For Karen, because she asked, encouraged and understood Squirrel. Much thanks to Betty, for prodding, editing, and for a great beta; the story wouldn't have gotten done without her! As always, with thanks to Annie.
Jess handed over Alamo's reins, swung up on Traveler. "Slim. I'm thinkin' we should go visit the Cheyenne."
"Now?” he asked, startled.
"You know I don't mean right now." Jess grinned at him. "I'm thinkin' before snow-fly, though. We could take one 'a the yearling steers as a present. Singing Bird'll be glad t'see you again. An it'll please 'Mehome an' Tall Fox. And Squirrel."
The white man was tall, tall, taller even the Ohemehome, who was the tallest of all the People; and he had sky-eyes, like his friend Pony Boy. But the Tall Man’s eyes were light, like the sky at noon, and you could see everything he thought in them, and his hair was the color the aspen trees turned in fall. And he was strong! So strong that when Squirrel jumped up, expecting Tall Man to catch him, he was never afraid of being dropped. Never.
When Tall Man first came to the People’s lodges, it was the summer of the Big Renewal of Life, the one with the Lakota. He played with Squirrel and his friends a lot that summer, more than any of the grown ups ever did; but he was there because of Pony Boy. Squirrel understood that, and helped him keep track of the times when Pony Boy would leave the chanting, and come to take water, and rest, and talk a little with Tall Man. Pony Boy called him “Slim”; when he asked Uncle Tall Fox, Uncle said it meant “Man Who Doesn’t Eat Enough.” Uncle’s eyes had laughter in them, and Squirrel thought it was probably a joke. Or maybe a friend name, not a name that other people should use. So in his mind, he called him Tall Man. Squirrel was brave, he knew that about himself, but he wasn’t quite brave enough to say that name out loud.
Tall Man was always kind, though, letting Squirrel ride in front of him on the strange white man’s saddle, and even letting him guide the beautiful red horse. He played stick-and-ball everyday, and listened to all Squirrel’s stories at the evening meal, even when he didn’t know the words. Squirrel was very sorry when he left, to ride home with Pony Boy.
It was a very important summer. It was the first summer he rode a pony alone on the march. It was the summer they almost fought the blue coats. It was the summer of Tall Man and Pony Boy. It was the summer they went to Bear Butte with the Lakota. It was the summer that his mother and father died.
They both had the lung sickness, as long as Squirrel could remember. As long as Ohemehome had it. But the old chief got better, that summer, and Squirrel’s parents did not. His father lived the longest; to raise the scaffold for his mother as the first aspen leaves turned gold, and to look at Squirrel with sad eyes, and tell him to remember his mother. Then his father was gone too, blown away like the leaves by the cold wind from the mountains, and Squirrel went to live in Uncle Tall Fox’s lodge.
Uncle Tall Fox was not really his uncle; but he and Squirrel’s father had been friends, good friends, like Tall Man and Pony Boy, and Uncle Tall Fox didn’t have a little boy of his own. So when Squirrel’s father got very sick, Uncle Tall Fox took them both into his lodge, and after, Squirrel stayed.
Uncle Tall Fox’s wife, Grey Eyes, had no children, and she was happy to have Squirrel there, and called him “Little Son”. So it was good.
Except sometimes, at night, Squirrel cried into his robe, trying to be very quiet so no one would know. And sometimes, he got very angry with his friends when they didn’t play right, or when they were rough with the little kids. The nights got longer and darker as the big cold came on, and the part of him that laughed got quieter and quieter.
Then one night, when he was crying quietly, Uncle Tall Fox came to his pallet, and picked him up and sat with him by the fire; his Uncle’s big robe thrown around both of them, Tall Fox talking to him softly, gently about why Squirrel was angry, and why he cried, and that both things were the right things at this time. When Squirrel put his thumb in his mouth, a thing he hadn’t done since he was four, Uncle Tall Fox just smiled and pulled his robe tighter around both of them, and began to sing very softly, a healing song.
It was cold that winter, with a lot of snow, and the People huddled together in camp in a mountain valley. The deep snow piled up around the lodges, keeping out the wind, and there was enough wood to stay warm inside. Squirrel hunted with his uncle every day, the two of them moving on snow shoes through the deep snow. The snow was light and dry, easy to move on, and beautiful in the sun, sparkling in a thousand, thousand points of light, like the high cold stars at night. Squirrel learned to shoot the snowshoe hares with his bow; not easy because they moved fast, despite their size. He was proud of bringing food to the family, to share with the People. He was prouder still of learning the People’s custom of watching over the old. Uncle Tall Fox sent him to all the old people’s lodges, every day, sometimes with gifts of food, or firewood, and sometimes to ask if they were well, and needed anything. Squirrel learned the pleasure that comes from helping others, and learned that the old people sometimes just wanted him to sit with them and talk. He heard many stories of the old days, the days when the old people were as young as he was, and how the plains would be dark with the buffalo, and the young men would ride among them with bow and arrow, and how they would all feast together. It made him happy to hear these stories, and it made the old people happy to tell them.
At midwinter, Grey Eyes gave him a hood and gloves made from the skins of the hares he had killed. The fur was soft and warm; but he was warmed even more from knowing his skill with the bow had made her gift to him possible. So it was a good winter...and as the days grew longer and the sun came back, his laughter came back with it. He loved his parents; they lived in his heart and would never leave him. He loved Uncle Tall Fox and Grey Eyes fiercely. And in a hidden place inside, he loved Tall Man. That was like having a piece of personal medicine. He did not have to share that, and it belonged just to him.
When the snow began to melt, Squirrel knew that he was happy.
It was a hard winter, on the ranch. It was the first winter without Andy and Jonesy, and the house was cold without them. When Slim and Jess rode in after a day looking after the stock and the fences there was no welcoming light and fire, no warmth of stew or beans bubbling on the stove, and no familiar nagging from Jonesy, half worry and half fondness.
It was only temporary, of course. Jess would build a fire, grumbling about the cold while he did, and Slim would hide a smile because his partner sounded like nothing so much as an old hound growling
quietly to himself. Slim would start heating the meal they'd put together in the morning, so the house filled up quickly with the welcoming smells of food and coffee, and the firelight would paint patterns of gold and grey shadow on the walls. So within an hour it was snug and warm again and they would share the pleasure of a good meal and good talk.
Jess was good company, willing to be coaxed into telling stories from his days on the drift. They were always funny stories, self-mocking tales of being bamboozled by women and card sharps, and eating dust on cattle drives that never seemed to pay enough. He never talked about the bad times. Slim knew there must've been plenty of them, but he didn't press to hear about them, giving Jess his privacy.
Slim told stories about the days when he sowed his wild oats, and taught Jess about the weather patterns in these northern plains. The last part wasn't for entertainment; Jess had to know how to read the weather, for his own safety. Jess absorbed it like a sponge; it was his second winter in Wyoming, so now he had some experience, could make sense of what Slim told him. Despite all his grumbling, he was beginning to be at home in this north country.
They kept a good Christmas together. Slim had saddened as the days shortened, missing his brother and Jonesy. He had hoped to bring them home for Christmas, but money was short and the weather bad, and it was not to be. He caught himself remembering past years, when Andy was still a little boy, and how wonderful Christmas was with a child in the house. His thoughts sometimes drifted to the little Cheyenne boy, Squirrel, who had become his friend; wondering how he was passing the winter months.
They rode into town for the celebration, going to church together; Jess red-faced with embarrassment, because he had never gone to the church before, but then quiet and still in the candlelit room, listening to the Christmas story with a look on his face that reminded Slim of Squirrel. They ate dinner with Mort at the hotel, and then rode home in the still, clear night, to exchange presents by the fire. Slim gave Jess a pair of good winter gloves, lined with fox fur, and Jess had made him a belt, woven of thin supple leather strips, with a buckle that had a nugget of turquoise set in. There were packages from Andy and Jonesy; books and a package of spices, and Jess had an unexpected talent for making mulled cider. So it was a very good Christmas, in the end.
The weather turned sour after the New Year, and they lost stock, but Jess worked like two men with him, and they saved more than he'd hoped for, and the spring finally came in.
It was the spring Matt Grandling rode in, with his smooth tongue and his big talk about money and a promotion, if Slim was willing to turn his friend out. All so he could steal a Treasury shipment. Slim almost lost Jess that spring, first to a stupid quarrel, because despite all their talking they'd never learned to say the important things, and then to Matt Grandling's knife. But when it was over, Jess and he had made peace, and the ranch was safe again, Slim knew that he was happy.
“Are too. Little squirrel, little, little, squirrel....”
Squirrel scowled at Roan Pony, trying to keep the hurt hidden behind his angry face, blinking hard so he wouldn't cry. “Am not too little! You're stupid!” He turned his back on his friend and trudged away, Roan Pony's taunting voice following him...
“Here now.” Uncle Tall Fox's voice stopped him and he looked up, still scowling fiercely. “What has made my son so angry?”
Squirrel made tight fists, because his Uncle's kindness made him want to cry. “Roan Pony says I'm too little to be a warrior, that I'll always be too little. He says I'm 'Squirrel' because I'm so little, not even big enough to be a rabbit.”
“Hmm. Roan Pony says a lot.” Uncle Tall Fox was quiet for a long time, long enough for Squirrel to look up at him, curious. His Uncle was smiling a little. “Come and sit with me, son. We must think about this.”
The cottonwoods were leafing out, so there were patterns of shade on the soft new grass outside their lodge, shifting and moving with the wind. Tall Fox dropped cross legged on the grass, patting his hand on the earth to ask Squirrel to sit beside him. Tall Fox plucked a blade of grass to chew on, and after a moment Squirrel sat and pulled his own blade, the two of them quiet together, tasting the spring in the fresh green grass. “So, son. Why do you think Roan Pony wants to pick a fight?” His uncle's voice was calm, like when he asked Squirrel what he thought of a track.
Squirrel shook his head. “Don't know.” Thinking about his friend wanting to fight him hurt.
“Do you think he could be jealous?''
It surprised him. “Of me?”
“Perhaps. The old people have told you many stories, stories that Roan Pony doesn't know.”
That was true. Roan Pony had been sick in the winter, not able to hunt every day, and not able to go to the old people with Squirrel. “Oh.”
“Yes.” Tall Fox nodded. “Perhaps that is it; Roan Pony has learned no stories.”
Squirrel thought. “But Roan Pony is tall.” That was true too. Roan Pony was his age but four fingers taller. Squirrel was like his mother, Grey Eyes said. Squirrel's mother had been slender and short, barely taller than a child herself. Squirrel was glad to be like her, because he loved her, but sorry that he was not tall.
“He is tall.” Tall Fox said. “That is true. But you are fast. You are the fastest runner of all the children, even the boys who have twelve summers cannot run as fast as you.”
That was true. Squirrel felt warm inside about that. “But uncle, he makes fun of my name.” The taunt echoed in his ears... 'little squirrel...'
“You are Squirrel because you are quick; quick to learn, quick to move; and you are wise, like the squirrel is; to find food in the winter, to know how to survive in the great cold, to care for your family. It is a good name for you, for now. But Squirrel, it is your child's name. You will carry it on the outside only, after you do your fast-for-visions. Then you’ll learn the names the Creator has for you; your warrior name and your name for your family. Those are the names of a man's life.”
Squirrel nodded, and they sat together in easy silence. Then Tall Fox said, “It does not matter how tall a man is...what matters is this.” He leaned over, to place his hand over Squirrel's heart for a moment. “The heart. That is what matters, in a man. Now, son...look over there.”
Squirrel looked where his uncle pointed; Roan Pony was standing in the shadows of the trees by his own lodge. He was kicking a stone around, his shoulders slumped forward and his head down. He looked sad. Squirrel looked up at his uncle's face, seeing the smile in his eyes. “Do you think your friend would like to learn some stories?”
to his feet. “Thank you uncle,” he said
formally, remembering his manners, and then he ran to Roan Pony, fast,
shouting, “Roan Pony! Roan Pony! I have stories to teach you!”
It was a good summer, even though it was hard, with the drought lying on the land; but they managed.
He and Jess were fitting together the way his well-worn gloves fit his hands; comfortable and right.
Grandling had tried hard to break the partnership, but in the end it was stronger. Now if he could only get Jess to talk...on the other hand, maybe he was learning to listen to his silences.
Andy came home for a visit, mid-summer, and it was a joy to have him home, even if he and Jess took to playin' hooky from work every chance they got. Slim just smiled and indulged them, and wondered about chance, and how he'd come to have two brothers.
Andy's visit was too short, but he was growing up, excited by his studies, and Slim began the process of letting him go, knowing that it was necessary. He half regretted the years he'd been away, when Andy had been small, wishing he had memories of playing with Andy the way he'd played with the children at the People's camp. But it was good to see him becoming a man, beginning to choose his own path in life.
So it was a good summer after all.
Jess nearly lost Slim that year. The first time, he knew it was due to his own stubborn stupidity, and the way he lost his words when he needed to say something important. The second time it was because of who Slim was; the good man with the open heart, always putting everybody else ahead of himself. He'd always lost what mattered most to him before, so when he got Slim back from the McClains it felt like his heart was new-made.
Old things woke up in him, things he'd made himself put aside, and with it the old longings. The big open called to him, stronger than ever; because he was beginning to trust that what mattered most would last. He'd asked Slim to go back to the Tsitsistas with him, the morning they parted with the McClains; his partner's agreement was like a gift. Come mid-October, Slim told him they could leave in two days, and the two of them drove into town to provision up.
“Salt pork, two slabs, check, beans, six cans and 20 pounds of dried, check, bag of coffee, check, sack of flour, check…” Tom Henderson muttered his way through the store list for the third time, while
Jess mustered what patience he could, feeling the anticipation bubbling up inside him. Day after tomorrow they’d be on the trail, headed for the Tsitsistas winter campgrounds, the routine labor of the ranch set aside for a few weeks. He was glad that Slim would come with him, glad to share the peace of the early winter camp with him; and it would be good to see their friends again.
Slim was in the livery, negotiating for Smitty to cover any shoeing the stage teams might need in their absence. Jess shifted from one foot to another, and then forced himself back to stillness, waiting Tom out. “All right.” Henderson said finally. “Comes to four dollars and ninety-eight cents, Jess. Call it an even five and I’ll throw in a couple sticks of licorice.”
“Deal.” Jess said, and began counting the coins out with careful hands.
“Oh, and Mort Corey came by earlier, said if you an’ Slim was to ride in today t’ask you to step over and speak t’him. No hurry, he said. He just had a question.”
Jess nodded, focused on his count, and then traded the coins for a receipt and heaved the flour sack over his shoulder. “Thanks Tom. He say what about?”
“Reckon it might be that Injun Agency fella in town…the one about the injun school.”
Jess felt his heart clamp down on itself, becoming small and hard in his chest. “The Fort Sill School? Is that what he said?”
“Yeah, think it mighta been. Fort Sill Injun School.”
Jess nodded his thanks, hurried through loading the buckboard, eager to find his partner and get out of town. But when he went to the livery Mort was already talking to Slim. The two turned to look at him, and there was something speculative in Mort's face.
“Jess. I was just tellin' Slim here there's a man in town looking to find a band of Cheyenne. He'd heard you were the best tracker around, and knew the language, and he's wantin' to hire you.”
