Battle Of Three Lakes
“Missed a spot,” Hem called out as Draper Vanatee swept the porch of his dad’s general store. Draper shot the impish man a wicked look. He readied a biting response, but at the clip-clop of approaching horses, he glanced up and froze.
There she was, riding shotgun in her father’s wagon.
Her father was chief of the local tribe of Navajo with whom the settlers shared this plot of ground. Old Chief Bear Killer was a plump man, rather like a pumpkin. He’d been given the name Bear Killer a long time ago, for reasons which seemed different every time the chief told them. The girl was called Princess Running Rabbit. Her father had given her that nickname when she was a child chasing rabbits.
No longer a child, that longhaired brunette was quite pretty, Draper thought, as his palms began to sweat. Was she maybe about his age? Nearing 20? Was she looking at him, smiling? His heart nearly skipped a beat in hope. But why would she do that? The woman brushed back her hair and looked around at the men.
Funny, Draper thought; all the times he’d seen her in the past, talked with her in passing, it was as if he had never really noticed her until that day a few weeks back, when she was trying to keep her hair from being blown about by a strong gusty wind. He’d known her nickname for years, but had somehow missed her real name.
A meaty hand fell on Draper’s shoulder. Ole’ Hem Clinefelter stood there, a grin splashed across his chip-toothed face. Hem looked close to 30, and was the only man Draper knew that walked with a backwards slouch, hands in his pockets, a straw twirling in his mouth.
“Thar goes Ol Chief B’ar Kill’a, an’ Princess Run’in Rabbit,” Hem said. “How ‘bout them two, huh, Drape?”
Another course voice added, “Young Drape’s got hungry eyes for the chief’s daughter, you know.”
Draper’s flushed face turned towards Haw Brach. He was a mountain of a man whose face was buried in a deep beard and mustache.
Hem chuckled. “She’s purty fine lookin’.”
A bird with black head feathers and bits of orange around the eyes flittered about the princess, her “magic bird’ she called it. Haw motioned his hands at the bird like he was zeroing in with a rifle.
“Silly bird o’ hers,” Hem said, his voice a slow moving drawl. “Claims it can talk, y’know.”
Hem went to help hitch up the wagon. Haw shoved Draper forward; Draper shot a dirty look back at the man, then went up and offered his hand to the princess.
He held back his unease as he stared at her. She smiled, batted her eyes then took his hand and hopped down. The young woman seemed to shift towards him as she hit her feet, then recovered and shook her head.
“Thanks Draper,” the princess said. Her voice was low and smooth. That she knew his name made his heart a little lighter, though he was embarrassed at not knowing beyond her nickname.
“Sure, princess,” Draper replied.
“Call me Rebekah,” she said. Her eyes beamed at him.
Draper nodded enthusiastically. Finally hearing her name felt like a treasure of information.
The chief grunted and climbed down, then patted his oversized stomach. A “gu,” sounded from him as he waddled towards the store.
Draper eyed the sway of her calico dress as Rebekah followed her father inside. He ran on behind her, vaguely aware that the others murmured behind his back about his youthful attraction to the woman.
His dad was seated near a checkerboard table, dad’s sister stood nearby. Draper’s aunt backed away a bit as the chief entered the store; she looked away from him towards the merchandise. The chief grunted and sat across from Draper’s dad. “How about a game?” Dad invited. The chief nodded.
His aunt made a bullish snorting sound and walked away. A note of disapproval registered in her eyes when she glanced towards Draper and Rebekah. Draper new better than to discuss his interest in the Navajo woman with Aunt Claire.
“Draper, help the princess get her supplies together and check out,” his dad said.
Draper was quite ready. He followed her around the store and assisted with what she needed.
The mayor entered the store and started talking to Draper’s dad and the chief. Their words drifted across the store about the upcoming 50th annual celebration of the Three Lakes Township. In 1841, the first settlers established up their livelihood here, not far from an offshoot tribe of Navajo, and the two had maintained a steadily peaceful relationship.
“Who’s that?” Rebekah asked, and pointed towards a painting hanging on a wall behind the checkout counter. It depicted a lovely brunette woman in her mid-20s who cradled a bouquet of roses in her arms. The painter had even caught a tear coursing down her cheek and the sadness in her face.
“Oh, my mom,” Draper answered. He stared at the painting a moment and his voice hushed to a mere whisper. “She died when I was about eight.”
