This is for Nachuma, whose marvelous stories inspired it, and whose generous mentoring and patient editing made it a much, much better story than it would have been otherwise. All mistakes are mine.
With thanks to Annie and Jennifer for the Relay Station, and all the enjoyment it brings.
Just a note: the rituals mentioned in this story are kept deliberately vague, out of respect. If anyone is interested in learning more, both the Northern and Southern Cheyenne nations have excellent web sites.
MEDICINE TRAIL by Gail
The bruised grass under his boots had a sweet, green scent, and the air, this early in the day, was soft, still holding a little moisture from the night’s coolness. He leaned against Traveler’s shoulder, letting the horse pull a little of the green grass, and stretched his back out, glad to relax for a breath after the miles since before dawn.
He pulled his tobacco pouch out, and focused on laying just the right amount down the center of a paper. Tobacco was an old trick, when a man’s stomach was shouting for attention and there was nothing to quiet it with. He’d just moistened the paper and started to roll it when Trav butted him, demanding a share of the treat. “Jughead,” he growled affectionately. “You don’t smoke no how. Not everything I got in my pockets is for you, ya know.” He offered him a few grains in the palm of his hand, and the big plain head came down to lip delicately. He knuckled along the lower jaw, finding the itchy places where the sweat had dried. “You’re gonna stunt your growth.” Trav ignored him, stretching his neck down to the grass, and he hunkered down, scratching a Lucifer along one boot heel, and lighting up.
The sun was a good four hands above the horizon line behind him; make it close to five hours since he’d rode out. Five hours at Trav’s long, reaching trot put him well north and west of Laramie. No way Slim could catch him up now, or even be sure where he was headed. He finished the smoke, digging a little hole with his finger to bury the butt and the burned match. A good tracker could follow his trail; no sense making it easy for a bad one.
The land ahead was open and clear in the slanting light, the high plateau rolling a little toward the foothills of the Neversummer range. The mountains were still far enough away to be just a smoky smudge on the horizon. A long way to go: long hours, long miles.
The smoke had sharpened his thinking a little, after the hours without food, after leaving in such a rush. He’d either have to hunt or provision up. And hunting would slow him down, maybe make him late for the rendezvous. Water he had; they’d followed the Laramie River for the first few hours, and the Medicine Bow was an easy few miles west. But he couldn’t go forever without food, and he sure couldn’t eat grass.
Mind made up, he tightened the cinch, swung up and settled light into the saddle, and reined Trav toward Casper.
Matt’s first born had a mad on he wanted the whole world to know about. Y’d think he was the first man ever disappointed by what another man’d done. And couldn’t light for more than five minutes, either inside or outside. Boot heels stomped on the porch, and the door slammed behind him, hard enough to make a coffee mug rattle its way right off a shelf, clanging and rolling on the floor. “Now that’s enough,” the old man barked. “I’ve had enough of your cutting up…worse than a cayuse with a burr in his tail. Gone is gone, and all the mad in the world won’t make a difference.”
Slim looked at him with misery under the bluster. “Jonesy.”
“It’s enough, Slim. Sit. Dinner’s ready.”
“I just don’t understand how he could do this.”
Jonesy set the heaping plate down in front of Slim, glaring at him until he dropped into a chair. “I don’t think it was a light-made choice, if that’s any comfort.” He turned back to the stove, to fill his own plate.
“How can you tell? He didn’t say anything, not even a hint.”
Jonesy gathered his patience and answered the unspoken question, again, same way he’d done many times since Slim rode back this afternoon to find Jess long gone without a word.
“You went to Laramie after the noon stage yesterday; nothin’ happened, nobody rode in, there was no mail. Only thing out of the way all day was we spotted an Injun on the ridge while we was waterin’ the stock. Jess said he looked like a Cheyenne, somethin’ about the way the horse was rigged out, he said. But he just sat up there watchin’ for a minute, never gave any kind of sign, not hostile or friendly, and then rode on. An’ Jess didn’t seem worried much, said he was just passin’ through when I asked if we needed to set a watch. And it was quiet as a grave all night.”
“Except Jess was gone before sunup this morning.”
He nodded, watching his old friend’s son toy with his food, same way Matt used to when he was on the worry.
“And all he took with him was his rifle and bed roll.”
“That’s right. No provisions, no cookin’ gear. Seems like he left in one all-fired hurry.”
“And you still say it was ‘no light-made choice’?”
“Slim,” Jonesy said patiently, “this is his home. We’re his family. When has he ever left ‘cept when it was somethin he couldn’t refuse, or somethin’ he thought he had to protect us from? Reckon he left in such a hurry ‘cause he wanted to be long gone before you knew he was goin’.”
“Oh, that helps a lot, Jonesy.”
Slim’s eyes spit fire at him, and he refused to let that back him off. “Reckon he was afraid you’d either want to go with him or try to stop him, and wasn’t going to have either one.”
“When did I ever stop Jess from doin’ anything?” And to Slim that was as bitter as day-old coffee.
“Reckon,” the old man said gently, “you’re the only one that ever could.”
“Aww, hell.” Slim’s shoulders slumped. “What am I gonna tell Andy? He’ll be home from the Porter’s in three days.”
“What we always do. Jess rode out on business. He’ll come back when it’s done. Just like he always does.”
“If he can.”
And there wasn’t an answer to that.
Jess made Casper late in the evening, the long, north plains twilight just reddening the horizon as he turned in at the livery, the air starting to bite with chill. He’d spared Traveler as much as possible through the afternoon, now that he was sure he wasn’t followed. Tired but willing, he thought as he swung down, and that was both of them.
He went through the routine of paying for a stall, settling his horse with good clean feed and a good rubdown, half his mind on what came next. A night’s rest for both of them, pick up trail rations at the trading post in the morning, and he should be at the joining of the Wind and Buckhorn Rivers by day after tomorrow, early. And meet Tall Fox there. And maybe start paying a debt he’d owed for more than five years, since Two Buttes Creek.
Don’t think about it. Don’t remember. You can’t change what happened.
He leaned in against Traveler’s shoulder, warming himself. Food, he thought. Whiskey. A good night’s sleep. And no thinkin’.
He’d thought too much last night, through all the long wakeful hours since he’d climbed the ridge after dinner to find the sign that Tall Fox’d left. Thought and thought, his mind running and doubling back on itself, like a rabbit trying to outrun a coyote, until he’d finally admitted there was no escape. No way to be honorable without betraying the man he owed the most loyalty to. No way to be a friend to Slim, and honor old debts, without betraying someone, without asking too much of the friendship. No way to keep what he valued most without leaving it behind. And no way to leave without sneaking out like a thief in the night; quick and brutal, like cutting off a limb. And all he could feel was this clawing pain in his chest, like there was hooks set in his heart, right behind the breastbone, with ties leading back to the only home he’d ever had. And every step away pulled on them, harder and harder.
Stop feelin’ sorry for yourself. Food and whiskey and sleep, that’s all you got to worry about tonight. He straightened, slapped Traveler on the shoulder affectionately, and headed out into the dusty street.
Slim leaned against the corral rail, eyes on the sunset, feeling the west wind kicking up a little, cold and sweet, straight from the distant Neversummer range. If he let his imagination run, he could convince himself he could taste snow in the wind, the snow that never melted on the high peaks. Jess hated snow. Texas born and bred, and not accustomed to this north country. Blood too thin, Jonesy’d said, and Jess had growled, ‘I’ll show you thin blood, old man,’ and waited for a chance to tumble Jonesy into a snow bank and stuff a little snow down his collar. They’d all laughed ‘till their sides ached that day, even Jonesy, after he’d warmed up. It made him smile now to remember. Well, maybe he didn’t hate snow so much after all. At least, not when it was for playing in. Jess hated slogging into a blizzard looking for cattle, or clearing ice away from the creek so the stock could drink, or resetting a fence line brought down by a drift. But come to that, so did he.
Where are you now, and what have you gotten yourself into? And why, why couldn’t you wait and talk to me? What came sneaking out of your past to pull you away again, but this time, with no word, no promise. Just a few things I know you cherish left behind.
‘What am I gonna tell Andy?’
‘He’ll come back when it’s done. Just like he always does.’
‘If he can.’
When he’d rode in and Jonesy had told him, it had been like a fist in his gut driving all the air out, and the pain of it had been like that too. He’d spent most of the day ranting at Jonesy, too hurt and mad to think. ‘Why? Why after all this time, like this, like it doesn’t even matter? What kind of a man does that to his friends?’ And Jonesy had just looked at him with sad, knowing eyes and let him rant until even his patience ran out, and then talked sense to him. And now, Slim admitted to himself, he was just scared.
“Slim? You comin’ in?”
“In a minute.”
Jonesy ambled up behind him, to claim a piece of fence rail for himself. “Pretty night.”
“We gotta old hen’s stopped layin’. Reckon I’ll roast her up for Andy’s homecomin’.”
“Reckon he had a good visit? He’ll miss those Porter boys when he goes to school come fall.”
“You over your mad?”
“Jonesy? How old you think Jess is?”
The silence got so long he got uncomfortable with it, waiting for Jonesy to ask, ‘Why didn’t you ever ask him, if you’re that worried about it?’ or give him a hard time for wanting to be big brother to every stray in the territory. And then the old man said thoughtfully, “Depends. Sometimes he’s Andy’s age. Sometimes he’s even younger. A lot of the time, though, ‘specially times like this, he’s older than I am.”
It gave him pause. “So which one of ‘em rode off this morning?”
“All of ‘em, I ‘spect. I’ll tell you one thing though, that boy left a big piece of himself here.” The old man made one of his rare gestures of comfort, setting his hand on Slim’s shoulder. “You comin’ in?”
“In a minute.” He had a lot to think about.
The saloon was full of rowdy folks, more than a wide place in the trail like Casper should have. Jess eased through the crowd, listening to the talk as he went. Gold in Colorado, and maybe gold in the Dakotas, and the Army coming in.
He could feel the words churn in his stomach, sour and burning. Gold fever again, and the People in the middle, and the near certain chance of massacres on both sides. Over metal you dug out of the ground. He remembered Ohemehome. “You can’t eat it. It’s too soft for weapons. It’s pretty but the women prefer beads. What good is it?” And he’d laughed and agreed. Being on the ranch, seeing Slim worry about the bank note, that had taught him a little about what money really meant. But not this greed. He couldn’t understand this greed for more than you needed, and he couldn’t understand the willingness to kill for it.
“Whiskey,” he husked, and put a coin on the bar. There were two men in business suits talking to a US Major at a corner table, voices loud with whiskey, a couple of empty bottles in front of them.
“Rawson had it right. ‘Nits make lice.’ Kill them all.”
He felt the anger like a flush of heat through his whole body, and threw the whiskey down to meet it.
“Where ya headed?” The bartender, lifting the bottle in silent question.
He nodded, put another coin out. “Nowhere in partic’lar. Thought I’d head toward that Yellowstone country.”
“Not lookin’ for gold? You gotta be the only man in town that’s not interested. ‘Cept maybe for the Army. And I’m not sure about them.”
“Seventh cavalry. Under Miles. They say Custer’s movin’ up into the Black Hills to settle this Sioux problem the way he did the Cheyenne at Washita.”
“So why is Miles here?”
“The Injuns are movin’, all over the territory. An’ everyone knows the Cheyenne an’ Sioux are allies. Miles is here to pacify ‘em.”
Someone shouted for a drink from the other end of the bar, and the man moved away.
Jess tossed the whiskey down, feeling it as just a warmth in the belly now, not fuel on the dangerous anger. Don’t get into a fight over what some fool says. You can’t afford a night in jail. You can’t afford to have the army notice you. He waited to catch the barkeep’s eye. “Anywhere in town a man can get a meal?”
Slim climbed the ridge at first light. Whatever had called Jess away had to start with that solitary Cheyenne, and that scared him, more than not knowing had. Because Laramie had been full of talk, the Sheriff concerned enough to wire Cheyenne for information. There were rumors of gold in the Black Hills, the sacred land of the Sioux, and prospecting on treaty lands in Colorado, and the tribes were in ferment, all over the Northern Plains. The Cheyenne had been dynamite on a short fuse ever since the massacre of their women and children at Two Buttes, ever since Rawson had started his private war. Jess had said Rawson should’ve been hung for his actions; that Cheyenne under treaty protection at Two Buttes Creek at the Army’s invitation had been attacked by the man’s volunteers without warning and without quarter. Instead of being hung, Rawson was a hero in Washington, and the plains were more dangerous.