“Yeah?” His heart started beating hard, like when he was getting ready to step up on a bronc. He looked at his partner, and Slim's face was worried. “What's it about, Mort?” His voice sounded false in his own ears, and something changed in Slim's face.
“It's a man named Edford. The Reverend Charles Edford. He's a representative from the Fort Sill Indian School.” Mort was studying his face, and Jess fought to keep it still. “He's looking to find the off-reservation Cheyenne bands, and talk them into sending their children to the school.”
“Talk them into it?” His voice was harsh in his own ears, and Slim made a little gesture with one hand, as if trying to warn him.
“Now settle down, Jess. I'm just passin' a message.” Mort sighed. “He's gonna ask 'em to turn the children over voluntarily.”
“And if they don't?
“I think we both know the answer to that.” Mort's eyes were sympathetic. “Congress passed that Indian Act, Jess. It's the law of the country now.”
“Wyoming's still a territory.” He was grabbing at straws and he knew it.
“Jess, the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs don't take that into account.” Mort sighed again, a man doing an unpleasant duty. “I said I'd give you the message, son, 'cause I think it's better all around if it's someone like you, rather than a cavalry patrol.”
Jess shook his head. “No. No. I'm not doin' it. Mort, we both know what this is...this is kidnappin', this is stealin' people's children from them.”
“Jess, at least hear the man out? Otherwise, he'll be ridin' out t' the ranch. I know his kind, he's a true believer...”
'No.” He looked at Slim desperately. “No. I don't have to do it, and I don't have t'listen t'him, I already know what he's gonna say. We're leavin' day after t'morrow anyway...”
“That's right, Mort.” Slim, stepping in to back him, like he always did. “We're goin' on a huntin' trip, likely gone two weeks. There's no time, anyway, even if Jess did want to do this. And he's told you twice now he doesn't. So that's an end to it.”
“I don't wanna press either one of you. You know that, Slim. But there's some'd say it's Jess' duty t'do this.” It was a friendly warning, and they all knew it.
“He hasn't done enough for this town?” Slim was starting to get angry, and it showed, and Jess felt the tightness in his shoulders relax.
“Everybody's got an opinion.” Jess told Mort, able to keep his voice quiet, because he was so sure of Slim. “If they don't like my decision they can put theirs where the sun don't shine.”
“All right, son.” Mort, said calmly. “I'll pass the word on that you're not interested. 'Sides, this two week hunting trip of yours'll take you up to snow-fly, like as not. No time then to go trailing after injuns...”
Mort nodded to them, duty done, and left them to face each other in the quiet stable.
“Thanks, Slim.” Jess said awkwardly, and his friend nodded.
“Jess, sooner or later it's going to happen.” Slim's eyes were sad..
'I know. I know.” He felt the desperation inside. More loss....always more loss. “We'll tell 'em, talk to 'Mehome and Tall Fox.”
Slim nodded. “Buckboard loaded? Then let's go. It'll be good to get home.”
Reverend Robey was waiting for them by the buckboard, another man with him, dandyish in a suit and bowler. Jess slowed, reluctance dragging at his feet, and Slim glanced over his shoulder at him, mouth quirking in a half smile. Nothing to do but face it out.
“Slim, Jess, how are you?” Reverend Robey was smiling, but his eyes were wary. “I'd like you to meet the Reverend Charles Edford. He has a proposal to put before you.”
“We know.” Jess growled. “Mort's already tackled us. The answer is no.”
Slim said, “Jess.” Warningly; reminding him of his manners. “We're leaving day after tomorrow on a hunting trip.” Slim's voice was calm. “There's no time to do what you're asking, Reverend Edford. And frankly, neither one of us is interested in taking you up on this.”
“Why not?” The voice was sharp, as if Edford was insulted by their refusal. “It's necessary work, and your government deems it important.”
Jess felt his anger rising at the self-righteousness of the man. “We told you. That's all you need to hear.”
“I understand about the time problem.” Reverend Robey, weighing in soothingly, clearly wanting to ease the situation. “But surely a few days afterwards won't make a difference? And that's all that's being asked of you; just to find the Cheyenne, and convey Reverend Edford to them.”
“I said no.” Jess untied the halter rope that tied their driving horse to the hitch rail, trying to make it plain that the conversation was over.
“It's your duty.” Edford insisted, waspishly. “Surely you can see the importance of this. It's necessary to the pacification of the plains.”
Slim stepped forward, standing between Jess and the other two men. “Seems like the plains are pretty well pacified,” he said easily. “The Cheyenne are peaceful, and most of 'em are down at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Seems like you're better off taking your message there.”
“The Fort Sill Cheyenne are already having their children enrolled.” Edford tried to move past him, eyes focused on Jess. “It's the so-called “free” bands we need to reach.”
“You've had your answer.” Slim said, still easy and calm. “That's the end of it.”
“Surely you, as a rancher, can see the importance of this. The land will never be secure until we tame this next generation. That's our mission; to save the man by killing the Indian in him.”
Jess turned quickly, feeling his rage so hot it burned in his stomach. He felt Slim's hand on his shoulder, comfort and warning in one.
“That's your opinion, Mr. Edford.” Slim's voice was warning. “We're under no obligation to you. Jess won't track for you, and I agree with him. Don't ask again. Jess...” Slim jerked his head at the buckboard, and Jess climbed in, unwrapped the reins from the brake lever. Slim stepped forward, to walk around the horse's head and climb in on the other side, his actions forcing Reverend Robey and Edford to step back.
“Mr. Sherman..” Edford started, face a little red, but still self-contained. “If you two have knowledge of a renegade band of Cheyenne, it's a legal matter. I warn you...'
Robey looked startled, and embarrassed. “Charles, really...”
“And that's enough.” Slim was still quiet, but you could hear the anger, if you knew him. “Do not threaten us. We don't know any 'renegades.' Now, I'm asking you to step aside. We've got work waiting at home.”
Reverend Robey put his hand on Edford's arm, urging him up on the sidewalk. Jess moved the buckboard up until they were alongside, and leaned across Slim. “Don't ask again.” He told Edford. “You might not get such a polite answer from me, next time.” He clucked to the horse, and sent him on the road out of Laramie.
They were at the outskirts of town before Slim spoke. “Did you enjoy that, Jess?”
“Not really.” He said, honestly. “Self-righteous, self-important hypocrite....”
“I know, Jess. But he's here on government warrant. His next step is to go to the army.”
“Let him. What's he gonna do, conscript me?''
Slim chuckled. “No. But I'm thinkin' we should stop by the Rocking D, let Randy know we're leavin' a day early.”
Jess looked at him sharply. “Sounds like you're takin' sides, pard. Even maybe not bein' a hundred percent honest with that Indian Agent.”
“I spoke the truth.” Slim caught his eyes. “We don't know any renegades.”
Easy going Randy Barnes had no problem with coming to the ranch a day early. He was a big gentle man, maybe a little slow but well able to do a man's day of work. He liked the change of the relay station, meeting new people coming through. They shook hands on it, and Jess gave him the licorice, in thanks, and they spent the evening at home getting ready for the trip.
Next morning, Jess had the pack horse and their own horses saddled before sunup, and had walked the corral and paddocks twice, checking that the fences were sound. By the time he got back to the house, Slim had coffee up, and two yearling steers waiting in the corral.
“Which one do you want a rope on?” He asked Slim, and his partner smiled.
“Both? Slim, there's no need for that, one steer is a good gift for the People”
“I'll just have to winter him over anyway. And besides...I want to make Singing Bird smile.”
Jess snorted. “You and those old ladies that want to mother you...” But he was very pleased, and knew the Tsitsistas would be too.
“Drink your coffee...”
They left the house clean for Randy, and Jess had a team waiting in the home paddock for the afternoon stage. So there was nothing to do but put a loop around the necks of the yearlings, each of them leading one, and head off north and west, across Sherman land to the open range beyond.
Jess watched the long low bands of light streaking across the plains in front of him, the dried grass turning the color of the aspen leaves as the sun caught it.
“Slim...these steers.” Slim glanced over, one eyebrow up in question. “You take the price out of my wages, okay?”
Slim scowled at him. “I'll take it out of your hide, you bring that up again.”
Jess grinned. “That might not be too bad. You've saved it often enough, reckon you got first claim on it.”
“I'll hold you to it, the next time you play hooky on me.” They rode in easy silence for near an hour, and then Slim spoke again.
“Jess, if it's not you, Edford will find someone else to track the Cheyenne.”
“Let him.” He spoke harshly. “We'll warn them. They can move on.”
“They're running out of country.” Slim said gently. “Even Canada's doing the same thing, putting the children into schools run by priests up there. You know this.”
“There's still room and time.” He spoke urgently, trying to convince himself as much as Slim. “Montana, maybe, or up in the Bitter Root range.”
“Jess...it's changing. The West is changing, and the People are going to have to change with it.”
“Or die.” Jess said bitterly. 'But people like Edford want to kill them all anyway; if not by shootin' em, by changin' em. You heard him, 'save the man by killing the Indian in him'. That's like stealin' their soul, Slim. An' takin' children away from their parents, keepin' em for years...”
Slim's face showed his understanding, and he kept silent, as they rode on, through the wide open land.
When Tall Man and Pony Boy rode into the early winter camp they brought gifts, and a feeling of excitement, like at a big feast. Squirrel had eight summers now, two whole summers since he'd seen Tall Man, but he looked the way he remembered, his face lighting with a smile when he saw Squirrel.
The sentries had ridden in before them, to tell Ohemehome the white men were coming, and the children had gathered at the edge of the camp,jostling each other to be the first to see the guests. Squirrel managed to stay at Roan Pony's side, close to the front; Tall Man saw him right away, and beckoned for him to come. Squirrel ran to him, smiling so wide his face hurt, and Tall Man bent, caught hold of his hand, and swung him up in front of him on the beautiful red horse.
Squirrel laughed, and waved to Roan Pony, to share his pride, and saw Roan Pony's face darken, his friend looking down. Then Pony Boy who saw everything! always! turned his horse to Roan Pony, reaching down to gather the boy up in front of him, and when Squirrel turned his head his friend was beside him, smiling at him, and Squirrel felt as if his heart would burst with happiness. Their other friends ran alongside, laughing and talking about the white men, the two fine steers following their horses, and Pony Boy smiled and answered them. Then Tall Man said “Squirrel, hello little brother” in the Speech, and Squirrel put both his hands on Tall Man's arms, flexing his fingers to hold on and release, and smiled to himself, because the happiness was so great it took all his words.
The men dismounted when they got to Ohemehome's lodge, and the old chief set his hands first on Pony Boy's shoulders, then on Tall Man's, in welcome. Uncle Tall Fox smiled up at Squirrel and Roan Pony and said, “Take the steers to the pony herd, and turn them loose there. It is a wonderful gift; we must take good care of them.” So Squirrel slid down off the horse and took the end of the rope from Tall Man, proud to be given the task, and he and Roan Pony led the steers away.
When they got back the men were talking together in the chief's lodge, very seriously, and the two of them ran off to play. It was only after the evening meal that Squirrel learned Pony Boy and Tall Man had brought more than gifts with them.
“My son will not go.” Tall Fox spoke softly, but his eyes glittered, his mouth set in a thin, straight line. For the first time while looking at his friend, Jess thought, ‘war leader.’
“We must think about this.” ‘Mehome was equally quiet. “We know what has happened at Fort Sill.”
“My son will not go.” Tall Fox stood up, pulling his robe around his shoulders, even though the lodge was warm enough. “I have thought enough already. No child should go.” He nodded to ‘Mehome, then to Jess and Slim, seated against the sidewall of the lodge, and ducked under the low door opening out into the late afternoon.
‘Mehome sighed. “It is a hard thing. So, Slim…I heard you speaking with Squirrel. You have our language now.”
Slim glanced at Jess, asking for help, and was met with a grin. “A little.” He said gamely.
“You understand what happened here?” There was more than curiosity in the question.
“A little.” He repeated, studying the old chief.
“And your thought is?”
Slim looked to Jess again, asking for help, and then spoke in English. “I think sometime the children will have to go.” Jess stirred in protest, but spoke in Cheyenne, and ‘Mehome nodded, listening.
“I think you will have no choice. The army will come, in the end, to take them; and this may not be such a bad thing…”
Jess said, “Slim...” and then was silent.
“They can learn how to deal with the white world. That’s not such a bad thing for your People, in the end.”
Mehome nodded. “That was my thought, too.” He fell silent again; face brooding in the dim shadows of the lodge. “Pony Boy?”
Jess shook his head. “No, ‘Mehome. No…this is a bad thing. They want to make whites of the children. They want to kill the Indian in them. I have heard…” He stopped, as if his words had failed him again.
‘Mehome spoke thoughtfully. “I have heard this as well. But not all the schools are so bad. The Cherokee in Oklahoma have their own schools.”
“The Cherokee are Christians.” Jess said, urgently. “That’s how…their church protects them. But the Cheyenne there have to send their children to boarding school.”
“So, we must worship the Creator like white men, or lose our children?” ‘Mehome shook his head. “I don’t think the Creator cares how He is honored…”
“It’s too late, ‘Mehome.” Jess spread his hands out, as if he could pull the words out of the air to explain. “The Cherokee schools were there when the government passed the law. They will not let the People make a school now. They will take the children.”
“And your thought?”
“Leave,” he said, leaning forward, pushing the words at his father. “take the children and go. Into Canada maybe, or along the Lolo, into the Bitterroot Mountains. Maybe as far as the Oregon.”
‘Mehome smiled a little, nodding. “Contrary.” He murmured. “I must think about this. Meanwhile, bring your bedding; you will sleep in my lodge. Be ready for dinner. We feast on elk tonight.” The old chief started to get up and Jess stepped forward quickly to help him. ‘Mehome straightened, smiling his thanks. “So. I must go and find the old woman. I think she is gloating over your gifts.”
They watched him leave the lodge, and then Slim spoke gently. “Jess?”
“I told him to go. He said he’ll think about it.” He looked at Slim, resigned. “He won’t.” He spoke flatly, making himself accept it. “I know him. He’s already decided.”
“Is it so bad, Jess?”
Jess shrugged, helplessly. “The Mission schools in Arizona aren’t so bad…the children go home in the summer. But the other schools, the children stay all year, or work as hired-out servants and farm hands in the summer. The money goes to the school.”
“Slavery?” Jess asked bitterly. “Or maybe, just sharecropping… Either way it’s wrong. It’s just wrong Slim, to take the children away and keep them. But they want them to forget their language, and their tribe and their family and their religion. They want to make them white.”
Slim dropped his hand on Jess’ shoulder, the connection comforting, as always. “What choice do they have, Jess? How else will the People live in the world?”
Jess shook his head, numbly, and Slim said, “Tall Fox said his son wouldn’t go to school. I didn’t know he had a son…”
“It’s Squirrel,” Jess told him. “He adopted Squirrel last year, after his parents died.”
“When did you hear this?”
“Just now, when he greeted us.”
“I didn’t hear him.” Slim admitted.