The princess’s hand touched his. He looked down. He did miss Mom. Dad had told him she’d known of her impending death when the painting was made; dad and mom had wanted to leave a memory of her for their son.
The portly mayor was barking about doing something special this year and asked if there were any ideas. No one had any.
Rebekah had bought some new cooking stuff and a few other items. They paid for it with some corn in the wagon, which in turn would be sold to the townspeople.
A loud voice boomed, “Mayor, I got some news.” It was the sheriff, a sleek young man, who sounded like he was from New York City. Hem had speculated he was a rich man’s son who had gone off west to play cowboys and Indians.
Draper didn’t stick around to listen to the Sheriff’s news; he went to help the princess change out her barter goods. “So, tell me about your mom,” Rebekah said as Draper helped her.
As Draper and Rebekah headed towards the door, two more men came into the store. One wore the uniform of a Calvary major. The other was a suit-dressed civilian. The mayor and Draper’s dad turned towards the newcomers.
The officer looked to the Chief. “Chief Bear Killer?” When the chief nodded, he continued, “Chief, weren’t you instructed that you and your people were to remain on your reservation?”
“We are not on reservation,” The Chief replied. “And, for what reason should we?” Draper saw the chief’s eyes shift to the mayor.
“Chief, you know are confined to your allotted property. We hope you will abide by the government’s wish to avoid tension and prevent any unfortunate events.” The civilian added.
“Wait a minute,” the mayor said. “The Navajo do a fair amount of business in our town. Keeping them away could hurt our merchants and citizens.” He paused for a breath. “Plus, we have our annual celebration coming up. We always get together with the Navajo for that. People travel good distances to attend this event.”
“I will consider your complaints, but it is my intention to keep those Indians under strict surveillance,” the officer said.
The sheriff nodded his head, “Got some things to check on Mr. Mayor.” He started to the door.
Draper went outside with the Princess. This was all stupid. A tear dripped down her cheeks.
Haw motioned the princess to stand aside while the men did the work. The woman smiled, and let them. While they worked, Draper told his friends what the officer had said.
“Because of them Sioux,” Hem said. “Sitting Bull and his Ghost Dance have the white folks spooked, and the soldiers are getting jittery.” He glanced at a couple of soldiers who milled about their horses.
Draper looked at Rebekah and wondered if she watched him like he watched her. He wondered how the whole thing was affecting her. She seemed so brave but he’d seen that single tear as she’d left the store. And somewhere else, deep inside, he wondered how it affected her opinion of him.
Then, Rebekah glanced back at him, and Draper felt his heart race. “I’m hoping we can see each other at the celebration.” Her bird flittered about.
Draper opened his mouth. No words came out. His friends snickered at his ill ease. His heart hammered in his chest and despite his friends’ crude snickers he pressed his hand into Rebekah’s. “I’d be delighted.”
The Chief came from the store with the Major close behind, as though he were making sure the Chief didn’t change his mind and return to the store. “Soldier!” he called to one of his men, “You and Mr. Dandy will escort the chief and his daughter back to their encampment.”
“Yes sir,” the soldier said, snapping his hand to the brim of his hat in salute.
“Come,” Bear Killer called and gestured towards his daughter with a wave of his hand.
Draper watched Rebekah’s dress swirl like the feathers of a peacock, “Yes father.”
Rebekah climbed in behind her father, giving his a gentle push as he struggled to get his bulk back into the wagon.
“What’s that stupid bird doing?” the soldier asked.
“My magic talking bird,” Rebekah replied, and flashed a mischievous grin.
Strange how she said that, and Draper began to wonder if she really believed it.
“Birds can’t talk,” the soldier snapped. “Let’s get outta here.”
“By the way,” Dandy said, turning to the chief, “My name’s James Dandy, the government has given me the duty of acting as local Indian Agent.”
“We Navajo,” Bear Killer said. “Not Indian.”
Dandy laughed. “Very well.”
“What’s the difference?” A soldier questioned.
“Not from India,” the chief said gruffly.
Draper watched them ride off. He felt the officer nearing him, “Son, don’t go getting mixed up with Indians, only leads to trouble. They’re not like us.”
“Preacher says its wrong to judge others by race,” Haw said.
The officer went to his horse, choosing to ignore Haw’s comment.
