(Copyright 2022 by Richie Swanson)

Originally published as Like Grasshoppers in the Sky in Oyster River Pages 6.1



Oak Woman landed in a hooded blanket in a canoe, and I mistook her for my Dakota wife Spirit Moon, thinking she’d finally seen that a white doctor had to follow white ways, and she’d come home, not fussing anymore that I’d amputated her uncle’s arm. Stunning Cloud been shot in the elbow, his bone shattered. I’d left a stub at his shoulder, and afterward Spirit Moon had arched her swollen womb in the doorway, rearing like a big mean buck with a powerful rack, and she’d gone off, my amputation knife secreted in her burden basket.

But Oak Woman stepped ashore all-sleek and lithe, not pregnant-looking. She carried her own newborn on her back, and I’d guessed at once she was the sister of Spirit Moon married to a Winnebago war chief of the La Crosse band ten leagues downriver. She raised her face deliberate, her cheeks royal and eyes stubborn-strong like Spirit Moon’s, and she spoke Dakota, on account Spirit Moon had told her I could understand some. “A white farmer cuts into the earth, he spoils it. A white doctor cuts into a man, he makes the insides rot.”

I answered Indian fashion, told her that Spirit Moon’s uncle Stunning Cloud did not pray `nough to the Great Mysterious before he went a-hunting furs in Ojibwa country.

“Spirit Moon wants her things,” said Oak Woman. “The trader-doctor will have them paddled to sugar camp.”

“An American husband will not send his wife’s things to the maple camp. He is the lord and owner of all things in his family.”

Oak Woman gave me a lilting glance, a kind of jesting common between Dakota sisters-in-laws and brothers-in-laws. “The trader does not know the Dakota people yet? That the wife owns her home and all the things in it?”

She walked off content with herself, and I didn’t see her again `til a fall buffalo hunt, after William been born, and Spirit Moon and I were fixed up friendly again. We scouted a herd down in Sac country, and we left Oak Woman and other squaws hidden on a ledge `neath the prairie, in a narrow crack of a creek valley that her husband—Raises-red-dust— said had been pounded open when the Thunders swung war clubs against the earth, all-angry at some ancient chief who’d killed a man without cause. Do tell.

We took cows quiet, ponies and bows, no guns, and I come back to the ledge, and Stunning Cloud and another sentinel lay scalped, and cradleboards hung empty in cedars. Leaves were scuffed where squaws had been dragged between trees, and I seen Sac braves running down in the creek-bottom, hunched like wolves after prey. I fired a signal shot, charged down and leapt over a Sac brave with a tanning knife stuck in his jugular-vein. Raises-red-dust and Rattling Wind caught up, and we knelt at the edge of a beaver dam, studying a bend in the creek, a steep woods, nobody nowhere.

Riffles tinkled eerie-quiet against a beaver lodge, and Oak Woman stood through the top, branches toppling from the crown. She pulled her boy from the lodge. “Ha’ga is here!” Her eyes boiled dark-boiling heat, looking past us, making sure the scoundrel who’d tried to carry her off wasn’t creeping up, and then Spirit Moon scuttled out, tucking William `neath her. “He-sees-the-flood is here!” His Dakota name.

We buried our dead deep `neath boulders, `way from hungry beasts. We dried the buffalo meat round fires, loaded our ponies, walked north, and Spirit Moon and Oak Woman hacked their hair, blacked their faces with soot, scarified their shins and wailed like the devil held their feet in his evil flames. I abided their grieving in front of Rattling Wind, the band’s chief, Spirit Moon’s father: two year’ ago he’d allowed me to open my post on his shore, claiming a dream had showed him he should.

