Main character: Jimmy
What makes a good man good? What makes a man risk his life for another? Is it something within or is it just the luck of the draw?|
The cards had been dealt and Jimmy sat with the first really good hand of the evening, a full house. He looked at his money and then at the other men at the table. He'd been watching them all evening and he'd learned a lot about them winning (and him losing) but now…
His eyes narrowed as he watched the dealer and the man in the tall hat exchange glances. Tall-hat reached for his glass and took a sip. It was something the man did every time he'd held the winning hand. When Tall-hat took his drink the man sitting next to the dealer leaned back slightly and started the betting at ten cents.
Ten-Cent, Tall-hat and the dealer were working together. Jimmy was surprised it took him that long to notice. With a grim silence he met Ten-Cent's bet and raised it another ten. By the time the bet made its way around the table it would cost him two dollars to see the bet.
The bet stood at two dollars and twenty cents. Jimmy wasn't sure if tall hat had the winning hand yet, but he knew there was a way to throw him off. He looked at his full house: Aces over Jacks. Everything he knew told him that he shouldn't draw but looking from the Dealer to Tall-hat to Ten-Cent, he knew what he had to do.
When the dealer asked 'how many', James Butler Hickok paused, sorted his cards then tossed in one of the jacks. "One please."
He saw the shock register in the dealer's eyes, and could feel his own narrowing. The game was quickly moving out of games of chance which he didn't know to games where gunplay was involved. That was a game Jimmy knew all too well.
He could feel Ten-Cent shift position slightly as his hand moved towards his pistol. The dealer wasn't wearing a gun belt but Jimmy didn't think for a moment he was unarmed. That left Tall-Hat at the table. He couldn't be sure about the other three men at the table. They'd been loosing all night like he had been-that didn't mean anything.
As the betting continued he could see that the bartender was ready for trouble. 'How bad could one man's luck be?' Jimmy wondered.
He looked at the pot and waited as the others took their cards. Tall hat drew two, and was now sitting up straight. The others didn't seem to notice, but then again up until a minute ago, Jimmy had thought it was all just the luck of the draw.
He looked at his card, and smiled. Odds were Tall-Hat was now looking at two to three queens.
He could feel the tension mount around him, and his expression shifted slightly. There was a man at the door and another on the upstairs rail who had somehow become very interested in the game.
He sighed. If the cards fell the way they were looking they would, Jimmy knew he'd be carried out of the saloon. There were just too many of them and not enough of him. He fingered his cards as he tired to think.
The bet was to him at thirty cents. He had less than a minute before the betting would come around to him again. He could buy himself more time by keeping the bet going but he was beginning to realize that he had to get out of the game, and soon.
As he reached for his money he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned, his hand reflexively going to his pistol but when he saw who it was he could feel an odd sense of relief.
It was Ulysses, an escaped slave who had brought the wrath of the Missouri Militia down on Sweetwater, the man who had united the town, if only for an hour. He looked almost the same as he had the night Jimmy first laid eyes on him. He remembered seeing this giant of a man carrying a missing foal in his arms as if it were a cat.
When he'd seen Ulysses leave Emma's farm with little more than the clothes on his back, it was the last he thought he'd see of the man, but here he was. His smile quickly faded when he realized just how much danger Ulysses was in. The man didn't carry a gun, at least he hadn't when they'd first met him.
Even as concern swept over him, he couldn't miss the twinkle in the other man's eyes. They held the same sorrowful yet hopeful look they'd held back then, but there was a new found joy in them as well.
"Massa' Hickok," he said, slowing his speech ever so slightly. "De Captain he done lookin' for you."
Jimmy froze for a moment before he realized that Ulysses had seen what was happening and was trying to get Jimmy out of the game and the saloon before it turned fatal.
"He is? Oh…" He fumbled for what to say but he recovered quickly. He nodded as he quickly stood, picking up the rest of his money. With a tip of his hat he added, "Sorry gentlemen, but duty calls."
