Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/550279-Dancing-Eagle-Feathers
Rated: ASR · Fiction · Western · #550279
1st Place Short Story in Literary Magazine in 2000 by Texas Intercollegiate Press Assoc.

         "Dancing....eagle....feathers!"  The old man in the hospital bed gasped out the words in a voice roughened by a whiskey rasp.

         "Daddeee! Uncle John's trying to talk!" I said.

         My Great-Great-Uncle John was dying, and even as a child of seven, I knew he was the last of his kind. His chest, still deceptively broad and strong-looking, worked like a bellows--working in and out--the final throes of a dying animal. His eyes were wide and staring, and the bright blue color that always twinkled at me when sharing my childish secrets seemed to be fading. The fierce, quiet argument between my parents stopped abruptly, leaving the bare hospital room suddenly quiet.

         "Dancing Eagle Feathers, indeed!" Mother's voice broke the stillness. "Ninety-seven years old, dying in a charity ward, and he's still spouting nonsense about his life as a great Indian fighter!" She snorted. "Dreaming about dancing with some Comanche squaw, I imagine, despite all those stories about the massacre of his family. I doubt if it actually happened..."

         Daddy started to interrupt, but Mother was well into her stride. He sighed and looked over at me as she roughshod over him.

         "...Now, William, I agreed to let Billy come to the hospital to pay his final respects, but you know how I feel about that horrible old man and his outlandish tales. You know that young Dr. Spock's new book I've been reading?  Why, he'd never let a impressionable child like Billy...."

         My father interrupted her. "He was a famous Ranger and Indian scout in his day, you know," he responded mildly.

         "Famous Indian scout," she sneered, "Famous for being a bounty hunter after Indian scalps--men, women, children..." She shivered in disgust.

         "For God's sake, Marilyn, it was a State policy on a bloody frontier. There was no quarter given on the frontier--by either side--in that old man's day. While your folks in New York were safe in their beds at night I might add. You can't judge those people by today's standards or by romanticizing the Indians."

         "Murdering old bastard is what he is...and he's been filling Billy's head with...."

         "Marilyn, that's enough...."



         My dad's voice got really cold and steely somehow, like when you'd touch the old anvil out by the barn in a blue norther. Neither me or my mom had ever heard that voice before, and I could tell it scared her too 'cause she shut right up.

         "Now, Marilyn, just hush. He might be able to hear you." He'd returned to the mild, reasonable, fatherly tone he normally used around the house when some problem came up. "He's family, and blood counts. Let him die in peace."

         Mom started crying. "I guess I'm just upset because Billy's gotten so close to Uncle John.

         "Billy loves him. It's that simple. I've been amazed at how the two of 'em took to each other after Uncle John came to live with us. I guess Uncle John let Billy take the place of his boy." He sighed and looked over at me.

My mom wrung her hands together and went on as though Dad hadn't spoken. "And I don't think he's old enough to understand...."

Dad shook his head. "It's fitting that Billy share this watch with us. It may be hard for him to fully understand, but he'll make it, and be better for it. Us Ledbetter's come from tough stock."

         "Yes, William," Mom said meekly, "but you promised me..."

         I saw a flicker in Uncle John's eyes, like he'd understood her words somehow, or maybe they jogged his memory...


         "You promised me, John..."

I wiped the sweat off my brow. The undulating Texas plain, a sea of grass, rolled on to infinity and the horizon became lost in the heat haze and glare of the sun.

         I tried to focus, despite the pain and lack of sleep, because she never used my Christian name in front of the child. She never used anything but a proper "Mr. Ledbetter" in front of anyone. "John" had been reserved for our marriage vows or when we were hidden under the comforters in our feather bed--until now.

         "...you promised and I want you to swear it to Jesus."  She gently finished tying the new bandage on my shoulder and threw the old, blood-encrusted one away from her in disgust.

         "Promised what, Bess?" I took refuge for a moment in feigned ignorance.  

         "What we talked about..." She faltered and went on, "...what I asked you to do last night."