I worried for William’s soul. We got to the Mississippi, and a hoard of Oak Woman’s Winnebago relations met us, dressed for ceremony. A Winnebago warrior with a scarlet-painted chin planted an engraved stick on the bank of a creek-mouth, and Oak Woman talked dead-solemn, like the `tire world depended upon my listening. “Medicine Trader and Spirit Moon shall not go past the namaxinixini, the bear stick. No Sioux shall.” She looked up at a river-cliff washed red and yellow, and she cast a holy air, reminding me of my ma a-gazing at clouds with golden edges. “My relations shall have vapor baths on Paint Rock,” said Oak Woman. “They shall send prayers and gifts to Earth-maker.”

My Sioux encamped only on the south side of Paint Creek, on a high bench in the tallest grove of the finest maples I’d seen since Allegheny country. I lay restless in our traveling lodge: scents of burning cedar and tobacco and boiling venison floated down from Paint Rock Ridge, and sudden bursts of flutes jumped all round the giant grove. And warrior-whoops, high-cracking songs, deep-throbbing drumming. Near as I could reckon, the Winnebago had painted Paint Rock with spirit colors for eons. They had graves old as Jerusalem up there—mounds made by animal spirits–shaped like bears, hawks, thunderbirds, water spirits, pigeons, wolves, lizards–and they were calling on animal spirits and clan medicine that their god had sent down during their Bible times.

William suckled on Spirit Moon `neath our robes. Oak Woman cooed from the other side, and I heard Ma cluck to our team so many years ago on the old Allegheny farm. A Sunday morning, and she and Gabriel took the carriage to hold testimony with Reverend Sims, the hickory-stick of a preacher whose enormous eyes towered a rich glittering blue whenever he’d spoke of visions and visits from God, how folks like Ma had surrendered and been saved.

Pa had sighed sharp in candlelight in the kitchen, his face granite-hard, furious. He listened to the horses trot off, and he and I walked out into cold-blue dawn and smelled sap running out our maples `fore we even crossed the pasture. “`Tain’t miracles open the gates,” said Pa. “`Tain’t visits. `Tis `tending the Lord’s gifts.” He seethed, doing woman’s work, `fusing to lose the sap we used for syrup and sugar. He took no drink on the Sabbath, neither bought nor sold nothing, and reasoned with me constant. “No matter the light anyone thinks they got inside themselves, we got to reap the Lord’s fruit. We got to throw our crowns down at Ma’s feet and deny her.”

He and Ma argued the covenant of works against the covenant of grace every day, never letting up. But I didn’t leave on that account. Gabriel was the oldest son–he’d inherit all the farm, you see. So, I come out here to the old French town of Prairie du Chien and give Debanné Trading Company a letter said I’d learned doctoring from an uncle, and Master Debanné seen I was quick at Indian words, and he outfitted me to open a post at Rattling Wind’s prairie. Debanné was a chum to General William Clark in St. Louis, and three-four year’ after the Sac near took Oak Woman, he got us a contract to supply the biggest Indian council ever on the upper river. Clark himself hosted the council, and Indians come from far as Sac country in Missouri to Ojibwa country in the north. Troops come from forts all around, and as I checked cargo coming off keelboats, they lined up marvelous behind me, feathered pompons on their tar-bucket hats, white chin-straps and breast-belts blazing white in hot-August sun.

Once I was a-counting cattle, and Oak Woman stepped out a Winnebago canoe and stood so forcible they stopped in their tracks, dumbly turning their heads, not knowing they should stampede or what. She shot every soldier her dark-boiling glare, looking sidewise and slow, willing each of them dead, and she glanced a trifle coy at me, daring me to object.

And then she and Spirit Moon sat on a blanket at the council grounds and `mired Raises-red-dust like they never `mired me. He stood in regalia before General Clark and Governor Cass, and the squaws looked `bout to jump up and holler with him. Raises-red-dust arched his pretty eyebrows with delicate disdain, his face as thoughtful-looking as a white dandy studying a chess board. “The White Father says his red children shall have lines–the Winnebago shall be here, the Sac there, the Dakota here, the Ojibwa there, the Potawatomie here, the Fox and Iowa there. The White Father says his red children shall stay inside their lines and never make war upon another again. The White Father does not know the Indian! We use the rivers, game, prairie and woods in common! Earth-maker gave the Winnebago our land, we share it with every Indian here! We do not hold it like the White Father’s people, as if it ours only to fence!”