Tossing his cards face down on the table, he quickly downed his drink and headed towards the door. It took everything he had to keep walking and avoid saying anything that would tip the others off. Ulysses had risked his life to save Jimmy with a clever ruse-the least Jimmy could do was risk his pride to keep it going..
When they had safely exited the saloon, Jimmy paused and looked back. "Not that I'm complainin' or nothin'," he said as he studied Ulysses. "But you took an awful big chance back there."
Ulysses shrugged. "You, Miss Shannon an' the others did the same for me a while back. Figured it was about time I returned the favor."
Jimmy smiled and shook his head. The years hadn't changed the man that much after all. "How'd you know?"
Ulysses smiled. "Just 'cause they don't see me, don't mean I can't see them. They've been running the same game up and down the territory."
Jimmy smiled and shook his head. "Still, I won't forget what you did."
"I'd like to talk to you about that."
There was something in the even tone of Ulysses' voice that told Jimmy that their meeting wasn't nearly as fortuitous as it first seemed.
"Start talkin'" Jimmy urged.
Ulysses simply nodded. There was no need to dress things up or exchange niceties with Jimmy. It was one of the things Ulysses liked about him.
"After I left y'all, I headed north for a good long while. Almost made it Canada 'fore I caught a fever. A Siksika hunting party found me… Blackfoot. They took me in, took care of me… Been there ever since."
Jimmy nodded. "But…"
"There's been trouble in the area: a.band of renegades came through - took a lot of our horses and supplies. Army tracked them to our village-and they want us to turn them over-if we don't, they say they're going to attack the village… gave us one week.."
"Only they ain't there."
Ulysses shook his head. "And we don't even have the horses we need to leave, let alone go after them."
"What do you want me to do?"
Ulysses gave Jimmy a playful smile. "I was thinking… maybe you could talk to the Colonel… get him to see we aren't hiding them, maybe help him track the renegades…"
Jimmy paused. On one hand it would help Ulysses and his people, but on the other- Renegade or not, they were fighting for their way of life. He knew what Buck would say, but there was more at stake. Village meant women and children… Renegades meant warriors running hard and fighting every step of the way. Jimmy sighed and shook his head.
It was an ugly situation no matter which side he helped.
"What are you thinking?" Ulysses asked.
"I'm thinking I had a better chance with those guys back in the saloon," he answered in a wry tone. "Where's your village?"
Ulysses smiled: things had gone much better than he'd hoped when he first saw Jimmy. "North of here, 'bout three hours hard ride."
Jimmy ducked his head and laughed. "Is that your hard ride or mine?"
Ulysses' eyes twinkled. "Any ride's hard for these old bones."
"Well, they'll get a lot older if we don't get moving. You got a horse?" Jimmy asked as they headed towards the stable.
"Put him in the stall next to yours… iffin you're still riding that palomino."
Jimmy gave a self-conscious grin. "Yeah, he's mine."
Between settling Jimmy's bill and his telegraphing the Territorial Marshal, it took them four hours to get to the village. As they approached they dismounted and began leading their horses in, weapons conspicuously draped over their saddle horns.
It was an unnecessary precaution. As soon as the men on watch recognized Ulysses a call went out and the village seemed to come to life. Soon they were surrounded as everyone tried to speak at once.
Finally an older man raised his hands and the crowd fell silent, allowing him to speak. "We thank you for coming," Ulysses said, translating the older man's words as he spoke. "Though we do not know what one man can do, we hope that through you, our words may be heard by the soldiers and they will leave us in peace."
Jimmy nodded respectfully. "I hope the same thing sir, but you all should see what you can do 'bout movin' along. If they don't listen to me, ya got to think about your people."
There was a pause as Ulysses translated, and while the man answered with only a few simple words, Ulysses added the details.
"We can't. When they came in, we were celebrating the birth of the village elder's grandson. It was a dance Jimmy, and we didn't hear hear the warning over the drums. It was the warning shot one of the sentries fired that alerted us. And by then it was too late."