“Well,” Jess smiled a little “You did have Singing Bird hugging you at the time…”
“I did, didn't I?” Slim smiled, obviously glad to talk about something else. “And we're both sleeping in the lodge. She told me I'm a good boy.”
“Be careful,” Jess warned. “Next thing you know, she'll be pickin' out a wife for you.” He ducked out of the lodge, leaving Slim sputtering behind him.
Roan Pony was frightened, and trying hard to cover it with his angry face. But Squirrel knew his friend very well, knew what that face meant, and waved to him from the cottonwoods. Roan Pony ran to him quickly, and then stopped, head lowered a little, so his eyes were level with Squirrel's.
“My father is angry.” Roan Pony whispered.
“Mine too.” Squirrel told him, equally softly. “Pony Boy and Tall Man brought some news that worried them.”
“Is it war, do you think?” Roan Pony's voice shook a little.
Squirrel reached up and put his hand on his friend's shoulder. “No.” He made his voice strong, because Roan Pony needed him to. It made him feel better as well, to be strong for his friend. “No. If it was war, the men would gather together. This is something else. But Roan Pony, we are strong together.” He remembered the old people's teaching; always, the People were strong when united. “The People are strong together. And we're friends. We're strong together.” He took hold of his friend's forearm, the way his fathers, both of them, had greeted each other. Roan Pony took his forearm, and smiled.
The feast was full of joy. Squirrel was proud, and so was Roan Pony, because their fathers had been part of the hunt that brought the elk to the People. So while they ate, the other men would come over to speak their thanks, and some to say how strong and brave the two boys were growing. Best of all, Tall Man and Pony Boy sat with them. Tall Man talked to Squirrel a little, in his simple Cheyenne, the way a little kid spoke. Squirrel was very proud of him, and reached out once, shyly, to pat his arm and whisper, “Good.” Tall Man smiled then and Squirrel was very happy.
But there was a shadow somewhere, despite the stories and dancing. Squirrel's father and Roan Pony's danced the story of the hunt, and everyone whooped for them, but Tall Fox's face was solemn, and Pony Boy did not laugh easily, despite the jokes and teasing. Squirrel kept looking around, as if he could find the shadow if he looked quickly enough. But there was nothing to be seen. The next time he did it, Tall Fox reached out to pull him closer, slide his big robe over him, so he felt safe, hidden and secure under his father's arm. It was warm under the robe, and his stomach was full, and after awhile he leaned over and put his head down on Tall Fox's knee, and fell asleep.
They sat a long time at the evening meal, until the younger children were all asleep. Jess had been very quiet, translating automatically for Slim but not adding anything to the jokes and stories. Little Squirrel must have felt some of the tension the adults were trying to hide, peering around anxiously until Tall Fox pulled him close, wrapping him in his robe. A good father, Slim thought, and remembered doing the same for Andy, when his brother had been very small and waking up from a nightmare. People began leaving the fire, and Tall Fox stood, gathering the sleeping little boy up carefully, Squirrel's head resting on his father's shoulder. Slim stood as well, said “good night,” softly, and Tall Fox nodded, his face sad, and carried his son away.
“You can't tell him he has to give up his boy.” Jess' voice was low, barely above a whisper.
Slim sighed. “I know Jess.”
Squirrel woke up when Tall Fox put him down on his pallet, but he kept his eyes closed, still drowsy. So he knew when his father left the lodge, to stand just outside the door and speak quietly with someone. He could hear the strange English words, and then Pony Boy's voice in the Speech, and began to listen, without meaning to. That was the first time that he heard about the white man's school, and began to understand the shadow that had hidden behind the feast.
“Slim; understand that I am not angry with you.” Tall Fox spoke in English, voice weary. “But you bring very bad news.”
'”I know. “
“We wanted to warn you.” Jess spoke quickly. “You should leave, take the children and go.”
The last was in Cheyenne, as if his urgency pushed him into using the Speech. “This School...you know what’s happened to the bands at Fort Sill, their children are taken away for years.”
Slim moved a little, and then said quietly “I think I know what Jess is saying. But Tall Fox, this is everywhere. At best, you might put it off a year, maybe two. But the People would be hunted.”
“For this tsevehonevestse...this vohpe'exanehe tsevehonevestse..” The last was spat out bitterly, and Slim looked to Jess.
“White Eyes' school.” Jess said softly.
Tall Fox sighed. “We will think about this. There is time. You will stay with us awhile, and that is very welcome. Your visit should not be clouded by worry about this.”
“You know we'll do whatever we can to help.” Slim offered.
“I know. My son...” Tall Fox shook his head. “I adopted Squirrel when his father died. We had been friends all our lives, he and I. I love the boy, but also he is all that is left of my friend. To lose him...then my friend is truly gone, forever. How can I meet him across the Star Bridge, and say, I let our son be stolen?”
Jess caught his breath, but said nothing. Tall Fox studied them both for a moment. “We will wait. Decisions made quickly are almost never good. In the meantime, tomorrow we go hunting. Rest well.” He stepped into the lodge, leaving them in the stillness of the cold night.
“This shouldn't be happenin'” Jess whispered.
Slim put his hand on his partner's shoulder. “Jess...you want things to stay the same, the way you remember. But it can't be that way anymore.”
Jess' shoulders slumped. “There's been so much loss. Always more...nothin' good seems to stay.”
Slim shook him, gently. “Ya got us. Me an' Andy and Jonesy. An' ya got the ranch. Nothing takes that away from you, Jess. The People will have to change, but that's not always loss. It's just change. You comin'?” He jerked his head toward 'Mehome's lodge.
Jess shook his head. “I wanna walk awhile, watch the stars...” He moved away soundlessly, vanishing into the star-thrown shadows of the trees.
Slim woke to the morning sunlight turning the side of the lodge into glowing gold. He blinked sleepily at it for a moment, enjoying the feeling of waking so close to the earth. There was a soft rustle at the other side of the lodge, Singing Bird stirring quietly, then kneeling to feed tinder to the little fire, burned down to glowing coals in the center of the lodge. He sat up and whispered a greeting in his careful Cheyenne, was rewarded with a smile. He looked around for Jess. His partner's bed roll was disarrayed, clearly slept in, but the man was nowhere to be seen. 'Mehome's pallet was empty as well. Slim found his feet, nodded respectfully to Singing Bird, and ducked through the lodge door into the shining morning.
Frost lay on the browning grass, glittering in the early light. There were patches of bare grass where the trees had sheltered the ground, but it was first warning of the approaching winter. 'Mehome stood in the sunlight, head thrown back a little, opened palms raised in a gesture of prayer. Slim waited silently, until the old chief lowered his hands and turned to him smiling.
“You slept long.” 'Mehome was choosing simple words, speaking slowly, and Slim nodded in gratitude. “That is good.” The chief smiled, clearly approving his guest's comfort.
“Pony Boy?” Slim asked shaping Jess' Cheyenne name carefully.
'Mehome's smile broadened. “He is there.” He pointed with his chin, in the Cheyenne manner, and Slim turned in that direction.
Now that he was paying attention, he could hear the voices of children, Jess' baritone among the higher voices; and the sounds of horses splashing in the little creek just west of the lodges. He nodded thanks to 'Mehome and went to find his partner.
The children had brought the band's ponies to the creek for water, shepherding them carefully away from the lodges, the women busy at household chores. The ponies were pawing at the shallow water, splashing it in play; Jess was there with their own horses, laughing and talking with the children. Slim watched for a moment, enjoying the fun.
One of the boys turned to him, shouted something delightedly, and he recognized Squirrel as the little boy came pelting toward him, shouting the same words. Slim braced himself, ready, and caught the little boy in the air as Squirrel hurled himself into his arms, laughing.
“Nice catch. Tall Man.” Jess sounded like he was joking. Slim swung in a circle, holding Squirrel so his legs flew out behind him, like flying, and the boy crowed with delight. He set him down carefully, watched him race back to his friends, and met Jess' laughing gaze. “Tall Man?” He asked, waiting to be teased.
“That's what Squirrel was calling you. I think you've been named, pard.”
“Tall Man.” He repeated, not knowing what to make of it.
“Well, I threatened to have Squirrel name you. Looks like he decided on his own.” Jess stroked Trav's neck absently, then left their horses with the pony herd. His face looked a little drawn in the clear light, sure sign he'd slept badly, or maybe not at all. Slim knew better than to say anything.
“So, we're hunting today?” He asked Jess.
“After breakfast. Better hurry. You don't want to upset Singing Bird.”
The day set the pattern of the next ten days. The weather held clear, but gradually cooling, the frost thicker each morning. The horses were coating up, so Slim's fingers sank into the hair of Alamo's neck when he stroked him. Winter coming. They hunted each day, with Tall Fox and the other men; Slim remembering names and faces from the summer of the Sun Dance, remaking friendships, and learning more Cheyenne. The men seemed welcoming, glad to have him there, and not just because of Jess. Slim found he slipped easily into the role he'd played when the People had been on the move; as if he'd never left. The children clearly remembered him, tagging after him in camp. They were taller now, all of them, two summers older; but the games were the same, and the pleasure of the common evening meal was the same. He found himself relaxing into a kind of homecoming.
Squirrel was a constant shadow, as if he'd appointed himself Slim's guardian; there at every game, and always sitting close by at the meals. He tried to share all the joys of his child's life with Slim; taking him by the hand to lead him to the shallows where the big frogs were, smiling broadly when Slim helped him catch one, admiring the brilliant gold and yellow stripes of it's body. The frogs would hibernate soon, as the cold came on...for now there was the fun of catching them, letting them warm in their hands so they became lively and leaped away, Squirrel laughing with delight. Squirrel's friend Roan Pony tagged along, but shyly, keeping his distance, even when Slim beckoned him closer. But Roan Pony took to shadowing Jess, and as the days wore on the youngster drew closer, until Slim noticed them talking softly together in Cheyenne, and Jess smiled more and more when the little boy was there.
Jess was focused in each moment, taking in every bit of joy from each day. There was a kind of desperation to his happiness though, as if he was afraid everything that made him happy would vanish, that even the sunshine would never come again.
There was a shadow behind the sunshine; the knowledge of the Indian Act, and what it would mean for the People. Tall Fox had come to the lodge one night, to speak to 'Mehome. Jess told Slim after that the chief would allow no discussion of the school, would not give a decision yet. So Tall Fox went away dissatisfied. They did not speak of it again, between themselves. The choice was the People's, after all.
It snowed, the day before they were supposed to leave. The morning light through the lodge's walls was grayed and soft, and when Slim pushed through the door flap it was to find a covering of white on the ground, and soft, big flakes of snow drifting down. The children were wild with joy, pelting each other and the adults with snow balls. Slim watched Squirrel and Roan Pony trying to catch snow flakes on their tongues; and caught Jess with his own tongue out, when he thought Slim wasn't looking. The sun was still strong, though, and the snow vanished quickly, as the morning wore on. But it was winter setting in, and time to go back to their world.
The women had been curing the meat they'd hunted so the evening meals had been small game and fish. Tonight would be different; 'Mehome wanted a true feast for them. Tall Fox and Elk slaughtered one of the steers, setting aside a portion for winter meat, and turning the rest over to the women for the evening meal. Singing Bird was happily in charge, bustling around the big cook fire, the steer on the spit, some of the wild vegetables harvested that fall baking in the clay pots set into the margins of the fire.
The sky had cleared, the temperature dropping with the setting sun. So it was good to gather around the fire with the band. Slim found himself naming each family to himself; twenty in all, two and three generations; nearly two hundred people. He found himself realizing, startled, that 'Mehome's band was bigger than the town of Laramie. And yet, the People were powerless, subject to decisions made by men who did not know them. Still the People took pleasure in each other, the good food, telling jokes and teasing Slim a little, Elk imitating Slim's Cheyenne with gentle mockery. Squirrel patted Slim's shoulder in comfort and he smiled at the little boy, to show he wasn't bothered. He realized suddenly that Red Stone was not present, that he had not seen him since they'd arrived. He would ask Jess, later. The women danced, a graceful, sedate circle to thank the men for their hunting. Then 'Mehome raised his hand, and the drummer stopped his beat, the People falling silent and attentive. Jess came and sat beside Slim, began whispering the translation as 'Mehome spoke.
“My children,” the old chief started. “It is time to talk of a decision we must make.” The dancers rejoined their families, and 'Mehome stood up, to step to the center of the circle. “You know of the news that Pony Boy and Tall Man have brought. Washington wishes us to send our children to the white eyes' school, like our brothers at Fort Sill.” The silence became heavy with tension; Tall Fox, across the fire from them, was still as a stone. “This is difficult. The children will be gone from the People for years, maybe forget how to be Tsitsistas. Their parent's hearts will break with loneliness.”
'Mehome waited, gaze moving from family to family around the fire. “But Dull Knife has spoken, as well.” There was a stirring at the name of the great principal chief. “This summer, at the council of forty-four, Dull Knife spoke. He said the Tsitsistas must be educated. We must learn how to deal with the whites, as the whites deal with each other. This we must do, or perish.” Beside him, Slim felt Jess stir, and then sink into stillness again, as if he wanted to speak a protest. “So I have taken thought, for many days now. This is my thought. Pony Boy says the Fort Sill schools are bad. I think he speaks truly. But we do not now know of other schools for our children. Some must go these schools, must be scouts for the other children, until we find a way to satisfy Washington, and get whatever good there is from the white schools.”
'Mehome paced the circle, eyes falling on each father as he passed. “I think this. I think we must send two of the youngest warriors, two who have made their vision quest, who know they are Tsitsistas. They will be strong, no matter what the whites do. And they will be old enough, to only stay perhaps two winters, before they can return without pursuit. This is my thought. What do you say?”
There was a long moment of silence, and then Tall Fox stood. “If Ohemehome says we must do this, we must.” He spoke formally. “But which two?”
Two of the youngest of the men stood up; no older than Andy, still in their first growth. Slim knew them, from the hunting.
“I will go.” Redbird said.
“And I.” Otter spoke, and then smiled, with the playfulness that matched his name. “Perhaps the two of us will be too much for the school.”
“Good.” 'Mehome said. “You will go tomorrow, with Pony Boy and Tall Man.”
Jess started to rise and then caught himself. 'Mehome turned to meet his eyes, then catch Slim's gaze.
“You will take our children safely to the white priest? The man who wants children for the school?”
Jess translated quickly, and Slim nodded. “We will.”
There was more dancing, the young men mocking “white” behavior, Otter strutting like an arrogant white soldier, Redbird following behind and pretending to be drunk. So there was laughter, after all. Then the People drifted away from the fire, back to their own lodges, as if it was any other evening.
Slim found Jess near the pony herd, standing still in the shadows, eyes on the sky. The stars had a hard brilliance tonight, the air clear and cold. So many stars here, where there was no lantern light to compete with them. Slim set his hand on his partner's shoulder.
“We have to find a way to help them.” Jess whispered.
“Yes. We will.” He tightened his hand in comfort
Squirrel had wanted to tell Roan Pony about the mysterious “white eyes' school”. The words were strange, threatening, the way black clouds over the mountains were threatening. It would have been easier, to tell his friend, to share the fear. But he remembered how frightened Roan Pony had looked, the first night that Tall Man and Pony Boy had come to the People. He couldn't make his friend feel like that again. So he kept the fear to himself, pushing it away to the back of his mind. It stayed there, almost forgotten, until the very last day. Then 'Mehome made it more real, but less threatening, tamed the fear by choosing a path for the People. Squirrel took a deep breath, felt his heart open up and his shoulders relax, because neither he nor Roan Pony were in danger from white-eyes' school.