He paused to catch his breath; he’d moved faster as his anger rose. That was Jess talkin’, he thought, remembering a long evening’s conversation on the porch, Jess talking and whittling, until the light faded and he was just a quiet voice coming out of the dark. His voice had been quiet, all the way through, as if he didn’t feel anything about the events he described. The events he’d witnessed as a half-grown boy, scarred by war and riding dispatch for the cavalry. He knew Jess too well by then to be fooled. When he felt the deepest, he got the quietest, until the most important things never got into words at all. And maybe that’s why he had Slim thinking hard about the Cheyenne.
Slim hadn’t wanted to believe it, still didn’t. Rawson had been cleared on congressional inquiry. What Jess had to say was very different, and no one had asked the Cheyenne. Jess had been so young then, by his own admission. Young, and fresh from a lost war, and riding alone into a battlefield that must have looked like a little piece of hell to him.
The light was sharper now, bringing enough contrast to make out details. The brave had to have left a sign somewhere. From what Jonesy said, there’d been no contact between him and Jess at all, so there had to be something here, something that Jess had found easily. Maybe it was still here, and maybe he was just trying to find a reason to hope. Slim moved methodically across the top of the ridge, looking for obvious landmarks. And because he was looking for a big thing, he almost missed it. Two half-exposed rocks where the trail from the creek had beaten the grass to dust. And scratchings on one side, still white and new, like someone had taken a sharp pebble and gouged the surface.
He bent closer, studying it. Two wavy lines, joining at an angle near ninety degrees. Three short vertical lines, like a tally-count. And then three drawings: a sweeping, curving line, what could be a horizon line with two crossed lines above it, and what looked like a fox or coyote’s head. Jess’s message, had to be. And he’d understood it well enough to make him leave. Had to be a map of some kind, a place.
He stood up, mulling it over. Three. Three hours? Couldn’t be, Jess had left maybe twenty hours after, and if he’d only been going three hours away he’d either be back by now or they’d have heard something. He hoped. Three days, maybe, or three weeks. And the lines; rivers were the obvious guess, nothing else in this country looked like that. But there had to be five or six joinings like that, within three days’ ride of the ranch. He felt the disappointment settle in. No way to get any more out of the drawings, and only a little closer to knowing what had happened to his friend.
There was movement cresting the hill on the east side of the road. He shaded his eyes against the early light, making out the silhouettes of mounted men, riding in column. Cavalry. He headed down slope to the ranch house, feeling the fear ratchet a little higher.
Jonesy was on the porch talking to a dapper little man wearing captain’s bars. “Slim. This is Cap’n Weller.”
The man looked trail weary, his uniform dusty. “Mr. Sherman. I’d appreciate the chance at your pump for my men and my horses.”
“Of course. Help yourselves. You look like you’ve come far.”
“From Cheyenne last night. From the Dakotas two weeks ago. We’ve been on the trail a long time.”
“Somethin’ to worry about?”
“There always is.” Weller took his hat off, ran his hand through sweat-darkened hair. “But nothing particularly dangerous here. The tinder-point is farther west. The Cheyenne bands are gathering.”
“Where?” Slim asked sharply, and then, as Weller’s face got suspicious, added, “I mean, this is a stage relay station. It’d help to know if the Laramie line is safe.”
Weller smiled. “No need to worry there, Mr. Sherman. They’re gathering toward the Yellowstone country. That’s a long way from your little stage line.” Arrogant, but hopefully not stupid.
“Thanks,” Slim said stiffly. “That’s good to know.”
“Could you use a cup of coffee, Captain?” Jonesy, remembering their manners for both of them.
“Thank you, I don’t mind if I do. Sergeant!”
“Dismount the men. We’ll water the horses and fill our canteens here.”
“Step on in, Cap’n. Slim? You comin’?”
“In a minute,” he muttered, spotting a flash of buckskin and fringe among the plain Army blue. A scout. “I wanna check on that mare first.”
It didn’t take much to cut the scout out of the crowd. The men were tired, probably made a cold camp last night, and had no interest in anything but tending to their horses and stretching their backs.
The scout looked like he might be a half-breed, and had maybe hunted buffalo at some point in his life. His hair was shoulder length, black and coarse as a horsetail, and his skin was darker than even the sun could account for. But his gear was neat and well-kept, and he was clearly on easy terms with the rest of the patrol. Slim eased up beside him after he’d watered his horse. “Nice animal,” he offered.
The scout cut eyes at him, a little wary. “He’ll do.”
“I heard you’ve come a long way.” The man grunted. “Good officer?”
“He’ll do. He’s no hothead, if that’s what you’re worryin’ about.”
“Yeah, yeah, that helps. My name’s Sherman.”
“Dean.” The man watched him, quiet and measuring, knowing Slim had something on his mind.
“I found some sign,” Slim said slowly. I’m wonderin’ if you could tell me what it means?”
“Mebbe so. Where is it?”
“No need to go there. I’ll draw it for you.” He drew the three pictures in the dust with his finger, Dean squatting down beside him, watching thoughtfully.
“Well, that’s ‘river,’” pointing at the curving line. “And that, that’s ‘west.’ An’ this is a fox. These are Cheyenne signs. Where’d you find them?”
“Up on the ridge. You’re sure they’re Cheyenne?”
Dean shrugged, his face suddenly closed off. “It’s my job to know.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to doubt you. It’s just Jonesy, the old man, said a lone Cheyenne rode through yesterday, on the ridge trail.”
“Well he could be leavin’ a message for other Cheyenne, mebbe telling’ em who he was and where he was goin’. But one man, ridin’ alone, that’s no threat. We know they’re not east of here, an’ we know where the bands are headin’.” Dean stood up, and Slim rose with him. “I don’t think it’s anythin’ to worry about, Sherman. You see a bunch move through, though, get word up t’the fort.”
“Thanks, I will.”
He headed into the barn, feeling his heart like a drum in his chest. ‘River,’ like he’d thought, and ‘west,’ and a river confluence, maybe three days west of here. Think. Think, because Jess was putting himself right between the US Cavalry and the biggest gathering of Cheyenne he’d heard of in the last ten years.
The mare that was his excuse lifted her head and whickered, expecting a treat. Jess spoiled her, excited as a kid about her coming foal. Slim leaned over the stall partition, scratching her forehead absently. Think. Think… the Wind River, likely, and the Buckhorn. That would be three days’ ride, if you pushed a good horse. And Jess’ Traveler could do it easy. And he didn’t even question why he didn’t give the cavalry all the information, when a year ago he would’ve, without thinking. He just noticed it, and put his mind to how he was gonna explain to Jonesy why he was leaving too.
The sutler was a quiet man, and opened up early, so Jess finished his business quickly. Coffee, salt pork already cooked, hard biscuits, a coffeepot small enough for a saddlebag. He nodded at the sutler, and stepped out to where Traveler waited hipshot at the hitching rail. He was packing his goods when the voice came from across the street.
“Well looky here. If it ain’t the little raggedy-ass from Texas, all growed up.”
“Denton.” He kept his voice level, feeling almost sick with revulsion.
“Maybe not so growed, yer still on the scrawny side. Whatcha doin’ here, Harper?”
“It’s a free country.” He tightened the cinch, muttering ‘c’mon, c’mon,’ as Trav sucked air stubbornly.
Denton stepped across the street, swaggering, making sure Jess could see the sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve. “Maybe too free if saddle tramps like you are wanderin’ around without a keeper.”
He ignored it, mounting up, and Denton reached out to grab Trav’s bridle.
“Let go.” Jess kept his voice down. There were other uniforms on the street, he didn’t need the attention.
“Not till you answer my question.”
“You got no right to an answer”
“Oh, I dunno. Maybe we should declare martial law for injun-lovers like you. Keep this piss-ant town under control.”
“Isn’t that a little above your rank, Sergeant?” It was a new voice, calm and amused, and Denton flushed, stepping back.
“Just interrogating this man, sir.”
“And who ordered you to harass civilians?”
“He’s an injun lover. I know him. He was at Two Buttes.”
And the new voice turned weary and sad. “So was I, sergeant. And I know him too. He was a dispatch rider.”
Jess turned away from Denton’s face to look at the officer standing in the center of the street, captain’s bars bright on his shoulders. He knew that face, remembered that voice, from times he’d rather not think on. “Then you also know,” he said sharply, “that Denton was one of Rawson’s butchers. And shoulda hung.”
“Why you…” Denton stepped forward, fists clenched, and for a minute Jess felt a wild, fierce gladness that he’d be able to pound that sneering face.
“That’s enough, sergeant.”
“You gonna let this piss-ant talk to one of your own men that way?”
“I said that’s enough.” The voice was cold. “One more piece of insolence from you, and you’ll see the wrong side of Leavenworth’s stockade. And you’re confined to camp on report, now.”
There was a moment when Denton looked astonished, and Jess let himself enjoy that, ‘cause it was gonna be the only satisfaction he got. The man had enough self-control to keep his mouth shut, turning away.
“The army must be real hard up, if you took that in as a regular.”
“Captain Keogh.” He touched a finger to his hat brim. “Been a long time.”
“It has. You were still the best dispatch rider we ever had.”
“Been a few years since I did that.”
“I know.” Keogh looked regretful. “I remember why, too. What are you doing out here, Mr. Harper?”
“Whatever I can turn my hand to. I’ve been on the drift awhile.”
Keogh reached out to lay a hand on Trav’s neck. “And here? What are you doing here?”
“Is that army business?”
“No. But these are dangerous times, Mr. Harper; I wouldn’t want to see you end up in the middle of something. Unless you want to sign up again? I could always use a good dispatch rider.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. And I’m just passin’ through.”
Keogh studied him. “We’re headed toward the Yellowstone. There’s talk the bands are gathering, and Washington’s nervous about the ghost dance.”
“That’s a religious ceremony. And the Cheyenne don’t believe in it.”
“You think Washington knows the difference between any of the plains tribes? To Washington, they’re all savages. And sitting on top of things that the people who buy politicians want. Don’t ride into any trouble, Mr. Harper.”
“I appreciate the warning.” Keogh stepped back, and he started to move Traveler out, then hesitated, looking back at the tall, lean officer who had been his friend. “You’re a good officer, Captain Keogh. I’m sorry to see you in this. You look out for yourself.” Keogh nodded, his face thoughtful. Jess could feel Keogh’s gaze on his back, all the way down the main street.
“Let me see if I got the right of it.” Jonesy folded his arms across his chest, glaring. “You’re goin’ after Jess on the idea that he’s ridin’ into a Cheyenne gatherin’. Because you found some scratches on a rock on the ridge, and that Army scout gave you his opinion as to what it means.”
“An’ you think you know where he’s gonna be, based on those same scratches, an’ that same scout.”
“Yep.” Slim finished shoving supplies into a gunny sack and tied it off. “Isn’t that what you’d want me to do? Help my friend?”
“Goldarn it, Slim…a’course I want you to help Jess. If we knew where he was. If we knew he needed it. If we even knew for sure it had anythin’ to do with that Cheyenne and his marks. An’ if you’re right, which I don’t think even you know, about it bein’ a three day ride, he’s already a day up on you.”
“Jonesy, I’m sure.”
And the old man took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right,” he said quietly. “Don’t worry about things here. Andy an’ I can handle it.”
“I know you can. But I’ll ride through Laramie, and ask the Sheriff to send one of the Dempsey boys out to help, give that bad back of yours a little break. Tell Andy…tell him I’m countin’ on him.”
“I will. You take care. I don’t wanna do any more nursing.”
“I know that’s right.” He looked around the kitchen, trying to remember if he had everything he needed, and then walked out to hook the supply sack over his saddle and swung up on Alamo’s patient back. “I’ll bring him home, Jonesy.”
“See you do. An’ Slim, when you find him, you tell him I got a set of hobbles with his name on it.”
Slim nodded and set his horse on the west road to Laramie.
