Double Crossing America: 1866-67

by Dennis Hicks

Excerpt from Chapter 8

O’Fallon’s Bluff, Nebraska Territory

           The horses’ hooves and wagon wheels crunched loudly on the gravelly trail as we approached the small trading post. It was a hot, breathless day. Even the nervous cottonwood leaves were rendered motionless and mute. In their mottled shade were a dozen Indian braves, posed like statues that absorbed our approach without movement or sound. An eerie quiet multiplied as we pulled up and our dust settled. We were not greeted, nor did we offer a rudimentary hello. In rapid succession, the silence of anticipation, the silence of awe, the silence of fear and the silence of confusion merged. Each emotion started out different, but finally they all converged into the silence between armed men who seem afraid to breathe, but not to kill. This may be the most desperate silence: the silence of people playing out an event, not knowing how they were chosen for their parts, not knowing the script, not knowing the outcome.

            As we’d agreed, I dismounted and handed my reins to Fred who was to stay with the wagon. Ben joined me, and we stepped unmolested into the country store. Instantly, we halted. Twenty to thirty Indians had crowded into the room in front of us. We stood motionless as the tension of many silences overflowed that space as well. Though not dressed in finery like the Pawnee I’d seen in Nebraska City, they were similar in their haughty pride and confidence. Many rested on the floor, some on counters, a few stood as straight as trees. Not a man moved or met my eyes as we cautiously picked our way across the room. I sensed immediately that the locking in of another’s gaze could mark the beginning of some exchange, with an articulation of issues that had hitherto been prudently ignored. Though I realized that unspoken agreement was clearly at work, it grated on me, arousing the most surprising response: I let my eyes search aggressively over several passive, brown faces, I’m here to write this because none engaged me to challenge my foolhardy breech.

            Across the room I saw a man I assumed to be Nathan Baker, owner of this hard-pressed establishment, standing behind a counter upon which lay several pistols. At his shoulder stood his young wife and clinging to her leg was a child of no more than five. Nathan met our eyes and acknowledged us with a slight nod. The parents faced the occupiers with grim, stony faces; any errant emotions clamped down with an apparent resolve to die defending their store. But behind the child’s stoic exterior, I caught the flicker of panic in his eyes, no doubt unsure how our presence might alter his fate. Seeing this brought my sister Ginny to mind, and I wanted to comfort this child. Before I knew it I flinched, my hand jerking upward in the direction of my holstered pistol. The suddenness of my movement attracted a score of glances with bodies instantly tensing for the possibility of an all out deadly brawl. Somehow, my mind raced ahead of my hand and redirected that appendage to my mouth, where it covered a cough that suddenly emerged, no doubt the result of a splurge of emotion that had nearly started a battle. A clash at such close quarters could have only resulted in many deaths, not the least my own. Thankfully, the Indians, famous for their capacity for silence and a motionless calm, remained still. This, in itself, was impressive as well as intimidating, as it was most surely meant to be.