“I hope you don’t go getting involved with that woman,” his aunt called from the store porch. “She’s not our kind.”
Draper felt a sad knot twisting inside him. Finally, he was feeling an attraction toward a woman and problems seemed to insist on popping up.
A noise sounded above them. The princess’s bird flew around, made some strange sounds, and then took off after its mistress as she and her father headed out. Draper shook his head. For a moment it almost seemed as if the bird was speaking, and in Rebekah’s voice. No, must be his imagination.
“Hey boys,” a young woman said, barreling in on her mustang. The redhead shrieked and jumped off. Her face was light up in thrill. “Rebekah’s gone?’
“Yup, gone back home, Mallory,” Haw replied.
Aunt Claire’s gaze to this woman was more approving. “Now there is a good woman for you.”
Mallory gave the older woman a confused look, then turned back to the guys. She was in the last year of her teens. She shook her head, a disappointed look on her freckled face. “Too bad. There’s gonna be a wild west show not far from here, thought she might like to go, maybe get us some guys to escort us all proper-like.” Her eyes focused on Draper, “Time you asked her out on a date.”
Haw’s laugh was like a donkey braying.
Draper felt his face flush, and he tried to steer the conversation away from his love life. “And how do we get tickets?” Draper asked.
“My cousin Annie’s in the show, she can get us some.” Mallory replied.
“You’ll get your shot at the big celebration, boy,” Haw said.
“No, I don’t want you going with a redskin,” Claire protested. She looked weak, as if she might faint. She looked to Mallory her eyes sharpening like a hawk’s. “Would your folks let you date an Indian?”
“Hmm, don’t know,” Mallory shuffled her face and looked bemused.
“Well, I’m sure they wouldn’t.” Claire said, hands on her hips.
“Aw come on, Claire,” Mallory said. “You can’t hold it against her just because she’s not a white like us.”
Claire looked down, threw her hands up toward the sky, “I’m just stating my point of view. You can do whatever you wish. Besides, I’m planning on heading to Chicago in a few months anyways to see my son and his wife.”
Aunt Claire turned and stomped back into the store. Draper shook his head. He felt conflicted about his attraction to Rebekah. He wanted to be with her, but he wanted his family’s approval. ‘Course dad didn’t seem to care much.
Mallory touched Draper’s arm. “Don’t worry none about it.” He smiled; She’d always been more of a sister to him than a friend.
“Besides, the government wants them confined so she may not make it anyway,” Hem said. He turned away, “’Bout time for the stage to come in, I better get ready.”
“Don’ worry kid, it’ll work out. Haw spun around. “I gotta mosey on and be nosey.”
Draper wondered what the man had in mind. Usually when Haw was being nosey it was about something specific. Draper had half a mind to follow him, but dad’s voice summoned him back to work.
“Fifty years of peace without so much as an altercation and that ain’t good enough for the army,” Dad grumbled later in their home. “Outsiders, they always just assumed we were like everyone else, but this is a true Christian community and at peace with everyone.”
“Well, maybe he has a point about those savages,” Claire argued.
“They’re not savage Claire, Princess Rebekah is a baptized member of our church.”
Draper listened to them bicker. He could still remember mom’s voice, as she talked with dad while they sat out on the porch, assuring him she was glad they had come out here, and she was glad to be away from her family’s incessant sniping.
Draper nearly jumped from his chair, as the door burst in, Mallory rushed into the house, pulling in gasps of air. “Rebekah’s been kidnapped.” She announced. “Someone grabbed her while she was collecting berries.”
Draper reached for his coat without hesitation. “What? Who?”
“No, but that Dandy feller’s telling folks the Navajo may kidnap a white in retaliation,” Mallory said. “Come on Draper, we gotta find her before Dandy and his boys grab a white girl and blame the Navajo.”
“Dandy,” Dad’s voice snapped. “He’s been trying to stir up trouble between us and the Navajo. Wish I knew what he was after.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Claire said. “He gets the Navajo moved out, gets rights to the land and profits from new settlers.” As the others looked at her in wide-eyed surprise, she hastened to add. “I don’t care for Indians, but I don’t like murder either.”
Draper, his father and Mallory looked towards her. How did she know this, Draper wondered.
“The sheriff told me,” Claire explained. Her voice became exasperated; “You should take this matter to him.”
