white wolf - part 14

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Hans was called in to build a cabin for the workers and John asked him to make a large open lounge room and kitchen with 4 separate bedrooms attached. It was sited away from the main house and closer to the barn. While he was there, Hans also constructed a large stone walled stable complex, purpose built to house horses and their equipment. John and Morning Light enjoyed having the old German stay with them and he adored the children, often showing young Tom how to build with stone. Hans was still keen to talk about the Cheyenne warriors he’d met and always inquired as to when they might return. The war spear given to him by Standing Bear held pride of place in his own home.

Around this time there was much unrest among many of the Indian tribes throughout the region. White settlers were continuing to encroach upon the tribes and trouble was brewing. Crow and Blackfeet war parties were believed to be roaming the district on the lookout for unwary travellers or settlers. Already there were growing reports of wagon trains being attacked and isolated farms overrun. However these incidents had all occurred further to the west and south-west so the residents of Helena were not overly concerned. All this suddenly changed late in the autumn of 1873 and the events were to reverberate right through the Territory.

John was in Helena on business just for the day, he’d left his family at home along with the three workmen. He met with Dave and the two partners discussed business matters then John collected a supply order from several of the stores in town and he set off for home, riding Jewel and towing a pack horse. As usual Snowy was with him and the wolf seemed strangely tense and wary. John grabbed his brand new Winchester 1873 model and tested the feel of it as he sighted on a distant tree. This latest development in rifles was a little longer than his older Winchester, just over 49 inches and it fired a more potent .44-40 centre-fire cartridge. Several miles from home, John saw black smoke rising above his Valley and this worried him. He spurred the big stallion into a canter and the feeling of unease increased the closer they got to home. The pack horse slowed them down and John was reluctant to untie it but eventually he did, knowing it would probably follow the trail all the way back by itself. He urged Jewel into a fast gallop and the horse responded, stretching out and racing the final mile or so to the valley entrance. The thick smoke was definitely coming from near the house and John’s unease escalated to panic when he turned the final bend and saw his home burning.

He raced the horse right up to the barn and leapt from the saddle grabbing his rifle and calling out at the top of his voice. As he ran past the barn, John almost tripped over one of the men lying dead on the ground with two arrows protruding from his chest. Fearing the worst he sprinted across to the house, all the time yelling for Morning Light. The only sound was the crackling flames which tore through the roof of his home. John burst through the front door, searching frantically for his family. He found them all under the rear veranda and screamed in terror and pain as he saw their slain bodies. He pulled and dragged them away from the burning house but it was quite obvious they were all dead. His wife’s clothing was ripped from her upper body and she’d been brutally stabbed to death. His babies had also suffered shocking injuries and John felt so much pain he thought he himself would die. His dreadful screams echoed across the valley and he just lay alongside his family too stunned and shocked to move. He didn’t know how long he lay there but the sun was setting when he finally stirred and walked around the house and out-buildings. John discovered the other two bodies of his workmen, near their cottage. Both men had their throats cut so savagely their heads were almost severed. He found a few arrow shafts embedded into the barn doors and from their colour and style recognised them as Blackfoot.

That night John sat close by his slaughtered loved ones and cried until there were no longer any tears left to fall from his bloodshot eyes. He cradled his wife’s head in his lap and stroked both children’s hair. Snowy appeared from time to time but didn’t come near, the wolf’s hackles were up and he prowled around the entire night searching for unseen enemies. John must have fallen asleep because he woke with a sudden jolt and the intense pain returned as soon as he opened his eyes. In the light of a new day the horrific scene was almost too much to bear. Somehow he stumbled to his feet and made his legs obey his brain. Over the next few hours John dug fresh graves for his family, lowering the three bodies into a shared grave and then gently filling the hole in with soil and tears. The burial place was beside the ancient oak tree he and his family had often relaxed under. He also carried the bodies of the three men to a spot near the old oak tree and placed their broken bodies in separate graves. By now his hands were torn and bleeding but none of this registered, he just operated on some sort of auto pilot, knowing what needed to be done and doing it. Around midday he heard the sound of hooves but barely glanced up to see who it was. By now he was past caring, all he wanted to do was finish making the simple white crosses.