Ulysses shook his head in sorrow and frustration. "They shot several of our men and one of the children was hurt. As it is, we got three men to bury and if we move the others-we'll have to burry them as well."
"I'm sorry for your losses," Jimmy said honestly. These people hadn't done anything other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There had to be a way of keeping things from getting worse.
Looking around at the faces of those gathered he saw a combination of skepticism and suppressed hope.
He thought for a moment then let out a short sigh as he nodded. It was time to get to work. "Is there anything you can tell me about the men who attacked your village?"
He watched the man's expression as Ulysses translated and saw the hint of a smile cross the man's lips before he spoke.
"They were Sioux," Ulysses answered. "Lakota, maybe twenty men. They were all carrying rifles."
"They took only what they could carry, spooked the horses and rode off with them Only a few horses who weren't on the tether-line are still here."
"A day later the soldiers came… demanded that we cease hostilities and turn the men over to them."
"Cease?" Jimmy asked in shock. "When did you start?"
Ulysses looked at him and shook his head. "They'd heard our drums-claimed our man started it by attacking a wagon train… Jimmy we avoided them just as we always avoid them. You have to believe me-we didn't do anything."
Jimmy nodded. He'd seen it enough in his days with the Pony Express. They were Indians, therefore they were guilty. "It's going to be hard to convince them otherwise, but I can't think of anything else to try."
"When are they due back?" He added.
"Day after tomorrow," Ulysses answered then translated for the others. Jimmy could tell from their expressions they were all too aware of how precarious things were.
He nodded grimly. "I'll ride back to town. Hopefully we'll hear from Sam before the deadline."
"Do you think he can help?"
"After he left Sweetwater, Sam became Territorial Marshal. He's retired now, but he knows the Governor. And Sam may not be able to get them to listen to us, but he can."
Jimmy nodded. "Ulysses, you know me, more often than not-I let my guns do the talking for me. And this is one of those times where even I know they'll only make things worse, so we're going to do this Teaspoon's way."
Ulysses laughed. "I don't think we have enough shrewdness between the two of us to match Teaspoon."
"I don't think anybody does, but we're going to have to make due with what we have."
This time when Ulysses translated a hint of laughter trickled through the encampment. It seemed the entire tribe had heard of Teaspoon. Jimmy assumed Ulysses had told them all about Teaspoon. Then again, for all he knew one of Teaspoons wives could easily have been Siksika.
Still, it seemed to give them all a common ground to work from. They spent the night in the village and Jimmy learned more about the people who had taken Ulysses in when his own country had made him a hunted man.
He also learned about their attackers. The renegades had ridden in aiming straight for the heart of the celebration. They'd fired into the crowd of dancers and guests, not caring who they hit. In those few hours any sympathy he felt vanished. Ulysses people were merely trying to survive and the renegades had brought the wrath of the US Cavalry down on top of them.
His respect for the Siksika grew as they treated him as an honored member of their close knit family. Here he was, a complete stranger being treated to the best of everything they had to offer.
By the time they left in the morning-Jimmy felt a glimmer of hope. He knew it all depended on whether or not the man in charge of the soldiers would listen to them.
They had ridden for almost an hour when Ulysses finally asked the question that he was dying to ask. "Do you think we stand a chance?"
Jimmy gave him a wry smile as he nodded towards a plume of dust on the horizon. "I think we're about to learn."
"But, he said…"
Jimmy just shook his head. "Man's military. He's not going to leave this to chance. Far as he believes he's riding into hostile territory. Therefore you don't give the enemy time to prepare."
It made sense. Together the two men waited.
It took almost twenty minutes for the column of soldiers to reach them, and when it did it found Jimmy and Ulysses waiting calmly with their hands resting on their thighs.
Jimmy's newfound control was sorely tested as the men surrounded them and gestured for them to dismount.
Once their weapons were confiscated the Colonel rode forward. "Which one of you is James Hickok?"
Jimmy gave a relieved smile. "That'd be me sir."
"Colonel Briggs," he said with a slight nod as he dismounted. With a sigh he continued. "Well son, you seem to have some rather influential friends who tell me I have to listen to what you say."
