Indian Agent

Amos Merriweather’s assignment as Badger Creek Indian Agent was a reward. Ten years after the fact, but nonetheless, a reward. When he served as a Cavalry Captain at the Battle of Yellow Tavern he had rescued a dismounted soldier whom some said was no more a thrown rider than a pumpkin and actually was a panicked runaway heading off the battlefield lickety split for the tall cotton. But Amos had intervened. He’d seen plenty of men cut and run, most of them good men, and if the man had had a lapse of courage, well so what. The war was craziness. Let it go. The thrown rider turned out to be a major, and Amos’ written report, which eventually reached General Sherman, even earned the Major accolades and a promotion. Now 10 years after the war that major was a United States Congressman with higher political ambitions. The congressman’s vague notion that if Amos Merriweather chose to tell the true account of that incident, the congressman’s political future could be damaged beyond repair. And because his political future was on the rise, he sought out Merriweather with the aim to get him as far from his congressional district as possible.
Since the end of the war Merriweather had run the livery stable in Black Duck that he’d inherited from his father, barely managing to keep it afloat. How he hated dealing with customers, generally city men who’d never owned a horse, who didn’t know how to saddle, ride, hitch or in any way properly tend a mount much less a wagon or trap. But oh didn’t they know how to piss and moan and how to try to whittle down a bill. Horses he knew; business he didn’t. The appointment, the congressman assured him, was his to assign. Merriweather considered the congressman’s offer manna from heaven and asked no questions.
“ A $2,000 salary as Indian Agent and another $1000 as U.S. Marshall. Plus a budget of $5,000 to take care of your redskins. You’re a natural for this. These Injuns, they’re pretty much pacified since they got their asses kicked back in ’62 in The Dakota War … Hand out a few blankets and barrels of flour and keep ‘em off the whiskey trail…that’s ‘bout it. You’d be a fool not to jump at this, Merriweather. “He agreed and in two weeks received his appointment. He turned the livery stable to his brother and headed west with his bay mare and a string 4 pack horses.
Far beyond handing out blankets, his written commission detailed responsibilities “to maintain law and order, to establish schools that would educate the savage in agriculture, and to take all steps to civilize various heathen nations within his administrative confines.”
The Station at Badger Creek had been originally built by the army during the war to establish stronger American presence in Sioux territory after the Indian uprising in Wisconsin. Afterwards it served as a horse buying post. Merriweather arrived in May and relieved the last military Indian Agent and to begin administration of his various heathen nations.
The captain he relieved advised him where and when to look out the French Canadian drummer who regularly came through to trade whiskey with the tribes. “Arrest that whiskey sellin’ rascal and your job will be a hell of a lot easier. The good Lord knows I’ve had my bellyful of drunken injuns. Good luck, Merriweather.” Perhaps because Merriweather had been a captain himself, or maybe because they just didn’t care to dismantle and load, anvils, and other heavy tools the blacksmith’s forge and tools were left behind.
A month later Merriweather struck a secret deal with Pardieu, the trader, which allowed Pardieu continued access to the tribes in return for a steady supply of whiskey for himself and the caveat that he not cheat the tribes and that he provide intelligence to Merriweather. He told Pardieu, “I don’t give a damn how drunk they get or what they do to each other as long as they don’t mess with the settlers or the emigrants. Your trade with ‘em, as long as it’s square, and my blankets and flour are gonna help keep ‘em happy.” He’d asked him to arrange a powwow with the principal chiefs. Pardieu, who had fretted about the arrival of a civilian Indian Agent, was relieved. While Merriweather had little knowledge of the Sioux or other tribes, it was clear he wasn’t stupid. The Sioux chiefs would want to know everything about Merriweather. This placed Pardieu in an ideal position. And that night he gave thanks to the Virgin Mother for delivering Merriweather to Badger Creek.
The powwow, held the next month, lasted several days and nights. Pardieu and Merriweather feasted at a Hunkpapa summer camp on Elk Creek. Much whiskey, dancing and gift giving preceded a rash of promises from both sides and Merriweather returned to his station with a 16 year old Cheyenne captive and adopted daughter of old Crow Face , a generous Hunkpapa chief.
