SFReader 2004 Story Contest
First Place Winner
This year, the final judging for the annual SFreader fiction contest was handled a bit differently from previous years. Webmaster/Publisher Dave Felts helped to finalize the results and each of the eventual winners was given a chance to revise their original submission with a bit of editorial guidance from myself and Dave.
That said, our First Place Winner comes to you with every word in its original form, just as it was submitted to us, as neither Dave Felts nor I had any suggestions to significantly improve the tale without jeopardizing its impact. And, as if that’s not a provocative enough introduction to any story, you can read this one and compare it to the other two – and decide for yourself whether or not the final rankings seem appropriate. – D.B.
Indian Territory, June 22, 1865
The night was warm and thick as the smoke that hung over a smothered fire. Brigadier General Stand Watie woke just before dawn amidst the sandstone boulders, sweating and afraid. In his dreams, gaunt, sepulchral forms had drifted yet again out of the darkness to accuse him, the all-too-familiar hollow-eyed Cherokee dead, their swollen, blackened feet bare in the snow, faces harsh with blame. Still trembling, he heaved out of his ragged Confederate-issue blanket and ran spread fingers through his hair.
It was the same every night, this haunting of his dreams, but the Lord above knew it wasn’t his fault. If the full-blooded Cherokees had accepted the inevitable and migrated peacefully to Indian Territory before the troops had come, as he and so many of his fellow mixed-bloods had advised and then done, the Trail of Tears would never have come to pass. Here, in Indian Territory, the property rights of the red man were respected, as they no longer were in the east, and there would have been no need for the indifferent cruelty of the soldiers, the bloodied footprints in the snow, the dead infants, frozen stiff as boards, or the wrinkled grandfathers left behind for the wolves to exhume from scratched-out graves along the trail.
Why hadn’t they known it would be pointless to resist? The white man always had his way; that was how the world worked, and his Treaty Party had understood it was inevitable they would lose their land, had done its best to soften that loss and obtain as much money as possible in return for their beloved tribal lands in Georgia and North Carolina.
He braced his head in shaking hands, then reached for his canteen. It was empty and he got to his feet, careful not to wake his son, Salidan, who rode for the Cherokee Mounted Rifles with him and now slept only a handful of paces away. He heard a rustle and reached for his knife, then the camp sentry paced by, his steps Cherokee soft on the thirsty soil. Watie caressed the knife’s haft. Since the day the Treaty had been signed, each and every signer had died for the crime of facing reality, except for himself, and he had so far faced his own death head-on eleven times, never knowing if this would be the day the revenge-minded full-blood Cherokees would succeed in wiping him from the face of the earth.
When the call finally came, that was why he had gone to war, why he was fearless against the ravening blue tide of Yankees. The North had not a single weapon as deadly as what his own people intended against him, or as terrible as what he had knowingly done to himself when he helped sign the Cherokees’ eastern lands away.
But now the Confederates had laid down their arms all across the South, Generals Smith and Johnston, and most heartbreaking of all, even General Lee. Despite the fact Watie had held Indian Territory against all comers, the end had arrived. He had his orders. As the last Confederate general still fighting in the field, tomorrow he would ride into Doaksville, carrying the Stars and Bars of the Secesh flag one final time. His legendary raids would be over, along with his dream of carving a better life from the white man’s leavings through siding with the Confederacy. Only the bitter dregs of defeat remained for him and the thousands of Cherokee Rifles under his command.
Stars still glittered overhead, and the setting moon was only a sliver, fragile and pale as a rime of ice. It was the time of the New Green Corn Festival, as the elders would have said, though Watie’s immediate family had been educated beyond such primitive superstitions for a number of generations. He walked down to the creek to wash the fear-sweat from his face. Sleep was no longer possible, but with what faced him on the morrow, better he remain awake and think on it, prepare himself so he would bring honor on his fellow Cherokee soldiers and not shame them before the cursed Yankees and their Pin allies, the full-bloods who sided with John Ross against him and rode for the blue. Before them, he would never show weakness or regret.
He knelt beside the trickling water of the nameless creek, then saw a faint greenish glow around the bend. Hair rose on the back of his neck. He eased back to his feet and prowled toward it, knife in hand. Were the Pins trying to sneak up on him one last time, so he couldn’t even surrender with dignity? Well, he was fair spoiling for a fight, all right, and since his raiding days were done, he was all for settling last scores now.
He pushed aside the stiff branches of a blackberry bush, then froze as something massive and black charged, something shaped altogether wrong to be either a marauding Yankee or a stray horse. He fell back, brandishing his knife.