"I was hoping you would sir-friends or not, you ride into that village a lot of innocent people are going to be hurt."
"A lot of innocent people have been hurt," the Colonel answered. "So start talking."
Jimmy nodded. Sam had done his part, now it was up to him and Ulysses to do the rest. He prayed they were up to the task. In his mind he could see Teaspoon walking him through the next few minutes. As he thought of his mentor, Jimmy felt an odd confidence wash over him.
If Ulysses heard the change in his voice, he said nothing.
"Well sir," he began. "If you look in my saddle bags, you'll see some beading that came off of one of the renegades' buckskins when they raided the village. Lakota beadwork."
Jimmy waited as one of the men reached into his saddle bag and pulled out the beading. As the Colonel studied it, Jimmy continued.
"The men you're looking for, they're Sioux, not Blackfoot."
"They're Blackfoot sir. Siksika, not Lakota."
The Colonel frowned. He hadn't heard of Blackfoot working with the Sioux, at least not in these parts. "But we heard drumming… war drums Mister Hickok and involved or not their village is the only one for miles."
Jimmy nodded. He'd been expecting this. From what Ulysses had told him, the celebration had been in full swing when the renegades had attacked, and that meant drums. He didn't' really expect the military man to know the difference between war drums and celebratory ones. Hell, it had taken Ulysses hours explaining the differences, which as near as Jimmy could tell involved the words and a few odd beats here and there.
"Yes sir, there were drums but they weren't war drums," he said. "Ulysses?"
Ulysses stepped forward all too aware of how he must have looked to the military man.
"And you are?"
"My name is Ulysses sir, and the Siksika took me in a few years back."
"So you're one of them?"
"Yes sir," Ulysses answered proudly.
"A former slave, sir, it's all right. They know," Ulysses assured him. "Sir, can you imagine a town dance without music?"
The Colonel's eyes narrowed slightly as he fought not to jump to conclusions. The situation had already proven to be far more complicated than he'd originally thought. "No," he answered honestly.
Ulysses nodded. "Us either."
"So you're saying those weren't war drums?"
"No sir, it was a dance. We were celebratin' the village's elder's grandson's birth."
To give the Colonel credit, he was trying to keep an open mind but Jimmy and Ulysses both knew how hard it was for the man.
"Tell him what you told me Ulysses," Jimmy urged.
"What?" the Colonel asked.
"The name of the song," Jimmy answered. It was what had convinced him. Even if he couldn't tell the difference, the translation had told him what he needed to know.
You just couldn't go to war with a song called 'The chicken dance."
Ulysses ducked his head. "I'm sorry sir, I tried to explain the differences in the patterns between songs to Jimmy and he just couldn't understand it, and I'm guessing it'll sound pretty much the same to you…. The song you heard that night was the elder's favorite. The song's known as 'The Chicken Dance.'"
Jimmy was shocked when the Colonel broke into a fit of laughter. "You're serious?"
The Colonel sighed and nodded. "All right gentlemen, what do you propose we do?"
Jimmy relaxed slightly. "Well sir, if your scouts could work with Ulysses and his people… I think you have a good chance of tracking these men down."
"They'd help, ever after all this?"
"Well, I don't know about the others, but these men attacked Ulysses' home, almost killed his wife and son. What do you think?"
It didn't take the Colonel or his men long to re-group and accept Ulysses' help.
As he prepared to ride ahead with the scouts, Ulysses shook his head, amazed at how things had changed. "Jimmy, always good to see you," he said as he held his hand out.
"Ulysses, you take care of that family of yours, and I hope to see you again."
"Me too." That said he turned his horse around hoping to pick up the renegade's trail.
Jimmy watched them ride away, then put his hat back on and mounted his horse.
Colonel Briggs looked at him, still not sure exactly what had happened. "Is there anything else?"
Jimmy smiled. "Funny you should ask sir-there are some gentlemen back in town…I'm willing to bet they've fleeced some of your men out of their money…."