“The sheriff,” Mallory’s eyes lit up. “He’s a pretty knowledgeable young man.” She swerved to Draper, her tone changed. “Come on Draper, we got to help Rebekah, there’s no time to find the sheriff.”
“Certainly not,” Aunt Claire said. Looking to his father for support, “You can’t allow your son to risk his life just for some Indian girl.”
“Come on Draper, we haven’t much time, and the sheriff’s busy with a council meeting, some hush-hush stuff.” Mallory said.
“How do you know what he’s doing?” Aunt Claire asked.
Mallory looked away, her voice quavered. “He, he told his plans me while we were talking.”
“How do we even know where to begin?” Draper asked. He looked into Mallory’s beckoning eyes and searched her face for some hint that she knew more than she was letting on.
“It’s your decision son,” Father said. “How much in love with Rebekah are you?” Aunt Claire gave him a wide-eyed look of horror. “He’s a man, Claire, time for him to make his own decisions.”
Draper took a breath. How much of a man was he? Being around Rebekah was flustering itself.
“Draper, if we don’t stop these men, if they manage to drive a wedge between us and our friends, what’s to stop them from turning on us when it suits their advantage?” Mallory said.
“No, it’s not our affair,” Claire said. Her voice wilted as it did when losing an argument.
“Come on, Draper.” Mallory urged, already on her way out the door and beckoning him to follow.
Maybe, this was to be his test of manhood. “I’ll help you, Mallory. Heaven knows I’d never hear the end of it if I let a woman rush in where I feared to tread.”
Draper called to his horse, a black stallion named Dodger, and met Mallory at the gate. She was already mounted on her own horse, a Mustang named Pooka. They trotted off, slowly increasing their speed.
A little bird flittered before them as they rode; Draper it as Draper’s heart leaped when he realized it was Rebekah’s magical bird.
The bird followed them as Mallory led the way. Draper was worried about what awaited them in the forest but the presence of the little bird gave him hope.
Draper was so focused on the feel of the horse beneath him, the pump of its powerful muscles and the steamy puffs of its breath, that he was completely caught unawares by a sharp blow to back of his head. He tumbled from the horse with a scream that was swallowed by weird whooping sounds that echoed through the night. Above them came the sharp pitch of Malloy’s scream, and then he saw the attackers, men dressed as Indians, as they rode off with Mallory struggling across the saddle of the one in front.
He rubbed the back of his head, where a fair good lump was growing. A tomahawk lay on the ground. Draper picked up the weapon, and guessed it had been what was thrown at him. Were those real Navajo? No, the sheriff had shown him a book; their outfits resembled Apache war dress.
“Dodger!” Draper called and the horse’s whinny made him spin around. It reared and bucked as if ready for war, throwing a spooky shadow against the moonlight that streamed through the forest
“Good horse,” Draper said. “Let’s go get’em.” He heard the hoof beats of the horses Mallory’s kidnappers rode in the distance, and followed the sounds.
Did that grunt noise Dodger made mean he was looking forward to the hunt? The boy hoped it did. A half-smile crossed his face as he thought of the bad mistake these kidnapers had made in grabbing Mallory, like trying to catch a wildcat.
He could hear them race through the brush ahead of him. The horses the attackers rode made too much noise, and he could hear Mallory shriek at them, couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying – then she went quiet.
Following them wasn’t all that tough, really – a matter of broken branches and crushed foliage. Maybe they hadn’t expected him to come after them; maybe they were just stupid. Draper hid behind a large oak tree outside their cabin. He watched them drag Mallory off a horse It appeared they’d just shoved a gag in her mouth- least she wasn’t hurt badly.
The cabin door opened and then Mr. Dandy stepped out. What had Hem called him? Oh, yeah, the devil himself.
“Bring the girl in, then we’ll torch this place and get outta here,” Dandy said. “That oughta get things going between the settlers and the Indians.”
“Man, Dandy, you sure got this planned out,” one of the guys said, the moonlight shone on his hard-bitten face. He took his headband off and threw it to the ground, “And that ought’a cinch that the Indians did it.”
“I been causing trouble for a very long time,” Dandy said. He had a loud laugh. The men stepped back into the cabin, leaving the door a quarter open.
