interpreter waited until Tchatka finished and smiled courteously at Fredrickson.
“Basically, sir, he’s saying he can’t blame his men for their distrust. They don’t believe their squaws are ill.”
“I can’t blame them either,” said Fredrickson.
The interpreter reported this in a halting Sioux dialect. “Nor can I blame you, esteemed chief,” Fredrickson added.
“We want our women back,” said the chief.
“They have the pox,” said the lieutenant. “You yourself must surely know that.”
Tchatka winced. Fredrickson knew that the old man wanted to lead his people far away. The chief took a deep breath, his face composed in a dignified mask.
“My men and I do not believe you. We believe you are lying, and we will not submit to such treachery. We believe you are holding our women for ransom. We refuse to trade at lower prices in return for the release of our own women.”
Fredrickson was dumbfounded. He looked beyond Tchatka at the line of angry warriors staring down at him from their nervous horses. Tchatka looked embarrassed.
“You know the truth,” Fredrickson said. “Your men will become infected and all others in your tribe will become infected and they will all die. You know what happened to the Mandan! You know what happened to the Crow and Arikara!”
The warriors scowled and spoke in hushed tones among themselves. They were obviously not pleased with hearing their chief spoken to in this fashion. The chief seemed to be gathering himself for a response and raised his hand. His men fell silent.
“We do not believe your words!” he said.
“You have no choice,” Fredrickson shot back. “If you attack the fort you will be massacred—look at the guns trained on you!”
Fredrickson turned, waving his arm. The lip of the fort was irregular with the hats and jutting gun barrels of the soldiers. The only movement was from a soldier taking off his hat to scratch his head.
“I will bring a boy who has the pox up to the parapet, where you can see safely that there is indeed a disease. If you insist, we will not trade until the disease is past, even if it is a week—two weeks—after Colonel Colby has returned. Tell them two weeks, interpreter.”
The chief raised his chin and looked down his nose at Fredrickson.
“We will attack Colby.”
Fredrickson didn’t understand at first. Then he trembled and gave a hollow laugh.
The chief continued, “I will lead these men to where Colby has made camp. Where the Marias meets the Yellowstone.”
Fredrickson looked long and hard at Tchatka. The older man refused to meet his eyes.
“Bring the boy to the doors, then bring our women,” Tchatka announced suddenly, loud enough for his warriors to hear. His eyes met Fredrickson’s. Fredrickson was perfectly still, sure that he had the chief’s attention, then shook his head decisively back and forth.
The chief’s expression barely changed; he seemed to frown for a second, his eyes glazing over, and he suddenly turned away. A warrior approached reverently, leading Tchatka’s horse by the reins.
Fredrickson, head bowed, stepped inside the fort. The doors shut behind him. The breath of the officer closest to him stank of alcohol. Another officer coughed, interrupting the silence. He looked down at his own boots, scuffed and dull, and wondered what had happened to the pair he ordered months ago.
The interpreter held out a raccoon hat.
“This is from Tchatka. He said it was a gift for your boy.”
He heard Brave Squaw shout once, then a few voices trying to soothe her. The interpreter clapped his hands suddenly and Fredrickson started.
“Going to get them just like that,” the interpreter announced. “Bring that boy up close and he doesn’t even have to cough. They’ll go down like flies, like the Mandan. Mandan ate too much pemmican, sir. I hope you don’t mind me speaking out of turn.”
Refusing to look into the eyes of his men, Fredrickson in a low voice ordered the bar to be kept off the doors. He then set out slowly, fingering the hat, following his shadow across the courtyard to the infirmary.
Arthur Diamond was born in New York in 1957. He received degrees from the University of Oregon and Queens College and has published 12 non-fiction books used as school texts. Diamond’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pedestal Magazine, From Here, Global City Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine. He lives in Queens, New York.