For Merriweather things couldn’t have begun better. Keya, the girl was a blessing not only to Merriweather’s bed but to the station in general. Fluent in Sioux and Cheyenne she could communicate roughly in Comanche and French also. English came smoothly to her and she had a knack for teaching Merriweather Sioux. The Station had a capable interpreter and was maintained as neat as a military post but with better cooking. Keya appreciated Merriweather’s sense of humor and his whiskey and they became close. Whenever Pardieu came through he spent a couple of days at Merriweather’s station. Pardieu’s wife was Sioux and. Mary Big Heart and Keya became good friends. Pardieu always visited on his way through and left a cask of whiskey and another of rum for Merriweather.

Merriweather had called on every settler within a twenty mile radius of the station. As United States Marshall for the 850 square mile territory he listened to litanies of old complaints: thefts and swindles that had occurred twenty years ago; property disputes which he knew the only settlement to be over a grave; and numerous rustling complaints. Excepting the property disputes most of the complaints were against Indians. In the interest of good service he promised to look into this complaint or that as soon as he could. But when he left a homestead he generally left the complaint behind. They all complained of a Frenchman who came down from Canada to trade whiskey for furs. Merriweather said he’d certainly look for that rascal. The one common complaint he’d heard from half a dozen settlers concerned the half-breed Slap-Stone, a violent gun-slinger who took whatever he wanted be it a ham from a smokehouse or a young girl’s virtue. He’d shot three white men and at least three Indians. The Sioux’s complaints were as loud and numerous as the settlers and Merriweather decided that killing Slap-Stone on sight would put out that fire and make everyone happy.
He considered most homesteaders childish. Veterans and farm hands came west with big dreams of fields, orchards, herds and flocks but without a whit of sense about the hard work, the winters, or the Indians. More quit their homesteads than stayed but those who stayed were tough and generally pig-headed. Settlers had two common complaints against Indians: thieving and trespassing Complaints about trespassing he ignored. Early on he’d learned explanations about the Sioux concepts of land and hospitality were met with hostility. Merriweather never minded that the Station always had a few families camped a stone’s throw from the flag pole. The nearest settler to the station was Jensen, a hard-headed Swede farmer. Jensen had fought the Sioux in the Wisconsin war in ’62 and had no use for Indians. He asked Merriweather’s help to prevent the Sioux from crossing his land as his wife was terrified by the sight of any Indian. He yelled at Merriweather telling him he was a fool not to “run dem damn teeves and beggars off” He’d replied that he was this was the Indian Agency and he reckoned when Indians felt welcome they didn’t feel like burnin’ and scalpin’ Swenson called him a damned Indian-lover and cursed him, threatening to write a letter to the Territorial Governor.
With the chiefs he arranged for a yearly powwow in late August at which he would distribute treaty gifts and where Pardieu would trade. Merriweather’s turning a blind eye at the whiskey and rifle trade pleased most of the chiefs. Pardieu was generous toward the chiefs themselves and fair in his trades with all. He had become good friends with Crow Face and won much favor with the Hunkpapa by shoeing their ponies at the Station. If a drunk misbehaved and fought or raped the deed was considered an Indian matter and Merriweather’s reluctance to interfere with tribal notions of justice were a lynchpin in maintaining the peace. Both parties understood however, that crimes against whites would be settled by white man terms. Stealing had to be confronted and when he was convinced livestock had been stolen Merriweather went after and sometimes recovered the loss. He asked the chiefs to provide him with three young men to serve as Indian police. These men he armed, deputized, and paid $5 per month. Indians guilty of rustling were punished at the Indian Agents’s whipping post with 25 lashes administered by one of the Indian police. Rape, arson and murder committed on whites were understood by all as capital crimes punishable by hanging. Merriweather was thankful that he had yet to deal with a capital case.
In the of late summer of the fourth year passing emigrants delivered a letter notifying Merriweather of the future arrival of a missionary family who were to assist in the establishment of an Indian agricultural school at Merriweather’s station. He was directed to provide assistance toward its construction and development. By now he and Keya had two baby girls and a family with children would be welcome. Within two weeks the missionaries arrived aboard a wagon drawn by oxen.
.The Rev. Jarvis had been only 10 minutes at the station when Merriweather refused his request for Indian laborers, Jarvis asserted that he’d been assured of the Indian agent’s cooperation and if that cooperation was not forthcoming he would report this matter to Merriweather’s superiors.