“The Winnebago shall have every village they now occupy.” Clark read from foolscap, high on a dais. “Every Indian here agrees the Winnebago shall not move.”

“The White Father shall put tribes inside lines and take the places one after another!” said Raises-red-dust.

“The White Father does not want an inch of your land!” said Clark.

“The White Father said long ago that his people would not dig lead on Indian land! Now Indians cannot turn around without seeing whites digging into his earth!”

“No, a white miner must have a lease! A smelter, a license! A digger, a permit!”


* * *


Every chief of every band had his say, and the army feasted the Indians more’n a fortnight. Debanné Trade `vided mountains of fixings and precious gifts of powder, guns, French blue beads, steel awls etc. Near every chief signed Clark’s treaty, and I received all my consideration in Spanish dollars—four over-stuffed sacks, my debt to Debanné dissolved by thousands.

I locked the bags in Fort Crawford, saved out a dollar for William, set out to see him. I walked along the edge of Indian camps and smelled diarrhea everywhere. My heart plummeted to the ground. The Indians were not celebrating, not drinking the whiskey Clark gave them at the council’s close, not dancing. Moans of pain come from wigwams. Bushes rustled, sent up new whiffs of feces, of blood. Indians raced serious-silent between lodges in the dark, and a soldier sat sprawled beside the path, gawked at me hollow-eyed, his face pouring sweat.

I come upon Spirit Moon kneeling outside our lodge, William crying on the ground. I lifted him, he squirted out a reddish, snotty leakage. We hastened to the bank, dipped William in the river, and I looked in his mouth for a whitened tongue, typhoid, saw only a dark cavern, felt his burning cheeks. Raises-red-dust called to us. Oak Woman was rinsing Ha’ga in the water too, and Standing Turtle writhed on the bank, the oldest chief of the La Crosse band, his skin on fire, suddenly gaunt on bone, eyes glazed.

The Indians brewed potions, I flew to the fort. General Clark and his surgeon bought all the quinine Debanné and I offered, believing like us that the reaper a-wielded dysentery. All the Indians left instant, were `tirely gone by morning. But I helped Clark with the long ordeal of quarantining troops in hospital tents, and I couldn’t start after my Sioux and Winnebago `til late afternoon.

My boatmen paddled me up to the Paint Creek camp in the gloaming, and Rattling Wind and Raises-red-dust fumed as I landed. “Poison in the Grandfather’s milk, poison in his beef! Poison in the Grandfather’s chowder, poison in his pork, poison on his papers!”

William sat up from a blanket, his eyes clear and bright among mosquito smudges. “Spirit Moon gave He-sees-the-flood sweet flag, and the medicine stopped the white poison,” said Spirit Moon, but Ha’ga moaned helpless, sweating and shivering, and Oak Woman glared from her knees. Go on!

I made my way through the granddaddy maples and into the fire-glow inside a wigwam, Standing Turtle lying sidewise, squaws keeping him from falling. Raises-red-dust gazed lonely, asking my help, and I `jected laudanum into Standing Turtle. His eyes roamed aimless, looking huge, skeletal. He threw back his head, rattled his last breath.

“The White Father called Indians to council to poison them,” said Raises-red-dust.

“No, Debanné supplied the food,” I said.

“Humph, the army cooked it,” said Raises-red-dust.

I begged myself out, my heart aching, searching the impossible. Raises-red-dust escorted me through the maples, and Rattling Wind waited at creek-side, his demeanor agonized. He led us up into a hollow and grunted at a cabin, square of blackness `top a grazed meadow. “A Frenchman. Cree wife. Three children. We smelled their hogs and cow and smoke when we got out of our canoes this morning.”

I called out halfway across the meadow, “I’m white, Master Jonathan Prior, Debanné Trading Company! Come out, show yourself! By order of the United States Army, the Department of Indian Affairs! Please, sir!”