As always, the parting with the Tsitsistas was matter-of-fact. 'Mehome took hold of Jess' shoulders, and then Slim's, and said “Come back soon.”
Squirrel came running, to hug both Slim and Jess, and then run away again, as quickly as he'd come. Roan Pony stood shyly in the shadow of his family's lodge, and Jess went to speak to him for a moment, and then patted his shoulder gently
'Mehome told Otter and Redbird, “Remember who you are.” And it was time to leave.
Tall Fox rode with them, his face set like a stone. Slim was surprised at first, and Tall Fox told him. “I want to see this white priest who says we must give him our children. I will look at him and know what kind of man he is.” Slim nodded; because he and Tall Fox both knew that it would not end with Redbird and Otter, that sooner or later all the children would go.
Jess was silent, barely speaking on the ride back, and then just enough to manage the routine of the journey. They were a full day on the trail, the patchy snow on the lower plains slowing them. So they came into the ranch the same time as the afternoon stage, and it gave them a chance to send a message into town, to tell Mort they had two Cheyenne children with them, for the school.
They rode in the next day. The two boys rode between Slim and Jess, protected from the staring eyes of the townsfolk. Tall Fox, who needed no protection from anything, flanked Jess. The streets fell quiet as they rode in, but there was no trouble. They were too well known for someone to make trouble. And by-and-large, the town had no grudge against the Cheyenne.
Edford was waiting for them at the Sheriff's office, flanked by Mort and Reverend Robey. He looked haughty and uneasy, and he did not look at the boys as they slid down from their ponies.
“Sherman. Harper. I see you've changed your minds.”
“Hardly.” Slim said. “The Cheyenne decided for themselves, to send two of their sons to school. This is Tall Fox, who wanted to meet you.”
Edford looked as if he wanted to run, nodding stiffly to Tall Fox, who stared at him, weighing him as if he were a horse offered in trade. “So.” Tall Fox said, and turned away, to meet Reverend Robey's eyes. He nodded, and then spoke to Jess in the Speech.
Jess' mouth quirked. “Tall Fox wants me to tell you that you are responsible for the safety of these children,” he told Edford. “If anything happens to the boys, you will pay for it.”
Edford paled. Tall Fox put his hands on Redbird's shoulders and Otter's and said, “Remember you are Cheyenne.” Then he vaulted onto his pony, and took the reins of the boys' mounts, ready to leave.
Edford snapped, “So you knew where the Cheyenne were, all along.” A frightened man, looking for something to bluster about to hide his fear. Jess turned his back in contempt, jumped into Traveler's stirrup and waited for Slim. “Mr. Sherman...” Edford started, and Slim surprised them all by snapping, “Shut up.”
Slim swung up on Alamo. “You have no power here, Edford. The Cheyenne decided freely; and if they decide to send the rest of their chidren they will. But don't try to throw your weight around here. And you'd be advised to take good care of these boys.”
“I'll see to it, Slim.” John Robey spoke quietly. “They'll stay at my house tonight. They'll leave for Oklahoma with tomorrow's stage.”
Slim nodded, regretfully, and then the three of them rode away quietly. Neither Tall Fox nor Jess looked back.
He was Tsitsistas, and proud. His chief and his father and his war chief had told him, ‘remember who you are’, and now, in the grief of his friend’s death he clung to that. They called him “Patrick” these white eyes, but that was not who he was.
He stood by, stony eyed and silent while they put his friend’s body in the ground, feeling the cold wind against his neck, where they’d cut his hair. They had tried to take everything from them, their hair, their names, and their language. Taken their medicine bags and forced them into the white eyes’ church, tried to make them over in the image of the white eyes. But he did not forget; and then the white eyes’ sickness had taken his friend’s life. He’d watched him burn with fever, struggle to breathe as the sickness closed his throat, and whispered, in secret, the prayers for healing.
But it was no good, and he watched his friend die. At the end, only his eyes could speak, because the sickness had stolen his voice. Then it was over, and the white eyes that ran the school came and said false words of comfort. But his eyes did not speak; they were flat and shallow, like a snake’s, and the words were like a snake’s language, sounds without truth. For a long time, he thought about killing him. But he was old enough to have some wisdom, to know that if he did that it would be terrible for the People.
The night they put his friend in the ground, he slipped through the window in the building they called ‘dormitory’, climbed down to the ground. One of the younger boys had put a bundle in his hands at ‘curfew’; one of the white eye’s shirts, filled with stolen bread from the meal. Now he tied it across his back, food for the long journey home. He moved quietly from shadow to shadow between the buildings, until he was clear of that place, able to move freely into the prairie, the dried grass still standing tall enough for concealment. He began to run, keeping an easy pace, and heading north.
They got news of the disaster after Christmas. Mort Corey rode out with Reverend Robey, the two of them arriving on a snowy afternoon that promised more snow to come. Jess saw them first; the dark shapes on the skyline as they topped the ridge, bluish-gray against the milky sky. Hard to recognize in the swirl of blowing snow, so he had his rifle in hand when he stepped out to the barn to alert Slim.
They waited just inside the barn's door for the riders, and then Slim relaxed, recognizing Mort's big bay, and set his hand on Jess' shoulder, stepping out into the yard.
“Mort. John. Welcome...step down and go on into the house. Jess an' I'll put your horses up.”
Mort swung down, stiff in the cold, and grunted a little as his foot hit the ground. “Thanks Slim; we can't stay long, we just rode out to give you some news.”
“Trouble?” Jess' voice was harsh.
“Always,” Mort said wryly. “Not an emergency, though.”
Jess met his eyes over Mort's shoulder. “You go in, Slim, I'll take care of the horses.'
He nodded, knowing that Jess needed a chance to brace himself, for whatever the news was. John Robey's presence said it was likely to do with the Cheyenne. He hoped not; he wanted no demands on Jess to betray his friends.
Jess took his time settling the horses, putting off hearing whatever bad news Mort had brought. 'Not an emergency' he'd said. Nothing to be done about whatever had happened, most likely.
Slim was sitting at the table with their guests, and when he turned his eyes to meet Jess', you could see that it was bad.
“What is it?' His voice was harsh in his own ears, and he saw Reverend Robey flinch.
“One of the Cheyenne boys ran away from the school.” Mort was studying him as he spoke, and Jess kept his face blank.
“Which one?” Slim asked.
“The one they renamed Patrick...” Mort looked to John Robey for help.
“Redbird,” Robey said softly. “He left just before Christmas.”
“You took your time bringin' the news.”
“Jess...”Slim said warningly, and he caught hold of his temper, because neither the Reverend nor Mort was to blame here.
“We just heard this morning, Jess.” Reverend Robey's voice was gentle. “I got a wire from Charles Edford, that he was coming in on today's stage, and why. He believes the boy is headed home.”
“I'm not trackin' for him.” Jess spoke flatly. “An you keep that sonuvabitch away from me.”
“Jess!” Slim stood up, put his hand on Jess' shoulder, shook him gently. “No one's gonna ask you to track.” He turned and glared at Mort and John Robey. “No one's askin' Jess to track this boy.”
“Slim.” Robey sighed. “We're worried about his safety. It's winter, after all.”
“He's Cheyenne.” Jess said evenly. “He's a lot safer in the big open than he is in your school.”
“There's more.” Mort spoke slowly, as if he didn't want to say the rest. “The other boy is dead.”
Redbird came home to the Tsitsistas at the darkest time of year, when the sun had gone to the south and the light was short. And the news he brought with him was dark, dark. Squirrel saw him when he first came to the camp, riding behind one of the scouts, his white-man’s clothes looking strange as he sat bareback on the pony's rump. Redbird's hair was short, shorter even than Pony Boy's, and his eyes were wild and sad. He went straight to 'Mehome's lodge and the men gathered there, to hear what he would say. Then Arrow left the chief's lodge, and his face was terrible; and when he went to his own lodge, his wife's voice cried out, once. That was how Squirrel knew that Otter had died. He felt the tears rise up inside then, because Otter had been a friend to everyone.
Grey Eyes went to Arrow's lodge, to help Otter's mother, and Squirrel sat huddled into his robe in the lodge, feeding little sticks to the fire. It was lonely there, until Tall Fox came back. His father sat beside him and held his arm out, his robe hanging open; Squirrel moved close, felt the soft skin of his father's robe fall over him and was warmer.
“My son,” Tall Fox said softly. “This will not happen to you.”
“How.” Jess' voice was flat.
“We don't know for sure.” Reverend Robey said gently. “Just that he fell ill and died. It happens to a lot of the Indian children.”
Slim stirred. “Why?”
John flushed at his tone. “We think it's because they are not used to being confined, and not used to being around so many people at once. One in three fall ill, at the Fort Sill school.”
“And how many die?” Jess asked.
Robey shook his head, wordlessly. Jess turned and stalked out of the house, headed for the barn. Slim caught him up as he began tacking Traveler.
“I'm goin' after him, Slim. If he's sick, Redbird'll carry it back to the People. I saw this happen before, down in the Arizona territory.”
“Jess. It's too late for that, I think. It's been three weeks.”
It stopped him. He'd known this, he'd just needed to do something. “Stage'll be in soon,” he spoke aimlessly.
“I know. You wanna get out of here before it pulls in? You don't have to deal with Edford.”
He shook his head. “Not runnin' from him,” he muttered.
“We will sing for Otter tonight.” Tall Fox said.
Squirrel leaned against his father's side. “No scaffold?”
“Redbird says he was buried in the white-man's way.”
Squirrel looked up at his father's face, wondering. “Won't his spirit be trapped?”
Tall Fox shook his head. “It will not matter. They tried to show him respect, Redbird says.”
“They cut his hair.”
Tall Fox shrugged. “We knew that would happen, my son. And they changed his clothes for white-man's.”
“Redbird is angry?”
Tall Fox nodded. “They have many orders in that place. He says they are not cruel, but they have too many orders. And they want the children to march like soldiers. Redbird wouldn’t stay there, after Otter died.”
Squirrel listened in silence, and Tall Fox put his arm around his shoulders. “I will not let them take you, Squirrel. I promise.”
Edford was a man who'd lost his bluster. He got off the stage stiffly, greeted Mort and John Robey with reserve.
“You're not welcome here, Reverend Edford.” Slim told him bluntly. “You can step into the house to warm up, but don't try Jess.”
Edford nodded, and stepped up on the porch. Jess was coming out to help with the teams, and they both stood still, staring at each other. “Mr. Harper,” Edford started. Jess punched him, hard enough to drop him on his backside, stepped over him and came out to take the tired team in hand. Slim nodded to him, smiling a little.
“I didn't see anything.” Mort Corey's voice carried from the porch. “Sorry.”
“You okay?” Slim asked softly.
“Yeah. Come up...” Jess told the leaders, and they stepped off after him obediently. He swung them in a half circle, heading for the barn, and caught Slim's eyes. His face was angry and miserable. “Slim, we gotta find some way t'help them.”
“Jess, we'll try.”
“Reverend Robey says they gave him a Christian burial.” It was harshly said. “Christian. The People don't put their dead in the ground.”
“I know. We'll figure something Jess...”
Mort and John Robey left shortly after the stage. Slim held Mort back for a minute, as Jess and the reverend walked out to the barn together.
“You plannin' t'see somebody about that eye problem, Mort?” Corey gave him a quizzical look and Slim quoted, “'I didn't see anything.'”
“Oh.” Mort smiled, briefly, and then sobered. “He was tryin' to insist I arrest Jess. You boys need to be careful. There's trouble in the Dakotas and folks here are on edge. Somebody starts accusin' Jess or you of sidin' with the injuns and it could get ugly.”
Slim shook his head. “There's been no trouble with the Cheyenne in years.”
“Town's growin'. Lotta new foks, Easterners comin' in, expectin' the railroad t'come through. They don't know the difference 'tween Cheyenne and Sioux. An' they're just green enough t'be dangerous, Slim. I don't want t'end up standin' 'tween you boys an' the town ‘cause Edford works up a mob.”
Mort's face was serious, and Slim nodded, watching the sheriff step into the yard, where Jess waited with his horse. There had to be a way out, something they could all live with....
The rest of the winter passed quietly. Edford stayed in Laramie for a few days, attempting to find someone to help him track down the Cheyenne, and getting no takers. He tried Injun Charley, who refused him with such contempt that “...it made Jess look polite.” Mort Corey commented, wryly.
For a few days, Slim was braced for a cavalry patrol to show up on their doorstep, but nothing happened, and he let his guard down, caught up in the late-winter problems of keeping the cattle alive until the snow melted. It was an easier winter than the last; more snow, but no blizzards, and less cold. Slim rode into town to talk with John Robey about the Mennonite schools in Arizona, the chance that the Cheyenne could send their children there. He kept it from Jess for the time being; not sure if he wanted to avoid a quarrel, or keep him from getting his hopes up. Either way, it would take time to find out if it was possible.
The stage got through, more often than not that winter, and it brought a welcome visit from Andy, mid-March, on what he called a “spring holiday.”
“I’m not seein’ much spring.” Jess grumbled, and Andy grinned, shedding his town clothes for work gear, and pitching in to help with the ranch work.
They made the trip into Laramie twice in the ten days he was there, to give him a chance to visit friends, and take part in a church social. That was when John Robey told Slim the Arizona superintendent was willing to consider taking the Cheyenne.
“He has to consult with his Mission Board,” he explained. “It’ll take a little time. The Board meets and considers, and then sends their decision back. They pretty much all have to be in agreement, so it takes awhile to work things out.”
Slim nodded absently, watching Andy dance with one of the pretty little Wilson girls...Christine, he thought. Andy was growing up into a man their father would've been proud of. “Thanks, John. I don't think there's any hurry, at least not until the weather improves.”
“I'll let you know.” Robey moved away, to claim a dance with his wife, and Slim watched Jess dance by with the older Wilson girl, contemplated being “related” to both girls by marriage and decided to cut in.
They rode home to find a strange horse in the barn: a tall bay with a US brand on one hip. Jess stiffened, recognizing a cavalry mount. He didn't believe in coincidence, so this had to be Edford using the Army to force the issue He met Slim's eyes across the horse’s back; his friend nodded calmly. No point in borrowin' trouble ahead of time.
The man waiting for them in the house was familiar, the little, dapper Captain they'd met with Keogh at the Yellowstone valley. He stood up when they entered, hat in hand. “Mr. Sherman. Excuse the liberty. I got here a few hours ago, and it got very cold, waiting in the barn.”
Slim nodded. “No problem, Captain Weller. Something important?”
Weller sighed. “You’ve met the Reverend Charles Edford. He’s lobbied the territorial governor, demanding the Army’s assistance in rounding up Cheyenne children for his schools…”
“We’ve had the pleasure.” Slim’s voice was edgy. “I understand your problem, Captain, but why are you here?”
“To ask your help.” Weller sat down, accepted the coffee Jess handed him. “I don’t want to take a patrol after the Cheyenne. I’m here to ask you to act as intermediaries.”