Jess came on Tall Fox right where he’d said he’d be, at the joining of the Wind and the Buckhorn, three days out from the ranch. He’d seen nothing and no one in the day’s travel after he left Casper, and nothing moved on the plain this morning, just the shadows of the clouds overhead.
Tall Fox stood up lazily, smiling a little. “Pony Boy.” Same name, said in the same way, half mocking, half affectionate.
“Tall Fox. Hunting any good?” Jess stepped down off Trav, let the horse drop his head to graze the tall grass. He felt his throat close up a little, seeing this man. Tall Fox looked the same, as if all the years since they’d last met hadn’t touched him: a short, stocky man, eyes bracketed by smile lines.
“Hah! I don’t hunt foxes, Pony Boy. I was hunting rabbits. That fox just got in the way.”
“You’ve been tellin’ that story for years. It’s good to see you.”
“And you. You are well? And that place I found you at…that’s a good place?”
“Yes. An’ it’s the best…the best place.”
Tall Fox stepped closer, reached up to clasp his shoulder, warmly. “That is good, then. Come, if that overgrown pet of yours isn’t too tired, we can ride.”
“To the camp. Ohemehome wants to see you.”
Tall Fox shrugged, swung up on his pony’s back. “There’s always trouble. If you want to know if you are in trouble, then no. He just wants to see you.”
Jess mounted Trav, ignoring the ears laid back in disappointment at the interrupted grazing. “Tall Fox…”
“Pony Boy.” And now that Jess was looking more closely, he could see the grief and the pain in the other man’s face. “He’s old. He’s had a lot of sorrow. He has the lung sickness, and he says there are people he wants to see, one last time.”
“And I’m one of them? I owe him a life.”
Tall Fox stared back at him, face impassive. “That is between you and him. Do not keep him waiting.”
Jess nodded, falling in alongside, silently. So many years…he’d been a scared boy running a bluff, a Texas runaway turned paroled prisoner of war, riding dispatch for the US Army in the west, a condition of his parole. He never carried a gun, at first because he wasn’t trusted, and later because he knew it was useless. And then in the last year of the war, the Cheyenne came to Two Buttes, at the Army’s invitation, to pick up their treaty goods before winter set in. And Rawson had ridden in, with a warrant from Washington, a pack of “volunteer” cut throats, and a belief he had the right to kill anything he wanted. The local commander objected, but in the end he was a coward and let Rawson ride down on the unprotected camp and slaughter everything that breathed.
Jess had turned nineteen that year and thought himself a man because he’d seen war and prison. He’d ridden out, against orders, when he found out what was happening, with some crazy idea he could warn the camp, or that the rifle he took with him for the first time would make a difference. And he got there too late, just in time to see the last of the slaughter, to see Rawson’s men scalping and mutilating the bodies of old men, women, and children.
He closed his eyes tight. Don’t think about it. Don’t remember. There’s nothing you can do to make it different, just swallow the sour taste of guilt and shame.
He’d thought to bury the babies, at least, and that was when Ohemehome found him. He’d looked up from the little grave he was digging and seen the tall man on his pony, face set like stone, holding the body of a boy about his own age in front of him. And the man had brought his rifle to bear on him, and he’d stood there, with the little camp shovel in his hands, not even trying to raise them in surrender, and Ohemehome had let the barrel drop, and said something in a language Jess later came to know well. And he mounted his horse and followed him to where the survivors and returning warriors were.
When he knew enough Cheyenne, Jess remembered the words. “Little foolish boy. Come with me, before my people or yours kill you.”
He’d helped raise the scaffold for the boy, and learned he was ‘Mehome’s younger brother, White Antelope. And after the singing and the grieving, ‘Mehome sent him back to the Army.
They might have shot him as a deserter, but Keogh intervened. A shavetail then, fresh on the frontier from West Point, with eyes haunted by what he’d seen at Two Buttes. Because of Keogh, he rode dispatch another two years, moving with the cavalry as they tried to pin down tribes that had been roaming for longer than the country existed. And spent every minute he was free riding out to the Tsistsistas, the Beautiful People. Keogh knew, somehow, but never said. Maybe because ’Mehome’s band never took part in the constant raiding, never sought conflict with the Army. And then two years after Two Buttes, some fool of an Indian agent stole ponies from Grey Wolf’s band and sold them, and Ohemehome led the raid on the trading post. Jess reckoned once the fight started, the grief took over.
The People slaughtered the handful of soldiers there, and tortured the settlers at the post to death. And that was the end. The band vanished, north into the Wyoming territory, with roughly half of the Cheyenne nation. The remaining bands finally surrendered at Fort Sill, and were caged on a reservation in the Oklahoma territory.
He hadn’t seen the People since before the raid. So much wrong, on both sides. So much blood and so many innocent people dead. He had not wanted to believe that ‘Mehome could do the things that were done to the settlers at the Arikaree, had felt sick all the way to his soul when he’d heard. But he’d known why the old man had done it, and known his own guilt for the slaughter.
“Lung sickness?” He kept his eyes straight ahead, on the tall grass rippling under the light wind.
“Since two years ago.” Tall Fox sounded bitter. “We signed another useless treaty, and they kept us penned like cattle in southern Arizona. Maybe they didn’t know the difference between Comanche and Cheyenne. Too much dust in that place. Too many people, bad food, bad water. Too many of us got sick, so we left, came back here. But ‘Mehome, he got it bad.” Tall Fox reined up, facing him directly. “You know Big Nose is dead.”
“Yeah. At the raid on the trading post.”
Tall Fox was silent for a long time, and then said formally, “Ohemehome would have taken you with us, to the north. But what happened…it wasn’t planned. And after, there was no time.”
“I understand,” he said, startled that one of the People would speak so straight to him in a war matter.
“Did you think it was because you were white? Or because you disappointed him?”
Jess shrugged, remembering how strong the guilt had been, thinking he had to make up for the dead children.
“What happened at the Arikaree, none of us meant to happen. We were just going to get the horses. Or the trade goods. Maybe a little extra of each. And then Big Nose fell, and ’Mehome went loco.”
They rode on quietly, and then Tall Fox sighed. “Big Nose was killed, so they made ‘Mehome one of the council of forty-four in his place. A peace chief.”
“That’s a great thing.”
“Yes. While we live it is.” They walked the horses on in silence for a few strides, and then Tall Fox spoke suddenly, as if forcing himself to an unpleasant job. “ Pony Boy. Be careful of Red Stone while you are in camp.”
“Red Stone?” Jess’ hand tightened on the reins involuntarily, and Trav stopped obediently. Tall Fox stopped and looked at him calmly. “But we hunted together. He taught me to use a bow.”
“He’s not the same man you knew. His wife and children were killed at Washita, by Yellowhair’s troops. He hates all whites now. He might hate you. Even if he doesn’t, death follows him around. He used to be Dog Soldier Society. Now he’s Northern Crazy Dog Society, and even they think he goes too far. He wants to die, that one. The bad thing is, everyone around him dies instead.”
Jess nodded, let Trav move on. “So,” he said tentatively, “ ‘Mehome just wants to see me.”
“Well, there might be more. I think he wants you to do something for him.” Tall Fox smiled suddenly. “What? You thought he’d want to scalp you?” He reached out and snatched the hat off his head. “Such a good scalp too. Pretty, all that curly hair.”
Tall Fox jumped his pony into a gallop, waving the hat like a trophy over his head. Whooping, Jess sent Trav after him, laughing.
They followed the Wind River west, the land beginning to fold in on itself as they got closer to the gorge.
And then they came over a low rise and the camp was there, spread out on either side of the shallow river.
It made him catch his breath; so big, and so much smaller than he remembered. The tipis looked a little worn, like no one had the time to tan skins for replacement. But there were a lot of horses, in good shape, and he could hear children playing in the river shallows.
“Pony Boy. Come.” Tall Fox’s voice pulled him forward, to where the men were beginning to gather in the center of the camp. He hadn’t seen the sentries riding in, but he wasn’t supposed to. Ohemehome must’ve known they were coming for some time. Jess felt it drag at him now, what was between him and ’Mehome.
He could see him now, standing taller than the other men, even now, still straight as a pole despite his years.
Tall Fox slid off his pony at the camp boundary, taking Trav’s reins from him when he followed suit, and jerking his head at him to keep going. Jess went on alone, smelling the familiar smells of camp: smoke, roasted meat, the warm scent of horses, seeing just the one face in front of him. He looked so old, face sunken under the strong cheek bones, streaks of grey in his hair. Jess took his hat off, lowering his head in respect. “Ohemehome.”
“Pony Boy.” The voice was warm. “Come here.”
Jess stepped closer, meeting his eyes now, and seeing the affection in them. “’Mehome.”
The old man lifted a hand and patted his cheek. “Blue Eyes. You are a man now. It is good you came.” The other men were drifting away now, the official greeting over, and ‘Mehome said, “Come, we’ll sit and talk.”
There were blankets folded outside the chief’s lodge, in the shade of a cottonwood. ‘’Mehome groaned a little, sinking down on them . “So. You were staying at the stage place.”
“It’s my home.”
The old eyes sharpened. “That’s good. You have family now?”
“Brothers. And an uncle.” Jess knew the truth of that as he said it.
“Very good. Pony Boy, I have need of you. Will you stay one moon with me?”
“And your brothers?”
He had no way to answer that, and after a moment, ’Mehome nodded.
“It is hard. Think carefully, Pony Boy. If it is too hard, I release you. You can go back to your brothers now, if you wish.”
Jess shook his head, “I owe you.”
“Tchaa…you should have been a Contrary. You always do things backward, just like them.”
’Mehome turned his face away, coughing, and he felt fear for this man, who had been the only real father he’d known.
“The People will go to the Yellowstone. And then we will meet the Sioux at Valley of Smokes, and we will do the Renewal of Life together.” Jess nodded, mystified. “You will ride with me, Pony Boy. You will take part in both. I wish this.”
Jess took a breath, thinking. “You want me to dance the Renewal of Life? To hang from the pole?”
“Would you, if I asked?”
’Mehome smiled. “Contrary. No, Pony Boy. I think you have already made the sacrifice.” He reached out to Jess, tapped him over the breast. “I think the hooks have been set a long time. But you will pledge for me? Do the fast?” Jess nodded. “Good. Enough, now. Go and wash, the women are already cooking. You will sleep in my lodge.”
Jess stood quickly, helped the old man with a hand under his elbow, and ’Mehome stood still studying him, and then pulled him close for a moment. “I would have taken you north, if I could.”
Slim made the joining of the rivers at midday on the third day, unreasonably disappointed that there was no one there. He’d known he was a day behind. If he was even right, and not chasing a will ‘o’ wisp.
He scouted a little, almost surprised to find the camp site. Someone had been careless or just very confident. The fire had been broken down and scattered, but he could see where the grass was flattened under the sleep site, and there were hoof prints on the barer ground at the river bank, where an unshod pony had been watered, more than once. And then he got lucky and found a shod track, leading down into the Buckhorn and not coming out. So someone had crossed here recently.
He remounted and splashed across, then searched the other bank carefully and found what he’d hoped for. The shod and unshod tracks, moving west together. So it was Jess and the Cheyenne. Or he was totally wrong. Only way to know for sure was to catch up to the horses he was tracking.
He needed to rest his horse now, though, or he’d wear him out. He unsaddled impatiently, haltered and hobbled Alamo so he could graze, and settled himself with some trail rations. Following the Wind River would be the logical choice for a traveler in this country, and if Jess was joining a band, any large group of Cheyenne would need to stay close to a water source. Maybe he was just talking himself into believing he was on the right trail, but it felt right. Jess had taught him that sometimes what you felt was a truer guide than what you thought. What he felt now was a tearing urgency, a fear that time was against him: too many forces at work here, things too big for one man, or even a single group of men to turn aside. The Army and Jess’ People were trapped by circumstances and could only ride it out, and he couldn’t see any way it would come out good.
An hour. Give it an hour, and then he could go. And then, moved by something he couldn’t explain, he scuffed through the tracks on the riverbank, wiping out the tale of two horses and leaving just his boot tracks.
“We’ll make Casper by sundown.” Dean pulled up next to Weller, at the head of the column. “Want me to ride ahead and let Keogh know we’re comin’?”
“No.” Weller sounded weary. Hell, they were all weary. “We’re not bringing good news, and there’s nothing that can’t wait until we join forces. No point in wearing yourself and your horse out.”
