Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sample Sunday: War Party

War Party is a story I wrote as my assignment when I took a correspondence course in short story writing several years ago. It has languished on my computer, unpublished (but not for lack of trying in those early days) until recently, when I put it on in the Kindle stores. It recounts a tragedy that led up to a fictional participation in an actual event, the Battle of Salt River Canyon at Skeleton Cave in Arizona Territory. Here's the first scene.

$0.99 at Smashwords and Amazon's US Kindle store.

War Party, Scene 1
Black smoke drew Rolla's eye, smoke where there should not be smoke. Then he heard the noise: high, piercing yips, and a woman's scream, and the flat report of gunshots.

A sand hill girdled with stunted mesquite trees blocked his view of the home place. The boy tongued the grass stem from his teeth as the dun-colored pack horse swung its head, nostrils wide, and the rope between the boy and horse tightened. Water in the barrels sloshed and splashed over the rims. Rolla smelled dank wetness as it cut through the dust on the sides of the casks.

He heard Pa's angry voice, and more shots, and the eternal yips, chilling his spine. Rolla started to run, pulling the dun behind, but the horse resisted, so he tied a fumbled knot around a mesquite branch. Then he scrambled and panted his way up the slope.

Rolla reached the top and flopped belly-down behind a tangle-branched creosote bush. He broke a stem so he could see through the shrub, and a tarry odor filled his lungs. Now he saw the source of the smoke. On the right, the dugout roof and door were ablaze, and to the left, hay stacks burned next to the corrals. The boy tried to count the dashing, milling figures with long black hair tied down by rolled bandanas, but because of the dust and smoke, he lost the total.

Apaches! he thought, remembering a neighbor's warning: "They's got hair down to here, boy, and them dirty white cloths to hide their nekkedness. And most often they's got a white band of paint clear acrost their faces, from ear to ear, nose and all."

One of the raiders knocked down the corral poles. The stock spilled out, chased by another Indian, and the rest of the band bunched behind, whooping, and drove the protesting animals onto the trail.

When the Apaches were a cloud of ocher dust, Rolla slid down the hill and, kicking the tree, snapped the spiny branch holding the horse's tether rope. He ran along the path, jerking the animal behind him, not caring about the water.

The boy came yelling into the yard between the overturned wagon and the stone fence surrounding the garden plot. "Pa!" he called, and saw a dark brown patch on the tan earth near the wagon. The boy dropped the horse's rope and followed scuff marks around the vehicle.

His father lay in a heap, and Rolla skidded to a halt beside him. "Pa," he cried, and knelt to shake the man. "Pa, wake up. They're gone." Then he recoiled, and held himself rigid at the sight of the stark white and crimson circle on the top of Pa's head. Rolla drew in a deep breath, and took in the dust and smoke, and the sweet-rank stench of blood.

The first, numbing shock passed, and the boy laid his hand inside his father's coat, checking for a heartbeat. There was none, and he stumbled to his feet.

"Ma?" he asked, looking around, swallowing hard, and he saw the splash of white petticoats behind the black wash kettle. "No, please," he prayed, feet dragging, as he approached the place where one shoe stuck out from in back of the boiling pot. He stopped, then peered around the column of rising steam.

Ma lay stretched out, eyes wide, mouth twisted, and the bodice of her gray dress was dark with blood. Her shawl looked like a yellow butterfly on the ground, and Rolla picked it up, fingering the soft wool. The threads caught on his chapped hands, and he clenched his fists over the wrap.

"Ma!" he yelled, and an echo returned from the hill as he draped the shawl over her terrified features. As he got up, he shook with restrained rage, and for a moment he stood, quivering, as though he were rooted between the two fallen figures. Then the youth dug one grave on the flat behind the corral: a large one beside the two small ones already there in the Arizona sand. After he rolled rocks atop the mounded earth, Rolla took his hat by the crown, pulled it forward off his head, and mumbled the Lord's Prayer before he stamped back to the yard.

The boy kicked through the rubble of the corral and found the riding saddle. He caught and tethered the dun, dumped the water barrels, loosened the pack saddle, and pushed it to the ground. Then he hoisted the riding saddle onto the horse's back.

Although the smoking roof poles had collapsed, and the front part of the house sagged, the fire had burned itself out, and Rolla wrestled the charred door aside and stepped into the dugout.

He found saddlebags, and stuffed them with whatever came first to hand: a loaf of bread; tins of tomatoes; his store-bought shirt; ammunition for the Winchester he had found under his father's body, brass dulled with blood. Then he rolled and tied a pair of quilts. Last, he picked up the photographic portrait of Matt and Kate Wood on their wedding day, and carried everything out into the daylight.

Rolla stared hard at the picture, as though by staring he could bring his parents to life. A dark sigh shook his body, and he pressed his lips together, shuddering at the contrast between this almost smiling couple and the mutilated corpses he had buried.

"I'll get 'em, Pa," he choked, his voice high, thin. "Those 'Paches killed their last white folks."

He shoved the portrait into his coat pocket, then hoisted the saddlebags behind the saddle, secured them, and tied on his bedroll. The rifle he jammed into the boot, then he loosed the horse, gathered the reins, and stepped onto the chopping stump to reach the stirrup. Mounted, he took one last, bitter look around, then bounced his heels off the mustang's ribs, and it skittered out of the yard and onto the trail.
Young Rolla has revenge in mind. Have you every been so provoked that you thought of killing someone? How could you defuse that strong emotion? What else might Rolla have done in these circumstances instead of vowing revenge upon a band of Indians?


  1. Now there's a question -- what else could he have done here? Not much while he's in so much anger and grief. I think the only way something different than revenge (or getting himself killed) is going to happen is to introduce him to some mind-changing events and people, maybe some of them peaceful Native Americans, who can help him frame this event in a different way.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jennifer. The boy does learn a lesson, but it's hard-won.


I welcome your comments.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...