The form reared up over his head, blotting out the stars. “So, Grandson,” a deep angry voice full of rumbles said, “you think to escape the truth so easily?”
His knife inscribed a circle, cold and deadly. “You don’t fool me, Pin! Throw off that pelt and show your face. Better men than you have tried for years to kill me and failed!”
The glow brightened and Stand made out the towering shape of a bear twice the size of any he had ever seen. It sat back on its hindquarters and crossed its paws before its chest like a human. Its eyes were a brilliant shimmering green as though an unearthly fire burned within. “Too long have you buried yourself in this futile white man’s war in order to turn away from the evil you have done.”
Stand’s face heated. Those were Pin words all right. “What I have done, Pin, is whipped your sorry asses from one end of this territory to the other, and I could do it again, given half a chance!”
The bear roared and he fell back, deafened. His ears rang and his eyes watered, and he more than half-believed that was a real bear lumbering toward him.
The molten green eyes narrowed. “Do you feel no shame then for tearing your relations away from the living land of their forefathers? Do not lie to yourself any longer. Truth is always sweet at its core, though the husk be very bitter.”
What in tarnation? He levered himself up off the ground, gripping the knife so tight, it hurt his hand. He smelled the oiliness of the bear’s fur and the rankness of its breath. If that varmint wasn’t real, he didn’t know what was. He swallowed hard. The old ones had talked of such things, spirit guides that came to one in the guise of animals, but he had never given it one moment of credence. He faced the beast warily, well aware how useless his knife was against such a creature. “We held only the farthest edges of what was once ours. It was time to give up and start again. If we hadn’t agreed to go to Indian Territory, the whites would have taken our land anyway and paid us nothing. We would have all died penniless!”
The bear boxed his head with wicked paws the size of spades and the knife spun away from Stand’s fingers. He sprawled on the ground, his vision tunneling down to a single hot white spark. “So instead,” the bear said, “without consulting the grandfathers, you severed the sacred roots that had given your people nourishment since the first of days.”
“I had no choice!” Watie fought to raise his spinning head. “It was that, or nothing. We made the best deal we could.”
“And see where it has led, Cherokee against Cherokee, Pin against Secesh, Watie against Ross, and all the while nothing is gained. The white man stands back and laughs while you spend your strength, one against each other, and he is left free to steal from you whatever catches his eye.”
Watie pushed himself up to his hands and knees. “The whites are too many. They always have been. There was no other way.”
“You could have fought,” the great bear said. “Death in the land of your fathers would have at least brought honor. Where is the honor in the path you walk now?”
Thunder rumbled in the distance and Watie felt the earth vibrate beneath him like a great drum. “I have honored my men,” he said, “as well as my commitments and my family and my word.” He stared numbly at the knife lying in the grass, just out of reach. “But now I have come to the end of all paths. Tomorrow I will surrender to that Yankee bastard, Matthews, and then ride home, God willing, that I yet have home and family to return to.”
Lightning flashed up in the clear night sky, green as the bear’s eyes, glinted off its wicked claws. “Do you not wonder why you still live, while all your fellow signees have long since been dispatched to the Night Country?”
Because he was warier, his mind supplied, because he was more desperate and savage, because the blood of his Cherokee forefathers still ran hot in his veins.
“Because you have something left to do,” the bear said. “And to begin that journey, you must first admit the truth: you set your feet on the wrong path and so betrayed your relations to die a frozen death in the mountains.”
For a second, he was there, on the mountain pass, with the accusing dead standing beside him ankle-deep in the snow. Behind them, frozen grandfathers and grandmothers were stacked like cord wood along the trail, along with the pitiful remains of bloodless, starved babes. The dead rose and wrapped their bony fingers round his heart until it stuttered. He sagged to his knees amidst the bloodstained footprints that led around the next bend of craggy gray granite. He could not breathe, consumed with the aching cold of that dreadful winter.
How many of his fellow Cherokee had tracked bloody footprints across the snow on the Trail of Tears? And how many more had died since Pin took arms against Secesh? And though he would lay down his sword before General Mathews tomorrow, that would not be the end. It would never be over, while he yet lived. Shivering with the awful, bone-shaking cold, he levered himself back to his feet in the snow.
He had thought to accomplish something for his people by enlisting in the Confederate army and becoming the first Indian ever to serve in such high military office, but he had done nothing, accomplished nothing for the Cherokee but death and starvation and dishonor.
“There is a way,” said the bear in his ear, “a path still left open.”