“Nothin’ in front of us. The land’s quiet.”
He swung his horse into line beside Weller. “Saw the dispatch rider join up when I was on that ridge ahead. Anythin’ I should know about?”
Weller shrugged. “There’s reports from all over the northwest part of the territory. The northern bands are all on the move. Custer wants us to find them and ‘put down any hostile activity.’”
Dean spat into the dusty trail side. “What does Yellowhair Custer call ‘hostile activity?’”
Weller’s mouth quirked. They’d been together a long time; he knew how far he could go with Weller. “He didn’t specify. Keogh’s got sense though. He won’t get us into a fight if he can help it.”
“What do you think’s going on?”
“I’m not Cheyenne. I’m not Sioux, either.”
“Those fools in the Black Hills, they’re going into the Hunkapa, the sacred ground for the Sioux. There’ll be a fight.”
“I know. And here?”
“Huh. Up by the Yellowstone, that’s sacred land for the Cheyenne. And the Sioux and the Arapaho. If this were a long time ago, I’d say they were going to do ceremonies.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “You don’t have to go to sacred ground to do that. You can do that just before you attack. No, this is some big ceremony, like a medicine arrow ceremony. Nothin’ to do with war. We might be better off to just let ’em go about their business.”
Weller sighed. “Not our choice, Dean. We have orders.”
He nodded, and reined out to his usual place, flanking the column but not part of it. Weller was a good man, but yoked to his orders like an ox to a cart. He would try to keep him alive, but he wasn’t going to die for any orders.
The evening meal was joyful, like the time he remembered, before Arikaree. They ate all together, the whole camp, and they ate well: small game mostly, and fish from the Wind. And afterwards, there were stories and dancing.
Jess sat close to Ohemehome, watching the light flicker on the bones of his face. He’s dying. He felt his throat close tight on the thought.
‘Mehome turned to look at him, smiling. “ I hope you ate well. Tomorrow night we sweat lodge; tomorrow all day, we fast. This is for…”
And that was a word Jess didn’t recognize. “I don’t know that word.”
“It means to get better, to become healthy…”
“That is what I said.”
“Sorry. This is for you?”
“No, Contrary.” The old man looked exasperated, reached out to slap the back of his head. “This is for you. I think that you didn’t learn that word when you were with us before says how much you need it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“And that is not new.”
Jess flushed. “Now you sound like my brother Slim.”
“Tomorrow you must tell me of him. Now, I am going to sleep.” Jess stood to help him up. “Do not make noise when you come into the lodge. If you wake the old woman she will be angry, and we will have cold meat for days.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Just don’t be clumsy.”
Jess remained standing, watching the old man walk away.
“He’s made you his son, you know.” Tall Fox’s voice, at his shoulder, matter of fact.
“Oh, not formally. But the whole camp knows you will sleep with his family, and he’s told the lodge keepers you will go to the sweat lodge with him tomorrow. And everyone knows you said you would pledge for him at the Renewal of Life. These are things a son does.”
Jess nodded. “When do we go to the Yellowstone?”
“We leave the day after the sweat lodge.”
“The army knows.”
“They would be stupid if they didn’t. Everyone knows.”
“They will try to stop us.”
“Why? Do we go to their towns and keep them from their churches?”
“They’re frightened. They’re scared of the Ghost Dance.”
“Faugh. This is not that foolishness.”
They stood together, watching the families drifting away from the common fire, the children heavy eyed and sleepy, the youngest of them already asleep in their parents’ arms. Jess felt the ache in his chest sharpen, thinking about how easily this peace could end in blood. “The people in Washington that send the soldiers don’t care.:” he told Tall Fox. “ And they think any time two of the People are together, it’s a war party.”
Tall Fox shrugged. “If they try, they try. We must go. The People are dying, not just Ohemehome. We are dying, Pony Boy. We have to be who we were, or we are dead. And now I am going to sleep, as well.”
Jess spent the next day fasting and talking with ’Mehome about his home and his life since he last saw him.
When they bathed together, in the Wind, he was shocked at how gaunt the older man was, the way he had shrunk to skin and bones. And afterwards, ’Mehome shivered, even in the warm sun, until Jess wrapped his buffalo robe around him, turned him over to his wife to scold and cosset him. Jess sat in the sun outside the lodge, dry-eyed and empty, and listened to her grumbling inside.
Someone’s shadow fell across him. “Ha’pa’”.
“Red Stone.” Even squinting, Jess couldn’t make out the man’s features against the sinking sun.
“You should not be here.”
“I came because I was sent for.”
“And still you should not have come. The army knows you. They will see you, at some time, a white with the People. And Keogh knows who you are.”
“I had no choice, Red Stone.”
“You could have chosen to turn your back. It would have been safer.”
“The whole country is waiting for war. How does my being here make it less safe?”
“They have not forgotten what happened at the Arikaree. And Keogh knows who you belong to.”
“Keogh is already going to the Yellowstone. So is Miles. Maybe Yellowhair, too. They will be there whether I’m with the People or not.”
“You think your rifle will make a difference? Pony Boy.”
“I don’t know. But at least this time I will be there from the start.”
Slim began to pick up the tracks of many ponies, some cutting deeper into the earth, as if they carried weight, others with the unmistakable drag marks of travois behind them. These were people traveling with no need for concealment, secure in their numbers. He reckoned he was no more than a couple hours out now, and was beginning to feel uneasy. It seemed like Jess, or whoever he was trailing, had joined up with the band. And that meant he was riding blind into a group of Cheyenne generally considered to be hostile.
He pulled up, debating with himself. He did not want to ride up on an encampment at dusk. He could make camp here, or pull back and give himself room. Alamo fidgeted under him, fretful after the long day of slow going. He’d passed a grove of cottonwoods about a mile back. He could camp there, and come on in the morning.
The sentry reported to Tall Fox while the encampment was settling for the night. “The white man is at the grove with the old trees, maybe half a morning’s march. He’s making camp. He was closer but turned back, after studying the tracks.”
“Huh. And he followed my trail?”
“Along the river. He only cut our trail just before he stopped. Should we bring him?”
He had had time to think, since the first report. “No. Just watch. If he starts to come in, stay close, but only take him if he crosses the river. They have started the sweat lodge. I do not want it disturbed.”
The sweat lodge was a journey, over many hours. It began in darkness and ended at first light, and in between you confronted your self, your past, your gods and your devils. At least, that was what it had been for him. The Tsitsitsas prayed for healing, for war medicine, for hunt medicine. He had no one to pray to.
Jess had done it once, with Tall Fox, just before the People left, and it had left him flayed, inside out. Tall Fox had said this was only part of it, but he’d wanted no more. He would do this now, for Ohemehome, but never again.
He remembered the way to behave: to walk only on the perimeter, stopping under the low roof, close to the walls. The elders sat opposite the door, the younger men along the sides, and the youngest next to the door flap, responsible for helping the lodge keeper with the hot rocks. So he was surprised when ’Mehome caught his wrist, pulled him in line behind him, to sit next to him in the elders’ place. He fidgeted, embarrassed, and ’Mehome hissed, “Sit still. My nephew will keep the door, and no one questions your place.”
Jess relaxed then and waited. The lodge was already hot, pulling sweat out all over his skin, the steam fragrant with sage and sweet grass. There were three other men in the lodge, including the Bear Medicine Doctor, who started the pipe around. When it was his turn, he took it from ‘Mehome, taking two quick pulls, feeling the dizziness from the tobacco, and the heat, and the day without food.
The chanting started, and he joined in when he knew the words, feeling it get into his blood, like the last time. Time was strange in the lodge; running fast, and then slowing until it seemed like an hour between each heart beat. The lodge keeper had come back twice, carrying the hot rocks in a shovel, and the lodge was so full of steam there was no air, when the visions started. Like the last time, with Tall Fox: the screams and blood, and riding hell-for-leather into the camp, and too late, too late, seeing Denton…and he pushed the visions away, knowing he would fight them many times tonight, and that in the end he would lose.
“Blue Eyes.” ’Mehome’s whisper, hands pushing the pipe into his hands.
He took his turn and passed it on.
“Let the spirits talk, Blue Eyes. You must not fear what is past, and it is your fear that keeps you sick.”
He shook his head, stubbornly, and then the chanting began again, and there was a brief lift of cold air, as the door flap was opened to let the keeper in. And it began again.
It was at the darkest of the night, the hour when the earth was coldest, even the little voices of the land stilled to silence, that he lost the fight. And was there, again, at Two Buttes, seeing Denton toss a baby into the air, and draw and shoot it, laughing, as if he’d shot a tin can to show off his fast draw.
He’d screamed refusal, screamed until his throat was raw and he could only whisper for days after. He could feel that rawness now, and the rage and the panic fear, and the horse straining under him as he tried to bring his rifle to bear on Denton. And then his horse had stumbled and he’d gone down, to lie stunned, fighting to move, his body not answering. Maybe that saved his life, that he could only lie there, and listen to the screams while his sight faded into blackness.
The silence came back, slowly, and the soft sound of ’Mehome breathing next to him. It was cooler now; the last rocks had been brought in an hour ago. And there was the beginning of sound outside now, sleepy birds beginning to stir.
The Bear Medicine Doctor began the morning chant, the last song of the night. When it was finished, the sun was one finger above the horizon, and the door flap was pulled back to let in the cool air.
“Go and rest,” The Medicine Doctor told them. “Wash yourselves. Eat lightly. Sleep if you can, and ponder your visions. Then seek counsel.“ He left first, and they all followed him, walking as before, drawing their blankets around them. The men smiled at each other, murmured “sleep well;” some of them touched Jess’ shoulder as they passed.
’Mehome looked better than Jess had seen him, his eyes clear. “River first. Then the old woman will have broth for us. Then sleep. We will talk. You missed the talk, last time.”
“Tall Fox made up for it,” Jess muttered, and ’Mehome laughed.
“River now. We both stink, and the old woman won’t let us in the lodge.”
The sun was an hour up when Slim broke camp. He was moving slowly, not sure about his next move. He had thought to catch Jess before he reached the band, and he still couldn’t be sure it was Jess. He might find himself riding up on a war party.
Stupid. So caught up in what he was feeling he’d forgot to think. But he couldn’t bring himself to just turn back, either.
He weighed options while he saddled Alamo. Maybe the best he could do would be to circle to the south, across the Wind, and try to use the cover of the gorge to get a better look, maybe spot the rider of that shod horse. His gut said it was Jess, but he wasn’t used to trusting his gut.
Jess felt light, and peaceful, like maybe he could just float up off the ground, all the weight of the past gone. Maybe because he’d hidden from something for a long time, and last night he couldn’t hide anymore. ’Mehome knew everything now, knew about his failure, and still treated him the way he always had.
The river was cold, but it felt good after the stuffy lodge. Everything felt sharper today, clearer, like it was brand new. They dried off quickly, and dressed in the clean clothes Singing Bird brought, and then drank the salty broth together in front of the lodge.
“Blue Eyes, your younger brother, your Andy. If he were to die while you were here, would that be your fault?”
“It could be. If it only happened because I wasn’t there.”
“So. When White Antelope died, I knew it was my fault. If I had been there, it would not have happened. I knew this.”
’Mehome studied, him, eyes amused. “I think you need to sleep. Then you need to think on that. Come now, before your mother starts to grumble.”
The scouts rode down on him, just after he crossed the Wind. They circled just out of rifle shot, but they did not fire, either, and when he made no move, they circled closer. And then they were within pistol shot, both sides wary and tense.
Slim dropped Alamo’s reins on his neck, took a deep breath and lifted his hands to shoulder height. “I’m lookin’ for Jess Harper.”
They looked back, impassive, five lightly armed men, none of them wearing paint. And they were wearing leggings, and the light, undecorated shirts most plains tribes wore for hunting. Slim let out a breath, feeling reassured. Not a war party, then.
One of them rode closer, step by cautious step.
“Fox? You know a brave called Fox?”
There was no understanding in their eyes. The man in front of him handed his own rifle over to one of the others, then stretched his hand out toward Slim’s side arm, still looking him in the eye.
“Aw hell, go ahead.” Slim raised his hands a little higher, let himself be disarmed.