Dave and the group of townspeople found John under the huge tree hammering in the wooden crosses at the head of each grave. Hans called out to him but there was no reply, no recognition he’d even heard them. When Dave walked over and spoke to him there was just a glimmer of recognition on John’s face but then it faded, replaced by a great look of sadness. Dave continued to speak to his shattered friend but he had no way of knowing if anything he’d said was heard. They left him there for the time being and searched the property, hoping to find some other survivors. The ruins were smouldering and the whole roof was collapsed into the house. Dave gently grasped John’s shoulder and eased his friend to his feet. He looked John straight in the eyes and asked if there were any survivors. It took a little while for John’s eyes to focus and for a moment Dave feared his friend was lost in some other place but then John seemed to come to his senses and his fingers grabbed Dave arms in a vice like grip. He said “Dave they’re all dead, everyone was murdered by those Blackfoot. I got here too late and I found my family all butchered.” Dave and the others nearby felt the great sorrow and their hearts went out to this grieving man they’d all come to respect and admire. Dave asked if the three workmen were all killed and John nodded and then pointed to the fresh mounds on the opposite side of the tree.

They took their friend and neighbour with them, leading him carefully over to the new cottage. Dave undressed him, taking his blood stained shirt off and sponging his mate down with a wet towel. John didn’t offer any resistance and he stayed silent until Dave asked if he wanted to go into town with them. “Dave I’m going to remain with my family for a while, I’ll sit by them tonight then tomorrow, if I can I’ll leave here.” “But where will you go John, why don’t you come into town, you can stay with me for as long as it takes,” said Dave. As Dave watched, John’s eyes cleared and a look of absolute hatred flashed through them, their blue depths looked like ice and Dave actually felt fear. “Tomorrow or the next day I will go to find those responsible for this....” hissed John. “It might take me a week, or a month or a year but I will find them and ..... Dave you look after the business and the stock here until I return.” “Sure John but why don’t you take a few days to think this through?” said Dave. John just stared at him and shook his head. “Tomorrow I’ll sort out my best breeding stock to keep then all the rest can be sold off, after that I’m going.”

Dave and Hans stayed the night just to keep an eye on their good friend and to help him out however they could. They told John how the Blackfoot raiding party attacked many outlying farms during the past few days. News of these atrocities filtered back to Helena and a group of well armed townspeople decided to ride out to any farms they hadn’t heard from, to check on them. Fearing the worst they rode out to Secret Valley and saw the smoking ruin then found John.      Dave told John that some survivors reported a large group of up to 15 Indians were responsible for the deadly attacks. Some people believed the Blackfoot raiders split into two separate forces each believed to number 12 or more warriors. This version would account for the large number of attacks in different parts of the territory.

That night John didn’t speak much at all, he did appear to listen though especially to the news of where many of the raids occurred. It seemed the Blackfeet travelled a long way from their homelands in the north eastern parts of the Territory. His friends prepared plenty of food and made sure John had more than enough provisions to see him through for a while. In the morning they helped him separate the cattle and horses that would be sold off. John asked them to seek out suitable buyers and arrange for the sale of nearly 200 head of cattle and a dozen horses. The remaining stock would stay on the property and Dave would find someone to stay in the cottage and act as a caretaker for the ranch. John thanked his friends and then loaded up his gear and supplies for the arduous task awaiting him. He was taking Jewel and Snowy with him for this trip into the heart of Blackfeet territory and with winter almost upon them, this journey would be the hardest he’d ever undertaken. As he saddled up to ride off, Dave and Hans were well aware this could be the last time they would see John but they knew there was no changing his mind. He nodded to both men then trotted his stallion away towards the far Rocky Mountains. They stood together and watched until he disappeared from sight, both men had tears in their eyes and they wondered if they’d ever see John again.

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