“Rev. Jarvis, I myself can help you some, but these people will not leave off their summer hunt to come build you a cabin, or church, or whatever. Those oxen of yours ought to do you proud and your wagons’ll give good shelter until you’re under a roof.
The cabin was to be built on a knoll half a mile downstream from the station. Initially he assisted the missionary with felling the timber for his cabin but quickly tired of Jarvis’ constant complaints, laziness, and an unwillingness to listen to good advice… Mrs. Jarvis, on the contrary, was appreciative of any assistance. Keya spent time helping the family settle in, teaching the tasks of their daily routine, fetching water, washing, cooking, etc. The women enjoyed each other’s company. However once Rev. Jarvis realized that Merriweather and she slept together, he forbade his wife to associate with “the heathen fornicator.”
“By late August the cabin’s walls were up and the door hung. One afternoon a rider came to the station with news the theft of a calf from a farm on the Little Owl Creek 100 miles away and Slap-Stone the suspect. The Jarvis cabin was still without a roof. Before leaving to investigate, Merriweather advised Jarvis to work quickly to get the roof up. He offered Keya’s help which Jarvis refused. Three days later Merriweather arrived at Little Owl Creek. He picked up Slap-Stone’s trail but lost him when the clever rustler backed tracked in a rain storm. Now that Slap-Stone knew he was being hunted he’d be harder to corner. At the French Creek trading post he wrote a bill posting a $100 reward for outlaw.
When Merriweather returned to the Station a week later, little progress had been made. A spread of canvas still served as a makeshift roof. He explained to Jarvis again the urgent need to get his roof finished. He would need the autumn to hunt and bring in enough meat and fire wood for winter. Jarvis simply replied, “God will provide.”
“Dammit man, you are lookin’ at a cold and hungry winter. God will not cut your firewood. God will not shoot your meat for you. And since God will not shoot your damned meat then I’m pretty sure God will not smoke the meat He isn’t gonna shoot for you. Now I can help you get your ridge pole up and Keya can help your missus and you shave shakes.”
“The help of a drunkard, a fornicator, and a blasphemer? No thank you, Mister Merriweather.”
“Suit yourself, you goddamn fool.”
Later Amos Merriweather, Keya, and their two babies left the post for a week for the powwow. Merriweather’s mare had foaled that spring and the colt was a present for Crow Face. The powwow was even more festive than ever. Pardieu’s woman, Mary Big Heart, had also given him a son and there was celebration over the children. Pardieu as usual was generous with the whiskey. Before returning to the Station Merriweather had instructed the chiefs to send riders with travois to the station for the distribution of flour, salt pork, and blankets. Crow Face, naturally sanguine, was so taken with his grandchildren than he accompanied Merriweather and Keya back to the Station for a visit. Upon their return all were surprised to see that Jarvis had moved his family into the Station.
“I told you God would provide. How unchristian it would be, Mr. Merriweather, to not share your spacious quarters this winter. I’m sorry if we’ve had our differences this past summer, sir.”
His moving into the station infuriated Merriweather and presented a dilemma. Sioux custom forbade denial of hospitality-absolutely. If Crow Face interpreted their eviction as the breaking of a taboo Merriweather would lose honor which had taken years to build so Merriweather resolved to do nothing until the old Sioux left. So Keya was obliged to prepare meals not only for themselves but for the Jarvis family as well. Some relief came each evening after supper when Merriweather, Crow Face, and Keya sat on the porch talking and drinking from the whiskey cask late into the night. Crow Face asked why Jarvis didn’t join the drinking and story telling? Was he sick? He wanted Jarvis to come and join us. He could see he was ill prepared for winter and the old Indian was taken with the little blonde girls. Crow Face even asked Merriweather if he thought Jarvis would trade those little girls for meat or furs or ponies. More from a sense of humor than anything Amos Merriweather passed Crow Face’s inquiry to the Reverend Jarvis the very next day.
“God in Heaven. I cannot under any circumstances imagine anything worse than my precious girls among devil worshipping heathens. I curse you Merriweather, you are undoubtedly in league with the same devils that rule these souless savages. Curse you, Merriweather, you blackguard!
When the tribes’ representatives began arriving for winter rations the nights grew noisier and stretched into the early morning hours. Drunken men lay around the station until past noon when drinking would begin anew. Nothing delays departure like drink.