“We’ve already said no.” Jess spoke harshly. “Sending the Army to twist our arms won’t change the answer.”
“I’m not here to twist arms, Mr. Harper.” Weller took a swallow of coffee. “And no one sent me. I’m asking you to help me avoid a confrontation with the Cheyenne that might turn ugly. The government is behind this Indian Act, and the territorial governor is determined to enforce it here. I would rather the Cheyenne came in voluntarily than risk trying to take their children by force.”
“Why’s Edford so determined?” Jess asked. “What does he get out of it?”
Weller focused on him. “Good question, Mr. Harper. The schools are run by government contract; so much federal money for each child; the more children, the more money.”
“Ahhh…” it was a disgusted sound. Jess turned away to throw wood on the fire.
“Why now?” It was Andy's voice, and Jess looked over his shoulder, surprised.
“That’s a very good question.” Slim spoke slowly, trying to think it through. “Unless…”
“He wants to hire them out to work this summer.” Jess spoke flatly, and Weller nodded.
“I think you’re right, Mr. Harper.” The Captain set his coffee cup down. “I think this is about making money off the children this summer, and establishing a claim for government contract money in the fall.”
“You have a scout.” Slim spoke for both of them, and Weller shook his head.
“Dean refused. And in any case, he doesn’t have the same relationship with the Cheyenne.”
“Can't it wait?” Andy again, and the three older men turned to look at him. He flushed, looking down. “I mean, Oklahoma’s a different territory...”
“That’s a good point.” Weller spoke slowly. “The governor doesn’t want an Indian war in his territory so the Oklahoma schools can use forced labor this summer. But that just puts the problem off. Sooner or later, the Cheyenne will have to surrender their children.”
“Next fall time enough?” Slim held Jess’ eyes across the table, willing him to hold his temper.
Weller stood up. “It will be, after I get done talking to the governor. Provided I can give him some assurance that the children will come in.”
“I think you can do that,” Slim told him. “You know what happened before Christmas.”
“The Cheyenne might be willing to send their children to the Arizona schools.” Slim measured Weller’s face as he spoke, felt Jess’ eyes on his back.
“You’re sure of this?”
Weller looked thoughtful. “I can hold things off for a month.” He spoke abruptly. “Probably no longer. I will need to be able to give the governor surety.”
“One month.” Slim promised.
Weller declined another cup of coffee and the offer of a bed for the night. “My men are in winter camp, just about three miles from here. It’s a clear night and an easy ride, Mr. Sherman.”
Jess waited until the door closed behind him to explode. “Are you crazy? Promisin’ him a month.”
Andy backed away from them, to sit down on the couch beneath the window and watch his elders fight.
“Jess, hold on a minute before you let that temper run.” Slim took a breath, watching his hot-headed partner force himself into stillness. “It’s the best we can get right now. I don’t want to see the army going after ‘Mehome’s people any more’n’ you do. We should have an answer back from the Mennonites by then; in the meantime, we can take it to the People. It’s better than Fort Sill.”
“We should have an answer back? And when did we ask?” That sounded angry.
Slim met Jess’ eyes steadily. “After Christmas. John Robey wired.”
“And if the People say no?” Jess challenged.
He shrugged. “We’re no worse off than we are now, and neither are they.”
“And if the Mennonites say ‘no’?”
“You’ll think of something else.” Andy piped in. “I know you will.”
Suddenly the mood was lighter. Jess grinned at him. “Well there ya are. You'll think of something else...”
Jess was not a man given to dwelling on the past; too much of it didn't bear recalling. But sometimes life shoved the past in his face, without room for escape, and the memories were there, clearer maybe because he seldom touched them. He'd been fifteen when he'd lost his family to Bannister's raiders. Fifteen and his life had been hollowed out to nothing, to a thin shell around emptiness. This thing with Edford and the People was bringing it all back, all the things he'd rather not think about, rather not feel.
Jess saddled Traveler the next morning, to ride out to the Tsitsistas. Slim leaned against the side of the stall, watching him.” Are you sure you want to do this?”
Jess glanced at him,
surprised. “Why wouldn't I?”
“I know how you feel about the schools, Jess. You don't have to be the one to try and convince the People to send the children to Arizona.”
“Nobody convinces the People to do anything they don't want to do.” Jess said wryly. He bent to run his hands over Trav's legs, an automatic gesture of looking for signs of lameness. He'd done it three times already, while tacking him; sure sign his mind wasn't settled. He straightened, sighing. “Dull Knife's told the People they have to be educated, Slim. That's like...maybe the Pope, the way the Mexicans respect his word. They either decide to stay part of the nation, and do this, or leave. They decided to do this last fall. Only question is how.”
“Arizona's a long way.” Slim opened the stall door for him.
“And Fort Sill's a place where children die.” Jess said flatly. “It's up to the People.”
He led Trav out into the dry cold of the early morning. At least there was no wind... Trav humped his back as he mounted, resenting the early start. Slim moved to stand at Jess' knee, face concerned. “Jess, I know you lost your family young...”
“Nothin' t'do with this.” He spoke harsher than he'd meant to, and Slim's gaze sharpened.
“You sure about that? I don't want to see you putting yourself through something that brings it all back...”
“I'm not gonna ride off on you again, Slim.” He laid it out flat. “And Bannister's dead. It's over.”
“Something like that's never over, Jess.”
“Let it be.” Trav threw his head, feeling the tension in his hand. “Just let it be, Slim.”
“All right.” His partner slapped his knee. “Travel safe, pard.”
He’d been riding a bare half-hour when he knew he had a tracker. Trav kept flicking his ears back, and threw his head up once, to call to the other horse. Jess soothed him with a hand on his neck, smiling grimly when he heard the other horse respond. His trailer was clumsy, and noisy. Green as grass, likely. Easy enough to lose him, but smarter to find out who he was...he kept a straight course, as if he didn’t know he was followed; but he angled away from the line he would’ve taken to the People’s camp, not willing to give that secret up. He could delay a little; choose a time to take care of his shadow.
He cut north and west, toward the Laramie river, using every little rise of ground to sight his trailer. The man was either too stupid or too green to know he’d been spotted; likely both, Jess thought.
The rifle shot was a shock, just clipping the side of his arm, stinging and numbing. Trav bunched muscles under him, bolted from the sound and Jess threw himself to one side, hitting the ground and rolling on instinct. He forced himself to lie still, face down in the scrub, silently cursing. Stupid. Over confident. He was gonna get himself killed this way... keep still. Play possum. He could track the horses through the ground; Trav, smart as any veteran, had pulled himself up, was moving slowly, not more'n ten yards away, likely grazing. And the ground echoed the drumbeat of a horse coming at a jog, the feel of it stronger as the rider got closer. The man might be a green tracker but he was a dam' good shot. He eased his gun out, kept it ready under his shoulder. His fingers still felt numb from the shot, like getting punched hard in the arm; high caliber bullet. Keep still. Keep still. You got one chance... The jogging horse slowed, stopped, maybe ten feet from him, the rider sitting still in the saddle. He held on to his nerves…wait. Wait. And then he heard the saddle leather creak, felt the rider’s foot hit the ground, and gathered himself, heard and felt the approaching steps…
Jess pushed himself onto his left side, jerked upright, pistol lined up on the approaching shooter. “Stand still.”
The man had his rifle balanced over one forearm; Jess could see in his eyes the moment when he thought of bringing it to bear and snapped off a shot; it pinged off the rifle barrel, the man dropping the weapon reflexively, eyes widening. The man raised his hands slowly, palms outward, and Jess got his feet under him, standing with the barrel of his gun dead-level and steady on the rifle-man’s upper chest.
“Mister,” he said evenly, “you may be a good shot but you might also be too stupid to live.” He studied him for a moment. A man about his own age, but a lot softer; carrying extra weight in the belly and under his chin. He wore work clothes but they looked new, not broke in yet, and the hat was new. The coat was a townsman’s coat, good for a Sunday drive but not fit for the trail. For all the citified look he was steady enough; no sign of fear in his face or eyes. “Who are you?” Jess snapped.
The man started to lower his hands, stopped when Jess jerked the gun barrel upward. “John Cady.” The voice was steady, too.
“What do you think you’re doin’, Cady?”
The man shrugged. “I was following you to the Cheyenne camp.”
“Following? Seems like there was some shooting involved.” Jess stepped forward warily, to grab the reins of the man’s horse, lead him out of reach. His arm was aching, but he kept the pistol steady.
Cady watched him closely. “When I realized you were headed to the river I figured I’d better knock you out of the saddle, take you prisoner. I’m not too good at tracking. Thought I’d lose you.”
“You’d shoot a man for that?”
“Not a man.” Something vicious showed in Cady’s face. “But an injun lover…”
It hit cold, and then hot; Jess felt the rage like a wave of heat, and for a moment his vision blurred. When it cleared his gun barrel was lined up on Cady’s head, and the man’s face showed fear for the first time. “Too stupid to live.” Jess said softly. “Sit down before I shoot the legs out from under you.” Cady sat clumsily, eyes fixed on Jess’ gun. “Take your belt off. Now. Toss it over here.” The man moved warily, but didn’t make any effort to fight. There was no gun belt. “Turn your pockets out. Do it!” No sign of a derringer. “Roll your pants legs up.” Cady looked confused, but obeyed. No sign of a hide-out gun. And the boots were low, laced, an Easterner’s version of riding boots. “Take your hat off. Put your hands on top of your head and leave them there.” He stepped around behind Cady, slipped the belt around his wrists and pulled it into a tight loop, jerked the man’s wrists down behind the small of his back, and tied the belt off, ignoring his grunt. He ground the barrel of his pistol into Cady’s neck. “Move and I’ll kill you.” He whispered. He jerked the man’s coat down over his upper arms, pinning them to his sides. He patted down Cady’s arms; no gambler’s rig, no shoulder holster. Satisfied, he stepped back in front of him. “Why were you followin’ me?”
“There’s a reward.” Cady said, voice not quite as steady. “A hundred dollars for locating the Cheyenne. Everyone knows you’re a half-breed; that you know where they are. Found out that cavalry officer was at the relay station yesterday…figured you’d be warning your injun kin the army was looking for them.”
“Everyone huh. Who’s ‘everyone’.”
“The whole town knows.” Cady was regaining some of his defiance. The hatefulness of the words was sickening, for a moment, and then Jess shook himself, thought, ‘no, that’s not true.’
“Who’s payin’ you?”
Cady held silent, and Jess eased the hammer back on his pistol. “Edford.” Cady blurted. “He put up the reward, ‘fore he left town.”
“How long you been in Laramie?”
“Since Christmas. I came in with a surveying crew from Kansas City. I stayed on figuring there’d be more work when the railroad came through.”
“You shoulda gone back to Kansas City.” Jess toed the stock of the man’s rifle, grabbed the barrel as it popped up, and glanced at it; his bullet had knocked it out of true, splintered the site. He opened the breech one handed, palmed the shell and tossed the useless rifle away. He led the man’s horse over to where Traveler waited, calmly grazing the sparse buffalo grass. He pulled the bridle off Cady’s horse, swung it gently at the horse’s rump to send it galloping back toward Laramie, and swung up on Traveler. “Reckon it’ll take you a day to walk to Laramie. You could go to the Sherman Ranch, but I don’t think Slim’ll take kindly to hearin’ your story. Your choice. Don’t cut my trail again.”
“Harper. You can’t leave me on foot.” The man’s fear was visible now, and Jess thought of Redbird, crossing all the miles between Fort Sill and Wyoming alone.
“If you catch up to your horse you won’t be on foot.” He said indifferently. “You tried to bushwhack me I could kill you and claim self-defence. Don’t push me.” He thought about Slim then, always choosing mercy over revenge. “You’re lucky you didn’t meet me two years ago,” he told Cady, and reined Traveler toward the north.
The Tsitsistas were angry and in grief. Jess reined Traveler up at the edge of the camp, sat still, waiting. He'd seen nothing like this since the bad time after Two Buttes. People looked up, glanced at him and looked away. There were no greetings, but there was no hostility either. They were locked away, indifferent to him, and he felt the ache of knowing that he was not one of them, not really. He dismounted and waited, Trav's reins looped over his hand. The sentries had shadowed him in; he'd seen them, been reassured that they allowed him passage, and now he waited for them, respecting the People's right to turn him away. Elk rode past, giving him a brief nod, and he began to hope, a little.
The children gathered, slowly, without the joyous excitement of his last visit. Roan Pony stared at him, and then lowered his head and trudged away, and Jess stopped himself from calling to him. Then little Squirrel walked up to him, slowly, peering up under his bangs, and whispered, “hello.”
Jess hunkered down, pulling his hat off, so he was looking up at the child. “Hello little brother,” he said softly, and Squirrel stepped closer, hugged him gently.
“You are well?” Squirrel asked gravely, “and Tall Man?”
“Yes. He's well and he sends greetings.” Jess felt his shoulders ease in the warmth of the child's acceptance, so when he saw Tall Fox and 'Mehome approaching he was able to face them. He stood up, Squirrel's hand in his, and lowered his head to the old chief. “'Mehome.”
His father set his hands on his shoulder, and the warmth seemed to spread from that greeting. “I'm sorry for your loss.” Jess said.
“We do not blame you.” Mehome studied him. “Did you stay away because you thought we did?”
“I stayed away because I have no place here.” The words came painfully. “I'm white.”
'Mehome held his eyes for a long moment, and then the old chief's mouth quirked. “You are!” He said, marveling. “Tall Fox! Pony Boy says he is white!”
“Well, he was always slow to notice things,” Tall Fox said gravely, “I tried to teach him...” He reached out and slapped the back of Jess' head. “Fool. You are welcome, always. But we have much to talk about.”
“The children...” Jess said slowly, trying to understand how things could be so different, and so much the same.
“They are frightened.” 'Mehome said. “And we all are still in mourning. But Pony Boy, you warned us, and the decision was ours. Now we must try and find something else.”
“There might be a way.” Jess said reluctantly. “But Edford is trying to make the Army step in.”
There was no humor in 'Mehome's face now. “That is bad. But come, you are hurt. Singing Bird will want to fuss. Then we'll talk.”
Tall Fox stretched his hand out for Trav's reins. “Go. I'll take care of your pet. Squirrel will want to hear about his friend Tall Man.”
Jess followed 'Mehome to his lodge, and now the silence of the camp wasn't cold; it was a people mourning, but he was part of it, again, and the ache inside him began to ease.
Mort rode in to the ranch yard with trouble plain in the set of his shoulder, the unyielding stillness of his face. Slim looked up from the forge, and felt the certain knowledge that something terrible had happened. He set the hammer down carefully, stepped out of the shed to meet his friend.
“Mort. What is it?”
“Jess around?” Mort's voice was the only casual thing about him.
“He's gone on business.” Slim spoke easily. “Rode out this morning.”
“Would that be Cheyenne business?” Mort asked, and the tone was harsh.
“What's this all about, Mort?”
His friend studied him for a moment, and then sighed, the tension going out of his shoulders. “There was a fool greenhorn in town, man named Cady. Said he was going after Jess, going to find the Cheyenne, get the reward.”