He blinked and found himself alone, standing in the gentle June night again, clad in boots and uniform, staring down at his knife in the grass. His hands still throbbed with the awful cold of that mountain pass, but the night was warm, the dead long-buried–and Mathews waiting in Doaksville.
The southern lands were gone; for the first time since the day he had signed the treaty, he let himself feel that loss. It was like a dark river flooding through his heart, full of bitterness. He should have found another way to deal with whites, but he could do nothing to change that now. Perhaps the key to redemption lay in seeing what could be salvaged from these new western lands. The Yankees were furious that so many of the Cherokee had sided with the Secesh. They were sure to punish them, even demand they move farther west to lands that wouldn’t even support grass. He couldn’t allow that. He must make sure the women and children and old ones were not be punished for the stand their men had taken.
Mulling the problem over, he turned, then ducked as an immense winged shadow passed overhead, then banked back. A great cry split the night, savage and angry. “Why trouble yourself to hold Indian Territory?” The words were the angry screel of wind shrieking against rocks.
He tried to look up, but the shape, blacker than the night sky, flew at his face. Watie wrapped his arms about his head and dove for the ground with a thump that drove the air from his lungs.
A monstrous raven landed just feet away, taller than a man and blacker than pitch, its eyes the same eerie, stomach- wrenching green as the bear’s. It strutted toward him. The savage beak darted at his eyes and he covered his face with his hands. “Will you not just walk away from this land too, the second the white man decides he wants it, as you did the southern lands?”
Watie hitched backwards until he fetched up against a sapling, then peeked between his protecting fingers. “That land was forfeit long ago,” he said numbly. “We didn’t own enough of it to matter anymore.”
“Fool!” The raven stalked toward him, feathers ruffled. “No one owns the earth, anymore than the two-legged can own the sky or the stars, but you were part of that land, and it cries out for you still.”
“What should I have done,” Watie asked, “other than play the game on their terms? Should I have turned away from my people and left them nothing?”
“You are a fighting man,” the raven said, “born to the red government, which holds sway in times of war.”
“There is no more red government,” Watie said, “or white. We don’t live like that anymore, and even if there still were, we have nothing left to fight for.” The sapling pressed hard against his back. “We have come to the end. The dammed Northerners have prevailed everywhere else, though we pressed them hard enough here that they never took Indian Territory.”
“Think.” The raven’s eyes expanded into luminous green moons that took up all the sky so that he could see nothing else. “See yourself walking a path of honor and daring, cunning and bravery. See your hand upon the heart of the future.”
Watie saw himself standing at the forefront of a great army, the rolling plains and hills of this new land black with his soldiers. They wore, not the butternut of Secesh or the blue of the Yankees, but the simple brown homespun of the Cherokee, and carried no flag. Behind them, he saw ranks of bears and wolves, eagles and deer, watching from the trees and grass as though they too had a stake in what was to come.
“You should have protected your own instead of betraying them to the white man’s greed.” The raven waved its wing and he found himself lying on his back, blinking up at the stars. The raven loomed over him. “And now you ready yourself to betray them once more. You were named De-to-ta-ga, To Stand Firm, Immoveable. Stand now before these greedy others and say to them `No farther! The white man stops here!’”
He thought of the battles he and his men had fought, the many raids, the pounding of their horses’s hooves, the roar of the guns. It had felt good to be doing something, after being forced out of the southern lands, to steal the Yankees’ supplies and burn their bridges, harry them at every opportunity, then slip back into the welcoming wooded hills and lie low in the grass, and yet, had not enough lives been lost? He himself had already paid the price of one son.
He sat up, cautiously, as the raven watched him with eyes like volcanic green glass. “This land is ours now. We do not have to fight to keep it.”
“The whites will demand this land too.” The raven twisted its head to stare at him sideways. “You have defied them at every turn these past four years, sided with their sworn enemies, slain their children. Do you think they will overlook that? The seeds of a bloody reckoning will be planted tomorrow, if you ride to Doaksville.”
And if he didn’t? He let that thought rattle around in his head, trying it on for size–not to go, not to surrender. What would it mean if he retained his command? A giddy feeling pooled in His stomach, an excitement that made his hands clench. He fought to control his eagerness. “I have given my word to lay aside my sword,” he said slowly. “The Pins are just waiting for an excuse to cut my men down.”
The raven shook its wings. “The Pins are your brothers. Show them the renewal of your heart and they will flock to your side.”