         I wiped a bead of sweat off of my forehead to keep my eyes clear and re-sighted the Winchester at the wavering image in the heat-shimmer, over a thousand yards away across the buffalo grass prairie. I eased up a little higher over the lip of the buffalo wallow, confident that the gentle slope of the four-foot-deep depression would cover me.

          "Bess, I'm a mite busy right now, trying to decide if that's an Indian's war bonnet sticking up over my dead horse yonder or just some damn weed blowin' in the wind."

         Damn me to Hell, I'd made a mistake. All the spare .44-40 ammunition for the Winchester and the Colt were in the saddle bags of Bucephalus, lying out there on the plain. Wasn't his fault. Ol' Ceph carried me through the War without a scratch to either of us. After he took that arrow in the lungs, he still ran for near three miles behind the panicked mule drawing the wagon until we found the buffalo wallow.

         Crossing the arroyo without scouting first for hidden Comanche hostiles was another mistake. Mistakes were usually fatal on the Llano Estacado. The land and its people, white and red, were alike--hard, forbidding, unforgiving. Nothing in Virginia could prepare you for Texas. Now my mistakes were going to kill us all.

         "John, you've got to do it if they come again. When they come," she amended.

"We'll be all right. They may not attack us across open ground."

         "You don't let them take me and the boy. I can't bear it again, John. I've never reproached you for not being there when those drunken Yankee scum raided the home place. But these are wild aborigines--Comanches. You know how they treat captives." She sobbed softly, trying not to frighten the boy even more.

         The boy hadn't said a word since I shot one brave off of the wagon's tail gate. I'd seen that look before on men experiencing violent death for the first time in battle. And he was only a boy, barely seven years old. I couldn't stand that. It was enough to look at my son and realize...realize...enough of that.

         "Plenty of time to think about that when it happens, Bess. I don't think there's but four of 'em now." And me with only four rounds left. "There's plenty of flat prairie between us and them, and I've got the Winchester and revolver. All they have is arrows, lances and a couple of old trade muskets."

I had to keep the best light on the situation or Bess might lose her composure as well. I couldn't stand that.

         "I'm relying on you, John. As you love me, John, you must do it."

         "We can probably stand them off until they get tired and hungry and ride away. If they decide to fight, I figger to send 'em to Kingdom come."

         Brave talk for a man with four shells, I thought. Damn, is that an eagle feather, or not? I couldn't tell. The sun was in my face. The sweet-smelling spring growth of buffalo grass tickled my nose. I smiled. I needed something to keep me awake. How long had it been?

         The mule died during the first night. At first, I hadn't even noticed he was hit amongst all the lather from the break-neck run across the prairie. After we reached the wallow, the mule stood heaving and blowing, then shivered and dropped stone dead. Well, at least he made meat to eat, and we had water in the barrel.

If we got out of this fight, I figgered we could walk out, maybe make it to Fort Sheridan on the Rio Concho and the small settlement of San Angelo. But I had to make every shot count.

         The Comanches spent the night chanting around their fire whose tiny glow against the star-filled sky matched our own in the wallow. I wondered if they had any food left. Maybe they would give up. 'Course they would go for days without anything, rather than eat their horses. It was horses that made the Comanches the lords of the plains, able to drive the Apaches skulking west to New Mexico and Arizona and to bottle up the Sioux, Cheyennes, Blackfeet and Arapaho in the northern high plains and mountains.

The Comanche were good, you had to give 'em respect as fighting men. Ol' Phil Sheridan called them the finest light cavalry in the world, and the general should know--he wasn't a bad cavalry man himself, damn his Yankee soul. I'd never believed they were animals--vermin to be exterminated--like some folks.

         "Hough! Hough! Hough!"

         A chorus of guttural war cries rolled across the buffalo grass as the four Comanches galloped up from a swale and over the distant horizon. They came like the wind, bent low over the necks of their running ponies, in a line four abreast and well spaced out, so I'd have a larger area to cover.

         My mouth was dry with dust and fear, but I got enough spit to lick my finger and used it to clean the front sight. I decided to try the Winchester at a distance of two hundred yards. It had a longer reach than that with a proper stand, but my wounded condition might make my sight waver at a distant target. At full speed those ponies would cover a hundred yards in about five seconds. I'd have to fire, and find another target quickly. I made a quick decision and took two shells from the rifle and reloaded them into the Colt. For close-in work, I told myself.

