Sometime between three and four o'clock the Indians came to New Ulm.
Art Beam watched balefully as a group of Indians rode up to the back of the terrace and dismounted. Lots of Indians.
In a moment he could see them sliding behind some of the abandoned houses, using them for cover as they worked closer to the center of town. He turned and looked at the group of eighteen volunteers who had voted him leader. They had come from St. Peter to help their neighbors in New Ulm, come to fight if necessary.
"Sam!" he called, and Samual Coffin, the elected second-in-command came to him.
"We have to stop them from sneaking in like that, Sam," Beam said. That's what everybody called him. Beam. That was even the way he thought of himself.
Sam eyed the situation out there. He was not a big man, but he was solid. Endless days of hard work, of long hours, did that to men who were not tall.
"I have to tell you, Beam," he said. "I like it better inside the barricades. Looks almighty lonesome out there." Beam could hear the humor in his voice. Solid or not, Sam was known as a man of good humor, a pleasure to be around. Probably why he was elected Lieutenant by the others. Beam waited as Sam considered the situation.
"Might be the boys and I could get out by that house," Sam said, pointing at one of the abandoned homes that provided a good field of fire on the invaders.
"That's what I figured, too," Beam said. "Tell 'em to keep low and run like hell." He waited a moment for Sam to pass the word. He could see the eyes tighten on the men as they realized that the time had come. The adventure was here and now, and they could see the enemy out there, had heard of their savageries. None wanted to fall under their mercy for there was no mercy. They would give none, either.
Beam jumped the barricade and took off for the house. For a moment all he could hear was his own feet pounding the ground, his own breath whistling in his head. He was sure going to be put out if none of them followed. Then he could hear them come. Feet, many feet, pounding along behind, and as he raced for the cover of the house he felt the glow that every commander feels when his men follow him into danger. The Indians spotted the running men, and here and there a shot snapped, but they sounded far away and not worrisome.
Pop, went the Indians' guns, and how could something that sounded so silly do anything bad to a man.
'ssSSSHHHSSssss,' and a ball went by. Just a sibilating hissing sound, but far more ominous than the silly little pops from out there. It was hard to put the two sounds together.
Beam slammed into the side of the house, followed almost immediately by the rest of his men. Inside! Get inside, and up the stairs to the windows.
Finally, still panting, Beam eased his rifle out the upper window and sighted down the barrel, looking for a target. Time to make a few pops of his own.
Down below he saw Sam and several of his men make a dash further on, reaching for another house even closer to the infiltrating Indians. The Indians saw them too, and a savage leaned around the corner of a house and took a bead on the running men. Beam's sights swung to the Indian, settled on his chest. The rifle bucked and smoke gushed out. Beam was a good shot and knew before he fired where his bullets were going.
The smoke blew away and he saw the Indian's feet disappear behind the house as someone pulled him out of the line of fire. One down. Take that! Beam reloaded.
Shots from the next window, the next room, told him his men were at work. In a moment Sam and his men began to fire from their new positions up forward.
The Indians were screaming mostly in anger, but as the fire steadied, as the eighteen settled into their work, more and more often the screams had pain in them.
Beam waited patiently, the bead of his sight resting on an empty window way over there. He waited, and the bead held steady. Patience. Patience. There. Movement, and an Indian slid his rifle out and settled his cheek against the stock.
BLAM! and Beam pulled his rifle in to reload. He could see the Indian's rifle lying in the corner of the window.
"I hope I blew your head right off!" Beam called as he rammed a new load home.
One of Sam's men suddenly stood upright and then crumpled to the ground. Beam searched for the source of the shot. Nothing.
Another man relaxed in the dirt out there, face falling into a clump of gay, blue flowers planted around the house.
Where were the shots coming from? Beam looked. Nothing. They must be behind some of those other houses, out of sight. Out of range.
Get back, Sam! C'mon! Get your men back!
As if he had heard, Sam and his men began their dash back.
Puffs of smoke announced the location of the savages and another man crumpled in mid-stride. He had to be dead. Nobody living could twist like that.
Beam triggered a shot in the direction of the Indians. He wasn't going to hit anything, but he might help spoil their aim. Below, Sam and his men, not so many now, came pounding to the house.
As Beam reloaded, he could see movement out there as Indians slipped from house to house. Many Indians. Too many Indians. He sighted on one, heard several balls smack into the house and splinter through the walls around him as the savages answered to the sight of his rifle. He sighted, quick like his father had taught him, and the rifle bucked. He jumped to his feet.
"Come on!" he called. "Time to go!" Some of his men were already on their way and Beam wound up in the middle of the fleeing line of men. Sometimes a man is only a leader if he happens to go somewhere first.
They made it to the barricade, and he was still puffing hard as he finished reloading. His men had that tight look, that afraid look. He thought they looked so brave, so brave.
The men aimed carefully and fired, aimed and fired, and the afternoon settled into a mirage of images. Indians screamed and dashed at the barricade. He would never forget the picture of them over his rifle barrel as it smacked unfelt against his shoulder and gushed smoke. Out there injured savages screamed, and he was glad. Good! Hurt, damn you! Bleed, damn you! Die, damn you!
Aim...fire...reload. Aim...fire...reload, the afternoon dragged on and the constant fear wore at a man, dragged on a man and took the life out of him.
A loud crash broke into the godless routine. A cannon, by God! The savages had a cannon?
A huge flash of light, and a tiny hiss barely heard over the cacophony of battle. The hiss of wet on his hot rifle barrel. Again, the hiss, and he felt the hit of a large drop of water.
More thunder, the hit of more drops, and suddenly the skies opened. He was drenched, soaked until his clothes felt like dead skin. The cool felt wonderful.
Gradually, the firing stopped as the rain gushed down. More lightning followed by quick, ear-stunning thunder. Out there an occasional glimpse as the Indians pulled back, running from house to house, further and further away. Here and there, houses the savages had set afire flamed into the air in spite of the falling water but no fires could withstand that gush of water and gradually the fires diminished.
Beam straightened, let the hammer down carefully on his rifle. His back ached from crouching over for so long, and the rain drummed down on his hat.
The battle was over.
They had held their town.
He could stay alive.
He weary-walked back into the town leaving his men to guard the barricades. Time to see to the condition of the others. Time to evaluate the damage, the casualties.
He had lost four himself. Four men who had been alive yesterday. Four men who were no more. Four who had given their lives in defense of a town, of people, who were their neighbors.
Across from the Dakota House, he came upon a woman and a man kneeling over a small crumpled body in the rain. Others came and took the alive ones gently away as he arrived. The body lay there alone in the rain.
I t was a young girl, maybe thirteen years old. The preacher came and stood over her, his face sad, so sad. He looked up at Beam, the doubt he was not supposed to feel plain in his eyes.
"Young Miss Pauli," he said, voice quiet. "I do not even know her first name." The distraught man sighed, and the rain patted down on the surprised face of the body. Beam was struck by the way the drops fell into the half-open eyes. It did not look right.
"Thirteen years old," said the preacher. "They told her to stay inside." He shook his head. "Her mother told her to stay inside," he repeated as if unable to believe the child had disobeyed.
Beam took off his neckerchief and placed it gently over the girl's face. It was not right that the rain should fall into her eyes like that. It was not right.