The Cheyenne handed the pistol off to another brave, and then reached for the rifle in its scabbard, something in his face reminding him of Jonesy taking a slingshot away from Andy, like he couldn’t be trusted to be safe with it. The scout jerked his head toward the camp.
“Reckon I don’t have a choice.” Slim lowered his hands slowly and followed the scouts in.
“Pony Boy. Pony Boy.” Tall Fox, whispering harshly from the lodge door.
Jess rolled out of his blanket, moved quietly to the door. “What?”
“There’s a white man here. We need you to come and talk to him.”
“You speak English.” He didn’t want to see another white right now, have to deal with divided loyalties.
“He’s looking for you.”
“Hell.” Jess rubbed at his eyes, feeling only half awake. “I’m comin’.”
The man was sitting his horse in the middle of a group of curious children, one of the sentries keeping a wary eye on the situation, and those hooks in his heart suddenly pulled too tight to stand, pulling him to the man’s stirrup.
“Slim. What are you doin’?”
“Lookin’ for you. Figured you were ridin’ into trouble.”
“So you had to ride in after me?”
Slim grinned. “You look like you haven’t slept in days. When you’re rested I aim to kick your ass for leavin’ like that. The army’s takin’ an interest in all this.”
“That’s not news.”
“Didn’t think it was. I came along to make sure you didn’t do somethin’ stupid.”
“Yeah, and you’re a good example of that right now.”
Slim bent down to clasp his shoulder. “Somebody’s gotta ride herd on you.”
“Pony Boy?” He looked over his shoulder at Tall Fox, remembering where they were.
“Oh. This is my brother, Slim. It’s all right.”
“Huh. He’s always this stupid?”
“Not usually. Only when he’s worried.”
He turned back to Slim, saw the shock in his face, and remembered he’d been speaking Cheyenne. “Slim. This is Tall Fox. I knew him when I rode dispatch. I told him you’re… family.”
“Pleased to meet you, Tall Fox.” Slim touched his hat brim, then turned his eyes back to Jess. “ This is the brave that left the message?”
“He speaks English, Slim. Yeah, he left it.”
“Something so important you had to ride without a word?”
Jess rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah. Slim, step down. We’ll get you settled in, then we’ll talk.”
“Pony Boy, I will do this. You go and sleep.” Tall Fox came closer, meeting Slim’s eyes, switching to English. “He was in sweat lodge, last night. He must rest today. You follow me.”
“I’ll stay if you want. But Tall Fox will look after you.”
Slim studied him, then nodded. “Rest. You got an ass kickin’ comin’.”
The brave…the man, Tall Fox, led him to where he could picket Alamo, helped him settle and feed the horse. He seemed to be a man of some authority; people came to him with questions, listened to what he said. He led Slim to a cottonwood tree next to a sizeable tipi.
“This is ’Mehome’s lodge. Pony Boy…your brother is here. You camp here.” Gesturing at the ground by the tree. “Name?”
“They call you?”
“Good. You eat with your brother. Don’t try to talk to the women. It‘s an insult to them.”
“Okay. Thanks. You’ve known Jess a long time?”
“He is a good man. We take care of him.”
And that was not exactly reassuring. Tall Fox nodded and left, and Slim realized that he’d been surrounded, the camp’s children in a circle around him, staring curiously.
“Well, come on.” He smiled at them, waving them closer. “You can watch me set up camp.”
Jess slept until almost dusk, and then woke to see ‘Mehome still resting.
Slim. He rolled out of his blanket as quietly as he knew how, stepped out into the cool evening, and felt relief when he saw his friend sitting in the center of a group of children who were trying to teach him stick-and-ball without either side knowing the other’s language.
“You’re the new toy,” he said softly, and Slim smiled at him, standing up and shooing the children.
“Come back tomorrow,” Jess told them, and they ran off, calling to each other about the white man as they went. Slim cocked an eyebrow at him.
“I told them you’d play with them tomorrow. “
“You did, huh.”
“By the time dinner’s over, it will be too late to play tonight. I’m sorry, I slept hard. Did they feed you?”
“At midday. The lady from there.” Slim pointed at the lodge. “She’s related to your friend?”
“His wife. Don’t talk to any of the women, unless they speak first. I should have told you.”
“Tall Fox did. She said something to me I didn’t understand, and I said, ‘thank you’ when she handed me the food. That was all right?”
“Yeah. She’s married, so she can choose to talk to you. And we’re both young enough to be her sons.” “Tall Fox brought my weapons back.”
“Good.” The silence stretched, uncomfortable.
“So, are you going to tell me why? “
Jess waited, trying to think of how to explain all the reasons. “He’s dyin’, Slim. And he sent for me. And I owe him so much.”
“Enough to risk your life? The Seventh Cavalry is on the hunt. I don’t see this ending peacefully.”
“I know. But I’d do the same for you.”
“Then do it for me,” Slim said urgently. “Come home with me now. He’s seen you, you did this whatever it was with him, last night. Isn’t it enough?”
Jess shook his head. “Not for me. I owe too much. I owe him a life, his brother’s life. And he asked me to do one thing for him. Until that’s done, I can’t leave.”
“Did you kill his brother?”
“NO!” And then softer, “No. But I didn’t save him, either.”
“And the chief holds you responsible?”
Jess shrugged. “I hold me responsible.”
“He wants you to fight for him.”
“No, of course not. He wants me to…pray with him, I guess. He wants me to go to the Yellowstone, and do the Sun Dance with the People.”
“The Sun Dance.” Slim’s face was wary, but looked as if he was trying to understand. “Jess that’s a...”
“Heathen ceremony?” Jess snapped, feeling the anger start.
“Don’t get wooly with me. I’m not judging anything. That’s the pole dance, right? People pierce themselves.” Slim took a breath, his revulsion and his fear for Jess both plain in his face. “ Do you have to do that?”
Jess could see the concern now, and the anger bled away. “He doesn’t want me to. He wants me to keep the fast for him, do the chants. That’s all.”
“He wants me to stay a month.”
“The dance will be midsummer day, and it takes eight days.”
Slim looked away, frowning. “All right. I can’t stay for all of it, but I’ll stay as long as I can. I’ll have to get word back to Jonesy.”
“You heard me.”
“You’re not stayin’ for any of it. Slim, there’s no guarantee the Army won’t show up at any time. I won’t let you, it’s too dangerous.”
“Thanks for makin’ my case for me.”
Jess flushed up. “You know what I mean.”
“Sure. You can ride off headlong into this, just runnin’ into a burnin’ barn, and I can’t say anything. But you can tell me what I can’t do.”
It stopped him dead in his tracks. “What…what about Andy?”
“Andy will be there all summer. And the sheriff an’ Mose are keeping’ an eye on him and Jonesy. And the Dempsey boys are takin’ turns helpin’ out, to say thanks for that horse breakin’ you did for ‘em. So we’re covered six ways from Sunday.” Slim watched him for a moment, and then added, “close your mouth, Jess. You can’t have an objection left.”
“Slim, you’re all Andy’s got. If somethin’ happens...”
“We’re all that Andy’s got. And if it gets that tight, I’m trustin’ you to get us out before there’s a risk he doesn’t have either of us.”
“All right.” At the center of the camp, the women were beginning to cook the evening meal, the savor of it on the light breeze. “Come on. I’ll show you where to wash up, and then we’ll eat. You’re gonna really like this.”
The people knew how to move fast. Camp was torn down and packed by midmorning the next day, the women taking charge with an authority that surprised Slim.
“They own the lodges,” Jess said, helping to bundle the poles to go on the travois. “An’ they run the camp. An’ they own most of the ponies. Once a woman has her own horses, she can divorce her man just by sayin’ so, because she has the means of movin’ house. It don’t do to get on the wrong side of the women.”
“I see.” Slim wiped the sweat off his face. “Will they set up the lodges every night?”
“Uh-uh. We’ll sleep out between here and the Yellowstone. They’ll put up lean-to’s at night, for some of the older people. And for ‘Mehome. But they won’t put the lodges up until we get to the valley. They’ll set up there, for the ceremony.”
“How long? To get there, I mean.”
“Mebbe ten days.”
“Ten days! That far with all these people?”
“We’ll move fast.”
One of the children ran up on them, shouting something joyfully, and Jess scooped him up, laughing, saying something in Cheyenne. It still shocked Slim that he’d not known this about his friend. The child looked at him over Jess’ shoulder, face alight, and repeated the words to him.
Jess set him down, swatted his butt to send him on the way. “Squirrel’s happy because he’ll ride a pony on the move this time. It’s the first time, he’s been ridin’ the travois every other move. He wanted you to know, special.”
“Oh. That’s good.”
“The kids like you, Slim. They want you to learn to talk like a ‘human being.’”
“You gonna teach me?”
“Mebbe so.” Singing Bird shouted something from the travois, and Jess responded respectfully. “She says hurry up, we’re worse than the old man for dawdlin’.”
“So what does your name mean?”
Jess flushed, looking down.
“I can always ask Tall Fox,” Slim teased.
“You do that. When you do, be sure an’ ask him how he got his name.”
The People settled into the easy routine of movement, and Slim found that he had a place and a purpose with the band. He and Jess joined the men for hunting on the move, a job that took most of the day as they traveled; and when they weren’t hunting they were sentries, flanking the moving column of people, providing protection and scouting the land around them. Tall Fox had taken him under his wing, explaining the customs of the camp to him when Jess forgot, and introducing him to the other men. At night Slim had a place at the communal meal, seated next to Jess during the story-telling so his friend could translate the teasing and the stories for him. The children insisted on “teaching” him Cheyenne. And little, round Singing Bird fussed at and fed him in a way that reminded him of Jonesy, and a little, of his own mother. Slim found himself wishing that Andy could be here, to share the laughter and games, and then would catch himself, remembering that all these people, including Jess and himself, moved under the threat of attack every day.
There was an Overland Relay station just west of Green River. Slim talked to Tall Fox, and rode out to write a message and send it back to Jonesy on the eastbound stage.
The station master was preoccupied, and alone. “Seen any injun sign?”
“How do you mean?” Slim folded the message into a square, sealed it with the wax the station master provided.
“They’re on the move. I sent my wife back to Cheyenne on the stage last week. This is no time to have a woman in a place like this.”
“I didn’t see anything that looked like hostile activity.” Slim set his jaw against the urge to say more, to explain why the Cheyenne were no threat. Not that he’d be believed, anyway.
“Ya can’t always tell, though. The army came through here yesterday, ridin’ hard. Cap’n named Weller and two platoons. Said they was trackin’ Cheyenne.” The man looked anxious and tired, as if he hadn’t slept for days.
“Did they say why?”
“Close mouthed. But I heard the Sioux ain’t too happy right now, an’ there’s some big doin’s goin’ on, up at the Yellowstone Valley.”
Slim kept his counsel, and thought hard on the way back to the band. At the evening meal last night, they’d told the story of the big flood, and how the People stretched a buffalo hide over the Yellowstone valley to hold off the rain, and the animals and People gathered under it and were saved. Jess had teased him that they’d told the story for his benefit, but watching Squirrel’s big eyes and open mouth Slim thought he wasn’t the only one being taught. It was why the valley was sacred; the People and the spirits had made peace with each other there, after the People had learned not to be careless with the Earth. It was a story that ended with a rainbow, too, like the Noah story in the bible. Made you think. Made you think that maybe there wasn’t so much difference, after all.
The camp was tense and angry when he rode in, the men gathered in front of ’Mehome’s lean-to, the man Jess had told him was Red Stone shouting at Tall Fox. He took his horse to the picket line, tied him next to Jess’ bay and eased through the crowd to his partner’s side.
Red Stone turned to face him, the Cheyenne’s anger seeming to grow. Slim felt Jess’ hand close on his forearm, and Jess stepped in front of him, said something back to Red Stone, that sound in his voice that he got when he was working up.
“Red Stone found an army scout followin’ us. He says you must’ve brought him in.”
He tried to push Jess to one side, and Jess snapped, “don’t move.”
“Do you think you’re hidin’ me?” Slim asked, exasperated.
“I’m makin’ a point.”
That he’ll have to go through you.
Ohemehome stepped out of the lean-to and weighed in. Slim could feel Jess relax a little, and Red Stone nodded, grudgingly. The men began to disperse, until it was just Red Stone and Jess, facing each other., and then Red Stone walked away.