The idea was heady. He felt as though he stood on the edge of a great precipice, looking down at the blood-soaked battlefields. If this war was lost, as it surely was, it was not by his hand. He had whipped the Yankees at every turn, harried them sorely. Why should he surrender?
Feathers rustled behind him and then he found himself high up in the sky and falling, rushing toward the patchwork ground so inexplicably far below. He was afraid. Men were not meant for such heights. He closed his eyes to shut out the sight of his death rushing towards him.
“Fly!” the raven cried harshly in his ear. “Let the wind carry your voice to the four corners of the land! Take what is rightfully yours! Live in honor and let no man find fault with your heart!”
He spread his arms and found he had wings after all. His plummet became a gentle glide, then he was climbing back towards the sky, toward the ice-chip stars, so far away. A moment later, he found himself standing on the ground, alone in the night, arms outstretched, the sweet memory of wind on his cheeks, the taste of flight in his mouth.
He saw this vast land, Indian Territory, as it should be, populated by his own people, green and rolling and wise with the ways of the past. He saw his Cherokees patrolling the borders, keeping out the whites, preserving this refuge for those who needed it, for the children of the future. They all rode together, Pin and Secesh, Ross and Watie, and they heeded the past four years not.
Then he blinked and the vision faded. He passed a trembling hand over his eyes. It made sense though. Why should his Cherokees surrender? They had not lost, at least, not yet, but, as for the Pins, he had sufficient troops of his own to defend this land. He didn’t need those damned turncoats. Let them continue to fawn after the blasted North like the dogs they had chosen to be.
A growl split the darkness. Stand spun around and faced a great wolf, lean as a washboard and tall as a pony. Its green eyes spit sparks that ignited the grass so that it burned with an eerie slow green fire.
He jerked back, his heart pounding.
The wolf crouched on its haunches and stared at him hotly. “How can you think to lead others, when you have not learned the most important lesson of all?”
Stand moved back again as the strange fire-without-heat ate through the grass toward his boots. “I don’t understand.”
“The Pins are your brothers.” The wolf prowled toward him, hackles raised. “Though you are at each other’s throats day and night, still they are part of you, and you, they. Family is not just what is easy or safe or comfortable. You have been given powerful gifts by the Above Beings and stand on the brink of powerful personal medicine; it is your responsibility to share it with all your relatives.”
Stand flinched as it loomed over him, green eyes glowering. “You have trod the white man’s path your whole life,” it said in a low rumble. “You have given his priorities all your energy, his values, your approval.”
And he, who was nigh on to being a full-blood, saw himself wearing the white man’s uniform, attending his schools and church, speaking his language, ignoring the old ceremonies, the ancient ways that had been the law since long before whites had set foot in this hemisphere. Many others, who carried much less of the ancient bloodline than he had lived truer lives. He wet his lips. “But Ross’s men will kill me,” he said, “sooner or later, and who will lead my troops then? I daren’t turn my back upon them.”
“Go to them and admit your mistakes.”
The green fire surrounded him now and the smoke rose into the black night sky in fierce green spirals. “I did the best I could, with the knowledge I had at the time.” Watie’s cheeks heated.
“Do you need to be right more than you need your kin?” The wolf’s merciless eyes burned with the same green fire as the grass. “You, and you alone, must lead them through the next times, or a day will come when none of you can stand before the coming white tide.”
It was tempting, but then his mind began sorting the day-to-day details. “Where would we get supplies?” Watie turned away and shoved his hands in his pockets. “We’re short on everything, ammunition, clothing, food, horses–”
With a fierce snarl, the wolf leaped on his chest and knocked him down. It stood on his chest, shoved its muzzle in his face and exhaled over him, a warm, musky smell, like leaf mold stirred by the passage of feet in the forest, or sun-heated rock.
He blinked, then saw snow again, calf-deep, but covering the plains this time, rolling out to the horizon in a great white crystalline blanket unspoiled by footprints. In the foreground, there was a small village beside a glittering river and a copse of wizened scrub oak. Horses were staked out in the bleakness of early dawn, the village dogs curled up nose to tail just outside a shabby circle of much-patched lodges.
A horn sounded the charge, hooves pounded, guns roared. Somewhere in the background, he heard a band blaring some popular song, the name of which he could not recall. The lodge doors were thrown back and dazed men emerged, knives in hand, Arapaho and Cheyenne, by their faces and dress. Most were old, but threw themselves before their terrified women and children, who had been peacefully asleep scant moments before.