         "Bess! Quickly now, girl! Bring the boy and take cover over here by me."

         She responded at once, put the boy down between us and looked over at me with brimming eyes before throwing herself to the dusty ground. No man ever had a gamer lady for a mate.

         "I love you, John Ledbetter, for better or for worse," she said in that soft voice that belonged on a veranda in Virginia, not on this bleak prairie.

         "I love you too, Elizabeth Anderson, for better or for worse," I said as our eyes met, and we renewed a vow.

         "HOUGH!! HOUGH!! HOUGH!!! HOUGH!!!"

         They were nearer now. I had work to do.

         When the charging Comanches came into range, I put the Winchester's barrel on the rock I used for a rest and took a bead on one of the two riders carrying rifles. I allowed for a little "Kentucky windage" because of the light breeze that rippled the soft green grass of the prairie like waves at sea. I took a breath, held it, took up tension on the trigger, and began the slow marksman's squeeze with the dark braids of the Comanche framing my gunsight. Please, Sweet Jesus, no misses, I prayed.


         I never knew when the trigger pulled and fired the gun. The heavy slug hit the Comanche head on, knocking him straight back over the spotted hindquarters of his shying horse. I jacked another shell, my last for the rifle, into the chamber and swung the barrel around to take aim at another brave, already at one hundred yards and closing.

         I hurried the shot. Missed.

         "Oh, God!" I cried as I stood and flung the useless rifle away. I drew the Colt. "Come on, you red heathens."

         "John! You promised me!!" Bess screamed.

Three of them now would be upon me within seconds. I made a decision, and without another word I whirled around toward Bess and Billy.

         "BLAM! BLAM!"

         I jumped up out of the buffalo wallow onto the flat prairie and awaited the charge of the remaining Comanches. I drew my Bowie knife, resolved to sell myself dearly. The thunder of the charge almost unmanned me, but I'd fought in hopeless fights with the odds against living before. I stood there screaming the Rebel yell.


         The Comanche with the lance kneed his pony directly toward me. I braced myself. At the last instant before trampling over me, he guided his horse to one side and, in passing, clubbed me on the head with the staff of his lance. The pony stumbled down into the buffalo wallow in a cloud of dust and up the other side where the Comanche pulled up his horse.

         We stared at each other over the bodies of my wife and child. I could only wait, knife in hand and hatred in my heart, for his next move. I heard the drumbeat of the other two ponies abruptly halt behind me while the Indian shouted out to them and gestured into the wallow with his lance.

         Suddenly, the three Comanches broke into laughter. Laughing, they circled me with their ponies, pointing down at the ruins of my life. Finally the leader held out his lance in a savage salute. Then, his eyes never leaving me, he slowly turned his pony away, calling to his friends in his guttural language. The three laughing Comanches trotted off across the rolling prairie toward the distant horizon.

         "Come back! Fight! Kill meeee..." I screamed into the wind.

         My last sight of them as they seemed to sink beneath the waves of grass was a war bonnet of dancing eagle feathers.


"Dancing...eagle...featherrrs...," Uncle John suddenly cried out again and struggled to sit upright in bed. Even though he was laboring to breathe, he grabbed my arm in a steely grip. Then he looked deep into my eyes, and I knew he was trying to give me a message. Finally, in a voice so low that only I could hear, he said, "Forgive me, Son."

         Then he collapsed back onto the bed. Dad checked his pulse, shut his eyes and gently pulled the sheet over Uncle John's face. "He's gone, Billy," he said.

         "Just look at him William. No tears. No reaction. He's traumatized...."

         I tuned their argument out.


          Looking back on that long ago day, I know I wasn't traumatized. I was just intensely curious because I knew Uncle John was trying to tell me something--something important. About life and death and hate.

         Or maybe about how much life had changed in the years since he brought his family to the Texas frontier, only to have them massacred by Indians.

         I've thought about it a lot over the years, trying to puzzle out what he meant to tell me about the dancing eagle feathers. But of course each of us lives his own life, never really fathoming the secrets of another.

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