Refused the loan of a horse, Rev. Jarvis walked the 7 miles to the Swede’s place and begged Christian help raising his ridge pole. Jensen and his wife welcomed the company of another so disgusted with the Indian Agent and his redskins… While he aided the preacher with his roof the two commiserated on the sorry state of the Badger Creek Indian Agency. As they nailed the shakes to the roof the two men watched in disgust as Indian parties left with travois laden with beans, flour, salt horse, and blankets. Crow Face left laughing with his sons to begin their band’s trek south to winter camp. The missionaries were ordered to leave the station the next day. Merriweather denied the minister’s request for an equal ration of flour and salt horse. “These rations are treaty rations; they’re for the Indian nations.”
The first snow fell just as Jarvis and Jensen finished the roof. The Jensens and Jarvises celebrated the move into the cabin with prayers and a haunch of venison the Swede provided. . Jensen, however, became highly irritated when the minister refused his offer of trade of firewood and meat for the Jarvis’ wagon and oxen . Did this preacher have no gratitude for Swenson’s hospitality, for his labor? The refusal broke the nascent friendship and the angry Swede and his wife left the chilly house warming.
Now the angry preacher was isolated, facing winter with insufficient food and fuel. Merriweather advised him to head back East before winter set in for the sake of his wife and children, but the stubborn Jarvis retorted that he would rely on God’s goodness which always saw him through. “God damn you sonofabitch – don’t you realize there’ll be dire consequences if you don’t get your wife and girls out of here?
The first storm blew in in late September. Jarvis’s wife took sick. Merriweather asked the preacher to allow his sick wife to move into the station where Keya could tend her close to the stove but the stubborn man of God would have none of it. She was dead within a week.
Once again Merriweather confronted the angry preacher. The wind was howling so that the men had to shout at one another to be heard. “Jarvis at least let Keya care for the girls. I care not what happens to your sorry ass, but those girls need tending, man.”
I’m takin’ them to the Swedes, they’ll be tended by Christians.”
You don’t even know if Jensen will take them. He was plenty mad at you last I saw. I don’t give a shit what you say, Jarvis. I’m takin’ those girls, at least for the winter, now move outta my way, you crazy shit.”
“By God, I will kill you if you take my girls.”
“Move, I say.”
Merriweather strode into the cold cabin where the two little girls lay bundled in the same ragged quilt in which their poor mama had died. He spoke softly to them and told them he was taking them into the warm station where Keya would fix them hot mush by the warm stove.”
Jarvis watched as the wind slammed shut the door to the station, his babies within, taken by this godless station master and his heathen woman. He raised his arms to heaven beseeching God’s help in their deliverance. Then full of rightous purpose, he strode down to his cabin where he fetched his shotgun. With a burning rage he headed against the wind the long gun cradled in his arms. The wind blew the brim of his hat up and his coat tails flapped as he stepped up to the porch just as a voice boomed from behind.
“I hear you’re lookin’ for me, marshal.” There on a grey mule sat Slap-Stone with a .44 rifle pointed at the preacher’s chest.
Jarvis swung around raising the shotgun and both weapons discharged in one thunderous explosion.
As Merriweather threw open the door a thick cloud of grey gun smoke swirled around him. There on the porch lay Jarvis. His coat lay open and blood spurted from the hole in his chest. The pulses diminished as the preacher’s eyes glazed. Just beyond he saw a large gray mule sniffing the writhing frame of Slap-Stone struggling amid a froth of blood dripping from his head, trying to crawl on all fours. His face had caught the blast of the preacher’s shotgun. Soon the man collapsed. The wind blew snow and dust around the body. Looking down at what resembled a hat full of crushed tomatoes; he winced and threw the mule’s saddle blanket over the corpse.
In the spring the girls were allowed to choose living with Merriweather and Keya or the Jensens and opted to stay with Station Agent. That summer they and Merriweather’s daughters lived with Crow Face at the Hunkpapa summer camp and by autumn were as comfortable speaking Siouan as they were with English.
The word spread that Indian Agent and U. S. Marshal Captain Amos Merriweather had gunned down the notorious Slap-Stone, and a sigh of relief spread throughout the Badger Creek region. Amos said nothing to dispel the error of the rumor.

© Gary Ives

First published in September 2011, “Frontier Tales”, Issue №24

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