Mounted blue-coated soldiers, led by a smiling golden-haired lieutenant colonel, chased them down, each gnarled elder, each sobbing mother clutching a screaming babe in her arms, each hysterical raven-haired child, and shot each and every one in the head or the back. When the Indians all lay torn and dead in the snow, the soldiers shot their terrified horses, and then even the dogs. They trampled the buckskin lodges into the bloody snow, and scattered the last few ashes of the fires so that not one of shred of life or warmth remained.
And through it all, the band stood on the top of the nearby hill and ground out its ridiculous song.
Stand could not breathe. His body ached with the need to rise and stop the carnage, to stay the hands of the soldiers. “I–don’t understand?” he managed. “Where did that happen? When?”
“It has not come to pass yet,” the wolf said, backing off his chest, “but it will, one bleak, frost-ridden morning, three years from now, along the far western edge of Indian Territory, if you ride tomorrow to Doaksville and surrender.”
“And if I don’t?”
“It still may come to pass.” The wolf’s eyes were green stars. “Merely trying to turn the tide in another direction is no guarantee of success. That can only be foretold by the strength of your heart.”
The dead bodies in the snow from his glimpse of the future were so like the ones from the Trail of Tears he saw every night in his dreams, he was consumed by a hot wave of sorrow. He sank to his knees and, trembling, met the wolf’s relentless emerald eyes. “I am only a poor soldier, but I must do what I can,” he said, “though it will likely be too little and too late. I must take the stand for my people that I refused all those years ago.” Behind his eyes, he saw them, babes trampled into the snow like so much refuse, grandmothers who had thrown their bodies over the bloodied remains of their husbands. It could not come again, if he could do anything to prevent it. “I do not know how,” he said numbly, “but I must try to make amends.”
The great wolf raised its head and howled to the sliver of moon overhead. The sound tore through him with the sorrow of a million deaths, slaughtered children, trampled dreams, worthless promises. Watie pressed his hands to protect his aching ears, stumbled backwards, then closed his eyes against an explosion of brilliant, unbearable green.
Sometime later, when he could breathe again, could think, could summon control of his dazed body, he opened his eyes and then his clenched hands to find he held a single bear claw, curved as a scimitar, a black raven’s feather, and the unblemished tooth of an immense wolf.
Indian Territory, Nov. 27, 1868.
The cloudy dawn along the Wash*ta River was just as bleak as Watie remembered from that terrible vision of three years before, the drifted snow just as deep, the pathetic string of lodges just as patched and travel-bare. Black Kettle and his Cheyenne and Arapaho followers were worn down with hunger and the loss of their young men and land. They had fled here to the southern plains to seek sufficient solitude to raise their children, which were all they had left of the sons and brothers and husbands killed in the white man’s war.
He watched the speck that was the leader approach out of the east, mounted on a sassy white charger. That much apparently had not changed, despite all that Watie had done to prevent the coming of this day, beginning with his ride into Doaksville to slay the Yankee general, Mathews, rather than surrender his sword. From there, he had ridden to John Ross, leader of the Pins, and revealed his vision, how the whites would steal this land too, despite their promises, how they would slaughter even women and children in their greed to steal the last of the red man’s holdings.
It had been difficult. Ross had not believed, at least not at first, and Watie had fought off a dozen more personal attacks, trusting in the strength of his vision, before the full-blooded elders admitted he might well have received a protective medicine from the above beings. From there, he had traveled throughout Indian Territory, speaking of the vision with which he had been entrusted, the knowledge that they might change the sordid future fast approaching, if only they at last combined their strength and fought the white man instead of each other.
Now, after three years, twenty thousand answered his call, as well as scores of farming communities, who had the necessary security required to raise their crops and so feed and clothe his troops. The land-greedy whites tested their borders from time to time, but his Cherokee troops always turned them back. Bruised and aching from the War Between the States, the whites had finally left them mostly alone. This morning’s incursion by Custer was by far the most serious move into Indian Territory Watie had seen since he had taken arms for his own people.
The tinny notes of the calvary band split the sleeping silence and he was filled with anticipation. He had come to the right place at the right time, and it would not be the slaughter he had seen in his vision, not this time. Instead of facing a handful of terrified women, old men, and children, this force was blundering into the arms of seasoned, fully armed Cherokee and Osage soldiers.
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer paused below, as yet unaware of Watie and the two thousand troops hidden behind the gentle swell of the prairie. The rising sun broke through the clouds for a second and painted Custer’s golden hair a brilliant red, a sign, as meaningful as any other Watie had been given thus far. He raised his arm in the signal for his mounted troops to engulf the eight hundred approaching bluecoats who were about to make war upon women and children for the last time.Share