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The Last Indian Scare

A dog came running into town this morning…with an arrow sticking straight out of its side.

“Cheyenne,” an old-timer said with certainty. The red, blue, and green stripes encircling the shaft were the same colors the braves had painted on their faces during the Indian Wars.

 ***

It was the fall of 1878 when that dog ran into the dusty, new settlement of WaKeeney, Kansas. The town was less than a year old then…a tiny speck of humanity on the vast and empty prairie. No roads, no fences…only a hotel, post office, general store, and a land office to frame the main street. It was the start of settled life on the Great Plains

…and the original inhabitants were not welcome.

The arrow belonged to the Northern Cheyenne, a tribe whose leader, Chief Dull Knife, and his warriors had fought at Little Bighorn in 1876; standing up to the US Army and killing its celebrated general, George Armstrong Custer, in a battle that lasted two days. When word of ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ made its way back East, people, filled with patriotic fervor during the nation’s centennial, were outraged. Calls for retribution echoed through the halls of Congress and the US Army stepped up pressure on the Plains Indians.

On October 1876, one thousand troops from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Cavalry Regiments and a large contingent of Native American scouts set out to locate the Northern Cheyenne camp. Dull Knife’s tribe was taken by surprise and were driven out without blankets, clothes, or the other necessities of life just as winter was bearing down on them from Canada.

After some resistance, it was clear the Northern Cheyenne had no recourse but to sign the Treaty of Fort Laramie. They agreed to a life on an Oklahoma reservation in return for the U.S. government’s promises of hunting rights, free medical care, and separation from their traditional enemies….all of which were lies. After a few months, frustrated and embittered by the deaths of loved ones due to sickness and starvation, Dull Knife and around three hundred members of his tribe made the decision to return to their homeland and on September 10, 1878, they headed north to Dakota Territory in what is now referred to as the ‘Northern Cheyenne Exodus’.

During this time of year the wind in Western Kansas begins to change. Gone are the hot blasts that come up from the South, replaced by a cold, Arctic wind that blows with such force it could knock a grown man to the ground. It’s exhausting and relentless, and eventually, you begin to hate the wind more than the heat, more than the humidity…even more than the mosquitos.

Dull Knife’s tribe spent their days walking into that wind and their nights camping near creeks. They moved quickly, making it to an area called Big Basin in Clark County Kansas in one day, a perfect place to plan an ambush on the soldiers who were surely following them. Some braves went out into the prairie to fortify their meager supplies; stealing two mules and a rifle and leaving two cowboys dead before breakfast. No confrontation with the Army occurred at that location and the Cheyenne moved further into Kansas with 250 troops hot on their trail.

The Cheyenne prepared for another ambush at Punished Woman Creek and, after a false start, they mounted a successful attack; killing Colonel Lewis and a few other men during the skirmish and causing the surviving troops to turn back to Oklahoma.

The number of confrontations increased as the Cheyenne passed through Kansas, with the most brutal raids occurring in the northwest counties of Decatur and Rawlins between the dates of September 30 to October 3. Unbeknownst to the farmers and residents in and around Oberlin, the area they’d only recently claimed as their own held significant meaning to the Cheyenne as this was where twenty-seven members of the tribe had been slaughtered by buffalo hunters in an unprovoked attack in April 1875. Dull Knife and his braves saw a chance at retribution for their deaths.

Approaching the settlers with signs of friendship, the warriors would suddenly shoot them at point-blank range….just as the buffalo hunters had done with their families. Panic raced across the prairie with the wind. People scattered, hiding in the scrub brush and creek beds in hopes the roving Indians would only destroy their property and leave them alive. One group of settlers, having been warned of the Cheyenne’s presence, hid in a stand of trees near their farm. Fear gripped them and tensions rose as a baby named Pearl cried uncontrollably in her mother’s arms. Finally, one of the men in the group choked the life from her little body to keep them all from being caught.

At another farmstead, a home and all its contents were burned, two teenaged boys and their father killed, and two young girls were stripped naked and sent into the flames as their mother begged for their lives, only to be released after their mother gave Chief Dull Knife their life savings. Reports claim anywhere from nineteen to forty men and boys were killed and twenty-five women and girls raped at the hands of the Dull Knife’s warriors.

After the massacres around Oberlin the Cheyenne moved North into Nebraska but it wasn’t long before they were confronted by three thousand settlers and ten thousand soldiers; the original group out of Oklahoma, plus troops from five Kansas forts. The fight was now thirteen thousand to three hundred. The Cheyenne were chased day and night and five times were confronted on the prairie but, with their knowledge of the land, they were always able to escape into more treacherous terrain. Eventually, the pursuit wore the Cheyenne down and six weeks after their run from the reservation began the tribal leaders held council. A division of opinion concluded the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, with two sides choosing different paths. Some continued moving North, while others, including Dull Knife, decided to stop running. They took possession of an empty fort in NW Nebraska and waited for contact with the authorities, at which time many more empty promises were given and more fighting occured. In the end only nine members of Dull Knife’s tribe survived, including the Chief, himself. They were moved around as prisoners for a time, then finally sent to Fort Keogh in Montana. Over time, several members of the Exodus were tried for the murders that had been committed in Kansas.

As for the dog who’d run down WaKeeney’s Main Street on, what I imagine to be, another windy day on the prairie…he’d brought the ominous news of a war party to my hometown from a campsite several miles East of Wakeeney. His owner, the camp’s cook, was found days later…lying in the grass; dead.

*The facts of this story are based on sources available on the web. The Decatur County Museum memorializes this event in the Last Indian Raid section of their museum and markers where significant incidences occurred are scattered throughout the county.

Below is a photo of my hometown, WaKeeney, Kansas seven years after that fateful day when the dog with an arrow ran into town.

WaKeeney, Kansas

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It’s Coming

The storm came on suddenly.

A bank of clouds steamrolling in from the West. Brewing like a witch’s cauldron, it changes from blue to green and blots out the sun.

Electricity slices across the sky and I see layers of clouds spinning counterclockwise above me.

Deafening thunder explodes…around me…through me…inside me. 

Its percussion hits then trails off into nothingness, taking my heartbeat with it. As the storm bears down, the wind switches directions and turns cold.

I smell rain.

A depression develops in the clouds, sucking the air from my lungs as it expands outward. The tip of a funnel cloud emerges from its center. Descending then pulling back…choosing where to land…deciding what to destroy.

Another funnel cloud forms and connects with the earth, turning the tornado brown.

It’s coming closer; stealthily crawling across the field.

Cowering in a ravine, I cling to the roots of the trees around me. Their tops twist wildly with the wind and send vibrations down through the trunk to shake me uncontrollably. Branches begin splintering apart and clumps of dirt hit me like bullets as the roots work their way free of the embankment.

My body becomes weightless and lifts into the air. My shoes are sucked from my feet and disappear. I hang on tightly; hugging the only anchor I have.

I’m being tossed about like a rag doll and I feel my bones snapping to pieces. 

The tornado’s vacuum is pulling me away to be destroyed just like the trees

… and roots

…and dirt.

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