A hound barked inside the cabin, was muffled. I rapped at the door, “You’re on Indian land, ceremony ground! You’re safe to come out and parley!” I leaned to the only window, shuttered from the inside, “My Indians and I just signed a treaty with the United States Army, the Department of Indian Affairs! I have a treaty map, this is not public land open to entry or settlement!”

The shutter opened, a musket itched my nose, “Don’t hogwash Monsieur Chapeau, he is no cow to couple.” An eye squinted above the gun’s sight, the hammer clicking. “This is America, not the King’s land down here. It is America, n’ I know God do not give le sauvage all this terres to run wild on. It is America, n’ God give Monsieur Chapeau the right to live here. Your chancellor say so to his House a’ Commons. I see it plain on a pamphlet in Canada. Chancellor Monroe say les Grande Plaines is so big he can put all the sauvage out there, not here. That is the map Monsieur Chapeau see, America for settlement!”

“I will not guarantee your safety, sir.”

“And Monsieur Chapeau, not yours. He make sugar, see. The most white, most sucrée God ever know. Tell Monsieur Chapeau! You see maples like here anywhere other? No, nowhere! Monsieur Chapeau see these maple, he know le sauvage do not own them, they are his! Au revoir, monsieur!”

The shutter slammed shut, and Rattling Wind and Raises-red-dust nodded us back to camp and launched their bands before dawn the next morning, each hurrying hot young warriors away from the temptation of the fool in his cabin. My Dakota paddled hard for home, and we last seen Oak Woman picking cardinal flowers on an island just short of Prairie La Crosse, steeping leaves in a simmering kettle–a new potion for Ha’ga—prone and blacked-out in their canoe, guarded by Raises-red-dust in a tree, two Sharp rifles loaded.


* * *


I wintered uneasy at my post. My Sioux hunters went out surly and brought in few pelts, and Spirit Moon took William days on end to Rattling Wind’s camp in the frozen bottoms. Now William answered only to his Dakota name and recited stories in Sioux, tales of Blood Cot Boy and the like. Yet one night he spoke English from his bunk, making sure I heard. “Bells!”

Oak Woman arrived with five toboggans of provisions pulled by dogs, wrapped `neath buffalo furs in a sleigh’s cargo bed, holding Ha’ga in a red bundle, his face ochre, burial moccasins on his feet. “Ha’ga’s father is away,” she said. “He hunts for furs on the Chippewa River. Oak Woman brings Ha’ga to the Dakota to send his spirit to the Glittering Track.”

I looked up, I concede it. The Milky Way `peared so close I thought I could reach up and feel a soul on my palm like a warm cloud of breath on a frozen night. I took William into my cabin, planted hands firm on his shoulders, “Indian ghosts and Indian Heaven ain’t real just because Indians think them so.” William looked at me stubborn-strong, his face all brown, all Indian, his cheeks already tall, royal-looking. “Eagle Bone will put a hair of Ha’ga’s in a ghost bundle,” he said. “A spirit will find it.”

“You set your rudder against your father, Satan blinds you,” I said. “Remember, `A. In Adam’s fall, we sinned all. B. Heaven to find, the Bible mind. C. Christ crucified, for sinners died.’” He listened close through the `tire alphabet poem, but at daybreak the medicine man Eagle Bone put up a “ghost lodge” right outside my cabin, and William blacked his face and wailed the devil’s grief with his Indian relations.

I left to check on furs at hunting camps, and I knew he’d enter the little tepee every day and put offerings in a ceremony bowl to Ha’ga’s hair and to the Indian pipes and shells inside a beaded bag that hung heathenish from a forked stick. I got home, I waited and caught William’s arm as he come out. I raised a hand, and then Oak Woman rose bleary-eyed from the ghost lodge, a-holding Ha’ga `gainst her waist. He’d been put on a burial platform, I was there. But now he gazed goo-goo eyed from his red bundle and a-shimmered inside a gold mist that sparkled with shiny motes. Then—gone–only an old arrow sash at Oak Woman’s waist, woven of blue and red trader’s cloth. I let William go, struck a little asunder. I spared him his licking and learned him nothing.