Jess sighed, and the chief said something, and Jess led Slim away.
“What happened?” Slim demanded.
“I gave my word for you.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m responsible if you betray the People.”
“Maybe,“ Slim said, anger rising, “you better tell me what ‘betrayal’ means so I don’t make any mistakes.”
“Slim.” Jess looked like he was being torn in half. “I’m doin’ the best I can. Maybe you should go home now.”
“You really think Red Stone will let me leave now?”
Jess looked down.
“Where’s the scout?”
“Dead. Red Stone brought him in across his saddle.”
“Slim, they gotta defend themselves.” But Jess wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“By murderin’ a scout? I can’t believe you think that’s justified.”
“I’m not sayin’ that. I’m just sayin…Red Stone’s family was killed by Custer. He’ll shoot first and ask if he has to, after.”
“And that justifies it.”
“How many whites you know that wouldn’t do the same if their kin was threatened?” Jess met his eyes now, defiant and pleading at the same time.
And it was right there in the open, that difference between them, the thing he’d never really thought about before. It was like walking on what you thought was solid ground and then feeling the ground slip out from under you.
“Jess,” Slim whispered, trying to bridge the gap between them. “You gotta give me a chance to understand. Red Stone just hates whites. He’s just usin’ this as an excuse.”
Jess shook his head. “It’s revenge, Slim. You gotta right to say he can’t have it?”
“You don’t believe that. Not even if the scout had been responsible.”
“What law is there for Red Stone? And how does he know which soldier or scout killed his family?” Jess’ voice was desperate, as if trying to convince himself.
“I can’t believe I’m hearin’ this from you.”
“Slim, what if it were Andy killed by a Cheyenne?”
“You don’t mean this.”
“Maybe. Maybe I do.” Jess turned on his heels, walked away in a way that said ‘leave me alone’ as clear as if he’d shouted it.
“ Slim. You need to come to the meal.” Tall Fox had come up behind him, soft-footed as always.
“Not hungry.” He felt isolated for the first time since finding the Cheyenne, even his partner a stranger.
“You have to be there, so people can see you’re not ashamed or afraid. Pony Boy and ‘Mehome need this from you. Come and sit with me. Pony Boy is too angry.”
“I don’t understand,” Slim muttered, and Tall Fox looked at him like he was a stubborn child.
“You know about the post at Arikaree?”
“The whole territory knows about it.”
“That was revenge. And Pony Boy thinks it was his fault.”
“Why? He wasn’t even there.”
“It was revenge for ’Mehome’s brother. Your brother thinks he should have been able to save the boy. And he loves the old man.”
“So that excuses Red Stone?” Afterward, he realized how much a friend Tall Fox had become, that he could say that to a Cheyenne..
“You’re not a child, Slim.” Tall Fox’s patience was starting to show. “ And your brother cares for what you think, maybe as much as he cares what ‘Mehome thinks. Pony Boy is afraid that you think all of this, the Renewal of Life, all of it, is wrong.”
Slim shook his head. “It’s something I’ve never known before, all this. But I’m trying to understand.”
“Good.” Tall Fox reached up to slap Slim’s shoulder. “Now come and eat. I’m hungry, and the children will not leave me in peace if you are not there.”
There was no more contact with the army. Red Stone shadowed him over the next few days but Slim had enough sense to ignore it. Jess fumed, but said nothing. And then one day Tall Fox made a point of joining the two of them on the hunt, and after that Red Stone ignored him. And things felt easier with the other men.
They rode out together to hunt, three days after Red Stone had brought in the scout. The tension between them had lessened, but it was a fragile peace, built on leaving things unsaid.
“So, Pony Boy,” Slim said in English, and Jess groaned and pulled his hat lower.
“Who told you?”
“Squirrel. I finally learned enough Cheyenne to ask, and he told me your name was ‘little kid that rides ponies.’”
“He didn’t say that.”
“He did. And then I asked Tall Fox, and I thought he’d fall off his horse laughing, and he said the English was Pony Boy.”
“Slim, so help me, if you tell Jonesy…”
“And what are you gonna give me not to tell Jonesy?”
“Slim…” It was a growl.
“I was thinkin’, you take a week’s worth of relay work, an’ I go fishin’.”
“Yep.” He didn’t say that Tall Fox had told him that it was what they’d called the pony express riders, too. He didn’t say that he felt proud of his partner, seeing how much the Cheyenne respected him.
Jess grinned suddenly. “I’m gonna make you pay for that, Slim. I’m gonna ask Squirrel to name you.”
Slim made a grab for him, and Jess touched spurs to Traveler, galloping ahead. They were in a twisting, narrow valley, deepening ahead into a canyon. Jess vanished around a corner, and he followed, then reined up sharply because Traveler was stopped ahead of him, jigging and blowing as Jess pulled him up. The canyon ahead led straight to a gorge, and even from here you could hear the water, see the spray of it standing up over the unseen river.
“Yellowstone.” Jess said. “We’re here.”
The Sun Dance pledgers were fasting. And the whole camp was more solemn now, focused on one thing, like he hadn’t seen it before. Jess explained it to him, why the Cheyenne called it the “Renewal of Life,” and how important the buffalo still was to them, and why people did the piercing.
That was the part Slim couldn’t swallow easy, especially that sometimes the women danced, pierced through the upper arm. Jess just shrugged like he didn’t have any words. He was glad Jess wasn’t dancing. He didn’t think he would be able to stand that.
“It’s an offering,” Jess had said. He’d stood beside Slim, but his eyes were focused on the horizon, like he was talking about something so private he couldn’t face his partner with it. “It’s a gift to the People, and to the world.” Jess’ hand had sketched a circle, as if containing the valley, the mountains, the big, open sky above. “It’s a sacrifice, for healing, and for harmony, and visions… You don’t have to believe in it..” Jess’ voice had died away, like he was struggling with something too big for words. Slim still didn’t understand, not really, but he put his hand on his partner’s shoulder, in acceptance.
Jess was spending more time with Ohemehome and the other fasters, and Tall Fox was always busy, working to get ready for the ceremony, so Slim hunted, and played with the children, and learned more Cheyenne. He explored the Valley of Smokes, wondering at the hot springs and the strange bright colors of the water and the way the steam vents spouted high into the air. The People were camped next to the lake on the broad valley floor. You could see buffalo grazing at the far northern limit of the valley, and pronghorn moved through at dusk.
The days were lengthening, the twilights long and clear, and the People sat long at the cook fires after the meal and told stories he could not understand but that the children tried to explain. He’d ask Jess later, Slim thought, after the dance. Other northern bands drifted in, setting camp around Ohemehome’s band, as if he were the center. The Sioux rode in and camped just north of them, and Tall Fox asked him not to ride out alone anymore. And the tall pole was raised, the People singing and drumming all day long.
Tonight the dance would start, at last light. Slim stood well back from the dance circle, close to the last of the Cheyenne lodges, and watched the ceremonies.
“You all right?” Jess’ voice at his shoulder, a little hoarse like he’d been using it a lot. Probably chanting.
“I am.” He glanced at Jess, then away quickly, startled as always by the paint streaking his face.
“Sorry I ain’t been around much.”
“You should leave tonight, before the dance starts.”
“Leave?” It startled him, that Jess was still trying to send him away.
“You said you couldn’t stay for all of it.”
Slim shrugged. “Will you leave after the dance? That’s not quite a month.”
“I can wait for you.”
“Be sure. Once the dance starts, if you ride out, it’s an insult.”
“I…thanks, Slim. I better go now, there’s a sweat lodge.” Jess took an awkward step away, then stopped, as if reluctant to leave.
“Thought you weren’t doin’ that again.” Slim turned to face his partner, making himself look past the paint, to find the man he knew.
“It’s not so bad. And I gave my word.” Jess nodded to him, an oddly formal gesture, and turned away to disappear into the crowd of the People.
Slim stood there after Jess left, for a long time, watching the sky darken, the stars coming out overhead, until it seemed like the dance pole was the center of the world, and the stars revolved around it.
The dance began with the last of the light , the sky a dark, dark blue overhead, just the last red band of sun on the horizon. Jess had told him what to expect, but when Slim saw the first man pierced with the bone hooks his stomach turned over, and he began easing backward through the crowd of witnesses. Jess sat with the circle of singers, already chanting with them to the soft rhythm of the big drums. He would be there throughout the dance with only brief rests, and would not break his fast until the dance was over. Slim could see him in the circle, the short hair marking him, painted grey and white like the others, ghostly in the low light.
Tall Fox touched his arm, jerked his head toward the picket line, and he followed him.
“Slim, do not watch this if you cannot. You would bring shame to Pony Boy and me and ’Mehome if you drew attention to yourself.”
Slim felt his face redden in embarrassment. “I’m just not used to this.”
“No shame in that. But you do not have to be here. Sleep. Go and hunt with the Bowstrings. Ride the valley. But do not come back to the dance.”
The sound of the Sun Dance filled the valley, day and night. He had been surprised at first, that it went on without stopping, but Jess told him the name meant it was to honor the sun, and that the dance would go on for eight days, or until the last dancer tore free from the hooks. The Sioux had a different pole; that surprised him too. Tall Fox explained that the Cheyenne held the buffalo most important in the ceremony, and the Sioux did not, so “dancing together” meant “side by side.”
He learned when Jess would most likely have a break, and was there to meet him, with water, to exchange a few words, or to watch over him when he dropped into exhausted sleep for a few minutes. Tall Fox told him all the participants in the dance were sacred and that no one would harm Jess, but he felt uneasy with Red Stone in camp.
On the sixth day, Slim was hunting with the Bowstring Society when he saw the dust on the horizon. He watched carefully for nearly ten minutes, and finally made out the pennant, the long dark line of a cavalry column, and realized the time of peace was over.
Dean found Weller and Keogh together at dusk, looking over a map by lantern light in Keogh’s tent. He stepped down from his horse wearily, and Keogh’s face sharpened.
“Mr. Dean. What is it?”
“I found Warren’s body.”
Keogh sighed. “Tortured?”
“Not as I could tell. Looks like he was shot clean. But dead a long time, likely since the day he missed rendezvous.”
“Had to’ve been. He cut their trail, before the Yellowstone. Looks like he got careless, an’ someone took exception to bein’ tailed.”
“The Sioux are there. Lakota. An’ it’s the Sun Dance. Looks like they’re a fair way into it, too.”
Dean shrugged. “Likely disperse. The Sun Dance, that’s like Easter for ’em. They won’t start anything if we leave ’em alone.”
Weller muttered “Custer’s orders,” and Keogh said, “That was to cover hostile activity.”
“He considered the Sioux and Cheyenne joining up to be hostile.”
Keogh tapped the map with one hand, obviously irritated. “He’s not here. I’m not going to consider a religious ceremony hostile until I have proof.”
Weller grinned. “Good. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
Keogh said gently, “Mr. Dean, you look like you could use a meal and a rest. Why don’t you get to that?”
Dean nodded thanks and led his horse away. Keogh had sense, and so did Weller. He wondered how long it would hold things off, before Custer’s thirst for glory overrode their ability to say “no.”
Tall Fox heard his report, and sent scouts out, his face set and grim.
“What do you think?” Slim asked him, and he shook his head without answering.
“Fools,” Jess whispered when he told him, voice worn away with six days’ chanting, hands clenched. “If they ride in now, it don’t matter if their intentions are peaceful. They can’t interrupt the Sun Dance. If they do, it’s a fight, no quarter.”
“They must know that.”
“Maybe. That don’t mean they’re goin’ to care. Slim, you gotta leave now.” The desperation was back in Jess’ eyes, the look that had been there too often these past weeks.
“You said it would be an insult.” Slim’s words came slowly, as he tried to think it through.
“I’ll take the blame. Slim, you have Andy. You gotta go.”
“Not without you.” And that was the thing that mattered, that he couldn’t give up.
“I can’t leave ’til the dance is done. It would be as bad as interruptin’. I can’t do that to them.” Jess sounded defeated.
“Then I stay.”
“And what? Fight the cavalry if they ride down on us?”
Slim didn’t have an answer to that.