“Reward!” Slim stepped forward to take hold of the bay's reins. “On Jess?”
“You don't know.” Mort leaned his hands on the pommel. “Edford put up a hundred dollar reward for the location of the Cheyenne. And it's getting ugly in Laramie, the new folks sayin' Jess is a breed, gonna help the Cheyenne murder 'em all in their beds.”
“Bullshit!” Slim bit back the rest of it knowing Mort no more believed it than he did.
“Well yeah. I tried to warn you, last time I was out here. Too many Easterners comin' in, workin' each other up. Nobody that knows you or Jess gives any time to it, but there's a lot of greenhorns around, nothin' better t'do but make up tales an' scare each other. This Cady rode out this mornin', plannin' t'tail Jess. Figured he'd be goin' to the Cheyenne 'cause that Army captain was here yesterday.”
“How'd he know about that?”
“Some of the troops were in town yesterday, lookin' t'spend their pay. Liquor loosens a man's tongue.”
“So you came out to warn us?” Andy had stepped out onto the porch, eyes on Mort. Slim shook his head at him, asking him to stay out of it, for now.
Mort shook his head. “Didn't think Jess needed any warnin'; anyone tryin' t'tail him...” Mort smiled a little, grimly. “Problem is, Cady's horse came back t'town without him. Lathered pretty good, too, like he'd run a ways.”
“People think Jess did something to this Cady?” He spoke sharply, and Mort leaned over, set a hand on his shoulder.
“Some do, Slim. I'm not one of 'em. An' like I said, no one that knows you an' Jess believes it. But I'm thinkin' somethin' might've happened, and I'd do well t'find the idjit.”
Slim made up his mind, then. “Jess rode out to the People today, Mort. On Army business; we talked t'Captain Weller yesterday, about finding a peaceful way to have the children come in.”
Mort nodded. “That helps,” he said simply. “I can tell this t'anyone who asks?”
“You can.” Slim spoke firmly.
“I'll be on my way then, try an' track down this Cady fool. You run into him, Slim, you tell him the law is lookin' for him, an' he best get himself back t'town.”
“It'll be my pleasure.” He watched Mort ride out, and then stepped up on the porch, to explain things to Andy.
Singing Bird clucked and fussed over his arm, bathing the long, raw gouge in hot water, and then binding a poultice to it with his bandana. “Foolish child. Men are all foolish children,” she grumbled at him. “Now keep it clean and try to stay out of trouble. If you can.”
He smiled at her. “Yes, mother.”
“Pfaah.” She patted his shoulder gently, “Don't use soft words to me, Pony Boy. Go and wash before dinner.” She bustled off, a woman who always had something to turn her hands to.
“So.” 'Mehome settled himself beside Jess, Tall Fox sitting down at the chief's side. “Tell us your news, Pony Boy.”
Jess gathered his thoughts. “Edford went to the territorial governor, and the governor has told the Army to bring the children in. The Captain who was at the Yellowstone came to talk to us yesterday. Slim...Tall Man ...thinks the Arizona school might take your children, if you decide to send them there.
It would be better than Fort Sill. The children can speak their own language when they're not in the classrooms, and they can come home in the summer. But it's far. The Captain said he'll ask the Governor to wait. He doesn't want a fight. If you decide, and the teachers in Arizona decide, the children would go in the fall.”
'Mehome was silent a long time. Tall Fox looked past Jess, face set, expressionless, but Jess could feel his sadness, and thought of Squirrel and the little boy's brave gentleness. “And if either side says no?” 'Mehome asked.
“The army will try to take the children. It will be Fort Sill.” There was no easy way to say this.
Tall Fox sighed. “All the children?”
“You said the Captain asked the Governor to wait? How long, until we must answer?'
“He has to give him your promise in one month.”
'Mehome stood, Jess helping him from one side, and Tall Fox from the other. “I'll think. In the meantime, Pony Boy, you should wash for dinner. Do not make Singing Bird tell you twice.” The old man left the lodge, leaving the younger men to face each other.
“This is heavy news, Pony Boy.” Tall Fox held his eyes. “What do you think, truly?”
It was time finally to face what he didn't want to face, what Slim had been trying to make him accept for months. “I think they should go,” he said slowly, painfully. “I think there's no way around it. I wish to God there was. I think Arizona is the best chance for the children.”
Tall Fox nodded. “Thank you.” And then left.
Squirrel went to the picket line, to visit Pony Boy's wise bay; and Roan Pony came to him there.
“You're mad at Pony Boy?” Squirrel rubbed the bay horse's forehead, the gelding nosing at his clothes.
Roan Pony shook his head. “No,” he whispered, “but Otter and Redbird rode off with Pony Boy and Tall Man, to the white eyes' school. And now Otter is dead, and Redbird is so angry.”
“It's the white priest's fault, not Pony Boy's.” Squirrel spoke firmly. “'Mehome asked Pony Boy to take them to the white priest.”
“I know. “ Roan Pony scuffed his moccasin in the dirt. “I'm afraid the chief will ask him to take us this time.”
“Maybe not.” Squirrel felt the fear that came with the thought of white eyes' school, and pushed it away. “But Pony Boy is sad, I think.”
Roan Pony nodded, and drifted away.
Jess went to the riverside downstream from the camp, to wash some of the dirt and sweat from his face and hands. When he stood up Roan Pony was standing beside him, the little boy's face solemn.
“Hello, little brother.” He kept his voice soft, in case the child was still frightened. Roan Pony extended his hand, offering a little feather to Jess. Jess took it carefully, seeing the iridescent blue, the white tip of a bluebird's wing feather.
“Thank you.” He smiled in relief, because he hadn't lost this friendship. He put the feather carefully into the band of his hat, making sure it was firm set. “Thank you, my friend.”
The little boy nodded, and then ran away. Jess closed his hands into fists. He could not stand by and see another child die, could not stand to think of another family destroyed, and he could not see any way out for the People.
Mort rode back in late in the day, and he came in fast and hard, his big bay coming down from the ridge at a gallop. Slim stepped out on the porch with his rifle in his hands, knowing it was bad, remembering the feeling that something terrible had happened. Jess was always telling him to trust his gut...
“Where's Jess.” Mort pulled up, his horse blowing a little, sweated on the chest.
“He's not back, Mort. What is it?”
“I found Cady.” Mort said grimly. “Dead.”
“And Jess?” He made himself swallow his fear.
“Tracks are a muddle.” Mort stepped down, led his horse to the watering trough. “Think there was a fight, but there's no sign of Jess. Cady's rifle was there, looked like it was hit by a bullet...good shooting or lucky accident, for whoever fired the shot. And looks like Cady was tied up; just getting' himself free, maybe, when he was shot.”
“Jess wouldn't do that!” Andy's voice came shrill from the doorway. “He wouldn't tie up a man and then shoot him. He wouldn't.”
“Andy...” Slim said gently, and his brother stepped along side him, falling silent. Growing up, Slim thought.
“I know, Andy.” Mort gentled his voice. “But Cady went after Jess and now he's dead. I have to talk to Jess.”
“Where's Cady?” Slim asked.
“Left him on the range, for now. Can I borrow a horse, Slim? I need t'get his body back t'town.”
“Slim, this gonna be bad.” Mort met his eyes. “We both seen mobs before. Town's ripe for it. When I bring Cady in, I'm gonna have a pack o' idjits all bayin' for Jess' blood. I'll do my best, but safest place for Jess right now is my jail.”
“Mort...” He stopped knowing there was no point in talking, now. “I'll saddle a packhorse for you..”
“Thanks Slim. But find Jess. An' you need t'do it sooner than later.”
They were just starting the evening meal when Red Stone rode in, galloping through the camp like he'd returned from war. whooping and pumping his rifle overhead. He'd been missing, last fall, gone from the band; and when Jess asked, Tall Fox had just shrugged, silently. Now the camp roused around him, the men getting to their feet, reaching for weapons. Red Stone circled the camp, reckless, his horse jumping and shying as the People scrambled out of his way.
“Red Stone!” It was 'Mehome's voice, a sound Jess had never heard from him before.
Red Stone plunged into the circle of people at the fire, reined up hard, his horse sitting back on his haunches. Tall Fox stepped in front of him, caught the horses' bridle “You fool.” His voice was a hiss. He grabbed Red Stone's leg, pulling up and out, toppling the other man to the ground. Redbird took the pony's reins, led him carefully through the scattered people, and Red Stone got to his feet, laughing. “Pony Boy!” It was a shout. “I took care of what you left behind!”
Jess stepped closer, seeing the coat Red Stone wore, the foolish townsman’s coat, good only for a Sunday drive. There was a rusty stain on it, over the left breast, and he could smell the blood. The rage was so great he felt weightless, moving to catch hold of Red Stone, shake him. “What did you do!” The words tore his throat, coming out. “What did you do!”
Fox grabbed him, the smaller man strong enough to pull him away. Red Stone laughed again, eyes wild. “I killed the white eyes.” He whooped again, throwing his fists into the
air, as if expecting the People to respond.
They were silent, and he dropped his hands, looking around.
“This will come back to me.” Jess said quietly, bitterly. “The whole town knows he was on my trail.”
“You are afraid, Pony Boy?” Red Stone mocked.
“And you would hide behind another man?” Tall Fox's voice was cold.
Red Stone sobered, looking around the faces at the fire, his smile slipping away. “I hide behind no one. I'm a warrior. You know this.”
“You're a killer,” Jess said softly, harshly. “I left the man tied, and unarmed. Did you shoot him while he was tied, Red Stone?”
Red Stone shrugged. “He was an animal, in a trap. What does it matter?”
“It was murder.” 'Mehome weighed in, voice level and final in its judgment. “Bind him.” He told Tall Fox, and turned on his heel, walked back to his place by the fire. There was a low quick murmur among the people, and then three of the men stepped out to help Tall Fox, taking Red Stone by the arms.
“'Mehome!” Red Stone shouted. “What wrong have I done? I killed a white eyes. The white eyes killed Otter. I got justice for Otter.”
'Mehome turned his head away, ignoring him, and Tall Fox hissed, “Shut up, coward.” They led him away. Jess stood still, suddenly alone in the circle of people. He felt a tug at his belt and looked down. Roan Pony looked up at him, solemnly, and he took the little boy's hand in his own, led him back to his own place at 'Mehome's side.
“So, my son. This will be trouble for you?” The old man studied him.
“Yeah,” he said honestly. “The law will think I killed him.”
“And if you tell the law it was an Indian?”
“It will be trouble for you.” He met the old chief's eyes, letting him see what was in him.
“War?” 'Mehome asked.
“A fight, at least. Maybe with the Army.”
“And if we surrender Red Stone to the law?” 'Mehome's face was impassive.
Jess shook his head. “I don't know,” he said honestly. “The sheriff is a good man; he'll try to control the town. But I don't know.”
“Huh.” 'Mehome turned back to the fire, his tone suddenly casual. “So, we should eat. Or Singing Bird will be angry and that is trouble.”
“Are you going after Jess?” Andy was calm, the new maturity keeping his anxiety leashed. Slim was grateful for it.
“Not tonight.” He moved restlessly from the table to the window, looking out on the soft evening light as if he could conjure his partner just by looking for him. “It'll be dark in an hour, too late to get to the Cheyenne camp. I'll leave tomorrow morning, right after the stage run.”
“I can handle the stage if you want to go earlier.”
“It'll be time enough. I don't want to surprise the Cheyenne, come on them early.”
“You think there'll be trouble?” Andy's voice was steady.
He owed his brother honesty. “Yeah. I think there will be. I just hope Mort can keep a rope on it.”
The mob was already forming when Mort rode into Laramie. It was dusk, but the street was full, men gathered around the two saloons. The greenhorns, mostly, single men with no real ties to the town, and lately come to it. They were talking angrily, likely drinking all day and working themselves into it. He reined over to the undertakers, dismounted stiffly, and the crowd gathered around him. He could hear the murmur of words as they shared the news, most of them recognizing Cady, even face down over the pack saddle. He stepped up on the sidewalk, and one of them was right in front of him, close enough to smell the liquor on his breath.
“Where's that murderin', injun lovin' bastard, Sheriff? Where's Harper?”
That quickly his patience was at an end. “Shut your filthy mouth,” he barked. He turned to face the rest of them. “All of you. Shut up and go home. This don't concern you.”
“The hell it don't.” Someone shouted from the back of the crowd. “You lettin' a murderer go loose concerns all of us.”
“We don't know who killed this man.” He kept it sharp, overriding the voices. “There was no way t'tell who was responsible.”
“He went after Harper!' The man in front of him shouted, and Mort put his hand on his chest, shoved him hard enough to make him stagger.
“An' he had no business doin' that either. You fools have been liquorin' up and tellin' each other tall tales all day, an' you don't know a dam' thing. I'll talk t'Harper, an' I'll find out who shot Cady. Now go home, 'fore I run you all in.”
“If you can't do your job, maybe we need t'do it for ya.” It was the same voice, the man hiding at the back of the crowd.
“You talk real big when you got a mob in front of you. Ya wanna step up here an' tell me I can't do my job?”
It shut him up. Mort looked them over, letting his contempt show. “Go home. Sober up. Any man causin' trouble t'night'll make the acquaintance of my jail. An' don't think of ridin' out to the Sherman spread. Slim Sherman's a crack shot, an' I warned him I got a town full of drunken idjits. Now get out of here.”
There was the unmistakable sound of a shotgun racking and Frank's voice said calmly. “You heard the sheriff. Git.”
They dispersed slowly, most of them heading back to the saloons.
“Pretty ugly,” Frank said laconically.
“Yeah. We'll take watches t'night. If someone tries to ride out I wanna know about it.”
Frank nodded. “I'll take first watch.”
“Damn straight you will. I'm too old to spend this much time in the saddle.” Frank grinned, stepped down into the street to start a slow patrol. Mort turned to knock on the undertaker's door, rouse Mr. Dooley. I did not want t'have t'do this, he thought. Stand between Jess an' Slim an’ the town, with the Cheyenne and the army thrown in to boot...
'Mehome roused Jess before daylight, gestured with his head toward the lodge entrance. They stood together in the grey light, 'Mehome's eyes moving over the quiet camp.
“We will surrender Red Stone to your sheriff.” He spoke abruptly. “And you can tell your captain the children will go to Arizona when the summer ends.”
“We will ride to your stage place today. We will take Red Stone there, send word to your sheriff. All of the men will go.”
“You understand, when we have done this, there is no going back.” The old man's eyes were full of grief. “I know our time is over, Pony Boy. The People can never again be what they were. I want to save something for the future.”
Jess nodded again, wordlessly. 'Mehome put a hand on his shoulder, briefly, and then said. “Go and saddle your horse. Make your coffee. I will wake Singing Bird.” 'Mehome ducked under the door flap, and Jess watched, thinking, Remember this. You don't know how many times you will be able to see it again.
The posse rode in after the morning stage. Twenty or more angry men, most of them strangers to him, except for Buck and Frank. They looked barely under control, one of them pulling a gun and firing a shot into the air as they rode in. Frank reined back abruptly, closed on the shooter, his own gun out and in the man's face in a minute. Slim had never seen it this bad; he swore silently thinking of the bad luck of the mob showing up, right after he’d gotten good news. He grabbed his rifle, spoke tensely to Andy. “Get to the barn. Take the mare, she's the fastest we've got. Ride to the Army camp and let Captain Weller know what's happening here.”
