December 26th, 1862
Leah walked slowly down the hill, looking up at the grey winter sky. Tears came to her eyes, but whether they were from the bone-chilling wind that swept over the prairie town, or from her memories she would not admit. Lost in her thoughts, she pulled the rabbit-lined woolen cloak tighter around her face. It was a beautiful, emerald-colored cloak that John, her new husband, had presented to her on Christmas Eve, the day before her wedding.
She warmed a little at the thought. Only yesterday she made her pledge before God and half the community to love and honor John Mueller for all the days of her life. John was a brave man, and strong. But so were most of the men in Mankato, MN. Prairie life was not an easy life, especially if a man were a farmer, as John was. Tilling the blue-green clay that the Indians called mahkato, or "blue-earth", was a back-breaking job, and thankless. But Leah was so proud of her husband, whom she had known for almost ten years, when her family and his became some of the first residents of the fledgling town. They had been friends all these years, and now they were husband and wife.
Leah had witnessed his bravery over and over again, beginning with the day they had first met. She had been eight years old, and curious to look at the new town where her father planned to build a grand, new mercantile and she and her sisters would go to school and make new friends. As ever, she had been a little bit too curious. When the great riverboat called out its groaning wail, she and her sisters had run closer to the banks of the river to see it. Unfortunately, the banks of the river were slippery, and she landed on her bottom and started sliding down the steep bank into the wide Minnesota River. Four hands had reached for her and plucked her out of the deep water. John's hands, strong and white. And other hands, strong and brown. Little Cloud's hands.
As Leah reached the bottom of the hill, she headed south, toward the center of town, toward the shore of the river where she had first met John. John had never liked Little Cloud, she remembered. That day so long ago he had shoved the young Sioux warrior-boy away from the dripping wet little girl. Leah had gasped her thanks to the proud looking warrior. She had never been so close to an Indian before.
But her tall white rescuer pulled her away, and as her distraught mother came running to meet them the brave slipped into the background.
During the months and years that followed, her family and John's became close friends. Mr. Mueller, a widower, had staked a claim just to the southeast of town where he would farm. His daughter, Britta, would be the new teacher in the school next year, and his John would help him on the farm. Often Mr. Mueller would come to town and chat with the other men at the mercantile while waiting for Leah's father to fill the order. And just as often, John would accompany him. There, hiding shyly behind the great cracker barrel, Leah would watch as John exchanged news with the other men and boys. Once, John had reached behind the barrel and caught one of her blond braids in his hand. "Look what I've found," he smiled at her. "A little soda cracker." He still called her that sometimes, and it still made her bristle in embarrassment.
Leah did not find out who the brave was that pulled her from the water that day until several months had gone by. It was a weekend in late autumn that she saw him again. She was helping out at the store when the door opened, and an unnatural silence fell over the men at the counter. Leah peaked out behind her father, and saw several Indians inside the door, holding great buffalo (bison) hides. Leah's father traded with Little Cloud that day, and once a year after that, for six years, Little Cloud and his friends brought hides to the store. Little Cloud never spoke to her, but each time he came into the store, his eyes would seek hers. The first time she looked up at him, she smiled timidly. He nodded his head to her, but did not say a thing to her. He never once spoke to her.
Leah had reached the main road, and continued down the boardwalk toward the edge of the river. Her nose was red, and her hands were cold, but she took little notice. There were so many people in town this awful day, and she knew why. The noise was getting louder, as she reached the open square and looked at the massive wooden structure that had been hastily erected a few days ago. She shuddered. John and she had driven past the structure on their way home from the church after the wedding. She hadn't wanted to look at it then, but she couldn't stop herself now.
It had been three years since she had seen Little Cloud, but during those three years she thought of him almost daily. The Sioux had been on the warpath. Little Cloud's tribe had joined with the others, following Chiefs Wabasha, Big Eagle, Grey Bird and Little Crow, who had led the Indians on a blood-soaked trail of vengeance. For white men had stolen their land, broken their treaties, and cheated them. Of course, the white settlers didn't agree, but the Dakota Sioux had decided that this would not continue. For months and months the warrior bands had led raids against white communities, and terror filled the prairie land. Many lost their lives, both red-skinned and white-skinned. But finally it was over. Almost over. Leah looked up at the crowds of people, and at the massive gallows built in front of her, and choked back a sob. The mass of people were getting noisy and impatient, and Leah knew the time was near.
The Sioux had finally surrendered, last month, at Camp Release. Leah bit her lip angrily at the ironic name of the camp. For it was there, at Camp Release, that 300 Sioux braves were tried and sentenced to death. Were it not for a message arriving days ago, all 300 men would die today. But President Lincoln had decided that the number was too high — only 38 warriors would be hanged today.
Everyone seemed to be in a celebratory mood, but Leah felt only numbness as she pushed her way closer to the edge of the crowd. Suddenly, the air grew still, and the noisy throng became eerily silent. Three well-guarded wagons were approaching, carrying the 38 doomed men. People murmured, jeering softly, but no one said a word out loud.