* * *


Snow fell so terrible-bad that year that drifts near buried the post’s stockade. The early spring-melt raced waist-deep over the river-ice, carrying herds of antelope and buffalo been killed crossing in blizzards, and the ice itself thundered apart in jagged and giant-sized floes that swept downriver, scraping `way whole islands, `tire forests. In April Captain Keane from Fort St. Anthony landed a keelboat on a rising-screaming current, and I boarded with my pelts for Prairie du Chien. The flood hurried us to the Paint Creek camp `fore evening, and a foul-meaty taste swamped our throats—Keane and I disembarked with troops, and Chapeau’s hound whelped from a rise of dry land, arrows in its flanks—its master dead and prone a few steps beyond, his hair lifted clean, his skull shot point-blank—the heads of his wife and kids still simmered in sugar kettles on hot coals, their bodies charred and tossed against granddaddy maples.

“That Winnebago war chief that spoke so mean at the council, Raises-red-dust,” said Captain Keane.

I pulled shreds of leggings from the dying hound’s teeth. “Look,” I said, “it ain’t got any Winnebago beads.”

“Raises-red-dust and the Winnebago think they got spirits and gods here, and that Uncle Sam steals lead from Indians even when it’s on the army’s mineral reserve,” said Keane.

“Ask me, some trader sold Sac too much whiskey, and they came up here,” I said.

“You told me Raises-red-dust lost his boy and chief, and he blames dysentery and every other disease on the whites.”

We found no horse tracks, only a confusion of boot and moccasin prints, just cinders at the cabin. We hastened to Fort Crawford, and Keane showed the colonel there an arrow he claimed he’d pulled from the hound. Colonel Bedford narrowed his eyes at the turtle-claw point used common by Winnebago, and he crowed with Keane, “Yes, Raises-red-dust! Mad for revenge! He wouldn’t hide north where we’d expect! He’d go south to gather braves from lead camps!” He laid out plans to hunt Raises-red-dust and looked hard at me, and I said yes, he could deputize me as a surgeon and translator into a company of mounted riflemen.

Captain Keane drove south us for days in downpours, searching Winnebago villages and lead-digging camps. The rain ceased in Illinois, but we rode through fog, and a war chief galloped sudden beside us, armed braves flanking us left and right, white rags on their muskets. Keane kept us at a trot, and we pulled up at the rim of a crevasse mine as the sun burned away at the day’s gray veil—shovels, picks and pack-straps were strewn all about a deep green bowl that glistened gray-black with galena at the bottom—the tools abandoned by old braves and squaws when our approach had been detected.

Keane ordered me to parley with the chief, blood-red streaks painted down the chief’s rippling brown chest, the devil’s black hand of death there too, and a bald-headed club slung over his shoulder, looking like it’d been passed down from the Thunders who Raises-red-dust had said had smote cracks in the prairie.

Warriors still flanked us, and more emerged from the fog on an eminence forty rods away.

“You are dressed for war,” I said.

“Our warriors carry white cloths,” said the chief. “They ride about and keep white miners away from our diggings.”

Keane bugged his eyes at me, and I barked the same order I’d translated to every other chief we’d met. “Raises-red-dust must turn himself in, or the White Father will send troops like locust crawling out of dirt! They will swarm every village, devour every warrior! They will wipe the Winnebago from the face of the Earth!”

The chief give me Oak Woman’s hot-boiling glare, said nothing that pointed us nowhere, the same as every other chief we’d parleyed. I fished in my mind for the Winnebago word for locust, tried for the hundredth time to remember Raises-red-dust saying it. “White Father!” I said. “Soldiers!” I waved at every Indian in sight. “All of you! Wiped from the face of the Earth!”

The chief didn’t change his glare none, I knew he understood. Keane pivoted his mount, I done the same. Our company rode our white mares between the two lines of braves, and they grunted and whooped, shaking guns and bows at us.