Andy nodded, moved to the back door without question, and Slim stepped out on the porch. Someone yelled, “Where's Harper!” Mort sighed, reined his horse around and fired a shot in the air. “The next one of you that opens their mouth I'll put a bullet between their teeth.” Buck Curtis eased his horse through the crowd to Mort's side, one hand on his own gun, and Frank reined back, covering the mob from behind. “We clear, now?” Mort barked, and the men were silent. Slim stepped up to Mort's side, openly covering the posse with his rifle.
“Jess should be back today, Mort.” He kept his voice level, but loud enough to carry. “Like I told you, he rode out on Army business yesterday.”
“We likely need to go meet him, Slim.” Mort's voice held more than his words, and Slim nodded.
“Figure you and me should go, Mort. Your...posse can wait here.”
Andy led the mare out and mounted, not looking at the posse, reining north and east.
“Where's the kid goin'?” That was the big man at the front of the posse, looking past Mort's gun to stare at Slim. “He ridin' off t'warn Harper?”
“Not your business,” Slim said easily, watching the big man's hands carefully. When he dropped one to his pistol grip Slim sighted the rifle between his eyes. “I said that was none of your business.”
Andy jogged the mare up the little rise east of the house, then touched her to a gallop, disappearing over the ridge line.
“And I say he's warnin' Harper.” The man repeated, working himself up to something.
“And that's enough, y' dad blamed idjit.” Mort sounded like man who'd lost his patience. “If they were gonna warn Jess, why wait 'til we showed up t'do it?”
“Maybe 'cause of them.” The man spoke quietly now, and Slim sighted along his pointing arm, to see the line of Cheyenne on the northern ridge line.
They heard the shot as they were coming up on the ridge just north of the ranch. Jess looked at Tall Fox, and then spurred Trav, sent him up the ridge at a scrambling gallop. He pulled up, taking in the mob in the ranch yard, Slim and Mort standing off what looked like twenty armed men. He could hear the People on the slope below him, but there was no time to wait for them, and he sent Trav flying down hill, pulling his gun.
Slim recognized the little sure footed bay coming like a rock slide, the rider sure and quiet on his back; and the loud-mouthed fool at the front of the mob turned his rifle on them. He heard Mort bellow, “Hold fire!” at the same time he leveled his own rifle, squeezed off a shot that took the rifle in the stock, the man cursing as the weapon fell.
“Hold fire.” Mort repeated, cocking his own rifle, and the mob was quiet, cowed between the lawmen's guns, and the menace of the Cheyenne.
“Sheriff, ya gonna let them injuns...”
“Shut up. “ Mort barked, eyes on the Cheyenne. “Slim?”
“Wait.” Slim said, and Jess came in, reining back hard and then circling the mob to jog up to the porch, eyes and gun barrel covering the posse. “You found Cady?” His voice was harsh. Slim stepped up to his knee, ready to back him, worried by the old blood on Jess' right sleeve.
“What happened Jess?” Mort's voice was quiet, no accusation in it.
Jess raised his voice a little, so it carried to the rest of the men. “Cady bushwhacked me. Said he couldn't risk losin' my trail. I got the drop on him, let him tied up. Red Stone came on him while he was untyin' himself, killed him. Said it was revenge for the boy who died.”
There was silence; enough of them knew Cady to believe he'd try to shoot a man in the back. Someone said, “Ya got proof, Harper? Why should we believe a breed about what happened?”
Buck Curtis levered his rifle, said mildly, “Mind your manners, mister.”
Jess glanced down at Slim, shifted his eyes to Mort. “The Cheyenne have brought Red Stone. They're turning him over to Mort. And Slim, the children'll come in the fall.”
Slim slapped Jess' leg, lightly. “Good. Jess,I just got word with the stage: the Cheyenne children can go to the Arizona schools. I sent Andy for Weller's troop.”
Jess nodded, tense. “Mort, you got this? I'll ride out to 'em and bring Red Stone to ya.”
“I got it.” Mort reined his horse to face the posse square. “You fools put your weapons up now. Buck, not you.”
Jess nodded tensely, reined out to face upslope, and waved his arm in a wide arc. Three riders started down hill and Jess moved out toward them. Slim recognized 'Mehome's height and upright carriage, and Tall Fox' paint. The man with them had his hands bound in front of him... Red Stone. He kept an eye on Jess, so he almost missed it: Red Stone leaned over to swing bound hands at 'Mehome, then snatched the chief's rifle, sent his horse plunging down toward the ranch yard, shouting his war cry.
“Hold fire!” Mort shouted, leveling his own rifle on Red Stone.
Slim could see it clearly, time drawing out long between each heartbeat. Red Stone with his rifle leveled on Jess, Jess bringing his hand gun up, the range too great to protect himself... Tall Fox was bringing his rifle to bear as Slim snapped the stock of his own rifle into his shoulder, each breath a prayer as he sighted past Jess, on Red Stone...three shots rang out, almost together, and Red Stone threw his arms in the air, sitting boneless-limp for a stride before toppling to the side and off his horse.
Slim lowered his rifle, the silence echoing, Mort lowering his own, saying softly “No one move.”
'Mehome and Tall Fox came on, Tall Fox balancing his own rifle stock on his leg, and Slim realized where the third shot had come from. Jess was walking Trav to meet them, and Slim stepped off the porch, nodded to Mort and walked out after him.
Jess had dismounted, was standing by Red Stone's body, 'Mehome and Tall Fox walking their horses up slowly. Slim stopped a little behind Jess, nodded to the Cheyenne.
Tall Fox dismounted, looked down at Red Stone, then raised his eyes to meet Jess'. “He's wanted to die for a long time. And he didn't want to hang.”
“He's no longer of the People.” 'Mehome said. “But once he was a Human Being. You will treat him with respect?”
“We'll see to it.” Slim promised.
Jess said softly, “I owe you a blood debt,” to Tall Fox.
“You'll pay it.” Tall Fox met Slim's eyes. “I will send my son to you in the summer. You will teach him English, what he needs to know to survive the white eyes school. That is your payment.”
“Yes.” Slim stepped up to put his hand on Jess’ shoulder. “We will.”
“We will go now.” 'Mehome spoke gently. “Come and visit, when you can.”
Tall Fox nodded to them, and the Cheyenne reined around to join the band of men waiting at the top of the ridge, to move quietly, one at a time over the crest; and then they were gone as if they'd never been.
The next hour was oddly calm; the bulk of the posse had slunk away by the time the last of the Cheyenne vanished over the ridgeline, leaving just Mort, Frank, Buck and a few shame-faced strangers. They put Red Stone's body on a pack horse, to begin the journey to the town's cemetery; Jess said something to Mort, and the sheriff said softly, “Give it a day, son. Frank and I'll see to him. Give the town a chance t'settle.”
Andy rode in with Captain Weller and a small patrol while they were loading the body; Weller’s face relaxing as he assessed the situation. Slim walked out to greet him.
“Thanks for comin', Captain.”
“Looks like it's handled, Mr. Sherman. Andy says you had a mob at your door.”
Slim smiled at Andy, and his brother dismounted, to join Jess and Mort. “We did. The Cheyenne brought in the killer, voluntarily.”
Weller looked past him at the body, lifting an eyebrow. “Suicide.” Slim said softly, and Weller nodded. The scout, Dean, reined out of line; face watchful. “You can tell the governor the Cheyenne children will come in the fall; and the Mennonites will take them.”
“That's worth the ride, Mr. Sherman.” Weller smiled. “I'll keep Edford off your back. And the town, if need be.”
Jess looked up from tying a blanket over Red Stone, grief in his face, and met Dean's eyes. The scout held his eyes for a long moment, and then touched a finger to his hat brim in salute.
Mort rode out with the handful of men still with him, nodding to Slim as he passed, and Weller turned his patrol around, jogging back over the east ridge. Slim stood still in the peace of the yard, and thought, it's finally over...
Slim rode into town with Jess the next day, to see to it that Red Stone's body was dealt with respectfully. On the ride in he studied Jess' silent profile, seeing the grief in his withdrawal, and remembered what Jess had told him about the man Red Stone used to be.
The undertaker was loading Red Stone's body in the hearse when they got to town. Slim'd half-feared a mob, but the men who'd been so ready to lynch Jess the day before were cowed, stepping out of the street, eyes averted, as they rode in.
They followed the wagon to Boot Hill, and Jess dismounted to fill in the grave, shaking his head when Slim tried to help. Dooley drove out when they were done, tipping his hat to them both, and Jess sat back on his heels beside the fresh grave, setting the palm of his hand on the turned dirt, and sang something soft and very quiet in Cheyenne. Slim waited for him, watching the scudding clouds throw shadows on the broad, open plateau. The hoarse chant died away, so the only sound was the rustle of the dry grass in the soft wind. Jess stood up and came back to where Slim held their horses; taking Trav’s reins with a nod of thanks.
“Jess?” Slim asked, thinking, all right?
“He was a good man once.” Jess said. Slim nodded, acknowledging the truth of that; then they rode away from there quietly.
Squirrel’s father rode back with the other men, leading Red Stone’s pony, and when Squirrel saw his face he knew that Red Stone was dead. All the men were very quiet, their faces closed off, and Squirrel felt a little afraid at the silence, because it meant that something bad had happened.
When he turned the ponies out, Tall Fox came to sit by the lodge fire, and Squirrel sat next to him, keeping quiet until his father reached out in the familiar gesture of drawing Squirrel close under his robe.
“Red Stone is dead?” Squirrel asked.
Tall Fox sighed. “He rode down on Pony Boy and the white lawman, with Mehome’s rifle; he forced us to shoot.”
Squirrel nodded, trying to understand why Red Stone would do such a thing. He kept quiet, feeling his father’s sadness. Tall Fox sighed again, and looked down at him. “My son. I’m going to ask you to do a heavy task. I can’t see any other way than this one.”
Squirrel shivered a little, and said, “What is it, father?”
“Dull Knife has said you must go to school. But not to the school Otter and Redbird were sent to. I will not have you go there.” Tall Fox pulled the robe a little tighter around Squirrel. “But the only other school is far…Arizona.”
“Do I have to go?” Squirrel whispered.
“Yes. But not yet. Not til the summer is over.”
Squirrel nodded because that was a long time, a long, long time, and anything could happen.
“I will go with you,” Tall Fox promised. “And your mother also. One of us will stay nearby, always. And you will come home every spring.”
“But one other thing I must ask. This summer, in the Corn Moon, you will go to stay with Tall Man and Pony Boy. You will learn English, so you can speak for the Tsitsistas at the white eyes’ school.”
Squirrel moved closer, because Corn Moon was not a long time away. “I have to?” he asked, trying to sound brave.
“I ask it my son.”
Squirrel buried his face against his father’s shirt and whispered, “Not without Roan Pony.”
They saw the Cheyenne again in August; when the heat was heavy on the land and the big thunderheads piled up over the mountains, pure white echoes of the peaks below. Slim looked up from the fence he was mending, and saw the little group of riders in the distance, moving slowly toward the ridge line that sheltered the ranch. Three adults, and what looked like two children....”Jess..” he said softly, and his partner glanced up from the nail he was driving, followed Slim's line of sight to the little band.
“Reckon it's time to pay the debt.” Jess said.
They left their work and rode in to meet the Cheyenne; ‘Mehome and Tall Fox and Elk, Squirrel and Roan Pony. The two little boys were solemn and still, the men expressionless. Then 'Mehome smiled, breaking the tension, and Jess stepped forward to take his pony's head as the old chief dismounted.
“We have brought the boys.” ‘Mehome set hands on Jess’ shoulders in greeting. “They will stay one month with you. Teach them what English you can. Most important, teach them what you can of how to survive in white eyes’ school.”
Jess translated softly, and Slim stiffened.
“A month’s not very long…”
Tall Fox dismounted. “A year would not be long enough.” He spoke harshly. “Do what you can, Tall Man. It is all we can ask.”
The two boys dismounted, and Squirrel stepped forward hesitantly. “Tall Man,” he greeted shyly, “I asked friend Roan Pony come too.”
Slim nodded, setting his hand gently on the little boy’s head. “Good,” he told him slowly, “the words were good.” He met Tall Fox’ eyes.
“I have tried to teach them both this summer,” the Cheyenne said. “What they need to know about your world you will have to teach them.”
Jess had retreated into one of his silences, and Slim looked from the children to their fathers, saw the pain of parting in all the faces and said simply, “Stay and eat with us, before you go back. No need to hurry…”
After the meal, they showed the children the room they would share, helped them sort out the few things they’d brought with them…their robes, extra clothes. There was nothing personal in the little bundles, and Slim was glad for it, that he would not have to take things from the children, knowing the boarding schools’ rules against “heathen artifacts.” Tall Fox and Elk helped, speaking softly to the two boys in Cheyenne; the children listening closely. Then it was time for the men to go, and the four of them stood on the porch, watching the Cheyenne vanish over the ridge.
Jess turned away abruptly, headed for the barn, and the two children moved to follow him. He turned his head, barked, “Stay there,” harshly, and vanished in the shadows of the interior. Slim stood still; staring after him dumbfounded, and then looked at the two boys. “Well, come on,” he told them. “Let’s get you washed up for bed.”
He tried to make a game of the routine, teaching them the names of the homely things, trying to coax a smile from them, without luck. But they learned quickly, trying to use the new words. He got them to bed by lantern-light, and stepped out onto the porch to find his partner in the rocking chair, feet up and eyes on the ridge line.
“Thanks for the help,” he grumbled at Jess, irritated.
“Don’t baby ‘em, Slim. No point in it. They have to learn.”
“Learn what?” he asked, bewildered.
“That it ain’t easy.” Jess snapped. “That they got to grow up quick.”
“What’s that got to do with showing them how to wash up?”
Jess shook his head. “I’m turnin’ in,” he muttered, and brushed past into the house.
Slim woke up from a dream of the time before the war: when Andy was just learning to walk, and shared his room. The little boy sometimes had nightmares, and he'd wake to hear him crying, and get up and sit on his bed; hug his little brother and murmur nonsense until he slept again.... He sat up in the moon-shot darkness, disoriented at first, and then seeing the familiar shapes of the furniture, the narrow bunk next to his, and knew when and where he was. Jess' bunk was empty... he heard the soft sounds again, the sounds of a child crying, and remembered the boys. He swore softly at his forgetfulness, got up to pad barefooted into the boys' room, half expecting to find Jess there.
Roan Pony was sitting up in Andy's bunk; face a mask of misery, the tears shining on it in the dim light. Squirrel sat beside him, one arm around his friend's shoulder, his own face scowling, trying to hold in tears. Slim clucked softly, the way he used to when Andy was a baby, and sat down next to Squirrel, swinging one long arm around both boys. “It's all right.” he murmured. “It will be all right.”
He found Jess on the porch, after he got the boys back to sleep. “How long you been out here?”
Jess' face was hidden in shadow, unreadable. “Awhile.” Slim stepped closer, and caught the smell of liquor on his breath. It stopped him, because Jess never drank at home, unless Jonesy poured a shot into him for “medicinal purposes.”