He couldn’t stay and he couldn’t go. Couldn’t leave Jess here to face this alone, couldn’t see himself fighting the US Army, couldn’t see himself leaving Jess to fight the Army, couldn’t see a way to stop him. This was why Jess had left without a word, why he’d tried to send him away so many times. He had to have seen this coming, this moment when they’d both have to decide who to betray.
When the scouts rode back, he asked Little Elk if he knew the whites, and the man said, “Keogh.” And that was cause for maybe a little hope. He kept Alamo and Traveler saddled all day, ready for he didn’t know what. And he saw Red Stone watching him, hands restless on his rifle.
The last dancer tore himself free with a shout of triumph at the end of the seventh day, and the camp exploded into celebration. Squirrel came running to tell him, the little boy hurling himself into his arms, and Slim let himself be dragged by the hand, back to the dance floor, canteen ready in one hand for Jess.
Still painted grey and white, he looked worn to the size of a willow twig, but he was smiling, and Slim surprised them both by slinging an arm around his shoulders and hugging him.
“Good job,” he told him gruffly. “Now can we go?”
Jess gulped water, poured a little into his hand and splashed it in his face, smearing the paint. “Tomorrow,” he promised in a hoarse whisper. “Tonight we eat.” Three Contraries rode by, whooping, sitting their horses backward, and Jess laughed. “C’mon Slim. It’s gonna be a good party.”
The feast started within the hour. Jess sat with ’Mehome, and Slim sat at his left, watching the two of them together. The old man looked peaceful, smiling a little all the time, as if something beyond price had been accomplished. And Jess…Jess looked at peace, for the first time since the journey had started, so maybe it was worth it all to get to this place. They sat until well after dark, and the children ran in and out among the feasting adults, until they dropped to sleep wherever they chose. Slim watched ’Mehome reach up once, and pat Jess’ cheek lightly, as if admonishing him for eating too fast, and thought, He loves him. And whatever all this meant, it’s made that old man very happy.
Tall Fox ambled over from the far side of the fire, and sank down on his heels next to him, looking like a man that had just finished a roundup.
Slim offered him a pottery cup of stew “Now what happens?”
Tall Fox accepted the food with a smile. “You and Pony Boy go home now. We go with the Sioux to Bear Butte. But his part is done.”
“Whatever that was.”
“It’s between them.” Tall Fox tilted his head at Jess and Ohemehome. “That part, that guilt, for both of them, I think it’s done now. That’s good.”
Singing Bird came and fussed at them, the little old woman with a voice so sweet, even when obviously nagging, that he understood why they called her that.
“Jess?” He asked for translation.
Jess smiled at Singing Bird, and then helped the old chief up. “Slim.” His voice was still a hoarse croak. “We’re going to sleep now. We’ll leave tomorrow, after breakfast.”
Singing Bird said something sharp to Jess, obviously reproving, and Jess looked surprised, and then smiled at him. “C’mon, pard,” he husked. “You’re sleepin’ in the lodge tonight.”
The morning sang with light, and Jess sat outside the lodge with ’Mehome, while the water heated for coffee in the little pot he’d carried all the long way from Casper.
“Do you understand now, Contrary?” the old man asked.
Jess laughed, whispered, “No.”
’Mehome rolled his eyes. “The guilt was mine, not yours. You carried it all these years so I didn’t have to. But then, I was guilty for that, that I did not lift that burden as soon as I saw it. Both of us carrying a weight neither one of us should have picked up. We could not change anything.”
“That’s why the sweat lodge at the river. That was for me.”
“Yes. You had to heal from it. I knew that, I should have done that the first year you came to us. But I put it off, you were so new to the People. And then…”
“The trading post.”
“Yes. And I have owed you this debt ever since.”
Something big turned over in his chest, where the hooks had been, and he rubbed at his breast bone, thinking, When did they go? I didn’t notice.
“I thought I owed you a life,” he whispered.
“No,” the old man sighed. “I owed you your freedom. Now, you go home, Pony Boy. Blue eyes. You go home to your brothers. Next year, you come see me.”
“You will be here, father?”
“Of course. I am too mean to die. And Singing Bird would be too angry if I did that. That woman would chase me across the star bridge, nagging all the way.”
They rode out after eating with ’Mehome and Singing Bird. The camp was quiet, people resting after the long night before. The parting was casual, like friends who plan to meet again, and they saw no one but the sentry on the way out of camp.
The morning was fresh and the horses restive; they let them run to settle them. Traveler bucked a little, in stride, and Jess laughed, standing in his stirrups to take the jolt. That was when the first shots sounded behind them.
“What the hell…” For a moment, Slim thought, it’s the celebration starting up again, some of the young men letting off steam.
Jess reined in Traveler so hard the horse skidded on the damp grass, and Slim stopped Alamo, turning back to join him, the two of them waiting, listening hard. The shots came again, a disciplined volley, and then a war cry rose up, wild and defiant. Without thinking, Slim reached out and grabbed Traveler’s bridle, held as hard as he could as Jess tried to turn the horse around, back to the camp.
Traveler squealed and plunged as Jess set spurs to him, nearly dragging Slim out of the saddle.
“You can’t do anything,” Slim said desperately. “You’ll just get yourself killed.”
Jess looked wild. “Slim. Let me go,” and reached down to claw at Slim’s wrist.
Traveler squealed again, kicking out as Jess spurred him, catching Alamo in the ribs just hard enough to make him shy. Slim lost his grip and Jess was gone, Traveler leveling out as Jess spurred him mercilessly, pulling his rifle one-handed.
He had to hold Alamo hard, the horse bouncing stiff-legged under him, wanting to follow the other. Think. One of you has to think…where are the bugles?
Dean was scouting the north end of the valley, skirting the Lakota encampment when he heard the shots, and was so startled he froze for a moment. Maybe half a mile south of here. Those are soldiers firing. Two volleys, regular, evenly spaced. What the hell is Keogh playing at?
He set his horse at a canter toward the shots, cautious but needing to know. Nothing last night about action today, he’s gone loco, three platoons against half the Cheyenne nation and the Lakota. What started this?
He could see the skirmish line now, the Cheyenne starting to respond to the attack, but slow. And the line of blue was small, maybe patrol size. A raid? Who decided to send in a raid this morning? He pulled up near a small stand of trees, unwilling to break cover this close, and then recognized the horse in the center of the line, the single white sock in front unmistakable. Denton. Damn him.
He quirted his horse into a gallop toward the bivouac, not worried about being seen. Odds are good he decided to make a little trouble, start a war, thinking Keogh will have to commit the rest of the troops to protect him. Stupid sonuvabitch is gonna get us all killed, unless I can talk sense to Keogh.
Jess couldn’t hear anything. He could feel Traveler’s stride eating up the ground, and saw the blur of faces as he tore through the camp, burst out between two lodges, the horses on the picket line rearing as he swept past. And then he was free, out on the open ground, running toward the line of blue with other riders coming out from the camp, disorganized but angling together. He stuck the ends of the reins in his mouth, readied the rifle, heading straight toward the cavalry. The ground around him was beginning to kick up little plumes of dust, and he thought, bullets. They’re firing at me, but I’m out of range. And he still couldn’t hear anything, until something big and black came alongside at an angle, slammed into his left leg and pushed Traveler off his line, and abruptly the sound came back, the sharp flat crack of the rifles, and Tall Fox’s voice shouting in his ear, “FOOL!” And he realized he was being ridden into a curving line, circling the troops, other riders falling in, ahead and behind.
He nodded to show he understood, back on balance again, and able to think. Tall Fox dropped back to chivvy the other riders into line. Jess dropped the knotted ends of the reins over the saddle horn, started firing just ahead of the cavalry line to stop them. There was a moment when the hooks in his heart were back, when he thought about what he was doing, and then the warrior ahead of him straightened abruptly, blood welling from his arm, and Jess heard the sound of the shot that wounded him, legged Traveler out a little wider, laying down covering fire for the wounded Cheyenne.
Weller stumbled out his tent, buckling his side arm, and found Keogh in the noisy confusion of the camp rousing. “What’s happening?”
Keogh shook his head, white-lipped. “I don’t know. We’ve had patrols out, but no one’s supposed to engage...SERGEANT MAJOR!”
“Sir.” Mallory panted up to them, still pulling his suspenders over his shoulders.
“Mount ‘em up. All three platoons. Get your platoon sergeants to check arms. Quick, man.”
“Sir. Sound the alert?”
Keogh was checking his own side arm. “Not yet. Not until we know what’s happening. Move!”
The sound of a volley drifted up out of the valley. That’s three since this started, Weller thought. That’s troops firing. “Who’s on patrol?”
Keogh shook his head. “Mallory set the schedule.”
One of the pickets shouted, “Rider coming!”
“Let him through,” Keogh bellowed.
The big, lathered chestnut was coming in hard, a tall, strongly-built man on his back who looked familiar to Weller.
“Where’s Keogh?” the man said, pulling the horse to a sliding stop, and Weller recognized him.
“Mr. Sherman. What are you doing here?” He could hear return fire starting, ragged, the sound of men firing as individuals.
“Tryin’ to stop a war. Where’s Keogh?”
“Here, Mr. Sherman,” Keogh said calmly, stepping around Weller’s shoulder to meet him.
“Captain, call your men back,” Sherman urged. “The Cheyenne are peaceful, the camp was still sleepin’. There’s women and children there.”
“You were in the camp?” Keogh asked sharply.
“I was. Captain, they’re not even awake down there. Whatever happened, your men started it. Do you want an Indian war? Call them back!”
Weller said, “and will the Cheyenne stop if we retreat?”
Sherman was silent. The intensity of fire was picking up, in the valley, the pressure of time and the necessities of battle getting heavier with each moment. Weller looked toward the valley and saw the familiar rider coming fast, buckskin fringe standing out in the wind of his speed. Weller touched Keogh’s arm, murmured, “Dean’s coming in,” and the scout was on them, vaulting off his horse while it was still running.
“Cap’n, you gotta call ‘em back. It’s Denton, that damn’ crazy fool. He just rode in and started shootin’.”
“And if I do?” Keogh’s voice was astonishingly calm. “Will the Cheyenne let them go?”
“I don’t know.” Dean put it straight. “But if you ride into that you’re throwin’ all our lives away. Just because Denton wants to pick a fight. He’s countin’ on you committin’ the rest of the troop.”
“There’s good men down there,” Keogh muttered.
“Send a white flag,” Sherman urged. “Give the Cheyenne a chance to stop their young men. Since when do you let a patrol start a war?”
Keogh hesitated just a moment, then nodded, and shouted “Bugler! Sound retreat!”
The long bugle notes sounded over the valley, cutting through the sound of firing, and the melody made him sit back, slow Traveler instinctively. Tall Fox rode up alongside.
“Is that the retreat, Pony Boy?”
He nodded, confused, and saw the same confusion in Tall Fox’s face. The other riders were coming up behind them, slowing as they saw Tall Fox pulling up, their own firing becoming more random. The soldiers’ volleys were ragged, slowing as the Cheyenne pulled up out of range.
One of the warriors started to ride past, and Tall Fox shouted “Hold!” lifting his hand in the sign to halt.
“Why do we stop?” It was Red Stone, crowding in between Tall Fox and the others.
“They’re calling retreat.”
“Good. Now is the time to finish them.”
“And I said hold. We will not start a fight here.”
“They started it. What kind of man are you, Tall Fox?”
Red Stone started to swing his rifle up, whether to fire on the troops or menace Tall Fox, Jess did not know. Moved by instinct, he reached out, knocked the barrel into the air, and Red Stone snarled something he couldn’t hear and swung his quirt at Jess’ face in a sweeping arc that stopped when Tall Fox grabbed his forearm.
“I said hold,” Tall Fox said mildly, but his grip tightened until Red Stone hissed.
The warriors gathered around them, the horses blowing and fidgeting from the run and the tension, but the shooting had stopped, the whole valley quiet now. The Sioux to the north of them were mounted but not moving, holding a line between the skirmish and their own camp. The bugle continued to sound “retreat,” as if begging for the soldiers to return, and Jess could hear someone shouting angrily on the skirmish line.
A man Jess didn’t know said “look,” jerking his chin toward the low eastern ridge.
Two riders moved down the ridge at a trot, a white flag above them. One wore fringed buckskin, and the other rode a tall chestnut whose coat was darkened with sweat.