I’d done my job, I dare say. We retreated and seen no sign that Indians followed us, that they doubted the will and might the president and the U.S. Army. Keane pushed us east, and I steamed at him as I rode, at the way his little dark eyes and snaky lips and his lean and limber posture in his uniform dictated his rank constant: he could accuse Raises-red-dust false or not, and if I refused his orders, he could jail or hang me.

I reckoned with God, spoke to Him at night, told Him it wasn’t me who’d pull the trigger and thrust the bayonet. I would not do the killing, was instead the Lord’s True Servant. Ma and Gabriel could throw themselves down before Reverend Sims, twitch like locust burning in kerosene, sob and scream and testify. But I was opening the Lord’s bounty, was the best hope for Raises-red-dust, the Lord’s best bet to keep the sky clean of swarming adders. I spoke the Lord’s law to chiefs beguiled by Satan, and I harbored it against Keane too, a-waiting to see him fall and weep.


* * *


And then one afternoon we pushed through a soupy prairie toward the Mississippi, and we heard muskets pop ahead. We crept along a river cliff, and I got out my spy-glass and spotted a little flatboat moored in flooded bottoms below, grizzly-bearded white men wearing mining clothes, having a spree onboard. They passed jugs on deck, placing bets as they took turns shooting at the tiny eyes of a hundred-pound catfish stranded on drift timber. A fellow sighted his musket, wearing a blue-and-red arrow sash like a skullcap on his head, and another stepped out the cabin, buttoning his trousers, working his tongue like a cat licked cream. I glassed the sash again and again, Keane shouted from a ledge. “Cease fire! I’m Captain Charles Keane, Fifth Infantry! United States Army! Do you have Indians onboard?”

“No!” Mister Skullcap give a gentlemanly salute. “I’m Stephen Reginald Burns delivering goods from General Clark, requisitioned for Fort St. Anthony!”

“Captain Stephen Burns from St. Louis?” said Keane. “You’re impostors! Smuggling whiskey!”

A musket popped, raising sandstone at our feet, and the trouser man dashed to untie a line. Our troops fired, his hand sprayed blood, and Mister Skullcap fell, killed for his lies even before the riflemen reloaded. The other miners threw down arms, we boarded. I ducked into the cabin, and a squaw groped her way through a stench of blood and semen and `long the cabin’s floor. She bunched herself against a wall behind jugs of brandy, and Keane’s steps thudded behind me. “Stay out!” I cried. “You’ll scare her to death `fore we talk to her!”

“Know her?”


“She Winnebago?”

“No, wait outside!”

He turned around, and Oak Woman shook uncontrollable, blood slick on her thighs. I spoke Dakota, telling her it was over. She kept shaking. I went out again, hollered at Keane. “The blue sash!” A soldier delivered it, Keane watched close. “You’ve seen it before?”

“No, I need it!” I hastened back to Oak Woman, she guarded her face with her arms. I spoke her name low, put the sash in a hand, closed her fingers on it. She bolted and bit at my nose. “Sister of Spirit Moon.” She gawked mute at the words, lowered the sash on her own, stanched herself feeble.

I hung a blanket in front of the narrow passage that led to her, and Keane poked his face in, showing me an Indian par fleche, “They say this is hers, and she sold herself willingly.” I flew back inside, pulled a crane feather from the par fleche, cut off both tips and sucked laudanum from a vial into it. I put the feather in Oak Woman’s mouth, blew through it like I’d seen Eagle Bone do. Her eyelids fluttered in the dark, she swallowed the opium un-watered. I grabbed the sash from the floor and inched it back up against her bleeding, and she slung her head sidewise, so silent I thought she’d died of shame.

She went torpid, and I spread her open, mopped her, put a candle lantern close. Uncle Jacob never had me look into no woman, but Oak Woman’s privates hung torn and swollen, leaking as if chewed by starving beasts. I considered tying off shreds of bleeding tissues with hair, `cided I couldn’t. I folded her Indian dress `neath her head, laid a blanket over bruises and welts, held the sash snug against her while she slept.