“Jess?” He asked, confused.
“Slim y'gotta stop mollycoddlin' 'em. You're makin' em weak.” His voice was a hoarse growl.
“What? What are you talkin' about?” He could feel his anger rising, fueled by short sleep, and resentment of his partner's stubbornness
“They ain't Andy, Slim. You're not doin' 'em any favors by lettin' 'em think somebody cares.”
That was like being sucker punched. “Jess, what the hell is wrong with you?”
“They gotta learn t'be alone, Slim, that's the way it is.” Jess got up and moved past him, face haggard in the moon's light “They gotta learn that nobody cares about 'em, cept themselves. Or they'll never last.” He closed the door behind him, softly, and Slim stared after him, beginning to understand.
Jess kept the boys with him, the following day. He taught them the words to greet the stage passengers with, and coached them in manners, much to Slim's amusement. The passengers seemed startled, but were by and large friendly; the worst the boys faced was indifference. Slim kept close watch, but said nothing, hoping Jess had worked out whatever demon rode him.
After the late stage Slim called a halt, deciding they all needed a chance to cool off in the pond, and hoping the swim would let the boys sleep through the night.
Things were lighter, at the pond, the boys playing splashing games with him and Jess, and Jess giving in to the wild playfulness that sometimes took him over. Slim came up spluttering, after being tackled by the other three, and watched Roan Pony giggle so hard he swallowed water and started coughing. Jess picked him up; patting his back gently til the spasm passed, and then met Slim’s eyes and set Roan Pony down abruptly.
The break came at dinner; they’d ridden back together, turned the horses out in the corral, and sent the boys to dress while they heated dinner. Roan Pony was helping set the table when he dropped a plate, the pottery shattering. The sound shocked them all into stillness, and then Roan Pony looked at him fearfully, and Squirrel stepped between Slim and his friend, face stricken but resolved, and said “He sorry. Not want to break…” The child’s voice shook and Slim realized, horrified, that they were afraid of what would happen, and dropped to one knee to say, “Hey there. Hey, it’s all right…”
Jess spoke softly, in Cheyenne, words that Slim knew. “This man won’t hurt you.”
The two boys looked at him then back to Slim, and Squirrel said, “Pony Boy says if we do wrong the school people will….” He stopped, not knowing the word, and pounded one fist into his palm, demonstrating, and Jess said quietly, “Beat.”
“Yes.” Squirrel nodded vigorously, “And they will beat us sometimes when we don’t know we do wrong.”
“Jesss” It came out as a drawn-out hiss and his partner looked at him calmly.
“Slim, they gotta learn.”
He schooled his voice to softness. “Outside.” He told him, and then turned to the children. “It’s all right. No one’s mad. Just pick it up, and finish setting the table. We’ll be back.”
He followed Jess out to the corral fence, far enough from the house not to be overheard. “What was that all about?”
Jess leaned against the top rail of the fence. “They gotta learn.”
“Learn what? To be afraid?” He had to force his voice to stay quiet.
“That it ain’t gonna be fair.” Jess faced him straight on. “You want life to be fair, Slim, and you’re the fairest man I know. But it ain’t fair. And the worst of it, is good people doin’ what they think is good. The boys hafta be ready for it, or it’ll break ‘em.”
Slim watched him for a moment, and then understanding, said “Is this about them, Jess? Or you?”
Jess turned abruptly, put his hands on the rail. “Damn you,” he said evenly, softly.
Slim gave him a long moment and then said, “It’s different this time, Jess. They’re not alone.” He put his hand on Jess’ shoulder, shook it a little, trying to make the truth of it sink in. “You’re not alone either.”
After a moment Jess' shoulders slumped, a sentry lowering his weapon. “All right, Slim.”
Jess’d begun to learn to trust, since coming to the ranch, and to let the caring show, let it dictate his choices in a way it hadn’t before. He’d begun to believe in this moment in time, this place and these people, and to believe there might be a good future. But now it seemed like Slim wanted more from him; wanted him to believe in some kind of basic goodness in the world, some justice that didn’t need to be fought for, or bought with blood. He didn’t think he could; it made his past a lie, went against everything he’d learned about the world. But so did Slim, come to that. And Slim was the one man he owed more to than any other. So he would try; for Slim’s sake he would try….
Pony Boy was easier to be around, after the evening he and Tall Man talked together. He was less stern, quicker to comfort them when the loneliness came. And he didn’t talk about bad things anymore, just taught them how to talk to strange white eyes, and how to understand about money, and about what they could do at the white eyes’ school. So he was almost as good as Tall Man, Squirrel thought.
Tall Man taught them “table manners” and how to wear the silly white men’s clothes he found for them in the little room under the roof of the house. Squirrel and Roan Pony thought these things were silly, but they seemed important to Tall Man, so they learned them.
The white eyes’ priest, that they called “Johnrobey” drove out to the ranch one day, to tell them that he had tickets for them to ride the white eye’s iron horse, when the new moon came. He had tickets for Squirrel’s parents too, because Tall Fox and Grey Eyes would go with them to Arizona. So that made them a little afraid, that the time for school was coming. Tall Man showed them how to tally days, in the white eyes’ way, and Squirrel counted them up, and knew that he could not just wait for the men to decide his fate. If he waited, he became afraid, and so did Roan Pony. They had to become men themselves, in order to do this.
Squirrel had nine summers, when he went to Pony Boy and said, “We want to do our fast-for-visions.”
Pony Boy crouched, so they were eye to eye, and his face was serious, considering Squirrel's words. After a long time he said slowly, “You have nine summers now, little brother. The fast-for-visions comes later, when you have fourteen.”
Squirrel nodded. “I know. But we have to go to the school in ten days, and Roan Pony is frightened.
It's better if we do this now.”
“So Roan Pony is frightened. Will he do the fast-for-visions too?”
“Yes.” Squirrel watched Pony Boy closely. You could see everything that Tall Man thought in his eyes, but Pony Boy's were always closed off.
“Sooo.” He drew the word out. “When will you go?”
Squirrel let out the breath he'd been holding. “Tomorrow?”
Pony Boy nodded. “I have to know where you both will be.” Squirrel nodded acceptance. “I'll tell Tall Man.”
Slim yelled, as expected, and Jess waited him out. “So is this more of you toughening them up?” Slim asked finally.
“This is letting them get ready in their own way,” Jess said quietly. “They're scared. And what they're scared of most is losing who they are. They need to do this to feel safe... Slim, if we don't help them do it they'll do it anyway. If not here, in Arizona. Better here where I can watch them.”
“When?” Slim asked, accepting it.
He knew Jess was trying to help the boys; he'd seen it from that evening when he'd challenged him.
Slim was secretly proud of him for trying, because he'd seen the shape of Jess' demons, knew how old and strong they were, knew how hard it was to get past them. He was worried about the fast-for-visions, but Squirrel looked at him calmly when he went to talk to him, and all the words he would've said to explain why he was forbidding it, died in front of the boy's quiet sureness.
The boys went separately, setting up camps on either side of the ridge that sheltered the north field. Jess set up camp in a little tree copse, halfway between the two. “Four days at most,” he promised Slim. “The older boys go longer, but the visions will come after three days. Four is enough. I told them I’ll come for them after four sunrises. And they're Tsitsistas. They're probably safer out here than I am.”
Slim grinned at him and mounted Alamo, to head back to the ranch “You be careful then.” He told him, and left him there to watch over the boys.
Watching over the boys meant staying awake nearly as long as they did. He could let himself nap an hour or so at a time, a luxury not permitted to the fasters; but he needed to be alert, to keep an eye out for any danger. So he let himself sleep only briefly and lightly.
When the older boys did the fast-for-visions they were truly alone. They were standing on the edge of manhood, expected to be able to care for themselves; Squirrel and Roan Pony were five years away from being able to do that. So he would stand sentry for them, let them go through this passage without having to worry about defending themselves.
It gave Jess too much time to think. ‘The worst is good people doin’ what they think is good,’ he’d told Slim. It was the belief that they were doing good that let the government and the contractors steal the children, try to force them to be white, to give up everything they held dear. He’d seen that kind of ‘good’ before, what the church people called ‘charity’. Seen it in the humiliation in his mother’s face, when some do-gooder offered her second-hand clothes and stale bread 'for the children'. Seen it in Francie’s face, after the fire, when she had to choose to be 'taken in' by a family, because as a girl she was 'too young and weak' to be on her own. He’d run from the same choice himself, knowing it was a life as an unpaid servant; ashamed that as a boy he’d had the freedom to run. He’d been ashamed to leave her behind to that, but it was the way of things. Not fair. Never fair, no matter what Slim expected of the world. It was an old bitterness inside, and it made him wary of even John Robey’s compassion.
Slim though; he thought different. He believed in justice, and that good things would happen t’good people, in spite of everything he’d been through. First time he’d seen him, Jess had seen that certainty in him, that confidence, and it had drawn him and put him off at the same time. He’d seen that look in some of the ranchers’ sons, when he was growin’ up, that look of a man who believes he belongs on the earth. Jess’d never had that surety, had always felt like he lived on sufferance, had t’fight just t’survive. The first time he’d ever felt at home was with the People. Maybe that was why this was so hard, t’see their way of life and their place on the earth destroyed. Slim had offered him that sureness, looked at him like he believed Jess had a right to good things too, when he’d offered him a job and a home. At least half of Jess’ leavin’ had t’do with not believin’ that this could last…everytime he left though, he was welcomed back. This year he’d finally learned that good things could last.
Jess dozed, and drank his coffee, and waited for the sun. He rode out to both boys every two hours, keeping quiet and distant enough not to disturb them. His mind turned and turned on itself, trapped and doubling back because he could not hold back the change that was coming, and he did not know how to move forward with it. ‘I’m trying to save something for the future’ ‘Mehome‘d said…the old chief had the courage to trust that future.
He spent the daylight hours closer to his own camp, giving the boys more space, just checkin’ that they were still in their campsites. So young to go through this, but he was beginning to understand why Squirrel had asked; because if you could not stop change, maybe the best thing was to step out to meet it, with courage and dignity. Maybe that was what he needed to learn…what Slim had been tryin’ t’tell him all along..
Squirrel knew what to expect, and so did Roan Pony. Their fathers had talked with them many times about this, the way they talked about training horses and hunting; it was part of growing to be a man. So he knew he must not expect great things, or magical things. Few people were called to be healers and medicine people and that was a good thing; the spirits could demand much. What he hoped for was that the spirits would tell him they were pleased; that his fast-offering was accepted.
He set up his camp carefully, in the way he had been taught, and then waited for whatever would happen. He knew Pony Boy watched over them, but he was so quiet Squirrel never knew when he was there. So Squirrel was alone, with the stars, and the clouds that moved overhead, the hot dry sun and the morning cool, and the little sounds that the small animals of the prairie made. He watched the sky change, the blue that became darker and darker, until it was black, the stars thrown across it like shining stones, the Star Road his parents had crossed clear in the sky. Then the night would wear down, and the red and gold of the sun would band across the horizon, and the birds would sing their welcome to it, and so would he. So it was good.
On the third evening, the horses came to talk to him.
Jess rode in to Roan Pony’s camp first. He’d been most worried about him, but the little boy looked calm, peaceful, and the smile he gave Jess was joyous and open. He had broken down his camp already, so you would never know he'd been there. Jess handed over his pony's reins, and Roan Pony vaulted up, accepted the hard biscuit Jess passed across to him. “It was good?” Jess asked cautiously.
“Yes. “ There was new confidence in the boy's voice. “It was very good.”
They rode together to Squirrel's campsite. Like Roan Pony, Squirrel was waiting, calm and peaceful, with a smile for Jess when they rode in. Like Roan Pony, his face was a little drawn from four days without food; in the strong bones Jess could suddenly see the shape of the man he would be.
“You are well?” He asked formally, as if speaking to an equal.
“I am well, “Squirrel said. He walked to Trav's side, to reach up and tug gently at Jess' shirt, until the man bent down, and he could give him his gift: “I am Night Horse,” he whispered, and Jess nodded gravely.
Slim was turning a string of horses out in the round corral when Jess and the boys topped the rise. The boys looked at Jess for permission and then sent their ponies plunging down the slope at a gallop, whooping their war cries. Slim stepped out to the center of the yard, and even from the ridge line, Jess could see his shoulders relax as he saw the boys. The two of them set their ponies to a tight circle around him, still whooping their delight, and Jess followed them into the yard at an easy jog. The boys had pulled up as he arrived, both talking to Slim at the same time in a mixture of Cheyenne and English, too excited to be understandable in either language. Slim nodded, smiling. “Good, good, go wash now, put the ponies up first...”
Jess watched the boys ride to the barn, pulled up and met Slim's open smile with one of his own. “They're okay Slim. They're ready now.” He dismounted, touched Slim's shoulder lightly. “You were right. You pretty near are always right, but you were dead right this time.” Slim brought his hand up to clasp Jess' arm.
“Good. Just don't forget it.” Slim understood him, as always, without needing an explanation. “Time we fed these two.”
Squirrel and Roan Pony and Pony Boy rode back to the ranch, where Tall Man had a feast waiting for them; and they taught Pony Boy and Tall Man the songs they should sing for them. Two days later Elk and Squirrel's mother and father came to the ranch. Two days after that, the white priest drove out, to take them all to the stage, and then to the Iron Horse place, so they could go to Arizona together.
Tall Man and Pony Boy helped them pack their white man's clothes, and then said goodbye, each in their own way. Squirrel waited until everyone was in the white priest's wagon, and then he hugged Tall Man, hard, whispered to him “You never dropped me. Never.”
Then he went to Pony Boy and tugged his sleeve until he got down on one knee, so they were eye to eye. “You have to do your fast-for-visions,” he told Pony Boy. “You have to.”
Pony Boy nodded slowly, and Squirrel felt happy, because he was making something that was right happen. “Remember,” he told Pony Boy. “Remember me. I am Night Horse.”
Ben Nighthorse Campbell is a Cheyenne/Pima/Portuguese-American politician, artist, writer and athlete. He has served in the US House of Representatives and has been the US Senator from Colorado, for three terms. He is an Army veteran, who competed in the Tokyo Olympic Games in Judo; making it to the finals but having to withdraw due to a damaged knee. He is the third Native American to hold a Senate seat. Retired from politics, he is a noted artist in hand made jewelry, and member of the Cheyenne council of 44. He is a survivor of the Indian Boarding school system. Squirrel's “true name” is in his honor, and that of other children who went through the boarding school experience.
Edford's statement “to save the man by killing the Indian” is an historical quote, from the founder of the Carlyle Boarding school.
The Canadian government and the Catholic Church have apologized and paid reparations to the living survivors of their own boarding schools.
The Mennonite Mission schools of Arizona were the most compassionate of the schools, although still with a purpose of ending the plains culture by assimilating the children.
The Sioux writer, singer, actor and artist, Floyd Red Crow Westerman has written eloquently of his own experience in the schools; the Heard Museum in Phoenix has an accurate and fair portrayal of the experience of generations of children.
A change in name to mark a change in spiritual growth is a universal human tradition; I do not however, know if this was part of the Cheyenne rite of passage.