Draper stood against the oak. Okay, what now? He couldn’t let the girls be killed. Why hadn’t he thought to bring a gun? To big hurry, but it sure would be helpful about now. He watched Dandy ride away, disappearing into the forest.
Okay, that left the two kidnappers inside. Draper slid up to the house. Then remembered he still had the tomahawk – it wasn’t much but better than nothing. Then he heard a noise in the brush, and hoped it wasn’t someone coming to ambush him.
Hem and Haw stepped forward, armed with shotguns. The men looked to Draper; Haw gave a harsh smile and nodded, pointed his gun towards the door.
Draper smiled; to his amazement he saw the princess’s little bird circle above their heads. Maybe the bird could talk. Hem and Haw crept up to the door, staying clear of the open crack. With his shotgun, Haw motioned Draper to the window.
“Damn you, you better let us go,” Mallory roared inside the cabin, obviously no longer gagged. Draper figured the kidnappers would soon regret freeing her mouth.
“Shut up, brat,” one of the guys yelled. “You and the princess are gonna die, but we plan to be good about it and kill ya both before we set fire to this building. Then we gotta go kill the sheriff.”
“I think we should have a little fun with’em first,” His partner said, lust resounding in his voice.
“You won’t get away with this,” Mallory said. “Our peoples will never go to war for you.”
“You cannot use us like this.” It was Rebekah’s voice. “It is evil.”
“Too late, girls, Dandy says your tribe and the townsmen are meeting for a showdown tomorrow morning on the plain,” one said. “Getting people to hate each other enough to kill is real easy.”
Draper pondered. That couldn’t be right. Tomorrow was supposed to be the celebration festival. He had been looking forward to it so he could… his thoughts slowed. So he could what? Watch Princess Rebekah and Mallory dance with all the other guys?
That’s what usually wound up happening. “I love you, Rebekah,” he finally admitted as the bird fluttered about his head, as if urging him to act. He watched Hem and Haw slip up to the cabin door, then his eyes closed a moment. He opened them, screamed out a war whoop, and smacked the tomahawk against the window.
“What in tarnation?” One of the men inside yelled.
Hem and Haw had their positions by the door. One of the men opened it, to get a shotgun butt in his stomach. He doubled over and hit the ground. Haw’s boot got him and kept him down while Hem pointed his weapon at the other and almost invited him to give a reason for pulling the trigger.
Both men were soon tied up and under Hem and Haw’s gunpoint. Draper untied the girls.
“I hate being rescued like a helpless damsel,” Mallory said. Her face wrenched with a miserable growl, then she lightened up. “’Course, without me you never would’ve found the princess, and I did tell the bird to go for Hem and Haw.”
The bird flew in and straight to Rebekah. It perched on her shoulder, where it repeated in Draper’s voice, “I love you, Rebekah.
Draper felt his mouth drop open in confusion. He’d just heard it talk, in his own voice.
Rebekah slid to Draper. She pressed a kiss against his lips. “And I love you too, my brave warrior.” As her arms encircled him, and he slowly wrapped his own arms around her body.
Mallory sniffed as she choked up. “Good little Mynah bird.”
“Mynah bird?” Draper questioned as he held Rebekah.
Mallory smiled and nodded. “Yup. It’s a bird that can mimic the human voice.” She looked to Rebekah, “She got a book teaching her how to train it.”
One of the kidnappers had to speak up and ruin the moment.“ It’s too late, war is coming. Dandy will see to that.”
Hem shook his head and his eyes rolled about. “Man, yore are outta date.”
“What’s this about the Navajo and townsmen having a confrontation tomorrow?” Draper asked.
“The celebration,” Hem reminded.
“Thought the army wasn’t letting them off their land?” Mallory said.
“Oh, well, the Mayor and the sheriff talked to some people higher up and got permission,” Haw said.
Draper let Rebekah go. He picked up the tomahawk and walked over to the kidnappers. He smiled and made a chopping motion with the weapon, they had dour looks on their faces.
Rebekah took Draper’s hand in hers. “Come on, we got to go to our homes and get ready for the party tomorrow.”
“Can we dance all the dances together?” Draper asked.
Rebekah smiled. “I would certain expect nothing less.”
“Good for you, boy,” Haw said. “You kids go on; we’ll take care of these two.”
Draper’s heart swelled as he took Rebekah’s hand in his. She smiled and coyly looked away. This was going to be the start of a new era in his life.