Rifles clapped, I hastened out. Troops were heralding a churn a-clattering downriver, flames and cinders spitting high, black chimney-stacks invisible in the night. Here was the genius of American invention conquering the Mississippi at her angriest, a white steamboat creeping tortoise-slow against the immense black flow, the Potomac with Clark’s goods and the genuine Captain Burns headed to Fort St. Anthony.

The riflemen poled the flatboat out of the bottoms, tied it to the steamboat’s bow, and the Good Lord kept Keane busy the whole next day. Burns’ men shackled the miners, Keane questioned them. Burns’ men cut boiler wood, Keane posted guard, and he led a reconnaissance party, still looking for Indians.

We launched upriver, and Oak Woman bled less, a-lying languid. The cabin throbbed, cargo crashed. A derelict tree thumped and banged, rolling `neath our hull, and she roused, a-mumbling for Ha’ga and the Old Woman who guarded Indian Heaven. I readied the last of my opium, put the feather in her mouth. She blew the laudanum out, done with it. She peered through the shadow, knew me definite.

“Oak Woman heard Ha’ga in the sky,” she said.

         Ducks and geese cackling, flying above the ghost lodge?

“She stepped out and looked.”

         At the Glittering Track.

“She saw the flood rising, went to the bank. Whites came from nowhere.”

         She’d been wailing in the lodge, Mister Skullcap heard her from the water.

“They shoved wood into Oak Woman’s mouth. Threw her in a canoe, sat on her. Paddled downriver. Pulled her out at the One Apart.”

         Trempealeau Mountain, a river cliff that stood out in the river apart from other bluffs, a few leagues from my post.

“They poured whiskey down Oak Woman’s throat. Told her she must show them lead.”

         An old rumor of a rich vein.

“They held a shovel in fire. Made to burn Oak Woman. Pulled her down.”

         Mister Skullcap had struck nothing at Trempealeau Mountain and had left his crew there while he and others paddled to my post. They’d seized Oak Woman when they’d seen the chance.


* * *


We turned out of the river’s hell-roar `bout midnight and landed at Prairie du Chien in a glide of water that hissed over the tops of Debanné’s buildings and all of Fort Crawford but the blockhouse. A soldier rowed Keane away in a skiff, and I got word at dawn that Colonel Bedford had a proper military translator and doctor, and reports of Raises-red-dust to the east. I found the Potomac’s clerk, bought a berth to my post. I returned to Oak Woman, and she was waiting on her feet, a blanket hooded over her face like the day I’d met her. She pulled herself up a ladder by her hands to the Potomac’s bow, and I accompanied her up to our berth on the boiler deck. I helped her into a wooden bunk, drew our curtain closed, and Captain Burns flung it open. “Indians are forbidden up here.”

“Those miners!” I said.

“I don’t care they sliced her up and ate her. She Winnebago?”

“Dakota, sir.”

“All hostiles get off. All other Indians ride below.”

Oak Woman and I settled ourselves down on the main deck, sitting against a wall behind the boiler room while other deck passengers slumped against barrels and cargo sacks. The Potomac steamed up, and our deck mates flew to rails, hurrahed, fired shots of joy, and after we launched, Captain Burns leaned high-handed above me. “Hear the commotion? Bedford did you a favor, didn’t hang anyone just because a squaw sold herself. He took the spirits off that flatboat and sent the miners down to the Fever River diggings.”

Burns waved us farther out of sight to a pile of hay behind a huddle of livestock, we went immediate. I sank into the hay, guns loaded, and Oak Woman lay dreary-eyed, swatting flies that swarmed her dress. The Potomac tied to an island that night, and troops walked deck patrols, ogling her. A private approached all-eager, holding out a few bits of a picayune, his bulge stinking at my nose. “Ain’t nobody here,” I said.