“Slim,” Jess whispered, and when Tall Fox looked at him, said “it’s Slim. We have to hold fire.”
Tall Fox studied him a moment and then jerked his head toward the riders, and Jess fell in beside him as they rode out to meet them.
The man in buckskin called out in Cheyenne, “We want a truce.”
Tall Fox walked his pony on calmly. “I know you, Dean. You have one, as long as your soldiers don’t shoot.”
“This was a mistake. Someone disobeyed orders.” Dean spat on the ground to show what he thought of that.
“Then deal with him,” Tall Fox said sharply. “Take your men and go.”
Dean nodded, turning his horse toward the patrol. Slim touched his hat brim to Tall Fox, and then turned his eyes to meet Jess’. “I’ll ride with the patrol back to their lines, just to keep an eye on things, and then I’ll meet you.”
“I’ll be in the camp,” Jess told him. He had turned to follow Tall Fox when something snatched the hat from his head, and he heard the shot after; then Tall Fox swayed on his pony, almost falling, and he realized that someone in the patrol was firing on them.
He shouted something wordless, spurring Traveler alongside Tall Fox, heard Slim’s voice and Dean’s together shouting “Hold fire!” and saw Red Stone starting forward at a run, toward the troops. He swung Trav around on his haunches, light as a cutting horse, and stood in the stirrups, taking careful aim toward the shooter, the man in the front line with the sergeant’s stripes.
He heard Slim shout, “Jess! No!” but the soldier was levering his rifle, there was no time and he fired, clean and accurate, saw the man’s head jerk back, his arms and the rifle flying up into the air before he toppled backward, out of sight.
“Hold fire! Hold your fire, you stupid bastards!” Dean, galloping hard between the Cheyenne and the patrol.
Slim was suddenly between Jess and the patrol, the tall man blocking his vision. Slim was cursing quietly, viciously, and for nearly a minute it seemed like the whole world was balanced on a knife edge, ready to fall into violence; just one more shot, that would be all it took.
“Red Stone! Hold!” It was Tall Fox’s voice, strong, and something in Jess relaxed in gratitude. Red Stone swung his pony in a wide circle and galloped back, shouting his war cry but obeying. And it was over, that quickly.
Jess turned to Tall Fox, put his hand out to grab the man’s shoulder and steady him. “How bad?”
Tall Fox grimaced. “Just a little thing. It bounced off my ribs like a skipped stone. I am getting old, Pony Boy.”
“Good.” Jess laughed, feeling lightheaded after the action. “That’s good.”
Dean was getting the patrol mounted; they could hear his voice from here, alternately cursing and insulting as he browbeat them into obeying him. Jess watched as two men picked up the body of the man he’d killed. The hat was gone, and when they threw him across his horse’s back he could make out the face. Denton. He hadn’t known. He’d had a dream about this once, and maybe a wish for it, for a long time. And now he’d done what he hadn’t been able to do more than five years ago, and he felt nothing.
“Jess?” Slim was looking at him, holding out his canteen, like he’d done every day during the dance. “You’re bleeding.”
“You’re bleeding,” Slim repeated, “above your eye.”
He felt the sting of it suddenly, reached up to finger it. “Graze,” he told Slim, who was smiling at him for some reason.
“I know,” Slim said gravely. “C’mon. we gotta go talk to Keogh.”
“Why?” His head felt slow, like his thoughts were stunned .
“You just shot one of his sergeants.”
“Oh. Self defense.”
“Well, the graze helps with that.” Slim said. “Drink some water, and wash your face.”
They found Keogh seated at the desk in his tent, Dean standing at his shoulder. Keogh’s face was unreadable.
“So Mr. Harper. You’ve killed a US soldier.”
Jess straightened his shoulders, felt Slim step closer, guarding his back. “Yes. Sir.”
“I should take you into custody.” Keogh’s voice was neutral, and Dean moved a little, as if wanting to step in.
Slim moved closer to him, still silent, but when Jess glanced at him he saw the readiness in him, the promise of protection.
“It was self defense, Captain. He was firing on me.”
“And you were riding with hostiles.”
Dean cleared his throat. “Kin I speak?”
Keogh nodded, hands moving over the papers spread in front of him.
“Harper was parleyin’ for a cease fire with me an’ Sherman when Denton opened fire on him and the Cheyenne. I never saw him engage in any hostile action.”
“The corporal says he was riding with the Cheyenne.” Keogh’s voice was careful, neutral.
“Is that against some law?” Slim’s voice, edgy, a little angry. “The Cheyenne were defending their families against an unprovoked attack. If Denton were alive you’d be cashiering him.”
“I know,” Keogh said, surprisingly. “I’m just making sure I can tell my superiors I held an inquiry. Mr. Harper,” Keogh’s manner was suddenly formal. “Have these two witnesses spoken the truth, as far as you understand it?”
Jess nodded. “Yes, Captain.”
“All right. The US Army holds you blameless in the death of former Sergeant Denton, who was officially considered a deserter at the time of his death, acting against orders and in the Yellowstone Valley without leave. Thank you for your testimony, Mr. Harper. The inquiry is closed.”
Keogh relaxed his manner. “You got rid of a bad egg for me, Mr. Harper, but I’d advise you not to make a habit of culling Army personnel. Captain Weller and I had to work hard to think up a reason for excusing you.”
“What now, Mr. Harper?”
“We’re going home.” Slim spoke up quickly.
“And the Cheyenne?”
Jess shrugged. “I can’t speak for them. You’ll have to wait and see.”
Keogh sighed. “Just be careful, gentlemen. You’ve chosen a difficult path to follow.”
The camp was calm when they rode in, the People going about the ordinary business of the day, as if they had not come so close to a violence that would have meant war.
Jess stepped down wearily in front of ’Mehome’s lodge, and Slim dismounted behind him. He could feel the impatience in Slim, the desire to leave this place now, before anything could prevent it, but he needed to tell the old man what he had done.
’Mehome was standing at the lodge door, with Tall Fox beside him.
“So. You could not leave us without getting into a fight,” ’Mehome teased gently.
Jess shook his head. “Everyone is all right?”
“Scratches.” Tall Fox spoke. “Not worth singing about.”
“That’s good.” Jess straightened. “Ohemehome” he said, formally. “The soldier I killed, Denton, he was at Two Buttes. He killed children there.”
The old man was silent a long time, his face unreadable, then he sighed. “You have your revenge, Pony Boy?”
It startled him. “I…no. No. It was necessary.”
“That is good then.” ’Mehome smiled a little. “The dead don’t want revenge, Pony Boy. And it does not help the living. But killers of children should not live. That is justice. Now, you should go home, or the old woman will have you moving camp for her.” ’Mehome reached out to pat his cheek. “Until next year, Pony Boy. Bring your brother with you. Singing Bird says he is a good boy.”
Tall Fox stepped up to lay both hands on Jess’s shoulders. “Be careful, brother. And think of us.”
“Red Stone?” Jess asked.
“He still hates.” Tall Fox stepped back, freeing him. “But he does not hate you. Go safely, brother.”
Slim’s eyes asked, ‘all right?’ and Jess nodded, mounted Traveler. Slim touched his hat brim to ’Mehome and Tall Fox, swung up on his horse, and the two of them rode away from the camp in silence.
It was an easy trip home, much shorter because they rode straight, taking the shortest line across the country. The land was warming into high summer, the nights cool, and they fell into an easy routine of camping. If they hadn’t been away so long, it would have been a pleasure trip. But home pulled at them both, so they rode a little longer every day, through the long, northern twilights, until they were making camp in the dark.
They didn’t talk much, but the silence was easy between them, and sometimes Slim could coax Jess into telling him some of the stories the Cheyenne had told around the evening fire. And the day came when they rode up one last ridge, and below them the ranch buildings were framed in the green grass of summer; and by unspoken agreement they sent the horses flying downhill, racing each other.
Andy burst out of the house, the door slamming behind him, and shouted their names, joyously. “Slim, Jess, you’re back, you’re back. Jonesy, they’re back!”
The boy climbed up on the corral fence, waving exuberantly, and Jess swept close to grab him in one arm, lift him across Traveler’s withers, and then in the same motion, hand him off to Slim, the three of them laughing.
Jonesy came out of the house, wiping his hands on his apron and smiling indulgently. Slim pulled up, letting Andy slide down Alamo’s shoulder, and then stepped down.
“Well. We’re home.”
“I can see that,” Jonesy said. “Well, step down Jess, you two get those horses unsaddled. Andy’s got something to show you in the barn.”
“The mare foaled, you should see him, he’s the prettiest little stud colt.” Andy’s words came in an exuberant rush. “And feisty, he’s not afraid of anything. Slim, he even tried to chase Cyclone, his mama had to bite his butt to make him stop.”
The two of them followed Andy to the big foaling stall, the mare laying her ears back for a moment, protectively, as they leaned over the partition. Jess crooned to her, wordlessly, and she dropped her head back to her hay. The little red bay foal was asleep, curled in the straw like a big dog, but even like this you could see the length of leg, the clean lines of head and throat.
Andy beamed at them. “Isn’t he a beauty? Slim, can I name him? Jonesy said I had to ask you, but I had one picked out, ever since I found out where you went.”
“Sure Andy.” He met Jess’ eyes over Andy’s head, seeing the laughter in them.
“Cheyenne,” Andy said proudly. “I think we should call him Cheyenne. Because they’re family now, right?”
Dinner reminded Slim of the meals in the Cheyenne camp, the four of them lingering long, Andy asking questions in a never-ending stream and he and Jess taking turns to answer, until Jonesy finally said, “Alright. That’s enough now. I need to sleep and the three of you are keepin me up. So we’re all goin to bed.”
Slim followed Jess out to the porch; through the window you could hear Jonesy nagging Andy through the routine of bedtime. He set his hand on Jess’s shoulder. “It’s good to be back.”
“Gonna feel strange sleepin’ under a roof again.”
“I know that’s right.” Jess’ eyes were on the eastern horizon, where the waning moon hung low.
“You miss ‘em, Jess?”
His partner nodded. “I’m wonderin’ where they are now, if everybody’s okay.”
“So am I. Y’know, there’s something you never explained, and it’s been worryin’ me for a long time now. How did Tall Fox get his name?”
Jess grinned, his mood lightening. “Oh. ’Mehome told me, when Tall Fox was just a kid, maybe twelve, thirteen, he was real cocky. Always braggin’ he was the best at everything. It was wearin’ out everybody’s patience. And then one day he came back from bow huntin’ rabbits with a little, scrawny desert fox an’ nothin’ else.”
“Not worth cooking.” Slim prodded, wanting more of the story.
“That’s right. Tall Fox’s story was, he was drawing his bow on the biggest, fattest rabbit ever seen, but when he let fly this fox stood up and just got in the way.” Jess looked at him, eyes dancing, waiting for Slim to figure it out.
Slim pictured the scene in his mind, the eager youngster, just shooting at something half-seen in the tall grass, and scaring off the game as a result. “But that would’ve had to be a really..” he started, slowly.
“Tall fox!” Jess finished for him, and they laughed together. They stood shoulder to shoulder watching the fading light, comfortable in the silence.
“Slim? “ Jess’ voice was a bare whisper, coming out of the darkness. “ What you did, all through this. I know none of it was easy. I never said ‘thanks’ but I thought it, most every day.” Jess reached out to brush Slim’s shoulder, in one of his rare, rare gestures of closeness. “So thanks. Thanks for everything you did.”
“It’s what you do for family,” he told Jess. “Guess I can’t say it plainer than that, Jess. But that means, you gotta remember you’re family.“ He gave it a moment, and then made an effort to lighten the mood. “I forgot to tell you, Jonesy says he’s gotta pair of hobbles with your name on them.”
“Huh. Who’s gonna put ‘em on?”
“I might have to fight Andy and Jonesy both for the pleasure. You comin’ to bed?”
“In a minute.”
“Just don’t wake Jonesy.”
Jess stood on the porch a long time, watching the moon slowly brighten. The People were riding east into whatever fate and the spirits held for them. And in the end, no matter what, they would lose, and the old ways would die. But maybe, the People themselves would still live. May you be well, he thought, and safe. And then he turned and walked into his home.