Rain slashed down cold and raw, we nestled as brother and sister. More passengers moved under roof, chickens flurried across us. A sow plopped on my leg, nursed piglets. A goat chewed the toe of a boot, I kicked it off. Cows munched the hay, slobbering, and excrements smelled rich as the floor of the ark. A rooster crowed at dawn, and Oak Woman raised the cock by his neck and threw the fluttering bastard away.

She stiffened all the way to Rattling Wind’s prairie, and after Burns run the Potomac right through the current that swept over the old site of my post, she moved peg-leg-like across the landing stage and sat squaw-style in the edge of the water. She folded her legs ginger, numbing her soreness, her color pale as an old gray wasp-nest. Burns steamed away, and I was sorry I hadn’t asked him for calomel for the syphilis that would afflict her, now I seen with my own eyes that the flood had washed away my medicine cabinet with all the rest of my post.

Oak Woman gawked up into the shadow of the coulee, and I wondered if Rattling Wind’s village had fled or been rounded up. A paddle lapped. Raises-red-dust stepped out a canoe, knelt to Oak Woman, stroked her face and hair. He wept, and she commenced too, no keening or nothing, just their misery pouring out silent like Reverend Sims a-swaying on his knees, crying for Christ.

Raises-red-dust cradled her head in his lap, and I wanted to rile him, afraid the water was too cold for her condition, she’d shiver, faint, wouldn’t recover. She didn’t deserve to die–thousands of God’s creatures told me so, diving through the gloaming above the river. Nighthawks. Spirit Moon called them Crooked Wings. Multitudes buzzed toothy screams, singeing the air everywhere, dipping and turning light as moths, snapping wings like thunderclaps. Nighthawks dove, I drove a knife into a red-bearded lout on the flatboat. Nighthawks swooped sharp, I broke the neck of the eager-eyed private, yanked nooses of every lout who took Oak Woman. Nighthawks flew cockeyed, I dodged a guard with Raises-red-dust. I’d seen them sinners, knew he and I’d sneak down to Fever River, snatch them swift as nighthawks did bugs.

Duke nickered, my piebald, the strongest pony I’d ever kept at the post. Spirit Moon still had him. She led him out the coulee with Eagle Bone and two medicine squaws, pulling a travois.  Spirit Moon and Eagle Moon eased Oak Woman out the water, slid her on the travois, covered her with a duck-down blanket, and a squaw held steaming tea to her lips, the Indians’ voices hushed and heavy as in deep cold in January.

Rattling Wind spoke before me, “Medicine Trader’s boy is a trader boss already. Raises-red-dust brought three bales of furs from the Chippewa, and He-sees-the-flood said the pelts must be combed and beat and treated with turpentine.”

I stared near-senseless at Rattling Wind. Two hundred seventy pounds of pelts meant a full winter’s work, not murder. I near shouted. Raises-red-dust doesn’t turn himself in, they’ll kill everyone here! Come like locusts crawling out the dirt! Wipe your people from the face of the earth!

Spirit Moon give me a probing gaze, poised to start walking Duke back to the coulee, her belly a melon, a new child of mine inside her. I threw myself down, pounded mud at the chief’s feet. “I am nothing!” I cried. “I am to be despised! I am Adam, my wife is Eve! We have sinned! Turned from God!” I groveled and clawed at mud. “I am a worm, vermin! I renounce myself!”

Nighthawks a-swarmed from the heavens, buzzing hot in the dark like locust screaming everywhere at night. Behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh! Wings popped like shots, I fired. They cut the air, I slit throats.






This story was originally published as Like Grasshoppers in the Sky in Oyster River Pages 6.1. I changed the title because in the heat of the writing I did not remember that the image of grasshoppers derived from a vision Sitting Bull experienced in March, 1876, a few months before Lakota warriors battled General George Crook on Rosebud Creek on July 17 and then General George Armstrong Custer on the Little Bighorn River on July 25. I did not intend to place the phrase of Sitting Bull’s vision into the mouth of a white officer from Fort St. Anthony in the 1820s.





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